Every time I write a book, I get about half way through and I start looking forward to the next book, when I’ll start out doing it right, and won’t run into whatever issue I’m having. There is seriously something inside me that thinks there’s some solid process out there that’s going to snap into place. And then the books will pretty much write themselves.
They never do!
I guess I should be glad that I don’t have the exact same problem every time (though if I did, I’d probably be able to fix it). What I really want is to be a planner, an outliner, a different kind of writer. It would be so nice to not be a quarter into the novel and questioning what it’s about and where it’s going.
But when I try to outline, it goes nowhere. When I try to write a “perfect” first draft, I’m so busy planning that it’s dry and no fun. And I don’t want to do it.
Some writers like to write and some like to have written. I like both. I’d rather skip over descriptions of people and places, but I’m so glad when they’re done. However, I absolutely love to write dialogue and action. I love angst and sex and difficult situations. I could write disjointed scenes all day long. But, eventually, they need to be connected together.
With every book, the process changes a little, as I try to manage both sides of my writing mind. I’m always learning something about myself as a writer. Does it make it easier?
I wish it did. But what it does provide me with is confidence. So far, I’ve managed to work my way through three books, so I know I can do a fourth, a fifth . . a tenth.
I haven’t given up on planning, but I’ve given up on the idea that my creativity can be leashed. I’m hoping that the more I study structure and other writing craft lessons, the more I can adopt organizing principles into my process. Will it work?
But it might get me a little closer to finding a process–loose as it might be–that will work for me. And, really, it’s also fun at times to stumble around and see what happens. What I have learned, and this has come from experience, is that when I’m writing myself into a ditch, it’s okay to stop the car and start again. Or hit the gas and see what happens. Maybe I’ll jump the ditch and end up on a much better road.
I’ve been thinking about how, in life, there are so many before and afters: learning to drive – you don’t know how and then you do, graduations – you were in high school and then you aren’t, etc. Maybe interviewing a writing superstar doesn’t rank high on many people’s lists, but it was way up there for me. As I was anticipating the event, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to journal about how I was feeling both before and after.
What’s below is largely unedited, because I wanted to represent my thoughts as they were happening as opposed to something refined and curated, so don’t be surprised at the ramble-y-ness.
Tomorrow night, I have the honor of interviewing Casey McQuiston for the Galena Public Library’s Litfest. Casey is the author of Red, White & Royal Blue, one of my all-time favorite books. We’re talking deserted-island book worthy.
A few weeks ago, I had a stress dream about it. I’d lost my list of questions. We were doing the interview live and on camera, and although I felt sure I could remember most of my own questions, I couldn’t remember the questions that were sent in ahead of time. I didn’t want to ask Larissa (who set up everything) if she had a copy because I was so embarrassed I’d forgotten the list. Then I thought maybe I could access them through my phone. Except it wasn’t my phone I had. I called my husband to ask him to bring me my phone, but he was out and about with our son. I found another phone (both yellow), but that one wasn’t mine either. Casey was getting their hair styled and was so nice, but I was in a blind panic. I wanted the interview to start so it could be over.
After that, I became nervous about the interview until this week, when I went back to my usual chill state (mostly), the dread replaced by excitement. I have So. Many. Questions.
In honor of the interview, I’ve scheduled a hair appointment for tomorrow afternoon. My color will be all fresh and vibrant for the event. My husband has agreed to take my son and our dogs to his mom’s house so there won’t be any distractions. (He’s the best). My chest is a bit floaty with a combination of nervousness and excitement. I want to be a good interviewer. What I want with a desperation that is embarrassing, is for Casey and I to become friends. I want them to follow me on Instagram and comment now and again. It’s a bit nuts.
Right now, I have no idea how tomorrow will go. Will I be able to balance the interview questions already prepared with whatever comes in during the event? Will I forget that Casey goes by they/their? Will I say something idiotic? Will I talk to much? Will I rush them so I can get to more questions? I can be chill, but I can also be exuberant, and there is little doubt which Hollie is going to show up tomorrow.
I thought it would be fun to sort of journal about the “before” and then journal about the after to see how the event stacked up to how I envisioned it.
So, what do I envision?
