Where are you in your novel writing journey?

Susan DeFCreative Writing, fiction, Writing resourcesLeave a Comment

It’s been nearly a decade in the making, so friends, please join me in celebrating one of those little victories in the writer’s journey: as of last week, I finished the final edits on my short story collection and sent it out the door.

“Final edits” as in, final until probably the next time I let myself take a peek at it again, and decide some hard-won word choices are all wrong, or some sentence has no business being there at all, or “what was I thinking when I inserted this comma?”—but you get the idea.

And “out the door” as in, I sent the collection out to a few contests offered by publishers, and created a calendar of other such competitions and open reading periods to submit to yet this spring.

But you get the idea: writing this collection took me a long-ass time, and it’s finally ready to share with the world. (Here’s hoping publishers agree!).

This means I now find myself at the extreme OTHER end of the writing process—dreaming up new work, and beginning the process of outlining a new novel.

To say this process uses a different part of the brain is an understatement. Just a few days ago I was agonizing over whether I actually needed to note whether a character said goodbye or if that would just be implied from the context, whereas today…

…I find myself actually trying to figure out what happens in my story, and why.

If you’ve been with me a while, you know that my intention is always to be incredibly useful to you in your journey as a writer—whether or not you ever wind up working with me in a paid capacity.

So all of this really led me to wonder: Where are you at in your journey as a writer?

You, as in the person subscribed to this newsletter—the person who’s taking the time out of your busy day to read these words, presumably in the hopes of gleaning something helpful to you in that epic journey.

Are you in the idea/planning stages?

Sweating to get that first draft on the page?

Five or ten years in, still wondering if you need more revisions?

Close to the finish line and wondering what sort of publishing path makes the most sense for your book?

Wherever you are with your work-in-progress, I’d appreciate it if you took the time to fill out this quick, 3-question survey I’ve prepared—so the content I share in this newsletter over the coming months can be tailored in such a way that it’s incredibly useful to you.

Here’s that link again, where you can fill out the survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/X9M3S79

I still have an opening for one new book-coaching client and one full manuscript evaluation starting April 1.

Interested? Fill out my new client questionnaire, so I can see if we’re a fit for your project—or get a feel for what it’s like to work with me by starting with Your First 50 Pages.

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How to Tell If You Have What It Takes to Succeed as a Writer

Susan DeFCreative Writing, fiction, Reflections, Writing resourcesLeave a Comment

As a freelance editor, I work with all kinds of different writers—from those racing to make the tight publishing timelines set by their publishers to those who are just starting off on their journey.

Sometimes I’m the very first person a writer has ever shown their manuscript to.

Sometimes I’m the first person they’ve ever shown their writing to at all.

And if there’s one question I get asked by newer writers more than any other, it’s this: Based on what you’re seeing here, should I bother to pursue this?

Or, to put it another way: Do I have what it takes to succeed as writer?

These are generally people who have had some other path, professionally speaking, and are now revisiting their first love, creative writing. They’ve written a book, or part of a book, and now they want to know, considering the time and effort that would be involved with pursuing this passion, whether it would be worth it for them to do so.

I understand why they’re asking, but it’s a hard question to answer.

Because really, what makes writing “worth pursuing”? If it’s the likelihood that you’ll be able to quit your job and pursue creative writing full time, then maybe it’s not—I’ve been an editor for a decade, and publishing professionally twice that long, and I know a whole lot of writers, many of whom are, by any measure, quite successful, but only a handful of whom don’t have a day job.

But consider a parallel: I’m unlikely to ever win a marathon, but that doesn’t mean running is not a passion worth pursuing. Running a marathon is an exceptional human feat, one few individuals will ever achieve, the pursuit of which will make you stronger, more disciplined, and healthier overall.

In a post I wrote for Jane Friedman, I discuss how the ability to revise based on feedback is key, and further describe the type of writer who is likely to succeed in publishing. You can read the full post here.

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The books I read in 2023, and how much they meant to me

Susan DeFCreative Writing, fiction, Reading, ReflectionsLeave a Comment

Everything is coming late for me this year, for various reasons. But I wanted to share with you the books I read in 2023, and how much they meant to me.

I’ve had a goal of reading 52 books a year for a while now, and in 2023, I came closer to that goal than I ever have before: 46.

A big part of that has been an app on my phone called Everand (formerly Scribd), which gives me access to a vast collection of ebooks and audiobooks for around $10/month.

Money well spent, considering the fact that this allows me to read and listen to books in what productivity expert Lauren Vanderkam calls “confetti time”: time spent in waiting rooms, in line, by myself at restaurants, etc. Basically, any time I might otherwise find myself mindlessly scrolling social media. (Not that I don’t do that as well, but I don’t do it AS MUCH, and that’s key.)

