Interview on my writing technique

Perhaps it was my recent fifteen minutes of fame as Six-Word Memorist of the Day, my charismatic writing style, or simply that I was available at the exact moment needed that brought me to the attention of a freelance reporter working on an investigative project on the creative process. As a pianist—I started piano lessons at age five—and a composer, (I have written 200 songs, one I finished), and I am intrigued by many aspects of the creative process. I am especially curious how the reporter will answer one of the questions she is pursuing: how does a composer know the right note is the right note?

We made an appointment to meet Thursday evening and do our exchange via instant messaging. That way the words could be easily captured (we used gmail chat) and the free flow of our conversation could progress without the restriction of trying to scribble as fast as someone can talk.

I actually am a master of this, scribbling, and honed my skill in school, determined to survive in, what for me was, a laptop-less world. The downside of possessing this talent, is that, for the rest of your life, your handwriting sucks. I even had a manager note it once on a performance review, ‘improve handwriting.’ Yeah, Rick, I never forget an offense, and good thing he didn’t answer my real question, “How do I get to be a boss just like you? Huh, huh?!” Obviously, no one, aspires to emulate the bold move of incisive supervisory commentary on handwriting over an employee’s productive work. Which brings me to a piece of FLAIR I received on FaceBook, “Please don’t annoy the writer, she’ll write you in a book and kill you.” I have big plans for many ‘characters’ I’ve met in real life, but that’s another story. And Rick wasn’t all bad. He allowed me to blow off steam when I needed to vent venom in a world that challenged salespeople beyond belief, but back to the story at hand.

Before we get too far in-depth I’d like to encourage you to read all the way to the end, if for no other reason than to see how effortlessly I emulate the figure represented as reporter Kai D.

Instant messaging (IM) allowed the reporter to do two things at once, interview me and surf other sites while interviewing me. Most of the time I would feel offended by not holding a reporter’s rapt attention, but this gal was obviously adept at balancing more than one activity, and pleasant enough to disband any feelings of disrespect I may have otherwise held against her, which is to say I didn’t even NOTICE until we were almost DONE. So, let’s listen to the interview…

Reporter: Have you gone to a writing conference? What was the experience like?

The First Carol: I attended two last year. Rose City Romance Writers Retreat and Willamette Writers Conference. At the RCRW we studied the ‘hero’s journey,’ the basic outline of every story on earth. Halfway through the retreat confirmed A Single Pearl had a good story line and that was encouraging. The second conference was much larger. It was very intense, and I was filled with a high number of A-HA! moments and couldn’t wait to go home and write (re-write). Also, at the WW conference I was able to network with a dozen literary agents. That was fun—I like meeting people, have no problem talking to strangers, and kind of took on the persona that I was the hostess (I was a volunteer halfdays) and that it was my ‘job’ to be friendly. I have a great anecdote about meeting the VP at MGM Pictures, Luke Ryan. That’s for another story, too.

Reporter: Do you follow the six processes mentioned in Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon (cultivate deep listening, silence critics; banish censors, practice riff-writing, revise from your truth, harvest your emotions, catch fireflies) and do they help you to refine your creative writing style and _voice_?

The First Carol: Hmm, I cultivate my head. I actually hear character conversations in my head. They usually occur first thing in the morning, in the shower, I imagine them talking to each other and they take on a life of their own. When I’m combing my hair I start talking to myself about work issues, but that’s another subject.

Yes, I do silence critics. The worst critic in all our lives is ourselves. It’s the tiny voice that tells us we can’t do something, or if we did, it wouldn’t be that good. I really think we have to be careful of what we say to ourselves. We should find ways to pump ourselves up, for instance, “MAN! I’m a GREAT writer!” If we woke up every morning and greeted our little sleepy-self with a BIG-BIG-HUGE positive affirmation it would send us light years ahead of where we actually are. Your brain/head doesn’t know the difference between fact and fiction, you can tell it something not great, “Gees, I’m stupid,” and pretty soon your head will figure out how to make you stupid. Or, you can give yourself a reputation to live up to, “Wow, I’m a creative genius,” and your head will figure out how to make that happen. The theory of head-talking I learned from selling Mary Kay. That company is very big on encouraging people to be and do their best,

Banish censors: when you are writing, everyone has an opinion. You can try each opinion on, but if they don’t fit, take them off. You are the master of your universe, your story. It has to fit with you. It can get better, or improved with feedback, but if the feedback isn’t getting you where you need to go, plug your ears and move on.

If ‘revise from your truth’ means that somewhere deep within me my story comes from me, or is about me, I guess I would have to say that is partially true. While the exact situations in the book did not happen to me personally, I can relate with what most of the characters, if not all, feel. So, indeed, we must harvest our emotions. If we do not, our story will lack depth, clarity and that touch of realism that communicates to the reader a real passion that the reader can identify with.

