“The wonderful thing about writing is that there is always a blank page waiting.
The terrifying thing about writing is that there is always a blank page waiting.” J.K. Rowling
I just returned from a whirlwind trip through Scotland. Our last stay was the Balmoral Hotel, one of Edinburgh’s most luxurious hotels, where J.K. Rowling finished her final book in the Harry Potter series. Devoted, and wealthy fans pay almost £1,000 a night to stay in the room, which contains the marble bust she signed after completing her last HP book.
All the doors on the 5th floor were white, except one. My room was 5 doors down from the now famous ‘purple door’ that is room 552, and has the famous ‘J.K. Rowling Suite’ brass plaque, and where just behind that enchanted door, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was completed.
One night, while heading downstairs to meet my brother for dinner I heard a group of people chuckling, shivering, and twittering while taking pictures. Though they were all in their 40s, they stood, posed, and giggled as if 12-years old on the precipice of the purple door with the JK Rowling brass plaque. I offered to take a group shot. They posed like they were excited teens on graduation day. Then, over the next few days I noticed groups getting off the elevator in search of the famous door. “Our tour guide told us where to go.” One man said. I pointed the way. He was kind enough to take this kid’s picture by the purple door. 🙂
Great, I thought, strangers are coming in to take pictures, and I’m just a couple doors down. That didn’t make me feel terrible safe, until I realized all these touristy HP fans were reduced to giggling children in the presence of that door. I smiled every time I saw a group of them exit the elevator, fresh out of the rain, down coats zipped, but cameras ready. What a gift JK Rowling’s novels have given to kids of all ages.
National Novel writing month (NANOWRIMO) is next month, November. Now back in the states, I’m due to give a talk next week in preparation for that upcoming 30-day writing challenge. I’ll talk about creating the habit of writing, possibly plugging into the NANOWRIMO community and how to overcome obstacles on the path to completing their writing projects. JK ROWLING is a great, if not the golden example of a person, a writer, who can make it through anything – single motherhood, depression, financial difficulties and rejection upon rejection from the publishing world – who persevered and went on to publish one of the most popular series of all time.
We all want to write a bestseller (right?), so – being fresh off a 10-hour flight home from Scotland – it seems an opportune time to review a bit of J.K. Rowling’s quotes and sage advice to writers.
- J.K. Rowling said: “What you write becomes who you are… So make sure you love what you write!” One of the reasons the Harry Potter books are so infectious is because the reader absorbs and is transported by her sheer delight and love of the world she created – and all the characters in them. If you’re passionate about how and what you write, you’ll entice readers into your fantasy world. So write your passion. Readers will follow.
- “Be ruthless about protecting writing days. Do not cave in to endless requests to have “essential” and “long overdue” meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.”
- “You’ve got to work. It’s about structure. It’s about discipline. It’s all these deadly things that your school teacher told you you needed… You need it.”
- “I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.”
- “Write what you know: your own interests, feelings, beliefs, friends, family and even pets will be your raw materials when you start writing. Develop a fondness for solitude if you can, because writing is one of the loneliest professions in the world!”
- “Write something that a publisher would want to publish (it only takes one, but it might take a while to find them. If you are turned down by every single publisher in existence, you will have to consider the possibility that what you have written is not publishable). Next, you need to approach the publisher, either directly, or (which is advisable if you can manage it) by securing an agent who will act on your behalf. The best way to find agents’ and publishers’ addresses is to consult ‘The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook’, which is updated every year (Double-check that you are writing to the right person/people; don’t, for example, send science fiction to a publisher of medical textbooks). Wait. Pray. This is the way Harry Potter got published.”
- “Sometimes you have to get your writing done in spare moments here and there.”
- “I always advise children who ask me for tips on being a writer to read as much as they possibly can. Jane Austen gave a young friend the same advice, so I’m in good company there.”
- “Perseverance is absolutely essential, not just to produce all those words, but to survive rejection and criticism.”
- “What you write becomes who you are… So make sure you love what you write!”
- “All a writer needs is talent & ink.”
- “Failure is inevitable — make it a strength.”
- “You have to resign yourself to the fact that you waste a lot of trees before you write anything you really like, and that’s just the way it is. It’s like learning an instrument, you’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot, cause I wrote an awful lot before I wrote anything I was really happy with.”