I read some of the new female heavyweights of sci fi: Martha Wells, Ann Leckie, and Becky Chambers. I immersed myself in their visions, their worlds, and enlarged my idea of what the future might hold, and what AI might become.

I laughed out loud every day that I read the cartoons of REVENGE OF THE LIBRARIANS by Tom Gauld—which is (hot tip) a perfectly perfect gift for any writer in your life.

I read up on story craft, and especially appreciated THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION by Donald Maas (whom I had the pleasure of teaching alongside at last fall’s Writer Unboxed conference in Salem).

And I was deeply moved by my friend Alissa Hattman’s SIFT—a spare, poetic meditation on the aftermath of climate change that somehow packs an oversized emotional punch.

Here are all the books I read in 2023, with faves denoted via asterisks*:

LIFE IS EVERYWHERE by Lucy Ives (brilliant postmodern weirdness)

THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL by Jonathan Gottschall (a fascinating explication of storytelling in human evolution)

ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie (amazing use of POV to explore the possibilities of AI)

HOME IS A MADE-UP PLACE by Ronit Plank (quietly powerful short stories)

A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE by Arkady Martine (loved this exploration of colonialism especially)

THERE IS ONLY US by Zoe Ballering (excellent literary spec fic stories)

THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL ANGRY PLANET by Becky Chambers (this FIREFLY-like opener is charming, but hardly gives a hint as to the scope of this author’s vision, which is huge)

SIFT by Alissa Hattman (a lyrical post-apocalyptic meditation)

THE LAST HEIR TO THE BLACKWOOD LIBRARY by Hester Fox (lightweight gothic reading, but fun)

TRUST by Hernan Diaz (I LOVED this literary puzzle, which packs a real punch at the end)

*WASHINGTON BLACK by Esi Edugyan (one my very favorite books of the year—a great adventure story, and an extraordinary exploration of history, science, and privilege, with a super compelling Caribbean protagonist)

SAVE THE CAT! WRITES A NOVEL by Jessica Brody (some really useful tropes and terms here for novelists, though I don’t subscribe to the method wholesale)

*THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION by Donald Maas (no one else comes closer to my own thoughts on creating depth and meaning in fiction—I think this text is invaluable)

BOTBOY, MY BOTBOY by Julie O’Toole (a fun self-published novel given to me by a friend)

*BABEL by RF Kuang (an AMAZING magic system in this historical fantasy—which taught me a lot about history—and an extraordinary exploration of the juggernaut of British colonialism)

THE HOUSE OF WHISPERS Vol. 1 by Nalo Hopkinson (loved the African/Caribbean deities in this series)

*REVENGE OF THE LIBRARIANS by Tom Gauld (this comic series nails the writing and reading life, and it’s funny as hell)

THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt (I was completely sucked in by this academic thriller, but I have to say, Tartt’s vision of humanity is ultimately darker than my own)

UNFIT: THE TALE OF ONE PREGNANT TEEN IN THE BIBLE BELT BEFORE WOMEN HAD CHOICE by Lani Jo Leigh (this self-published memoir by one of my fellow Wayward Writers opened my eyes to how horrific the adoption industry was—and stands to become again—in the absence of legal abortion)

ANCILLARY MERCY by Ann Leckie

ANCILLARY SWORD by Ann Leckie (seriously, if you haven’t read this series, just do it)

*BLACK SUN and FEVERED STAR by Rebecca Roanhorse (I LOVED this fantasy set in a second world based on Meso-America—what a fresh world view, and what stunningly nuanced characters)

BINTI: THE NIGHT MASQUERADE by Nnedi Okorafor (I cannot get enough of this author)

THE SCENE BOOK by Sandra Schofield (honestly, I found little of value as a writer in this book, which felt very academic in its approach)

CHILDREN OF THE NEW WORLD by Alexander Weinstein (speculative fiction short stories—well done, but honestly nothing earth-shattering)

*SEA OF TRANQUILITY by Emily St. John Mandel (literary spec fic, and one of my favorite books of 2023—I feel like this story opened me up, and changed me, in ways I can’t quite articulate)

SOUL JAR edited by Annie Carl (a Forest Ave anthology of stories by disabled authors that enlarged my worldview)

HALF-WITCH by Jonathan Schoffstall (this YA book by Small Beer Press is an absolute delight that should be shared with any young person in your life who loves magic)

*THE WOMEN COULD FLY by Megan Giddings (another of my absolute faves of 2023—feminist, literary speculative fiction at its finest, this one feels like it builds on Leni Zumas’s RED CLOCKS, into the realm of real magic)

