Writer’s Inspiration: Barbara Monajem

Hi everyone,

I am delighted to host Dorchester debut author Barbara Monejam today. She talks about writing the “perfect” book!

Marie-Claude asked me to write something inspiring for writers. So, here goes:

In order to be a successful author, you have to write a perfect book.

 (Marie-Claude shrieks and drags me off the stage. Uh, off the blog, I mean. You couldn’t pay me to get up on a stage.

 “You’re supposed to give writers inspiration!” she hisses. “Not desperation! Are you deaf?”

 Um, actually, yeah, a little. When it’s convenient, at least. “Unhand me!” I cry. “I’m not done!”

 So, because Marie-Claude is such a sweetheart – I’m steadfastly ignoring her muttered threats – she lets me have another try.)

Deep breath.

First, let me qualify that statement: there is no such thing as a perfect book; or, to see it from another angle, there are many, many perfect books. What keeps one person glued to her chair reading until the candles gutter makes someone else yawn or toss the book into the fire. We all have it in us to write a perfect book; we just have to learn, for each of us as writers, what perfection means. 

Second, I’m not talking about financial success, which is elusive for most of us and unreliable for almost everyone. I’m talking about producing a work of art.

Writers of genre fiction are in the entertainment business, and business and art are somewhat at odds, because the goal of business is to make money, while art is an expression of something the artist considers significant, and often the goal is to make an impact, whether esthetic, emotional, or both. Business concerns can lead us to focus too much on the craft side of writing and to minimize the art. Which is unfortunate, because when it comes right down to it, a really, really good book is primarily a work of art.

Not that we should ignore craft. On the contrary: you don’t become a Shakespeare without mastering the basics – grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and so on. Then there are the more advanced aspects of craft – plot, subplots, turning points, scenes, beats; narrative and dialogue; characters, their goals, and their arcs; and on and on. Most writers excel naturally at some aspects of writing craft and have to work hard at others. (Plot is often difficult for me, especially endings. I’m on the third try at a satisfactory ending for a book that’s more or less overdue, and I’m SO thankful I have daughters to brainstorm with and a laid-back editor with great ideas. But I digress.)

Above and beyond craft, and in spite of business (which has a tedious but understandable tendency to want to repeat what worked before), we have the other aspect – the art of writing. Voice is probably the most obvious manifestation of art. Your voice is a combination of your world view and the way you express it. (If you get a chance to take one of Barbara Samuel’s workshops on voice, do so. I only took a short workshop, but it was amazingly revealing.) The more you discover and accept who you are and what you want to say, the more your voice will ring true. 

The more craft you learn, the more you know which craft guidelines work for you and where the art aspect fits into your writing. (Jennifer Crusie’s guidelines are my favorites by far.) Because plot is difficult for me, I try (with a certain amount of resentment) to do some plotting ahead of time, even if it’s just first turning point, second turning point, and black moment. You’d think that would be easy, wouldn’t you? Nope. Not for me. I want to fly into the mist and see what happens. So I compromise by starting with a vague idea, writing a few chapters, and then forcing myself to figure out at least the skeleton of a plot before leaping into the mist again, this time (hopefully) with a flicker of fog-light to guide me.

I refuse to do this with characters. Some writers do spreadsheets where they figure out every detail about a character before they even start writing. I’m not dissing this approach – obviously it works well for some authors – but frankly, it bores me silly. My characters just walk onto the page and start doing stuff. They’d scoff at a spreadsheet. They aren’t easy to control, but they’re exciting to work with and full of surprises. I love those surprises. For me, working with what just comes – rather than with what I plan – is the art part of writing. Eventually, I have to make sure the character arcs make sense and that the secondary characters don’t muscle in and make the story theirs, but at not at first, when there’s too much risk of losing something that really pops.

I guess what I’m saying is that for each of us, some aspects of writing come on the wings of a muse. We should treasure that. We can’t afford to let business and craft get in the way as we strive to write perfect books. Obviously, perfection is relative. What’s the acme of accomplishment for you or me right now might not be so a year or five years hence, but that doesn’t matter. Work with your craft, but allow your muse, your voice and your world view free rein through your art, and you will write *your* perfect book – something you can stand back and look at, like an artist with a finished painting, and feel the joy and satisfaction of knowing you got it right.

 Thanks Barbara.

This is something I struggle with. I want so much to write a perfect book that I forget that it has to be “my” perfect book.

Please everyone, let us know what is your own definition of your perfect book for a chance to win a copy of SUNRISE IN A GARDEN OF LOVE & EVIL.

29 Responses to Writer’s Inspiration: Barbara Monajem

  1. Marisa Birns says:

    Whew. Thank you for changing the desperation into inspiration as quickly as you did!

    A perfect book is one that allows a reader to enter its fictive dream and miss it when the story is over.


  2. Barbara,

    I love your forthrightness! Spreadsheets bore me silly, too.

    I posted my blogsite instead of a website because I’ve a guest today, too. Kelly A Harmon (Blood Soup) posted about whether or not a writer can multi-task. You’d be welcome to cross post on my blog and blurb yours.

    Thanks for mentioning Jennifer Crusie’s tips. I must look at them today. Jacqueline Lichtenberg is blogging about tips on aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com tomorrow!


