If Buddha Wrote a Novel


By Jenny Downing on Flickr’s Creative Commons

Today’s guest is Renee Swindle, the author of newly released A Pinch Of Ooh La La and Shake Down The Stars (NAL/Penguin). Her first novel, Please Please Please, was an Essence Magazine bestseller. Renee has an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University. An admitted tea snob, Renee lives in Oakland with three rescue dogs and three cats—“Yep, six animals and me,” says Renee.

Dish magazine says, “Swindle has a way of making her characters dance on the page, drawing you deep into the midst of their laughter and their sorrow, their joys and their mistakes.”

You can connect with Renee on Facebook, Twitter, and on her blog.

If The Buddha Wrote A Novel

I’ve been practicing meditation for almost ten years, and I’ve realized Buddhism, and many of its teachings, relate not only to life, but to writing, which for many of us is synonymous.

First off, please don’t let the title of my post scare you away! Buddhism is far more about psychology than religion; even the Dalai Lama is known for saying his “religion” is compassion. And meditation, the cornerstone of Buddhism, can be practiced by the religious and non-religious alike. Think of it like that hot trend right now—yoga. Yeah, yeah, I hear you saying. So what does all this have to do with writing? That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?

Well, I’ve been practicing meditation for almost ten years, and I’ve realized Buddhism, and many of its teachings, relate not only to life, but to writing, which for many of us is synonymous.


A couple of years ago, while meeting with my meditation instructor, I said something along the lines of, “I love Buddhism—except for the whole compassion thing; that part sucks. Most people get on my nerves and I have zero compassion for jerks!” My instructor, who’d read my first novel, and knew about the novel I was working on at the time, stared at me pointedly and asked if I ever felt my characters were jerks—if I ever lacked compassion for the people who inhabited my stories.

I think it helps as writers if we treat our characters like people—complex, living, breathing people. Instead of labeling your characters as good or bad or whatever, consider remaining curious.

Granted, the heroine of my first novel sleeps with her best friend’s husband (d’oh!), and the narrator of my second novel battles alcoholism and the habit of sleeping with strangers. Still, I felt defensive. I love my characters. I think they’re complex, broken, spirited and funny. When I told my instructor as much, he reminded me about the importance of equanimity: the practice of keeping curious and open without grasping hold to a fixed opinion.

I think it helps as writers if we treat our characters like people—complex, living, breathing people. Instead of labeling your characters as good or bad or whatever, consider remaining curious. Even if a certain character’s backstory doesn’t make it into the novel, you should know why and how they became who they are. If you write your so-called “bad” characters with no sense of insight, or compassion for that matter, you just might end up writing them as flat.

Discipline Continue Reading »

The Six Archetypes Every Novel Needs

Hacks for Hacks: Sense of Humor RequiredArchetypes are time-tested character types from which hundreds of your favorite characters are drawn. Harry Potter. Ishmael. General Woundwort. All of these are based on classic archetypes that I’m too lazy to look up but I’m pretty sure have origins that date back thousands of years. Here are the six character archetypes you need to put in your novel to create your own classic characters.

The Hero

The person your reader will follow around for a few hundred pages. His sword: sharp. His virtue: true. His retorts: witty. His courage: brave. His face: sufficiently young and handsome to attract a name actor when you land the movie deal.

Henry looked at the castle before him with his steely blue eyes. Within its walls lay a treasure that would take about three hundred pages to reach. He set his chiseled jaw, thinking about the many challenges he would face; the lessons about life and stuff he would learn on the journey, which would be more valuable than the treasure, lessons so valuable that people would accept them as currency. He squinted his steely blue eyes. “The time has come,” he said, jaw-settingly.

You’ve probably got most of these archetypes in your book already. If not, their absence is almost certainly the one thing that’s keeping you from landing a major book deal.

