Q & A: That You Are Here Tour

That You Are Here on TourI’ve been doing quite a few interviews while That You Are Here is on tour. I’ve been having a lot of fun answering the questions, so I thought I’d post some of my responses here.

* * * * *

Quick round:

Coffee, tea or…what’s your vice?

I love both, but I’ll normally go for coffee.

Favorite Movie?

Dead Poet’s Society

Favorite Color?

Purple

Favorite book/author?

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

How do you feel about bacon?

I’m a vegetarian, so bacon is a no-go for me.

 

The REAL questions:

Tell us a little about yourself.

In addition to writing novels, I’m also the executive editor of The Copperfield Review, a journal for readers and writers of historical fiction. I’ve been teaching writing for more than ten years now, as well. When I’m not writing or teaching, I like to find great vegetarian and vegan recipes since I love to cook. I also love movies, Broadway musicals, and I’m a big fan of Downton Abbey. Pinterest is my new love since it’s the one place where I can indulge in all my interests at the same time.

What’s under your bed?

My cat. (That’s not a joke, by the way. I can hear him snoring from here.)

What comes first, plot or characters?

For me, it’s usually characters. Then my job is to figure out what happens to them and what they learn along the way.

Pantser, plotter, or hybrid? Tell us about your writing process.

I begin by plotting out the story from beginning to end so at least I have a blueprint to work with when I start. But I know that as I continue writing often the characters will take over the story and bring it in directions I hadn’t originally thought of. That’s all part of the fun of writing fiction for me—I can start with the greatest plan, but I know it’s probably going to change along the way and I like that.

Oddest thing on your desk?

My cat (I have three). She’s looking out the window at the moment.

What’s your most interesting writing quirk?

Probably that I have the ability to procrastinate like nobody’s business when it’s time to write. Procrastination is my super power. I’ll cook, clean, do the dishes, feed the cats, check my e-mail—it takes me a while to settle down, but once I’m writing I could keep at it for hours.

What’s your favorite thing about the genre you write in?

I write in several genres, and I like that. That You Are Here is the first time I’ve written an m/m love story. My Loving Husband Trilogy is in the vampire/paranormal genre, though it could also be classified as historical fiction. Victory Garden is set during World War I and the Woman’s Suffrage Movement. Woman of Stones and My Brother’s Battle are also historical fiction, set in Biblical Jerusalem and the American Civil War, respectively. I like jumping around from topic to topic. It keeps things interesting for me and hopefully for my readers. I’d be bored writing the same type of story over and over again.

What is the hardest thing about being an author?

Finding time to write when I have a day job. Luckily, I have summers off so I can feel like a full time writer then. I also have a thing against writing first drafts, but since there’s no final draft without a first draft, I have to get that first draft done.

What’s the easiest thing about being an author?

Coming up with story ideas. I have an active imagination, as most authors do, and I have a lot of ideas floating through my head at any and all times of the day and night. I love kicking around an idea until I can start to see the story come into shape. I love that I can take these crazy scenes that I see so clearly in my head and share them with others. Writing fiction is an outlet for my imagination. I started as a screenwriter, but screenwriting was too much like a blueprint for me and I didn’t like the terseness of it. I love describing the room where the action takes place. I love describing the characters’ clothing, and what they’re thinking and feeling. I love the entire world building process and making that world come alive for the reader.

What’s your favorite published work of yours and why?

That’s a great question, and my answer varies from day to day. I’m very proud of That You Are Here because it’s such a different type of story for me. I’m most known for historical fiction, but That You Are Here is completely contemporary. I love writing about love—how two people fall in love. That You Are Here is about falling in love and staying in love in a complicated world.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Sometimes I’m inspired by books I read or television shows or movies I see. Sometimes I’m inspired by events in the news. Sometimes I’m inspired by events in history. Sometimes it’s a crazy story from my imagination. I’ve learned that inspiration can come from anywhere so I try to keep my eyes open for ideas.

