writing

Why I Write

Last week, author Stephanie Verni challenged five authors to share five reasons why we write. That was a really good challenge--it took me a week to decide on my top five!

Even though I've been writing stories in one form or another for most of my life, the "why" behind my writing changes from time to time. Here are just five of the reasons I love to write:

Why I Write || from the Ellen Smith Writes blog www.ellensmithwrites.com

1. Writing turns tiny, fleeting thoughts into something real and permanent

I almost always have a blank book going where I can jot down anything that crosses my mind. Some years of my life are pretty well-recorded with diary entries for every week, if not every day. Other years, my blank books are mostly a collection of doodles, story ideas, dreams I want to remember, and other bits and pieces of my life. Occasionally I go back and read through these books, either to remember some real detail of my own life or to dig up an old story idea--both are equally likely.

For the same reason, I keep all the old drafts of my books (Just to give you an idea of how much paperwork that is, I have nine drafts of the book I'm working on currently, plus notes). I reference these old drafts all the time, just in case I find I've edited out some character background or something like that. It's fun to see how much the story has changed over time, too!

"We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect." Anais Nin || from "Why I Write" on the Ellen Smith Writes blog www.ellensmithwrites.com

2. Writing is an adventure of self-discovery

Sometimes I think my books know more about me than I do.

I may think that I know how I feel about a certain issue, like healthcare, or criminal justice, or even just small-town politics. Then I decide to write about it and I realize how much I really don't know. By the time I finish doing my research, I can guarantee I've learned something. By the time I complete the final draft, I've learned a lot!

One interesting consequence of writing the Time Wrecker Trilogy has been learning more about a variety of issues. For example, I hadn't spent nearly enough time considering how criminal justice really works in America. I hadn't thought as much about the concept of healing before, either, both from intended and unintended injuries. I'm curious to see how I'll feel about these issues by the time I'm done writing the third book! 

"The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe." Gustave Flaubert || From "Why I Write" on the Ellen Smith Writes blog www.ellensmithwrites.com

3. Writing is all about possibility

The first time someone called me a science fiction writer, I thought they'd mistaken me for someone else. I didn't feel like I was making up very much about the physical world in my stories, and compared to many science fiction authors, I really don't. The worlds I write about are only slightly different from this one. Take a small town in southern Virginia, and add a woman who can see the future: now you have Reluctant Cassandra. Take Washington, DC over the past decade, but make it possible to use time travel for criminal rehabilitation: now we're in the Time Wrecker Trilogy. I love taking these tiny steps outside reality. And according to one of my favorite authors of all time, that is science fiction. (Thanks, Ray Bradbury.)

"Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn't exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible." Ray Bradbury || From "Why I Write" on the Ellen Smith Writes blog www.ellensmithwrites.com

4. Writing is my creative outlet

I've dabbled in just about every creative hobby out there: music, sewing, paper crafts, crochet, baking...but I always come back to writing.

There is something in me that needs to create. I can hold it over by doing little projects around the house, like cooking dinner or practicing the piano. But eventually, I'll need to sit down and carve out time just to be creative. I love working as a freelance writer because it allows me to fill that creative need so often, but I balance it with fiction writing, too. Of all the ways to be creative, writing is the one that suits me best.

"And the idea of just wandering off to a cafe with a notebook and writing and seeing where that takes me for awhile is just bliss." J .K. Rowling || From "Why I Write" on the Ellen Smith Writes blog www.ellensmithwrites.com

5. I have to write. There's an idea that just won't let go.

This is my very favorite reason to write. Sometimes I'll have a story idea percolating in the back of my mind for months (or years...) and then suddenly it becomes a story I have to tell. That's the really fun part, when I'm racing to my notebook or my computer to write down some little scene I just imagined, or I'll be driving and suddenly figure out a plot twist. If I had to pick one reason why I write, this would be it. I know the story is already there: I just have to write it down.

