www.KarenWiesner.com, www.FirstDraftin30Days.com, www.falconsbend.com, and www.JewelsoftheQuill.com. You can also sign up for Karen's free e-mail newsletter, Karen's Quill, and become eligible for her monthly book giveaways, by sending a blank e-mail to KarensQuillemail@example.com.
Interview by Elizabeth King Humphrey
WOW: Welcome to The Muffin, Karen! You are obviously successful at writing novels. Why did you decide to turn your skills to books on the craft of writing novels?
Karen: Fiction writing is the heart of who I am as a writer. Not writing simply isn’t an option for me. I have to. It’s as vital as breathing. Even if I’d never gotten published, I would always write if for no one else but myself. Nonfiction, I admit, I write for others, not so much for myself. I realize there’s a need for this crucial information, and I’m happy to provide it for any author who requests it. Having it in book format is convenient and sometimes profitable, lol, but whenever anyone writes to me asking for advice, I respond. To me, it’s a way of giving back to all the generous, experienced authors who helped me along the way.
WOW: Well, we're so glad you decided to give back! Your books are truly helpful. So how long did you write before you discovered what worked?
Karen: I wrote my first book when I was ten years old. That was the summer my family was in Oklahoma, and we discovered this abandoned old trailer with photographs all over the floor. Both my sister (author Linda Derkez) and I got a ton of ideas from looking at these pictures, speculating about who’d lived there and what happened to them. That was the summer I knew I was destined to be a writer. I started brainstorming romances, thrillers, and mysteries in my head. By the time I was sixteen, I’d written almost a dozen books and short stories, and countless poems (one of which was published).
My first book was published in 1997 (Leather & Lace, which has been newly revised and reissued in paperback and electronic formats)—after about ten years of writing. It was then that I realized my seat-of-the-pants method of writing every book from start to finish at least twelve times (taking months and months to complete each of these) was too inefficient. Because once I had a first draft, I always started with the hard part of the writing process. I got the comparably easy part of the way with this directionless first draft and left myself with the torturous work of untangling, sorting out, revising and polishing 400 or more pages—many times, more than once! Sometimes I felt like I spent all my time revising. If I wanted my career to have the momentum necessary to be a success, something had to change.
WOW: Oh gosh, I think many of us have been there with the endless revision stage. What is one of the most essential pieces of advice about novel writing that you think could benefit beginning novel writers?
Karen: Many authors fear that using an outline will kill their enthusiasm for writing the book. In fact, the biggest reason authors don’t use an outline is because of a misplaced fear that their creativity will be hampered or caged by this guide. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve never felt stifled by an outline. Just the opposite, in fact. The outline frees me to explore every aspect of a book—without risk. It allows my ideas (and my characters) to come to life on their own and grow. An outline is an absolutely ideal place to explore new characters and story threads. Use your outline to explore any angle you want. If new characters crop up, wonderful! Include them. If they’re not right for the story, getting rid of them won’t take you much time at all. Explore a new story thread—follow wherever it takes you. If it’s a logical thread, keep it. If it’s not, delete it.
WOW: How have the processes you describe in your books helped you to become so prolific?
Karen: Both of my Writer’s Digest books, First Draft in 30 Days and From First Draft to Finished Novel: A Writer’s Guide to Cohesive Story Building, work together perfectly, and those who have read and used both methods say the same. Used together, they really are like a well-oiled machine focused on productivity, high-quality, and unending momentum. Used together, these are the secrets of how I became so prolific. Incidentally, between these two books, I cover every single stage of writing a book in-depth and step-by-step, so each aspect is detailed from start to finish.
First Draft in 30 Days is outlining and doing it in such a way that the outline is actually the first draft of the book. The initial time I actual go to write the book is similar to my second draft—and generally it does read like a polished manuscript.
One thing From First Draft to Finished Novel really targets is the importance of working in stages. I can’t stress how crucial this is for all authors. In an ideal situation, a writer goes through the following nine stages to get a finished novel:
4. Setting aside the project
5. Writing the first draft
6. Setting aside
8. Setting aside
9. Editing and polishing (preferably after critique partners have gone over it)
On my website, you’ll find a page that includes my annual works in progress and accomplishments. I encourage writers to visit this page because you’ll really see how well these methods work. I never work on these stages back to back on the same book because that would kill my enthusiasm for the project and wouldn’t be able to progress another layer with it. I would be intimidated about working on the project so exclusively that I can barely get myself to look at it anymore.
