how to write a book

Colette, A Review
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Colette, A Review

On a recent Saturday, my husband and I enjoyed date night at the Paris Theater. We watched the film Colette.

I’m a novelist and so the film held a special resonance for me. It’s always intriguing for me to see how other women do it–how other women wrestle with the great fanged beast of their need to write–how other women embrace the struggle of creativity and storytelling alongside the demands of partnership and self-actualization.

For me, there is no self without writing. If I’m not writing, it’s because I’m in a no-self space. That’s not a wholesome place for me.

Colette is turned on to writing by her husband Willy, who calls himself, in the film, a “writing entrepreneur.” He cheats on her and tells her to pen her thoughts and then proclaims her work to be worthless. Then he re-reads it and loves it. He pores over her prose with her and teaches her to edit and revise. At least in the film, he is instrumental to her discovering her talent.

Willy publishes her book under his own name. When it becomes successful beyond his wildest dreams, he locks her in a room to write another book.

Colette slowly wakes up to her own worth. Her self-awareness grows as she uncovers her individual sexuality. Her husband cheats but she begins to sleep with women–which he permits, as long as she doesn’t sleep with other men.

It’s comical when the husband beds her paramour and they both carry on with the libidinous lady in question.

There’s a kind of leftist-liberal-proselytizing fabric to this movie; the husband is an exploitative patriarchal scumbag and noble, victimized Colette naturally finds a supportive woman partner/lover. So many films these days are taken over by the need to preach leftist liberal values. I wish more films would focus on good storytelling and leave preaching propaganda to the politicians. It’s boring.

When a story delves deeply into the human condition, the spectrum of left-right, liberal-conservative falls away. What is left is meaning. That meaning is far more moving, far more convincing, than even the best propaganda.

In this case, the film transcends the current Hollywood piety. After all, Colette was a French novelist. She’s an archetypal French woman novelist. She actually lived the life and she did so before it was appropriated by a certain tiresome sector of post-modernist feminists–as if being a traveling mime with a woman lover is the only way to be a woman novelist.

I admire Colette but her choices wouldn’t work for me. I would never have been happy or fulfilled without children and a husband. Being a mother and wife contributes to, and enhances, my fruitfulness.

As painful as my situation is with one of my beloved daughters and with a dearly loved husband who took off for the antipodes, putting his own art before the family who needs him–despite everything–I was always supposed to be a wife and mother. And a novelist. And lately a screenwriter.

Willy exceeds his role, too, I think. Yes, he’s selfish, self-indulgent, egotistical, and riddled with vices. He’s also the fulcrum on which Colette’s own writing turns. He’s a catalyst for her. I find that real life is like this, that people are like this: marbled through with light and dark. Variegated. Bittersweet.

People are complex. They enter our lives bearing gifts, some laced with poison, some with nectar. Often the most difficult characters in our stories are our best teachers.

And beyond the propaganda is the story of a woman coming to own her own voice.

This is the essential struggle for a woman novelist: owning her own voice. Even for women who come across as strong, as I seem to, there’s vulnerability at the root. How do we embrace, own, and integrate that vulnerability with our creative talent?

film Colette

 

 

 

Scrivener: A Fabulous Writing Program
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Scrivener: A Fabulous Writing Program

A glowing review of writing software Scrivener, sold by Literature & Latte.

What took me so long? Lo, the years I have wasted, toiling in Microsoft Word…

I’ve been drinking the Microsoft Word Kool Aid. A gazillion years ago, when my pet Brontosaurus would give me a ride across Central Park to the East Side, I used a program called Word Perfect. I preferred it to Word. Word Perfect just worked better, more nimbly. But no, Word was the standard in publishing, so I switched to Word. Reluctantly, yes. But still, citing the demands of my profession, I made the transition. Womanfully, I learned the program and grew adept at it.

Some years later, I made the opposite switch, from absurdly complicated to unbelievably easy: I left behind my Windows PC and bought an iMac. I’ve never looked back. The Mac computer was blissfully, stupefyingly easy to use. It just worked right out of the box. With this experience in my wheelhouse, why didn’t I realize sooner that writing a 60,000+ word novel could be so much easier than the way Word makes the task?

A month ago, I was scrolling through Cult of Mac Deals and spied Scrivener on sale for a little under $20.

The low price piqued my interest, and since I was 15,000 words into a new novel–which is about where the sheer ponderous drudgery of Microsoft Word kicks in–and man oh man was I tired of pushing that rock up the hill–I risked the $20. I bought Scrivener.

That may have been the best $20 I ever spent. There are so many wonderful aspects to writing with Scrivener that I can’t name them all. I’ll just say, if you write long documents, novels, non-fiction texts, or a PhD dissertation, BUY SCRIVENER!! You’ll thank me.

