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Not Done Yet

I am reading the book On Writing by Stephen King. Okay, technically speaking I’ve been reading this book for over a year. It’s one of those that I carry around and when I have a moment I pull it out and read a bit. Therefore, it’s taking me a while to get through it. It also isn’t exactly a thrilling page turner, not that I think you could make a book about writing thrilling, but if anybody could, it’s King. So since he couldn’t, I’m going to say that it can’t be done. It is an excellent book though, and even if you only consider yourself a some-time-writer, you should really grab it from your local book store. Or Amazon, do local book stores even exist anymore? That totally made my heart hurt, writing that sentence.

Crying gif

At any rate, I’m reading the damn book, and I just read a bit about how as a writer, a large part of your job is simply sitting back and letting the story and characters do their thing. It will write itself if you let it. Now if you had said this to me five years ago, I probably would have laughed at you. Not in your face laughter, while pointing my finger, but walking away, “Boy is that guy a kook,” laughter. For me writing used to be a laborious task. I had this never-ending impulse to do it, but it was laborious. I worked for every word and debated over every plot point. It’s no wonder I never wanted to share my work with people. It had taken blood, sweat and tears to get those words on the page and that was obvious even to the reader.


I had been trying for months to write the first chapter of my novel. I had ideas bursting out of my head for this novel, but none of them were the first chapter, and as all books start with the first chapter, clearly that is where I needed to be starting. Or so I thought. Then one day everything changed. Tired of literally banging my head on my desk – sometimes it actually works, you should try it – I said, “Fuck it!” and started to write the first chapter that came to mind. Now that all is said and done, it is the eighth chapter. I wrote my eighth chapter before my first, and when I did something magical happened. My brain and fingers started the chapter, but the story and my fingers finished it. I didn’t have to think about what happened next, or what such-and-such character would say, because they were simply doing it. I was a conduit for the story. It was the most exhilarating and exhausting moment of writing I had ever had. Needless to say, I continued to write my novel in this out of order, whatever part was on my mind fashion.

I would love to say that the whole thing came that easily, but that would be a gigantic lie. There were definitely chapters that I had to fight for. My blood, sweat and tears hit those pages, and unlike some of the other chapters, they required large amounts of finessing in the subsequent drafts to bring them up to snuff. But the absolutely beautiful thing, was that every time I would get stuck, or I when I couldn’t figure out what was missing, all I had to do was stop thinking about it and work on something else. Eventually my muse would return and the story would inform me of where it needed to go.


I have been stressing all week about the opening of my novel. Unintentionally, my two main characters didn’t make an appearance until the fourth chapter of the book. I went backed and asked some of my readers and across the board they all agreed, it was a little odd. None of them said it was bad, per se, but definitely unconventional. The more I thought about this, the more I started to worry that I was starting my entire novel off on the wrong foot. I need to fix that! So I started looking at my opening chapters and investigating a rearrangement of the chapters. Remember when I said I wrote this thing out of order? This is not the first time I’ve rearranged the order of chapters. I finally came up with something that I liked, but realistically it was going to require the addition of another chapter. Cue prepping the blood, sweat and tears because Lord knows, I thought I was done telling this story, so I have no clue what is going to go into that additional chapter. That’s when I decided to hold off, and work on something else. Lo and behold, the next thing I know my muse is back and whispering in my ear what has been missing this entire time. The missing chapter is here! I guess I’m not done telling this story yet.

My Year in Numbers


1 = Book Published (10 Cheeky Monkeys)

2 = Baby Showers Attended

3 = Out of State Trips

4 = Visits to Disneyland

5 = Puggle ER Visits (Here’s to hoping they got this out of their systems!)

6 = New Year’s Resolutions Kept (Better than I thought I would do!)

7 = Movies Seen in a Movie Theater (5 of the 7 at El Capitan.)

