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Monday, September 7, 2020

Things I Learned On My Writer's Journey by Elizabeth Clements


            Why is it when I want to go back to sleep, my mind wakes up and gets my thoughts roiling? Then when I finally cave and go to the computer, my brain takes a hike and I’m scrambling to remember my order of thoughts? So frustrating. I come up with way too many plot or blog ideas or snippets of dialogue when I’m snuggled warm and relaxed in bed. That’s what happened, again, to me today and I became compelled to share my thoughts. The best place to start is at the beginning.

(Note: I started this over two weeks ago after a midnight scramble to write my previous blog and get it posted. So I began this by just jotting down points. Some I filled in, some I left for later. I was going to finish it ahead of time on Friday when I received my manuscript for a final proofread. So, here I am again on Sunday night past midnight, scrambling to finish this. And no time to edit., So, please forgive any typos etc. I know most of you have experienced some or all of my musings, so it’s now for the benefit of someone who wonders about becoming a writer.)

Writing styles change. You just have to read some of the classics, like A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens or The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer with their long narratives that have you itching to “get to the story!” I was always a voracious reader until my second pregnancy when I had twins—with three boys two and under, I was lucky if I had time to brush my teeth let alone read. Then two years later along came my fourth. I guess I wasn’t reading then, either. <grin> And yet the desire to write had always smoldered deep inside me since I threw a Harlequin against the wall and muttered, “I can write better than this.”

            That thought must have festered for another few  years until one day in the midst of cooking breakfast for my four little guys, a plot idea formed and blew my mind. As soon as I could, I scribbled it down—but why would I want to write about the Yukon Gold Rush?  Actually, it turned out to be the backstory for my first book, a contemporary romantic suspense, which Harlequin was not publishing back in the 1980s.

Research The beauty of research is it provides authenticity to your story; the drawback is you get so involved in research it becomes a maze of information, spurring you along another path, and another until you’re hopelessly overwhelmed with all that information. But sometimes you find some really neat nuggets that add punch to your story—and that’s a good thing.

Ideas Write down ideas, snippets of dialogue, a scene that pops to mind. At the moment you believe you won’t forget something so deliciously good and then slap your forehead later because you can’t remember it. You soon learn to carry around a notepad and pen in case inspiration strikes. (Now people can do it on their cell phones).

There was a time when I’d keep a legal pad in the drawer by my bed. One time I had a particularly vivid dream, and wrote it down, eyes closed so I wouldn’t lose the image in my head. When I looked at it hours later, the words slanting across the page were utter gibberish.

Stream of conscious It’s wonderful when this happens. For me it begins either by telling someone about my work in progress or by opening a document and typing everything I know so far. I have surprised myself a few times when suddenly a scene takes off, complete with action and dialogue. And action begs reaction. This becomes what I called my broken string of pearls.

Broken String of Pearls When I first scribbled that story idea down, I left it on the dining room table. Whenever I had further inspiration, I’d write it on another sheet of paper. Then a different scene and a different pile. Then I’d think of a reaction to an action, so added that sheet to the pertinent pile. Soon there were several piles, some related, some not, but the piles grew. Then one pile followed another pile that spread over the table. This became my broken string of pearls. What a happy day when I put the last pile under the stack and it became my unbroken string of pearls. Whimsical, I know, but that’s how I wrote my story.        

I still remember the Saturday noon in November when I joyfully typed The End. I was euphoric. My family wasn’t. We had beautiful wrought iron gates made into the dining room from the big kitchen area. And there stood my four little guys 2, 4, and 6 , hanging onto the iron swirls, with their father standing behind them, all wearing such woebegone faces. “We’re hungry, Mommy.” I think I probably gazed at them like aliens had just landed. How could they be thinking of food? I just finished writing my first book!

Edits, Rewrites and Proofreading Writing for me comes easy, it’s the editing I dread (and still do, but not quite so much) because back then I didn’t know a thing about editing…and years later I’m still learning. Back in the 1980s there was no one I could go to for guidance. I belonged to a writers club, but I was the only novelist and a romance writer at that. They wrote poetry and short family anecdotes or memories. So I typed my first book a second time, and some pages more than once. If you edited or added too much, I had to retype the entire chapter. I had an excellent second-hand IBM Selectric with a correction tape, but still it wasn’t a word processor. That came a few years later. Finally December 31st I sent it off, with great hopes, to Harlequin in Toronto.