Once I opened Scrivener, I was immediately taken by the binder, which groups all kinds of files together for easy reference. It means I can work horizontally and vertically, which lubricates and enhances my writing life. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in Chapter 22 and had to remember a detail from Chapter 11, or was it Chapter 13? I’d have to search and scroll to figure it out.

In Scrivener, the binder holds the Manuscript, which is broken into Folders, which are my chapters, and inside the folders are Text files, which are scenes within the chapter. The folders and text files can be moved around with drag and drop. Files inside folders can also be moved around.

Best of all, there are different ways of viewing your folders and files. You can work within an individual file, just typing into the page. I like to write in Scrivenings mode, which shows all the files within a folder (or all the files in the manuscript) vertically. Here’s a screenshot from the extensive tutorial that comes with the program:

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 8.06.15 PM

The Binder is visible on the left hand side of the screenshot. Notice it has three primary folders: Draft, Research, and Characters. The “Draft” is the manuscript with all its parts and steps, and only the files in it are compiled and then output into PDF’s or Word Documents or just about whatever form you want it in.

In my projects, I rename Draft to the name of the Novel. Instead of Parts, I have Chapters. And within each chapter I have a scene which I don’t number, I name with a tag for what’s happening in the scene: “Sarah argues with Scott”, “Babysitting”, “To the doctor’s office,” etc.

Naming my scenes this way makes it fast and easy to look up details when I need them, because I’m working both horizontally and vertically.

Notice in the screenshot above that Step 16 and Step 17, which are separate text files, are both visible and separated by a gray line. That’s because I took the screenshot in Scrivenings mode. Scrivenings combines individual documents into a single text for viewing and editing. You can work with the text files in a single folder, or you can group together a bunch of text files from several folders to work with–perhaps because those are all the scenes from one character’s p.o.v. or because those are the scenes in which a particular character shows up.

Here’s another screenshot in Corkboard mode:

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 7.51.34 PM

In this screenshot of Corkboard mode, all the text files in the folder named Part 1: Basics are shown as index cards on a corkboard.

It just boggles my mind to be able to switch back and forth between Scrivenings and Corkboard! Can you imagine how delightful it makes plotting a novel????

There are a million wonderful features to this program, but I’ll just mention one more: the Research folder is facile and will accept just about any old thing you drag into it. So far, I’ve dragged in Mail messages, PDF’s, and Word documents. There’s a way to drag in Web pages but I haven’t used that yet because it hasn’t been necessary. But how sweet it is to have all my references grouped together in the Research folder for easy access…

One Caveat: this is a feature rich program and there is a learning curve. I spent the first few days watching Youtube video tutorials. Literature & Latte has some good ones. My favorite is called “Scrivener Bootcamp” by Jason Hough. I recommend that tutorial because it got me up to speed pretty quickly. I recommend investing the time in learning the program because you will reap vast rewards for doing so.

I’ve been able to write better, more easily and more cleanly, since acquiring and learning Scrivener. I also know, to the word, how many words I’ve written at a session, because there is a Target feature that allows me to set my target number of words for the day, and for the entire novel, and track the progress. Now I know for sure when I’ve written 383 words or 1672!

Scrivener is a terrific tool for writers. I give it 5 Traci Stars*****!

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 7.59.04 PM

 

From the HuffPo: Three Plot Structures Every Storyteller Can Use
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From the HuffPo: Three Plot Structures Every Storyteller Can Use

Here is my latest Huffington Post article: Three Plot Structures Every Storyteller Can Use

I have a theory that novelists are fugitives from simple existence. We metabolize, mediate, and render life rather than simply experiencing it. We live through an incident and wonder, with tears glossing our eyes or bliss pinking our cheeks or ennui prompting a yawn, “How can I use this in a story?” A novelist’s mindfulness consists of pouncing on a moment as a resource for a character, or as a turn in the road on the journey of story, or as an illustration for a thesis.

Henry James wrote, “The novelist is a particular window, absolutely — and of worth in so far as he is one; and it’s because you open so well and are hung so close over the street that I could hang out of it all day long.” (James, Henry, and James E. Miller. Theory of Fiction: Henry James. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1972. Print. Pp. 65-66.) Opening for others to peer through and take delight in an unfolding scene is a practice and a process; it takes time and commitment. It’s not enough to over-analyze your own interiors.

What I’m really talking about, with James’ metaphor, is the skill required to craft a novel that engages and delights readers. I think it requires persistence to the point of obsession. Fortunately, along the way there are tools that help us learn.