"An idea in the head is like a rock in the shoe; I just can't wait to get it out." Phyllis Reynolds Naylor || From "Why I Write" on the Ellen Smith Writes blog www.ellensmithwrites.com

How Two Country Songs Inspired a Science Fiction Trilogy

How Two Country Music Songs Inspired a Science Fiction Trilogy || www.ellensmithwrites.com     All about the two songs (and twelve years!) that went into writing Every Last Minute

Today is the official release day for Every Last Minute, the first book in my Time Wrecker Trilogy. I am so excited to share this story with you--especially since it's taken twelve years to write!

Yep. Twelve. Years.

Back in 2005 (when I was first dating the man that is now my husband!), there was a country music song I really looked forward to hearing on the radio: Bless the Broken Road by Rascal Flatts.

So twelve years ago, I would be singing along whenever this song came on. I'm a romantic at heart and I had just met the man of my dreams, so I liked the idea that all the bad things in my past had really just been working together to bring me to this wonderful, happy place in my life. But at the same time, I've always had a relentlessly practical nature. Even while the song was still playing, these little what-if questions would pop into my mind.

What if a couple's love story really did hinge on the terrible, even traumatic events in their pasts?

Or what if it didn't? What if the couple would have met anyway through Fate, or Destiny, or Ridiculously Good Luck, and they really didn't have to go through that "broken road" to get to each other?

How would they even know, either way? The past can't be changed, so why not assume it all worked out for the best?

But...what if the past COULD be changed?

Over the next five years, these what-ifs became the seeds of a story. Very slowly, the idea started to take shape. I wanted to write about a husband and wife that had been brought together by traumatic circumstances. If they had the chance to go back and change the past, would they take it?

Then, in 2010, another country music artist released a song with a similar theme: This by Darius Rucker.

Listening to this song brought the idea to the forefront of my mind. I couldn't stand just thinking about this story anymore: I had to try and write it down.

My first attempt at writing it took over a year. I revised and edited it several times, but in the end, I knew my story just wasn't ready. I put it aside and wrote and published another book instead. Then in 2015, with encouragement from a good friend, I finally picked up the story again and started rewriting it from the beginning. This time, the characters took shape, the plot came together, and my original story grew from one book to three.

As you can see, it took twelve years of stops and starts before that first glimmer of an idea finally became Every Last Minute--Book 1 of the Time Wrecker Trilogy. I guess you could describe the writing process as a long and broken road.

But, well...it led me here to this:

Every Last Minute officially releases today! I'm excited for you to finally meet Will and Mara Sterling: a husband and wife with an improbable love facing an impossible choice.

Looking For The Forest (Must Be Somewhere Behind These Trees)

Despite the fact that everything from my website to my social media is tagged "Ellen Smith Writes," the truth is that I'm much more of an editor than a writer. ("Ellen Smith Edits" just didn't have the same ring to it ;) ) The first draft of anything I write, whether freelance or fiction, is generally pretty terrible. The first edit is a vast improvement simply because I go back and finish all my sentences! It takes several read-throughs--and often a few rewrites--before I'm ready to share anything I've written.

Editing is where I really see the difference in my work as a left-brained writer and a right-brained author. When I'm working on a freelance project, my editing process is very left-brained. I'll separate it into two phases: big-picture revisions and detail-oriented edits. First, I go through and make sure that the topic is clear, all the main points have been supported, and the paragraphs are in order. Then, I go back and delve into the nitty-gritty: grammar, spelling, and word choice.

Sounds nice and organized, doesn't it?

All that tidy left-brained thinking flies right out of my head when I start editing my fiction work. I'm too close to the story to see the big picture. I love these characters. I've replayed their struggles a hundred times in my imagination. I know this story inside and out. That makes it far too easy for me to obsess over the tiny details and miss the necessary big-picture revisions. As the saying goes, I can't see the forest for the trees. 

