Thinking About Theme, Part 1

Let me lead with a secret: The next book in the Red Sneaker book series will be on Theme (then Description and Setting, Conflict, and unless you think of something else, I’m done). Perhaps you’re questioning whether this sounds like the most exciting writing topic. I think it is–in fact, sometimes I think it’s the most exciting part of the whole process. Or perhaps you’re imagining you already know everything there is to know about Theme. Maybe you do–but I can tell you that I didn’t, which became abundantly clear as I started gathering my thoughts for this book, and I’ve written over thirty novels now.

Depending upon who your English teacher was, you may have the idea that theme is some deep, profound, secret meaning cryptically buried somewhere in a fictional or poetic text. I don’t think so, and I think Theme is rarely as simple or as didactic as what we are sometimes taught. I mean, maybe in Aesop’s fables, or in a parable (Pilgrim’s Progress, Animal Farm), but most novelists want to be somewhat subtler. Rightly so. Morals hammering readers over the head rarely have much impact. To me the best themes do not pound. Theme is best when it’s more like the brush of a feather, something that tickles readers’ brains just enough to get them thinking–but not enough to take them out of the story.

One of the best analogies I’ve read is this: theme is the container for your story.  Sort of like a cup, or a goblet.  It’s what holds all the other elements together and makes them even better than they might otherwise be.  And here’s the truth: the goblet may be completely unnoticed by some readers, but the drink is still better because the goblet is there.

Don’t think of Theme as some ponderous shroud only decoded by academics and critics, diehard dissertation writers who strap the story to a chair and beat the theme out, leaving it lifeless afterward. It’s not a game of Hide and Seek. It’s more like Sardines (if you don’t know the diff, Google it). You have the joy of discovery without the pain struggling for it. Because reading is not supposed to be a hair-shirt experience. The story itself should be a delight, and the theme is the lagniappe, the added bonus that gives it additional pleasure and makes the book linger in the reader’s memory long after the last page is turned. Like Harry Chapin said, “It’s got to be the going not the getting there that’s good.”

 

Have you ever finished a book and thought, That was nice, but so what? And a week later, you can’t even recall what it was about? That’s not the ticket to the bestseller list, much less the classics list. The best way to give your book added resonance is to underlie the conflict with a well-conceived theme. This is why War and Peace is more than just another war story, why A Tale of Two Cities is more than just another thriller.

Okay, so now that I’ve explained what Theme isn’t, you may be wondering what it is. Next week.

By the way, if I’m going to write a book on theme, I need a snazzy alliterative two-word title. And frankly, I got nothing. Can you suggest a title? I’ll give you credit and everything. Everything except royalties. Email your ideas to me: willbern@gmail.com. Any other suggestions for the book will be equally welcome.

The summer is fact approaching and I’ll be closing registrations for at least two of my writing retreats at the end of the month. Register before it’s too late: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

Viewpoint–The Writer’s Greatest Challenge

Maybe this is an exaggeration, but I’ve been editing quite a few manuscripts lately (see below for info on editing and critique services) and I’ve found that I’m commenting on viewpoint problems more frequently than anything else. I discussed viewpoint in a chapter in Creating Character, but I nonetheless continue to receive requests that I devote an entire book to the subject. This reinforces my feeling that this is something that’s causing headaches for some aspiring writers.

It’s really not that complicated. Look, you just need to pick a viewpoint and stick with it throughout a scene. If you change viewpoint characters, don’t do it in the middle of the scene. No “head-hopping,” that is, drifting from one character to another’s thoughts and observations. That leaves the reader feeling dislocated. They don’t want to hear from an omniscient narrator who knows everything about everyone (meaning you, the author). They want to forget about the author and be immersed in the story. Readers will care more about your characters and what happens to them if you can get them inside the characters’ heads.

This does restrict what you can write about, or at least how you go about it. You cannot reveal information your viewpoint character does not or could not know. You may say something like, “She thought his smirk suggested he didn’t believe her,” but you cannot say, “He didn’t believe her” when you’re in her viewpoint, because she doesn’t know. Internal monologue is a good tool for keeping your reader inside a character’s viewpoint. When characters are thinking to themselves, the reader feels securely within that viewpoint. That doesn’t mean you should do it to excess, and it certainly doesn’t mean you should use internal monologue to tell rather than show (see the discussion below). And fyi, you don’t have to use italics every time your characters think to themselves.

