Candace Robb

Candace Robb, author of medieval historical books including her Owen Archer series, took a stab at my five questions this month and provided me with plenty new to think about. My biggest takeaway from our conversation? Besides things I learned, I realized I really want to read more of her books! And there are plenty to read, so if you haven’t started I suggest you do. I’ll be digging into another soon. Not that I can know without time traveling, but her medieval world has the authentic feel of someone who has researched it deeply enough to make it her own.

What is your favorite book about the craft of writing? Why?

Candace: I want to mention two, one that was recommended to me by an agent I worked with for a brief time, my first intensive professional relationship: The Craft of Writing by William Sloane (Norton 1979). It’s short, readable, and filled with wisdom from his long career as an editor. His focus is on the relationship between the writer and the reader. The goal is to create an illusion of reality for the reader and not break it, which is why he emphasizes sticking to one POV per scene. The moment the reader becomes confused about who is thinking the illusion is destroyed for them. The second book is Wired For Story by Lisa Cron. She makes use of brain science to teach the writer how to hook readers. Essentially, we read to make sense of our world, to learn what might happen, to try out experiences. Our job is to engage a reader’s emotions. She has great checkpoints throughout. I recommend her clever contents pages for a sense of the book. 

Sarah: I had to go and look at the ‘clever contents pages’ in Wired for Story to see what you meant. Wow! The table of contents has practical teasers for each chapter that can be applied right away. This is so great!

What do you like most about writing a first draft?

Candace: As someone who changes course, revises, rewrites, over and over in the first draft, I spend more than 75% of my time with a book in this long stage. I discover the story as I write, jotting down ideas then returning to the beginning when I’m confident I know how to revise it and move forward. It’s a dance of two steps forward, back to base, three steps forward, back to base. Gradually the “base” is farther along in the story. Even so, the beginning often changes in the second draft. So you can imagine that what gives me the greatest joy is that moment when I first type *the end*.

There are other joyous moments along the way, particularly as the story becomes clear to me. I was quite far into the book that’s now with my editor, A Fox in the Fold, when I realized I was wrong about the identity of the catalyst and saw that I’d inadvertently set up a far more satisfying story than what I’d planned. I thought my heart would burst. I wrote like a madwoman after that until, towards the end, I thought I’d written myself into a corner. I knew my sleuth, Owen Archer, would not embark on the path I’d laid out for him. So I sat down with him and asked for his advice. He was more than happy to oblige, sketching out an ending that required I go back a few steps. Everything clicked into the place after that.

Sarah: I loved our conversation about this second part, especially – that you could discover that you, the author, have been wrong about a particular character all along. It was a relief to me, not yet a published novelist, to learn that I wasn’t the only one. And it’s also one of the fun things about writing, to really be in conversation with the characters and the story.

And thank you for the teaser title…I have so much reading to do before I get there 😬

What is your favorite part of revision?

Candace: Once I’ve spun the tale to the end, I read through the manuscript noting places where I want to add more feeling or description of the setting, seed subtle clues, remove what serves no purpose, add a scene that enriches a character. I love the feeling of seeing it all clearly and diving in to realize my vision.

What book (not about writing) are you reading right now or have you recently finished that you would recommend to others? Why?

Candace: I’m reading Robin Hobb’s Golden Fool, the 2nd book in The Tawny Man Trilogy, which is the 3rd trilogy of The Realm of the Elderlings. Each book is long, so each trilogy is a commitment in time, and yet I dread the day when I’ve read all the trilogies, chronicles, short stories and novellas in the series. How can something so time-consuming appeal? It’s the characters, how each and every one is written with depth and subtlety, how they grow and change, how vividly all the various cultures are portrayed, the magic, the politics, the art. As a writer of series myself, I admire her ability to make me care about all of these imaginary people living in an imaginary world and thrill to be reacquainted with them in later books.

Sarah: This had me laughing in part because I love how the word trilogy has expanded over the years, so much that this trilogy of trilogies is almost banal. But I’m glad you pointed to another important element of literature – the potential and the journey for each character to grow and change (or somehow not). I’ve just finished a book (The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa) in which what appeared to be the main character was really a catalyst for growth and relationship building for all the apparent side characters. Now I’m excited to dig into Hobb!

Can you give an example of how you have been kind to someone else recently, in real life or through one of your characters?

Candace: I’ve been inspired by the Dalai Lama’s answer that his religion is very simple, it’s kindness. I try to make that my default in interactions, particularly prickly ones. It doesn’t mean being insincere, but instead finding a way to say or behave kindly, not to wound. It can be a challenge, particularly on Twitter, because snarky comments are fun. So I’m particularly careful on social media, and I write a great deal that no one ever sees.

Sarah: Thank you! I’m so glad you mention that which “no one ever sees.” It’s like our thoughts, isn’t it? Our minds may come up with things, but we need not share them all. It’s why I’ve focused the questions I ask on the positive; not because we don’t have negative things to say about writing but that they are less helpful than the positive. Kindness works the same way.

Jeffrey D. Briggs 🌑

I pose my five questions to Jeffrey D. Briggs, author of the Waterfront Mysteries. I loved the first book, Out of the Cold Dark Sea (see my review here) and look forward to reading the latest, Within A Shadowed Forest. Books in the Waterfront Mystery series are available at Amazon, Beach House Greetings, Edmonds Bookshop, Paper Boat Booksellers, and Third Place Books. It’s awesome to call out some of these local spots.

What is your favorite book about the craft of writing? Why?

Jeffrey: I have found so much value in so many books on writing. They include:

Each book contains important lessons on craft, the need for discipline and perseverance. Some of it will be new. Other parts will be reminders that I have learned before but forgotten. Plus, there’s always a key piece of advice that stays with me well beyond the time I’ve forgotten or absorbed the rest: Like King’s advice, “Writers must be readers.” Lamont’s encouragement to “give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft.” And Brenda Ueland’s, “I learned that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness.”

