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December 3, 2007

On writing it down.

[UPDATE! Whoops! Sorry, I did not mean to have all the comments shut off. I apparently have no control over my clicky mouse finger.]

Ya'll were not fooling around with the question-asking! Giving advice about writing seems dorky and pretentious because I'm not Kate Chopin, and anyway, who can tell you how to write? But since starting this book and following it all the way through, I feel like I wake up every single morning and go to Book School. I am always learning some new and strange and convoluted thing about writing and if sharing that helps, well ya'll know. I am all about the helpy.

On to the questions...


Mary in Virginia asks:
How much editing do you do before you publish a blog post? How long does it take you to write a typical blog post, one that doesn't involve pattern writing or lots of photo editing?

* Hi Mary! I hadn't really thought of that before, but I guess on average a typical post takes about an hour. Less if it's short, more if it's wordy. My interview with M.J. Rose took several hours to put together. I've gotten faster in the past couple of years and sometimes my nutty typos show when I'm in a real hurry.

Basically, I write in one big chunk, in vomitous piles. Big upchuck of words. (Nice visual on that one, huh?) I write all the way through a train of thought before I stop and go back and re-read. But there's a big downside ... I cannot multitask. At all. And I need silence and peace for real quantity to come out of the keyboard. When I am caught up in a thought and typing or scribbling it down, I do not hear you, I can't have the TV on, no radio, and I turn the phone off because it is too distracting. If I could retreat to a cone of silence I would. This total concentration allows me to purge quickly, dumping a thousand words in minutes, fast puking paragraphs. Sometimes even the cats are distracting me so I will go outside and write on the patio table (this becomes annoying when it's cold outside).

Editing happens at the end, and sometimes in the middle, but I'd rather write than edit. I don't worry much about having a perfectly crafted stanza... I'm not Shakespeare. I do self-edit tremendously after I've written a piece. Most of the things I write about are not personal, just cats and shoes and knitting and gardening and Los Angeles. But when I'm writing something personal I usually finish it then hold onto it for a while, see if it feels safe yet to let it go into the world. Sometimes the time isn't right, or I don't feel right about the subject yet. I have things I wrote two years ago still just sitting there, not ready to be read by another living soul.

I've learned that for me, I need to be settled in my mind and in my heart with what I'm sharing before I share it. If I am at peace with the topic I don't worry as much about being too soft or too afraid of what folks will say.

And then sometimes I just have to wing it, hope and pray that whatever it is I need to express comes out right, that folks will cut me some slack when I'm off-base or don't say things just as I mean them. No one ever gets it all right all the time and I have definitely had my left-of-center moments.


Jenny's question:
I always think of things to write at the oddest times, like when I'm cleaning the bathroom or I'm out for a walk. In other words, never when I'm near some sort of writing implement or computer. Do you think of things to write about at weird moments when you can't get them out of your head? If so, what do you do to recall them later when you can either write them down on paper or type them on the computer?

* Jenny, I'm the same way! When I am out walking or especially in the shower I get all sorts of ideas. I usually "write" my ideas in my head and keep on at them mentally until I write them on paper. It's as habitual for me as chewing gum or drinking wine, I sometimes lie in bed "writing" pieces in my head. I also keep a notebook in my purse, a paper diary at home, this online diary which I can access from a computer, and already I have another Word document on my laptop that I'm just piddling with, seeing how it goes. Seeing if it turns into something. I write on envelopes, post-it notes, the back of my hand, restaurant napkins, anything handy.

Sometimes I just write down ideas or thoughts, stuff I may want to make a story out of later. Sometimes I write so fast and hard I worry my keyboard will break, sometimes I sit outside with my paper diary and a pen and a glass of wine and scribble 'til my hand hurts. My poor house is just a repository of post-it notes, it's sad really.


Gwynivar asks:
Do you work from an outline or in chapter order? How do you decide what goes in the outline/chapter order/book?