Scissors…..don’t cut a scene/dialogue…..copy and paste it into a separate document. Read the scene three days in a row. If you still feel the same after the third read, then cut the scene/dialogue. One day you may love it and the next day you hate it. So, what’s going on in your life the day you hate your writing and think it’s garbage? Did you get bad news, are you feeling under the weather, worried, anxious, etc., etc. Our writing or editing perception is affected by our mood. Copy, cut, paste, save in a new document. Make a folder for such deleted scenes/dialogue. Who knows, that “clever” piece of dialogue might fit elsewhere or in another book.

Brainstorm with yourself or a reader or a writer. It’s amazing how just one comment can have you racing down a new path or solve a problem.

Forget your English teacher. This is extremely important. English teachers may disagree, because it’s their job to teach you to write right. In high school. Well, you’re not in high school anymore <grin> Proper sentence structure was drilled into me in high school. It was further absorbed through the hundreds of books I’d read, especially the historicals of kings and queens written by Jean Plaidy. Thus, it’s little wonder why my first book was rejected. I wrote like I’d read, with complete sentences, even for dialogue. I was so green that I didn’t know what the editor meant when she said my writing was old fashioned and needed tightening up. There’s been a big shift in writing styles over the years, especially lately.

Well, I kinda understood the old-fashioned part—I could have my hero and heroine go to bed together and then get married. (That wasn’t what the editor meant). But what did the editor mean by tightening up? I think I still have that problem as my blogs tend to get too long, but at least I’ve cut out a gazillion adverbs and my characters do not always speak in perfect sentences. I even have one word sentences! <gasp>. My English teacher would probably roll over in her grave if she read my books—a far cry from the essays and book reports I had to write.

Stream of conscious It’s wonderful when this happens. For me it begins either by telling someone about my story so far or by opening a document and typing everything I know so far and suddenly a scene takes off, complete with dialogue.

Writing buddy….to a certain extent it helps if you have similar tastes in reading other than being writers, but it’s not necessarily vital. It’s fun to bounce ideas off one another like a ping pong ball.

Procrastination  Ah, yes, I confess this has been my biggest downfall for years, and not just with my writing. So much lost time, yet it hasn’t all been bad because even though I hadn’t been writing, I was still often thinking about my stories. The sub-conscious is a wonderful helper. It’s like a computer silently working in the background, wrangling with an issue until suddenly it spits out a solution. I find it particularly useful to think about an issue I’m trying to resolve as I hope to drift off to sleep. I tell my Muse that I have a problem, tell what it is, and ask for a solution. Sometimes it comes quickly, other times it comes when I’m in the middle of something and can’t write it down.

Attend workshops, on-line courses, writer groups.

Caution Be careful with whom you share your work, especially if you don’t know the writer very well. Stealing isn’t just restricted to break and enter.

Editing Get the first draft down, then edit. I’m not entirely a panser, but when I get the bit between my teeth I do gallop as long as the story idea lasts. Some people edit as they go; others finish the book, then edit. The latter can be daunting, to edit an entire book; but the person who edits daily may feel discouraged that she/he doesn’t have many pages/words to show for hours at the computer. One really has to learn what works best.

Trust your instincts and listen to your inner voice.

Read, Read, Read Read, study, learn, apply Discern what you liked about the story and what you didn’t like and why. Then apply to your own writing what you’ve analyzed.

Study books for an author’s style, Analyze what you like and don’t like and learn.

Enter contests. I haven’t entered any contests in years. They were helpful back then when one actually received comments from the judges. I understand that has changed and now all one gets are numbers rating your story from 1-10 or 1-5.

Value the good comments from judges, but really learn from the negatives. That’s when one truly learns. Everyone wants praise, naturally, but we really begin to learn when we analyze the comments from the low scores….that is if contests even give feedback.

