Episode 101B – Diana Zinna – What to do when things look bleak

Overview

I talk with Diane about how to keep writing when things look bleak. Her book was written when her life was at a low point.

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Transcript

[00:28:52] Stephen: Okay, let’s move on to some author stuff. Now, before we get onto our discussion topic, a couple of questions. [00:29:00] You said that book took 12 years between initial concept to getting it published. So what were some things that you learned in that process that you’re doing different?

Now?

[00:29:11] Diana: That’s a great question. For this book in particular, I was working with a lot of things that really occurred to me in my own life at work. Difficult for me to meet at on the page. And a lot of times I was going into it and I was feeling all those feelings again, I’d have to move away.

And I think part of the reason why it took so long, where was that reason? But what I have learned is that we can be like doggy paddling in one chapter for a really long time. We do that a lot, especially at the very beginning. Of a novel or a short story. That’s the first couple of pages.

We work them and we work them over and over again, but we don’t know what the beginning needs to be until we have written the last word of that book or story. And that’s what I’m telling everybody. Now do what [00:30:00] ever you have to do to move forward. Even if it’s sloppy and messy, you need to know how your story ends before you can come back and really know what has to happen in the next.

[00:30:13] Stephen: Yeah. I something I’ve found myself having to write. Getting to midway point and go, oh man, I have no idea where it needs to go. Now I’ve rewritten that 20 times. Yeah, exactly.

[00:30:29] Diana: Exactly. And by the time you get to the end, you’ll know what the book was really about. And maybe you didn’t need that early scene.

Maybe that’s not the right place for the story to begin until you get to the

[00:30:39] Stephen: end. Yes. You’ve gotten rid of the first chapter and made a different one. The first chapter switched chapter and all that. So when you’re writing a, you mentioned you use your laptop and you’ve been in your car, what software and services do you use?

[00:30:54] Diana: I’m only using Microsoft word and Excel. I use Excel a ton. And I’ll explain that in a [00:31:00] moment. Some people have recommended to me, my Scrivener and programs like that, and I’ve just never found them intuitive and think that there’s a learning curve to them. And I just wasn’t patient enough with, and I use word and I just go forward.

If I come upon a question that I find myself tempted to research. Something tempting me to slow down to tread water, doggy paddle for awhile. I’ve learned to park it in an Excel spreadsheet. And so I will acquire a list as I go of things that I want to go back. I know that word wasn’t right.

What is the right word? I put that question in my cell, a document and back to where it and keep going. And for me, this is something that the writer, Elizabeth Strout says a lot. I have a morning of writing and I have an afternoon of right. In the morning, I want to keep moving forward in the afternoon.

I go back to that Excel spreadsheet and I’m doing my editing and there are two different ways [00:32:00] of using my brain and my writing time. And that’s been really helpful for me to keep getting things done. Yeah,

[00:32:06] Stephen: I agree. I’ve I found myself. Yeah. Before I’d get stuck. No, that’s not the right word. No, that’s not the right sentence structure and I’d fiddle with it until I felt good.

I move on, but I always went back and read through an edited chapters anyway, and then finished the whole thing and went back and did them all again, type thing. And I found for me it works if I put down as close as I can get something good, but I know it may not be the last thing. And then keep going, like you said it works best.

Cause I go back and change it. And my brain, my brains looking at it thinking differently and what I missed the first time pops through. And I like, I know a lot of people, a lot of authors use word. I use Scrivener and I talked to another author who uses Scrivener and he didn’t like word for the same reasons.

I didn’t like word. And I’m like, It’s how your [00:33:00] brain works and organizes in how things, because I’ll hear people say, oh, I tried Scribner and it didn’t make sense. And I’m like, what do you mean? It didn’t make sense. It’s perfect. But it’s just how your brain works, Exactly. And speaking of how our brains work I compose mostly in word, like right into the manuscript, but whenever I find myself like coming up short on a scene that I know there’s something more that I have to be digging in to figure it out.

[00:33:26] Diana: I will go to pen and paper and just write long hand. Typically I’m setting a timer for myself if 10 minutes, 20 minutes NSA for the next 10 minutes, I’m going to dive as deeply as I can into this one scene and stay there and I’ll write maybe four pages long hand and then go back with a highlighter and choose one or two sentences that really weren’t.

