How to Find your Writing Process–Even if You are a Pantser
This is a transcript of the Writing Gym Podcast. To listen to the full episode, go to: www.writing-gym.com/publishNovel
Andi: Welcome to this very special episode with Vivian Jamieson, a recent graduate of our Writing Gym programs. Today we’re going to get the inside scoop on the program and Annalisa and anything else that Vivian wants to share with us.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Vivian.
Vivian: Very happy to be here.
Andi: So why don’t we start by you telling me about your current work in progress and where you stand with that.
Vivian: I just finished the Publishing Mastermind course with Annalisa, and at the end had a completed manuscript. So, this manuscript has been seven years in the making through various iterations, but only with Annalisa’s help was I able to really pull it all together. It’s a complicated manuscript. I think literary fiction would be the best description for it.
So now it’s at the copy editor’s. I am done and dusted with my portion of it and I’m working on my submission packages right now. Query letters and such, while it’s at the copy editors. And then I hope to get it out to an agent that I know who represented me in the past, and then go from there.
So yeah, super excited about that.
Andi: So, just to clarify, you didn’t just finish a first draft, you actually revised your book through the Writing Gym?
I would say this is my fourth major revision, which I think is not uncommon when you’re getting manuscripts ready to go out.
You know, when the first time you put “the end,” you think, “oh, I wrote a book!”
But in reality that’s your first draft. And there’s a lot of work that needs still to be done to make it readable, reader-friendly.
So, I sort of became aware of her, I live in Vermont, through the League of Vermont Writers and was interested in speaking to her and was interested in some of the talks that she gave there and then was in touch.
So when I connected with her I was really on the third draft and we sort of worked through it through the VIP Writing Course that she has and I realized at the end of it that there really needed to be a major revision done. So I stepped away from Annalisa, she from me, for about six months, and I did a major rewrite of the book.
And then we were back together, she did a read-through, and then we did the one-on-one twice-weekly sessions to really pull the final manuscript together. I’m very happy with it. I think one thing that she really helped me with tremendously was craft, and specifically pacing. I’m a pantser by nature, so you know you don’t choose that. It just happens. I don’t stick well to outlines, etc.
But there’s a technique to get a solid manuscript when you’re a pantser, and Annalisa really helped me find that. She helped me find my writing process and how the working on characterization and working on pacing and thoughts how it all ties together.
And yeah, I think at the end of it, no matter what happens with this manuscript, of course I hope it gets published, but I learned a tremendous amount in terms of going forward. In terms of craft. Because that in the end is what gets a book over the top, is my belief.
I always say that I aspire to the Steve Martin school of accomplishing things, which is you just get so good that people can’t ignore you anymore. So that’s partly why it took seven years. I didn’t have the craft in the beginning to really develop a complicated manuscript like this, so that’s what really helped. Is her input to help me understand themes and how to tie back to them, and making the manuscript multilayered, which is really what’s important when you’re writing literary fiction.
And keeping the reader engaged. How you write and what you write is very different than what a reader wants to read. And that’s where you have to learn the craft to pull that off, I think.
Also, you really need to, with this type of book that I’m writing, you need to really know the characters inside out and backwards. And that comes from writing about them, writing about them, re-writing about them, and it took three or four years to really flesh out who everybody was and where they needed to go. Some characters in my manuscript completely changed positions. The sort of foolish, naive one became the wise one. I mean, that’s how it all had to come together. And that only came from playing with them and working with them and writing it and throwing parts out and bringing different parts forward.
And in the end, there’s a funny magic to it. That’s what I felt.
My job was to sit in a chair and just work hard at this and allow whatever was supposed to flow in, to flow in. And in the end, that’s what happened. There was sort of magic that appeared that you weren’t really sure where it came from. You’re like, “oh!” Probably it’s deep in your subconscious somewhere.
