Archive for category: Creative Writing

I heard of Project Greenlight when it launched over a decade ago, but I never followed the series. I recently watched the existing three seasons and am now following the new one (and all its controversy).

The show is a great lesson in creating art, creating art that sells, and what happens when you’re in the business of creating art that sells. Biggest take away: In Hollywood, everything is a team effort. I’d say the same is true in publishing as well.

Purists will think it’s evil, but I’m all for making a living doing what I love to do: telling stories. And one thing I know I’m ready for — in fact, I’m craving — is collaboration. I want a team that believes in my talent and is just as invested in seeing me succeed as I am.

Of course, having a team means it’s no longer about “I.” It’s about us. I can come to the table with a complete manuscript and vision, but that’s just the beginning. A lot can, should, and will change as a result of the collaborative process. My job is to stand up for the integrity of my vision. But my job is also to accept that other people can come to the table with good ideas for making my vision even sharper and to embrace (and welcome) these ideas.

I haven’t always felt this way. With my first two novels, I was very protective of the art. Had I worked with a developmental editor or an agent back then, I think it would have been hard for me (and, as a result, for them) because I was too close to the work, too wedded to my vision, too insistent on my ownership of it. I’m past that.

I think the work I’ve done for the last three years on Novel #3 (affectionately called Little Fucker) broke me, and not in a bad way. I’m much stronger now. I can remove myself from the work and look at it with a ruthlessly critical eye. I’m confident and unapologetic when I say to myself (or anyone else), “It’s not working. I need to fix it and do better.” And I have no patience for people who don’t get the fact that sometimes the writing doesn’t work and sometimes starting over is actually a smart move and indicates real progress and maturity on the writer’s part. I’m beyond the need for ego-stroking, even though my ego still very much exists and I want to produce something that readers are going to love.

One of my favorite movies is Casablanca. The story-to-screenplay was very much a collaborative effort, with several writers touching it. (From my understanding, this is common in American cinema. Screenwriters need to get used to letting go of their work.) While novelists get the billing on their novels, there’s a team behind them (agents, editors, copy editors, etc.).

And I’m OK with that. More than OK.

Like I said — progress.

Updated to add: I love this article by Emma Donoghue, author of Room — the novel and screenplay. She talks about the challenges of writing a screenplay and the importance of collaboration.

Updated to add (2/15/21): Got a nice email from someone today about adding a reminder to this post to shop Black-owned businesses whenever possible. Check out the link for a great roundup! And another email from June 2021 encourages readers to consider various reasons to support the BLM movement.

When it comes to my revision process, I often use the word “gut,” as in “I need to gut the damn thing.” It’s an apt visual, since the process is messy, stinky, and results in metaphorical entrails being strewn about the house.

I actually love this process and love forcing myself to take major risks and do something that might not make sense on the surface. (What? Kill off a main character? Turn the good guy into the bad guy? Start the story two years earlier? Add flying monkeys and a creature from outer space? Oh-kee-dokee.)

It’s a good exercise, and an important exercise. And I’m not alone in these gutting moments.

A few weeks ago, I re-watched The Sopranos. The first time I binged on the series, which was only a couple of years ago, I likened the experience to inhaling a pizza or pint of ice cream when you’re REALLY hungry. You kinda slurp it all down in one big gulp without taking the time to savor the flavors. It still tastes great and leaves you satisfied, but you miss some of the nuances along the way.

So I decided to re-watch and study from a craft perspective. Think dialogue. Scene-setting. Pacing. Character development. It’s all there. David Chase and his writers are masters.

But even with a series like The Sopranos, one where Chase had so much control, he still had to do some major gutting every now and then. Chase was forced to re-think the whole third season due to the fact Nancy Marchand, who played Tony’s mother Livia Soprano, died in real life.

Originally, he’d planned on having a major storyline that would involve Livia testifying against her own son. That definitely would have been a great story. But then Marchand passed way, and Chase needed to gut the storyline and completely rethink it.

Would his original vision have been better than what he came up with? We have no way of knowing, but I DO know that season 3 was brilliant just the same.

I guess my point is this: don’t be afraid to gut and go in a completely crazy and different direction. You might be surprised by the results, and it’s good practice if you work in a publishing environment where you don’t have complete control over your work (and I don’t just mean fiction writing or television, either…I’ve had the occasional copywriting client who’s nixed whatever it is I wrote, forcing me to start over).

It’s been so long since I’ve logged into my site that I had to ping my web guy because I forgot my username and PW.

Turns out, I didn’t forget; he had to do some major updates back in June and reset everything. He’s provided me with a clever, naughty password (NO, I’M NOT TELLING) so all is write with the world. I mean RIGHT. Jesus.

Speaking of writing, I’ve been doing a lot of it. Been working on the book that I affectionately refer to as “Little Fucker.” For over THREE YEARS. I’m on version 3.5, which looks nothing like what I started with.