And I bring those back into the manuscripts, but as the long handwriting, I feel it really allows me to take deeper.

[00:33:58] Stephen: Nice. And [00:34:00] I think a lot of authors need to learn that type of lesson too. So it’s a good thing to hear from other people. Don’t think you have to write the perfect first draft. Yes.

So you’re, you chose an interesting topic for us to discuss a little bit and that’s picking yourself back up and keeping going. So why did you choose that? And what are you thinking when you say something like that to another author or what you would like to say to the other author?

[00:34:30] Diana: I think that my whole writing life has been teaching me that lesson over and over.

I think two things. If that you’re meant to do this, I know a lot of your viewers are writers themselves, but if you know that this was how you were made you’ve got like a flame in you that is not going to go out and you have to nurture that and fan it and keep it going. Cause for a lot of people, it is just a hobby.

It’s just a goal of selling becoming a [00:35:00] best-selling author and making tons of money. I Now people who are meant to do this are built differently and they have this drive now to bring the kids, bring them back to their stories, to the page. And first of all, claiming that, no, this is something that you are meant to do and believing that with everything in you.

And the question that you asked was.

[00:35:20] Stephen: For the picking yourself back up, down and keeping going.

[00:35:27] Diana: That’s what I wanted to talk about. So first is that fleet you recognize as inside of you? The other thing is that you never know what’s around the corner. So I mentioned that the book took 12 years, but in those 12 years, the book.

Had some interests from editors, and it was actually acquired by another publishing house. And before it was published by random house no many years ago he got picked up and we got pretty far into the process. And then the editor who had fallen in love with it, took a job in a [00:36:00] publishing house.

And my contract was. The first publishing house, not with her. And so she moved on and I was assigned a new editor and I thought, okay, this is going to be fine. Yeah. I was just to know, figure this out. We’ll just keep going forward. But she had a very different vision for the book and she said, I love your book.

I love it. But what if we pulled it apart and tell it as a very linear story, because the way that it is now and the way it started out, it’s very back and forth in time. So I feel like that’s how memory works and in a lot of cases, that’s how grief works. And that felt true to me, but she’s no, let’s just tell it a straight in line.

First, this happened, then this and this. And I said, okay I’ll give it a try. I want it to be the good author. And so I spent about five months pulling my book apart and Frankensteining it back together in this way that I thought would please her. I didn’t want to lose that book to y’all.

And then she canceled the book. Didn’t [00:37:00] even write to me, wrote my agent it’s still not working, so we’re going to have to cancel and it really taught me the lesson about what kind of book would you write? Self publish, whatever it may be, if nothing was guaranteed to you if your dreams that are the way that you’ve always dreamed them, weren’t going to come true.

What would you make that story be? Around that time, I was scheduled to go to this really prestigious writer’s conference. And then another book had been canceled and I called him up on the phone and I said, I don’t think you want me there anymore. I’m a failure, and then no. So I forced myself to go and I was there for two weeks and it felt like imposter syndrome times, 1000, like every room I was in, I just felt like I was nothing.

My book had been canceled, was wrong with me. I’ll never make it, that kind of thing. But I was assigned a fantastic mentor. She’s the author, Alice McDermott. I’m really well known writer and she [00:38:00] told me. After Christina a lot on my behalf. Now you have to put that book together the way that you believe in it and when your book comes out, no, one’s going to think, oh, that was the book that was supposed to come out three years ago.

It’ll feel like a book of its time. And for its time said take however long it takes you to make it yours. And so I did that and it took me more than a year to pull it back apart, begin of the first word again and rewrite it in a way that felt like me. And I thought this thing has been tainted. Everyone in New York knows that my book was canceled.

No one’s going to pick it up. But my agents did by me. My agent angel and she sold it again. And this time to an editor who really got it, who can talk to me about my characters, like they’re friends that we had always known, and it feels really generative and really beautiful and better than I could’ve [00:39:00] ever dreamed.

And so I want your writer listeners to know, is I just, when things look the bleakest. You never know as waiting around the corner, if VHS open that laptop again, keep going a little bit more, but most importantly, believe in your vision and your voice.

[00:39:18] Stephen: Yeah, I totally agree. I love that. And I, the one thing you said that stuck out to me, there was you were you rewrote it, trying to please her that’s right there.

