As creatives, we often imagine a life in which our art comes first, where the environment, the schedule, our friends–EVERYTHING fuels our creative energy, and we turn out massive amounts of beautiful work. Whether we dream of a Walden Pond cabin or a Soho loft, many of us can imagine a radically creative life. I recently shared the news with you of some major changes I am making in my life: moving to Italy with my 89-year-old mother and tiny dog in order to write my next novel. So come with me on a journey as we seek a radically creative life. Imagine . . .
You arrive at your charming Tuscan apartment where your landlord gives you the keys. He is a pleasant soul who speaks no English and, for some reason, can’t understand your Italian. Yet you are able to convey that you wish the apartment had a full-sized refrigerator rather than the little under-counter one, and he gallantly offers you a new one he has in storage.
But when she sees the apartment, your mother is appalled. “I’m not staying here. It’s about to fall down. It’s not safe. I’m going to a hotel.” But you will not take her to a hotel, so she goes to bed and covers up her head after throwing her cane on the floor in a little hissy fit.
The driver you hired to deliver you from the airport takes pity on you and takes you to a furniture store where you buy your mother the nifty electric recliner you chose last time you were here when you envisioned her sitting by the window with the beautiful Tuscan view. You also order a wardrobe for your clothes as your brain is spinning as to how you can possibly make these two rooms work since the front one, with the kitchen in one end, is mostly full of a monstrous sofa. You buy a microwave because your mother believes it to be a necessity and the crux of a civilized life.
The driver hauls the recliner back. She hates it. You stop and get food, pizza which even you think is tough. She hates it.
In your jet-lagged exhaustion, you lay awake and try to figure out how to arrange the apartment. You want to use the long table for a writing space. You want a full-size refrigerator. There is a bright flash in your head. Maybe an idea or perhaps the precursor to a stroke. Get rid of the sofa that takes up half the front room and which your mother says is the most uncomfortable thing God ever made.
You and your mother are living out of your carry-ons because you dare not unzip the huge suitcases until the wardrobe arrives. There is no where to unfold them and you envision your stuff exploding out with no where to put it. But your three huge suitcases are alike and you’ve packed your things with your mom’s. She is appalled that she can’t have her house shoes, so you gingerly insert your hand in each suitcase and feel around, but it is hopeless.
The apartment that looked so cute when you were here with your 20″ suitcase now looks crammed with decorative items. You pile knickknacks and excess kitchen clutter outside in the garden. You take down the huge, very realistic nude that causes your mother to shake her head. She is convinced she is in the last circle of hell. And where is her Chapstick?
The landlord comes and you break the news to him that you really don’t have room for the monstrous sofa hide-a-bed and could he take it away? He is stunned and explains to you with gestures that he will have to take the thing apart to get it out the door. You smile sweetly with a look you hope conveys your complete confidence in his ability to pull this off.
He sighs and gets tools. Indeed, by the time he is through, the thing is in 20 pieces. Then he brings you a full-sized refrigerator to replace the apartment one. He has stored this new refrigerator in the cellar below your apartment. Extremely narrow, turning stairs lead down to an arched door about five feet high. Watching him and one other man bring up the refrigerator distracts you for a while. He loads all the bric-a-brac you piled in the garden into the microwave box.
Your dog is constipated. No wait. She’s not.
Your mother is so pleased to be rid of the sofa, she agrees to go out to dinner. But the restaurant you hoped would be open is not. The other one within walking distance for her won’t open for another hour and a half. You’re both exhausted. The little shop where you once bought salads and veggies and the most amazing green beans now seems to have nothing but pizza. Your mother is convinced you are going to starve her to death. And where is her nail file?
Miraculously, the wardrobe is delivered at 8:30 a.m. You immediately unpack to excavate the house shoes, Chapstick, and nail file, stacking both beds full of stuff. Then you realize you have no hangers. You walk to the store you expect to have hangers. They have ironing boards and clothes pins and all manner of clothing paraphernalia. But no hangers. The young woman tells you that you must go to the Lego Store. You know exactly how far that is. You sigh.
At the Lego Store, which seems to have nothing to do with Legos, you buy hangers and cardboard storage boxes. Paper towels, washcloths. You can’t haul it all. You buy a rolling bag. You stop and get very expensive restaurant food to take home.
