The Art of Writing

A Writers Retreat in Tuscany

Category: The Art of Writing (page 1 of 8)

What’s the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist?

What's the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist?Following up this week’s #WriteTipWednesday – What’s the worst thing that can happen? This train of thought can push your plot line through the roof. It’s something a writer friend taught me and it’s always kept me in good stead.

What’s the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist? What are her/his worst fears? Can another character do, say or react in a way that pushes plot or character development further? Can the drama or suspense be twisted, advanced or established by imagining a nastier turn of events? Thinking like this, throughout your planning and plotting, can change a book from a good read to a great read.

What's the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist?As your protagonist always needs something to overcome, needs to have an arc of change, thinking about ways to make that arc more arresting is essential.

When half way through Death in the Mountains, I hit a brick wall (my publisher said this often happens). Then it came to me. Mario had to chop beautiful Maria’s finger off! The story is true. In real life Nonna Angiolina’s finger was cut off when she stepped between her warring husband and brother. My book/story needed something shocking, halfway through to make it kick harder. Yes, this was one of the worst things that could happen. I could use that swinging scythe in Death in the Mountains, with seemingly just a small mention but with big impact:

A shadow seemed to fall over Maria. She worried her fingers inside the tucks of her dress and felt the warmth of the friction from her thumb as it massaged where her index finger had once been. The stump was smooth and shiny. Her mother had stretched the skin across the bloody exposed joint when she had run home from the wheat fields, Fiamma and Anna close behind, gagging with shock. Her sisters had seen her question Mario over his swigs from a hidden wine flask. They’d seen his hand come up as if to hit her, his face puce with rage. They’d watched as she’d thought to protect herself from his blow, only to see his other hand come up and his scythe slice through the air. ‘The sickle …’ she had sobbed as her mother dressed her wound, hushed her tight to her breast and rocked her back and forth. It had not been her intention to be dishonest with her mother then; the lie came to her lips when Mario’s silhouette loomed in the doorway. She’d recognised the threat in the hunch of his shoulders. It was as if his head were set too tightly into them, like a cork screwed into the neck of a too tight bottle that threatened to explode. She thought then that he was capable of killing her, should she tell their parents how she had lost her finger.

What's the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist?So yes, ask yourself this phrase: What’s the worst thing that can happen? Or as you are wrapping up your storyline, what’s the best thing that can happen?

And by the way, Florence St Marks Cultural Foundation is holding a fabulous Publishing Day event on May 13. Agents and publishers will be present for a morning of questions and discussion along with an afternoon of private appointments to listen to your book pitch. Be sure to check it out here.

Also, to find out more, as it’s a really great opportunity for those with an idea or a fully formed manuscript to pitch, visit this great interview with Literary Manager and producer Marilyn Atlas here.

What's the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist?

Do you love writing? Would you like to join The Art of Writing team in Tuscany? Let’s dream, plot, write, learn and grow as writers for a week together.  Email me at lisacliffordwriter@gmail.com so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.

Rewrite after rewrite; edit your book until it’s finished.

Rewrite after rewrite; edit your book until it's finished.Yet another rewrite. My fifth and I’m told to expect more.

So I am working on a new book, as you know. It’s a novel – my first actually as my last four books were either creative non-fiction or non-fiction. The pages before me are fourth draft. The first draft was in third person and that didn’t feel right. The second draft became first person. I rewrote the third draft because the story needed big character changes and improvements. The text then needed a fourth draft to make it fit into a tight ‘thriller’ genre with a big suspense emphasis. This need to restructure the fourth time became screamingly obvious after a reread as I wanted to follow the rule ‘the story should turn about every four to six pages.’ Nowadays, if you want to sell, and sell well, you basically have to follow that rule.  

Now, after having shown it to a good friend who is also a top New York literary agent, the advice is that my new book needs, yet again, another draft. This will be my 5th draft and now the book will be in third person (again).

Rewrite after rewrite; edit your book until it's finished.

Whining about rewrites will do no good. We write, that’s what we do. Again and again and again, changing, recrafting, improving, omitting, and adding. Part of being a writer is knowing that rewriting is compulsory. If you don’t want to rewrite – then get out of the game now. If you think what you’ve written is perfect and doesn’t need rewriting, you’ll never be published.

A dear friend of mine, on a three book deal with Little Brown, is on her TENTH rewrite. I have nothing to complain about.