From the outside looking in that’s the red flag. It’s no stop. You really shouldn’t be trying to please her because it didn’t turn out good. Anyway your chances after that first time of making it turn out good were probably way lower than you thought they were. Yeah.

[00:39:44] Diana: Especially for like newer authors, like we don’t know what we don’t know. And so if someone who is in this like really high level position is saying, oh, this is how it should be. We’re like, oh, okay. I’ll try to fix that for you. But so much of writing is our [00:40:00] arts and we know that we know so much more than we think we do.

You have to trust that.

[00:40:05] Stephen: It’s a few people not everybody has to agree or like your book. That’s fine. You got to find the ones that do you know? I think we miss that. Sometimes I’m working with an editor who actually worked on the divergent series. So I was like, oh, experience. And we get along well and click.

But earlier several years ago I had a book coach that when everything. I was like, ma’am think about this. And I was just like, what the heck? First, it was like, what’s wrong with me then? I’m like, no, we’re just not clicking. I couldn’t do better. But her suggestions aren’t, what’s helping me. You definitely got to fill in as another example I’ve talked with J D Barker who has written with James Patterson. I’ve mentioned a few books and genres that he isn’t even interested in [00:41:00] reading doesn’t want to, he has totally different interests and James Patterson himself, I don’t care for I’ve read his books. And so if I was the very first person that Patterson gave a book to, to read, when he wrote his first book, I said, what do you think of this?

I said, I don’t care for it. He could have said I’m never going to write again, but now It has big popular as he is. I don’t buy his book. Surrito so people need to remember that sometimes too. It’s hard though. When you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to pull yourself out and see that.

Now you mentioned the grief and working with grief to me, feeling like everything’s against you. Like you can’t write well is very similar to grief. That you feel like the world’s stopping, that you feel like everything’s against you similar type feelings from, I would say so with the experience you do have, what are some other tips?

Some things [00:42:00] people can do actionable items to help move themselves past this point of, oh my God. I’m never go be a good writer or, oh my God, this all sucks. And I don’t want to do this or whatever.

[00:42:10] Diana: You mentioned a couple of things there. I think the first thing is it’s, for me, it’s always been timed writing. I mentioned that a little bit ago on those days that you feel like you just don’t have it in you, that you aren’t meant to do this set a timer for three minutes.

Open up the page and say, I’m going to write something for three minutes. And even if it’s your own name over and over again, because sometimes it’s just about shaking it off and clearing a channel you won’t be writing your name for three minutes. I guarantee you, as soon as your pen starts moving, your brain is going to want to produce something and it’s going to want to produce something of value.

So for me, I’ve been working on a memoir for awhile about my cousin who. And I lived her life, mostly as someone who was homeless on the [00:43:00] streets of Portland, Oregon. And she had been born deaf and she was drug addicted and she battled mental illness. And memoirs about our relationship how she sought me out on Facebook of all things, when she needed someone to be her medical, next of kin, we had never met before that.

But I agreed to do it and we became very close then at the end of her life. But that was a really hard story for me to tell. And when I would try to tell it, because it was so close to real life and so close to the actual thing happened. Sometimes it wasn’t coming out the way I want it to. And I felt like I wasn’t doing her justice and I desperately wanted to honor her with my words.

And so very early on in that process, I turned to timed writing and said, I’m going to defer for five minutes, and I would usually smash the timer off when it went off. Cause I was in the middle of it. And it was feeling good. But there were some days where I felt like I cannot get started.

Maybe one minute and just doing it in little bits and [00:44:00] pieces it can reconnect you with, yes, your words have value. Your voice has value. You can do this. This was meant for you, but it can also help you through traumatic, difficult material. And so most of that memoir and I’m right around the 200 page mark now has been written and he’s five minute bursts.

And I think it’s been such a beautiful thing to see it come together in these very short little pieces that I was able to manage on that day.

[00:44:29] Stephen: Nice. You also mentioned a mentor that helped you. Do you think at the time that you would have been able to keep going on your own or did you really need that mentor at the time that point you in the right direction?

[00:44:43] Diana: I think in that case, and I think a lot of people can relate to this. We are ready for mentors when they arrive like we meet somebody and we’re just ready for them to save the thing that we need to hear. And then they say it and they’re like, okay, I’m good. And you’re able to move forward.