DEVOTION by Patti Smith (a fine little mediation on art-making that any creative person should pick up)

NORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney (I read this to see what the hype around this author was all about, and I was so impressed by her deep POV, and the deep humanity in this story)

SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson (I finally read this doorstopper, and it changed my idea of what the future of humanity could look like)

THE GALAXY AND THE GROUND WITHIN

TO BE TAUGHT IF FORTUNE

A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT

RECORD OF A SPACEBORN FEW by Becky Chambers (I love the humanity of Chambers’s vision of space—if you love Star Trek and have not yet read this series, it’s time to do something about that! This series will give you hope for the future)

ALL SYSTEMS RED

EXIT STRATEGY

ROGUE PROTOCOL

ARTIFICIAL CONDITION

NETWORK EFFECT by Martha Wells (this series is such a testament to voice and character, and the power of what I call “attitude” to carry world building—I think it’s a masterclass in fiction, period)

GIDEON THE NINTH

HARROW THE NINTH by Tasmyn Muir (that first book? Absolutely brilliant. The second book? An absolute mess. I chalk this up to unreasonable publishing timelines following a big success.)

SPACE OPERA by Catheryne M. Vallente (fans of Douglas Adams, this one is for you!)

HOW TO SUPPRESS WOMEN’S WRITING

AND CHAOS DIED

ON STRIKE AGAINST GOD

THE FEMALE MAN by Joanna Russ (a great feminist sci fi author from the 70s—her work sort of blew the top of my head off, and I’m still making sense of it)

AN ALCHEMY OF THE MIND by Diane Ackerman (I wanted to love this NF exploration of the brain more than I did, TBH)

GOING POSTAL

THE WEE FREE MEN by Terry Pratchett (this dude’s so funny that you might miss how deep the books of Discworld actually are)

SONGS OF ENCHANTMENT by Ben Okri (a fantastically weird story, a fever dream)

ALL ABOUT LOVE by Bell Hooks (required reading for everyone, I think)

A BURST OF LIGHT by Audre Lorde (ditto)

Have you read any of these books? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on them.

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3 questions that could have saved my book

Susan DeFCreative Writing, fiction, ReflectionsLeave a Comment

Recently, I’ve been going through my old journals, and this morning it was one from 2004, which is all about a novel I never finished.

In reading it, I was struck by just how hard I was working on that book—really, I was giving it everything I had.

And yet, looking back, I know that literally no amount of time I could possibly have spent on that novel would have gotten me over the finish line with it, in terms of producing a publishable draft.

When I actually cracked open that dusty old file on my hard-drive and took a look at the manuscript, I could see that I had a number of things working in my favor with that project:

  • I knew the characters well, and could draw them in a compelling way
  • I knew the places where the story was set intimately
  • I knew how to write a scene
  • I knew how to create and maintain a source of tension as a story progressed, and
  • The writing itself was fairly solid.

But even so, I would never have gotten over the finish line with this project because I didn’t know which questions to ask.

Questions like:

1. What do the major characters want and why do they want it?

As a writer, it’s easy to follow your characters around the game space of the story because you’re fascinated by them. But if your readers don’t know what your characters want, the story will feel like it’s going nowhere. And if the reason that character wants what they want doesn’t feel convincing, or has no real emotional charge to it…who really cares whether they get it or not?

2. What is the endgame of this story?

If you don’t know how your story ends—particularly, what the climax of that story is—the narrative momentum of your great idea and compelling characters and themes and situations and all that will run out, and you’ll find yourself stuck in the Messy Middle, the way I did with this project. Worse, you might find that there really isn’t any logical way everything you’ve set up actually can come together in a satisfying way at the end. Which SUCKS.

3. Where does this story really start?

You could pick any point in the timeline of the story to start with, but where you choose to start will create expectations on your reader’s part, and one of those expectations is that what appears within the first 20–40 pages will play through the whole of the story in a way that clearly escalates. Which means that you can’t take that long just to set up the world of the story and use scene after scene to SHOW the protagonist’s backstory because you’ve heard that telling is bad and backstory is boring. You certainly don’t have to start with the inciting incident, the way many story gurus will tell you to—but you also have a limited amount of time in the story before your reader will expect whatever they would read about in the course of a back-cover description to start actually happening on the page.

If I had known enough to ask myself those sorts of questions then—and to know that I really had to answer to them if any of my efforts were going to go anywhere—that novel might actually have gotten finished, and published.

In January, I’m going to be sharing a way that you can get clear on exactly these sorts of questions—and save yourself what I think of as running a thousand miles in the wrong direction, the way I did with this project.

Because I’d like to see your efforts with your current WIP actually come to fruition, so your voice and vision can live in the world, and have the sort of impact it should.

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