* For this book I just wrote it all in a big piece, no written outline, and it evolved as I wrote it. It's chronological, so that was kind of how I managed it in my head. I kept track of specific things by placing sticky notes on the door with little pieces I still wanted to write but hadn't gotten to yet. Like "the time with the hair removal" or "first kiss" or "yard sale." Later in the editing process we got to the real pain, removing pieces that didn't work, re-writing, adding new stuff, removing even more.

But for a fiction piece, I'm guessing I'll need an outline, even if it's just a mental picture of the story. In my interview with M.J. Rose she said she'd created a scrapbook for Josh, the main character in The Reincarnationist, filled with things that would apply to him as a person. That kind of detail to character building blew me away but it makes sense -- you must know your main character inside and out, their story is your story.

I have a fiction idea in my head, and I even started writing some of it, but it's tricky. I'm not sure I'm ready for fiction yet, I'm not sure I'm a good enough writer right now to dive into a big fiction piece. And I'm not sure I have all the self-helpyness beaten out of my body just yet!


Reader Jenn asked:
I wonder how to get past the Fear of the Blank Page. I used to write all the time; like breathing, it was part of my life. Now, I stare at the page and am intimidated. As though everything I write HAS to be AMAZING (even though no one will ever read it but me).
Do you ever get intimidated by the blank page?

* Hi Jenn! I think your question and Neil's question go hand-in-hand, keep reading:

Neil said:
I have a bad habit of writing a paragraph, then re-reading it, and re-writing it, and before you know it, the day is gone, and I haven't gone beyond the paragraph. I heard that you wrote your book pretty quickly. Did you plow through it, knowing that parts weren't perfect, but deciding to keep on moving, making a note to come back and fix it? I know there is a saying, "Writing is Re-Writing." Do you do extensive editing after you are done with your first draft? C'mon, Laurie, tell us the truth! -- I can't believe that all your great writing comes to you without SOME effort!

* Hi Neil! And Jenn -- as I think these two questions speak to the same issue. I'm no expert, but I think they all have to do with fear of not being good enough. It's the fear that whatever you're about to write isn't good enough. Fear that your ability, talent, ideas, thoughts, expressions, whatever, aren't good enough. "I'm not clever enough! Not smart enough! Not original! Not witty! Not saying it just right."

Fear is a huge roadblock, in every area of life. And folks get stuck in a trap, thinking they have to get each word perfect. I have seen writer friends struggle so much with one single sentence that they never complete anything. I guess a lot of this depends on your goal ... my goal is to write stuff down. I like doing it, it feels right to me. I gave up perfection a long time ago because it is never going to happen, not in my life, not with me at the wheel.

Besides, one perfect sentence or paragraph won't get you into a bookstore ... you need the rest of the book to go along with it!

As far as spending a lot of time crafting each paragraph ... I don't have that kind of time in my life. So being sleep-deprived and over scheduled and low on free time has actually helped me let go of perfectionism. If you spend your whole life waiting to write the perfect novel you'll die and still never have the perfect novel. There is no perfect novel. I know now that my goal is not perfection -- my goal is completion. Nothing feels better than finishing a book. NOTHING. Nothing will ever top the day I printed out the last page (of what was at that time a 500+ page narrative, yikes) and I hefted it up to my face... and I kissed it. OH YES I DID.

You have to do what works for you, of course, but what worked for me was finally letting go of some ideal of perfection and just writing in plain words what was really on mind. I had to make the decision to just be me instead of trying to be some other writer. I can be me better than anyone else can, so why try to be Kate Chopin? She already did Kate Chopin better than I ever will. (I used to have a huge fixation on Kate Chopin. Back when I was in college, I somehow decided that if I couldn't write to the level of Kate Chopin there was no use ever trying. Man, was I pretentious. For at least a year all I did was write tortuously crafted stanzas about my brooding boyfriend.)

As for subject matter, I never know what to say. I start with that very minute and go from there. Sometimes I will have had an idea or problem rattling around in my head and I just sit down, typing it out. Type it out until you said what you mean. You can go back and self-edit later. I am not a self-editor when I write. I just get the words down, then later I re-read and decide if I should put it on the website, hold for a rainy day, or lock away forever hidden from view.

