Category: Writing Craft

Would you like some help with your novel?

manuscript-300x201Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I enjoy writing about the process and the craft of writing. Over the years, I have helped aspiring writers with their work, editing and commenting. Several have gone on to be published by major publishers. Others have self-published.

I’ve decided that I’d like to do more of this, so I’ve taken the plunge, and made a page on this site that describes some of my services, and where interested writers can purchase either an assessment of 20 pages of your manuscript, or a full manuscript review.

I am also available to do line editing and work on a one-on-one basis with writers. Anyone interested in those services should email me.

A page from George Orwell's 1984 with some pretty serious editing going on!
A page from George Orwell’s 1984 with some pretty serious editing going on!

Of course, it’s very awkward to sell oneself  (although I’ve spent a chunk of my life writing copy to sell all manner of other products), but I got a very sweet note on my Writing Coach Facebook Page from someone I worked with a few years ago, the wonderful Janet Butler Taylor:

Susanne was the very first person I turned to when I first started my writing journey. Without her help and guidance I would never have come as far as I have. She is an amazing writing coach, and I will be forever grateful to her. Thank you so, so much, Susanne!!


So if you are looking for some practical, real-world help polishing your novel, please think of me!

What’s different about writing historical fiction?

fig26I love my writing critique group. Smart writers, talented, and we are honest in our criticism. None of us are in it for adulation and reassurance. We’re in it to face the firing line, get real reader reactions to what we’ve written, show ourselves as vulnerable on the way to crafting a finished product.

So when I get a similar response from several members of the group about a weakness in what they’ve read of mine, I pay attention to it. (I also pay attention to the individual responses, but they can be more matters of taste and preference.) And this past week, several group members found that I was too wordy, too explaining, adding too much detail in the scenes, that what I’d written would gain in strength by heavy use of the blue pencil.

I’m sure they’re right, and I’ll go in and doubtless find many instances where less is definitely more that I was blind to when I first drafted those pages. That’s so often true, it almost goes without saying.

But one of the members raised the question as to whether the additional detail, or over-elaboration, is something that is expected/necessary because it’s historical fiction (which he doesn’t normally read), and that made me think too.

Basically, historical fiction has to obey all the same rules as any kind of fiction. And yet, we are creating worlds that are unfamiliar to our readers. We want them to be able to picture what we picture, to be in the period.

For instance, a novel set in modern times can assume a lot more than one set in the past (and I suspect that fantasy and science-fiction also share some of this). You can say “She got dressed and went to work,” and we’ll all have a pretty good image of what that would entail. But what about in a past where, in some social milieus, one didn’t dress oneself, where it was impossible, in fact, to do so because of all the fastenings at the back, completely out of reach?

That’s an oversimplified example, but I think it’s a little to the point. I think the same group member questioned why I would specify that my heroine was driven somewhere in her father’s new Pierce-Arrow motorcar, instead of just saying she was driven. I didn’t have a ready answer, but on thinking about it, I felt that automobiles are still so new in 1910 that anyone who had one or rode in one might be hyper-aware of the novelty, and automatically think in those terms.

Of course, the real trick is to convey all that detail, all that evocation of a period and place, and not make the text feel overburdened with words. And then, you have to make sure that you don’t lose the reader for the opposite reason, because she lacks the period vocabulary to paint that mental picture. A crespine, for instance, mentioned as an item of clothing, needs to somehow be put in context as something that goes on the head. In a modern context, there’s no need to explain what you do with a hat.

I think this need of historical fiction, of drawing the reader into a world she’s completely unfamiliar with, is partly why people will read multiple books set in the same time period, or concerning the same people. Over time, they’ve built up a “vocabulary” of images that put them in that place and era, and they don’t have to work quite as hard to find their way back as they had to work to get there in the first place.

Suffrage and Marriage

Alice Paul in 1901, aged 16
Alice Paul in 1901, aged 16

There’s no way I can write a novel set in New York in 1909-1910 and not touch upon the women’s suffrage movement. Although it was before the famous march on Washington in 1913, votes for women was a hotly debated topic at all levels of society. There were rallies, petitions, parades and more. Although the early heroines of the movement, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were both dead by the time of my novel, Alice Paul was honing her skills as a suffragist at the feet of the Pankhursts in Britain and preparing to bring what she learned back to the United States.