Your landlord is there, reversing the refrigerator doors, plastering over holes left by a shelf he had to move to put the refrigerator where you wanted it, rehanging the shelf over your workspace. Suddenly there is a crash in the back room. Your mother has let the back of her recliner hook under one side of the open window and as she raised the back, she lifted the window off its hinges. It is a beautiful thing, solid oak frame, and pretty sturdy because it did not break when it hit the tile floor. The landlord cannot understand why the window should suddenly jump off its hinges. Your mother murmurs to you what happened. You don’t want to tell the landlord, but finally you do because he is so agitated that he can’t figure it out and also because he is looking at you both as if you might be a pair of witches.
He leaves. You bring out the restaurant food which your mother declares to be “good but weird.” You consider this progress. You hang up all the clothes, assemble the storage boxes and sort stuff. The refrigerator is humming. You will write, you tell yourself. You will . . .
When I started the Village Writing School, people wanted to know why a writing school was needed when you can “learn anything” on the Internet. And my mom asked me every day. “Why don’t you just learn Italian online?”
It’s true. You can learn anything online. There are great apps to learn Italian. Just as there are blogs and classes and MUCH information on how to write a novel. So why did I take weeks out of my life and haul my mom and dog all the way to Florida to study with Antonella at the West Palm Beach Language Institute? And why should you consider a live writing workshop versus online material? A few reasons:
- That face-to-face human teacher. A great deal of learning comes from the personal experiences of the teacher. Stephanie Storey had a terrific powerpoint recently when she taught at the Village Writing School, but her anecdotes about the experiences of her writer friends opened up the publishing landscape in a way that her organized material did not. Because Antonella, who is from Rome, leaned back in her chair and laughed as she told me that to split the check at a restaurant is to say, “We make in the way of the Romans,” I’ll never forget that phrase.
- Networking. It’s everything. I now have new connections in Italy all the way from Rome to a neighboring village of Certaldo, where I will live, because Antonella got on the phone and told her friends I was moving and that we must get together. When writers network, they share connections as well, and one of those could be worth gold to your career.
- Accountability. Yes, you can take writing workshops online and yes I could get Italian apps. I have paid for Rosetta Stone in German and I have the Michel Thomas course in German and I have Duolingo for German. I have a word-a-day German calendar and the Bible on tape in German. I don’t know any German. I started many times to spend thirty minutes a day, etc., but I was never disciplined enough to put that before the many things that came up. But when Antonella piled PAGES of exercises into my hands and said, “Now tomorrow we can go over your answers,” I did them. Because she was invested in me and I didn’t want to disappoint her. Because I had sacrificed time and money to be there and how dumb not to take advantage of the opportunity.
- A plan. If all the Italian you want is to order a meal and ask for the bathroom, you can certainly do that online. But I had a longer outlook. And for that, I needed the dreaded grammar. Grammar is like a grid into which you plug the vocabulary you learn.With writing, you can take a workshop online on building character. You can learn to write dialogue. You can read blogs that attempt to explain narrative tension. But it’s a scattershot approach, and how do you know what you really need to study? That’s why for the Village Writing School, I wrote a curriculum and named it Everything You Need to Write a Beautiful Story. I laugh when I say I teach in five Saturdays everything I learned getting an MFA in Fiction, but it’s close to the truth. And in those workshops, I can vary the speed of the presentation to work longer on the elements that seem to be difficult to that particular group. Or I can meet later one-on-one with someone who is struggling with a concept.
- Relationships. Antonella and I went to dinner more than once—always to Italian restaurants belonging to her friends. We met for coffee the morning I left, as Irma bore down on Florida. We’re making plans to connect in Rome in November. In the meantime, we’ll be FaceTiming, as I continue to study with her from Italy.
At the Village Writing School, we’re also about relationships. Friendships, even romances, have begun at our events. Writing groups, mentoring, volunteering together, open mics—all are opportunities for a writer or wannabe writer to connect with his tribe. Now of course, we are introverts, so you might say that you visited and didn’t suddenly find a friend. It takes time. Antonella and I were together two hours six days a week for seven weeks. And we both were open to forming a friendship. Part of the mission statement of the VWS is “to promote a vibrant literary community.” A community. A place to belong.
I love the Italian Duolingo app and I continue to play with it. I read writing blogs and take an online workshops from time to time. But I don’t think the internet can ever replace a human being with information to share with another human being in a two-way interaction that includes laughter and, if possible, tiramisu.
How about your own experience? What has worked better for you?