Rewrite after rewrite; edit your book until it's finished.The more you rewrite, the faster you become at writing. I am a slow writer (no surprises there, you’ve only been waiting for this new book for about three years, or more) and I need to be faster. The only way I am going to write faster is by writing more. I need to rewrite, write faster and ultimately write better, without fear of the text being crappy. I can edit the bad bits out later. Right now I have to rewrite, then write more and faster.

Everyone has to rewrite, there is no way around it.

I totally do NOT buy into this (a tip I found on the internet) attitude:

Eventually, redrafting will just spoil the novel – there is a danger that the story you set out to write ends up so ‘surgically’ enhanced that it no longer resembles the original story – the intrinsic core of the story has been lost.

Rewrite after rewrite; edit your book until it's finished.I do not agree with this advice because fundamentally I am a journalist, accustomed to being questioned, subjected to Fact Finders, sub-editors and finicky editors who know what story they want and how it should be crafted. I bow to their expertise. I trust those with more experience than me. I humbly accept advice though do not automatically take it. If I see what they mean, I accept their advice.

But I know, after being in this game for my entire life, that I must rewrite. Again.

I agree with Michael Crichton, ‘good books are not written. Good books are rewritten.’

Do you love writing? Would you like to join The Art of Writing team in Tuscany? Let’s dream, plot, write, learn and grow as writers for a week together.  Email me at lisacliffordwriter@gmail.com so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.

When you and your writing need oxygen. Chatting with Tracey Spicer.

When you and your writing need oxygen. Chatting with Tracey Spicer.When interviewing the fabulous women’s advocate, writer and Australian TV journalist Tracey Spicer this week, we touched on how writing books can play with your head and your heart. How loneliness, a need for human contact creeps in because of writer’s solitude.

‘What do you do,’ asked Tracey, ‘when writing alone for hours?’ Yes, it can be lonely and we start to crave social interchange after hours of thinking and writing on our own.

When you and your writing need oxygen. Chatting with Tracey Spicer.‘I know the triggers,’ I responded. ‘There’s a feeling I get, a low, down kind of sensation that usually means it’s time to get out and call some friends for lunch.’ Think about it. Know yourselves, listen to your emotions and become attuned to them. Snip out any dark seeds before they bud. Cut the empty feeling before it spirals. Call a friend for a walk, lunch, coffee. You cannot be creative if your inner creative world needs nurturing.

When your writing is not flowing, most of the time, you and your words simply need oxygen.

When you and your writing need oxygen. Chatting with Tracey Spicer.And there are Quick Fixes. Grab your notebook, pen and keys and GO. LEAVE your computer. LEAVE your phone at home. Walk, write and think. Walking and writing definitely works.

Tracey’s new book is out on April 24 with HarperCollins. The Good Girl Stripped Bare promises to be an extraordinary read. Her advice on turning off all Apps to achieve maximum concentration and output is essential.

The only way you are going to produce good work is by being aware of your high and low emotions. Allow yourself, give yourself permission to leave your computer for nurturing time. See friends, refresh yourself, and go for a walk. Don’t let yourself or your inner world exhaust itself.

When you and your writing need oxygen. Chatting with Tracey Spicer.All that said, Tracey and I do tend to be very disciplined. We know we have to get the job done and the book finished. If you are the opposite and keep saying yes to all your friends’ invitations, then stop that right now. Are you often out wandering on walks? Then get back to your computer and start writing this instant!

And TURN OFF YOUR PHONE!

Why every writer should join a writers group.

There are no excuses anymore. By joining my little writers group in Florence I must write, must edit and must listen to my fellow writer’s thoughts and advice. Why didn’t I do this earlier?

Thinking of joining a Writers Group? Here's why you should.My writers group lets me know what is not clicking. So often we think our readers will understand, that they will ‘get’ what we’ve written. But my writers group lets me know that, actually, they didn’t pick up the thread because I wasn’t clear enough, or didn’t explain enough. Yes, it’s a little daunting, scary, being picked apart but it’s so good for your work! Your writing group sees where you can extrapolate. They let you know whether your story is engaging or not. My last question to my fellow writers this week was ‘do you want to know more?’ and that, as a writer, is what we are aiming for, no? Are you hooking your readers? Are they bored? Overwhelmed? Disinterested?

Thinking of joining a Writers Group? Here's why you should.I must say, I had put off joining any kind of writers group for years. It’s my first time. Funny, huh, after four books and finally on my fifth that I now know I need fresh takes, readers, second opinions. Probably because this is my first Fiction book, while the others were all Creative Non-Fiction. I cannot recommend sharing with a writers group highly enough. Especially if you are embarking on a new form of writing, like I am.