In my current work-in-progress, these are some of the "trees" I've been focusing on:

  • Are these sentences streamlined to pack a punch, or are they just short and choppy?
  • What gesture would this character make? Is she nervous or is she also a little annoyed?
  • Am I overusing all my favorite words? (it, heavy, glanced, sighed, and said)?

Meanwhile, here's the "forest":

  • Who are these characters--and what made them who they are?
  • What are the themes and messages in the story? Do they carry through?
  • Is this the best way I can possibly tell this story?

I'm at a point now in my work-in-progress where I've obsessed over every branch, twig, and leaf of each little tree. Still, I just don't feel quite right about this draft. I don't know if this story is fully told.

So there's one more thing I need to do before I send this out for beta readers and professional editing. I need to back up--wayyyyy up--and look at the big picture. I have to look for the whole forest, if you will.

It must be somewhere behind these trees. 

Looking for the forest (must be somewhere behind these trees) || ellensmithwrites.com

What Does It Mean To Be A Millennial?

Growing up, I heard my generation described by a number of different labels: New Boomers, Generation Y, and Generation Wired, just to name a few. Now that we've stumbled our way into our twenties and thirties, we finally seem to have settled on one label: Millennial.

I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about what it meant to be a millennial myself until I started writing Every Last Minute, my current work in progress. The main characters, Will and Mara, are about one or two years older than I am. Like me, they were in their twenties during the three years in which their story takes place: 2011, 2006, and 2015.

Do all these similarities mean that I can skip the research and write Will and Mara's story based off my own experience? Of course not. I'm far too Type A for that. :) Part of the pre-writing for this story meant researching what it meant for Will and Mara to grow up in the Millennial generation.

Writing Millennial Characters: What Does It Mean To Be A Millennial? || www.ellensmithwrites.com

My preliminary research did not inspire a lot of confidence. At first glance, it seemed that millennials had a pretty bad reputation. Here's the gist:

Millennials are lazy.

We're entitled.

We're obsessed with ourselves, our social media, and our tech gadgets.

We require constant praise and can't handle correction.

No one knows how to work with us, market to us, or kick our free-loading selves out of their basements.

Yowch. All that said, I'd hardly say we're any more despised than previous generations were in their heyday. This quote about "kids these days" was written over two thousand years ago:

They [Young People] have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations; moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things — and that means having exalted notions. They would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones: Their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning — all their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. They overdo everything — they love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else.
— Aristotle

So if the young people of today are full of idealistic extremists with illusions of grandeur, then it seems we're right on track, historically speaking.

Personally, I think it's been pretty interesting to grow up in this generation: while the Internet was coming of age and taking on the world, we were, too. I was in third grade when the school librarian showed us how the school computer could connect to another school's computer through the miracle of the World Wide Web. I remember sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor of the library, listening to the extremely long dial-up sequence and thinking, "Ugh, this is taking forever. Nobody's going to want to sit through this more than once."

Boy, was I wrong.

Technology aside, there are a few more traits that set the millennial generation apart. Here's what else I found while doing research for my millennial characters:

Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open To Change.

I like stats, so I thought this article from the PEW Research Center had some interesting details about millennial demographics. Here are just a few:

  • 37% of 18- to 29-year-olds are unemployed or out of the workforce
  • About one-in-eight older Millennials (ages 22 and older) say they’ve “boomeranged” back to a parent’s home because of the recession.
  • One-in-four are unaffiliated with any religion
  • Only about six-in-ten were raised by both parents
  • About a third of millennials are parents themselves
  • One-in-five millennials are currently married

This tracks with a lot of what I've seen in my own life and with my character's lives too. We graduated during the Great Recession, after all: it's no wonder so many of us are unemployed, underemployed, or currently living with friends or family.

