Monthly Archives: September 2011

Thinking About Writing

I love to write. I just do it and don’t often think about why I write. But last week when I was interviewed for the Emerging Novelists website, I was asked some questions that made me think about it.

I realized that writing is my way to process my experiences and thoughts. Through writing I can wrestle with questions and isssues by having my fictional characters struggle through crises. Certainly, I derive pleasure in playing with words, but writing is my way of sorting out life.

In case you missed it, here is the interview conducted by Michael Murphy:

Sylvia. You were born in the Netherlands, have lived in Canada, the U.S. and now Bermuda.  How has all this impacted your writing?
I believe that having diverse cultural experiences broadens one’s outlook on life. I think that my characters, settings, and stories are influenced and enriched by my exposure to different societies and countries, even at a subconscious level. My family emigrated from the Netherlands when I was a  young child and I’ve lived in Canada most of my life. As a child and teenager I wrote many stories about pioneers settling in new lands or orphans without roots. It didn’t occur to me until you asked the question, Michael, but perhaps those themes were unconsciously influenced by the impact of my family’s immigration. However, it was my relocation to the U.S. six years ago that inspired my novel, The Unraveling of Abby Settel. After living for almost twenty years in the same town, I found myself in a city where I knew no one, was not allowed to work, and had to develop a new life, much like my character Abby. The emotional impact of this caught me by surprise, even more so when I discovered that many women in the same situation were affected the same way. I decided that this was a story that needed to be told, and Abby was born.

Tell us about your new novel, The Unraveling of Abbey Settel.
The novel is an account of one woman’s journey as she faces challenges that force her to question who she is and what is important to her happiness. Abby Settel has a full and satisfying life as a wife, mother, and university professor. But it slowly begins to fall apart. Her son’s behaviour becomes worrisome, her aging parents are deteriorating, and her husband loses his job. His new position compels them to move hundreds of miles away, where Abby, forced to leave her children, parents, friends, and identity, is plagued by guilt and loneliness. When she discovers a group of women facing the similar challenges, she explores what “home” really means to her, and learns valuable lessons about herself and those she loves. It is a story of mid-life reinvention, letting go to embrace the present, and the importance of friends.

What has been the most challenging aspect of becoming a novelist?
At the risk of sounding cliché, I would have to say that my biggest challenge is the commitment required to write every day. I am normally very self-disciplined and organized, but for some reason, when it comes to writing, I have become an expert task-avoider. And that puzzles me because I love to write. The distractions are numerous. Now that my novel is published, there are a myriad of tasks involved with the promotion of it, most of them carried out on the computer, and it is amazing how many hours get eaten up that way. I “task avoid” at other times, too. When my characters are at an impasse and I’m not sure where to take them, or I’ve finished a scene and am uncertain how to start the next, it seems more desirable to clean the house or bake cookies than struggle with those quandaries. Sometimes the way the story is progressing excites me so much that the adrenaline makes me edgy and I can’t just sit quietly at the computer and type, so I do something active instead. And, of course, living in Bermuda, there are far too many diversions, like snorkelling, scuba diving, golf, riding my scooter…

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?
As a writer, I can express opinions and explore issues through the lives of fictitious characters, and answer questions like “what if?” or “why not?” Everyone has something to say about life, and writing fiction is a special way to say my piece. I’ve always been an avid reader, and love to immerse myself in a fictional character’s dilemma. Being a writer is an extension of that. Imagine how empowering it feels to create a setting exactly the way you envisage it, then placing in it a person or two and forcing a crisis upon them. I can make them do whatever I want, living vicariously through them as they behave in ways I would never do myself. I take great delight in that. But what I most enjoy is when the story I’m writing takes a turn that I didn’t expect. Really, it has happened to me! Then I begin to wonder who is really in charge.

What authors have inspired you the most?
That is a tough question. Every book that has moved me, has inspired me in some way, and I’ve read so many different authors and different genres, that my list would be very long. To narrow it a great deal, I would have to say that the authors whom I most want to emulate are those who take ordinary people in ordinary circumstances and write a story around them that is compelling and emotionally charged. On that list I would include Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Elizabeth Berg, Isabel Huggan, Jacqueline Mitchard, and Elizabeth Strout. I’ve certainly left some out.