At, you know, in all the many different drafts and things that were happening, eventually there was a very complicated dance that occurred that pulled the whole thing together to the end. That I wasn’t aware was there. And even Annalisa at times. Until it was sort of all down on paper. Yeah. So that was it.
One of the things I should mention is, when I was working with Annalisa, through her suggestion, I did a book club with her and some of the alumni. It was on To Kill A Mockingbird, which has a similar—you know I don’t aspire to that book, much above my pay grade, but it has similar themes.
And so by doing that and talking about that type of excellent fiction with other writers in the Writing Gym and Annalisa and that really helped to move my craft forward, because you could see how it applied to your own book. And you could also see how a master did it. And that made a big difference in terms of pushing things forward for me.
Andi: Yeah, I love those things. I love that she offers those smaller little programs, so if you can’t be involved in the full Writing Gym, or you’re not ready to quite make that step yet, you know you can do things like the book club, and take the time to maybe learn a couple of the craft elements in one of the other workshops or take one of the open salons that she offers, and kind of get a little bit of a taste of, what it would be like to live your author dream.
Vivian: Yeah, absolutely.
And I think part of that experience is the camaraderie you get with people. I think in my past experience, this is not my first manuscript. I had another manuscript. I would say one other solid manuscript, and it’s hard to find people who are as serious as I was, meaning, I think, in terms of when I put my heart into something, I go for it.
And so that’s what I really enjoyed, to be around other writers in the Writing Gym that were serious about their craft and serious about doing it. I’d been to writers groups in my community and writers groups online and I just never really found the right fit for me, so I think she really vets people to know that they’re serious and this is something that they want to pursue. I think you get a lot of help and support from people like you and also by the other writers through the process, which is very helpful to go forward as well.
Because you know, I think a major part of writing a manuscript and getting a manuscript that you feel is ready to go out, is overcoming fear, right? It’s overcoming your own self-doubt.
It’s sitting down and going “ugh.” You read it and you’re like, “ugh, this is terrible.” And then you read it the next day and it’s like, “yeah, you know, it’s not that bad.” There’s a lot that has to do with mindset and getting yourself in a place that you can allow the story to come through. And that takes work and it takes support and it takes people who understand that. And I think certainly the Writing Gym does that perfectly, or at least it did in my case.
Because if you’re out on your own and fear starts to rear it’s ugly head, it can be hard. It’s not just writers’ block, you don’t seem to get your flow. And the flow is what’s critical to get a manuscript to work, I think.
Andi: Yeah, I agree.
And I think that, as the personal trainer in the Writing Gym, mindset it what I focus on. We meet weekly and talk about it. Where you are, what are your fears, what’s going on, what’s your struggle right now.
And it’s funny because, like you said, it’s not just writer’s block. You know, our brains have a way of working, a way of blocking, a way of making sure that we don’t achieve what we want because of that fear. Because to your brain, it’s protecting you.
We had a recent experience with a Writing Gym member where he had no idea that he was experiencing fear and doubt. He came into a session and was like, “oh, I haven’t gotten anything done this week. I just…I don’t know. I haven’t gotten anything done. I haven’t found that creative flow.”
And it all came back, when we peeled back those layers and took a look, it all came back to the fact that he is incredibly close to finishing his very first manuscript.
Vivian: Oh! I wanted to tell you about that. Yeah.
Andi: And he is terrified about what comes next. He’s scared and nervous and has all these unanswered questions. And so his brain, rather than letting him sit down and finish the manuscript and do the work, was just like, “what if we just didn’t? What if we just went and protected ourselves and went and played video games instead?”
And unless you have, like you said, a group, a community, to talk that out with you, someone who’s asking you the questions because they know that this boils down to a fear problem.
Vivian: I’ve been writing seriously for ten or eleven years, this book has taken some time to get. I wasn’t working on it exclusively in the beginning, but even in the last few weeks, at the end of my last group, I’m going “why am I going at a snail’s pace? What the heck!”