8 = Query Letters Sent for My Novel

19 = Book Clubs

52 = Plays I Saw

71 = New Blog Posts on My Website

450 = Pages in My Novel

1,050 = Most Website Views in One Day

14,000 = Total Website Views

Happy New Year’s Eve and here’s to 365 days of success, happiness and laughter in 2016! You read this blog as the Count didn’t you? 😉

Q & A

I have been getting quite a few questions since my announcement that I finished writing my novel, and figured I would share the answers here. The novel, In a Time Never Known, is historical fiction based during the American Civil War. My two main characters are female spies for the Union, however they are both married to Confederate officers. Without further ado, here are the questions I’ve been asked.

Q – How long is the book?

A – 113,000ish words which breaks down into 450ish pages, broken into 50 chapters.


Q – Was this part of NaNoWriMo?

A – Nope.


Q – Where did the story idea come from?

A – I was in Richmond, VA visiting a friend and we were out one day doing the obligatory touristy stuff, which meant we took a tour of the White House of the Confederacy. In the gift shop, I found this tiny little 48 page pamphlet about female spies in the Civil War. I was fascinated, so I bought it, took it home and promptly forgot that I had it. However, the seed had been planted. My brain started to formulate a story, and about a year later, I dug out that pamphlet and began my research.

© Claudelle Girard / istockphoto

© Claudelle Girard / istockphoto

Q – How long did it take you to do the research, and what were your sources?

A – There is no way that I can come up with a quantitative number for that, I spent too much time over too many years to count. I did research before I started writing and while I was writing all the way up to and through the final rewrite. For the research, I read books both fiction and non-fiction. I watched several multi-part documentaries – my favorite by far was by Ken Burns and I also bought and read the companion book that goes along with it. I also did significant amounts of research on the internet. Before you ask, not Wikipedia. NEVER Wikipedia.


Q – How did you stay organized?

A – Copious amounts of notes and spreadsheets, baby! As I had multiple things that I was keeping track of at any given point in time, I created a spreadsheet and would alter the parameters of it depending on where I was in the process, or what I needed to focus on. This is the last incarnation that I used. Yes, it is color coded.

OneTouch Dec 22, 2015 (1)

Q – How long did it take to write the novel? Did you work chronologically?

A – From when I started writing the book, five years. However, only the last year and a half of that was focused work. Before that I would work on a chapter, then ignore it for a couple of months, then work on another chapter then ignore it, etc. And no, I did not work chronologically. I wrote the last chapter of the book, before I tackled the first chapter. My style was more Memento-esque.


Q – How many editors did you have?

A – I haven’t yet had a full grammatical edit done, but I had the help of around ten people for content edits.


If I missed yours, please feel free to ask!

Let’s Talk Etiquette

I find that I get asked on a fairly regular basis to read and comment on people’s work. Both from people I know, and people I’ve never heard of before. To be completely honest, every time someone asks me, I cringe. Not because I don’t like helping people, or I think I’m above that or something. I feel honored that people think highly enough of my writing to want my opinion on their own. That’s a nice little stroke to my ego every time it happens. I cringe because nine times out of ten, it is not a pleasant experience for me. I feel that a large part of this is due to the fact that people don’t understand that there is an etiquette that should be followed.

1. Don’t hand me your rough draft. Don’t hand me your first or second draft either. In fact, I better be pretty far down the list of people you’ve asked to read and critique your work. If I got to present one of my recipes to a chef, you can be damn sure it wouldn’t be the first time I’d made the dish. Same concept.

2. You might have an absolutely amazing and fantastic idea, but don’t assume I want to collaborate with you. I have my own projects and enough ideas written on pieces of paper to fill a shoe box. Chances are pretty good that I’ll want to work on those, before your idea.

3. Do your own research. Writers have their areas of expertise. If you are writing within that area, make sure your research is accurate. I’m not here to act as your fact check, that’s what Google is for.

4. Janet Jackson said it best – What have you done for me lately? Chances are, if I don’t know you, not even in the ‘we interact on social media’ sense, and you send me a request to look at your work, I’m not going to. This does not make me selfish. I am busy with my own life and my own work. If you want my advice, make yourself known to me. Comment on a blog post, share my tweets. Do something to show me that you are looking for a mutually beneficial relationship.