Catch fireflies: I worried about this when I first read that hint, or tip from Elizabeth Lyon. Her theory is that we create/receive a brilliant thought or idea, and if we do not immediately write it down, we lose it. I find I can capture those thoughts at this moment or the next when I sit down and begin writing. Remember, I have to get from the shower to somewhere and there’s a lot of in between on that road.

In my experience, what supports me to refine my creative writing style and voice is one simple action: writing. The art of writing, is writing, revising, reading it out loud to yourself, reading it out loud to someone else, receiving feedback and re-writing, re-writing, re-writing. If you want to be involved in an art where you feel you are never done, try writing. Just choose your critics well.

Reporter: Do you prefer reading silently or out loud while editing your manuscript? Which is more effective for your editing process? Why does it help more than the other?

The First Carol
: I use a handful of techniques. One, I write using a computer, so the bulk of my writing is done right on screen. Two, I print it out and I SEE much clearer what needs to be adjusted; I’m a very visual person. Next, I read out loud to prepare myself to read to my critique group, a practice we learned in Novel Writing Boot Camp, taught by Caroline Rose and Mike Nettleton. We are allotted 12 minutes of manuscript each week, and I like to know where mine will end—how far I can get. Sometimes I read more than 12 minutes, BUT I own the stopwatch and run it, so I’m the only one who really knows when I do that, except for those moments when I go overboard. I’ve had two…of those moments. All techniques have an effect, what is most effective, difficult to say. Perhaps as I hone my craft I’ll find one works better than the others, but I really see myself using as many as possible as often as possible.

Reporter: Elizabeth Lyon says to read alone as to not perform your writing. Do you think this helps you to create better writing? Does “performing” for your critique group help refine you writing more than you do alone?

The First Carol: It is very hard NOT to perform your writing (for me), and our critique group puts in voice inflection when we read. In the class I took, Novel Writing Boot Camp, one of our teachers read in a monotone to demonstrate how we should read. The idea is the words have to be the part that drives you or draws you into the story, not a good voice performer. I can’t do it, well, I won’t do. I like to entertain my group with my story. I read it the way I hear it.

Reporter: What are some of your judgment/thoughts compared to your constructive criticism from yourself about the novel you are writing?

The First Carol: Well, first of all I am insane.

Reporter: I understand that.

The First Carol: I know, I know, personal experience with your mother gives you a lot of insight into this interview 🙂 Okay, here’s what I find interesting about my story writing experience, I had an idea spinning around in my head, I started writing it on scraps of paper, little tidbits of ideas, I started organizing those ideas onto 3×5’s, then I said, “Shoot, I should put this in the computer in a WORD document where it could be flushed out and developed. Okay, maybe the word is fleshed out, please don’t flush me.

Once I began writing I could not stop, I was driven, I was a crazy woman, I wouldn’t talk to my kid, I wouldn’t answer my phone. I HAD TO GET THIS STORY OUT OF MY HEAD. Then I had it out of my head and I thought, “Man, this stuff is good, this is really good.” Then I went through a major edit, and I said, “Man, what I wrote before was crap, but THIS is good, this is really good.” Then I went through another major edit, and I said, “Man, what I wrote before was crap, but THIS is good, this is really good.” Then I went through a major edit, and I said, “Man, what I wrote before was crap, but THIS is good…

Do you get the picture? Each step of the way I thought I was good, and for me, in that moment of my writing career, I was the best I could be with the tools that I had. Then I went to a retreat, took a couple of classes, went to a writers conference, went to a all day seminar, and at each step I was revising and editing and I could see how my craft was improving and how the story was also taking better shape and improving. Here is what scares me, my critique group has been absolutely, undeniably critical to the progress of developing the book. What happens if I lose my critique group? Will I be able to complete volume two and volume three in the Pearl Trilogy? I’m sure I can, but will it be as good, or will it be ANY good? Angst.

Reporter: Do you have an emotional aspect to your characters that are attributed to real life humans? What are some examples?

The First Carol: Are you asking if the characters are based on real life people?

Reporter: Yes, kinda. but not really. Do they have attributes that can be related to everyday people?

The First Carol: Of course, if they did not I’m not sure I’d have a story, the reader has to connect with the characters as if they WERE real people, in fact, one of the gals in my critique group leaves me notes that lets me know she really cares about the people in the story, and wishes something in their life was different, or she really hates them; she’s got a teeter-totter of emotions going on with Lee—at the moment she hates him. If I’ve done my job well, as a writer, at the end of the book she will feel about him the way I do.

Reporter: Where do your techniques come from?

The First Carol
: I had a VERY good high school English teacher. Actually, I had about three. I learned what techniques writers employed when they wrote a great story. I learned the undertones of the story. I like to add things or weave ideas in that would give a book club something REALLY fun to discuss. For instance, my characters have colors. Sandy (notice the name) is all about brown. Chloe is green. Chloe’s mom, Sherrine, is pink. Kerri Ann, main character, lives to dress in blue. Lee has more than one color, he’s more complicated. We see black and gold around Lee and his family (representing tiger), he’s wild, exotic, Asian, a handsome Korean man. We also see Lee in red, basically red ties.