Like I was at 20 pages to go for, like, ever. And even my friends and people around me are like, “what’s wrong?”
Well, one day it dawned on me: this is fear, right?
This is fear that’s stopping me from finishing.
For the same reason, even though I’ve been working at it a long time, and this is my fourth time through this manuscript, it still reared its ugly head, because you’re afraid of failure. And as soon as you finish, then there’s the potential it will fail. While you’re still working on it, then of course it can’t fail, because you’re still working on it.
So yeah, I think every writer, you have to learn those lessons and go through it. And it’s very helpful if you’re with people who’ve been through it before. And as soon as I identified that, boom! It was finished in two days. Really.
It’s all about getting out of your own way, in my experience. It’s getting out of your own way constantly. You know, you keep wanting to get in your own way. By overthinking, by getting fearful, by all sorts of things. So it takes a lot to get the mindset right. And the mindset’s critical if you’re going to get the best out of your idea and your manuscript.
And that’s what the Writing Gym helped me a great deal with. So, yeah.
And then they help you all the way through the process. Getting your first draft ready, and then in my case, I came in sort of along the process, meaning having other drafts, but it’s also, you know, being led to the point where you realize, I have to majorly rewrite this. I mean, Annalisa didn’t say that, but she helped me to realize it myself. So, you know, that’s part of it. You’re helped in a very supportive way, right? And then you can go forward and get the best work that you can, so.
Yeah. So that’s the exciting part of it.
Andi: So, tell us a little bit, you talked about being a part of League of Vermont Writers and other writing groups.
Tell us about your writing life before you met Annalisa and got involved in the Writing Gym. What was that like?
Vivian: Well, I am a second-career writer. I have, you know, another profession, which is sort of far-flung from the creativity of writing. But it’s something that I’ve always sort of battled with, with my day job, is sort of finding a way to sort of use my creativity and getting involved in writing.
So, I had a large learning curve, I think, when I started, in terms of someone who’s come through in a MFA program or something like that. However, it comes down to your ideas and your creativity and how well you’re wanting to work at it.
So, you know, I just sort of wrote away and then I had some early success with my first, was really a novella, got an agent, but you know, I really think, once a work is ready, it goes without a great deal of trouble. I mean you have to find the right person, but the second manuscript that I had, I had representation out of a fairly big agency in New York and it got almost all the way up the hill, but then we actually didn’t present it to publishers because it just never really got to the point where it was ready. And my agent was kind enough to sort of say, “you need to go back and really work more on craft and work on some more points.”
So, you know, live more life and get more depth to writing. Because in learning to write, in my experience, you go through different phases. You get ideas down. He did this, he did that, getting the plot.
And then you go through this period, or I did, where you did this tremendously flowery writing. Oh my gosh, every sentence is the most beautiful thing that’s ever hit literature.
And then, you know, that lasts for a bit, and then you realize, well okay, now that you’ve done all that, you need to stop doing that, because you need just a word or a sentence or an idea. But all of that flowery writing benefits nobody but yourself. So you had to go through that to be able to find that place where one word fits or another word fits.
And for me the final straw was pacing. How to release information. How to keep the writer propelled from one page to the next page to the next page. Because, you know, when I was finished my second draft, I sent it out to an editor and also to some beta readers at one point. And you could see they were getting stuck. And that’s the craft of pacing. Where you engage the reader early on and then you can keep them going forward.
And so, I think if I had to say what really pushed me forward was to really understand, is to go through those phases and really learn from them, but also how to take small bits out of each in order to produce a manuscript.
And read. Read, read, read, read, read. I was never a big reader as a child, funnily enough. And the more I read, and the more I read classics, everybody says this, but the more you do the better you get. Because you know what is necessary to write a good book.
And that’s a personal thing. Some people like certain books and don’t like other books. In any case, I’ve learned things from books I’ve hated. Because I’m like, “hm, I really don’t want to sound like that.” Maybe it worked for them but it’s not what I’m after, you know? So it’s all a great thing.