Exuberant Hollie, as mentioned above. I’ve watched a few Casey interviews, and they are a good guest. But, I’m a bit nervous of going “off-script” since I had to submit the questions in advance. I don’t want to just read a list of questions, but have a conversation with questions peppered inside, ask whatever I want for maybe twenty minutes, then I plan to switch to the list of questions (already submitted first followed by those present). I know for a fact that we will never get through all the questions. I suspect that I will feel a sort of loss at never knowing what I had the potential to learn.
After tomorrow night, we’ll see how clairvoyant I am!
It’s now Friday, January 20, and the interview is over. I am not clairvoyant.
So, how did it go? Great! Casey McQuiston was funny, generous, kind, open, and very entertaining.
Exuberant Hollie did indeed show up, but I felt as if I didn’t rush them or move things too quickly. Frankly, I was so interested in what Casey shared that the entire conversation was easy. And though I’d pared down beforehand, I did get to all my questions!
My favorite part of the evening, though, was the fifteen-ish minutes before we officially started when I got to speak with them, just the two of us. I fangirled for a bit, because I wanted them to know but didn’t want to waste public minutes on it. The conversation was friendly, and I was completely charmed, and it relaxed me for the interview. I knew it would go well.
About an hour before we started, I looked over the questions again and printed them using a BIG font so I could read it easily from a distance. I also arranged them into three categories and had a rough idea of where I wanted to start. It worked out, so that was nice. I jumped around (as I am wont to do), but managed to hit all the pre-submitted questions and all of my own (from my whittled down list)!
Casey’s responses were so fascinating (example: their character work before they write the novel – there’s a lot and they held up one of their notebooks). I always enjoy talking about writing craft, and it’s even better to talk to someone not just successful (their first book enabled them to buy their first house!), but someone I admire greatly. We were their first event since mid-November, which might have contributed to their great energy and the fun we had.
I ended up asking the last question and their answering with one minute to spare. No questions from the live audience, which surprised me. So, the timing was pretty much perfect. One day, I hope I can meet Casey McQuiston in person, but this was the next best thing. And it was awfully awesome.
Coming down to the wire, I’ve read 320 books in 2022, a full 120 over my goal of 200. I read print books, ebooks, and listened to audiobooks. There were a couple of re-reads thrown into the mix.
I was more positive this year, with fifty-seven 5-star reviews, two 1-star reviews, and ten 2-star reviews. I also DNF’d (did not finish) two books. Tempted as I was to 1-star those, I don’t rate books I don’t read in full.
I don’t have a Top Five because I don’t want to have to choose. You can visit my Goodreads page to see all my top-five picks for 2022 (I have a shelf for my five-stars). But these are five standouts.
This is book 12 and the finale of the Crossbreeds Series. Raven and Christian are a fantastic couple. They have great banter and a solid connection. This isn’t a series you can just jump into wherever you want, so you’ll have to start with book one. But at least the series is finished!
I think the Mageri worldbuilding is fantastic, and I love that she continued to world into the Crossbreeds series. Keystone, the group that Raven and Christian work for, has a great collection of characters too.
This one just snuck inside, as I listened to the audiobook in mid December. There are a few point-of-view characters, but three main ones. Two of those are psychopaths. Like, diagnosed and known psychopaths. Chloe is the main character, and she is absolutely fascinating.
The premise is that seven young psychopaths have been offered a free ride to the university, but they must partake of a psychological study. The goal is to see if therapy can help these young people become good members to society. But then one of them is murdered.
There are a lot of twists and turns, but the amazing strength of the story is on the characters. This was a book I couldn’t stop listening to and marveling over. I’ve read 320 books this year, and I often have to look up characters names directly after reading the book, but I didn’t have to look up the three main characters in this book: Chloe, Charles, and Andre. That really says something.
I read a lot of Eva Chase this year, but this one was my favorite. What has it got? A clever thief, freed Shadowkind (demons but not the evil kind), mystery and intrigue and several romantic interests. If you’ve been curious about the reverse harem phenomenon, this is a good book to test.
The heroine is very competent and threads the line between hero and anti-hero perfectly. The world is unique and creative with some good twists.
I debated about adding this to the list. This is the book that most hooked me in the entire year. I know this because even now (and I read this back in January) I can’t think about the story too much because I’m still gutted over it. Still! So, warning, NOT a happy ending, and you know that pretty early on in the story, but I was captivated. There’s a rumor she’s writing a sequel, but that’s been around forever and she’s said she doesn’t want to write a sequel just to give Hayes and Solene a happy ending. So, I’m not counting on it.