So we have to be ready to [00:45:00] receive. People are going to give to us. And I think I really was as sad as I was about losing the book. That first time I was ready for someone to tell me, pick yourself up. It’s time to go. That said I had a long career in like literary arts administration.

And I actually created a mentorship program back in 2014, where I had the privilege of matching up and coming writers with established authors. Over 600 writers. I connected over during that time and no people who really wanted a mentor to help them through and mentors who really wanted to give back whether, because they had someone like that in their life, or because they’d never had someone like that.

And they knew how different it could have been if they had someone in their corner. And so that was really wonderful to see. And there’s so many reasons why people seek out mentors and so many people reasons why people want to give of themselves that way. And it was just such a wonderful [00:46:00] thing to see all the permutations of that.

[00:46:02] Stephen: Nice. And that’s in what we were saying that sometimes people need that outside person to point out to them, Hey, look what you have done. I, it’s hard sometimes to do that yourself. And I think a lot of the people I talk to. They’re there. They feel like they owe years because they have a family.

They have a day job and they can’t write every day. They’re not getting 5,000 words a day, or they’re not writing a book a month and publishing and on. You gotta reality check sometimes and realize your life, your choices are different than others. So even the fact that you’re writing is I would say.

A step above most people cause most people are like, yeah, I want to write a book someday.

[00:46:47] Diana: Yeah, absolutely. That’s so important, Steven. And you were saying I was just mentioning that sometimes we’re ready to hear it from a mentor. There’ll be in the final edit, give us what we need to hear so we can take it to the next level.

[00:47:00] And if anyone needs it, I’ll be your mentor right now. And I will tell you. That you do not need to write every day. If you have a family, other obligations, a job, you probably have a really interesting life, very rich life with lots going on. And from all of those areas of your life, you can be drawing things constantly into your mind, into your heart and through your subconscious, that will eventually work their way out in these disguised and interesting ways in your writing.

And so I know a writer who only writes on Sundays and I know a writer. Gives her all to her community college students during the year, the academic year. And she only writes in the summers and they’re doing perfectly fine. This idea of you have to sit your butt down in the chair every day, or you’re not a real writer.

I don’t buy it at all. Our brains are always working behind the scenes to make sense of story and we’re always writing, even if we’re not pencil paper and you start to believe that

[00:47:58] Stephen: I agree. [00:48:00] That does make you a real writer, a, an author. I know there was a conversation, a group of authors had about what makes a career author.

I think the only difference is a real writer, a real author and a career author is just the career author wants to make a living with writing as their job, whereas you can still be. A professional writer, a quote-unquote real writer and have a job, have a family there’s different avenues and different choices, especially with self-publishing nowadays.

And look at you, you spent 12 years and you still get your book published by random house. That was your goal. So it’s possible. And we shouldn’t be held back by our misconceptions and misbeliefs.

All right. Dan, this has been a wonderful conversation. I’ve loved talking to you this afternoon and I love your background. It almost looks like a zoom background.

[00:48:58] Diana: It’s great. Thank you. [00:49:00] Yeah, it looks a little bit like stay in class. I’ve got a friend who’s a horror novelist and she has the same background, but it’s black.

And so it looks like she has like cobwebs behind her, which I think is really cool.

[00:49:11] Stephen: So before we go do you have any last minute advice for new authors? Anything other than what we’ve already talked about?

[00:49:17] Diana: For new others, just start connecting. Yeah, start connecting with other writers. However, you can, even if you’re in an area where you feel like there aren’t any writing centers near you you’re shy.

You feel like you can’t really join an online writing group. If you read a book that you come to love, reach out to that author of your, their website. Almost every author has a website now and a contact form and just tell them why you love them. You’ll be surprised at how many of those little emails develop into conversations.

You might find mentors, you might find connections to new resources, but allow yourself to be open to the world of the writing community because it’s out there waiting to [00:50:00] be there for you.

[00:50:01] Stephen: Nice. Great. Thank you. All right. Diane, I appreciate taking the time. I appreciate you telling everybody about your book has been really great.

Thank you.

[00:50:11] Diana: You have a wonderful day. I appreciate you. You too.

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