5. Keep genre in mind. If you look on Goodreads at the books I read you will notice a distinct lack or horror, poetry, sci-fi, etc. That’s because I don’t like them. Therefore, I am the last person you want critiquing your work in one of those genres. Unless your piece is better than freshly baked bread, I’m not going to like it.

6. Keep length in mind. If I am truly doing an in depth critique of a piece, it can take me over half an hour to get through five pages. Your twenty page short story will take me at least two hours. If you’re not going to take the notes I give into consideration, don’t waste my time.

7. Understand that there is a difference between a pat on the back for doing a good job, and a critique. Know which one you want. And if you’re asking me, keep in mind that I was a theater critic for four years. I don’t pull my punches. If it sucks, I’ll tell you.


8. Don’t reply to one of my notes/comments/questions with, “But my teacher said . . .” Unless your teacher is someone like Stephen King, I couldn’t care less what your teacher said, and if what they said is so profound, why are you asking me.

9. Don’t get defensive or try to explain yourself. Critiques are not meant as comments on you as a person, they are meant as comments on that particular piece of work and meant to help you improve it. That’s great that you were trying to depict despair through your use of cool colors and dreary settings, it doesn’t come through in the text. Don’t explain it to me, explain it in your piece.


10. Remember that there is no end-all authority on writing or storytelling. Every critique you get is someone’s opinion, and as such you are free to do with it as you please. Take what is useful and toss out what doesn’t fit your story. However, always, always say THANK YOU to the person. Whether you find their notes helpful or not, they spent quality time on your piece in an effort to help you. I have lost track of how many people failed to say a simple thank you. Don’t be that person.

Those are my top ten. Other writers, what are yours?

To Be Continued . . .

It occurs to me, that I have been sorely neglecting my blog as of late. Thankfully, it is not because of the subject matter of my last blog. I am actually doing better on that front. Still not great, but better. Baby steps.

It is because, I set myself a challenge. Instead of finishing up the rewrites on my novel by mid-December, I decided that I wanted to have it done before Thanksgiving. Which means I am tackling twice as many chapters every day than originally planned. Which is daunting, but has been unexpectedly exhilarating. Diving in head first, no holds barred, down and dirty, and every other cliche you can think of for getting shit done no matter what it takes. Apparently what it takes is pushing everything else to the back burner, including my blog. But never fear, I will be back. I just have to see this baby put to bed first.


Something Nice

Over the years I have grown accustomed to receiving critical feedback. In my BFA program for acting in college it was a part of everyday life. Getting my degree in video production was the same way. If you are in the arts, people are going to comment on the art that you make. Some of them have no idea what they’re talking about. Some of them have loads of expertise and you respect their opinion greatly. Regardless of how you feel about the person, you’re going to hear their thoughts. So the sooner you can adjust your thinking, and learn that negative comments and constructive criticism are not personal attacks, the happier you will be.

I pride myself on the fact that I have learned to do this. In fact, I relish constructive criticism because it helps me to improve my work. I seek it out, and specifically ask people to tell me what they don’t like. Mind you, I’m selective about who I ask. I’ve learned that criticism from people you respect is much more palatable than from people you don’t respect. That being said, I am quite accustomed to reading or hearing note after note about the flaws in my work. The notes are usually preceded by a complimentary message, but once I’m into the thick of it; it’s criticism the whole way. That is what I’m used to, and I’m perfectly okay with it.


I actually prefer it to the methodology I learned in college, which said that you needed to precede every negative with a positive, and if at all possible, bookend it with another positive. That’s great in theory, but in practice you spend a lot of time listening to half-hearted, pseudo-positive comments that are only said because the person is forced to say them. Ain’t nobody got time for that! Cut to the chase, give me the meat, and let’s move on with our day. The people I go to for critiques know this, and they are great at giving it to me straight. I love it!