Thinking of joining a Writers Group? Here's why you should.Am I being narcissistic also adding that the thought of plagiarism within writers groups also scared me? I had heard of writers sharing their work, only to have ideas copied, concepts imitated and phrases plagiarized. But I flattered myself. Their work is fantastic! Who did I think I was? They’re amazing! My work is paltry compared to theirs.

Check your library or local arts group for any writers that meet up. Start a Google Docs Sharing session so you can all post your work, and pick the month to upload your work.

Go on, do yourself a favor and force yourself to diarize, write, share and enjoy writing with other people. Regularly!

Thinking of joining a Writers Group? Here's why you should.

How to make strong, memorable characters your readers won’t forget.

Make strong, memorable characters your readers won't forget.When writing Death in the Mountains, I made sure to give each member of my 1907 poor Tuscan family a characteristic or quality that made each person memorable.

  • Bruna liked to touch things. She was so in sync with the land and farming environment around her that she was tactile with the things she grew, made and created.
  • Artemio had bandy legs, a leftover from soft bones due to a lack of Vitamin D and rickets in his youth. He was swaddled and left inside for months without the sun. A common disorder of Tuscan babies in the past.
  • Fiamma was a fire brand, like her name which means flame.
  • Mario was violent and exuded anger like a perfume. Because of this characteristic he ultimately beat up the farm’s overseer. You can imagine the problems that caused!
  • Maria was beautiful.
  • Silvio hated wearing shoes.
  • Pasquale was only ever mentioned as ‘baby Pasquale.’

Make strong, memorable characters your readers won't forget.And onwards for each character within the pages of Death in the Mountains.

Giving each character at least one mannerism is a process that many writers follow. It helps writers dig more deeply into a character, enlarge upon or extrapolate the person or the location. It also helps readers remember your characters, no matter how big or small their part in your story.

What mannerisms or habits have your protagonist’s history given him/her? What kind of impact does that have on your story or scene?

Make strong, memorable characters your readers won't forget.The Italians are fascinated by beautiful women, more so than other nationalities that I have encountered. They LOVE a beautiful woman; they venerate ‘bella.’ Making Maria absolutely drop dead gorgeous helped me examine the Italians attitude to beauty. It helped me form Maria’s character; it even helped me create the narrative and plot line for the book. Who could fall in love with her? What impact would that have on the family? How did Maria feel about being so beautiful? Did she see the impact that she had on people? How did it feel for her father, Artemio, to go into town or church with a daughter that everybody stared at and talked about? How would Mario, Maria’s aggressive, troubled brother feel about her beauty? Was he protective of her?

Make strong, memorable characters your readers won't forget.In the end, giving Maria that physical characteristic of beauty helped me write a much better book. Her beauty gave me ideas, outcomes, reactions, actions, scenes.

In my next Blog I’ll look at the difference between superficial and deep characterization.

Follow me on Facebook and Instagram too for my new #WriteTipWednesday! Every Wednesday I’ll give a writer’s tip and then examine the issue more deeply with my Friday Blog.

If you’re interested in reading more about the rural life of Tuscany’s past, check this post out on Nonna.
Make strong, memorable characters your readers won't forget.

Begin your novel with action and save the back story for later.

Begin your novel with action and save the back story for later.Don’t start your book with back story! When reading manuscripts, story lines, plot ideas and structure concepts for my Tuscany writers retreats, starting with back story is one of the biggest problems I see. Start your story with the action, problem, conflict or whatever it is that must be overcome. Begin with the ‘what’s at stake’. Weave the back story in later, with character.

Begin your novel with action and save the back story for later.So many great stories end up getting thrown out of the agent’s or publisher’s slush pile because they simply don’t grab the reader’s attention enough right from the start.

Begin your novel with action and save the back story for later.It’s tempting to build the first chapter up slowly, using beautiful words and prose, and I blogged on the error of letting beautiful prose get in the way of clear and immediate storytelling here.  It won’t snare you a deal.

Begin your novel with action and save the back story for later.During The Art of Writing, every night we interview global agents and publishers. Every year our discussions confirm time and again – beyond doubt – that agents and publishers want and will not accept anything less than gripping text. From the first sentence!

Begin your novel with action and save the back story for later.In 2017, strong story lines that hook readers from the first chapter are more essential than ever. Please remember, don’t start with back story. Go for deeper characters, more compelling dialogue and thrilling plot lines.