The Mentor

This wise guru has wisdom to impart to the hero. Often depicted as an old man or woman, the Mentor has sage advice that the Hero usually doesn’t want to hear, since it values patience and strategy over action and casual violence. Through her guidance and knowingfulness, however, the Mentor will eventually make the Hero see the light. This sometimes involves guilting the Hero into compliance by getting herself killed.

Wise old Orin of the Mountain stroked his beard knowingly. “You have much to learn, young one,” he intoned in his rich baritone. “One day, when you are old and wise and bearded, you will see.” Orin’s wife, wise old Mythra, nodded and stroked her beard in agreement.

Continue Reading »

You Are So On (Because They Are, Too)

Porter Anderson and Barbara O'Neal arrive at Los Angeles' Hyatt Regency Century Plaza for the opening of Writer's Digest's Novel Writing Conference.

My address is 2025 Avenue of the Stars. 

This is as it should be, of course. 90067.

With my sunglasses so firmly in place that I can barely read anything on the screen, I’m writing to you on the eve of Phil Sexton’s Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference in Los Angeles. It’s at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza again this year, the kind of hotel that’s designed to look good on you.

Bird Box coverMy Unboxed co-star Barbara O’Neal will be here at #WDNWC this weekend, too, teaching both a three-hour boot camp on writing romance and a 50-minute session on revisions.

And I’ll be doing an onstage interview with Josh Malerman, weird-wunderkind author of the Ecco Books debut that Hollywood has snapped up, Bird Box.

All wearing our shades. (Josh may wear his blindfold.) We are so on.

Cam to the left, smile, Barbara!

And just in case anyone in the novel-writing congregation forgets that our conga line is snaking across the former 260-acre Twentieth Century Fox Studios backlot, we’re also dancing parallel to our sister F+W Media conference here, Screenwriters  World, #SWC14 Those guys eat squares of red carpet for lunch. And like it.

There are certain dangers here, naturally. If the paparazzi are spotted, you can be trampled by starlets running toward them. And parts of LAX still seem to be undergoing the same renovation project that put Hangar No. 1 into place in 1929.

But one of the side benefits of being in Tinsel Town from time to time is a reminder that being on is no longer just something stars and motivational speakers worry about.

The more we talk about authors needing to market themselves, their brands, their work, the more we’re really saying that they need to be aware, be alert, stay on top of issues, to position themselves in and around the going media story about publishing and books and writing.

In short? Like a Hollywood hopeful, you want to be…on.

Continue Reading »

How to Listen to a Famous Author Talk About Writing

photo by Robert ScobleOver the past year I’ve spoken at a number of writer’s conferences, where I’ve met a great many fabulous, dedicated and talented writers and listened to a lot of keynote speeches by best selling novelists. And while just about all of them were incredibly entertaining, riotously funny, and full of I must remember that one, my writer friends will love it! anecdotes, ultimately they all made my heart sink.

Why? Because I believe that instead of being helpful, those hilarious, inspiring speeches were likely to actually derail the emerging writers in the audience. They are, in fact, surprisingly treacherous – in part.

Trying to take someone else’s personal process as the gospel truth can be a waste of time at best, and a career-squasher at worst.

I was thinking about the danger a couple of weeks ago as I listened to one Famous Author, a man who’d written upwards of thirty novels, many of them New York Times bestsellers. He was a brilliant speaker. Funny enough to do standup, and kill. And some of his advice was, indeed, dead on because (as you’ll see below) it was Concrete, Clear, Specific and Doable. The problem was, it came wrapped, as it always does, in something decidedly more vague: anecdotes about the famous writer’s own personal process. As I watched writers all around me nod and laugh and eagerly scribble notes about his process, I wished I could have warned them to be a little more discerning – okay, a LOT more discerning. Trying to take someone else’s personal process as the gospel truth can be a waste of time at best, and a career-squasher at worst.