- “I just write what I wanted to write. I write what amuses me. It’s totally for myself.”
- “Moments of pure inspiration are glorious, but most of a writer’s life is, to adapt the old cliché, about perspiration rather than inspiration. Sometimes you have to write even when the muse isn’t cooperating.”
- From JK Rowling’s twitter; “I plan a lot. This particular novel’s plan comprises a vast, complicated, colour-coded table showing all the suspects, with blue ink for clues and red ink for red herrings.” After J.K. Rowling finished the first book in the Harry Potter series, she realised she’d given away the whole plot of the series. So she had to rewrite it, and hold back a number of integral plot points.
Planning and plotting are essential. It took five years for her to create and develop every last detail of the Harry Potter world. Every part of Rowling’s books was planned, right down to how the Wizards and Muggles interacted, what the education was like, how magic helped in life and how the wizarding world was governed. She also plotted out all the events of the seven books before she wrote the first.
- Rewriting is equally essential. She rewrote the opening chapter of her first book a total of fifteen times.
- “Fear of failure is the saddest reason on earth not to do what you were meant to do. I finally found the courage to start submitting my first book to agents and publishers at a time when I felt a conspicuous failure. Only then did I decide that I was going to try this one thing that I always suspected I could do, and, if it didn’t work out, well, I’d faced worse and survived.
Ultimately, wouldn’t you rather be the person who actually finished the project you’re dreaming about, rather than the one who talks about ‘always having wanted to’?” J.K. Rowling’s website.
- “Resisting the pressure to think you have to follow all the Top Ten Tips religiously, which these days take the form not just of online lists, but of entire books promising to tell you how to write a bestseller/what you MUST do to be published/how to make a million dollars from writing.
I often recommend a website called Writer Beware (https://accrispin.blogspot.com) to new and aspiring writers. It’s a fantastic resource for anyone who’s trying to decide what might be useful, what’s worth paying for and what should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, there are all kinds of scams out there that didn’t exist when I started out, especially online.” J.K. Rowling’s website.
- And finally, from J.K. Rowling’s website; “Ultimately, in writing as in life, your job is to do the best you can, improving your own inherent limitations where possible, learning as much as you can and accepting that perfect works of art are only slightly less rare than perfect human beings. I’ve often taken comfort from Robert Benchley’s words: ‘It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up, because by that time I was too famous.’”
Keep writing, aim high no matter the odds, and if you need a nudge check out the NANOWRIMO community. Cheers, Mindy
This morning I responded to a woman who is in a writer’s group that I mentor, about establishing and then protecting her writing time. She wrote to let me know she picked up the book, The Artist Way, that I recommended. I thought I’d share my response since it’s important for us all;
One of the hardest things I had to do (some years back) was transition from being a bread-winner-single-mom career woman, into being a writer, whether paid or not – mostly not. Learning to honor my writer’s spirit was tough life work. It took me a decade of feeling guilty if I was not making money, or dealing with everyone else’s problems – always putting my writing last. Not that I still don’t have these issues, but what’s different these days is that my writing comes first. My family knows this now. Well, the family that I am close to. Many of them, like the ‘toxic playmates’ in Julia Cameron’s, The Artist Way, are no longer part of my inner circle. My inner circle shrunk at first – illuminating the shallow-thinking-feeling bankers, mortgage experts, finance guru’s and realtors that had populated my soul-sucking career world. But then, as time went on and I changed, embracing my artist self, my inner circle expanded in ways I had never imagined – artist, writers, playwrights, screenwriters, and so on. That was a vital part of honoring myself, of embracing my dreams and transitioning to the other side, to a life I had only ever fantasized about.
Establishing writing time was also a huge part of that. NOW I feel guilty if I don’t write. That’s a complete change.
Remember, as Julia Cameron wrote;
‘Our creative dreams and yearnings come from a divine source. As we move toward our dreams, we move toward our divinity.’
I have lived (and still am living) this journey and am now closer to the other side, the side I NEVER thought I’d transition to. It’s been hard work, but SO worth the journey. I wish you confidence and a spark of divine spirit as you embark on this journey. It’s your life work now, you’ve chosen it, it has chosen you…you can’t not go down this road, because if you do, that’s the path to regret – nobody wants that.