Writers. We’re bold. Risk-takers. Adventure seekers. Never afraid of the knotty problem.
And all this without ever leaving our chairs.
But for a while I’ve wondered: what would happen if I brought into my real life those same elements? Where would I go—who would I be, if I could?
“What if Life,” Willa Cather said, “is meant to be our sweetheart?” If Life itself were my lover, how would I embrace it, caress it, nurture it?
For decades, like most of us, my life was circumscribed by the people I loved. A husband, two handicapped parents, a very old dog. It felt very bold when I moved my RV to Eureka Springs, Arkansas and began spending a few days a week up there to begin the Village Writing School. It felt very audacious (and took massive arrangements) to make my first solo trip to Europe and be gone three weeks.
But within a few months, I lost my dad, my dog, and my husband, though he didn’t die but simply decided to change his life. In one swipe of a cell phone, my world opened up, and though I didn’t have the details in that moment, I heard the hinges creak as the gate swung wide.
Where would you go if suddenly the moorings were cast off? What would you do? Would you cling to what security that remained: your dear friends—God bless them—your house, your stuff, the work you do that gives you real satisfaction?
Or would you push off, decide that if you are the hero of your story, your story will be about challenges, growth, adventure, about your becoming the best you can be? An elopement with Life. A total reboot.
Well, not total because I’m a writer to the core, will always be a writer, and not just a writer but a specific type of writer. I write historical fiction set in those pivotal years between 1300 and 1600. I love to ponder those times and what they mean to us today, how those centuries shape us even now in ways we don’t see.
And so, I have longed for more connection to that past. For years, my bucket list included:
- Living in a house built in medieval times.
- Living in a culture that values that history and in which such awareness is part of the whole social consciousness.
- Learning to see the world differently through being able to speak another language.
These were the things that I thought I would love to do, even as I saw no possible way to do them.
Then came the opportunity, but so late, and I thought: am I too old to learn a language? Is it selfish to drag my 89-year-old mom to a foreign country? Am I willing to divest myself of my treasured possessions? And most especially, am I smart enough to get through this mound of paperwork to move a puppy into the European Union?
I almost melted down in the three months of sorting and selling. I’ve just completed several weeks of Italian language study in Florida. Learning Italian is almost the hardest thing I have ever done, second only to my first historical novel in which I had no idea what I was doing. But after nine months of planning, it’s about to happen.
On September 19, my mom, the puppy, and I will move to a medieval town in Italy. I plan to spend the winter finishing my novel about the 14th-century writer Boccaccio who lived there.
And what have I learned so far that’s of any use to anyone—especially a writer? Two things.
- Examine fully and seriously the longings that your own writing has ignited in you. Do you want to make a trip, learn Latin, explore the paranormal, take up fencing? Do it. It will bring you closer to your writing, your characters, yourself.
- Inhabit your life fully. One of the consequences of giving up the routine and familiar is that you can no longer operate on autopilot. Your senses rev up and you revel in new experiences, new acquaintances, new toppings on your pizza. Life, indeed, becomes your sweetheart.
But that could happen without your ever leaving home if you gave to the street outside your house the same loving attention you give to the streets in your writer’s imagination. If you focused on this moment’s experience—be it the new coat of paint on your neighbor’s mailbox or the lizard on your deck—with eyes of appreciation and wonder at the miracles of both nature and our collective human creativity.
You don’t have to do something as drastic as I did to reboot your life. You can do it by bringing more awareness and a little risk into your day so that all the fun is not on the page. That, I’m convinced, will make our future pages better and more authentic.
Eudora Welty said, “I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”
As we find our stories both on the page and in our own reality, let us reboot and embrace Life.
I dare you.
I’m embarking on a something new, I would deeply appreciate it if you would join me as I share it on my Facebook page and Twitter feed.I’ve packed a bag for you:
In my last article, I talked about hiring an editor. Today, I want to talk about working with an editor on conception rather than after-the-fact editing.
When I began to work with my editor, I expected her to cut some history and perhaps rearrange some scenes. But, though she was complementary of the writing, characters, etc., she believed that, since the story had certain elements of a thriller, it would need to BE a thriller. But I didn’t write it as a thriller, wasn’t sure I wanted it to be a thriller, and so, was undecided on what to do. Thrillerizing it would basically mean rewriting half the book.
Meanwhile, I was becoming more excited about my new novel about the Italian writer Boccaccio.
