My previous blog entry related my disappointment at possibly losing a huge and fun project. As it turns out, the project is still on life support. The subject of my autobiography has decided she wants to format the book in a different way. I’m a bit disappointed because I think it may be harder to sell to a publisher in her preferred format, but this is HER book and so we’ll give it a try. At least the issue is resolved for now. The change in format also gives me a bit of breathing room. She is extremely busy now and will not expect to see something in the way of the revised proposal for at least two or three weeks. That gives me time to fiddle around with something else. Possibly a novel!

I have several ideas and am eager to meet these characters who have buzzing around in my head for a long time now. I will solicit their input on whose story I should look into first and who is willing to wait until later. All I can say is that whoever is up to bat first, better be a real blabber. I don’t have time to coax stories out of characters. If they’re not forthcoming, then back in the basement they go. You do know, don’t you, about Stephen King’s reference to the “boys in the basement”? It’s in his fun book On Writing. I’ve never read any of his fiction, but I did read this book and found it useful (and funny).

Oh, before I forget it, I want to thank you all for your notes of encouragement. It means a lot.

And now, how’s your writing coming along?

Last night I started this blog entry with the hopes of discussing how to deal with the potential death of a beloved writing project. The reason was, sad to say, I was facing the possible demise of a project I’ve been working on for several months. It’s one of the best opportunities I’ve had as a writer. I was going to solicit your prayers that the project stay alive. But now, as of 1:30 today, it looks like the final (well, almost final) nail has been hammered into the coffin. The project is essentially dead.

I’ll need to have a little time now to mourn this death and, yes, question myself and/or God. (“Did I mishear you, Lord, when I began this project?”). Then, hopefully, I’ll get some wind back in my sails again.

So I guess I’m still asking for your prayers….only now the prayers are for me to move past this death—and for God to somehow redeem the time and effort I put into this project. I’m so reluctant to let go. I find myself wanting to pray it back to life.

If you’ve been where I am now, you know what it’s like.

This will be short. I’m leaving on a week-long trip in a few days and there are a million things to do before I go. (Including one more blog early next week).

As an editor, I’m used to seeing writers follow trends. After the Left Behind series came out, I saw writers who wanted to find that kind of success with their own version of the end times. Then when Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life sold more than 20 million copies, I saw various book proposals formatted to the “40-day” concept. Of course, most recently, Amish fiction has attracted a lot of attention as writers are doing their best to tap into that genre’s unexpected success. But what’s really interesting to me is that with upwards of ten million copies sold (I think that’s the present number) of The Shack I have yet to see anyone tell me their book is comparable to that novel. There may be one, but I don’t remember. I know some have suggested Jim Rubart’s book Rooms appeals to that readership, but that’s really about the only one. Anyone have any ideas as to why aspiring writers aren’t trying to aim for that gigantic readership in the same way they have other bestsellers? It’s a mystery to me.

By the way, I don’t have anything against finding a trend and trying to catch a wave (so to speak). I do it myself. I have several proposals for books that I try to tie in to existing interests in the reading public based on what’s already selling. My only reservation is that it seldom works (even for me). I’m happy to see the occasional successes when it does work.

It’s been a while since I blogged. I don’t like to go this long between entries, but life happens. Actually, the past few days I’ve been in a dither about what to blog about. I have a jim-dandy idea for a future entry, but it just doesn’t seem to be ripe enough to pick yet. Writers will understand that analogy.

Yesterday I asked my Facebook friends for ideas. LaRae suggested old movies, fiction, old music, my grandkids. That rather surprised me because I really doubt most of you would be interested in that sort of thing, other than my occasional brief outbursts on those topics on Facebook. Maybe sometime in the future I’ll give it a try. Other suggestions included what an editor does (maybe eventually), John Wooden, and e-books (no, Tami, no!)

Yvette Schneider, another Facebook friend, thought the answer was obvious. Since I was having a hard time knowing what to blog about, she suggested writer’s block. That certainly seems appropriate, so let’s take a brief look. First, let me say that those of you who are going to exit my blog now because writer’s block isn’t a problem for you are very blessed. Most authors, at some point in their writing lives, do suffer from writer’s block. I sure do—and I hate it. Sometimes it manifests itself as simple procrastination (“Gee, the lawn needs mowing, I’ll write later” or “Say, I wonder if the dentist can get me in for that root canal today”). Sometimes it’s pure laziness. Sometimes it’s fear. Sometimes it might be ADD. But whatever the reason, the main thing to consider is that life for a writer is way too short to waste time on writer’s block. At present I have more than fifty potential writing projects on my writing “bucket list.” Certainly not all will see the light of day before I die, but one thing is sure: the more time I allow writer’s block to paralyze me, the fewer of these stellar life-changing potential Pulitzer Prize winners will find their way into print.