Does this mean that we can’t learn anything from best selling authors? Of course not! It just means that we need a guide as to what info is helpful, and what isn’t. In other words: how do you separate the pearls of wisdom that you can use, from the ones that will hobble your novel out of the starting gate?

Using the aforementioned Famous Author’s keynote speech as a case in point, here is a breakdown that separates the useful advice from the kind of advice you’d do better to scrunch down in your seat, put your fingers in your ears and hum through. Continue Reading »

Rumination Frustration

icebergI find myself in the writing phase I call Rumination. Julia Monroe Martin’s great post on this topic reminds me that some writers take and find pleasure in this phase. There are times I do, too, when I love the Rumination phase because everything—every character, every plot—is possible. The world feels like my oyster!

But after six months stuck in Rumination, the world just feels like my goiter.

I want to be in the phase called Putting Story on Paper. Or, Now We’re Cookin’. How about Actual Writing Beyond Page 30.  In Rumination, the phase of infinite possibilities, I have shared no fewer than ten versions of the same thirty pages with my dear and patient writing partners. I have shared no fewer than five of these drafts with my dear and patient agent. Bless them. It’s embarrassing, really, to keep believing I have finally figured out this story, only to sit with a draft of a few scenes and realize, No. It’s not quite there. This is, for some reason, not quite right.

I like efficiency. I like doing things right the first time. I don’t like dillydallying. I am impatient. I never cook risotto because I lack the patience to stir and stir and stir. It’s a good thing that God or Someone invented Italian restaurants; otherwise perfectly cooked pearls of risotto would ne’er have passed my lips.

But I am determined to out-patience this motley cast of characters, this recalcitrant, tight-lipped bunch that’s driving me crazy. Crazier. They are making me work for this paycheck.

Or maybe they are simply gestating. While I am ready to get this story-baby rolling, perhaps these characters are still too tiny to be born, too comfy in their partially-concealed literature-wombs. I remind myself that I don’t want these characters coming out before they (or I) am ready. Preemies have a hard time thriving in this rough, dark world.

I must be patient.  Continue Reading »

Better than They Know Themselves

Feline self awareness“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

~ Henry David Thoreau (Walden)


Most readers and writers agree: the most memorable part of a story is usually not the plot, but the characters. It follows that as writers, we need to know our characters very well. And if we do our jobs, by the end of the book the reader will know our characters very well, too.

But something I haven’t seen discussed very often is how well do these characters know themselves? Most books have a transformational journey for the protagonist, which often results in the protagonist learning something about herself that she never knew before. That can be a very rewarding literary device, but it’s not the only angle worth exploring when it comes to the character’s self awareness.

Another literary device that can provide both powerful character insights and some tremendous entertainment potential is to let the reader see things about the character and/or his situation that the character himself cannot see. You’ll encounter this a lot in humorous stories, where a character is either operating on a misconception, or is lacking a crucial piece of information. Mistaken identity stories capitalize on this, and many romantic comedies use a misunderstanding between the two main characters to amp up the conflict.

But another very effective use of this approach is to reveal more about a character by showing how blind he is to something that is apparent to everybody else. When it becomes clear that the character views himself in a completely different way than the rest of the world does, the effect can be very telling – and often very humorous, like the worker in the movie Office Space who angrily maintains that he has “people skills,” while his demeanor strongly suggests that those skills are perhaps not so finely honed after all. (Caution: video clip below contains some minor swearing.)

She’s got a way about her

One reason this approach is so effective is that we know people in our own lives who are like this. Continue Reading »

To Promote or Not To Promote: An Existential Question

Zen-cartoon-web-writing-tips-1It’s no secret that publishers do little these days to promote most books but that there’s an infinite number of steps authors can take to fill the void, from DIY to hiring an outside publicist. Nor is it a secret that even the most exhaustive efforts can potentially get you….almost nowhere in terms of sales.

This may be why many authors opt not to do much promotion if any aside from what their publishers have planned (typically mailing out galleys and ARCs to reviewers) and to focus their energies instead on what they really love: writing.