Anyway, this is a boy band twenty-year-old megastar and a thirty-nine-year-old art dealer who meet when she takes her daughter and friend to his band’s concert with backstage passes and there’s chemistry. If you read/listen to this, let me know. I’m curious how many other people are devastated by the novel.
Who knew psychics could be so damn funny?! Riley Thorn hears dead people and they tell her things. She lives in a house with a bunch of quirky senior citizens and she meets private detective Nick, and there are sparks. Riley helps Nick with his investigation. It’s got a decent mystery, some good action, and it is hilarious. I’m a Lucy Score fan, in general, but this is by far my favorite series of hers. Great comedic cast.
Other books you might want to check out: Demon’s Advocate by Stacia Stark (urban fantasy that wraps up to her Deals With Demons series, which was one of my favorites), The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn (historical fiction about Lady Death, a real-live Russian sniper in World War II), The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer (thriller about a brilliant woman on the run from a corrupt agency. One of the most clever characters I’ve ever come across), and pretty much anything by Annette Marie. I’ve mowed through most of her series stuff.
November was National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and I did a talk with fellow Off-Campus Writers’ Workshop (OCWW) member Margot McMahon in October on how to prepare for success
My friend, Lynette Hoag, attended and took some notes. At the end of November, she reached out to thank me and offered to write up a little something on what she called the Hollie Bible.
I’d never had a bible named after me before, so how could I refuse?!This is what she wrote:
You know how some people need Oprah, Iyanla Vanzant or Suze Orman to fix their lives? Turns out, I needed Hollie Smurthwaite to fix my writing life. In October 2022 I attended her seminar on NaNoWriMo and just completed my first successful NaNo after three failed attempts! I have created the ‘Ten Commandments of NaNoWriMo’. I call them “The Hollie Bible.” Yes, some of these are mine, but remember, she’s the reason I can say I completed a 50K novel in twenty-eight days.
1. PrepTober (Hollie Bible)
Make a plan or . . .
2. Bank your words (Hollie Bible)
Write more than 1667 when you can or give yourself a head-start in October
3. Create main character outlines
It makes it easier to keep writing when you know your hero prefers red wine
4. Create side character outlines
They add color and more opportunities to write backstories
5. Plan out your daily writing schedule
There are sure to be days when you cannot write. Be prepared
6. Break from the Novel format and “Free write”(Hollie Bible)
Write dialog, sex scenes, alternate universe scenes when you get stuck or blocked
7. Resist editing
This is all me. I love to edit as I go.
8. Follow a formula or format for your chosen genre
I used “Romancing the Beat.” It’s a built in outline for a pantser like me.
9. Keep your inspiration near
I kept my book cover or pictures of my inspirational angel on my desktop.
10. When you daydream, daydream your way out of writing dilemmas.
When is the best time to say “I love you and want you back?” before or after you’ve tied your ex to the Saint Andrew’s Cross 🤔
Most times, I think, we never really know the affect of what we do, so this was a marvelous affirmation of my advice. These moments make me so happy.
If you’re a writer, maybe this advice will help you not just for NaNoWriMo, but for any writing task you set for yourself. Prepare for success and you’re more likely to find it.
Confession: someone vomits in pretty much every book I’ve written, and will probably ever write. Why? Because it’s intense! Puking isn’t just for the stomach flu! It’s a sign you’re working out too hard, you’re freaking out, or you suffer from migraines.
In The Color of Betrayal, I have the requisite up-chuck scene. When I sent it to Joyce (Lamb), my line editor, it was three paragraphs. Here is the original
Since she hadn’t eaten anything in several hours, she was surprised by the volume of vomit. Jolene held her hair back with both hands. Her nostrils burned as the overflow poured out of there too. Most of her throwing up had been done while drunk or hung over, and she hadn’t missed this part of drinking.
She tried to gather her hair into one hand so she could wipe her face and blow her nose with the other, but her stomach wasn’t finished. Cass knelt next to her, and gently pulled her hair back. She gripped the bowl and twice more, her insides spewed. Then her belly clenched and clenched until a thick syrup of bile slid out of her mouth.
Her thoughts tried to run back to what Cass had said, the documents he’d shown her, but she yanked them back, concentrating on the agony in her gut, the rawness of her throat, the sticky heat of the tears swamping her eyes. Maybe death wasn’t such a bad thing.
Cass kept hold of her hair but leaned away from her. He returned close enough to brush her arm. “Here.”