I write historical fiction, teach creative writing, and direct the Village Writing School. I believe stories have the power to connect us to our histories, one another, and our best selves.
I was days away from coming to Italy to work on his story. So I suggested to the editor that we simply put the previous manuscript on hold and focus on this new one. I suggested that I run my first several scenes by her to get this thing off on the right foot.
I see this as a great experiment. CAN I write a book that I LOVE that can be published in New York? I don’t know the answer to that question today. Over and over I am assured that it’s not a question of my writing but of the type of book that the big houses are looking for from debut novelists.
I came on my trip and began to write faster than I ever have. I sent the editor 35 pages. She read through it (not editing) and we FaceTimed. She loved the character and voice but said it was beginning too slowly and reading like a travelogue. We brainstormed Boccaccio’s life, and she said that the plague of the Black Death was the thing his story needed to revolve around.
Now the interesting thing is that she, of course, is looking for drama and salability. I am looking for authenticity in the character’s journey. I thought about it all that night and decided that, if you lived through something that horrific, indeed, you would divide your life into before and after. You would be changed. Evidence of this is found in the many scholarly articles analyzing the effects of the plague on Boccaccio’s greatest writing.
So I wrote a new beginning, a couple of pages. I wrote a scene for the modern story that will run consecutive with Boccaccio’s. Again, we FaceTimed. She asked me questions about Boccaccio’s life, about the modern character and what was at stake for her. I did most of the talking. But then she took what I said and underlined the potential in it. “Start with that.” “Bring that out more.”
So far, I can report that I am happy with the process and the progress, though I also realize that a time may come when our paths diverge. I do want to be published by a big house, but if she says, “Now bring in a giant lizard,” I’ll have to opt out. I don’t think that will happen. It’s also possible that I just will never be able to truly see into what she wants. But for now, I’m optimistic.
I have learned that this is how many “bestselling” authors proceed. They are under huge pressure to produce and don’t have time for a massive rewrite. Of course, they are not as transparent about the process as I have been with you, and these editors even sign confidentially agreements not to divulge who their clients are. So, at least I’m in good company, LOL.
If you’re interested in running your ideas by a former big-house editor, you can check out the editors I listed in my last article. This is far less expensive than a full manuscript edit and just might get you off on the right foot so that you don’t have to have a full edit.
Meanwhile, it’s fun to kick around ideas with someone who used to acquire manuscripts for these big publishers. It’s an education to see how they think.
And you get to talk about your book with someone other than your mom.
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In my last article, I talked about hiring an editor, and I warned you against hiring an editor. Say what?
Many people have had horrible experiences with freelance editors. They’ve spent thousands of dollars to end up with a book far different from their original vision and still unpublishable. Early on, I realized that the Village Writing School needed to help people protect themselves. Two groups find someone on every corner hawking them a quick fix: those who want to lose weight and those who want to be published. I’m in both categories.
Here are my thoughts on hiring an editor.
Be sure you are ready. Before you hire an editor, your book should be as good as you can make it.
I write historical fiction, teach creative writing, and direct the Village Writing School. I believe stories have the power to connect us to our histories, one another, and our best selves.
It should have been read by competent readers—either a writing circle or some good beta readers who have told you where they got bored and where they got confused. Listen to them. On the other hand, don’t let someone force your book into a direction you never intended. One reader told me Jake should meet another version of himself who is trying to stop him. Yikes. Not the book I’m writing.
Make sure the editor understands your overall vision. When my editor and I were exchanging emails, I said, “I think the novel is really about living in the zone where you’re open to possibility rather than bound by dogma, whether its religious dogma or scientific dogma.” She replied: It’s super helpful to have your philosophical take-away. I wasn’t planning to change any of that meaning.
As a writer, you must be able to identify and articulate your themes. That’s what is important. Not the order of the scenes or the quantity of historical detail or any of the scaffolding. You are looking for an editor who gets what you’re trying to do and can help you bring it into sharper focus.
It’s also possible to hire a “developmental” editor, who can help you articulate themes or find your narrative arc. Many editors do that as well.
Don’t be in love with your every word. Last week I talked about the arduous process of getting published. Yet almost every month I meet people who think that they should be able to barf out a story, it should go sailing to New York, and the whole world bow down. They complain that they “can’t get a break,” or “publishing is screwed up.” Successful writers understand it’s about revision and continual education to keep up with what it takes to be published in today’s marketplace.