Like my heroine, Paul was a college graduate—from Swarthmore. She went on to earn master’s and doctorate degrees at Penn, and eventually went to law school as well. And accounts of her describe her as a quiet, Quaker woman, capable of persuading without coercion, utterly dedicated to the cause. She led nonviolent protests here, and was among those imprisoned in the infamous Occuquan Workhouse in Virginia, where she went on hunger strike and was force fed.

Paul lived to the age of 92. Among her many accomplishments was that she was one of the original authors of the Equal Rights Amendment—which has still not made it into law.

One of the many things I cherish about writing historical fiction is how it forces me to delve into history in a way that’s different from simply studying facts and events and biographies to gain a broad historical grasp of their importance. I am forced to discover—or invent—their importance in the lives of my characters, who are very particular individuals who don’t always react the way I would expect them to.

In order to write a story in which my heroine is touched by the major social movement of the time, I have to dig up details that aren’t always available in historical studies. For instance, I have to know not just that women went to prison, but how they were conveyed there, what exactly was the process by which they ended up behind bars. What did they say, how did they act when they were arrested? Was there a women’s prison for them, or were they simply incarcerated in a part of a men’s prison? Or was the workhouse the only alternative? Were the poor women treated differently from the wealthy ones? Are the stories of bravery and self-sacrifice countered by stories of cowardice and fear that have not been handed down as part of the legend? And of course, were there only the famous, recorded

Alice Paul with Helen Gardener
Alice Paul with Helen Gardener

instances, or smaller indignities by local authorities?

I remember a wonderful British series from the ’70s called Shoulder to Shoulder, about the Pankhursts. I would love to watch it again now, but it isn’t to be had anywhere online. Instead, I have contented myself by reading Jailed for Freedom, a 1920 account written by Doris Stevens, in the heady days after women finally won the vote in the U.S. It’s a political treatise, a broad-brushed account, and its documentary tone does not mask the fervor of the author.

That said, it’s a rich resource of the strategies and tactics the suffragists, led by Alice Paul, engaged in. What is truly fascinating to me, and something I was aware of but hadn’t considered recently, was that the woman suffrage matter was deemed to be something each state should decide for itself. It was the then Democratic government’s way of avoiding taking a stand on a hot-button issue. The result was that even when there was no constitutional amendment permitting women to vote, women in several western states were voters, and there were about 4 million of them. The suffragists used the power of the women as voters to put pressure on Wilson’s government.

This reminds me very much of today’s Gay Marriage fight, where it is being left to the states individually to make policy, rather than being debated on a national level. Our own Democratic government is sidestepping the issue. Unfortunately, gaining the right to marry in some states doesn’t automatically give the LGBT community any added political strength, as it did the women. It’s hard to fathom what greater pressure could be put to bear that would hasten the granting of this moral right.

Alice Paul
Alice Paul

Both issues—the right to vote and the right to marry—seem related to me. They are fundamental human rights that a democracy should support. Researching and writing this novel reminds me that many people in the past have fought very hard so that I can enjoy the life of freedom I currently lead. I hope that it won’t be long before people look back at the pre-universal marriage days and wonder how on earth we, as a free, secular democracy, could have justified such a policy.


Linear vs. non-linear

1185285_10151665709908347_285380305_nI’ve decided I have to face it: I’m a linear writer. I may have isolated bits in my mind as I write, but I have to get through a draft step by step, in logical increments. That doesn’t mean I see a straight line ahead of me and I follow it. Far from it. I only see as far as a scene at a time, and even then I don’t always know where I’m going until I’ve written it.

This may be especially true when I’m writing in the first person, as I feel that I must discover things along with my protagonist, feel what she is feeling as the story moves from scene to scene.