For those keeping track, even if it’s only me when I think of logging in and browsing through my past posts, here’s the scoop:

  • Draft 1.0 started on May 5, 2012. I have a memory for these things, but don’t ask me who was president in 1849. No clue.
  • Ditched and started over about 6-ish months later, but 1.0 was never a complete draft — it was only 60,000 words. Because it wasn’t complete, I’m calling the next “draft” version 1.5.
  • Draft 1.5 started in late 2012 or early 2013.
  • Finished 1.5 in February of 2014. 100,000 polished words.
  • Ditched 1.5 in June of 2014 and started draft 2.5.
  • Finished 2.5 in March of 2015.
  • Ditched 2.5 in June 2015. Started draft 3.5.
  • Finished 3.5 this past weekend.

When I talk to non-writers about this, I get one of several reactions. They’re either appalled, confused, or convinced I obviously don’t know what I’m doing.

When I talk to writers about this, they nod knowingly. Drafting, ditching, and drafting again is part of many writers’ processes (though not all, and that’s OK, too). There’s no shame in working at something until you get it right.

“But how do you know when it’s right?” people always ask.

See, that’s the thing. I WILL know. It’s a feeling. That doesn’t mean everyone will love what I wrote. Far from it. I’m writing for the people who loved What Happened in Granite Creek, because I consider that my strongest work to date. I KNEW when that novel was done, and for versions 1.0 through 2.5 of Little Fucker, I KNEW those versions weren’t there. Something was always nagging in the back of my head.

With version 3.5, I feel the structure is there, although I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up putting quite a bit more work into certain sections and possibly even moving stuff around. But the overall structure, which for me is everything, is there.

I think.

Stay tuned.

Shout out to all the folks participating in National Novel Writing Month this month, more affectionately known as NaNoWriMo‬.

The goal? Write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I did NaNo back in 2004. Got the T-shirt to prove it, which I still wear proudly (it always garners many curious stares at the local Stop ‘n Shop).

I consider NaNo a major turning point in my life as a writer. When I did it, I finally gave myself permission to…

  1. Write forward. Up until that point, I was spending WAY too much time trying to perfect the first 10-20 pages instead of just getting the darn thing drafted.
  2. Write crap. A lot of crap. Knowing I could go back and fix it.
  3. Put my writing first. If you want to write 50,000 words in a month, then you need to say no to many things, like TV, navel-gazing, and generalized procrastination, all of which I excel at.
  4. Be gentle if I didn’t quite make my word count one day.
  5. Be happy when I did.
  6. Keep going, no matter what.

For all you writers out there, go get ’em. And for those living with someone doing NaNo, be supportive by offering lots of chocolate and coffee. And plenty of praise and wine on 12/1.

Last summer, I ditched 60,000 words from my work-in-progress and started over from scratch. I finished the manuscript this past February. We’re talking a completed, polished, I-thought-it-was-ready manuscript.

I was wrong.

Two things happened: I gave the book to nine beta readers. Got feedback from four. Crickets from the rest. The feedback I got was mostly mixed. I also put the manuscript in a drawer from the end of Feb to early June. Didn’t touch it once.

In June, I read the whole thing. And I saw what the problem was. I hadn’t inconvenienced my readers. It was a book that people could put down.

I emailed those five quiet betas after I read the book and told them they were off the hook, that I was going in a different direction. (I didn’t want there to be any hard feelings.) I received polite, grateful replies from most of them. I talked to three of those folks, and they all said the same thing: they enjoyed what they had read so far, which wasn’t much, but they just didn’t have time. That’s not the kind of writing I want to produce. I want to produce writing that makes people continue reading even when they’re too busy and they don’t have time. That’s what my favorite books do.

This particular manuscript was my strongest prose to date, and that’s where I stumbled. I was paying too much attention to the sentence-to-sentence work rather than the plot. This has happened to me before (I remember when my faculty advisor in grad school made the same observation about my work…that I tend to be at my best in the “drafty” moments).

So, that’s where I’m at. Starting over. Again. I have no idea if I’ll be able to salvage this. Only time will tell.

And yeah, it was disappointing (to put it mildly) as all hell to start over from scratch.

But that’s life.

That’s art.


The fine folks at Goodreads launched a new feature a few weeks ago: questions for authors. For those authors who’ve enabled goodreads_iconthe feature, readers can ask them questions. And yep, I’ve enabled it.

Here are the questions I’ve answered so far, including direct links to my answers.

You can ask me a question by filling in the box at the top of the page here (you need to be a Goodreads member).

Ask away!

According to everyone’s favorite big brother—Google—an average of 20 people every month search on this phrase: I have an idea for a book.

(Perhaps you landed on this blog post for that very reason.)

After you conduct a search like that, Google will spit up many pages with recommendations, suggestions, and directives on What To Do Next, but honest, there’s only one thing a person like you bursting with an idea can do, that is if you expect the idea to take, to work, to stand a chance in this often cold, brutal world. Just start writing.

Give your idea a shape. Give it words. Give it color. Give it its own goddamn file name in its very own folder on your computer, a folder that proudly proclaims: My Writing.

Own it. Write it. And keep writing.

All those pages that Google produced when you first made your query, they’ll still be there—along with plenty of others—long after your idea becomes more than some ethereal thing that lives in a place between sleeping and waking. Enjoy watching it grow and fall down and pick itself up again. Revel in the moments when it feels like your soul’s on fire and could fuel you forever, just you, your keyboard, and the thoughts burning deep inside in a space you never knew existed until you did just that—you allowed it to come to life and exist.

