Just came home from a long weekend trip to Mexico (Rocky Point). Knowing it would be a busy one, (hanging out with my family, a friend and her wedding party), I was realistic in packing books. I packed just one. This one:
Lots of great tips from one of the pioneer writers of writing practice, Natalie Goldberg. I wanted to share one that resonated with me.
When you work on a story, make the structure your own. That is, don’t feel confined by an outline or drafting device you learned in school or in a workshop, but make the structure yourself and fill it with wildness! Natalie Goldberg grew up with very little structure, but learned about self-discipline and “harnessing the mind” through meditation practice. Goldberg cites friend and fellow writer Kate Green’s technique for writing Shattered Moon (Edgar Allen Poe award winner) this way (p. 50):
She decided the novel would have thirty chapters; there had to be action in each chapter, and she would set it up so that when readers came to the end of the chapter, they’d want to go on to the next.
It sounds mechanical, but Kate explains that she actually does a lot of writing practice, journaling, sketching ideas, scenes, and research in a notebook, planning it out anywhere between three months to a year before she sits down to write it.
Finally, as a single mom of three children and a working mom (teacher), she addresses the time issue. “Time to write is just that. An hour here, a half hour there. Go. Move pen. That’s it. The rest is all bullshit and I know it but I get caught up in it and create a lot of suffering around not writing. Writing itself is pretty simple. Just do it.”
Are you a writer, wondering how to get published? Feel hopeless? I have a treat for you! Lisa Alber is a writer with many tips and words of encouragement.
I met Lisa at my husband’s high school reunion over a decade ago. We shared a common passion for writing. She published her first novel, KILMOON, last year, and I’m thrilled to share that just two days before I interviewed her for this Kismet issue, she signed a two-book publishing deal! Lisa also secured a new literary agent. Her experiences and advice follow in Q&A format:
If I met you at a party and asked you, “What do you do?” how would you answer?
I would probably start off by saying, “I’m a writer.” I’d give them the big picture answer because I’ve always been a writer—it’s just who I am by temperament. Writing novels is a part of that, but so is journaling and blogging and day-job technical writing.
If we kept talking then I’d say my debut novel came out last year and tell them about it if they showed interest. People often get excited when I mention the novels – there’s a kind of perceived glamour there, I think.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve always been a words-oriented person. Even as a kid it was pretty obvious that I wasn’t going to be a math whiz. So I’ve essentially always been writing. I started to pursue writing as a craft in my 20s when I attended my first workshops.
The turning point came when I got laid off in 2000. I remember it vividly: I thought, Now’s the time to see if I really AM a writer like I think I am. And by that I meant, could I sit down every day and treat it like a job? I was lucky because I had a simple and cheap lifestyle.
Lo and behold, I could sit down to write every day! I wrote my first novel during that time. I call that novel my “drawer novel” now, hah!
How do you balance a day job and writing?
Good question! I don’t?
Seriously, I’m not sure. I’m pretty lazy by nature, but when I have a deadline I also get anxious, and then the anxiety overrides the laziness. Truthfully, I might not have great balance in my life right now. We have to make choices, right? And right now I’m choosing to have a second job, which is novelist, over other hobbies, a rockin’ social life, and sometimes, sleep.
That’s my choice, just like I recently chose to become a first-time home buyer (yay! I love my house!). I dream of quitting my day job, but having a mortgage means I can’t do that as easily, which means that much more work for that much longer.
Don’t we always wrestle with choices that pull us in separate directions? Buy a house or potentially quit job quicker for the sake of fiction? It wasn’t a slam dunk decision, but I’m so happy I have my very own house. So worth it!
What about the technical writing? Does it help or hinder your fiction writing?
Hmm … I don’t think it hinders except for the fact that I’m on the computer all day. Sometimes I can’t bear to look at the screen anymore for the day.
However, technical writing is very left-brained analytical. I think I’m a better self-editor for it. I recently cut my work-in-progress from over 100,ooo words to 82,ooo words. That’s no mean feat – requires a lot of objectivity, which can sometime be difficult for fiction writers.
There’s a saying: You gotta kill your darlings. So true!
You recently published Kilmoon to great critical and popular acclaim. Congratulations! Can you tell us about how the story took shape in your mind, your writing process for it…how long did it take you to write it?
The drawer novel I mentioned? I was in Ireland researching that novel when I stumbled onto a few cool things that later turned out to be the seeds for Kilmoon. It took me a decade to get that novel right. I kept setting it aside and returning to it. I’d think it was complete, submit it, get rejected, and go to work on it again.