Ideally, each new scene should identify the viewpoint character in the first sentence. “Mary walked into the room” or something like that. Then unless there is a scene break, you cannot portray any other viewpoint. You can’t take us inside another character’s head, or tell us what he or she thinks or experiences, unless and until you break the scene. Ideally, after identifying the viewpoint character by name in the first sentence, you refer to them by “he” or “she” for the rest of the scene. This tight psychic distance keeps the reader firmly inside that viewpoint. Using their name again tends to take readers outside their head, to distance them. Of course, this also means none of the other characters in the scene can be “he” or “she.” Refer to them by name or a nickname.

Head-hopping, or stream-of-consciousness writing, is not as immersive, and omniscient narration has fallen out of common use–for a good reason. Readers don’t like it as much. What they like is to experience a story through the eyes and ears of one of the characters involved. Even when there are multiple viewpoints, readers should have a sense of who the main character is and should spend most of the time inside that head, experiencing the story as the protagonist does.

The usual reason for introducing additional viewpoints is to increase suspense. The narrative flips to an antagonist’s viewpoint and the reader learns something the protagonist doesn’t know yet. This creates suspense, because the reader knows something bad is in the works but the lead character doesn’t.

One last thought: many beginning readers try to avoid these viewpoint problems by writing in first-person narration. I do not receommend this. If you think first person is easier than third person–you’re wrong. It is far more challenging to do well, because it means staying in the voice of a character–who should not be a sassier, braver verison of the author–for an entire book. While it can be done, I think it’s best reserved for writers with experience and a clear view of their character’s unique identity.

Click here to learn more about the Red Sneaker Editing & Critique Service (I do the editing myself).

Maximize Your Writing Time

If there’s a universal lesson that I think all writers must learn, it’s that your most valuable commodity–by far–is time. I can teach people to write cleaner, more effectively, more dramatically, but the one thing I cannot do is teach people to write more quickly. Finishing a book is extremely time-consuming, and that will be true whether you’re on your first book or your forty-fourth. As soon as you hear someone grin and say, “I write fast,” you know it probably isn’t going to be very good.

As a writer, you have to measure “to-do” items, not simply in terms of need, or cost, but time. Sure, it will save you fifty cents to drive to the other side of the city and buy gas at that 7-11, but what is the cost to you in terms of time? To be more specific, how many words are you giving up to save fifty cents? Is it a good investment?

Given the importance of time to every writer, I’m going to list a few productivity tools I think are valuable. The most essential one is Dropbox or Google Drive. You need one or the other for two reasons: 1) to make sure you have a safe place to store your work, and 2) so you can share large files with agents, publishers, friends, fans. You may back up your computer to a cloud, or an external hard drive, and that’s a good idea, but you probably don’t want to share access to your complete hard drive. An inexpensive Dropbox account will allow you to share specific large files with anyone. It also allows you to access key files regardless of where you are or which device you’re currently using. (If you don’t have an external hard drive, CrashPlan provides a continuous 24/7 backup for the contents of your computer.)

Evernote is the world’s most popular organizer, or “to-do list” program. It is beautifully designed and easy to use. I compose the first drafts of these blog posts on it. I’ve also used it for outlines, research notes, or random ideas that occur to me when it’s inconvenient to write them out in detail. You can carry the app version on your phone, so even if you don’t have your computer with you, Evernote can store your ideas. If your desk is perpetually surrounded by Post-It notes, it may be time to consider Evernote.

Zoom is the best and cheapest online meeting service for conferencing with editors, agents, friends, students, colleagues. Apple users can use FaceTime, but amazingly, not everyone uses Apple devices.

If you create graphics, check out Canva. It’s somewhere between Gimp, which is completely free but limited, and Photoshop, which can do about anything but is extremely expensive. I wouldn’t use Canva to design a cover, but it’s fine for creating social media materials. I’ve started posting about my poetry on Instagram, because that’s the largest poetry community in the world today. But Instagram requires a visual. Canva allows me to create good ones. (If you need free/public domain visual images, go to VisualHunt).