Trust your instincts with Dialogue  I’ve forgotten how I received some wonderful advice from Dorothy Garlock about dialogue. She may have been a judge I had in a contest I’d entered years ago or perhaps I wrote her a fan letter. In any case, we exchanged some e-mails about dialogue.

Dorothy wrote wonderful books of the early days of the West being settled. A lot of grownups never learned to read, including men. Their grammar was atrocious, but Dorothy wrote their dialogue honestly. Beautiful stories, so interesting and realistic that even my husband became a big fan. I always had pocketbooks laying around and he’d pick one up to read and got hooked. He read everyone, at least thirty of them. Dorothy told me to listen to my instincts, and not what the judges marked me low on.

So when you read my published books, you’ll find outlaws and even the good guys who drop their g’s and say gonna and wanna, and ain’t, etc. If you eavesdrop on people’s conversations, say in a restaurant, you’ll find not everyone speaks in perfect, high school English sentences. Even me. <grin>

Log Keep a log of each character’s eye and hair color, scar, names of their horse or pet, etc. Create a mini-bio for each character. This is even more important if you write a series with reappearing beloved (or hated) characters in earlier books.

Track your story time span on a calendar. I learned a valuable lesson from this when I read the finished first draft of Beneath A Horse Thief Moon. Well into reading it, I suddenly realized I had missed an entire week in my story, thanks to the importance of moonlight in my story. A full moon doesn’t last a week, or even three days. There are days of moonless nights, too. You also have to consider how many days before the moon begins it new cycle.  Luckily, I was able to fix that missing week by saying something like, a week later… 

Here’s what I did. I drew up a calendar and accounted for every day of the month of September, 1897. I found a link that gave me information of the moon's phase that month, including the week days, etc. I applied that information to my calendar. If there was no action on a certain day, I’d simply write in n/a  (no action) but if something happened, I’d jot a word or brief notes i.e. round-up for the three or four days it took Sara to round up her missing cattle, etc.

At a glance I had a very brief summary/time line of the book by the time I typed The End. It also made it easier to write a synopsis from this calendar outline. This can cover a day, a week, a month, but helps keep you on track. I highly recommend it, especially if there are gaps in your writing periods. We think we won't forget, but we do.

Negativity Stay away from it. Run from it. Grind it into the ground with the heel of your shoes. Some people will tear you down for selfish reasons, or jealousy. Believe in yourself and believe in your dream.

Procrastination Don’t procrastinate. Repeat after me. Don’t procrastinate.

Forgive yourself if you procrastinate. Forgive yourself even if you don’t procrastinate and just feel lost or have no self-confidence. It’s so much easier to find writing support now on the internet compared to my early writing days when the internet highway was still someone’s dream. Just be careful. There are a lot of horrid people just out to steal your ideas…or your money. A lot of people make money off writers…remember the gold rush—it was the miners out in the snow or heat, panning for gold, but it was the storekeepers and saloons that raked in the money and got rich.

Cry Have a good cry over disappointment and soldier on. That was my big mistake. I didn’t handle rejection well. Instead of editing that book, I’d just put it aside and start a new book. I have quite a collection now, somewhere in boxes, collecting dust.

Celebrate each step toward finishing your book. As the saying goes, even small steps a journey makes…even a finished book.

Don’t Give Up

I know some of my musings are old hat for the seasoned writers, but if there is a reader here who dreams of becoming a writer, well, I hope there’s a nugget or two in all these words that will help you in your writing journey.

 Excerpt Beneath A Fugitive Moon

            The cow jumped over the moon,” Mike said a week later. He looked up from the book spread out on Jolene’s table in her cabin. “That don’t make no sense, Jolene. Cats don’t play a fiddle and cows don’t jump over the moon.”

            “That doesn’t make any sense.” Jolene said.

            “Yeah, so you agree, too?” He slammed the book shut.

            Jolene smiled. “The correct grammar is doesn’t, not don’t. And you don’t use two negatives in a sentence: don’t and not.” She opened the book and found the page from which Mike had just read.

            “Do kids actually like this kinda nonsense?”

            “Nursery rhymes have been around for a long time.”

            “Nursery rhymes!” Mike gaped at her. “You’re teachin’ me nursery rhymes?”