Who is your favorite character from one of your stories and why?

This answer also can change day to day, but I do have a particular fondness for Mark from That You Are Here. Mark is an inherently kind person with a big heart and in a lot of ways he represents the person I’d like to be.

If you get writer’s block, how do you get around it?

In Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, she says to allow yourself the freedom to write the worst junk in the world. That’s a great way around writer’s block because I know it’s okay for me to write something that isn’t all that great at first. I keep writing and I know I’ll figure it out eventually.

What are you working on at the moment?

My current project is back to historical fiction in a love story inspired by Downton Abbey. My recent trip to London was great research.

What’s the biggest writing challenge you’ve ever taken on? Did you succeed?

Writing That You Are Here was a big challenge for me because it’s so different from anything else I’ve ever written. I wasn’t sure I should write it at first, but that’s the story that was in my heart so that’s the story I wrote. The book has received great reviews, so yes, I think I succeeded. Readers love the love story between Mark and Andrew, and that’s so important to me.

Janet Fitch and Avoiding Clichés “Like the Plague”

IMG_0384

“April showers bring May flowers.” “Busy as a bee.” What other Spring inspired cliches can you think of? Good! Once you think of them, never use them! Or, at least use them sparingly.

I love that old saying by Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing. I love having written.” Has it become a cliché? Probably. But I love it anyway because as a writer myself I know it’s all too true.

My “I hate writing” moments happen when I’m drudging through a first draft. You can see my posts with tips for writing a first draft here. After I finish my first draft, that’s when I’m on the journey toward my “love having written” stage. That’s when I sit down at the computer no longer wanting to pop my eyes out with spoons or pluck my hairs one by one. Finally, in the second draft stage, I’m able to find the poetry in the prose. When I find the flow, that’s when the fun of writing begins for me. How do I find the flow? It’s a challenge, one that started 15 years ago.

In 1999, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, for the Oprah Book Club. Fitch talked about how a writing instructor told her that a “cliché is anything you’ve ever heard before—so never use a description anyone has heard.” As I remember it (it was 1999), Fitch spoke about a time she challenged herself to describe a tree with her own unique phrases. I was already well into fiction writing at that time, and her words struck me as truth. I learned that writers should reach to find their own descriptions, and they should never be lazy and allow others to do the work for them.

In a 2006 interview for O Magazine, Fitch explained that when she began writing fiction she had to work on word choices and the music of language. That was what I wanted too. I wanted to work on word choices and the music of language. I wanted to avoid clichés “like the plague” and create images “as sweet as pie.”

It’s a lesson I still hold close to my heart. When I’m molding sentences, I stretch, hands out, fingers pointing there, there where that inchoate image waits, sometimes patiently, sometimes not, for me to probe my vocabulary for the exactly right string of words to illuminate what I see the way I see it. If I’m describing a storm, a small town, a person, an emotion, I need to do it my own way. In their 2006 interview, Oprah mentions to Fitch that such a stretch “seems as if it would be quite difficult.” Fitch responds, “It is. But it means that everything you give the reader is absolutely fresh. We read so that we can be moved by a new way of looking at things.”

I learned a lot from Fitch in 1999, again in 2006, and I continue to learn from her whenever I read one of her novels. Reaching for phrases I’ve never heard before becomes harder with everything I write, but that’s the part of writing I thrive on—creating poetry in prose. And when I do finally find the right words, that is when I love having written.

If you’d like to lose yourself in the poetry of Janet Fitch’s prose, check out her novels or the short pieces on her blog. The 2006 interview for O Magazine can be found here.

Writing a First Draft Part 4

One Inch Picture FrameTip 4: Give yourself a small task to complete every day.

In How to Write and Sell Your First Novel, Oscar Collier suggests the quota of three pages a day. I like that quota and have used it myself for years. Three pages usually works out to about 1500 words, which is enough that I’m making progress every day but not so much that I feel overwhelmed because it will be too hard or take hours to finish.