But I think everybody wants to write a book, but in reality it’s a hard thing to do. And it takes a village, in my experience. And it takes time. And it takes a lot of effort to read a lot and think a lot and learn a lot. But it’s so worth it in the end, because when you write a manuscript that really comes together you feel there’s a magic there.
To me I know you and Annalisa hate when I say this, but whether it gets published or not, I feel like I did everything I could to bring the words to the page. Now, the book almost has to get it’s own energy and I have to get queries etc., but it has to find it’s own luck, in a way, too. So, but I know that I did everything I could. You know, it takes thousands of hours really, to work through some of those things.
However, the next book, even though as of last week I was never writing another book. Because you know, you don’t write for a couple of months and you need to write. You know, will take a lot less time Annalisa and you, and the Writing Gym really helped get my process down, for me as a pantser. How do I need to do this going forward. And I’ve got a lot of really solid habits, I think, that will make it a lot easier going forward.
And that’s something that, you know, we really try to do in the program. When we meet weekly on mindset and we’re doing these things with you guys. And you’re watching the modules and finding out about craft. And you’re having salons and talking about the craft and getting useful feedback. And you’re going to Q&As and getting the chance to ask questions about your manuscript. And you’re having the one-on-ones and doing revisions and things like that, these are all skills that translate to your future as an author. It’s not the kind of thing where you’re never going to be able to use these things again. These will be things that you will use for the rest of your writer life.
And, for example, in the mindset, having the ability for you to notice, “oh, I’m doing this because of fear.” And knowing that was the reason and then finishing in a couple of days.
Having those tools and having the knowledge to move forward, whether it’s the manuscript you’re currently working on or a manuscript that you’re going to work on in five, ten years. You know, you have that information and you’re able to do that.
And I do want to mention, you talked about reading. And that’s one thing. When people who are in the Mastermind program are in their reading period, which means both Annalisa reads your manuscript and we make you read. We make you read the books in your genre that you’re writing in. We make you read other books. We basically make you consume as much as you possibly can.
And the reasoning behind that is exactly what you said. You have to read to be a good writer. But, every single book you read, you’re not going to like. And someone who reads War and Peace doesn’t necessarily want to write the next War and Peace. But you look at it and you say, “oh, I love the way this author really connects with the characters. But I don’t love that the pacing is really slow.”
So with every single thing that you read moving forward, you get to pull tools from that and add it to your writing toolbox. And say “oh, now I know for my next work I don’t like the way that they do this, so I’m going to do it this way.”
And it just gives you so much more knowledge, and it’s really necessary for any writer.
Vivian: Yeah, absolutely. I would agree.
And you know, during my reading period, I did consume a number of books. And I think reading the classics is as important as reading in your genre. And some of the modern things. I mean you just have to read across a really wide spectrum. And even things like right before I came back.
We talked about To Kill A Mockingbird because there are parallels to the book that I’m writing. I’ve read it twice before, but I reread it again and it just made a big difference. I mean, there were things there that I just sort of pulled out for my own work.
So, yeah, I think that’s critical.
And I didn’t really mention the modules, but they’re tremendously helpful in terms of craft. And it comes down to being good enough that people don’t ignore you anymore. And the way that happens to write a well-crafted book.
You know, I didn’t really know what I was doing and got representation, but it failed because I didn’t have the craft to back it up, really, I think. And so now I feel more confident that I know what I’m doing a bit better.
It takes time and work and education, just like my first job or primary job, career, took time to get good at and learn how to do and then perfect. Same with writing. You have to learn it and then you have to keep doing it, because even though you know the craft, the more you write the better you get. And that’s, I think, what attracted me to writing in the first place. And you know, Stephen King and all those people will say, even the book they just wrote, they “gah. It’s not as good as the next one I’m going to write.” So you keep improving and changing.