And finally, what worked for a writer friend of mine was to complete his manuscript and decide to leave all the editing up to a paid editor -- he knew that for him, it would be the only way to relinquish the constant self-editing he was doing. He knew that to finish his book he had to stop standing in his own way, constantly editing a sentence before he could even get to the next one. Of course, he probably knows what this mystical elusive "spellcheck" thingamajig is....


Alyson asks:
I am a start and stop aspiring writer. I have actually gotten PAID to do it in the distant past, but that was before the three kids and my REAL LIFE showed up! I want to get back into it again, with an eye to eventually getting an MFA in Creative Writing, but my question is HOW? It is clear you have a busy life.....I have a busy life, and we both can't live without our needles and yarn. How do you balance the life thing, with the knitting thing, with the writing thing. How do you balance all this life stuff, and still do something productive in the writing world, too?

* Hi Alyson!
First of all, I do not have three children ... I do have three cats but they use a litterbox and eat out of a bowl on the floor. Can you train your kids to do that? Oh, just kidding! (But still... not a bad idea, eh?)

So even though I don't have children, I do have a busy schedule, so it's been kind of necessary for me to prioritize. When I was writing the book, I had to say goodbye to many things so that I could fit in the most important stuff. The most important things for me were writing the narrative, keeping up with my family and keeping my job. Commuting is part of that. And then there's all the stuff at home, plus social obligations (and later as my deadline loomed up scary and big, social obligations went out the window).

On a day-to-day basis, TV watching went by the wayside. I stopped watching Lost, said goodbye to my friends at CSI and to keep my pal Oprah I combined her show with my treadmill time. I LOVE watching TV, but there just wasn't time left in my day for sitting on the sofa and zoning out for a few hours, and I personally can't write while the TV is on (see: "cone of silence.")

I also haven't been to a movie in something like twenty-seven years -- all my movie-watching, Sunday-afternoon window shopping with friends and other assorted free-time activities were put on hold.

Surfing the internet is a huge time-sucker for me, so I put limits on it. I do give myself 15 minutes a day (and sometimes 30) during my lunch break for looking at online news, checking in on my friends' websites and of course I've got to check my travel websites! (Some folks like online porn, I like online travel websites.)

I love to read, too, but the only time I have for reading is on the bus or train, which is also when I love to knit. So, I switched almost exclusively to audio books (I check out books on CD at the public library, it's awesome and FREE!) and I listen to them on the bus while I knit.

Some of my friends think I'm a little weirdo because I don't spend time doing a lot of leisure activities, like going out or going to bars or movies or whatever. But I love my life, everything that someone else thinks is a sacrifice is just another way for me to do what I enjoy.


Dez and Not Faint Hearted and about 50 bazillion folks via email all asked the same basic thing:
How do you get published? Do you need an agent first? Do you send out manuscripts first? Do you have to write the whole thing before sending it out? Did your publisher come to you? Did you do a proposal?

* At every single book reading, I got asked how I managed to get a book deal. It seems all very mysterious, this book industry. I used to think of it a lot like the CIA ... you know some people are undercover agents, but how do they get there? Do they just apply to be a spy? Is there a job fair somewhere?

My editor Allison had been reading my website and she contacted me about my interest in doing a book. We worked for several months together on what the concept would be, and she crafted the proposal because I was a neophyte and had no idea what a proposal was, and we worked together on my platform.

Platform, I have since learned, is the single biggest thing you can have in your corner when it comes to getting published. Kim Weiss gave a seminar on platform and publishing at the Women's Empowerment Conference and it was really educational. Your platform is kind of like your resume -- you list all the writing you've done so far, plus any media contacts or any audience you might already have. My platform was a one-paragraph piece in the third person, talking about my newspaper background, writing I had done for other websites and of course detailing this very website's traffic and so on. This is why I think a lot of bloggers are now getting book deals, and it's awesome! That means publishing is recognizing the power of the internet to draw in audiences.