If you want to know more about what else your writing needs, have a look at our Programmes for The Art of Wiring in June and September. We have a killer program coming up this year!

And check out this past Blog too on five common manuscript errors.

Begin your novel with action and save the back story for later.

This Valentine’s Day, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.I love Valentine’s Day. I love the flowers, the sentiment and the message behind a day dedicated to love. Romantic love. However this February 14 I would suggest that you turn that love back onto yourself. It’s been such a crazy year, with international news making many of us depressed, emotional and anxious. It’s a weird time in the world. So why not, in 2017, on the day of romantic love, nurture the artist within and give yourself a present?

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.As one of my favourite creative teachers, Julia Cameron, says: ‘Do something for yourself that you normally wouldn’t do. In order to have a real relationship with our creativity we must take the time and care to cultivate it.’

So nurture the artist within! Your special treat can be something as simple as an hour in a café, with a pen and paper, making a list of all the things you’d like to do this year. Maybe make a list of all the things you’d like to do or achieve in your lifetime. Knowing that if you are a part of this Blog, you are a creative, here are some creative gift ideas to give to yourself on Valentine’s Day this year:

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.Buy yourself a lovely new notebook, one that you always thought was too expensive for yourself.

Buy yourself some sweet little pot plants for your windowsill or garden.

Get those pots of rosemary, sage and basil – even if it’s just because they smell nice!

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.Buy some inexpensive water colours or sepia water colour pens and take the time to draw or paint some pages in your notebook, while you listen to your favourite music.

Get that special bottle of wine, special coffee or special tea – your favourite, not your child, mother or spouse’s favourite!

Buy a ticket to your favourite band, show, production or play.

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.Make or buy your favourite sauce, relish or jam.

Go for a walk to your favourite museum or art gallery, or browse your favourite shop.

Make a date with yourself to go to some different flea markets or foreign food shop.

Buy a new novel.

This Valentine’s Day stay cultured, stay calm and stay happy on the inside. Above all, remember YOU don’t need a Valentine. You have YOU! And you are special.

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert Zuckerman

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert ZuckermanAm reading such a good book on writing at the moment, one that has inspired this Blog. Albert Zuckerman is the New York Literary Agent responsible for doctoring some two dozen blockbuster novels. It is with great reverence that I read his thoughts on how to produce a perfectly polished final manuscript, every morning.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert ZuckermanSince finishing Julia Child’s The Artists’ Way (which lasted me about eight months) I had been writing my morning pages solely in journal form, like a diary. I wrote every morning, just to write, without reading a book with creative writing exercises, artistic guidance, direction or help. In other words, I wrote just to write, to kick-start the day’s work in front of the computer.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert ZuckermanHowever, my Morning Pages of journaling lasted about a month before I became mind-numbingly bored with my own jaded, tired, same old, same old diary keeping. Actually my Morning Pages just became a list of things that were pissing me off (my husband featured as protagonist a lot – sorry Paolo). Then along came Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. I will never journal again. I will always, from now on, do my Morning Pages with someone like Albert.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert ZuckermanNot only do I learn and grow, rather than navel gaze, but Albert is also helping me realise that I am on the right track with my goals and dreams in setting my new novel in a contemporary Florence. Albert says ‘Readers enjoy being introduced to exotic environments where, almost as tourists or students, they can observe and learn about customs, mores, rituals, modes of dress and etiquette, social and business practises largely or wholly alien to those with which they are familiar.’ Because on the whole, readers like to learn. Of course this is not the case with all blockbusters and all novels but some of the best known examples of environmentally dominated bestsellers are Airport, Hotel, Overload, Wheels, The Moneychangers, Alaska, Chesapeake, Poland, Hawaii, Texas, Tai-Pan, Nobel House and Shogun. Then there are the techno blockbusters set on planes or submarines etc.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert ZuckermanAll of which inspires me to write to you and tell you that you can set your book in your own backyard as well, but only if you invent a backyard with unique, culturally spot-on characters and plot that has distinctly different dialogue/dialect and details. But if you are choosing a setting right now for your plot, chose a setting that’s different. That unique setting will help sell your book.

It all makes Florence seem like a good setting for a contemporary thriller. Right, I must get back to my writing now because Albert has inspired me to keep going…and also to learn and grow in the morning over breakfast rather than ruminate on my own dull thoughts.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert Zuckerman

5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of information

5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of informationMy trusty Art of Writing assistant, Gabriella Ienzi, has almost finished her manuscript. Ginormous congratulations to Gabriella! Writing a book is a huge task. However, Gabriella has realised that though the internet has a huge quantity of ‘help’ in regards to sharpening her text and getting her book ‘just right,’ mining for tips can take up too much of her time. Here are Gabriella’s top five writing lessons learned on what to avoid and what to do with cyberspace publishing assistance. 