At a certain point every day I realize I’ve exhausted my list of Excuses (I’ve made dinner and dusted and played Words With Friends and pinned on Pinterest and emptied the dishwasher and fed the cats and checked my e-mail and…). At that time I have to accept that there’s no earthly reason I can’t write, so I say to myself, “It’s only three pages.” I sit at my computer, open my file, count three pages from where I left off to see what page number I’ll end up on, and go. I don’t worry about anything at this point, not spelling, not word choice, not organization, not even if it makes sense. I will fix those things later. I write my three pages and call it a day.

On days when things are flowing well, I might write more than three pages. Most days I end up writing four or five pages. Some days I write 10 pages. On really good days I’ve written 20 pages or more, but days like that are rare in the first draft stage. When I’m feeling like I’d rather pop my own eyes out with spoons than keep writing, I remind myself, again, that it’s only three pages. Tonight, for example, I hit my three page quota, felt the mental strain from getting that far, and stopped. Still, I felt good about it. I met my quota. I moved my story forward, and that’s all I need to do right now.

In Bird by Bird Anne Lamott talks about short assignments and writing just as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame. When I heard Wanna Get Lucky? author Deborah Coonts speak at the Las Vegas Writers Group in June 2010, she said she gives herself a quota of 1500 words a day. Remember that quotas are a great tool that many writers use, but they only work if they’re reasonable. Don’t give yourself a high quota, like 15 pages, 5000 words, or a 10-inch picture frame because it’s a lot to write every day and it will be discouraging when you don’t get there. Writing is hard enough without self-sabotage. Give yourself a small goal you can actually reach and get it done every day.

Writing a First Draft Part 1

Bird by BirdEvery writer I’ve ever known, and every writer I’ve ever read about, says the same thing: the art of writing is in the rewriting. Writing the first draft is a chore, but we can’t proceed to our final draft without it.

Three books that have helped me through all stages of writing are Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and How to Write and Sell Your First Novel by Oscar Collier. I’ve read those books so many times that the information contained within has intertwined into my DNA (like hair coiling in Avatar).  Many of the tips I have shared with writers over the years come from these books. If you’re a writer, I recommend you read them.

Tip 1: Make sure you love what you’re writing. If you don’t, you probably won’t write it.

I often encounter people who’ve had this great idea for a book for years but they haven’t gotten around to writing it. I tell them that if the idea isn’t pressing them to the point of distraction, then it might not be right for them. I tell them that if they have a nice life, a nice job, a nice family, and don’t feel a burning desire to write that story then they probably won’t. Thinking you want to be a writer and writing are two different things. Writing is hard enough when you feel compelled by Fate to do it. It’s even harder, if not impossible, when you don’t have that burning desire. When is it time to write? When it’s more painful not to write something than it is to write it. If an idea is gnawing at you and won’t leave you alone to your nice life with your nice family, that’s when the writing process begins.

Writing Down the BonesFor all the projects I’ve completed, many more lay by the wayside. If I wasn’t compelled by what I was writing, then I dropped it. If I can’t convince myself that the project is worth writing, how can I convince a reader that it’s worth reading? When I began working on Her Dear & Loving Husband way back in the old-timey days of 2009, I was so compelled by James and Sarah’s story that I worked on it nearly every day for a bit more than one year—367 days to be exact. I may have taken a Sunday off here and there, but even on those days when I wasn’t at the computer it was always on my mind. In that case, I wrote the first draft in six weeks. It was, come to think of it, the easiest first draft I’ve ever written. Why? Because I had to write that story down. I had to get it out of my head and onto paper. I couldn’t live peacefully with myself if I didn’t.

Do you love what you’re writing? If the answer is yes, then you’re on the right track. If the answer is no, that’s okay. Not every idea is meant to be a long-term project. Keep searching until you find that idea that keeps you up at night, itching to get back to it.