What’s next for you as a writer?
I’m about three-quarters of the way through my second novel, which is the story of a woman who questions the path her life has taken and makes some dubious choices to change it. The book’s setting plays a large part in the story and is inspired by Jekyll Island, GA, a place I’ve had the pleasure of visiting several times. I’m also deep into a project that involves co-authoring a mystery series with a friend and fellow author under the pseudonym Lucy Arlington. We have a three book contract with Berkley Prime Crime for the series and the first book, Buried in a Book, is scheduled for release in February 2012.

What other facet of your life impacts your writing process?
One aspect that I unexpectedly enjoy about being an author is the editing process. I used to be intimidated by the idea that after working for months to write a manuscript, I’d still have to rework it and change sections that I initially believed were complete and wonderful. I thought that by the time I’d finished writing it, I’d be ready to be done with it. Put it away, so to speak. Not so. In many ways I find it more rewarding to go into a written passage and play with its sentence structure, replace words, or alter the sequence of events. Having the initial idea down, the “wordsmithing” really happens in the editing process. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me. I’m a pianist, and the process of learning and perfecting a piece of music is not dissimilar. Once it’s in my head and fingers, I tweak certain sections to perfect it, until I can play it exactly the way I envision. That’s one of the challenges I enjoy about playing the piano. So, too, with writing. Striving to say something in just the right way is what makes writing a craft.

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Writing (Critique) Groups

Writers are solitary people. We sit at our computers (or with pen in hand) to create characters, places and events. We can only do this alone, because in order for our characters to emerge from us we need to have a clear channel from our brain to our hands. I find it so rewarding to be working in a quiet place, getting lost in a scene, playing with words to make them sound just right.

And yet, what has helped me to grow as a writer more than anything else is my participation in critique groups. Getting together regularly with other writers to discuss our work not only gives me varying viewpoints about what I’ve written, it also validates me as a writer. We bounce ideas back and forth, act out scenes to see if they’re realistic, quibble about the overuse of a word, pat each other on the back for particularly inspiring sentences. Being in a critique group takes the solitariness out of our beloved calling and makes us view our work with a critical eye, something that is often difficult to do when it’s just Me, Myself, and I reading the words.

I have been fortunate enough to have found amazing and valuable critique partners in all the places I’ve lived as a writer. My first critique group in Richmond, VA came together out of the Virginia Writers Club, and the five of us formed a bond that transcended our objective to become better writers. In Toronto, ON, at a workshop held at Humber College on publishing, four of us formed a group that met regularly to improve our writing, and out of another writing workshop held by Brian Henry in Oakville, ON, “writer gals” was established. I’m still in touch with most of these wonderful writers, but distance makes it difficult for me to participate in their meetings.

Here in Bermuda, I am part of another–much smaller–writers group. Starting with three of us, we met for almost a year; then this summer one of us moved away. So now it’s down to two, although we are hoping to find one or two more motivated writers to join us.

Critique groups work if all agree on the structure and process. Here are a few suggestions that I have found effective:
1. Meet consistently and regularly–weekly or bi-weekly. This provides an added advantage to those of us who succumb to procrastination. Having a deadline makes you write!
2. Consistent attendance from all members make for continuity in assessing the progress of the work.
3. Submit your work to one another in advance to allow for effective critiquing. I our groups, we put a limit of about five pages per submission, with the odd exception.
4. If time allows, have the writer read his/her piece aloud before critiquing it. It’s amazing what you hear that you didn’t read.
5. When discussing a writer’s work, the writer should stay silent until everyone has had their say. Let the writing speak for itself.
6. When you critique, keep in mind the writer’s well-being and respect their intention. Remember, your goal is to help, not criticize.
7. Focus on how the writing works and minimize the focus on grammar and spelling.
8. Finally, always have food and beverages involved. Baked goods are great for daytime meetings and wine is essential for evening ones!

Have you been part of a writers group? Have you found it as valuable as I have?

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