Clearly, every writer who experiences writer’s block must devise a strategy to overcome it. You really must. We really must. The several times I’ve made myself sit down, shut up, stop doubting myself, and tap the keys on my keyboard, I’ve come up with some very nice material. It’s getting started that’s a killer when one is suffering from writer’s block. Many writers get past their block by simply staying seated at their keyboard no matter what. As I was channel surfing this past weekend, Book TV was interviewing the author of the biography of children’s author, Dr. Seuss. I can only paraphrase what I heard, but it was something to the effect that Ted Geisel (Dr. Suess’s real name) sat in his chair writing for eight hours a day, block or no block. Or as one quote from Ron Carlson observes: “The secret is not leaving the room.”

I won’t tell you how to devise your particular strategy to overcome writer’s block. I’m sure it’s very much an individual matter. What works for me may or may not work for you. But I will share what has worked for others—and for me—in hopes that something here may help you on your way back to productivity. So here’s some advice from some of the masters of the craft:

* “When I feel difficulty coming on, I switch to another book I’m writing. When I get back to the problem, my unconscious has solved it.” Isaac Asimov

* “When I have trouble writing, I step outside my studio into the garden and pull weeds until my mind clears—I find weeding to be the best therapy there is for writer’s block.” Irving Stone [Nick adds: I do not pull weeds, but I find a nice long walk or even a drive will sometimes do the same for me]

* “I think writer’s block is simply the dread that you are going to write something horrible. But as a writer, I believe that if you sit down at the keys long enough, sooner or later something will come out.” Roy Blount, Jr.

* “I believe that the so-called ‘writing block’ is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance … one should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing. It’s easy to write. You just shouldn’t have standards that inhibit you from writing … I can imagine a person beginning to feel he’s not able to write up to that standard he imagines the world has set for him. But to me that’s surrealistic. The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I’m meeting right now … You should be more willing to forgive yourself. It doesn’t make any difference if you are good or bad today. The assessment of the product is something that happens after you’ve done it.” William Stafford

For me, in addition to walking or driving, sometimes reading a writer I love helps. After all, as writer Hart Crane observed, “One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment.” Sometimes by reading the words of others, our own internal word processer is given a jumpstart. On some occasions, I’ll even attempt to overcome writer’s block by opening up a favorite novel and typing a few paragraphs verbatim. That seems to get me in the flow of writing—and that, it seems to me, is the basic problem with writer’s block: it’s a stoppage of the flow.

Now it’s your turn. Do you have bouts of writer’s block? How do you deal with it? Can you recount a time when you made yourself break through only to be astonished at how good the results were?

Tomorrow night our book group will be discussing A Girl From Yamhill by Beverly Cleary. It’s the first of her two memoirs and has added appeal for us Oregonians because the book takes place in and around Portland (two hours north of us here in Eugene). When I was growing up, I didn’t read Beverly Cleary’s extremely popular books. Mostly my nose was in Hardy boy books and Mad Magazine at that age. Even so, I’m really enjoying the book and will likely turn next to a couple of her better known children’s books, probably Ramona the Pest and Ribsy (unless you have a better recommendation).

I’m not quite finished with A Girl From Yamhill. But I just came to the place where her teacher had the class line up in alphabetical order as if they were books on a shelf. Beverly laments: After that, I found a place on the shelf where my book would be if I ever wrote a book, which I doubted.

Then four pages later she turns in a composition (she’s twelve) and her teacher reads it aloud to the class and says, “When Beverly grows up, she should write children’s books.” Beverly is, of course, “dumbfounded.” The rest is, as they say, history.

Mrs. Cleary turned 94 recently and I have to wonder if she still writes. This book was written when she was in her late seventies, and the second book some time after that. I’d love to see a third memoir by her.

One reason for blogging about her today is to mention a previous memory of her girlhood writing efforts that’s noteworthy. A writing contest was held wherein the children were to write an essay about any animal. Beverly, Oregonian that she was, chose the Beaver. She entered because her mother had drilled into her that she should always try, even when she doesn’t feel capable of completing the task. She won the contest (only to find out hers was the only entry), and she concludes the memory with this observation:

This incident was one of the most valuable lessons in writing I ever learned. Try! Others will talk about writing but may never get around to trying.

Wow, is that ever true! Some of my most memorable writing efforts were when I tried something that seemed hard, but which I really wanted to do in spite of the obstacles. My present project is that way. It’s a genre I’ve never written before and is about a ten on the risk-o-meter, but if it succeeds, I’ll be a very happy man. Early on I faced some seemingly overwhelming obstacles as I began the project. More than once I really wanted to pull the plug on the whole thing….but I just couldn’t. Sometimes I still feel like pulling the plug….but I just can’t. I’m trying something new and I’m going to see it through until God Himself pulls the plug. In the meantime, I’m learning, having a great deal of fun, and best of all, I really feel like this project IS God’s will and will ultimately be a blessing to many.