Set a time each day, as we discussed. Stick to it, even if it’s 20 minutes. That 20 minutes is a seed that will grow. Surround yourself with people who believe in and honor your dreams. No One else is allowed in right now, not till your stronger, with feet firmly planted in making your dream come true. Then, like a good meditation session, outside noise can’t penetrate your dream world.
All my best. Mindy
A BIG THANK YOU to Lydia for reminding me how far I’ve come on this path.
Keep writing you all, even if it’s 20 minutes a day. Write on. Cheers, Mindy
Writing first pages is hard work. PERIOD.
The expectations of you as a writer are huge, and the expectations of readers is even HUGER (is that a word? Maybe not, okay…) BIG, big reader expectations start on the first page.
Anyway, it takes a lot of work to get it right. One thing to remember, amongst the gazillion other things you need to remember about first pages, is to ground your reader in some details. Which details depend on your story, theme, and your super-powers as a creative genius?
Your first page should, in some way, set up the general question your novel is asking and answering. And hopefully by the last page you will convey an answer to that question.
Meanwhile, the reader should have some idea about the setting right away. For example, what season is it? Where are the characters? What is the time period/special world/era? What is the mood? The elements you convey quickly in the beginning set the stage for the story to follow. And that my writerly friend, is a lofty quest.
Last week in a writing class, I shared the opening to one of Lauren Groff’s stories, Delicate Edible Birds as an example of a great first page/paragraph. This is not only beautiful writing, but also tells us a great deal about; location (Paris) mood (dark), era and conflict (WWII) and weather (rain) all in an imagery filled (wings of dark water…street corners as elbows, etc.) poetic style that seduced me as a reader, to continue on. (Read the pretty words in the image to the right.)
A reader should not have to wonder about fundamental questions while trying to slide effortlessly into your story world. This means you’ll have to provide some answers pretty quickly, like on page one.
If you can capture your reader’s curiosity, tickle their emotions, and deliver a character that does the same, then you’ve created a winning first page — one that will engage and mesmerize your audience.
The perfect first page draws readers in from the beginning and tempts them to keep reading. This is your first impression, your chance to hook readers and get them enthusiastic about the story to come. So take the time, use all your creative senses and get it right on page one. It’s not impossible, I promise, and it’s a challenge that’s SO worth it.
Writer Unboxed has a section called “Flog a Pro” where they ask people to read first pages of works by famous authors and then comment on whether or not they were moved to continue. Many say they were not. Reasons include too much detail about the setting or not interested in the characters, but usually the reason was simple—no tension. Reading sites like this is a great way to get some ideas for your own work.
By the 1970s the now trendy and oh-so-cool Portland Oregon #PDX was known as the ‘porn capital’ of the northwest. Deep Throat seemed to play on a loop at ‘certain’ local theaters, and drugs -pink hearts, cross-tops and pot – were handed out like candy.
Like me, Portland in the 1960s and 70s was struggling to come of age. It was populated by people deeply wounded by WWII, weary from war, ever-suspicious of the Korean War, and ambivalent over the Vietnam War. Everyone was touched by warfare in some way – many sought escape.
Somewhere between 1967 and 1978 a great tide changed in Portland, at least in my life. Portland went from free-living-loving hippies in the parks, to disco in the clubs, drugs on every corner, and in every shadowy crevice of the city. From free love to cash-for-sex and porno, from dancing in the streets to the throb-throb-throbbing pulse of Donna Summer’s voice in the cocaine-laden disco nightclubs. Portland changed, and as I went from guileless teen into my awakening twenties, from innocently dancing in the parks, into the dark world of nightclubs, so did the landscape of my life, and the city I called home.
My current WIP (work in progress) is a collection of stories that draws upon that complex and layered backdrop. Why does that matter? That backdrop, setting or milieu, resonates with the theme of the stories, provides a mood and a frame of reference for my coming-of-age themes of ‘lost innocence, lost power, and soul death’.
When creating a narrative – fiction or non-fiction – it’s vital to have an in-depth understanding of your story world. Think about the cultural mores of a Jane Austen novel. Those quiet sufferings and tight reins on emotion in a polite society, would never work in today’s world.