  3. Emily Bryan says:

    The right way to write a book is however makes sense to the writer’s mind. Glad you’ve found what works for you, Barbara.

    I’m a linear pantser. Writing a synopsis is torture because I discover the story as I write it. I do know the major plot points ahead of time (usually), but if I write them down, they seem flat without my characters to lead the way to each of them.

    Because romance is about the relationship, it’s hard for me to reduce that progression from one heart to another to a meaningful synopsis. So I end up with the action/adventure parts of the story in the synopsis, when the real meat of the story is the delicate dance of two souls.

    Fortunately editors seem to realize this and make allowances.


  4. Marisa said, “…and miss it when the story is over.” Yes! That’s exactly what I want as both author and reader. Thank you for expressing it so well.


  5. Nancy Northcott says:

    Barbara, this is a wonderful post.

    I used to be a complete pantser. I’ve since started doing a synopsis and outline with turning points but give myself permission to follow any intriguing trails that appear. I love action, so I try to be sure the story’s emotional turning points coincide with something big in the plot.


  6. Lynn Romaine says:

    Good post – ditto on all of that – writing comes from who we are ‘being’ about our story, not the mechanics (but the mechanics need to be there in the background). Loved your view of this – lynn romaine


  7. Rowena – Thanks! I enjoyed Kelly’s post.

    I’ve collected Jenny Crusie’s tips over the years, so I’m not sure what you’ll find on her site. Her workshops are great!


  8. Emily – Nice to know another linear pantser! And thank heavens for understanding editors.


  9. Nancy — “Intriguing trails” — exactly!

    I can tell you love action, because you write it so well.


  10. Lynn – thanks! Glad you enjoyed the post.


  11. The only time you can call your book “done” and therefore perfect is when it hits the shelves…at that point there is no use fretting over whether the book was ready. Before that…it is all about tweaking your work to make it the best it can be.

    Thanks for the great post, Barbara! It is almost as fabulous as your book.


  12. Barbara, I can sooo relate. Characters some to and tell their stories. Sometimes they lie to me and to themselves until they learn the truth or believe I am ready for the truth.
    I begin with a what if a person and go from there.

    A perfect book for me is one that draws me into the story and keeps me reading well past the time I need to go to bed. My perfect books make me smile and cry during the story.


  13. Mary Ricksen says:

    I can relate to everything you said Barbara. You put it on paper perfectly. The trials and tribulations of an author huh?


  14. Joelle – LOL. I try to avoid re-reading anything that’s already final, because I’ll be sure to want to tweak it anyway.

    Mary M – I love the concept of your characters lying to you and to themselves!

    Mary R – At least the tribulations have a good end result!


  15. Terrific thoughts, Barbara! I heard someone say in a workshop once that even the best writers’ books have “flaws.” It all depends on what you mean by flawed. I like what you said: “We all have it in us to write a perfect book; we just have to learn, for each of us as writers, what perfection means.” That gives me hope.

    While I’m more of a plotter, I have to agree with what you said about characters. I hate those spreadsheets (for characterization, that is). As if a human being – even a fictional one – could be summed up in one of them!

    My perfect book? I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.


  16. Linsey wrote: My perfect book? I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

    What’s so cool about that is that one can have many favorite authors and many favorite books, but they’re all different! The varieties of perfection are just wonderful.


  17. Mariska says:

    My perfect book is when a reader can feel what the characters feel, can describe in their own mind the places, the situations that they read like in the stories.
    The Author that wrote the book can make the reader Want to believe that the story is real, even the story is only an Author’s wild imagination 🙂


  18. Mariska – Isn’t it fascinating how real the products of the imagination can become?


  19. Caitlin Usignol says:

    I think a perfect book is when you can relate to the heroine.


  20. Caitlin – Yes! And my favorite heroines are often the ones I would like to have as a friend.


  21. I’m with you, Barbara. My characters just start talking and I write down what they tell me, or I’m very sorry. 🙂


  22. Saranna – LOL. There seem to be a lot of tyrannical characters out there. 🙂 But they’re definitely fun to hang with.


  23. Florina says:

    That was so right on. Great post. Thanks.

    Florina Craven


  24. Thanks, Florina! It’s a relief to know my post makes sense to many people.


  25. Donna Hatch says:

    To me the perfect book is when I identify with the heroine, fall in love with the hero, and close the book with a happy sigh.
    Thanks for reconfirming that it’s okay to start a book with little to no preplanned plot.


  26. Kit Donner says:

    Thanks for the blog Barbara. My perfect book is where every sigh, every tear is earned honestly. Not just the characters are believable but also what happens in the plot. Writing historicals, it could be easy to give your hero and heroine more 21st century ideals, but if, as a reader, you know the period, you’ll just shake your head and say, ‘It would never happen.’


  27. Hi, Donna – Looking forward to seeing you at the Pink Fuzzy Slipper Writers on Friday!

    Kit – LOL, yes, I do shake my head at some historicals. It’s quite a challenge to make a story believable historically yet appealing to modern readers.


  28. A perfect book is one where I don’t nortice how brilliant or poetic the writing is because I am emotionally involved with the characters and enthralled by the story taking place.


  29. And the winner is:
    Lynn Romaine 🙂


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