Avoid any naysayers who tell you to do something else or how hard it will be or hey, do you have a publisher yet? or hey, do you know how many people try and fail to write a book?

Protect the writing, this child of your imagination, until it’s ready to go on its first date, its first drive, its first night away from home. You’ll know when this time comes, precisely because you’ll be thinking, Gee…I think it’s time? Is it time? What can I do to it next? What can I do to make it better?

Then, go back to Google. Or Bing. Or the local bookstore. Or the library. Only then review the many pages and books and tutorials on what to do when you have an idea for a book.

If you made it this far, if this search brought you here, what are you waiting for? Close down this page, open one of your own, and start writing.


I want to inconvenience my readers.

I want to make them wonder, Shit, did I feed the cat? Did I feed the kids? I want their laundry and dishes to pile high, flies flitting overhead. I want them to lose sleep, wages, their sanity, their knowledge of themselves and the world, because they’re so goddamned invested in my books.

I want them to constantly think, Just one more page, just one more chapter, until they look up and see the night slipping into dawn, and they’re bleary-eyed, exhausted, and totally fucked for their day ahead, but it’s OK, because they have a secret, a delicious secret: A world they’ve entered, a world where anything can happen, a world they can return to in their minds during diaper duty and dog poop patrol, during boring conference calls, during trips to the company cafeteria with its inane chatter of co-workers playing in one endless loop as they stand by the microwave, counting down the seconds until they can take their Lean Cuisine and escape to their cube for a few more pages.

I want them to curse my name, because they’re addicted now, they can’t let go. I’m booze. I’m coke. I’m that thing that gets wedged in their craw, uncomfortable, riding up. I’m the feeling they have before they scratch the itch, before they sneeze, before they cum, and the only release is one more page. One more page until they get to the end and close the book, tingly and sad, but satisfied.

I want to disrupt their lives so that they are never, ever the same.

If I do this, then I’ve done my job.


[UPDATE: Someone said I should include a link to one of my books, the one I think will inconvenience readers the most. What Happened in Granite Creek is it. If you decide to give it a go, thank you. Hope you find it equal parts disturbing and disruptive.]

A month ago, I had coffee with a friend and fellow writer. We swapped updates on our works-in-progress. I explained how the current section I was working on had frustrated me for the longest time because it took me forever to figure out how to structure it, but that once I had, the writing went fast.

My friend wanted to know if I was writing this section in the same Word doc as the rest of my novel, or if I’d isolated it into its own Word doc. I told her that I’d isolated it into its own Word doc FOUR separate times. For the first three, I thought I’d figured it out each time, only to discover I hadn’t. These docs were labeled innocuous things like “Eleanor – 1” and “Eleanor – deux” and “Eleanor – part trois,” just so I could keep all the different versions clear in case I needed to go back to them. (Eleanor is the name of the character telling the story in this section of the book.) By the time I hit another wall with “part trois,” I became so frustrated that I opened up a new Word doc and named it GODDAMN ELEANOR.

Yes, in caps.

Then, the breakthrough came. Coincidence? I think not. Sometimes you need to get angry. I think it sends a message to your subconscious that you’re serious so no more farting around.

A fellow writer/fan emailed me this question a few weeks ago, and I thought I’d share my answer here:

QUESTION: How do you manage to keep the writing momentum going while also working full time? That’s what I struggle the most with these past couple of months. I haven’t been writing on a regular basis for a long time… This is sad. To be honest, I’m in a slump! Work (professionally speaking) drains me. Family life keeps me really busy. There’s also the house to look after, the walks with the dog (they’re fun, though), our social activities, etc. Argh. It’s really hard to find some quality time to write. Usually I do it late at night, but recently I have been “brain-dead”and have been watching movies instead… Procrastination and lack of discipline seem to be my best buddies. How do you do it Robyn, I mean, how do you keep writing regularly without losing the momentum?

I really need to kick myself in the butt!

MY ANSWER: Ah, you ask a good question, my friend. And I definitely struggle with it. This past summer, I found myself putting my creative work last on the list, which was NOT a good thing for me to do. So back on August 19, I started my disciplined “boot camp,” as I call it. Up at 5am every day. I work on the novel from 5am to 7am. Then I work out, shower, get dressed and face my “second” work day (the one that pays the majority of the bills at the moment). When I’m lucky, I get to work on the novel some more in the afternoon. But that’s gravy. The 5am to 7am is a must.

I think it’s just a matter of discipline. Kinda like training for a marathon. You just need to put in the reps. So my suggestion would be this: could you get up even 30 minutes earlier than you are now and write? Maybe not every day of the week–even 30 minutes of writing three days a week will add up. If that’s not doable, what about your lunch hour (do you get an hour)? Could you bring your lunch to work and then close the door (or go some place with a door) and write for 30 minutes?

Once you get back into a rhythm, you’ll probably find that you’re eager to get back to the page…and then you’ll be creating all sorts of time for the writing. I find that happens with me, especially when I’m deep into a work, as I am now.