I know a lot of folks are grouchy about bloggers getting book deals but I personally think it's fabulous -- if it happened to me it means it can happen to YOU. And you. And you, too! The blog is now seen as a real platform, an audience for books, and the book industry is only about one thing: selling books.


Several folks wanted to know if you need an agent to get published.

* You do not need an agent to get published, I did not have one for Drunk, Divorced & Covered in Cat Hair. You can submit your manuscript to publishing houses on your own -- just follow the guidelines set forth on their corporate website or in the most updated version of the Writer's Market.

You will in fact be able to learn a lot more about the business as a whole from the Writer's Market than from me. I do know that you want to carefully consider your platform, though (see above where I mention platform.) It's one of the key deciding factors for a lot of companies when they consider your book.


Liz R. asks:
What was your initial reaction to HCI's offer? And how in the hell did you keep it secret from all of us?

* My first reaction? I was terrified. I didn't think I was capable of doing a book at that time, I was still going through my Very Bad Time and just getting out of the house was a struggle. Here I was being given the chance of a lifetime and I thought I might be too washed up and broken to do it any justice.

Luckily, Allison kept at me. She saw something in me when I saw nothing at all. If you don't believe in the hand of God, at least let me tell you that sometimes providence arrives in the form of the most unexpected, sometimes she's a tiny, blonde Nordic editor with twins and germ issues.

I was able to keep it a secret because I needed to write it before I talked about it. And I was scared to death I'd never make the deadline. Getting input at that point would have been disastrous. I needed to write just the real story as it was meant to come out on paper, not try to write based on consensus, you know?


Courtney asked:
Do you ever have problems with psycho readers tracking you down, AKA stalking you?? I started a blog a few months ago but I have not put any personal information on there because I have two fears: 1. Letting people I know see the soft side of me and 2. Being stalked.

* Hi Courtney!
It's important give only the personal information than you are comfortable with. That comfort level varies from person to person. I kept my last name off this website until my book came out, but of course now it's a bit late to develop a pen name.

But I have great readers, and by and large my experiences have been positive. I'm careful, of course, and mindful of my personal safety just as we all should be. In general, though, I try to remember that there is fear in everything so I can't stop living my life just because I'm scared of things that haven't even happened.


Janet asked:

Writing question: This is basically to any other writers out there too. I've started to force myself to write otherwise I don't get to it. So in the beginning, how much should I force? I'm starting with baby steps and I try to come home and just write my thoughts for that day. However, that's been sporadic too. Any ideas?

* I think your blog is a good way to get started, trying to keep up with a project every day gets you into the habit of writing, of noticing things in your life and in your thoughts worth writing down. Think of it as a job -- I have to put my column up each day by 10 a.m.! -- and see if it keeps you on track. Some folks find it easier to set a word limit, like "I will write 500 words a day on my manuscript." I write every day and have for so long that it's become a habit through and through. Some of it goes on this website, some goes on paper, but every day I make time to write. If you make a space for it (I love to get up very early and just sit with a cup of tea and think and write) hopefully it can become a habit for you, too.


LW said:
For me, whenever I am writing it feels like the stories almost tell themselves. I can't explain how the stories tell themselves, but they do. Sometimes even as I am taking notes about what a person is saying, pieces of it come to me. I don't think about Neil Hopp's first five paragraphs formula or nut-graphs. I just write the story how the story wants to be told. Sometimes I even try to go in with an idea of how I think I want the story to be told and it winds up totally different. It's like it has a mind of its own. I wonder if it is the same way for you.

* Well, I never took any theory writing classes so I don't think much about formulas and method and all that. I just like telling stories! Sometimes they work and sometimes they fall flat, and I try to tell more of the ones that work. I'm lucky because I grew up in a big Southern family of storytellers. Everyone in my family has a story to tell, and that is no lie.


Tinker asked:
How the h-E-double toothpicks did you deal with the cats while you were writing??? Oh, wait, make that two teeny tiny questions - Did you have to work out a time-share on the computer with Sobakawa and her manifesto?