The process is long and arduous. First you have to learn your craft—like a painter, you don’t come out with a masterpiece the first time you set words to paper!—and then you have to deal with the business side of writing: book publishing.
What do you consider the most important “habits” one must adopt to be a successful writer?
Treat it like a job and show up every day. Do it even when you’re not feeling the Muse. The more you sit and work for it, the more the ideas appear. Having a habit signals your subconscious that it can come out and play now. The habit of writing takes as much practice as any other part of the process. Persistence is a huge factor too.
Any tips for unpublished writers? How do you get attention? It used to be that writers needed to get published in literary journals. Do you recommend this?
Everyone’s trying to figure out how to gain visibility. There are a million and one theories about how to increase your “discoverability.” I’m slowly learning what could work for me…
Ultimately, the first thing that comes to mind is to keep writing. The more books you have out there, the more visible you become. There’s a cumulative effect.
Marketing wise, in the shorter term? I would say engage in activities that you like. For example, if you have a blog, but hate blogging, then don’t blog. Newsletters seem to be making a come back. If your writing and your personal interests overlap, you could write a fun monthly newsletter that’s not just about your novels. I have a friend who writes mysteries with a vintage-clothing-loving amateur sleuth. In real life, my friend is all about vintage – she adores it – and she has the most entertaining newsletter.
I really like your personal definition of success on the Shadowspinners site: (I feel hectic and forgetful right now, sure, but also very successful. I’m facing my terror of home ownershipand getting my writing done. I’m managing to walk my dog too. And that counts for heckuva lot too.). Can you explain how you came to this definition of success?
My current definition of success has evolved. I realized I’m a perfectionist, which isn’t the greatest thing in the world to be. It’s too black and white, and I tend to be too hard on myself. Being a perfectionist tends to orient us toward end product versus the process. However, as I get older, I’m becoming aware that it’s the process that’s really meaningful. So if I sit in front of my computer all the while moaning and groaning that I suck as a writer, but I still sit there and get some crappy, awful words down, I can call that a success.
What is the importance of a writing community/support for you? Who provides that support?
I used to be a more solitary writer than I am now, although I always had a writing group, which can be beneficial. In the last five years, I’ve really become a part of the mystery-writing community by going to conferences and getting to know people online. It would be harder to quit writing now that I have a community—it would be like quitting my family!
Publishing—the business side of writing—can be very hard. I have an older friend who’s been writing for many years, and he is thinking of retiring simply because the publishing and marketing side of it is wearing him out. I totally get this.
What are your goals for near future?
I got an offer on my next two novels with a publisher I love! August 2016 is the tentative publishing date for my next novel named GREY MAN (for the moment). I also got a new, fabulous literary agent.
My head’s spinning I’m so happy.
So, the near future? I gotta get crackin’ on the second of the two novels! The publisher has the first novel right now, and by the end of summer I bet I’ll be immersed in the editorial process.
How does a writer get a literary agent?
There are cold query letters, which is a long-winded frustrating process, but still sometimes works. There’s going to conferences to pitch agents.
If you’ve indie published—that is, without an agent—and feel like you need to think about your career, then you can land an agent on the basis of books you’ve already published. Also, you can land an agent if you already have an offer from a publisher and need an agent to help you negotiate the terms.
Landing an agent is probably one of the hardest aspects of the whole process!
Mystery writing, to me, seems very difficult. Do you have the ending in mind first? The entire idea? Or do you just start and see where it takes you?
I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. I didn’t know the ending for Kilmoon when I started writing it. I felt my way through it, getting to know the characters. Halfway through the first draft, I got a vision of the ending and skipped ahead to write it. Then I wrote the rest of the novel toward that end.
The more I write, the better I get at knowing the ending before I start writing. The interesting thing is that for my third novel—the one I need to get crackin’ on—I DO know who the villain is. So I’m going to create the story backwards. What’s the villain’s story? Who gets killed? Why?
Thanks so much for having me, Caroline!
LISA ALBER is the author of Kilmoon, an atmospheric mystery set in Ireland that has been described as “utterly poetic” and a “stirring debut.” The novel was a Rosebud Award finalist for best debut novel. Lisa worked with New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth George in several workshops, which culminated in receiving an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant. Ever distractible, you may find Lisa puttering around the yard, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Lisa lives in the Pacific Northwest with a tiny dog and a chubby cat.