The milieu or setting of a story consist of both the time and physical location within a storyline, either nonfiction or fiction. As a literary component, the setting helps introduce the main background and mood for a story. Essentials of setting may include culture, geography, and the historical period – it pains me to say the 1970s is now historical, but it is. It’s official, I’m old. Along with the character, theme, plot and style, setting is considered one of the fundamental components of fiction.
If you are interested in reading about Portland’s sleazy background, check out author Phil Sanford’s books, Rose City Vice and Portland Confidential.
All stories have themes – whether they’re intentionally explored or bubbling under the surface – and the exploration of different themes adds layers and depth to any story, especially if those themes are universal, tapping into what Carl Jung called, the collective unconscious.
The other day I mentioned to a class I was teaching, that discovering what your theme is not only helps you tell the story, it keeps you on track. For example in my novel, Return To Sender, I tried to keep only the letters my protagonist, Theo wrote from war (Korean) that had to do with saving someone. Why? Because he wants to be saved. Redemption is the theme.
I didn’t abandon the theme when I revealed his letters, but instead used them to support the theme. This excerpt from his letters is an example;
It rained hard the night we evacuated the children from their orphanage, harder than I’d seen, even on the Oregon Coast. The smell of wet dirt, trees, and napalm, that’s the smell I remembered most, the chemical and petroleum of burning napalm. We scrambled with the kids up Korea’s dominating T’aebaek Mountain—the mountain was nearly the same height as Neahkahnie but had limestone caves tunneled deep within. Massive stalagmites hung heavy throughout the corridors. Ancient bamboo-roped bridges built across chasms linked the vast rooms of the caves to one another. It was otherworldly. But the surviving nun knew the place, the Karst Caves, and said we’d be safe. Water spouted from innumerable cracks and seeps – the sound of rain and falling water was everywhere.
We clawed our way up the hills and out of the valley of death. The CCF had entered the war that week and were as ubiquitous as the rain. The NK were ruthless and bloodthirsty and wanted those kids—and now us—dead. The kids and that dedicated nun were too vulnerable for us to abandon for slaughter, so we, my buddy Lieutenant Peters and me, abandoned our orders instead.
Sometimes we writers aren’t fully aware what our theme is until we write a good bit of the story, set it aside, let it ruminate in a drawer for a day, ten or 30, then read it. The theme(s) should emerge, jump off the page, even sometimes, surprise you. Then when you rewrite and edit you can shore them up and explore them in more satisfying (to both you and your readers) ways throughout the story.
There are tons of themes, and in a story of any length, there’s generally more than one. Death, War, Prejudice, Freedom…and it shouldn’t be a shocker that the number one theme in literature is love. It’s one of the most prevalent topics in books, movies and music. Love is a universal, a multi-faceted theme that’s been examined in a number of ways throughout storytelling history.
Puppy love, unrequited love, first love, lost love, forbidden love, married love, the love between parents and children, siblings, friends, pets… the power of love to triumph over all…except when it doesn’t.
What are some different love theme examples in literature?
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a tragic tale of forbidden love with dreadful consequences.
Pride and Prejudice explores the type of love that develops slowly over time, from misunderstanding and disdain to friendship, respect and love.
Wuthering Heights explores love by emphasizing how its passion has the power to unsettle and even destroy every unfortunate life in its path.
To create more layered tales, explore themes in your writing.
‘The collective fear on their parents faces that day, settled in Sylvia’s bones. The Nazis had tried to force her parents, God fearing Christians to swear a loyalty oath to Hitler. Since they refused, they knew they were on the list of undesirables.’
I wrote that this week for one of the stories in my WIP, a collection of short stories. My fictional character’s life was changed the day her parents paid the ultimate price for their values.
As a writer, it’s vital that we understand the history of our characters, the choices they’ve made either willingly or unwillingly. We need to know what happened in their past because the past is, and always will be relevant to the present, and it will form the future. It informs the world we inhabit and it informs the choices we make. This goes for our fictional characters as well.