SignUp Genius is the best bargain in online scheduling software. We used it at the last Rose State Writing Conference to schedule private consults, and it was a huge improvement over pencil-and-paper scheduling. Acuity Scheduling has more features, but it does require a small monthly charge.

Virtual Response is the email newsletter service I prefer (I use it to send out the Red Sneaker Newsletter). VR makes it easy and cheap to send email to large numbers of people. Inputting the addresses is streamlined and simple. If you have fewer than 2000 names on your mailing list, MailChimp is free–but you may find you soon outgrow it.

Just remember: Cool gadgets and gizmos are only advantageous is they give you more time to write–not if you’re playing with your gadgets when you should be writing. Make yourself write as often as possible, whether you are “in the mood” or not. That’s how books get finished.

Shopping for Writers

It’s that time again, like it or not. We were at the mall yesterday to see a movie, but we could barely get there for all the holiday shoppers scurrying frantically about. Is Christmas shopping still fun? Was it ever?

I bet you have some writers on your shopping list. I know I do. And this past week, I’ve seen several proposed shopping lists floating around the internet, all of which I thought terrible, filled with expensive tech gewgaws more likely to distract a writer than to aid one. So of course, I decided to prepare a list of my own.

Editing Tools. I’ve written a previous blog about the importance of outside editing for all writers, and I’m always available to help you find an incisive copyeditor. But some people are seeking advice on technical matters. Hemingway is an app that helps you improve readability. It tells you if you’re being too wordy or technical. Deadline and Grammarly are apps that check grammar and punctuation, but if you’re giving a gift, I suggest the more in-depth (and expensive) analysis provided by ProWritingAid. You paste in your text and it will give you many different reports (how many depends on how much you pay) and an overall summary. It will not only correct grammar but point out cliches, redundancies, vagaries, excessive dialogue tags, and much more.

Writing Tools. The most stylish writer in the house, Kadey, suggests a Tiffany & Co pen, preferably in the iconic baby blue. Diamonds are optional. I’m a fountain pen man myself, but I have to admit, they are lovely. If you don’t want to spend quite that much, try the Knock Knock Note Pads. They are hilarious. I prefer the Pep Talk version, because it seems to be speaking to writers with check boxes labeled “You Can Do It!” or “It Is What It Is.”

Consider an Assistant. Overwhelmed by the social media necessary to publicize a book these days? Consider an author assistant. The cost might be less than you imagine–find a bright English major by posting at your local community college. Every time you punt some chore like media posting or manuscript formatting or managing email or fact-checking or website management, you’ve bought yourself more time to write.

Illumination. Lara (author of the acclaimed novel The Wantland Files) suggests candles. This may be influenced by the fact that she writes in the bathtub (don’t laugh, so did Voltaire), and what’s the point of a bath without candles? Bath & Body Works is currently having a sale on their aromatherapy line.

Education. I would be remiss (and excessively modest) if I didn’t mention my summer writing retreats, which are also more affordable than you might imagine–I haven’t raised the price in ten years. My 2017 schedule is finalized, and if you register before the end of 2016, you get a 20% discount. I love working with aspiring writers, and the fact that more than two dozen of my students have gone on to publish with major publishers suggests that the retreats work. I know they’re a lot of fun. Here’s the schedule:

June 21-25, 2017 East Coast Retreat
Dolliver’s Neck Road
Gloucester MA 01930 (near Boston and Freeport)

June 28-July 2, 2017 Deep South Retreat
The Veranda
252 Seavy Street
Senoia GA 30276 (near Atlanta)

July 5-9, 2017 Ozark Mountains Retreat
The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow
515 Spring Street
Eureka Springs AR 72632

July 19-23, 2017 West Coast Retreat
Huntington Beach CA 92647 (near LA and Anaheim)

July 26-30, 2017 Southwest Retreat
2801 Parklawn Drive
Midwest City OK 73110 (near OKC)

For information about the retreats, call 405 203 8641 or visit my website: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

Here are some more links:

Tiffany pens 

Knock Knock Notes

Hemingway

Grammarly

ProWriting Aid

Candles

Don’t forget to enjoy Christmas!

