I’ve written boatloads of non-fiction. My first published book was a cookbook, my second was on handwriting analysis. Since then I’ve written books on the esoteric arts, hypnosis, baking bread, and more. Although I write really good how-to books, I’ve always wanted to be more creative and dip into something deeper—to touch emotions, make people laugh, cry, and think.
In 2009 I discovered blogging and created Confessions of a Confetti Head https://anitaburns.wordpress.com—a mind-dump of stories from my bizarre life, bitch-and-snivel, inspirational, and laugh-and-scratch. My original goal was to write the amazing adventures I’ve had and am still having as a native creature of this insane planet. I didn’t censor what I wrote and reveled in the freedom to just say what I really thought without being concerned about offending anyone or having to be tactful. Okay. It’s not that I’ve ever cared much about what others think of me anyway, but writing in this way was really liberating.
I was surprised when I discovered that people I didn’t even know read Confessions and liked what I had to say. When others started following me, I created more blogs. I was having a lot of fun. Comments from readers showed that what I wrote could move them to laughter, inspire, and touch their emotions. Readers gave me feedback on how much my stories meant to them. Even when someone hated what I wrote and railed at me, I loved it. At least they didn’t find it boring or unworthy of their anger.
Naturally, with my head full of the helium of delusion, I decided that I was ready to write a novel. My inspiration came from a dream I had decades ago. This dream flowed like a novel with no ending. For years I tried to complete the story but every time I wrote what I thought was the rest of the book, it sucked—big time.
Then, some twenty-years later, I met my amazing fifth husband—Allen. He is one of the most incredible human beings I’ve ever encountered. Music is among his many talents. He composes and records his original music for meditation, spiritual awakening, and healing. His voice has moved listeners to tears of joy. He is the one who taught me that authoring books is very much like composing music.
He encouraged me to continue writing. In truth, I didn’t need much encouragement. Characters from the book would wake me up at night wanting to be expressed in prose. Scenes would run through my head and demand to be written down.
It didn’t take long to discover that a writer and a schizophrenic have much in common. The characters become very real and write their own story. Often, if I plot out the next chapter or storyline, the characters have something else in mind and take the book in new directions.
At first, I thought I might be a sandwich short of a picnic, but when I talked with other writers, they were just as delightfully screwy. So, creative writing, it seems, requires a trip down the rabbit hole.
When I thought I’d finished my book, The Gods of Arkhon, I gave it to a friend to read. Molly Dillon is a real novelist (mollydillon.com). Her books are full of heart and soul. Her characters stay with a reader for a long time.
When I asked Molly what she thought of my book, she was kind and tactful. She would never bluntly tell me what was surely in her mind—my writing was goulash!
Oh, I could turn a phrase and paint a scene with poetic beauty. My characters had grit, charm, and depth. The story was compelling, but I knew nothing about the craft of writing. Fiction, I soon discovered, had specific rules. I hadn’t a clue how to write so that the reader’s focus flowed uninterrupted and the words on the page disappeared into their experience.
My knowledge of the rules for writing fiction were practically nonexistent. I had only a vague idea about something called point of view (POV), author intrusion, or proper paragraph breaks. Dangling participles ran rampant. My dialogue sometimes choked on its own ponderous blather. Too much narrative. Too many gerunds, weasel words, weak phrases, passive voice, misplaced modifiers, repetitive words, redundancy. . . . I could fill the belly of a thousand whales with what I didn’t know about writing.
Then, a miracle happened. Even though my book was like a barnacle-encrusted cargo ship, Molly must have seen something shining through because she allowed me into the hallowed halls of her writers’ critique group.
We met once a week. Each person brought a chapter with enough copies for every member. The author read aloud while the group frantically scribbled suggested edits, comments, and praise on the pages in red ink.
At my first meeting, I felt petrified. These were real authors. Their writing was polished, brilliant, captivating. I was tempted to stuff my feeble attempts at wordsmithing into the nearest rubbish bin and run. But I just sat there, scribbling things on their pages such as, “Great scene,” or “Seems awkward,” or circling repeated words, and such. It would appear that I was better at critiquing than writing.
When my turn to read came around, the members gave me constructive criticism and helpful suggestions. They emphasized what they liked about the writing and took me seriously. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Armed with the heavy tomes of my ignorance, I took a creative writing class, read every book I could get on how to write fiction, and inhaled writing blogs by the dozen. Little by little, I learned the art of writing. Now when I blunder, I understand what went wrong and how to mend it.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that even the most gifted authors need others to read their copy because it is true that a writer cannot effectively edit and proof his/her own work. It’s a biological thing—our eyes interpret our own writing into what we want it to say, not what it really says. Repeated words, point of view violations, missing quotation marks, inconsistencies, and more are next to impossible for an author to catch in total. It’s just the way we’re built.
I once visited the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. They had a display of some of Mark Twain’s original manuscripts. Even he had massive edits on the pages. Words crossed out, paragraphs moved, sentences circled, and more. Geesh. Imagine, Mark Twain and me, both making writing kafooffles.
I’ve discovered that there are best practices for writing and proofing our own material. When I learned these, the copy I brought back from the critique group looked less like a blood-stained corpse and more like a sprinkling of notes in red ink.
Now, I’m confident that when my latest book is published, I will hold my head high, knowing that the painful, jaw-clenching effort I poured into it was worth the effort.
I’m proud of the nonfiction works I produce. Writing them gives me a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and joy. But creating my first fiction, The Gods of Arkhon was a completely different experience—painful and euphoric at the same time. I’m told that giving birth is a little like that. Not being a mother though, I have no first-hand knowledge there. I do know however, that I’m hooked on writing fiction and will continue until someone pries my dead, cold fingers from the keyboard.