So what are millennials doing while we're waiting for our ships to come in? Well, most of us aren't waiting, actually:

Millennials are the True Entrepreneur Generation

When I was growing up, I pictured "having a job" to mean living the 9-5 life. I figured I would have a boss, a biweekly paycheck, and regular work hours. At the beginning of my adult life, I actualy did: I was a special education teacher for several years. Then I went in a new direction and branched out on my own as a freelance writer, editor, and author. I work from home, contract with individual clients, and work a somewhat flexible schedule. My work life looks nothing like I pictured growing up, but it looks a lot like many of my peers'.

Interestingly, both main characters in my work-in-progress work 9-to-5 jobs. Will is a middle school music teacher and Mara has a new job as a research assistant. Emphasis on new: when the story begins, Mara has been unemployed for several years. She's a millennial, after all, and finding a job in the recession is no easy feat.

Millennials: The Cause Generation

Studies are finding that our generation is plugged in to humanitarian and social issues around the world--and we're doing something about it, too. This article from YouCaring shows that 84% of millennials (those of us with jobs, anyway) made a charitable donation in 2015. I'd say we're also pretty likely to take up calls to action we find online, such as making donations through websites, signing online petitions, and sharing news and calls for help on social media.

This was a lot of fun to research, since Will and Mara's story centers around a fictional social issue. In my story, timeline rectifications are available for rehabilitated criminals. In short, a repentant offender can agree to go back in time and undo his or her crime. The new timeline will pick up from there, ensuring that no one will even have a memory of the original crime.

The catch? The victims of the crime have to agree to the rectification. When Mara and Will discover the shooter that nearly took their lives could go back in time, the social issue of timeline rectification becomes less theoretical and all too real. The premise of the story may be science fiction, but the feelings of these two characters as they take on this issue? Not too removed from real life. 

If millennials are particularly involved in social justice or other causes, it's often because we have a personal connection. Maybe something as simple as seeing a good friend posting about an issue makes us want to join in the cause. Maybe our own experiences with unemployment or even poverty make us empathetic to those who have even greater needs. Or maybe, like Will and Mara, a cause involves us personally, and we have to decide where we stand.

So...what does it mean to be a millennial?

Whatever we choose.

Can't Beat a Retreat!

One thing I love about the work-from-home life is how writing has become such a natural part of my daily routine. Although I schedule blocks of time for my freelance work, I can also squeeze in plenty of time for my fiction writing throughout the day. For example, it's easy to sit down to work on a draft while I'm waiting for the laundry to finish up or jot down notes on my story while I'm fixing dinner. I spend plenty of time working on my story at night, when the rest of the household has gone off to bed.

What would it be like to spend a day (or two!) devoted only to fiction writing? Over the weekend, I got to experience just that on my first writer's retreat.

photo credit:  Sandra R. Campbell

photo credit: Sandra R. Campbell

A group of three other writers and I rented out the third floor of the fabulous Frederick Inn Bed and Breakfast in Buckeystown, Maryland. Buckeystown is just 40 miles outside of Washington, D.C., but it feels like an entirely different world. The small town setting and peaceful green spaces made the perfect escape for four writers who needed to quiet their minds and get down to work.

And work we did. The inn's third floor had four bedrooms surrounding a common area with a kitchenette, living room, and table. We set up our laptops around the table and started writing within minutes of our arrival.

Our writerly escape! Don't you love those stained glass windows? (photo credit:  Sandra R. Campbell )

Our writerly escape! Don't you love those stained glass windows? (photo credit: Sandra R. Campbell)

When we needed a break, a quick walk through Buckeystown was a great way to get moving again!

Then it was back to the real business of the day: writing. All of us brought snacks and meals from home so we wouldn't have to go out to eat--although I was pretty tempted to spring for dinner at Alexanders!

Each of us accomplished and exceeded our writing goals for the retreat. I edited six chapters and wrote almost 5,000 words! It was two in the morning before I finally stopped working and crawled into my nice, soft bed. (I don't have pictures of how beautiful the bedrooms were because I barely slept! There are pictures of all the rooms on their website, though!)