I’m willing to evolve my vision for this book because I want to be published by a major house. If that’s your goal, you must: 1) Invest in craft; 2) Understand the market. A good editor can help you with both. And if that is your goal, then it only makes sense to work with an editor who has previous experience acquiring novels for major publishers. So how do you find them?
Here are three sources. I don’t know these people, and this is not an endorsement per se. But they were recommended to me by a major-house editor, and they have years of experience in the business. Look for an editor who has previously handled a book in your genre that went on to be published.
A word about cost. Yes. It’s real money. Which is why your book should be at its optimal before you engage an editor. A good editor will give you an estimate before she starts.
The thing to remember is that you are paying not only for the edit of this book but for an education. I think of my work with my editor as MFA, Part 2. What I learn will make all my future books more publishable.
Another thing to consider is how expensive it can be to go to a large conference. Add travel, the expensive hotels they usually hold those in, registration fees, banquets, extra fees for pitching to agents, etc. Conferences are great, but wouldn’t it make more sense to spend that money on an education that is specific to you and your book?
Certainly I’m not saying that hiring an editor is the only way to go or that everyone should. If you’d like to talk to me further about your project and whether you’re ready for an editor, email me.
Whether you’re a writer or not, let 2017 be the year that you show up to your creative project and take the next step, whatever that next step may be for you.
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If you follow me on FaceBook, you know I recently went to Boston to meet with an editor. I promised to document my writing journey in this blog—complete with rejections—so here’s the story.
I got rejected again. (But it’s not all bad–read on.)
Through the efforts of another writer, I had the opportunity to get my manuscript before an editor at a major publishing house. This editor wrote me a very nice letter to say she was rejecting it because the story was bogged down by the history. (I wrote about this danger.)
I stared at her email for about fifteen seconds. We are told not to reply to a rejection. And, I worried that bugging this publisher would reflect badly on the writer who had gone to bat for me.
But here was someone in a major house who had actually written me a personal letter. Immediately, I wrote back.
Dear Ms. ____:
Thank you so much for your time and your thoughtful comments. If the novel has this issue—and I certainly see what you are saying—can you suggest an editor whom I could hire to help me make it publishable?
Please forgive this last imposition on your time.
Now yes, I could have gone in with a chainsaw and hacked up my novel myself. But I really don’t know just how much history readers of historical fiction want.
I didn’t hear for an entire day and then the wonderful woman recommended: a freelance editor who I think might be a good fit for you. She’s very experienced and has a special affinity for and interest in historical fiction.
I sent the freelance editor 50 pages and a synopsis. She agreed to help me whip this thing into shape.
Then I decided to go see her. I had promised myself that if I got an agent or a publisher, I would sit down with them face to face. This may be as close as I ever get, and I wanted to see into the big, mysterious beast that is New York publishing. This woman has been a senior editor at several houses and has acquired many novels. She understands the beast.
We had a great, long lunch and I got to talk to her about my other novels, about the Village Writing School, and the projects of some of our students. She was warm and funny, and I feel confident that she will make this book the best it can be for today’s marketplace and, importantly, that she understands and respects what I am trying to say through it.
But, a couple of reality checks:
I do not have a publisher yet. I am paying this woman to edit my novel.
I’m not telling you to go hire an editor. I have heard many horror stories of people losing thousands of dollars and getting really bad advice. In my next newsletter, we’ll look at the process of shopping for an editor, and I’ll give you some possibilities.
Of course I won’t send the novel to anyone else until I get her edits, which she says will be by late January. Then I’ll get to use her name in my query letter, and that’s no small thing.
But most important to me, I will know that this novel will be the best it can be. And if it doesn’t ever get published, it won’t be because I didn’t understand what the big publishers want or I couldn’t get it to them.
I have made the choice to try to be published by a major house. There are many respectable ways to be published, but this is my choice at this time.
It’s not easy. It’s a journey. Rewrite after rewrite after rewrite is the usual process. I did a major rewrite on this book during the first five months of 2016 when I rewrote the main character based on comments from an agent. I gave her comments a lot of thought, discussed them with my writing circle, and decided she was right. I made Jake younger, more idealistic. (At lunch, this editor said: this is the first novel I’ve read with a millennial hero, and I think you have totally nailed that generation.) One problem solved.
Now, here I am at the beginning of the NEXT year, facing another rewrite. But what do we say?
Thank you, God, for giving me the opportunity to make this book better.