So when I pulled up some notes from a new reader and discovered that just about every other comment was positive, I was taken aback. Not just positive as in, “I love it!” But positive in a specific way. Things like “this section is powerful,” or “I can totally see a teenage girl thinking this.” Comments for the nails that were hit square on the head, as well as the ones that went in crooked and need to be fixed. Both the good and the bad were constructive in their own way. In all honesty, I was impressed because I’ve never really thought about positive comments being constructive, but these were. They drew attention to where I had done it right, and why it was right. So in the places where I had done it wrong, (for lack of a better word and to keep my comparison tidy) I now know where to go for examples to help make it right, especially since several of them correlated to a positive note.

Okay, this doesn't really have anything to do with my blog. But it made me laugh so hard I spit coffee, so I had to share.

Okay, this doesn’t really have anything to do with my blog. But it made me laugh so hard I spit coffee, so I had to share.

I was also impressed because I know that when I’m approaching a work critically it is hard for me to focus on or catch the good things, because I’m so fixated on culling out the bad. The fact that she was able to deliver both positive and negative insight at the same time is impressive! Because her critical comments were most definitely helpful and pointed out discrepancies that need to be addressed. She did both. At the same time. Consider my mind blown.

Needless to say, I have a new skill to work on. I would love to be able to constructively point out the good and the bad in a piece as gracefully as this reader did. Is anybody else good at that too? How did you develop the habit?

Follow Through

Over the years I have found myself surrounded with creative/artist types. Regardless of my job, or where I am living I eventually find myself amongst creatives. I guess there’s some validity to the adage about like-minded people being drawn to each other. Some of these people use hobbies for their creative outlets, and others have taken their creative endeavors and turned them into careers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the hobbyists are less talented. In fact, there are a couple of hobbyists I know that fully have the potential of being a professional artist. At least from the stand point of the quality of their work. Which begs the question, what is the main difference between a hobbyist and a professional?

Work With

For whatever reason, this has been on my mind a lot lately, and I think I’ve come up with an answer. Follow through. Professionals got to where they are because they had follow through. I know that this is an incredibly complex question, but I really do think that it can be summed up to that answer. Follow through. However, this seemingly simple answer has a lot riding behind it. It means that you are not only willing to devote time to your work, but also to finding out what is standard in your industry. To finding out what is expected of professionals and taking whatever steps are necessary to make sure that you fit that criteria. It’s about networking and building relationships with people. It’s about putting yourself out there, which of course opens you up to criticism. Therefore, it is also about learning how to take and grow from criticism, instead of breaking and shrinking from criticism.

To a certain degree, that may be the biggest aspect of follow through. Learning how to receive criticism and move on unscathed. That is of course the ideal, I don’t know if it is actually possible to ever move on unscathed. Perhaps the goal should be to move on stronger instead of unscathed. Because when it comes down to it; that is what criticism should do for you. It should make you stronger. Praise will help your self-confidence but it won’t do anything for your work. To improve your work you need someone to point out the flaws, the cracks in the façade, the places where it doesn’t make sense. After all, if you don’t know where it’s weak, how can you fix it?


I would love to say that I am brilliant, calm and cool while taking criticism. That would be a lie. I am pretty good though. However, every now and then I start to get all bristly and defensive and I have to remember to take a deep breath and stop. Bristly and defensive isn’t productive for anyone involved. Neither are hurt feelings. I have had people ask what I thought and then wind up with hurt feelings when I gave my honest opinion. Guess what? I’m never giving feedback to that person ever again! Disclaimer – I did work as a theater critic for four years, so I have honed my critical eye to a fine point, so to say. Therefore, when someone asks for a critique from me, I let them know my background and what to expect. Only after they’ve acknowledged and accepted this will I give my full opinion. Otherwise I smile and genuinely tell them good job.

That being said, probably my greatest asset in becoming comfortable with criticism myself, was by working as a theater critic. Over my years of critiquing plays, two things became blaringly obvious to me.

