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About a week ago I finished the 3rd draft of my mess-in-progress. Maybe it’s my imagination, but do I hear a collective groan? Or is it just that I sometimes feel as if five years from now I’ll be announcing the completion of the 327th draft or thereabouts. Because sometimes–and particularly with this story–I wonder if I’m just repainting the Golden Gate Bridge one more time.

A happier metaphor for my writing process involves skiing. When I’ve been to ski resorts with friends, most of them like to try as many different slopes as possible. Once they’ve gotten down a slope in one piece they feel they’ve “conquered” it. Me, I like to keep at it until I get it “right”. The first few times I’m just trying to figure out the fall line, where the ice patches and moguls are, etc… Once I’ve done that, I can approach it with confidence and something I hope approaches grace.

With my writing it’s the same. Unlike other creative people who start a project–which could be a novel, a sweater or a computer program–in a spirit of fun and adventure, I’m always worrying about failure. I know, I’m a wimp! So it takes me 2-3 drafts to get a good feel for my characters and plot. Then comes my favorite part of the process: putting it all together, polishing until it feels right. And I’m finally there. 🙂

Anyway, I’m not saying that others don’t do a good job with finishing and polishing. Professionals do all the parts of the process, even those we find scary, tedious, unpleasant or whatever. It’s just that we all have our favorite parts.

So how about you? Do you enjoy starting a project of any sort? Or do you prefer the final stages, when it all comes together? How about the messy process in between? Or do you enjoy it all (in which case I’ll try not to be too envious)?


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I don’t write that often about how I write because for some time I’ve had a superstitious fear that if I attempt to analyze what I do I’ll somehow destroy it. It’s not broke, so I don’t try to fix it.

But I’ve been thinking about this following conversations with other writers with whom I agreed that venturing into the unknown is part of the process. To write well, and above all, to write consistently and regularly (not to mention adverbly) requires a letting go, a surrender to something that just feels weird. So a bear enters the story (as it did in A Most Lamentable Comedy, on sale here with free shipping–was that good for you too?); a quirky character arrives and you don’t know quite what they’re doing but you feel they have to stay so you leave the scene in, just in case, and later they prove to be a major player in resolving the plot; and so on.

It’s hard and frightening to let the process, the unknown, take over which I think is why so many of us dither around with deadlines looming. The procrastination factor means that eventually you have to dive in and let the angels or demons of the creative process take over. And there’s always the fear that, yeah, I love this character, but what if they never do anything significant to forward the plot? Or what if my editor wants me to take him or her out?

The irony of course is that once you’ve got beyond the fear and doubt and procrastination, it’s great. It feels wonderful once you’re in the Zone and the story starts writing itself. And there are also the practical considerations like making the daily wordcount and meeting deadlines. So why all the avoidance?

I think fear is a necessary part of the process. We don’t know exactly how the creative works (even if it can be explained in terms of hormones or electrical impulses) and we should treat it with respect. At the same time we have to learn to trust our instincts and accept that we can make the story work, fill in the (in my case, gaping) plot holes and find solutions.

I suspect it’s pretty much the same for other creative endeavors and also for athletes. What do you think?

Over at agent Lucienne Diver’s blog today talking about bad girl heroines, HEAs, and offering a copy of A Most Lamentable Comedy as a prize!

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Last week, a scene from the Project Runway finale had me thinking.

The judges compared designer Kenley’s gown (left) to a recent creation by Alexander McQueen (right). Kenley complained that the judges called her a copycat. Annoying as Kenley is, I don’t think she ripped off the design. I didn’t hear the judges say so either. What I did hear is their advice to her to become more aware of what other designers are doing.

I wondered whether this advice–no doubt excellent for the fashion industry–makes sense for romance writing. Many publishers do in fact advise aspiring writers to read their line before submitting. However, I think the intent is to get more submissions that suit the current line, not avoid similar stories, which is more often my concern. I sometimes worry that I’ve accidentally hit upon a similar idea to something that is already out there, even (horrors!) something so popular and successful that my own attempt would inevitably raise suspicions.

But I stress about this less than I used to. When I heard that Victoria Alexander wrote a book with a balloonist hero, I steeled myself to read it, ready to ditch or alter my own balloonist story if it seemed too similar. As it turns out, HER HIGHNESS, MY WIFE is a fun read but the plot and characters are completely unlike mine. Even the ballooning element is different, as her aeronaut uses hot air and mine uses hydrogen. You may think this does not matter but consider the fact that in a hydrogen balloon an aeronaut can, um, stay up much longer. 🙂 But I digress.