One of those tools is plot structure. Plenty of authors take a dim view of plot and subordinate it to story (See Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft). I appreciate their point. For myself, I’ve defined ‘story’ as ‘how your protagonist does not get what he or she wants’ and that reigns supreme in my consciousness while I write. However, plot structures are handy aides in the pursuit of thwarting, frustrating, and torturing your protagonist, like training wheels for learning to ride a bike. You won’t keep them on forever, but they’ll give you some support as you go.

Here are three useful plot structures for every storyteller to have in her toolbox. Remember, these structures are really scaffolds. It’s the minutiae of adventure and dialogue and characterization that matter — otherwise reading the Cliff Notes would be just as much fun as the actual novel—which must never be the case.

READ THE ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE.

plot structure

huffington-post

The Business of Independent Publishing
authors | Broken | business | errors | guide to independent publishing | hard work | how to write a book | Huffington Post | independent publishing | Uncategorized | writing

The Business of Independent Publishing

Regarding the business of independent publishing: A few months ago, I received a polite email from Professor John Maxwell of Simon Fraser University. Some of his students had come to him. Between the covers of the text he had ordered for his graduate class on publishing, The Content Machine by Michael Bhaskar, was the novel Broken by Traci L. Slatton, in its entirety. He attached a picture to show me, see below.

Here was an opportunity to spread the word about Parvati Press in general and about my novels in particular, I thought. “Are your students interested in the novel? Would you like more copies?” I asked. I am always looking for opportunities to promote the Press.

He accepted with alacrity. Ten copies shipped out to him at SFU.

Sometime later, during an email exchange, he invited me to guest lecture to his class via Skype. I accepted. It was a good experience; his students were bright, polite, inquisitive, and thoughtful. I enjoyed talking to them but finished with a feeling of frustration: there was so much else to say about independent publishing.

Much of it I’ve learned the hard way, too.

It has been an intense journey since the day I decided to expand the Press and take on other authors. I’ve learned some tough lessons. My first time out of the box, I took on a writer who turned out to be certifiably insane. Not, like, a little kookie, but off-her-rockers lunatic demented. I’ve blogged about that elsewhere, including a Huffington Post article about How to Handle eMail Harassment.

The next three writers weren’t crazy, but I still made a big mistake in trusting one of them.

After the debacle with the first writer, I realized I needed a solid contract for dealing with potential Parvati Press authors. I hired an attorney who had helped me on other matters. She wasn’t a publishing attorney, and the contract put off the other writers.

That was my responsibility, I knew. So I went out and found a real publishing attorney, I mean, the guy in publishing law, to create a contract that was clear, simple, fair, and had precedents in publishing. He did a great job.

He also yelled at me about the deal I was giving the writers. He explained that I could not sustain the Press with that deal. He was right, but I felt that I had given my word to the writers, so those first few would still receive the deal I had originally offered them. He called me crazy. But I was going to keep my word.

One writer refused to do a revision that his manuscript urgently required. Line for line, his prose was polished and perfect. Unfortunately, it was a good story badly told. His novel was boring. He had to revise it to bring it to life. He didn’t want to do the work required because he’s had a storied career as an author. But production values matter to me, so I declined to send him a contract.

A second writer saw immediately that I was being scrupulously honorable. She signed the contract and sent it back immediately.

Ah, but the third guy. He had been hemming and hawing, wringing his hands, and dragging his feet about signing a contract from the day I sent him one. Days and weeks would go by. He was always about to talk to his attorney, who was so busy…. When I sent him the second contract, he said, “I’ll sign it right away, I’ll tell my lawyer that I want to get this done unless there’s something major wrong with it.”

As the months went by, with all the foot-dragging and hand-wringing and excuses, I was working on this writer’s manuscript. I stupidly invested a great deal of my own time, thought, and energy into his manuscript. Now, it had a germ of a good idea, and the writer showed flashes of serious, big talent throughout. But it was no where near publishable. It was going to require sustained heavy lifting to get it to the point where the manuscript was professional and polished.

Also, it was tricky to deal with the writer because of the arrogance involved. Taking editorial criticism is a skill that requires learning for most of us.

I paid for the Parvati Press editor to do a thorough manuscript critique. It was still going to be at least three more revisions before the manuscript was ready to be published, two that I could do and one more from the professional editor. Note that this editorial critique is the work product of Parvati Press.

Despite my honorable behavior, there was only continued hand-wringing and hawing and excuses about the second contract.

I woke up.

I realized–finally!–that this writer had no intention of signing a contract with me. One tip-off was when he asked why there was now no “out” in the new contract so he could go to a bigger publisher if one made an offer.

It broke over me that this writer was out to get free editing for his manuscript so he could shop it around to other publishers.