Yeah, and I think the other thing is learning. It’s a hard thing to do and people keep saying it, like you need to read a lot of books, yeah, yeah, but then when you actually understand it and do it, it actually does make a big difference.
And the same thing with understanding how pacing works and all of those things. I’m amazed at how much I’ve learned through this whole process. You know how economy is critical. And they always say how every word in your book should push your plot forward. Well, but how does that work? But it does work. When you actually figure it out and learn all these other elements, that exactly happens.
And it was funny because in this last one-on-one revision there were things that I pulled through that were, say, my darlings from my previous version or draft and 100% of the time, Annalisa nailed them. “Uh! No. Little too long. Needs to be revised.”
You know, I thought, “ooh, I just really like the way that sounds, and I’ll just…”
And they didn’t fit there. So she was correct. So very few of those made it through. But the idea did. And all the writing that was necessary to do that, to get down to the distilled version of the idea, made it into the book and was better because of that.
Andi: So, you’ve talked a little bit about all the things that the Writing Gym kind of gave you. You talked about the idea of pacing and the craft. Figuring out your process, the mindset portion of it.
What do you think, which one of those do you think is the one that finally gave you the results that you were looking for, which was your finished manuscript? Or was it a combination or all of the above?
Vivian: I think it was a combination.
But I think pacing. I think that really is the final tool in your kit. Because you have to have characters people care about, and you have to have a good story that you want to tell, but ultimately what was holding me back was it wasn’t being paced properly and I didn’t really understand pacing. And that’s, it’s about readers. And it’s about propelling them through the book. And the only way you do that is tension, tension, tension, questions, questions, questions.
And until you understand that part, I think it’s hard to get a compelling book that will keep people going forward. Because you know anybody who reads a book and they say, “well I skipped over that bit.” That means the writer failed right there. And that’s really not allowed for a debut author, really. So maybe you can get away with that in your fourteenth book, but you know, it has to be right on, and that means you have to compel whoever reading it to the next page and the next page. And that’s tricky. But it’s doable once you understand the questions to ask.
And that’s I think what helped me the most, was through the modules and through Annalisa and through my own reading, is the questions to ask every scene. I don’t write for a word count, that’s never worked for me on a day-to-day basis. I write scenes. Like, “I’m going to write this scene today.” Right? So, however many words it takes me, and then the next day I reread that and then go on to the next part.
So, it was taking time to just figure out what do I need to say in that scene, what are the questions I need to ask in that scene, how do I need to ask them where am I leaving this?
Even when you’re a pantser you have to have a little bit of organization to keep it going forward. So that’s, I think, when it really came together for me, is when I really started to understand on a scene level what questions I needed to ask. How can I make this worse for the character? You know, what can I do here that would add surprise? Or, bring a little twist for the reader?
You know in the beginning, in your first draft, you’re just telling this great story. But then, you work and work and work on making it into a very readable and compelling story. And those are the things that craft, you need if you’re going to have a successful book. That’s partly why I chose to go with the Big Five, for trying to write. Because for me that’s the bar. It’s not that I have anything against self-publishing, I don’t, but I think for me, it was pushing you to get a higher level manuscript before it was even considered. And I think that was important to me, that you had accomplished a certain level of quality before you published and I think going traditional publishing houses really pushes you to that.
Plus, there’s a great deal of luck involved.
Andi: Very true.
Vivian: This is where we are now, with the luck part.
Andi: So what would you tell other writers who ask about why they should work with Annalisa?
Vivian: Well I think Annalisa has a very, very, profoundly large background in what she’s teaching you.
She also has a very astute ability to understand what you need to hear and how you need to hear it. She works with very different people. I’m a little more science-oriented person. We have other people that are a little bit more creative and, she can handle every one of those people in terms of getting the most out of what they need to do.
And I think the other thing is, you trust her knowledge because she’s done this a long time. You know she’s a published author in her own right. She’s published books on craft. Books that work for me.