There are only three things writers need to do to be productive:
1) Work in stages. (Anyone can learn this, given a little time, and it’s simply logical to work this way. There’s nothing magical or even “hard-wired” about it!)
2) Use annual goals and project goals sheets. (Not difficult to learn at all. First Draft in 30 Days has templates for both of these worksheets and you’ll find a link below to PDF copies of them at the end of this interview.)
3) Sit down and do the work. (No magic formula for this one either, but I play head-games with myself all the time to get my work done. For instance, I tell myself that if finish the work I’m supposed to this morning, I can play a computer or X-Box game all afternoon. Believe me, that’s a huge motivation for me. Find something that motivates you. Motivation lights a fire inside you the way simply lecturing yourself can’t.)
To be fair, I write full-time, and a lot of authors don’t have that luxury. Even still, you can really see using this system that, even if you have only 1 or 2 hours per day to work, you’ll always be progressing and building very solid, high-quality stories. Conceivably, you could double your output in a year’s time while doing some of the best writing you’ve ever done in your life.
WOW: What do you want WOW readers to know about you and your work—both craft books and novels?
Karen: I don’t ever believe you should do more work than you need to. I’ve always said this about my writing methods. If you find yourself getting bogged down (either by the amount of time allotted—too much or too little—to each step, or by an ability to progress with a step), move on to the next step. If you don’t need to follow a particular step in the process because you’ve already done it or it would just be unnecessary for you, you shouldn’t do it. All of this stuff is designed to get writers thinking about areas that they’ve always seen as part of a whole, but that they’ve never before separated from the whole. In the beginning, you may need to perform all of those steps, filling out endless worksheets, etc., as you learn how to sufficiently develop each aspect of a book. The point of all writing methods is to find out how you work best—take what you can, discard the rest—and your goal should always be to get to an instinctive form of working.
Once you’ve used a method like the ones in my two books often enough, you’ll find that a lot of the writing process has become instinctive for you. You’ll understand the importance of solid characterization now, whereas you may have been flying blind before. You’ll comprehend how well-placed descriptions can enhance all the other parts of a book.
Because so much of this has become instinctive for you, you may not have to formally complete setting sketches or plot sketches, etc., anymore. You’ll do those things within the framework of your research and then within the outlining. I promise you, you won’t always have to fill out so many worksheets and checklists to accomplish this—unless you want to continue with them.
The longer you write, the more books you finish, the easier it should become. We grow more adept in our writing the longer we do it. My books First Draft in 30 Days and From First Draft to Finished Novel can give you a solid plan of action to follow until you’ve reached the instinctive stage on your own. If you’ve never written a book before, you’ll need the direction both of my books (and plenty of others) can give you.
If you simply can’t get some portion of your book to work, then all the checklists and exercises should help you figure out where your story is stuck or going wrong. But only do what you feel benefits you and your story. That said, I believe an outline is a crucial layer in developing every story. I don’t really think you can “instinctively” grow out of needing one of those because it’s really the ideal place the hard work of writing a book should be done.
- Check out my column, “From One Author to Another” on Savvy Authors
- View or download five worksheets from First Draft in 30 Days
- View or download five checklists From First Draft to Finished Novel
- Later this year, I’ll be offering tutorials for both of these books from Writer’s Digest Tutorials
My newest writing reference is Writing the Fiction Series: The Guide for Novels and Novellas available now from Writer’s Digest Books. The definitive guide to crafting a series! With insights from nearly 100 series authors and publishers, as well as "Grow Your Series Muscles" exercises, Writing the Fiction Series is the only book you'll need to write a series that sizzles. Also look for the companion tutorial from Writer’s Digest Tutorials.
Elizabeth King Humphrey is a writer, editor, coach, and reviewer. She earned her MFA at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and has a certificate in editing from the University of Chicago Graham School. She is currently writing a book about gluten-free eating.