  1. A critique is simply one person’s opinion. True, sometimes a group of people have the same opinion, and true, some opinions will be worth more than others. However, at the end of the day it is still an opinion, and chances are if you look, you can find someone with an opposite opinion. So take it for what it is. If it helps you, great. If it doesn’t, move on.
  2. Critiques are not personal. In the four years and hundreds of plays that I saw, at no point did I ever think, “Wow, that’s a horrible person who did this piece. They really suck!” Not once. Why? Because I didn’t personally know any of those people. I can guarantee that I gave rave reviews to raging assholes and panned shows done by some of the kindest and most wonderful people out there. And I can guarantee that the opposite happened. How do I know this? Because horrible people can do good work, good people can do bad work and vice-versa. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they’re not even related. Therefore, while your work may feel like the most personal thing you can possibly release out into the world, it only is to you. To everyone else, it is simply a piece of work, and that is where the criticism is coming from. It’s not personal.

head and heart

I don’t know why this has been on my mind so much recently, but there you have it. Thanks for letting me brain dump. Follow through. Focus on following through.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

I was asked by a fledgling writer if I was willing to share some tips on how to be a good writer. She enjoyed the answers, so I figured I would share them with you too.

  1. Make sure you are clear on what you are trying to say. One of the top reasons that a section or chapter will be confusing is because you, the author, still aren’t sure of the point you’re trying to make. Until you figure that out, no amount of rewriting will make the copy clear.
  1. When someone gives you feedback on a piece, don’t try to defend your words or your intentions. Stay open and ask questions to understand why they feel the way they do. Their interpretation of your work may open your eyes to something that you were unaware of, and in the end make your piece better. However, if you become immediately defensive you won’t be receptive to what they have to say, and chances are they’ll be less willing to read and comment on your pieces in the future.


  1. Short of an editor or a publisher saying that you have to make a change before they will publish, remember that making changes based off of feedback is optional. Not everyone is going to like your work. Spend the majority of your time on the consensus feedback, but always look at the lone wolf feedback. Sometimes the lone wolves have the best insight, but not always. Trust your gut.
  1. KISS – Keep it Simple Stupid! Big words are not always better. I am a huge fan of the thesaurus, but if you have never heard of the word it’s giving you, and after reading the definition you can’t use that word in several sentences, YOU HAVE NO BUSINESS USING THAT WORD! The odds of you using it incorrectly are astronomical and then instead of looking clever, you’ll look like an amateur.Thank of a thesaurus as a giver of suggestions, not answers. In the right hands a thesaurus is a powerful tool. In the wrong hands, it is a harbinger of doom. DOOM! Okay, not really, that’s being overly dramatic. Let’s just say that it won’t work out well for you.
  1. If you consider yourself a writer or if you want to be a writer, then learning new words on a regular, if not daily, basis should be at the top of every to-do list you make. Words are the building blocks of your craft. The more you know, and the more intimately you know them, the better off you will be. Are they Latin or Germanic based? Is the archaic meaning different from their modern meaning? How many meanings does it have? With some words the answer may surprise you. It is an odd day for me if I haven’t consulted a dictionary, thesaurus, or both at least once. Do I use all of the oddball words that I know? Nope. Although I have a goal to work ‘defenestrate’ into a piece.
  1. Another item for your to-do list: read! Writer’s read other writer’s work. At the very least you should be reading examples of your genre. Ideally, you should also be reading works that are far away from your genre. How do the different writers approach story telling? What are tenets that span genres, versus genre specific tenets? Which storytelling methods do you like, which do you hate? Why? What tricks can you use in your own writing? What pitfalls do you want to avoid at all costs.


  1. Pick your battles – If you try to do 7-10 rewrites on everything you put out into this world, you will lose your mind. Or at the very least have low productivity. Know which pieces are your bread and butter and which are your throw-a-ways. Work the hell out of the bread and butter, give the throw-a-ways a once over and move on.
  1. The only way to be a good writer is to write as much as humanly possible. Daily if you can swing it, and some of that writing needs to be put out for public consumption. Listen to your feedback, then write some more. Write. Write. Write.