I know some authors who don’t read in their own genre because they want to avoid unconsciously absorbing others’ ideas. I won’t go so far; I enjoy historical romance too much to give up the pleasure. But I’m also not about to embark on a major survey of what sort of historical romances are currently out there, either to try to fit in or to deliberately make sure I’ve written something that is completely unlike any other story. I don’t have the time!

Although there are a lot of elements in a single garment, a novel is still a more complex creation. Two writers working in isolation could very well come up with some similar ideas, especially if they’re fascinated by the same bit of history and using the same sources. But if they are drawing from within themselves, the resulting novels are still going to as different as the two writers.

I found a cool quote by James Stephens:

Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself.

I like that! How about you? Do you think authors should read in their own genre or not? Which do you think results in greater originality?


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Right now, I’m taking a break between drafts of my mess-in-progress to fill some research craters in my story. I know that the most organized writers say one should do research beforehand. I actually do that, but then my characters go places and do things I hadn’t envisioned at the start. Which means another round of research, going back through books I’ve already read to find things I didn’t realize I should have taken notes on.

It makes me wonder which really comes first for me: the setting or the story.

Many of my stories ideas come from tidbits of historical accounts I’ve read. Yet once I get going, the story comes over. I think (I hope!) this is where the deeper and more universal themes start surfacing. This is the point where I go back through my sources to try to make the history fit–or at least be able to write a good Author’s Note explaining what I’ve tweaked.

I’ve heard some people say that a Regency (perhaps they meant the traditional Regency) should be a story that couldn’t possibly take place in any other setting. On the other hand, how about the transformation of Pride & Prejudice to Bridget Jones’s Diary or Emma to Clueless?

I know these reinventions don’t work for some but they do for me. I think it’s because the characters and the stories are timeless. And yet there’s more to these adaptations than just translating clothing and cultural references. The setting isn’t just a backdrop, any more than Jane Austen’s “3 or 4 families in a country village”. It’s all in how the universal story finds expression in a new setting.

So what do you think comes first, setting or story?

Or do they feed each other, as I’m beginning to think?


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National Novel Writing Month ended last Friday, with a total of 1187,931,929 words being written worldwide. All over the internet people are blogging about their experiences. My friend Kathleen Bolton at Writer Unboxed is happy she created some good prose even though she didn’t reach the 50,000 word NaNoWriMo goal. I’m happy too but in a different way. I did reach 50K though I’ll admit most of the scenes will require heavy duty revisions.

Critics of the NaNoWriMo process question the point in writing madly to meet a quota. For me, it’s not a matter of quantity versus quality because during my early drafts my goal isn’t really to generate words so much as ideas. Quantitative goals keep me tackling scene after scene, concentrating on characterization and plotting and leaving stylistic issues for the rewrites.

I’ve been known to call my rough drafts primordial ooze. But they can also be likened to an artist’s sketches. Consider this Da Vinci study for “Virgin and Child with Cat”. Note the different positioning of head, limbs. The fluidity, the testing of ideas. OK, maybe it’s pretentious to compare my scribblings to efforts of creative minds like Da Vinci. But I find it reassuring that their work went through messy phases–though sketches like this (unlike my rough drafts) have a beauty of their own.

Another artistic genius whose process fascinates me is Beethoven. A few years ago a librarian found the lost manuscript for a piano version of Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue (the last movement in the string quartet in B flat major, Op 130). According to article in the Guardian the manuscript “shows the extent of Beethoven’s reworkings and includes deletions, corrections and deep erasures – occasionally the paper is rubbed right through leaving small holes – smudged alterations and several pages pasted over the original or affixed with sealing wax.” It even looks like there’s blood on the page–don’t we all know that feeling?! (The articles says it’s red crayon.)

The Grosse Fugue is one of Beethoven’s most innovative compositions, challenging to performers and listeners. Originally given a cool reception, it’s still the sort of piece that requires concentration and reveals more each time one hears it. I took my budding violinist to a performance by the Guarneri Quartet and we were both blown away.

I personally find it reassuring to know that even great creative works sometimes go through an ugly birthing process. But I suppose it could be scary as well. What do you think? Or would you rather enjoy the final result without knowing about the messy bits? Are there any artists (of any sort) whose methods or process inspire you?


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