Thursday, September 18, 2014

My Writing Process

The next stop on our blog tour is Grants Pass, Oregon—a small town nestled on the banks of the Rogue River.  It’s a picturesque place surrounded by the Siskiyou and Cascade Mountain ranges—an ideal setting for the writing life to unfold.

I’ve been passed the torch for this “My Writing Process” blog by the very talented Helen Hanson, author of three technothrillers including 3 LIES, #1 on Amazon’s Best Technothrillers list. All that fame, and she's a really nice person, too. Check out Helen’s work here:

What am I working on? 

While I have been writing fiction for more than a decade, Wellstone Press published my first collection of Poems, A Question of Mortality, earlier this summer.  As most of you know, poetry rarely makes any money. It is a labor of love—a passion that rises out of a need to understand more about our lives and how we choose to live them.

While giving public readings and actively marketing the poetry collection, I’ve been rewriting my novel, Redemption Lake. Liz Kracht, of Kimberly Cameron Agency, is representing this novel. Our first series of submissions brought 7 rejections. I’ve read each one of them carefully, trying to find a common denominator and understand the reasons for the rejections. Once I had a firm handle on the problem, I asked Liz for the opportunity to rewrite before our second round of submissions. 

It’s been a fascinating process and I’ve had to revise a character I thought I knew well, digging deeper into what makes him uniquely Matthew Garrison. Matt is a seventeen-year-old boy, a poet, who is in love with Crystal Reynolds, a thirty-three year old woman and the mother of Matt’s best friend.  After the worst night of his life, Matt visits Crystal, finally tells her the truth about his feelings. They drink too many beers and before the night is over, they have sex. Matt is happier than he’s ever been. Crystal is horrified by what they’ve done and insists this can never happen again. She takes Matt’s keys and makes him sleep off the beer before driving. When he awakens, he finds Crystal murdered. 

I’m nearly finished this rewrite and I think I’ve addressed the problem of editors not connecting with Matt as deeply as they wanted to. Unraveling a character to get to his core emotions is not always easy—because in doing so, writers are forced to confront many of our own demons.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I write family dramas, often encased in a mystery:

A seventeen-year-old, estranged from her father and stepmother, is babysitting her two-year-old half sister, Emily, when she is kidnapped from Ashland’s Lithia Park playground.

A teenager who murders her rapist father, disappears, renames and reinvents herself. Twenty years later, she is living a good life as the wife of a medical school dean, when their five year-old son is diagnosed with a chemotherapy-resistant leukemia and needs a bone-marrow transplant to survive. She must go back to rural Kentucky, find her birth family,  and face murder charges in an attempt to save her son.

Unlike a typical mystery, where the primary concern is to find the perpetrator, I am equally concerned with the family dynamics and how tragedy unravels each life and forces the character to confront their inner demons and grow in ways they didn’t believe possible.

Why do I write what I do? 

At a recent PNWC (Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference) I listened to Bob Dugoni give a keynote address in which he asked us to write down some of the things that have defined us as individuals.

I am defined by my family of origin, by growing up with four brothers near the Delaware River and by having a father crippled by a grenade during World War II. Though I was neither conceived nor born at the time of his injury, I was and continue to be defined by it in some important ways. Two of my brothers died at thirty-nine. One a suicide, the other a victim of a hit and run accident. My mother was a southerner, with a beautiful singing voice. I believe much of my poetry arose from the sound of her voice filling places that would otherwise be dark. I am defined by my two children and the many lessons they taught me about life and what it means to be human. 

Perhaps the first requirement for good writing is some kind of truth—a connection between what is being written about and the author’s own experience in the world of fact, dream and imagination. I was grateful for Bob Dugoni’s exercise and pleased to realize I am writing what I was born to write—Family Dramas. 

How does my writing process work? 

I rarely start a novel without knowing how it is going to end. Often an ending is implicit in the beginning—so the two are symbiotic and the beginning needs the ending to proceed. In the writing of my last few novels, and I suspect all future ones, I write a “step sheet”. In this document, I give a brief summary of what happens in the scene, how it moves the story forward, and how the characters are changed by the events of the scene. I usually have about 60-70 steps before I start to write the novel.  These steps are not cast in stone and they change frequently. But it is much easier to throw out a paragraph than it is to dump a 20-page scene.  Doing a step sheet allows me to see the manuscript it its entirety.  I indicate the growth for each of my characters (pole to pole--so they are dramatically changed by the events of the novel.) And one of the most helpful tools for me in writing a novel is the central dramatic story question. (CDQ)
Will Catherine Henry face a past in which she murdered her rapist father in order to save the life of her 5-year-old son?  Once I have the CDQ in place, I use it as a guide for what should and should not be in the novel.  Each scene in the novel should be propelling us toward the answer to that question.  It saves a lot of unnecessary work, cutting and rewriting.  

When I decide to write the opening line of a novel, I have a strange, but necessary ritual. I put on my writer’s cap and sit at the kitchen table with a yellow-lined tablet. I always write the first line in longhand—searching for a hook, a sentence that raises a story question and will entice the reader to go on. I may fill several pages with “first lines” until I find the perfect one. Once I have it, I head to the computer and don’t write another line in long-hand until it is time to start the next novel.  I know it’s weird. Writers are weird and usually proud of it. 

Who’s Next?

It is my pleasure to introduce you to Peter Hogenkamp, a Vermont physician, husband, father of four and author of The Jesuit Thriller series. Several months ago, Peter started a website called Prose & Cons  where industry professionals and authors, most of them represented by Liz Kracht of Kimberly Cameron, come together to share their writing lives and insights in blogs that are posted on a daily basis.  Check it out.  And learn more about Peter at

Susan Clayton-Goldner was born in New Castle, Delaware and grew up with four brothers along the banks of the Delaware River. She is a graduate of the University of Arizona's Creative Writing Program. Susan has been writing most of her life. Her novels have been finalists for The Hemingway Award, the Heeken Foundation Fellowship, the Writers Foundation and the Publishing On-line Contest where she received a thousand dollar prize. Susan won the National Writers' Association Novel Award twice for unpublished novels and her poetry was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Susan's novels are currently represented by Elizabeth Kracht of the Kimberly Cameron Agency. 

Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies including Animals as Teachers and Healers, published by Ballantine Books, Our Mothers/Ourselves, by the Greenwood Publishing Group, The Hawaii Pacific Review-Best of a Decade, and New Millennium Writings. Prior to moving to Oregon and writing full time, Susan worked as the Director of Corporate Relations for University Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona. 

Susan shares a life in Grants Pass, Oregon with her husband, Andreas, a blue-eyed feline named Topaz, her fictional characters, and more books than one person could count. You can learn more about Susan on her website:


Sue Coletta said...

I really like your idea of writing first lines longhand. I might "borrow" that from you, in your honor of course.

Unknown said...

Nice piece. I think a measure of truth is needed in all art.

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