It Must Be Epic

Now that we’re getting to the end of my novel in book club, I have noticed a distinct shift in the attitudes and comments – see my blog from earlier this week for those. However, what I’ve noticed even more so, is that my attitude toward working on the book has changed. Lately I have found myself darn close to terrified when I sit down to work. There is something about working on the end that feels much heavier then working on the beginning or the middle. It’s almost like the first couple of pages are important, the end is critical and everything in between can be kind of mushy. I don’t truly believe that, but I’m starting to think that subconsciously I do!

It’s as if my brain decided I have leeway on the middle bits. If there’s a chapter that isn’t great, meh! Whatever, the next one will be better, and it’s all just driving to the end anyway. Therefore, the end has to be spectacular. Every word carefully chosen, every sentence constructed with precision, every paragraph modeled with meticulous care. It must be EPIC! Now I get that endings are important, but if the middle of the book sucks, no one is going to get to the epic ending.


Not to mention, I find it highly ironic – real ironic, not Alanis ironic – that my book takes place during the Civil War and I’ve built the end up to be huge. When in real life, the Civil War just kind of petered out as Grant wrapped his troops around Lee’s siege of Petersberg and squeezed them like a python. Lee and Grant had no breathtaking victories or sweeping campaigns in 1865. They were all camped out in Virginia. Grant recognized that his greatest resource was men, and he kept throwing more and more men at Lee, until Lee had too few to continue. The end of this war lacked the dramatics that say WWII had.

Yet subconsciously I think that I have built the end of my book up as if it were a Hiroshima or a Nagasaki. Not a siege that slowly collapsed like a flan. Not that I want the end of my book to slowly collapse, but I’m trying to get my head space somewhere in the middle. A nice healthy space that is not sad deflation, but also not atomic bomb. So far, I am not succeeding at all and find that I am highly intimidated by my rewrites. Therefore, I have come up with a new mantra – “Trust the outline, and focus on the chapter, not the end.” We’ll see how it works.

Do other people blow the importance of the end of something out of proportion too, or is that just me?

A Change in the Winds

I have blogged about my book club before, but for those not familiar, every two weeks I invite a select group of people over to my house. I cook them dinner and we read two chapters from my novel out loud. After each chapter, they discuss, ask questions and I take notes. The feedback is absolutely invaluable, and has made my novel so much richer then it would have been had I written it in a vacuum. However, I have noticed a shift in the atmosphere at book club lately.

Last night we read chapters 38-39 of 48. In other words, we are coming up on the end. As this novel takes place during the American Civil War, I think it’s safe to say without spoiling anything that not all of the characters survive to the end of the book. It would be a rather odd story if no one died over the course of a war. That being said, ten chapters ago I was getting comments like, “I really like this character.” Or, “Oh! I love when this character is in a chapter.” Now that we’re nine chapters from the end of the book, I’m getting comments like, “You realize that you have to bring this character back, right?” Or, “You better not kill this character. If you do, I’m done.”

Secondary Character

Now I would expect these kind of reactions about my main characters. However, what is taking me aback, is that I’m getting these threats about my secondary characters. It cracks my shit up! And also makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside that people actually care about the secondary characters, but mostly it cracks me up. It is so cool to see which characters are making an impression, and which ones have become an integral part of the story being told. Not to mention, it provides one hell of a blaring neon sign that says, “Hey! Don’t forget to wrap up this storyline!”

Which is helpful, because in the first incarnation of this novel, my character Mary kind of faded into the background never to be seen again. I caught that misstep on my own, but I’ve been paranoid ever since that I’m going to forget about a character. Then after all of this work, all anybody will talk about is wondering what happened to so-and-so. After last night, that paranoia is gone. There is no way that Book Club is going to let me get away with that. Thank you friends, keep the threats coming.