The point is, what in your writing career have you been afraid to try? Or did you try something once and got some discouraging reviews? Don’t let that stop you if it’s something you really want to do.

Keep trying! Or, if you’re bored with your present writing, try something new. Fear not!

I apologize for the absence in blogging. I was away at a really fine writer’s conference and came back to a manuscript I was editing that was facing a quick deadline. In fact, I’m still busy enough that today’s blog will be short, but hopefully meaningful. (And to my FB friends, this is not the rant. Sorry Patrick).

In this week’s Publisher’s Weekly, there’s a brief interview with Toni Morrison. A couple of her answers to PW’s questions jumped out at me as important points for every writer to remember, so I offer them with hopes they will help. They are applicable to writers of both fiction and non-fiction.

The first point is found in Ms. Morrison’s statement, “I know what to leave out—which is the most important thing. It’s not what you put in, it’s what you don’t say that makes a powerful difference.” That confirms what my artist friend Jean-Paul Dusseault has told me about art. Good art—and good writing—is as much about what is left out as it is about what is seen or written. Nuanced truth is, I believe, more effectively received than truth overtly spelled out for the reader. Often, that nuance is a result of what you’re leaving out, not what you’re saying. Going through the second, third, or fourth draft of a manuscript is the time to be looking for scenes, dialogue, or narrative that is too obvious and needs to be cut. As a writer, learn what to leave out. It’s as important as what to put in.

The second point was when the PW interviewer asked Ms. Morrison if she still writes with No. 2 pencils on a yellow legal pad. She said, yes, she does, but “when I’ve done a chunk of it, I put it on the computer and print it out.” The interviewer then says, “And then you edit it.” She replies, “Back and forth, back and forth. It works for me.”

I’m afraid too many of us eliminate much of the “back and forth, back and forth” stage of editing our manuscripts. Most good writers will take their fiction manuscripts through six or seven drafts (or more). Each draft should bring the story closer to perfection.

So, there are today’s two lessons. They can be summed up as “Know what to leave out of your writing” and “Back and forth, back and forth.” Two very important principles that will result in much better writing.

First, let me say that I compiled this list at least two years ago…so if I’m your editor, please know that this list was not the result of something YOU did.

That said, here is my pet peeve about some mannerisms in fiction.

How often do you really shake your head? Or swallow hard just because you’re nervous? Does your heart really skip a beat when you’re in love? (If so, you should see a cardiologist right away).

Sorry, I’m still stuck on the mannerisms in a novel I recently read. The author has at least a dozen occurences of someone shaking their head when they say no to something:

Maggie shook her head. “Only the doctor can help now.”

But do people shake their heads all that often? I don’t think I ever do. I know the reader will “get it,” so when I edit a novel with shaking heads all over the place, I may leave a few instances…but I’m certainly going to cut back in frequency. It just doesn’t happen that often in real life. Besides, it sounds hollow and very unimaginative.

Here’s my list of the trite mannerisms I do not normally allow to be repeated in the fiction I edit. (Maybe once. Maybe even twice…but thrice? He shook his head decidedly no.)

Feel free to add your own suggestions. I’m all ears (he said as he raked his fingers through his hair).

No:

curling lips
furrowed brows
knitting of brows
lip biting, chewing, or gnawing
hair raked through his fingers
heart pounding
heart skipping a beat
swallowing hard when nervous
blood draining from the head
stomach knotted
lifted or arched eyebrow
nostrils flaring
narrowing of eyes
eyes blinking
shaking of head
muscles in the jaw twitching
throat tightening
tucking a tendril of hair behind her ear
face knotted
eyes fluttered open
winced
every muscle in her body tensed
covering mouth with hand
temples throbbed
lifting the corners of the mouth
pushed a smile up from his lips
chest tightened
clearing his throat
cheeks warm
letting out a slow breath

More contributions?

Wow, you all did great! It was a hard decision, but I’m going to declare Lorena the winner. I can well imagine Ashley wanting to kill himself with Melanie gone. The rest of Lorena’s plot seems credible, with the possible exception of Rhett taking Suellen as his mistress. But maybe he would, just for revenge.

Some of the others were very intriguing. I like the idea of Scarlett ending up many years later in 1906 San Francisco when the earthquake hits.