That’s a perfectly understandable and admirable choice.  As agent Donald Maass wisely noted in a comment to my last WU post, “The better bet [rather than spending too much time or money on promotion] is to write a killer Book #2.”

In an ideal world that’s what we’d all do.  That world would be delightfully zen, free of the complications that come with drive, ambition and a desire for recognition.  Free, too, from any need or desire to try to make a living from our craft.  Our next book might be that killer or it might not; in the end its destiny is something we don’t control.  But it wouldn’t matter and we’d be content to keep on writing.

In reality, though, most of us need or yearn for more.  We certainly need to pay the bills, and would love to see our writing play a role there.  We may have spouses or partners who are eager (read: impatient) to see us ‘taking action’ beyond drafting and revising to make that happen.

More importantly, though, we also crave some form of recognition and have deep-seated desire to interact with readers, to share with them Continue Reading »

How to Get Your Short Stories Published in Lit Mags

Litmags.FlickrFive years ago I would’ve said I was on my way to becoming a novelist. Today, my novels-in-progress have been shelved, but my short stories have been published in several lit mags and anthologies, and I even manage an online literary journal—Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing. There’s just something about the short story form I’ve grown to love, and I do feel that this tangent from novels has made me a better writer.

If short stories fell off your radar on your last day of high school English, the world of lit mags may be one you know little about. You might consider yourself a novelist, but there’s plenty that short stories can do for your writing and your career.

What are lit mags?

The terms literary magazine and literary journal generally refer to publications that feature short stories, poetry, and creative nonfiction (although sometimes literary journal is also used to describe publications that feature academic essays about literature). Some lit mags are created and run by the faculty and students of university MFA creative writing programs, while some are privately run. Each lit mag has its own style and focus, and some publish certain genres such as science fiction and horror. For example, Ploughshares publishes literary fiction, while Clarkesworld publishes sci-fi and fantasy, and Ellery Queen publishes mystery. Whatever you write, there’s probably a home for your work.

I write novels, so why should I care?

Last year I wrote an article for Writer Unboxed called “What Novelists Should Know About Short Fiction.” My three main points were that

  1. Reading short fiction can make you a more knowledgeable writer.
  2. Writing short fiction can make you a more accomplished writer.
  3. Publishing short fiction can make you a more marketable writer.

Number 3 is important if you’re writing a novel or submitting a manuscript to literary agents or publishers. It’s entirely possible to get a novel published with no previous writing credits, but can it hurt to show agents and editors that you’re serious about perfecting your craft and seeing your work in print?

Writer’s Digest must agree, because they once ran an article called 12 Literary Journals Your Future Agent Is Reading.

10 Steps to Getting Your Short Stories Published

Read on for a rundown of what you need to know to get started submitting to lit mags:

1. Read as many short stories as you can. In my experience, the very, very best way to learn to write better is to learn to read better. I’m talking about critical reading. I mean tearing those stories apart and putting them back together. Check out some popular short story collections from the library, and take advantage of those you can read for free online.

2. Draft your story. When it comes to short fiction, I believe you can afford to be a pantser instead of a plotter (pantsing meaning you write without a clear plan of where you’ll end up). You’re dealing with a few thousand words—not a hundred thousand words—and letting your mind explore as you write can lead to a deeper, more meaningful story. Continue Reading »

Cooking a Book

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

There’s this guy. He’s an adrenaline junkie. The woman’s a massage therapist. They meet and… and… and… well of course they fall in love. That’s a given. But it won’t last (or will it?). And then there’s something about traveling from Montana to Maine and jumping out of a million airplanes. His name’s Elias… no J.P., and hers is Ellie. No. Allison. And of course they both have secrets—his involves feeling responsible for someone’s death, maybe an ex-lover. And hers…well that’s more hazy. Maybe something about her pioneer grandmother. That’s it. Then I’ll write a dual storyline. Yeah. That’s good.