In the morning, the innkeepers, Pat and Kirk, cooked a fantastic breakfast for us. The zucchini quiche was my favorite! Pat and Kirk were so much fun to talk to--they really went above and beyond to make our stay extra special!

Pat and Kirk, the wonderful innkeepers at The Frederick Inn! (photo credit:  Sandra R. Campbell )

Pat and Kirk, the wonderful innkeepers at The Frederick Inn! (photo credit: Sandra R. Campbell)

Now that I've experienced how inspiring a writer's retreat can be, I definitely want to do it again! Huge thanks to Pat and Kirk and the Frederick Inn Bed and Breakfast for this fantastic experience!

If you’d like to read more about our writer’s retreat, check out my fellow retreaters blog posts: 

First Aid for Novel-Editing Emergencies

At the beginning of this month I started the long, arduous process of editing the trilogy I wrote last year. It's been fun to go back to the beginning and revisit these characters where their story starts--but I'd be lying if I claimed it's been all fun and games. I've actually run into all kinds of issues that plague authors in the middle of an editing project: lack of motivation, character inconsistencies, and wobbling plot lines, just to name a few. Sometimes I feel less like I'm editing and more like I'm putting out one fire after another!

So what have I learned from this process, one month in? I don't have a finished project yet, but I have come up with a first aid kit for novel-editing emergencies.

First Aid For Novel-Editing Emergencies || www.ellensmithwrites.com

Coffee

Editing and rewriting isn't nearly as fun as drafting the story for the first time. The biggest challenge is just getting my head in the game.

I'd love to have a pithy answer for what it takes to get motivated, but honestly, I drink coffee. A lot of coffee. Judging by an informal survey of my author friends, they drink a lot of coffee too. Why re-invent the wheel? If I need motivation, coffee is always a good choice.

Research Binders

Back when I was planning out these novels, I assembled entire binders with character sketches, D.C. maps, job descriptions, and apartment layouts--just about everything else I could possibly need to know about living and working in D.C. Despite my organized approach, I abandoned my binders completely about halfway through the rough draft. I got so carried away by the story that I just kept typing. 

Throwing out your notes and pounding the keys is great if you're trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days. When you go back and start editing...well, let's just say there are some inconsistencies. For example, one of my main characters changed height five times. The apartment he lives in changed floors even more often than that. So frustrating--until I remembered that I already figured out how tall my characters are and where their apartment is. Back to the notebooks!

Whew. Fact-checking crisis averted.

Music

The editing process is so slow and nit-picky that it can be hard to remember exactly what story I'm telling. Instead of "can't see the forest for the trees," it's more like "can't see the overarching theme for the plot holes." Some novelists have told me they stay on track by trying to relate every part of their story to one word, such as "redemption" or "justice." I go back to the song that inspired the story idea in the first place:

When I first heard this song, I wondered, "But...what if the road hadn't been broken? Would they have met anyway? Can you be both sad and grateful for a painful life story...or do you have to choose between bitterness and joy?" Voila! A story idea was born. Every time I listen to this song, it brings me back to those questions and reminds me how my characters are feeling.

Chocolate

Editing is a long process (so says the author who has now gone over the same chapter three times...) Along the way, it's important to celebrate the successes. Sometimes it's a big win (like getting the whole book ready to send out!) Sometimes it's a little victory (like finally nailing a tricky line.)

Some authors reward themselves with stickers or checking off their progress on a list. I prefer chocolate. Like coffee, chocolate is always a good choice.

Creative Distractions

If you see my Instagram feed, you know that I've been dabbling in making origami models. I got the idea from one of my main characters, Mara, whose love of precision makes her perfectly suited to this kind of hobby. I have a perfectionist side, too, but it's a real challenge for me to focus on getting every fold just right--one wonky corner early on can throw off the whole model!

I started doing origami in order to give myself a creative break that didn't take me too far away from the storyline of my novel. They don't take more than ten or fifteen minutes to make--I can do some in less than five--and it's a refreshing change from staring at the computer screen. Plus, taking up the hobby of one of my characters gives me a little insight into who she is and how she approaches problems. Win/win.