So when my character’s parents made that brave choice, they knew full well that not swearing an oath of loyalty to Hitler would likely be a death sentence, but they stood strong in their values. That choice altered the lives of the entire family not for that moment in time, but for generations, for all time. That decision in 1944 charted the course for my character’s behavior in 1976, giving a deep layered background for the story and every choice she makes.
Don’t get sidetracked by your character’s backstory (it’s easy to do), and certainly don’t do info dumps of narration, nobody likes that.
But DO pepper your stories with enough seasoning (backstory) to give it the full flavor that will deliver a satisfying read to your audience. And if in that read you can educate and illuminate the reader, all the better.
I have a clear objective with this particular story, and that is to show, not tell, that white supremacy attitudes (worldwide) lead to a ravenous hunger for power and ultimately, a thirst for blood. However, as with any writer who has a specific message or agenda, the best way to get that across is through story, not from a pulpit. Stories change hearts, hearts change minds. Pulpits just piss people off. Be a storyteller not a preacher (unless you’re actually a preacher, in that case, preach on.) Don’t beat people over the head with your message, tell them a story.
Recently, I taught a three week series on how objects make great storytelling strategies. Below is a reprint of an article I wrote a few years back for Willamette Writers magazine about the use of objects as plot devices and metaphors.
In 2011 I embarked on one of the harshest undertakings; I placed what I thought was the final draft of my novel in a drawer for one year. Why? Because, as I told others in my most knowledgeable author voice, “A writer needs distance from their material before editing and rewriting.”
While that’s true, the real reason was, the story didn’t work. I thought it worked, it worked in my head, but based on a few shrewd readers it didn’t work in theirs.
During that year–fighting the wicked temptation to tweak pages, chapters and plots–I turned my attention to books on rewriting, in search of a magic key to unlock my manuscript and turn it into a novel, the kind people wanted to read. I took workshops, and reaped too many tips to list. All that matters is that nothing helped, until one day . . . .
I read yet another craft book, and SHAZAM! You know how it feels when something simple smacks you like a Mack truck of a good idea? Well, chapter 14 in the The Weekend Novelist Re-Writes the Novel by Robert J. Ray, did that for me. The ‘objects lesson’ taught me to utilize my story objects (often called plot-devices) as shorthand for backstory and eliminate a lot of dense narrative.
“Objects tell your story.” Ray writes. “When you rewrite your novel, you can tighten your story by repeating a single object; car, train, statue, slipper, harpoon, book. There’s a good chance the objects are already there, in your manuscript, waiting to be found, to be selected, to be repeated, to be laid down like neon breadcrumbs in the forest. Readers follow breadcrumbs.”
I began to see the power of storytelling objects everywhere. What’s Lord of the Rings without the ring, Cinderella without glass slippers, The Notebook without the book, or poor little Forest Gump without his box of chocolates?
No glass slippers, no enchanted tale, just a barefoot girl with an unfortunate name who probably does not go from rags to riches and who likely does not find her fella . . . what’s the point?
In Nicholas Spark’s novel The Notebook, that evocative leather bound book literally contains their love story. And that chocolate box on Forest Gump’s lap is a metaphor for the story to come; “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” And oh-boy does that plot device set up and deliver a story.
Though easily overdone, an object that’s well-crafted, or emerges organically from setting or characters can establish a character’s values and thus inform and enhance the story.
In a Willamette Writers Conference screenwriting/storytelling workshop taught by Clark Kohanek, he too touched on the objects lesson. “Think about Die Hard,” Kohanek said, “when Bruce Willis enters with the teddy bear. We immediately know that object defines what’s important to him; family.”
That fuzzy teddy bear represents Willis’s values and reenters the story burnt and dirty, but safe, like him, ready to reunite with what he values so much he’d kill for. That object represents the driving force, and heart of the story because it’s valued by the protagonist.
Eventually, in rewriting my novel, the protagonist, Theo Riley, now has a toy soldier, a stack of blood-stained returned love letters, and a photograph of Korean Orphans. This trinity of objects define him, inform his moral compass and ultimately chart his destiny. These objects give the reader an understanding of Theo on a deeper level. They are backstory shorthand, and explaining it once eliminated pages of narration, because when the reader sees the tin soldier, letters, or pictures (Neon Breadcrumbs), they remember . . . because objects are a writer’s magic keys.