Lessons Learned Yet Again

Writing has been a struggle for months now. A few weeks ago I turned to three friends and one husband. As always, they listen.

And then, as always, I turn to music. The Arran Boat Song (also know as The Aran Boat Song) is one of my favorites. It’s a lament that was around in the 1700s although the exact age is unknown. Feel free to listen while I chat, especially if you need some quiet music in this crazy world right now. It’s a song that always allows me to drift off into stories.

The Arran Boat Song

I’ve spent months trying to write a new story and every single word felt wrong. I’ve started it over four times so far. I then moved to working on the fifth book in the mystery series only to fight every single word there, too. So what helps?

Friends who can gently ask the questions that you already know the answers to.

Especially when you’ve been here before and when you’ve faced the same questions before, and by now should really know the answers.

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Can’t see the forest for the trees?

One friend asked ‘what has changed?’ My writing. I’m trying to write the way I always have, and it just isn’t the way these stories want to be told. The characters are stepping away from me and holding up their hands, telling me to wait and listen.

Which leads to ‘why’.

Sometimes the struggle is because I went down one path when the story wanted to go another. One friend asked ‘what would happen if you bushwhacked until you found the trail again?’ And another asked ‘If what is missing is the trail, maybe all that means is you’ve picked up all the tools along the paths to start foraging your own way’.

Do you see how well they know me, that they use forest analogies?

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I want to sit in the cup of that tree.

Sometimes I take a character or subplot in the wrong direction. Sometimes I try to take the whole dang story in the wrong direction. Like when you’re trying to force a haunting into a mystery. When that happens you need friends who send an email that says:

What I’m sensing in your emails is this: 

– grief (I won’t pretend to know for exactly what)
– a feeling of being lost, lack of direction
– the desire to enter into some sort of magical realm, so to speak (in
your emails: folklore stories that inspire, characters that are attracted to the elemental parts of the world…)

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Elemental forest creature or clay bank with stream and two rocks that fell out? And do you see the smaller face to the side?

And when you read those words, that inner writer lights up and says ‘YES!’ That character – she’s grieving, she’s seeking something elemental, some story to take her away. The mystery is still there, but now, there’s more.

Finally, you need friends and family who believe in you so when you start hitting the potholes in the trail, they carry you over them then give you a little push.

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A narrow trail I stumbled down recently.

I’m not moving forward yet, but I think I see the path. But more importantly, I’m laughing. Because I’ve learned all these lessons before. Because I seem to need to relearn them after every book is finished.

Stumbling around fighting words must be the writing process before I can start something new. I’m lucky my family is patient. They should record all of this and play it back to me each time I finish a project and struggle to write the next one.

Another lesson learned.

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The Best Laid Plans

Author Susan Schreyer has just released a new book in her Thea Campbell mystery series set in Snohomish, Washington. Having watched the process of this book come into being and been witness to some long, frustrating days, I thought it would be appropriate to ask her a few questions.

After writing six books in this series and making it look easy, you struggled with this newest one. Why do you think ‘Best Laid Plans’ was harder for you to write than the others?

There is always a little lag between books … well, often, anyway. But I’ll be blunt here: the culprit in this instance was depression. There were a number of life-issues that contributed to this, among which was three deaths in my immediate family and an election (2016) that gave me a good deal of anxiety over the future. Once I recognized the depression and addressed it, the writing didn’t come flowing back. It took time and effort to find my groove again.

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Did your writing process change with this book, and can you tell me a little about that process?

Yes, but my process always changes. I find that I refine it with each book – build on what works and discard what didn’t. With Best Laid Plans, because it’s a complicated plot and took so long,  I had to reread often, depend more heavily on my spreadsheets, and rewrite the story arc.

What do you think helped get your creativity flowing again with this book?

Intention. Or commonly known (among writers) as “butt in chair, hands on keyboard”. Seriously, I gave myself goals – easy ones, at first – then I gave myself permission to become lost in the story world and ignore the real world. I think that last part is important. If I can’t remove myself from what is happening around me, I’ll sit and stare at the screen and fret. It’s probably why I need quiet – I’m easily distracted! Also, my writing will echo any lack of involvement I have in the story. I don’t want to bore my readers!

Tell me about the new character, Amethyst, who apparently has demanded her own book.

Amethyst started out as a plot device – a character to help move the story along, provide color (punny, yes!) and humor. As the story progressed, I realized she was a character with depth and issues that not only intrigued me but were capable of creating a connection with a reader. Who could pass up an opportunity to explore a character like that?

What is your most unusual writing quirk?

I sometimes have conversations with my characters – out loud. If I find myself stuck or unhappy with the way a character’s role in the story is going, I’ll “interview” them. I’ll play both parts to the best of my ability and often find out some surprising information. It sounds very odd, but the improvisation taps into creativity in a physically different way than sitting at the keyboard and typing, as has been demonstrated in studies of how the brain functions.

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Susan and Eddy, both showing their beautiful smiles for the camera

What has influenced you most as a writer?

That’s a difficult one to answer since there are so many influences in one’s life. I’d have to say, though, that without exposure to other wonderful writers I doubt I would have been lured as far down this path as I have gone.

What little thing would readers be surprised to know about you?

(I had to ask my husband for this) The first and only time I ever entered my roses in a rose show I won the championship. Big ribbon, small money.

I know this is almost an impossible question for people like us that read all the time, but can you pick just one all-time favorite book that you have read and tell us why it’s your favorite?

After much thought, I’m going to go way back to the book that got me hooked on mysteries, adventure and dreaming about writing. That would be The Black Stallion by Walter Farley. I consumed his books. Thank you, Mr. Farley!

I know this can be a cliché question, but what advice would you give a beginning writer, at this moment in time?

Write. Then once you have written, start the process of learning how to do it better – and know that not all advice you get will be a) good, or b) helpful. Some of it will be, though. That which is worth hanging on to will be the advice that follows you around and gets you eager to do more.

And my favorite question to end interviews with: what one question do you wish I’d asked, that I didn’t? (You can answer it, too!)

What is your favorite part about writing? That has to be learning. Not only research about areas outside of my experience, but how to write better. If there wasn’t the opportunity to learn and improve, it would quickly become boring.

Thank you for the opportunity to have this conversation. It’s always a pleasure to chat with you!

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Some of Susan’s roses. She may not enter them in competitions often, but I can tell you she has many, many beautiful roses of all varieties.