Remember the Dream

This is probably the biggest motivation of all to push through the editing process and finish the books. I don't want this story to live forever in my head, or on my computer, or on the bookshelf. I want this story to get in the hands of a reader who will love it as much as I do. (tweet this). So that's what's fueling my latest editing marathon. It's going to fuel the next one and the one after that, too.

Oh, and coffee. A lot of coffee.

First Aid for Novel-Editing Emergencies || www.ellensmithwrites.com

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How Much Science Should Be In Science Fiction?

I'm about a quarter of the way through editing my current work-in-progress, and believe me, it's slow-going. I'm checking every detail for consistency, ironing out the tone, and rewriting the scenes that I raced through during my marathon drafting sessions. At the same time, I'm trying to balance big-picture considerations. Who am I writing this story for? What readers will enjoy reading it? Just what genre is this story, anyway?

My current work-in-progress is a time travel romance that blurs the lines between science fiction and...well, romance. In the beginning of the novel, I introduce Will and Mara Sterling, a twenty-something couple starting off their new marriage with old scars:

Will and Mara first met six years ago. They were freshmen in college: young, ambitious, and full of plans for the years ahead. Within seconds, the actions of one gunman changed both of their lives. Although Will and Mara survived the campus shooting, the attack left them with permanent injuries, chronic pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The last six years have been challenging to say the least, but Will and Mara count themselves lucky. After all, they have each other.

So far, this story has the romance covered: while Will and Mara have struggled through horrifying circumstances, they're deeply and genuinely in love with each other and the life they share. Enter the science fiction elements, neatly disguised as their call to adventure:

A new initiative from the Justice Department offers Will and Mara the chance of a lifetime. The shooter has been rehabilitated and his crime qualifies for an event modification. With the consent of his victims, they can all travel back to the original scene of the crime, giving the gunman a chance to undo his deeds and put things right.

Event modification is my idea of how time travel would be used today if it existed. It's not fancy, flashy, or even a lot of fun. It's a heavily-moderated, overly bureaucratic system intended to give both offenders and victims a second chance. Since the criminal is rehabilitated, why not give him the opportunity to go back and undo his crime?

I know what facing this decision will mean for Will and Mara, and I know how the possibility of event modification will affect the culture around them, the justice system, and the gunman himself. Here's what I don't know: how much of an explanation do I give on how event modification works? How much of the mechanics of time travel would readers really want to know?

In other words: how much science should be in science fiction?

How much science should be in science fiction? | ellensmithwrites.com

The answer to the science-to-fiction ratio lies with the readers. Who would be interested in Mara and Will's story? Why would they pick up this book, and what would they expect to find?

"People who like science fiction," is an easy answer, but it's not the whole answer. Some sci-fi readers are into hard science fiction. They'd like a detailed description of how time travel works, along with the timeline for how it was developed and the blueprints to the machine. If I gloss over the mechanics of event modification, these hard sci-fi readers might stop reading for a minute and think, "Okay, Will and Mara went back in time, but...how did it work? What was it like? What makes that possible?"

On the other hand, some readers prefer soft science fiction. These are the people who read about a new technology and think, "Ooh, and what will happen next?" rather than "Whoa! How did that happen?" They don't want to spend time in the engineering room of the Event Modification Division of the Justice Department, learning how it all works. They want to be up in the observation room, finding out just how people react when they're offered an unexpected second chance.

At its core, my work-in-progress is a combination of romance and soft science fiction. Time travel is a big part of the story, but it's not the center of the story. The focus needs to stay on Will and Mara, two characters that struggle to understand who they are and how the events of their lives have changed them, for better or for worse.

So...how much science should be in science fiction? I know my answer:

Just enough to cause a reaction.

How much science should be in science fiction? Just enough to cause a reaction. | ellensmithwrites.com

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