I’m farther along than it looks, but that’s kind of my new work-in-progress in a nutshell, in the stage I like to call “cooking.” With a couple of novels under my belt (pre-published, querying, in the drawer, etc.), this is a familiar feeling. The incubation, idea stage, when everything’s running through my mind a mile a minute, but nothing’s quite jelled enough to write. Soon. But not yet.

This cooking, pre-writing, is not really planning, not outlining. I’m cooking, stirring, tasting everything in my mind. When it’s ready to write, to commit a first draft to paper, I’ll know it. Until then, here’s my recipe for cooking a book.

I’m cooking, stirring, tasting everything in my mind. When it’s ready to write, to commit a first draft to paper, I’ll know it. Until then, here’s my recipe for cooking a book.

Take the dog to the vet. Like I did this morning. I love our vet. Renee has become a friend. Our lab Abby is what you’d call a frequent flyer. She has terrible arthritis, is on a zillion (after today, a zillion and one) meds, and she is the darling of the vet office. Today, since I was cooking, I felt comfortable staying as long as Renee would let me so I could listen to her stories—mine her for stories. She tells great stories, which of course gets me thinking.

(Mini) renovate the bathroom. Last week before our daughter and three friends breezed through for a visit (recent college grads, they met up in Maine for a mini-reunion), my husband decided we needed to “spruce up” the bathroom. This quickly escalated into not just painting but re-plastering, grouting, and gorilla-gluing loose floor tiles (don’t ask). This made me realize no one in my book will ever renovate anything. Not ever.

Get stung by (a lot of) hornets. Yes, this really happened. Turns out my husband decided to test that old idiom “don’t poke a hornet’s nest” but forgot to tell me until I was on the porch surrounded by a swarm of Continue Reading »

The Unbearable Lightness of Waiting

Photo by Alice Popkorn (Flickr)

Photo by Alice Popkorn (Flickr)

While waiting is not unique to publishing, Lord knows there are thousands of opportunities for waiting in this industry. Hurry up and wait is practically our motto. Waiting on agents, waiting on editors, waiting on editorial letters, waiting on illustrators and reviews and advance checks and royalty statements.

Waiting on that first initial yes.

But it turns out, publishing’s got nothing on hospitals. In the last few days, I’ve had occasion to spend far more time in hospital waiting rooms than I would like. Recently, my 81 year old father was diagnosed with a rare, cancerous tumor that had wrapped itself around his heart. Fortunately, he is in excellent shape and was therefore a good candidate for the required grueling surgery.

At the hospital, as we waited on the surgery which ended up being delayed by five hours, the eager need to get on with it diminished and instead I became hyper aware of how precious each extra moment was. He was awake and lucid and all his future pain and rehabilitation were held at bay. Each of those extra moments was a gift, one I found I was not eager to part with.

And then, as the two hour surgery dragged in to three hours, four, six, I again found myself taking great comfort in each moment, as each was a moment with no bad news. It was the existential equivalent of Schrodinger’s Cat. Until the box is opened, hope still exists.

For that is the truth of it: waiting holds not only hope and promise, but also disaster and tragedy forestalled, even if only for a little longer. We can cheat death  or disappointment one more hour, or cling to our hopes and dreams for a few minutes more.

Waiting is something we endure, white knuckle our way through or, at the very least, something we want to distract ourselves from. But maybe, instead, we should view it differently.

Continue Reading »

More on Voice and Structure

Howling WolfI posted some time ago about the challenges of voice and structure in my (then) work in progress, a novel called Dreamer’s Pool, first instalment of the Blackthorn & Grim series,  which is a historical fantasy/mystery series for adult readers. At that point I was wrestling with the self-imposed limitations of the format – three contrasting first person narrators alternating chapters. I love writing in first person, but I wondered at that point whether my control freak approach was forcing the story into a structure in which it would be hard to maintain and build tension. By building some flexibility into the structure, I did eventually make this work. At least, I hope I did! It’s interesting that one of the major changes requested by my editors was a re-ordering of the chapters to ensure they fell in exact chronological order – not easy or even quite natural when the three narrators are not all present in the same location until well into the story.