Should My Novel Have Multiple Viewpoints?

During a visit to Thrillerfest a few years ago, I heard the same question posed to two different writers (during two different sessions). Each was asked, “How many viewpoint characters can you have?” The first author, who is successful and well-respected, answered, “Three is good. Five is the max.” When my friend Phillip Margolin received the same query, his answer was, “How many do you need?”

I’m with Phil, but I do think we need to establish some guidelines. You should have a central protagonist. Though there are exceptions to every rule, readers generally are happier when they know whose story they are following and who they are rooting for. Books with co-protagonists rarely work. So regardless of the number of viewpoints, the protagonist should have more scenes than anyone else and those should recur most frequently. I think it’s usually a bad idea to be away from the protagonist for more than a chapter.

Multiple viewpoint is more common today than it has been in previous eras. Arguably, the epistolary novel was a form of multiple viewpoint, but subsequently, single-viewpoint novels were more common. In time, though, writers realized that multiple viewpoint was a great way to drum up suspense. In mysteries and thrillers, a departure into the viewpoint of a competitor or villain allows the reader to know something the hero doesn’t–ratcheting up the tension (The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins). This might also give you an opportunity to make the antagonist more empathetic and less of a cardboard bad guy. In romances, multiple viewpoint–switching between hero and heroine, is more common today (A Run for Love by Callie Hutton). And you will also find it in SF/fantasy and literary fiction (The Hours by Michael Cunningham or The Help by Kathryn Stockett). Ultimately, you have to decide what is the best approach for telling your story.

I recall one of the best writers I know, David Morrill, railing against writers who introduce a viewpoint character for one chapter only (usually because the character dies at the end). For David, this is lazy writing. There’s always a better way to convey that scene than by asking the reader to become invested in a character who will never appear again. It’s not only a cheat but an unwelcome bit of misdirection. When you put your reader in a character’s viewpoint, you suggest that this character is important. They will not be pleased to learn the character is simply a victim. And it’s always a bad idea to introduce a new viewpoint just to drag in some exposition or infodump.

And now, having established the rules, let me explain how and when I broke them. When I wrote the last Ben Kincaid courtroom drama, Capitol Offense, one of the topics I wanted to address was the common law enforcement policy of not pursuing lost-person reports from a spouse until someone has been gone a long time, often as long as a week. Their excuse is that, in most cases, there’s been a squabble and the spouse has simply run off. But this policy has led to many tragic results. In my novel, Ben’s client was devastated by the loss of his wife–because the police waited too long to look for her. I wanted the reader to feel his pain, and to me, that meant they needed to know his wife personally. So I introduced the wife in the first scene, her work as an oncologist for children, her sense of humor, her great love for her husband. Obviously, she did not survive far into the story. But I still felt the excursion into her viewpoint was justified.

Capitol Offensehttps://smile.amazon.com/Capitol-Offense-Novel-Kincaid-Book-ebook/dp/B002PXFYJC/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1479663628&sr=8-1

Myth #7: The Key to Success is a Good Story Idea

Those of you who have attended my small-group writing retreats know that we spend precious little time brainstorming premises. Since I ask everyone to send me their work-in-progress before the retreat begins, I assume everyone already has an idea and wants some input on how to make it better. But doesn’t that mean I’m overlooking something important? Doesn’t that mean I’ve skipped Square One?

No. Here’s the truth. Ideas are everywhere, and most of them are variations on themes that have been around much longer than we have. One of the great benefits of maintaining a regular writing schedule is that, once your subconscious knows you’re going to be writing every day, it keeps an eye out for stuff to write about. You can’t browse through bookstore, or see a film, or read a newspaper, or even walk down the street without being bombarded with ideas. Most professional writers have far more ideas than they could ever write. When it comes time to start a new book, they have to sift the wheat from the chaff and pick the one (or combine several) to write.

Here’s another truth: If you look at the breakout hits, or the books on the bestseller lists, you’ll mostly see books of excellent quality. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the core idea is breathtakingly original. You’ll find mysteries, thrillers, romances, historical melodramas–variations on established themes. I hope the characters seem fresh and the situations aren’t hackneyed…but there will always be a core of familiarity. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because part of the reason people read fiction, and particularly genre fiction, is because it’s comfortable. Readers hope you bring energy and excitement to it, but they don’t necessarily expect, or even want, you to reinvent the wheel.