Lotta good sensory details right there, that’s what I was thinking. Joyce, however, gave me this feedback:
“Kinda think this is all too much. It’s enough to just tell us she barfed and Cass is holding her hair. Something more like:
Jolene tried to hold her hair back with both hands, but then Cass was kneeling next to her and gently pulling her hair back for her. When she was done and gasping, he leaned away from her, only to return close enough to brush her arm. “Here.“
In retrospect, that’s a fair bit of advice. Okay, maybe my audience doesn’t want that much puke detail. Fine, fine. So, this is what ended up in the final draft:
Since she hadn’t eaten anything in several hours, she was surprised by the volume of vomit. She hadn’t missed this part of drinking. Cass knelt next to her and gently pulled her hair back. When she finished, he leaned away then close enough to brush her arm with something soft. “Here.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with a three-paragraph description of tossing cookies, but, admittedly, it isn’t exactly sexy, and I’m happier with the revision.
If I’d been left to my own devices, this is evidence that I would have produced a less-professional book. Joyce also whipped the prose into shape by streamlining much of it. It was actually pretty embarrassing, but I’m not going to share examples of that! Not this time, anyway.
When I first started writing The Color of Trauma, I anticipated the genre as supernatural suspense. Upon reflection, I think that’s just called urban fantasy, though the novel never fit snugly to that genre, or any genre. I started the story in 2017 as a camp NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) project. As I wrote, I discovered that my favorite bits of the entire novel were the relationship scenes. At one point, I submitted a thirty-page sex scene to my critique group. I hadn’t even realized it was quite that long until one of them pointed it out.
Eventually, I accepted that I was writing a romance novel. I enjoy writing sex scenes, but even more than that, I like to write about two characters connecting and bonding. When Kiera and Dean step beyond their professional, practical association, they find an intense yet easy connection. At one point, Kiera unearths some information about Dean from an old friend of his, and she shares what she learned. She has the upper hand for mere moments.
“What’s wrong with the stubble, by the way?” he asked.
She mock-shuddered. “I’ll bet it’s wicked scratchy.”
Dean wiped a hand over his jaw. Then he slanted his eyes to her. “Why do you care?”
“I don’t.” Her face burned.
He grinned at her. “It’s not so bad. Go on, feel it.”
“I’m not going to touch your face.”
“Because you’re weird about touch.”
She gaped at him. “I’m weird? You can’t ask near strangers to touch your face.”
“You brought it up. I think you secretly want to touch my face.”
Kiera spluttered. “With my fist.”
“Tenderly. With much affection. I think I’m growing on you.” He was teasing her, trying to force a reaction, and it worked. Dean Matthson was charm incarnate, and she couldn’t stop blushing.
Banter isn’t always easy to write, but when the muse shows up, I love creating the back and forth that reveals not just a mutual sense of humor but lets the reader also smile with the characters. I feel that sex without an underpinning of mutual respect and affection isn’t as powerful. The playful exchange earlier, I hope, gives the physical attraction and expression a deeper significance.
Once Dean and Kiera return to Kiera’s place after their day out together, trying to be “normal” people, their attraction blossoms. It starts, as love scenes often do, with a kiss.
Too far away. Dean was too far away, but every time Kiera inched forward, he countered, keeping the exact same distance between them.
Jesus, how long was her hallway?
Just the pads of three fingers touched her face, the contact so light it was like a ghost. Then those fingers, those small patches of cool against her skin, slid down her jaw, drawing a line of shivers. After her jaw, they moved to her neck, the tingling sensation shattering her control. She moved closer until they were almost touching, snaking her arms around his neck. He kissed her harder, and then she felt it.
Scraping over the delicate skin of her face. Kiera pulled away and mock-frowned. “Just as abrasive as I’d imagined.”
He ran his hand over his jaw, never taking his eyes off her. “Got a razor?”
Offering to shave for her comfort sprouted a grapefruit in her throat. She pressed a fist to her mouth, needing a moment to compose her expression. “Can I do it?”
Like a lot of people, I had an aversion to romance, my mind conjuring bodice-rippers of old, where consent was immaterial and jerks were somehow attractive. I finally realized that romance isn’t a monolith and I could make any kind of love story I wanted. This is it.
Part of the great experience of winning the 2021 Soon to be Famous Illinois Author Contest is that local libraries have reached out to me about events. It’s so exciting. I. Love. Libraries. Seriously: free books to borrow, free internet, knowledgeable librarians.