            Jolene reached up and stroked his cheek. “Don’t look so offended, Honey Bear. Trust me, nursery rhymes are a lot more interesting than the primary books I have to use for my beginners. Besides, they have great rhythm and make children laugh.”

            “Well, I ain‘t laughin’. Not laughing.” But Jolene using his nickname took all the starch out of his indignation. After all, she was the teacher and he the student.

            Clearing his throat, he bent over the book and repeated from memory by just hearing it once, “The little dog laughed, to see such sport, and the dish ran away with the spoon. That’s dumb. A dish can’t do that.” He looked up. “I’m still not laugh—what’s the matter? You got tears in your eyes. What happened?”

            Before he could move, she leaned forward in her chair, wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her lips against his open mouth. Now kisses, those he could understand and gave right back. He’d been wondering when she’d kiss him again. Every time he entered his bedroom, he was swamped with memories of her kissing him on his bed.

            Jolene drew back. “You wonderful, wonderful man.”

            Wonderful I can take. Has a nice sound to it. “I am? How so?”

            “You’re such a quick learner.” She dashed away her tears.

            He frowned. “I am? Then how come you’re cryin’…crying?” he corrected. He loved the soft shiny glow in her eyes. He liked having her look at him like that.

            “Because I’m so happy.”

            Huh? Cryin’ because you’re happy? “That don’t make no...doesn’t make sense.”

            “See what I mean? Already you’re correcting your grammar, Mike. I can’t get over how fast you learn. It’s only been a week and already you know the alphabet back and forward. You don’t just read one word anymore. Since our last lesson, you’ve recognized a string of words. You are amazing. Absolutely amazing.” And she kissed him again.

            “Your kisses are amazin’, too,” he said a moment later, his breathing ragged. “But I think I need a little more practice on them.” Holy smoke! Did I just say that?

            For sure she’d slap his face. Instead, she drew his head down, framed his cheeks with her soft hands and kissed him with a gentleness that squeezed his soul. 



Link for Diamond Jack’s Angel/Hot Western Nights Anthology


Beneath A Horse Thief Moon:



  1. So much on this post, and a whole lot to learn from. I'll be coming back to read this more than once. Thanks for posting.

    1. I was hoping there would be something useful gleaned from my experiences. Thanks for stopping by, Christine.

  2. Writing's not a one-size-fits-all discipline; I just did my annual first week talk to my first year college classes on how genre, audience, and context all affect how we write. Nobody really wants you to write high school book reports for the rest of your life -- I spend a lot of time trying to undo the damage the 5 paragraph essay has wrought.

    1. You are so right, Cate, about the one-size does not fit all. Proper sentence structure is still so important in business writing...not relaxed like in my blog . That's why it's a good idea for writers to attend workshops specific to their genre, or at least aimed at writers. Good luck with your students, Cate, and thanks for stopping by.

  3. My writing journey holds many similarities to yours, Elizabeth. I think many writers are Day Dreamers and Night Thinkers. We are plagued by over-thinking just when we want to get some sleep, but, conversely, over-thinking also brings to us some of our best story ideas.
    I am both inspired by research and lost in it. I know more trivia than anyone should be allowed.
    I love writing workshops and I have taken many of them. They renew my enthusiasm and help me improve my craft.
    This was a wonderful article. It reminds us of how varied and unique each of our writing processes are.
    All the best to you, Elizabeth...

    1. I love workshops and writing conferences and drove to Calgary for quite a few of them. They're so much fun and a wonderful opportunity to mingle with like-minded people. I haven't been to one since November 2004 and really miss them and the ladies I befriended. That's why I particularly appreciate our PRP family, the sharing and support. I'm so happy to be here. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah. You are always so supportive and kind. This winter I plan to immerse myself in your wonderful Wilding stories.

  4. Isn't it amazing what our creative minds do when we are planning something else. I do like your list. Really nice post. Thanks. Doris

  5. You are another one of those lovely people at PRP, sharing your knowledge and being so supportive and helpful. I so appreciate learning more about your beautiful Colorado through your blogs. Thanks for stopping by.