5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of information

1. Never lose the forest for the trees.

Specifically, don’t forget your book when stressing about your query. You’ll read QUERY so many times that your mind will start to glaze over it, like “a” or “the.” Yes, the query is important. It’s especially important if the agency asks for a query-only submission, with no writing to boost you. Your query (and pitch) speaks about your ability to articulate your story briefly and succinctly, cutting straight to the heart without any arterial ruptures along the way. But don’t forget your manuscript. Ultimately, not every agent will be right for your manuscript, just like not every genre appeals to every reader. Don’t get so caught up trying to snag an agent’s attention that you oversell your book, or sell it as something it’s not. This is why it’s so important to get someone to look at not just your query, but a sample chapter too.

5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of information2. Take everything with a grain of salt, unless it’s advice about your work specifically. 

I’ll use myself as an example. My book is a multi-point of view story where the protagonist’s POV appears in chapter four. Now. I was told to handle my query both ways: include all three women or write it from the protagonist’s POV, whichever sounds more intriguing in the query. Except I just got my query critiqued, and the verdict? If the query focuses on the protagonist, and the opening chapter isn’t the protagonist, it’s confusing. Period. Full stop. The takeaway: always, always, always—no matter how much you read and think you know!—get someone to look at your work directly. Don’t rely solely on online tips, because writing is not math and there is no perfect formula that applies to every author and every book. 

5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of information3. Partner up. 

Get a separate pair of eyes—a beta reader—to read your work, at whatever stage you’re comfortable sharing it. Some writers (me) would rather set the whole book on fire before letting anyone see the first raw draft. Others peck away at a rough draft so the result is a finished story that can be shown to at least close friends. If you have the time, buddy up with a critique partner, where you each read and critique each other’s work. 

4. Invest. 

Your book is your business. You won’t launch a successful business of any kind if you’re not willing to put any money into it. If you don’t have writerly friends who can critique your book, then pay for a beta reader—there are many who offer detailed reader reports on what worked and didn’t work in the story. Some book bloggers charge as low as a couple hundred. Take courses, attend a retreat, register for online conferences (which cost a lot less than most physical ones), pay for a critique or two. 

5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of information5. Never be afraid to ask questions—but always try and ask them in person about your work personally. 

Getting my query critiqued was an eye-opener as to why agents often don’t offer criticism for rejected manuscripts. The critique just left me with more questions. If I fix X, will Y be okay? Or if I just fix Z, can I leave X and Y as is? It’s a slippery slope and hard to get out of. And I started imagining if the critique had actually come with a rejection. It’s hard to navigate the fine balance of “this is what went wrong” and “but even if you fix it, I still won’t be interested.” A weak point in your manuscript isn’t like a loose draft in the kitchen window and you just have to shut the window tighter; it’s a draft that could be coming from anywhere in the house, and you have to find it first. A solution could fix all, or make it worse, or leave it the same. That’s why speaking personally with an agent or author can be so invaluable—you get to bounce an idea back and forth.

New Year’s Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write.

New Year's Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write.With Christmas and New Year over I see all the Writing Blogs, writing sites, podcasts and publisher’s social media platforms going crazy about New Year’s writing resolutions. I wish I could join in! After all these years writing you’d think I’d be first in line with encouraging tips and tricks as to how to make 2017 the year of quality text or how to have more productive time etc, etc, etc. Others are screaming; Resolve to Write More! Start Editing Now! Land that deal in 2017! But I’m not. 

New Year's Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write.I seem to be imploring the universe for time to write, then when I do carve out some time I sit in front of the computer distracted by emails, admin, The Art of Writing, social media and a whole lot of other stuff that doesn’t help me increase the word count on my book.

Surely, I can’t be alone in this vortex of grasping at air, trying to shop for food, cook food, clean up Christmas decorations, send invoices, chase invoices, tend to urgent tax, hunt down errant bills and the other boring mundanities of life?

IsNew Year's Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write. anyone else being sucked into such a humdrum everyday routine that their creative impulse is left trampled like a mat at their front door?

I was writing. The book was flowing and really happening, moving forward. Then came Christmas and New Year and now I can’t seem to get into the swing of it.

One thing is for sure. I am not giving up. Next week will be better.

New Year's Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write.

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