For Writers

Some things I’ve learned along the way:

WINTER FALLS started out as historical fiction, set in 16th century Italy. Several months into writing the book, I had the whole thing plotted out but could not write it. I was utterly stuck and didn’t know what to do. One day, in conversation with my husband about the book, I suddenly spurted out, “Maybe it doesn’t need to be set in the 16th century.”

Now, as someone who identifies herself as an historical fiction writer, this was a radical idea, and it scared me. But I let the possibility float in my brain for a couple of days, and when I sat down to write the opening – set in the here and now – it flowed out like water. I found that Alessia’s voice came to me much clearer in contemporary language, and the first draft of this version of the book took me only four months to write.

I’ve always loved European history. When I first started BEYOND THE MISSISSIPPI, I tried to make Sophie and Rose go to Europe. I swear, I really tried. They just wouldn’t do it. If you try to force something to happen, chances are it will backfire.

Tying into the advice above, your characters are usually one step ahead of you. And listening to them, instead of trying to move them around like pawns on a chessboard, often makes for a smoother collaboration between writer and character. If you are stuck on a plot point, a lot of times just listening to your characters will solve it. Every once in a while, tell a non-writer friend or acquaintence that your characters talk to you. It’s a fun trick.

A Plotter is someone who plots their story out before they start writing a word. A Panster is someone who flies-by-the-seat-of-their-pants through the book, not knowing what will happen from plot-point to plot-point. Look, people are very opinionated about this and will insist that their way is best. The truth is that the best way is your own way. Just as every writer has their own voice, every writer has their own method of writing. Here’s my own experience. I wrote BEYOND THE MISSISSIPPI completely by the seat of my pants. It took me almost five years and 750 pages to finish. Then it took me another year to edit down to a 500-page, submission ready manuscript. I loved the feeling of not knowing where the plot and the characters were going, of having every day at the computer be a surprise. I wrote WINTER FALLS in much the same way, completely pantsing the first draft, and then going through at least five drafts of substantial rewrites to get it to the version that was published. In the long run, especially on the back end in edits, this is an unwieldy way to work, especially when you’re on a deadline. So when it came time to write THE FORGETTING, I decided to plot out the entire book before I ever wrote a word. I knew I still wanted to retain spontaneity in the actual writing, so I left myself open to change anything in the outline along the way. And while I did change some things, the book only took a year from conception to sale, and there was only one round of edits with my editor before it was finalized.

Writing a complete outline doesn’t work for every book; I found that out while writing the third book in the Twin Willows Trilogy. Less than a month before that book was due, I realized I’d made a mistake in plotting it and had to write the last 100 pages completely by the seat of my pants. So I think a combination of the two methods is what works best for me.

This is a really hard lesson to learn. But it’s a necessary one. What’s important about being objective is that once you are, you’re able to listen to other people’s opinions about the work, sift through and figure out what’s helpful and what isn’t, and improve the work from there. If you can’t listen to constructive criticism, you’ll never improve as a writer.

I’m blessed to have cobbled together a great network of other writers from various critique groups I’ve worked with over the years. If you can find a good group it’s a beautiful thing. They should be more than a crit group; they should support, nurture and encourage each other.


Sometimes it’s hard. When BEYOND THE MISSISSIPPI didn’t sell, I was devastated. But I didn’t give up writing because I COULDN’T give up. If the passion is there, you don’t really have a choice, do you? You have to keep going. You have to get your words in every day, you have to keep following those characters around, you have to keep dreaming.

After I finished the rough draft of WINTER FALLS, I had a hard time at first doing the revisions. I realized it was because I was afraid of having my heart broken again like it was after BEYOND THE MISSISSIPPI didn’t sell, and that fear was keeping me stuck. Then I realized that even though I was afraid of heartbreak, the thought of not risking it to finish the book was even worse than the fear. Once I broke through that wall, I was able to finish the book.

And remember, the act of writing every day makes you a writer. It isn’t the book on the shelf or the title on the NYTimes Bestseller list. It is the simple but courageous act of sitting down to a blank page every day, and filling it with words.