I know there are writers out there whose approach is totally different, but I can’t really imagine how that works. What would happen if, say, you’re stitching all the bits together, or have decided to insert a scene somewhere, and it doesn’t make sense? I’m sure those writers have ways to deal with that eventuality. And I guess it’s not too big a leap of the imagination to understand that rewriting, for them, is just as much a part of the process, but perhaps one that comes earlier in it than for me.

My joy is in getting to the end of where the story thread and the characters lead me, being somewhat surprised, and then going back and tightening, adding, deepening, when I finally understand what the novel is about.

Structure and Pace

01-thecrookedhouse-thumbI do a little editing work now and again. Not much, because I don’t have very much time, and I’m very choosy about my clients. What I prefer is someone who has the basics—voice, a good story, believable characters—but who needs a little help getting a manuscript ready for submission.

What’s left? you ask. Something that beginning writers seem to struggle with more than anything else: structure. And with structure, pace. A “good story well told” is more than just finding the perfect words to express a sentiment or to underline tension. It’s knowing how much to say when, where the breaks need to be, and how to build the tension so that your reader keeps turning the pages, desperate to know what’s happening next.

I think those things are important whether you’re writing a mass-market thriller or a literary masterpiece. The difference is the tempo, the expectation you set up in your reader concerning the literary time you take them through.

This is all top of mind because I’m helping a writer I admire and like with her second novel. She has all the tools: a strong, likable voice, a main character who draws our sympathy, and humor as well. But she is struggling with the bigger picture. And I’m struggling to help her sort it out, to explain what I mean by that hard-to-define structural underpinning and instinct for drawing the overarching line.

I guess that’s what people call “story arc.” But it can be bloody difficult to step back far enough from your own writing to see it sometimes.

Here are a few basic suggestions:

1. Use a program like Scrivener.

What difference does a program make, you ask. What Scrivener does that Word and other such programs don’t is give you a bird’s-eye view of your manuscript. You divide it into chapters and scenes, and you can drag them around easily to change where something happens. Scrivener also gives you an area to store research, including importing Web pages. And there are character and place sketching areas.

2. Pay attention to how movies are structured.

The directorNot everyone is a proponent of Robert McKee’s Story, But much of what he says holds true for novels. Think in scenes. Where would a director cut? How much do you put in or leave out to satisfy your reader? How much can you see from your character’s point of view, and what is told by everything that’s out of view?

Even the good old Victorian novelists, working before film, used these techniques. Just read Dickens if you doubt me. The pace is more leisurely, the use of an omniscient narrator more frequent, but there is still a need to keep people engaged with what they’re reading, and to make them feel at the end that it all coheres and tells a great story.

3. Don’t be afraid to rethink.

When you’ve spent weeks-months-years on a novel and it’s still not right, it can be very discouraging to have to pull it all apart. It reminds me of knitting a sweater, and getting to the end before you realize that the front is longer than the back, or the sleeves don’t fit. Unraveling and starting over is always disheartening.

11unravel_lgBelieve me, I know. I’ve done it. But sometimes that little bit of destruction can lead to an insight so revealing that it renews your enthusiasm. It can be something as little as, “My main character doesn’t want x, she wants y,” or changing some key point about the setting. For me, it was moving my time frame a year earlier in history, allowing me to overlay the real-life drama of a cholera epidemic on the basic story, creating the character of a young doctor, etc.

Some writers have a natural instinct for structure and pace. Some writers start with structure by writing copious outlines. For the rest of us, it’s something that can be learned, with a little determination and humility.

The Process

Power of WordsJust like every other reader, when I talk to an author, I want to know about her writing process. It’s a topic that comes up again and again  in conversations, and that has been on the top of my mind since the most recent meeting of my critique group.

So when I woke up at 3:30am (or actually, when my dog Betty woke me up at 3:30am) and couldn’t get back to sleep, I started thinking about process, and what the different approaches are. I came up with a simile: Writing a novel is in many ways just like creating a work of visual art—at least in terms of approach. Just as different artists choose different media to work in, different writers need different paths to completing a novel. For my purposes, I’m using representational art as the example, since a narrative is more representational than abstract.