I was invited to a panel at the New Lenox Library on November 13, 2021 from 1 pm – 3 pm to talk about self-publishing. How fun is that?
There’s this thing writers have called Imposter Syndrome. It’s pretty pervasive and usually chronic with some acute flair ups. I think it’s particularly nasty in self-published authors. We published our own books, so are we really authors?
Yes, Hollie, I remind myself over and over again. I even won a contest and now people want me on panels. This sort of social proof is priceless to the delicate ego of this particular author, at least. I just wish it would last!
It’s tough, even though I did all the work (and some work I didn’t need to do or did repeatedly). Luckily, feeling like an imposter hasn’t stopped my writing or even my talking about my writing. I just sort of wince inwardly and keep going.
Maybe I’ll get to the place of confident professional eventually. In the meantime, I’m a fiction author, so I can totally fake it.
Way back when I won the Soon to be Famous Illinois Author Manuscript Project, part of the prize was a professional cover (and copy editing). I was thrilled with both.
And then I went and made a bunch of changes. I got a developmental editor. More changes. Pretty soon, I realized that it wasn’t a supernatural suspense novel but a paranormal romantic suspense novel. Now my beloved cover didn’t quite represent my new genre.
So, I had to commission a new one.
It wasn’t an easy task, and I had a few setbacks and, possibly (for sure), a crisis. Everything is all good, though, because in the end, I got this beauty . . .
I couldn’t be happier with the new cover, and I’m so glad I made a change. The old cover was gorgeous, but this better represents my story: dark, sexy, spooky with some urban grit. Big shout out to Sarah Hansen at Okay Creations!
Writing is a solitary act. But being a writer doesn’t have to be. I am so
lucky to be surrounded by such an awesome writing community. Here are just some
of the groups that made my year:
This is my critique group. Susan, Dani, Carolyn, Meg, and Rae. Without these
women, my work would be a shadow of what it is now. They always tell me the
truth but with kindness and support. It’s hard to make adult friends, let alone
friends as kick-ass as these guys. When I feel lost, when I feel like an
imposter, when I’m unsure where to go in my writing, these are the first people
I approach, and they’re there for me. Love these women!
Off-Campus Writers’ Workshop. Almost every Thursday from September to May,
there is a speaker. Some are “famous” like Stuart Dybek and Rebecca
Makkai. Some aren’t as well known. Regardless, I learn something every week! It’s
a pain in the ass to get up to Winnetka by 9:30 a.m., but I don’t regret the
hassle. I’ve gotten great inspiration and notes that I can look back on later
and hone my writing craft. And I’m finally at a point where I know quite a few
people, and it’s more like family than indifferent colleagues. Large groups are
hard for me, but I know enough people now that I’m comfortable. It’s been a
great source of socialization and learning.
Just Write Chicago
Almost every Friday since October of 2013 I’ve met writers at New Wave Cafe
for a few hours of independent writing and an hour of discussion. I took about
a four month hiatus when my son was little, but other than that, I’ve been a
consistent attendant. I’ve been running the Friday meeting for a while now, and
I’ve loved the flux and flow of people. My favorite thing is when people become
regulars. We’ve got quite a few, and it’s inspiring to see people progress in
their projects. It’s been a wonderful support system and a great way to give
back and help other writers. I’m often amazed at all the insight members have
for one another. No matter how much I struggle alone for the rest of the week,
it’s a comfort to have this group every Friday to keep me connected to the
Sisters In Crime
I recently re-joined this group this year. What a great organization! They have so many free events, free classes, and an excellent support system. The Chicagoland chapter is awesome. Their Annual Writers’ Workshop was so informative and fun and free.
Susan, Tracy, Lyssa, and Sheri. It was an honor to help weed through the problems and choices in all our stories. And the food was excellent.
No gratitude post would be complete without my biggest supporter ever, my husband, Randy. I’m beyond lucky to have him in my life, my alpha reader and biggest cheerleader (except for maybe Susan). And my son, Quinlan, who though he is not yet six has informed me that I’m a great writer. Also, a big shout out to our parents and siblings who’ve stepped in on numerous occasions to watch Quinlan so I could do writerly things. My family rocks.
I hope all the other writers out there have found their writing community–even if it’s only via the internet. Writers, in my experience, are very gracious and supportive of one another. Support others and let them support you. Find your tribe!