Cynthia Harrison is a fiction writer, poet, blogger, and author of a non-fiction book, Your Words, Your Story. Part creative memoir, part how-to writing manual, Your Words, Your Story was inspired by the creative writing classes Cynthia teaches at a community college.
Cynthia is also author of the popular writing blog, A Writer's Diary, which she founded in 2002. Over the past eight years, A Writer's Diary has provided inspiration and a feeling of connectedness to a community of writers who follow Cynthia's accounts of her daily writing life.
We spoke with Cynthia about some of the craft issues she discusses in her blog.
Q: In your writing blog, you mention that you like to plot out upcoming scenes in bed when you first wake up. Could you describe this process and how it helps you?
A: I seem to wake up thinking about my story, about what will happen next. So I sort of lay there and let it reel out like a film scene and when it’s complete, I get up and write it down. In the revision process, not all of these “waking scenes” work and sometimes I have to cut them, but much of the time, I find these first thoughts of the day to be truly inspiring.
Q: In another blog post, you describe your decision, while working on a mystery novel, to write first and research later. How has this system worked for you?
A: It keeps the momentum of the story going. That’s the positive. The negative is that I drag my heels when it comes to researching during revision, and to be honest, I drag my heels with revision in general.
Q: I was interested by a blog post in which you talk about your decision to start using outlines in your fiction in order to avoid too much revision. Could you talk about the dangers of too much revision and how outlining helps?
A: For me, revising over and over again means reading my story over and over again. I get sick of the story eventually and can hardly bring myself to read it. This doesn’t happen since I’ve learned the value of outlining, which I used to think was boring and would ruin the fun and surprise of writing. Really, it doesn’t. What is more boring is reading and revising a story thirty times. By outlining, I can see enough of the plot structure so that I don’t go off on the wild tangents I used to be so prone to and sometimes spent many drafts revising before I realized they were tangents and not part of the story and cut them after of course polishing every useless word to perfection.
Q: Could you talk about your decision to switch back from writing on a computer to doing some kinds of writing longhand? Do you think writing your fiction longhand changes the results in terms of style/flow/pacing, or in any other way?
A: Longhand allows me to dream on paper. I do so much school work (I teach at a community college) on the computer, and I have my blog, read and socialize on Facebook etc. I write email and comment on blogs, and eventually, somedays, I just burn out on the computer. That’s when I grab my spiral notebook and gel pen, curl up in a cozy chair, and let the words flow. Of course, then I have to type them into the computer, but even so, I find that I revise a bit as I type in the day’s work, and so I’m accomplishing more than it would seem on the surface.
Q: In your writing blog, you say that your biggest challenge as a writer is to face the conflict in your fiction instead of hiding from it. Why is this a particular challenge, and how do you deal with it?
A: I don’t like conflict. I’ve had plenty of it in my life, and I try really hard to keep the ride smooth and mellow. With my personality, and my job, that’s a tough thing to do. So, when I turn to fiction, I always want to give my characters the peace and happiness that is so elusive in my real life.
Q: I like a post in your writing blog in which you talk about people who say they're always too busy to write. Everyone's busy, you point out. How do you schedule your fiction and poetry writing around your other activities such as blogging and teaching?
A: This is so tough. When my boys were small, I wrote poetry and very short stories while they napped. I kept a diary after dark, when they were in bed for the night and it didn’t matter if the words were pretty. When I was a single mom working full time I wrote at night and one weekends when my ex had the kids. We had joint custody, so I had time to stretch my stories out into longer narratives. When I went back to school in my 20s, I wrote term papers with the promise that one day I’d return to fiction. And when I became a teacher, I wrote a novel every single summer. By then my boys were old enough to not really care what I was doing as long as they could ride their bikes and play video games. These days, my children have grown and moved away, and I have a part-time schedule that allows me to write (almost) every day.
Q: What are you working on currently?
A: I have just started receiving messages from two new characters. (Not as woo woo as it sounds. I get ideas, who this person is, her name, her job, her problem. His name, his job, his problem. How they meet.) Right now, I’m just taking notes and trying to shut them up until I get my new classes up and running.
I also have several novels that need either a final polish or a revision. I have two different proposals (synopsis and three chapters) out to two different publishers and if either wants to see a full manuscript, I’ll need to read and revise those books. (One is pretty polished, meaning it is basically done except for maybe some slight cosmetic work, the other needs a week or two of major cutting excess and adding omitted details.) I also have a few other projects I’d like to get in front of editors, one of which is polished and the other a mess.
So, right now, I’m torn. I really want to start the new book, but I also want to revise the book I just finished because I am so in love with it and want to pitch it to editors. I have never done both a revision and a first draft at the same time, but I think this is what I’m going to do. Right after this interview;-)
Did you enjoy this interview with Cynthia Harrison about her writing blog and the writing life? You might also like our interview with Carl Lennertz from HarperCollins about book marketing. And be sure to check out our free creative writing course in fiction.
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