This is an elaboration on the duality that is usually put out there: plotter or pantser.

Bear with me for a moment as I explore this here. At the end, I’ll tell you which “artist” I am.

leonardo_grotesqueWriter type 1: The Painter

We all know the cliches, of course. But dig a little deeper and see that there is a process similarity that some writers cling to in creating their works of fiction.

For instance, a painter might start with a sketch. The outline of a subject that will ultimately tell the story of the work, that will lead the viewer’s eye to the right places to make a coherent, meaningful picture. The sketch is then filled in and amplified, adapted and colored. Light and shadow add depth and meaning.

The corresponding writerly process for me is someone who outlines, who has a relatively clear image of the structure of her novel before actually fleshing it out with characters and actions. The plot, the motivations, are carefully crafted to hang on the framework in the novelist’s mind, or even on paper.

I imagine that having this structure frees a writer to delve deeply into characters and subtleties. For some reason, I think that a lot of what you might call character-driven novels could start this way—unless they don’t. My caveat is that there are infinite ways to arrive at an end result, and I’m probably oversimplifying. But the mental exercise amused me and might be useful, so here it is.

architectureWriter type 2: The Architect

To build a vast structure that holds up requires enormous planning ability. Even more than painting, a writer with an architectural view of her story I imagine must spend a great deal of time on the preliminary stage, building the foundations, so to speak, gathering the materials, testing them out.

Architectural writers (and I’d love to know if I’m even close to right about this) are people like Leon Uris, Edward Rutherford, Ken Follett. In fact, Follett’s Pillars of the Earth demonstrates an architectural approach both literally and figuratively.

That’s not to say that spontaneity is lacking in writers who take this approach. Just like house building, materials can surprise you. But to achieve a vast panorama that encompasses a time period, or a life, seems to me to take this kind of architectural planning.

Writer type 3: The Sculptor

There are two subgroups here: those who start with a solid material and carve away the excess to reveal a subject, and those who start with a lump of something malleable and manipulate it to reveal a subject.


The first kind fascinates me, because it’s so unlike me. The example I can think of is a fictionalized biography. There, something exists in its entirety, but perhaps its details are not apparent. I picture a writer using a pen like a chisel, digging away to get at a truth hidden inside the material.

Or perhaps even more broadly, this is the kind of writer who spews out a rough draft, and only starts to see what the story is as she goes back in and cuts and shapes and whittles. The end result may bear very little resemblance to the original draft, but wouldn’t exist unless that original draft had been created.

The other kind of sculptor is something I can relate to. It involves starting with an amorphous lump of something: a character, a setting, a historical event, then just going to work on it, pushing, prodding, adding more clay when it’s needed. The claytrouble with this is that I think it’s easy to end up with an incoherent mess. But that’s what editing is for. And for me, this approach permits a great degree of flexibility and spontaneity.

Representational Collage Butterfly - SusanWriter type 4: Collage or Mosaic

A wonderful author friend, Kris Waldherr, recently described the way she starts a novel. She puts notes and scraps of ideas about characters, scenes etc. on pieces of paper, then posts these on a bulletin board or spreads them out on a surface. I love this idea, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything that way. Her method lets her assemble the narrative with a lot of fluidity of structure.

And like a mosaic, the story might not be truly visible until almost all the pieces are in place. This, I imagine, makes the gaps obvious, allowing a writer to knit scenes together where necessary.

I think this approach might work for writers who go around with a notebook and jot down conversations they hear, or describe things in the world. A lot of writers do that. I confess, I don’t.

I have no idea if this is just insanity on my part, but I’d love some reaction from writer friends about whether you relate to any of these “types” I’ve identified. As may be obvious above, I’m the sculptor with the lump of clay. It doesn’t always work out for me: my creations can crack in the firing/editing process and I can be left with nothing. But it’s what I do.

What You Don’t See

super-dark-wayfarersWriting is an act of faith. I can think of no other way to describe it. You sit down, imagine a setting, things that happen, characters, complications, motivations, and you start putting words together that you have to believe will convey all that to a reader.