If that’s true, you may be wondering, how do I make my book stand out? How do I make it catch the eye of an agent or editor? This is what I map out in my book Promising Premise. You take your core idea and build it into something wonderful. Here’s that book’s must-have list:

High stakes

Emotional appeal

Inherent conflict

Believability

Fresh Spin

And if you don’t know what I mean by all those…what can I say? Go get the book.

And if you’ve done all that and you’re still not selling…it’s not the idea, it’s the writing. May I direct you to Sizzling Style?

Promising Premise: https://smile.amazon.com/Powerful-Premise-Writing-Irresistible-Sneaker-ebook/dp/B00Z4RN5QU/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1479070966&sr=1-1

Sizzling Style: https://smile.amazon.com/Sizzling-Style-Matters-Sneaker-Writers-ebook/dp/B00JRESCOQ/ref=pd_sim_351_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=6QTAP02R1XGAH7CWD0X1

Myth #6: Real Writers Are Compelled to Write…Always

Here I am, posting a blog the day before Election Day, trying to come up with some jazzy way to tie this into the election–and I already used “Fear” last time. Darn! This is what comes from not thinking ahead.

Today the myth I’m addressing, one you have likely heard many times, is “Writing is a compulsion,” or perhaps “I can’t not write.” Some aspiring or amateur writers love to say this stuff because it sounds so writerly. But is writing a compulsion? Since I always advise people to commit to a regular writing schedule and to write every day, you may be thinking I will buy off on this one.

Wrong. (See, I just quoted a candidate. I’m making this work.) I can’t not write? Give me a break. I love writing, especially when the words are flowing and I can tell it’s good. But I can’t not write? There’s a new episode of Black Mirror on tv, I haven’t worked the NYT crossword yet, I’m still trying to learn that Death Cab for Cutie song on the piano, I’m halfway through Anne Tyler’s new book…you get the drift? There are a lot of marvelous things I could be doing other than writing. So don’t kid a kidder. I could not write. But I will anyway. I will make myself write, because I know that’s the only way a book gets finished. It’s not that I can’t. It’s that I force myself to do it anyway.

This doesn’t mean I dislike writing. It means writing is hard work, which is why you commit to a schedule, basically telling yourself that even thought there are other things I could be doing, I’m going to force myself to get words down on paper anyway.

This leads directly into another great writer myth: writer’s block. This is another topic not-yet writers like to talk about because it sounds so romantic and tortured and deep. But truth is, this is a complete hoax. You never hear anyone complaining that they have plumber’s block. What makes writers so special? Why do we get a ready-made excuse for not working? Isn’t this just self-indulgence? Isn’t this just coming up with an excuse for not working that doesn’t require you to admit that writing isn’t a compulsion? “I can’t not write…but today the words aren’t flowing. I’m blocked.”

Roz Morris said, “If you’re the kind of person who believes that block will stop you, you’re the type to get it.”

To me, writer’s block means: 1) you don’t know what happens next because you didn’t think it through before you started, 2) you can’t think of anything to write about, or 3) you don’t know why you’re writing. If it’s   the first problem, sit down and make an outline. This will not only help you see the big picture, it will be so painful that tomorrow you’ll be anxious to write. If it’s the second problem, go to the library (or bookstore, if you can find one). Walk through the stalls. Read some dust jackets. Not to copy–to be inspired. Ideas will fly at you. And if it’s the third problem, insufficient motivation, honestly, this may not be the right profession for you. Perhaps you like the idea of working with books but not writing itself. There are other occupations in the book industry you could consider.

Or you could (shameless plug) read my book Powerful Premise. Because if you do want to be a writer, I think that book will get your neurons firing and put you on the path to starting a book that you will work on every day, not because you’re compelled to do so, but because you’ve got a terrific story to tell and you want other to read it.

Don’t forget to vote tomorrow. Unless you’re planning to vote for the wrong person. Then you should stay home.