I conferred with several experienced business people close to me. One woman with her own PR company told me that it happens all the time. Clients come to her, get her ideas, and then don’t sign a contract and pay her. They go off and use her ideas either by themselves or with another PR firm.

Essentially, they rip her off, the same way that this writer planned to rip off Parvati Press.

Another businessman said to me, dryly, “Welcome to the business world.”

Another friend said, “These are the early business mistakes.”

My publishing attorney said, “Never work on a project without a signed contract.”

I emailed back to him, “I’m learning.”

This is just writer relations, a tiny slice of the whole juicy pie. There is so much else to independent publishing, especially the way I do it: with integrity. The book has to be high quality in terms of content, and it has to look good, too. It has to be copyedited, proofread, professionally laid out with an appealing, professionally designed book cover, and given an ISBN and accurate categories…And all that is BEFORE the hard work of marketing a book so it stands out from the crowd: so that readers will know about the book and buy it.

Marketing is a big challenge. It deserves its own post, so I’ll pause here. Meantime, here’s Professor Maxwell’s post about finding BROKEN in his textbook, called, cleverly, “My Content Machine is Broken.”

Maxwell is a good writer himself. His post is worth reading, though his characterization of my novel BROKEN is condescending and pejorative. I emailed him to let him know this:

I would like to put out there (please indulge me) that BROKEN is more than a paranormal romance. It is based on a serious philosophical question with which I wrestle every day: How could a good God allow such pain and suffering?
In this vein, FOREWORD REVIEWS, which is the Library Journal for independent publishing, is reviewing BROKEN for its forthcoming Sci Fi issue, and wrote, “This is a gorgeous philosophical treaty on right and wrong….”

To his credit, Maxwell agreed with me.  He has yet to correct his post to reflect the respect my novel deserves. And this is part of independent publishing, too: Making sure that independently published books are valued and respected.

independent publishing

My New HuffPo Piece: Five Questions You Must Ask Your Protagonist
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My New HuffPo Piece: Five Questions You Must Ask Your Protagonist

…Before Writing Your Novel…

Here’s my latest piece on the Huffington Post, some advice for writers: questions you must ask your protagonist.

To pull off the herculean task of leading a reader through a few hundred pages of a book, that character has to be magnetic. Here are five questions to ask your protagonist, and the answers will lead to a fully fleshed out person who captivates your readers.

One. What do you do, and are you good at it? Americans always want to know what someone does for a living. Increasingly, because of the global economic situation, readers all over the globe are curious, how does this character support herself? The answers yield important information….

Two. What was your happiest childhood memory? This question helps create a backstory for the character….

Three. What is the biggest loss or regret of your life?  Real people are scored and sanded down and polished by failure and tragedy. Real people have regrets….

Four. What is your goal? That is, what do you want? This question goes right to the heart of your story, of course. The action itself revolves around the character trying to achieve something or avoid something, whether it’s to rescue a child, find a lost treasure, make a million dollars, arrive in the Emerald City, steal a fortune in gold bullion, or rescue a naughty billionaire with a penchant for kink. It’s the story itself. However, there are usually two levels, the concrete and the intangible.

These are questions that lead me into fuller character development, so I know my protagonist inside out, upside down, and backwards. The first person is my preferred person for writing a novel, and these questions help me feel as if I am slipping inside my character like falling down a chute. I think it helps storytellers to have tricks like these. Of course, it is most helpful to develop your own strategies….

Find the article here.

Questions You Must Ask Your Protagonist

Finishing the First Draft of BROKEN
Broken | hard work | how to write a book | kindness | literature | music | redemption | writing

Finishing the First Draft of BROKEN

A post on Finishing the First Draft of Broken.

Things were bad in Occupied Paris and getting worse.

Then the first draft was done.

I’m always strangely nerved up when I finish the first draft of a novel. I’m wired and chomping at the bit and high strung. I need my husband to rub me down and I need a warm, lavender-scented bubble bath with Mozart and Enya playing in the background.

There’s still so much work to do on the manuscript–see Annie Lamott’s beautiful book Bird by Bird for a discussion on the value of shitty first drafts–but a first draft is something complete that I can work with. It’s a whole fabric that I can tear into and reweave as needed.

So I’m happy and excited because I’ve made my vision concrete, and because the end is in sight. I’m keyed up because I’m going to gallop to the finish line. Then, of course, I’ll saddle up for the next marathon. But for now I’ve made progress. That is joyful indeed.

I get a little blue when the novel is actually done, when it goes to the book designer to be laid out in book format. Then it’s over, and it’s time to leave that world that I created so lovingly.

Time to move to the next world that lies dreaming in my imagination, waiting to be spun onto the page….