Scout had some interesting options too. Holden Caulfield is such a hard character to predict. I well imagine him a suicide as in Salinger’s short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

All of you did great and should feel free to query me any time you have a novel manuscript ready to look at. Keep in mind, though, that historical romance is really hot now. I’d love to see a novel set in south and/or with a quilting theme.

Lorena, email me as to which of prizes you’d like: the manuscript look-over, the Starbucks card or the Barnes and Noble card.

First, a word about my experience at Mount Hermon this year. As always, it was wonderful. The highlight is meeting with the many writers, both published and, hopefully, pre-published. I’ve requested that several proposals be emailed to me and I will look at them more closely than I was able to do at the conference. If you are an aspiring writer, PLEASE go to at least one conference a year. It really is worth it if you’re serious about publication.

Now I want offer a few words about fiction….and announce a contest. This week the book group I belong to will be discussing People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. I’m only a third of the way through and am not likely to finish. Thus, I will be unable to offer a score on the book when we meet. But the reason I’m not likely to finish is the purpose of this present blog. Frankly, I’m bored by the book. And yet I have to admit that Brooks is a good writer. Her considerable research was impeccable. Her writing is fine—sort of. She creates believable (if uninteresting) characters. The ingredients for a good book are mostly here. So, what’s my problem?

Just this: I don’t give a rip about these characters or what happens to them. Also, the necessary conflict in a good novel seems to me to be missing. And the writing, though very craftsman-like, is, to me, flat. The bottom line is that life is too short to continue reading a book that is well-written on one level, but utterly flat on the most important level—that of engaging me, the reader. Of course, reading (like acquiring books as an editor) is subjective. Of the 275 reader reviews on Amazon, 121 are five-star. But 82 are three-star or less. And I’m going to have to number myself with that latter group.

My point is that it takes more than good writing and the semblance of a plot to write a really excellent book. You HAVE to make your characters interesting and sympathetic enough for me to want to spend several hours of my life with them. I often read manuscripts just like People of the Book. The writing is craftsman-like, the plot is serviceable, but the overall result is utterly flat. It’s not enough for the individual components of a book to be well-done; those components must combine to offer something out of the ordinary.

Having said that, I want to segue to my contest. Although Ms. Brooks failed me with this book, I’m eventually going to give her another chance. A previous novel of hers intrigues me. If you’ve read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, you’ll remember that Mr. March (the father) is not present, having gone off to the Civil War. So in her book March, Ms. Brooks imagines Mr. March’s life away from home. The reader reviews on Amazon are just about as split as on the newer book, but because I like the idea of March, I’ll give it a try. And that brings me to my contest. I’ve often been intrigued by the idea of “but what happened next” after a book ends. One of my favorite quotes is from author Mary Gordon who has reportedly said, “When I get to heaven, I want to find my characters there and ask them what happened to them after the book ended.”

That’s a paraphrase of her comment, but it makes the point that her characters are so real to her, their existence continued after the book she wrote ended.

Once in a college course I wrote a short story that was a sequel to a story by Sherwood Anderson (one of my favorite American writers). I loved imagining “what happened next.” So here’s my contest: I want you to choose Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind, Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, or Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye and write a brief explanation of what you imagine happened to them after the book ended. Pretend that you have been given a book contract by the copyright owners of one of these books and asked to write a sequel. What would you write?

Here are the rules:

1. I don’t know how many blog readers I have, so I will cancel the contest if there are fewer than ten entries. (To ensure enough entries, you might want to tweet the contest or refer others here).

2. The contest is open to both published and unpublished authors.

3. Must be no longer than 250 words. Simply enter your synopsis in the comments section.

4. No silliness. (Don’t have Scarlett run off to become a nun or Holden become a televangelist).

5. Just a short synopsis please, not part of the imagined book itself.

6. Deadline will be Sunday night, April 11. The winner will be announced next week.

7. I reserve the right to remove any entries that I deem in poor taste or in any way inappropriate.

The winner will receive his or her choice of a phone consultation regarding his or her work-in-progress (after I review it) or a $10 gift card to Starbucks or Barnes and Noble.

Besides all that, I hope it’s a fun and productive exercise for you. If you choose not to enter, just take a few moments and imagine the destiny of one or more of these three characters. What would you have them do?

I leave early tomorrow for the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference. I’m taking a vacation day and will arrive a day early to relax at one of my favorite places on planet Earth.

Read more here.

One of the workshops I’ll be teaching will be a look at the popularity of the Amish fiction genre. At the end of the workshop I will be revealing my guess as to the next genre to enjoy a similar wave of popularity. Perhaps not the tidal wave of Amish fiction, but a wave nonetheless. Take a guess if you want to. If you’re right, I’ll find a nice prize for you. I’ll be back late Tuesday night and will try to post Wednesday or Thursday.