* If the cats bug me, I take my laptop outside onto the patio table. I wrote most of my book outside, to be honest!


smokeyJoe asked:
When did you decide to monetize your excellent writing? what resources do you use?

* I started putting blogads on this website a few years back, it helps offset the sometimes massive server cost. I like the blogads company I have, they're great: blogads.com. I've never been one of those folks that thinks it's some blasphemy to have a web ad on your site. I love ads -- I make them for a living! (I'm a graphic designer.) I guess that growing up in newspaper I just sort of expect writing to come with a big tire ad nearby -- in Cooper Black font, of course.


Rebecca asked:
What did your editor ask you to change about your writing?

* I have a lot of friends who are in writing groups and they get together and give feedback to each other and I'm intensely curious about this whole writing group scenario. I quizzed Faith obsessively about her writing group (she finally asked me if I wanted to sit in, insert sigh of exasperation, and I said, "Oh God, no! I would never be able to sit still or keep my mouth shut for a whole hour!")

Apparently in these groups people sit around and give each other feedback. This is fascinating to me. I never wanted feedback, I just wanted to write stuff down so I could get it out of me and onto the paper where it belonged, disciplined and surrounded by my beloved comma splices, not all messy and jumbled up inside me.

I have taken one writing class my whole life. It was in the 9th grade and I signed up for "Creative Writing" because it was either that or typing and I'll be damned if I was going to bring my GPA down with typing. We only had to write one paper the whole semester and the rest of the time we watched filmstrips adapted from old books. Later I got to skip Lit 101 and 102 in college, thankfully ... I must have been the only child in America who hated the five paragraph theme because it was too damn short. I had a lot to say! Stupid five paragraphs. Far too limiting. But I was glad not to be assigned topics and doubly glad to never get the dreaded "class feedback."

Imagine my horror when I discovered that when you write a book you get ALL KINDS OF feedback. Professional feedback. There are editors, then copyeditors, and then critics, then finally (blessedly) the readers.

I about died of humiliation at first, having to work with an editor. Luckily Allison is the best editor alive and I adore her. I still cried, though, when I sent in my first four chapters and I got them back unexpectedly a week later, FedExed to my porch and covered in red ink and notes. I wasn't used to that (aside from punctuation, of course, I am rather free-flowing in punctuating and always have been. Type like I talk.) I had never cared before if someone didn't follow the train of thought or if the tone was shifting too rapidly, or if the conclusions were wordy and sappy. In the past I only wrote for me. Suddenly I was writing for A Reader.

Now I do have to admit at the end of all this editing and proofing and re-writing and copyediting I am a better writer than I was before. I'm faster, I cry less, I'm less personally attached to my phrases and more aware of the reader's comfort level. (At first I fought for some things in the manuscript because I just liked the sound of the words together, later I gave in because something didn't make sense, or was redundant, or whatever. The reader won and I can say my lovely phrases to myself all I want. In private, of course.)

Working with an editor was the hardest thing I have ever done. It was harder than going through my divorce in some ways. I had been edited before in newspaper, of course, but those were cutting-edge stories about fall fashion at the Junior League. Working with my editor taught me how to be a better writer and also taught me how little I actually know. Surprisingly, that part was very exciting -- it means I can keep getting better with age. Like wine. Isn't everything like wine?


Lori M. asked:
So - how do you get more confident in your writing? Sigh. Maybe I need to read your book. (oops, havent gotten it yet!)

* I think you develop more confidence by continually writing, over and over again. I started out back in Junior High (and OK, high school,m too) with the worst most God-awful poetry and one-act plays and stories anyone has ever read. They are HEE-LARIOUS. Over time, I got better and even writing this book I got MUCH better. Writing is not like sports, thank God. You can get better as you age. Again, like a fine wine!