Powerful Premise: https://www.amazon.com/Powerful-Premise-Writing-Irresistible-Sneaker/dp/0692425101

Myth #5: I Fear I Can’t Write Because…

Since I’m posting this on Halloween, I thought it appropriate to continue the series on writing myths by specifically addressing the single factor that has prematurely ended more promising writing careers than anything else: Fear.

What are you afraid of? There must be something. Comes with the DNA. We have different fears, but there’s always something at the core creating insecurity or concern. And that’s a problem for a writer. Because a writer by definition has to, first, create something that never existed before and, second, put it out there for others to read. That requires a bit of ego–the assumption that you’ve written something worthy of another’s attention. Fear will prevent you from mustering the necessary ego to push forward.

Let me address a fear I’ve seen repeatedly in my writing retreats: fear about writing skills. Note I used the word “skills,” not “ability.” You can learn to write better–that’s the whole point of the retreats. But some people are better spellers, or better with grammar. Personally, I’ve never been a particularly brilliant speller. I’ve learned to check when unsure. And not to rely on SpellCheck, which at best tells me whether the letters I’ve typed make a word, not whether they make the word I intend. SpellCheck is useful, but there is no StupidCheck. When in doubt, look it up. Which you can do on that phone in your pocket in about five seconds.

Similarly, I’ve had students worry about their grammar or punctuation. “Do all writers have to be grammar Nazis?” No, I say, pointing out that the Nazis actually lost the war, and you want to win the battle to be published. You will have to acquire those grammar skills, though. GrammarCheck is better than it used to be, but far from perfect, and it will probably never understand that fiction writers sometimes deliberately use fragments, or write dialogue in colloquial language or slang.

Fortunately, there are many free tools online for improving your grammar, and if you take advantage of them on a daily basis, you will soon see your skills improve. There are many grammar blogs (Grammar Girl is the most popular), grammar email service (Word-of-the-Day), and even grammar games and apps. At the end of this blog I’ll post a list of excellent grammar-related websites. If need be, hire a tutor, which you can also find online or perhaps at the local community college. But do not let this readily fixable problem deter you from achieving your dreams.

The last fear I often hear is someone worrying that they haven’t read enough to be a writer. Look, it is not necessary to have an advanced degree in English Literature to write a book. It is not even necessary that you be “well read.” What is essential is that you be extremely familiar with the kind of lit you want to write. You can’t write romances if you don’t know how they go. You can’t write SF if you don’t know what’s already been done.

But reading the Great Books, while beneficial, is not essential. I have a good friend who is an extremely successful thriller writer who often laments that he hasn’t read the classics. So he can’t recite poetry or drop Shakespearean quotations or other pompous stuff I’m more likely to do at dinner. But he knows the world of thrillers inside out (much better than I do). It’s all he reads, all he’s ever read. And that gave him the background he needed to build the writing career he wanted.

Mark Twain said “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” So this year, celebrate Halloween by banishing fear and committing to the writing career you want. If necessary, start reading in your area or playing online grammar games. But the most important step is to start writing, regularly, every day. Commit to the future you want.

Grammar Websites: https://prowritingaid.com/art/111/10-Websites-to-Help-Improve-Your-Grammar.aspx

Inspiration and Commitment

Hemingway wrote about “a clean, well-lighted place.” Virginia Woolf wanted “a room of her own.” E.M. Forster wrote about “a room with a view.” Sandra Dee wanted “a summer place…”

Okay, I’m starting to digress. But you knew what I was saying at the outset, right? A writer needs a place to write. Ideally that place is quiet and distraction-free so you can muster the enormous focus required to write a novel. Or for that matter, a short story.  Or a magnificent poem.

Studies have shown that, unlike computers, we do not multitask. We focus on one thing at a time, and when we try to do more, we are in reality rapidly shifting our focus in ways that undermine the quality of our work. Only one task can be in focus. The rest are on autopilot. This can make the already daunting task of writing even more daunting, especially when there are children in the house and dirty laundry, etc.

I totally get it. While I raised my first batch of children, I learned to block out everything. You can tell your kids not to bother you unless they’re bleeding or on fire, but we all know it doesn’t actually work that way. So we end up scrabbling for time wherever we can find it. I’ve written in shopping malls and hospitals and parking lots. When you’re trying to get a book finished, I told myself, you can’t be too choosy.