What do you like most about writing a first draft?

Jeffrey: The first draft is when I’m at my most creative. I try not to edit as I go but to let the story unfold how it wants to be told, to follow the characters where they want to go. I am world-building at this stage, as close as I’ll ever get to playing God. First drafts are amazing and exciting and scary and frustrating. Much like life. Only more intense.

What is your favorite part of revision?

Jeffrey: The joy of revision is to be done with it. Revision is where the really hard work begins. It requires an awareness of craft, voice, dialog, point of view. It requires an attention to detail not needed in the creation of the first draft. I need to shape and mold that shitty first draft into something that resembles a finished book. That’s hard! Each of my books has required a minimum of 15 drafts before I felt satisfied they were complete. That’s a lot of revision. An old college professor of mine once advised about revision, “You have to learn to kill your own babies.” I have killed a lot of babies in my revisions. My favorite part of revision? The satisfaction of having pulled together, in the end, a good book that will entertain and (maybe) enlighten my readers.

Sarah: Wow. Fifteen drafts! I’m only on ten or eleven or… actually, I’m not really sure. But that explains a thing or two 🤣

What book (not about writing) are you reading right now or have you recently finished that you would recommend to others? Why?

Jeffrey: I am currently reading two mysteries by local authors and friends of mine, Alice K. Boatwright’s What Child Is This? And Devil by the Tail by Jeanne Matthews. They will be speaking at an upcoming Sisters in Crime [Puget Sound Chapter] meeting, and I want to know their work better when I hear them talk. The books are very different—one a historical novel set in 19th century Chicago, and the other set in a small village in present-day England with plenty of tea and scones surrounding an abandoned child and murder. I’m enjoying both.

I recently finished Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. I loved the simple, elegant lyricism of his narrative voice, and his kindness and compassion for his characters.

I reread Moby-Dick and Lord of the Rings every few years for their large themes and wise counsel, often delivered from humble characters. I’ve grown to love the Fredrik Backman books for how they wrap humor and empathy in a delightful cast of misfits and oddballs. I just reread Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness to remind myself that light is the left hand of darkness—a lesson I needed this past year.

I’m enjoying my introduction to Vera Stanhope, Ann Cleeve’s British detective (I’m through the first four), for her psychological profiling of possible suspects and of Vera herself. I love the way she takes time to develop tension, and never forgets to place us in the muck of life.

I could go on all day about favorite books.

Sarah: I love that you took the time here to go on about favorite books. It’s a wonderful thing to love books, to be immersed in them, and to engage and learn from stories, both our own and others. I now have more books I need to read 😍 Also, I agree that Fredrik Backman is masterful.

Can you give an example of how you have been kind to someone else recently, in real life or through one of your characters?

Jeffrey: I have just finished my Driving Miss Daisy period in the winter of 2022. After major foot surgery, my wife was immobile for nearly two months and had another month of just beginning to hobble around. I cooked her meals, walked the dog, drove her to all her appointments, built her a ramp into the house and came running whenever she jiggled her bell. That is the kindness that comes with love.

Sarah: This is so beautiful, and a reminder that our kindnesses can be for those close to us, the people we might obviously be kind to every day. Your wife is fortunate, and I can see that neither of you takes the other for granted. Thank you!

Introducing 🎈 Writers SimpliFived

Five Simple Questions on Crafting, Drafting, Revising, Reading, and Being Kind

I love to read blogs and listen to podcasts about writing craft. I have a few favorites, but none ask all the questions I want to ask.

In 2022 I’m reaching out to other writers with five simple questions (thus Writers SimpliFived). Rather than asking about what they have written or what they are writing now, staple questions of this kind of interview, I am going to ask one question each about craft resources, initial drafts, revisions, what they are reading, and a final more personal question about how they’ve been kind recently. This last question is borrowed from the award-winning podcast The Imagine Neighborhood*

I’m starting this month with my own responses to these questions, in order to have a fresh January start and to set an example. So here are my five questions – and my answers:

What is your favorite craft book and why?

I really love Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. Unlike many craft books, it is fairly short, which makes it somehow less daunting. All the same, it is packed full of everything a writer could want, from frank discussion of craft to practical exercises. My copy is love-worn.

What do you like most about writing a first draft?

I love the freedom of exploring an idea without too many guide points along the way, letting characters talk through me. I’m often surprised by what comes out in a first draft, including unexpected transitions and endings that are far from where I thought I’d be.

What is your favorite part of revision?

Until very recently I hated everything about revising my own work, except maybe proofreading (and that is easier on someone else’s work). I had a few horrific experiences in college writing classes and groups where it seemed nobody could write anything well, but in retrospect was a lack of compassion and constructiveness in the feedback offered.

I learned to love the deep conceptual edits that transform words on a page into a living story when I joined my current writing group, a truly compassionate group of writers/readers.

What book (not about writing) are you reading right now or recently finished that you would recommend to others?

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer sticks in my mind as one of the best books I read in 2021, both for its engaging narrative style and its navigation between indigenous tradition and contemporary science.

I read a lot of great books – mostly memoir and fiction and writing craft – and you can always check up on my reading at Goodreads, where I often post reviews.

Can you give an example of how you have been kind to someone else recently, in real life or through one of your characters?

My son and I recently took care of a neighbor’s hamster while they were in England. This counts as a kindness to neighborhood friends and to the hamster. Remember, kindnesses don’t have to be big to be meaningful.

Thank you for taking the time to read through to the end! I hope you will come back and see the responses I receive from other writers over the coming months.

*The Imagine Neighborhood is produced by the organization I work for – Committee for Children. I have no direct connection with the podcast itself.