I did not consciously plan this, but if you look at a Korean flag it uses the colors red and blue (Lee and Kerri Ann), in a kind of yin-yang symbol. Oh, and Lee’s suits are always very somber, he gravitates to blacks and grays. When Kerri Ann begins to compete in a man’s world her character changes are signaled by her change in color, we see her in blacks suits. When Lee’s character softens, he begins to wear blue ties. I also wove some Korean concepts into the story, the Korean national flower appears in one scene (blue hibiscus), and Kerri Ann has a dream that reflects a Korean fairy tale. There’s some other stuff, but I don’t want to give it all away (AND BESIDES I CAN’T REMEMBER, oh sorry for yelling).

Reporter:

“Although I was aware of my obsessive compulsive rewriting,…”-Koontz. He wrote 32 pages and only 1 didn’t have any revisions.

Smith and Rusch say to “write a first draft quickly, and revise no more than three times before marketing. While waiting for your probable rejection, start a new work. Through practice, sheer volume of words, and encountering different situations in each new piece, you’ll build your repertoire and skill.”

Jonis Agee says “She typically writes and discards her first draft and most of her second draft, She throws them away! … She explained that the third draft captures the heart and soul of her characters and her author voice.”
(Excerpts from Manuscript Makeover reprinted with permission).

What method is yours closely related too? What is your view on each writing style? Do you think each helps in a different way, If so what way?

The First Carol: I am Koontz, beginning-middle-end. I rewrite before I write! I could not stand to throw anything away and start all over again. Throwing away sounds like waste, I’m way too frugal for that. My current manuscript is 105,000 words (it should be max 95,000), so figure I’ve written 100K, I’ve tossed out 50,000 words in rewrites. I guess you could ask how frugal is that, sounds like a lot of waste, huh? I am playing a game with myself at the moment and when I cut words from the manuscript I paste them into a second document, when I’m through I’m going to count the words (WORD does this automatically) and see exactly how many came and went.

Reporter: The book (Manuscript Makeover) says, “reading poetry will build a sturdy conduit into your so-called subconscious mind…” helps your writing style. What techniques have you tried to improve your writing style?

The First Carol
: I listen to the sounds of words. What words sound good together. What words LOOK good together — a sentence with a lot of ‘s’ words and you allude to a snake. It can be like a game you play with yourself. I also consider best word choices. The word ‘look’ for example. I have on my cheat sheet a bushel of words to consider when I do a search of my manuscript and discover I have used the word LOOK 600 times:

attention, beholding, case, cast, contemplation, evil eye, eye, flash, gander, gaze, glance, glimpse, gun, inspection, introspection, keeping watch, leer, look-see, marking, noticing, observation, once-over, peek, reconnaissance, regard, regarding, review, scrutiny, sight, slant, speculation, squint, stare, surveillance, survey, swivel, view, viewing

Those are just some of my choices. I use a thesaurus a lot. I am amazed how changing the word ‘looked’ to ‘scrutinized’ improves a sentence. (Go ahead, count how many times I used ‘look’ in this interview!).

Reporter: Do you carry around a notepad to capture images or ideas throughout the day? What are some things written down?

The First Carol
: I do best getting them into the laptop. But I do have a couple of different notebooks, and my 3×5 flip book. I write down snippets of dialogue

Reporter: Why do you chose to do your writing electronically?

The First Carol
: Easier to manipulate the words in the editing process. Curiously, I can write something down on paper, then when I transfer to computer it morphs, it NEVER comes out the same. I find that extremely intriguing, must be the part of the brain that is engaged. Even the nuances of conversations change, really odd, but there must be some science to it.

Reporter: Whose writing style would you say best compares to your writing style? Why?

The First Carol: Ugh, I have no idea. I am influenced by everything around me, but I can’t tell you who I’m like. If someone else told you who I was like, I would believe them (as long as it was a compliment 🙂

This question makes me think of my Grandma, she was a jazz musician, very talented and she loved music, especially loved to hear me play the piano. One day after I played for hours while she putzed and danced in the kitchen she told me she now ‘knew my style.’ She told me she could be anywhere in the world, on any street, and if she heard me playing she would KNOW it was me. I’d never really thought about having a style before. Thought you were supposed to play the music like everyone else, like the composer intended, but we all interpret through what we know, through our experiences.

Reporter: Have you ever copied excerpts from famous writers to become more acquainted with their writing style? How did this help?

The First Carol: I have not, although I understand the technique.

Reporter: I don’t really have any more questions. Thank you for your time! 🙂

The First Carol
: Your welcome. Thank you for your creative and insightful questions.

Reporter: No problem.

The First Carol: You’re cute, daughter.

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