If you’ve read my Red Sneaker novels, you know I advise aspiring writers to commit to a written contract in which they promise themselves they will establish a schedule and stick to it–two hours a day, four hours a day, six. Or so many pages or words a day, whatever works for you. Sign the contract in the back of the book and get the other members of your household to sign it too. You want them to respect your commitment? Get it in ink.

Some distractions you can eliminate yourself. Hire a babysitter if possible. Get someone else to pick the kids up after school, or let them ride the bus. Tell the other members of the household to do their own laundry. And by all means, turn off those email and text pop-ups on your computer. Shut off the wi-fi. Pry your cell phone out of your hands.

At the Rose State conference last weekend, Katherine Center talked about stealing away to a family place in Galveston to write. Michael Crichton used to check into the Beverly Hills Hilton for a month to do the same. I personally have spent too much of my life in hotels and have no desire to ever do it again.

Happily, there is an alternative. The writer’s colony.

A decade ago, there were more than a hundred writer’s colonies in the US. Today, there are about thirty. If we do not support them, soon there will be none. Lara and I travel to Eureka Springs at least twice a year to spend time at the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow, a beautiful mountain retreat. Costs all of $75 a night, food included. You can write all day without interruption, surrounded by some of the most glorious scenery on earth. Last year I even held two five-day writer’s retreats there, and they were huge successes. I’m doing it again next year (June 7-11). Lara and I have spent the past few days at Dairy Hollow (I’m writing this on our beautiful balcony) and I felt compelled to share this inspirational opportunity with you.

The most important thing, of course, is that you find the time and quiet to write. If a writer’s colony will help you get it done, go for it. Dairy Hollow still has space available in 2016, and lots more in 2017. Make the commitment to your writing future. Make your reservation today.

Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow

What Should I Write Next?

Many times throughout my life (including this weekend at my writing conference), I’ve heard people ask what book they should write next. What genre should they pursue? Should they chase the latest trend? Should they write this idea or another? My reply is always the same: Which idea do you care about most?

If you don’t care about a book, if it doesn’t mean anything to you, there is no point in writing it. This past weekend, I heard the wonderful Katherine Center advising people to write a book they would want to read. Excellent. Why write an idea or genre you don’t care about? Don’t tell me you’re doing it for money. That book will not turn out well, so you’re not going to get rich off it. Of my forty-three published books, only one was based on someone else’s idea–and it’s by far the worst book I ever wrote. (No, I will not tell you which one that was.)

Chasing the latest trend is even stupider–because by the time you get a book written, the trend will probably be over. Fads come and go (legal thrillers, chick lit, dystopian YA, you name it). How long they last is impossible to predict, but imagine your poor agent being stuck with a book that he or she can’t sell because the fad has passed. Worse if you spent a year writing it, never liked it, didn’t care about it–and now no one will ever read it. A year gone for no good reason.

The marvelous David Morrell always advises people to write the book that matters to them most. (That’s the one that will likely turn out best, too). David’s theory is that even if the market turns against you and you can’t sell it, it was still worth doing, because it was important to you. David only rarely has written a non-thriller, but when he did, you can be assured it was for a good personal reason.

Which brings me to my most recent novel, Challengers of the Dust. I am aware that some of my readers would much rather have another Ben Kincaid novel, or at least a thriller. But the truth is, I’ve written eighteen Ben books and they no longer represent a challenge. I hit a round-number birthday and started to envision a tombstone that only said: HE WROTE A BUNCH OF BEN BOOKS. I wanted to do more, so I left the series behind and focused on other characters and other forms. I don’t regret this decision in the least.

I love my two poetry books and the reviews they have received are the best I’ve seen in my entire life. These books will not put my children through college, but I am very glad I wrote them. This most recent novel was a shot from the heart, a chance to bring some Oklahoma history to life with two eccentric characters unburdened by thriller elements. It’s not boring, but don’t ask me what genre it fits into, because I don’t think it does.

I also think it’s the best book I’ve ever written. Thank goodness I took time to write it while I could.  I wouldn’t trade the praise I’ve received for these last three books for all the royalty checks on earth.

Are you planning a book? Heed my words. Write from the heart.

Link to Challengers of the Dust