And it’s a one-on-one experience. And she has a very good sort of setup all around her, with the modules. Even the salons, in the beginning, you go and do these writing salons, you think, “oh, I don’t know, I’m working on my manuscript, why do I need to do that?”
Well, you just go and she gives you a prompt and you write. Well, what it does is open a whole level of creativity you sort of shut down because you’re working on a specific thing. And you need to tap into that to open up your own, what helps you with you manuscript, by writing something completely different for thirty minutes and then just reading it.
So I think that would be the reasons why. She knows what she’s doing and she knows what she’s talking about.
You know, like I said, I’ve been working with other people for some time and I hopefully can recognize someone who’s not going to waste your time.
Andi: And so now I get to ask you the all-important last question that we ask everybody on the podcast.
If you had one piece of advice to give to aspiring authors, what would it be?
Vivian: Besides the all-knowing “put your butt in the chair and write”? I mean, if you’re not putting your butt in the chair and writing, then there’s probably fear or something keeping you from there.
But I think where I wasted time in this seven-year process, you know looking back it could have been done in three. And it had to do with feedback. And I think that’s a critical part of an aspiring author. If you’re not getting the right feedback from the right people at the right time, and Annalisa talks about that in her book and also in person, it can be very detrimental.
I mean, I was at a writing group one time, which was your free local writing group, and it was a very discouraging experience. And it really put me back.
Not in terms of criticism of my own work but in terms of, they basically didn’t want to get better, they just wanted to hear fancy nice things about their work. Which was not what I wanted. I wanted someone to tell me what wasn’t working and how I could fix it. So I think it’s really important.
You know it’s the same thing with getting beta readers. You know Annalisa’s course is a bit of a financial commitment, but do you want advice from people whose things you don’t think are that good when you hear or read them?
So if you’re serious about it, you need to get good feedback, and you need to get good feedback because you can’t write a book by yourself. And when you’re finished you need someone to help you with it, to get the next draft out. And that means you need feedback from someone who knows what to say and when to say not to discourage you and also to make your manuscript better.
So, that’s what I would say. Just try and really watch the feedback you’re getting it because it can really waste a lot of time and it can also be discouraging and keep you from really reaching the potential that you have.
And that was one thing with Annalisa and the whole group. It was very positive but also very constructive. You don’t care about positive feedback if it’s not helping you improve.
But that’s the thing. To get that feedback in a supportive environment, I think, really makes the world in terms of pushing forward as a writer. So, that would be my advice.
Andi: That’s fantastic advice.
Vivian: Well, if I could have told younger Vivian…
Andi: If you could time-travel and go back to your old self and be like, “listen, you’re doing this wrong.”
Just, you need to really be, sort of picky about who reads it and when they read it and what kind of information they’ve given.
You know, I paid an agency to go through it. But they really just sort of wanted my money. They didn’t want to help me. And it came out being nothing more than a copy edit, which was supposed to be a developmental edit. So, there are pitfalls out there. And you need to do your research.
And I was really happy to find the Writing Gym and find that that was the help I needed to get this manuscript done.
Thank you so much for sharing Vivian. It’s been fantastic to have you here and to have you share your journey and all your great advice with us.
And my last piece of advice is: don’t give up! Enjoy the process.
I’ve always sort of said, even if I don’t get a book that does very well, the best part of it is going to be, for me. When you were writing and all your friends and neighbors think you’re crazy, ‘cause it’s the fourth year you’re doing it, and you alone believe in in that manuscript and yourself. And that, I think, is the best part of this whole process. In the lonely room in the dark times, you’re pushing forward.
So keep going!
Andi: Don’t give up and always believe in yourself. I like it.
Vivian: Yeah. And in the end, it’s a very wonderful experience.
Andi: Thank you so much for joining us, Vivian.
This is a transcript of the Writing Gym Podcast. To listen to the full episode, go to: www.writing-gym.com/publishNovel