I owe everything to the wonderful, patient, kind, and helpful members of our critique group.
My author goal? To be as skilled as the other writers in the two groups I now attend. All the ladies and one gentleman are talented. I encourage you to treat yourself and read their books. For me, a good book is like giving my brain a day at a high-end spa on a lush tropical island.
Here’s a glimpse of some of our members who have published, and the newbies, like myself, who are working on their first masterpieces.
Judith McAllister: http://www.amazon.com/Judith-McAllister/e/B007OX8CLK. Every word she puts to paper is masterful. Her books are an example of greatness—clean, compelling, exciting, beautiful. She is my goddess of the pen.
Molly Dillon: http://www.mollydillon.com Molly writes heartfelt novels that bring on both excitement and warm fuzzies that stay with me long after the last page has turned. Her 365 book, Welcome to My Front Porch is a glimpse into her beautiful philosophy of life. Each page is a gemstone of inspiration.
Carol J. Amato: http://www.caroljamato.com Carol is well-known for her nonfiction books and novels aimed at middle-grade and adult readers. I’m more familiar with her fiction writing. It has heart, humor, and excitement that can be enjoyed and appreciated by both adults and kids. As of this writing, she’s working on an amazing Sci-Fi. Each week I look forward to reading a new chapter.
Amanda Baker/Ashley: http://members.authorsguild.net/amandaashley/. What can I say? she was a big surprise. Romance isn’t usually my cup of tea but I find myself being lost in her beautiful writing. She is a New York Times best-selling author. As a veteran wordsmith, she knows how to capture the reader’s attention and keep it. Whether it’s vampire romance or western adventures, I love her writing and feel that she’s taught me a lot.
Those who are working on their first fiction masterpieces are:
David Lintner: Think of Douglas Adams and Robert Kroese combined plus a good dollop of David’s own brand of quirkiness. His book Arnold’s Ark is edgy, irreverent, hilarious, colorful, and a romp through the impossible made possible. Arnold is a self-important, clueless, multibillionaire who is whisked off an Earth that will be destroyed by mashed potatoes. His space ship is an ark named the Aubergine and shaped like a gigantic eggplant. His adventures have me laughing so hard I cry. My favorite characters? Myrtle and NotMyrtle—two Krell ladies with foot fetishes.
Amy Walterman: Amy was a scriptwriter for daytime dramas and decided to write a novel. She shared one day that it was a steep learning curve to go from writing a script to a book. Her young-adult manuscript about a woman who is a look-alike for a famous singer is drama at its best. Her characters have depth and come alive in my mind . She knows how to pace a story that keeps a reader engrossed, page after page.
Maria DeMaci: Maria doesn’t come to the group often because of her demanding career, but when she does, it’s always a treat. Her book, set in early 18th century Sardinia is passionate, steamy, edgy, exciting, and beautifully poetic at the same time. Sometimes her writing can transport me to a world of deep intensity then uplift me with her inspired prose that is often so beautifully surreal, it’s trance-inducing.
I thank each and every one of the members of our group. They have taken me from a naive and clumsy writer to an author of fiction. I think I know what I’m doing now.
If you are a writer—new or accomplished—I encourage you to find or create a critique group. What you will receive is beyond anything! Some new authors I come across tell me they have a writing coach. I say with the fire of an evangelist on stage, “It isn’t enough!” One person is never going to give you the treasure chest of gold that a good critique group can.
Some of the many “jobs” I do these days is edit manuscripts, design book covers, and help newbie authors self-publish their works. It tugs at my heart when I see the errors they make in their writing, the obvious lack of a support group of authors to point out when their work is clumsy or full of mistakes. It’s not that these beginners don’t have talent—many of them do, but they need guidance and some information about how to write. If they don’t know the basics, they will never create a book that people want to read and recommend.
In the meantime, I’m plugging along, improving my writing skills each day. It’s a wonderful adventure.
So, because my obsession is always to share what I have learned, I will be creating a webinar course Writing 101 for Aspiring Authors. I was going to hold it in person, but some of my dear friends who are also venturing into writing live too far away to attend. They encouraged me to hold it via the Internet, so that’s what I’m going to do.
If you’re interested in taking this course, let me know and I’ll put you on a special email list. It will be learning-fun at its best as well as packed full of everything you need to know about how to craft a great book. I might even add another course to help you navigate the maze of publishing your masterpiece.
Sign up for my newsletter on writing firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you a free “Guide to Starting a Writers’ Critique Group.”
First person: I held my breath as I peered into the dark alley. The shadow slithered up the crumbling, brick wall.
Third Person: Randy held his breath as he peered into the dark alley. The shadow slithered up the crumbling brick wall.
Formatting: When do you use italics? How do you indicate internal thought? Why a new paragraph for each character’s action or dialogue . . . .
Continuity: Do you have a character having a beard in one scene and not in the next? Is he sitting in one paragraph and running in the other? Does your story make sense? You don’t want readers thinking, “Hey, that doesn’t make sense.”
Story Arc: Beginning, Middle, End.
Weasel Words: Extra words that don’t add anything to your writing, are redundant, or just blather.
Grammar in a nutshell: Nothing too technical, just common sense and a few useful tips.
Flow: Ease of reading is vital. How do you use words to move the story along and express the differing moods of the scenes?
Things that make our writing unintentionally humorous. For example: “Jan found a silver man’s cufflink.” This could mean the the man is silver when you really want to say: “Jan found a man’s silver cufflink.”