And if you have a combination of talent and craft, somehow it mostly does—albeit not always equally well.

The thing is that as a writer, you get better at the craft tricks and techniques that make a story blossom before a reader’s imagination. Talent is probably hard to improve on, and we all have our limitations. You can overcome a lot by really understanding craft, however.

With all that, there is something important to learn that has to do with neither craft nor talent: you don’t see everything. Period.

At least, I don’t see everything. Perhaps there are great writers out there who don’t occasionally overwrite, or make mistakes of tense or point of view, or use the same word or phrase three times in succession without realizing it, or introduce a flat character for convenience’s sake. I applaud them, if they exist.

For me, though, there is nothing quite like the scrutiny of an outside reader to make me see how far my writing is from perfect as I struggle to get that first draft down on virtual paper.

This is a little celebration of my wonderful writers’ group. Those six or seven pairs of astute eyes and ears make the things that I am blind to so obvious that I come away saying, “Of course!” That is truly the best kind of critique: the kind that you know all along in your heart, but are too blind to see staring at you on a page of your own carefully chosen words.

So my advice to all writers: find readers you trust, and see through their eyes. It will make your writing stronger.

The Most Difficult Things

PHOTO_8899531_148597_22713848_apI think it’s fair to assume that every writer has the same goal: producing the best possible book/story/poem she can. The problem is, how? Worse, the “how” seems to change over time—at least for me.

As I ease my way back into the herculean task of writing a novel, I’m finding that what used to work for me no longer does. When I first started writing, the most natural thing for me was to fill pages and pages with words, to get it down, make things happen, get the story going. I would open the file and start typing after quickly reviewing what I wrote the day before.

Now, I’ve lost that fluidity. Maybe lost isn’t the right word. Maybe I’m just entering a new phase, and I shouldn’t look upon it as a loss, but as a deepening of the process. That’s what I have to tell myself in order to keep going, whether it turns out to be true or not.

But I think it probably is true, for a number of reasons. I have learned so much from my triumphs and my failures, from what life has dealt me (even though I started writing seriously only ten years ago after decades of dabbling), that when once I could stand with a basket and collect the words as they fell from my imagination, now spilling rounding them up to go into a waiting computer file feels like raking windyleaves in the wind, all chaos and unpredictability.

Even more frustrating, I feel less and less satisfied with that first draft than I used to. The holes, the shallow bits, the cliches, the repetitions—they leap off the page and laugh at me just when I’m feeling good about having written, say, 500 words.

My dissatisfaction goes deeper than that, though. I find myself struggling to infuse a scene with difficult truths—truths I might have avoided not long ago. I sincerely hope that this is a sign that I’ve grown as a writer, that I’m at last ready to delve into my own anxieties and insecurities to make my characters and my plots ring true to a reader. I hope, and I fear that it is.

Because that, for me, is the most difficult thing of all: Facing the demons of my past, both real and imagined, coming to terms with my shortcomings, the ways I have been cruel or thoughtless, the moments of anguish, the horrible suspicion that I caused something bad to happen inadvertently, or that I let down those who needed me most.

In fact, I used to believe that I wrote historical fiction in part because it’s so far removed from my personal reality. I once had to write an essay that touched on my own life experience. It nearly killed me (and thank you, Victoria Zackheim, for being such a patient editor on it!) I wanted to run screaming from the metaphorical room.

While I believe that there is a little of me in every heroine I’ve written, I confess to a dollop of wish fulfillment. Certainly placing them all on the threshold of life absolves me from having to face the cruel realities of being past one’s prime. And being in control of their fates in a way that one is never in control of one’s own is reassuring—and cathartic.

So I hope my readers will join me when my next book is ready to be launched into the world, and realize that I have pushed myself in ways I never thought I could, perhaps give me a little understanding because of it.

It’s difficult. It’s the hardest thing in the world for me. But I have to do it.



Editing the Garden

chairLike my writing, the garden here where I am living once again has been left to go wild for several years. Once I turned my back on it—or rather, once other factors in my life took over—I couldn’t give it the constant attention it not only deserved, but needed in order to thrive.