Sherri asks:
My question is a little different. Since you have a full-time job, how do you balance your travel when you go on your book tours with your real job. I wondered that the whole time you were gone. Are your co-workers supportive? These questions may seem irrelevant, but I've always wondered how a person would suddenly deal with having to go on a book tour when they also have a paying job. :-S

* Hi Sherri! I worked out a situation with my boss that worked for both of us. I haven't told my co-workers, a few know but for the most part I have kept it on the down low. I like just keeping life as normal as possible, you know?


Reader Marilyn asked:
So much of what you write/wrote about is so very personal. Many people would not want the world to know such personal, emotional things because they would feel embarrassed that they were "dumped," and also would not want "Mr X" to have the knowledge (read: power) that he was able to cause you so much pain, or they might worry about what impression co-workers might get from all the talk about "dranking". Most people want to keep that sort of thing private. Why did you decide to make it public knowledge?

* Hi Marilyn!
Sometimes in the middle of writing this book I would panic, realizing how much laundry I was hanging on a public line.

But one of the reasons I felt most alone in my divorce (and in life, sometimes) is that no one ever talks about the really ugly, emotionally wrenching parts of loss and we all just put on our game face, pretend life is hunky-dorey and go about our business ... until the doors close and the window shades are pulled down. Then it all falls to pieces.

So I thought if there was just one woman out there who read this story and it helped her feel less crazy then it was worth it. Besides, there was no reason to hide from it, my divorce happened, I fell apart, I was messy. Life kept going, and I kept going, too, messy and unkempt and hung-over. Then you know what? It got better. MUCH BETTER.

The bigger question -- and I think it's the core of your comment -- is ... how on earth do you stand letting people see your flaws and then knowing that they will judge you?

Isn't that the reason we all hide from success? Isn't that the real reason we have fear and we wonder if we're doing the right thing by trying something new, we wonder if people will talk about us when we change our haircolor / change our weight/ change our wardrobe / buy a new car / get a new boyfriend / leave the closet / leave the state/ apply for a promotion / write a book / break out of the box in any way.


Recently someone wrote to me and picked apart the whole book, everything, it was an excoriating review of me as a person..

When I read it, I completely lost my breath, I started shaking all over-- the whole thing was so personal. She took my inventory from top to bottom and let me know exactly what she thought, thankyouyverymuch.

Now, if I had written a piece of fiction I wouldn't have cared as much. Who cares if someone hates the storyline? Let them go write a better book! But this was MY story, MY life, and she was picking me apart like I was a TV character or something. So that was it, then. The very worst had happened, someone had taken a long hard look at me and found me horrible and ugly and displeasing ...

... and I lived. I'm fine. The world didn't stop spinning on its axis. Life is full of people wanting to take your inventory. When you expose yourself or put anything of yours out there for the world to see, some folks are just going to have a field day. This is a fact. Some people will always find a way to call you a butthole, or make you feel like one. I thought that this kind of thing would kill me, I thought I'd just keel over and die if someone hated my book. Guess what! I'm still here! I haven't died. I still get to choose each day whose opinion of me matters most -- some stranger I have never met, or my own opinion.

I had to make that decision, too. Sometimes I spend each day actively remembering that decision... but it's worth it.

Take chances. Do what you're afraid to do (but know you'd love it if you really did it!) Are people going to talk about you? Judge you? Sit on their high, high horse atop their mighty tall soapbox? Yup. BUT WHO CARES? Go on that trip. Get that haircut. Write that book. To hell with everyone else. To hell with always wondering what horrible thing might befall us if we actually try to live up to our potential.

To hell with 'em, I say.


Alas, I didn't answer questions about promoting and blog marketing stuff because that is way out of my league. My basic opinion is that if you write every day or almost every day and love it and say what is true to you, people will come. I also thought this about book-writing and yet innerestingly enough, the book company is not so much a fan of my "build it and they will come" philosophy. So that is why some folks are great marketers and some folks post cat pictures! Which I will be doing soon because there has been a SERIOUS lack of cat pictures lately on this here very literary website.

Thanks for the questions, it felt all very self-indulgent answering them but hopefully some of it can be helpful, too.

Posted by laurie at December 3, 2007 4:19 PM