Dreamer’s Pool is now off my hands, with an Australian release date of October 1 and the US release in November. I’m hard at work on the second in the series, provisionally entitled The Tower of Bann. The relationship between voice and structure is the same as before: three voices alternating chapters. Two of the voices continue from the first novel: first person past tense for disillusioned healer Blackthorn, first person present tense for her henchman Grim. The third voice is that of a new character, the enigmatic Lady Mella. The mystery element of the series, in which Blackthorn and Grim combine their talents to solve a puzzle in each book, has meant that this character must withhold information in her chapters. How to do this without obvious artifice? How to avoid leaving readers with that annoying feeling of having been tricked?

If a plot requires a point of view character to deceive the reader – to be an unreliable narrator – that character’s voice requires careful control. The writer may use this character to lead the reader down a false trail, or conceal something that will later be the turning point of the story.

If a plot requires a point of view character to deceive the reader – to be an unreliable narrator – that character’s voice requires careful control. The writer may use this character to lead the reader down a false trail, or conceal something that will later be the turning point of the story: They were brother and sister all along! She’s been lying to him (and the reader) about her true character since the very start! OMG, he was in a coma the whole time!

Done clumsily, this kind of thing can leave the reader feeling cheated. Done well, as in Gillian Flynn’s chilling Gone Girl, it can be a powerful storytelling device. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler is a novel in which the holding back of information is central to the emotional impact of the story. A suggestion: if you have yet to read the Fowler novel, don’t look at reviews or the jacket blurb beforehand unless you want the major twist revealed in advance.

Lacking the storytelling brilliance of either of these authors, I couldn’t immediately see how best to shape Mella’s voice without obvious artifice. How could I avoid giving readers that annoying feeling of having been tricked?

Here are some approaches I considered.

Continue Reading »

The Reader’s Emotional Journey

Chiots Run

Flickr Creative Commons: Chiot’s Run

When I was little I hated tomatoes.  Not tomato sauce, mind you.  When my mother made spaghetti I’d eat three helpings.  After dinner I’d lie on the couch, clutch my belly and groan.  But actual tomatoes, sliced on a sandwich?  Bleech!  Go figure.  I was a kid.

This tomato aversion persisted into adulthood.  Then one day I was visiting a client and his wife at their home in the Catskill Mountains.  They’d bought garden tomatoes, still warm from the vine, at a farmers’ market.  My client’s wife knew what to do.  She cut them up, put them in a blue bowl, drizzled green olive oil over them, added hand crushed sea salt and fresh cracked pepper.  Served with a crusty artisanal baguette, we sat down to lunch.

My life, or at least my relationship to tomatoes, changed with one bite.  Oh!  Like a new religious convert, I saw.  I knew.  I believed.  This was what tomatoes were supposed to be: glorious, sun-warmed, transporting, a gift of hope from God to the mouths of suffering mortals.  Summer took on new meaning.  I dreamed of gardening.  This, you must understand, was just an idle dream.  I am to gardens what Godzilla is to Tokyo.

Not long after that I discovered bruschetta.  Add lemon juice and garlic to the above, spoon onto baguette rounds, consume with Italian wine, and you are in Heaven.  Later at farmers’ markets I ran across heirloom tomatoes, deep red, dusky yellow, even purple.  These lumpy antiques proved to me that our forebears ate better than we modern folk.  Heirloom tomatoes make the supermarket beefsteak variety look and taste like they come from a 3-D printer.

I wouldn’t say that I’m now a tomato expert, but I have again become finicky about tomatoes.  I love them but not just any tomato will do.  Continue Reading »