Along with getting back to writing, bringing this garden back to life is a major goal for me right now, and I started yesterday, now that the snow is all melted away and it’s safe to uncover the beds and see what’s still growing there. Fortunately, I’d done some of the cleanup in the fall, or the tasks ahead might have seemed so daunting that I would have run and hidden from them again.

Before I could really start, though, I had to do some housecleaning. I had to make sure my tools were in order and to hand, and that all the garbage that didn’t belong, or didn’t contribute to achieving my goal, had been disposed of.

Just as clearing the mental decks takes work and time, it took me the better part of yesterday simply to sort and organize, to clean and unearth. In the process, I found tools I thought I had lost for good.

There was a time when I thought I had lost the essential tools of writing, too, when I couldn’t unclutter my brain enough to focus on filling a page with words. Now that I have sifted through the conflicting demands of life, I am doing that again. I have been filling pages and watching my novel grow, day by day.

SnowdropsOnce the garden cleanup is finished (there’s three times as much to do as I accomplished yesterday), then I will have the difficult task of cutting back and uprooting things that have grown out of control, or have become too big for the space they were originally meant for. It’s a slow process, and it can be painful. For instance, I can’t edit—sorry, cut back—the rhododendrons and azaleas until they finish blooming later in the spring, or all those gorgeous flowers will be lost.

And that beautiful, fragrant daphne is so enormous that I may have to dig it up and start with something new. It’s a character that has gotten too big for its part in the story of my garden.

For the moment, though, I’m simply marveling at the treasures that have sprung up here and there, seeded themselves, been blown by the wind or uprooted by a bird and landed in unlikely places. Right at the bottom of the stone steps to the lower part of the garden is a purple crocus. I know I didn’t plant anything in such an absurd spot where it could be trampled underfoot, but there it is.

purplecrocusThat crocus is saying, “Look at me! I’m here! I survived!”

And it’s so precious to me that I will carefully step over it until it dies back in its own, natural way. It’s an idea that won’t last forever, but will inspire me to continue the hard work of nurturing growth and beauty.

Happy Easter to those who celebrate the holiday!

P.S. Follow the progress of my garden on my Pinterest board!

How I Read

piano_musicI’ve always been a reader. Books were one of my two ways to escape. The other was playing the piano. Both were equally effective.

I started playing the piano when I was five, and continued through school and college, and even into graduate school. Once I became a serious musician at about the age of 12, I listened to music differently. My ears were sensitive to things that non-musicians wouldn’t notice: nuances of expression, a daring choice of tempo, the way an inner voice was brought out.

I was listening not only with my ears, but with my intellect and my heart. This heightened sensitivity made me a little less easy to please, and so might have been said to decrease my pure enjoyment. But it really didn’t: instead, it took that enjoyment to another level, a deeper level, far more satisfying and rewarding.

mac-keyboard5It took me a bit longer to engage in creating written works. My first novel was published the year I turned 50. And something happened after I went through the intense, agonizing, learning process of writing a novel to the way I read now, just as it happened to the way I listened to music so long ago. I notice things. Not the analytical stuff I was taught to notice in literature courses in college so much. But technical, craft details. In some ways this diminishes my enjoyment, just as my increased awareness of the subtleties of a performance made a mediocre performance less enjoyable.

I began to read not just with my eyes, but with my ear, my intellect, and my heart.

But as you might guess, knowing what goes into writing a novel, the mastery of craft that is necessary to make a long literary work sustain interest and give the reader something—whether it’s pure entertainment or a deeper message—makes reading a really excellent book even more intensely satisfying.

If I read something and say to myself, “How did she manage that???” and it makes me want to understand my own craft a little more deeply, then I have gained immeasurably from that book.

If a book challenges my notions of what makes a novel work and still keeps me turning the pages, then I’ve grown as both a reader and a writer.

We all learn from each other. Reading may not be the only way to learn how to write, but it’s a vital ingredient that cannot be eliminated from the process.

So my advice to all aspiring writers is read deeply. Read with your eyes, your ears, your intellect, and your heart.