Alexandra Amor is the award-winning author of a memoir about the 10 years she spent in a cult in the 1990s, as well as several mystery novels for both adults and children. She’s an Author Mindset Mentor, helping new, nervous, and stuck writers get out of their own way and get their writing out into the world.
Matty Dalrymple: Welcome to Episode 7 of the Indy Author Podcast. Today my guest is Alexandra Amor. Welcome, Alexandra.
Alexandra Amor: Thank you so much for having me today, Matty.
Matty: It’s my pleasure. I wanted to start out with you just giving a little bit of background about what Faster Fiction is about. Then I’m going to delve into your tag line, “Write more, suffer less,” which I think is the greatest tag line ever. But why don’t you start out and give us a little bit of background about what Faster Fiction is and how it came about?
Alexandra: Sure. Faster Fiction really came about as a result of my passion about creativity. I felt like a writer my whole life and I knew that writing was really the only thing that I wanted to do with my life. I never felt like I wanted to have any other kind of job. Beginning in my twenties, I started to become a student of creativity and read lots of books about writing, did The Artist’s Way, which many writers and other creative people do, and also noticed about myself a kind of an unconscious desire to go behind the scenes with creative people.
I was one of those people who, when we used to watch movies on DVDs, would always watch the behind-the-scenes stuff and the interviews with the actors, and I realized later it wasn’t because the people in them were famous, it was because I wanted to know about the creative process. I wanted to know about the challenges and the rewards of doing a creative job for someone’s life’s work.
Then I transitioned myself. In my late 30s, I started to write seriously and published my first book, which you mentioned, which is about an experience I had had in a cult in the 1990s. Then I transitioned to writing fiction for children. I wrote four children’s novels.
All this time, I have been an independent author, which of course is important to you as well, I know.
One of the things that’s both a blessing and a curse about being an independent author is that there’s no one holding our feet to the fire when it comes to doing our creative work. We don’t have any deadlines, and if we do, they’re self-imposed. It can often be a challenge, I think, for people to meet any kind of self-imposed deadline or to meet their goals — their writing goals.
I didn’t really ever find that that was too challenging for me. I noticed that I was really good about getting my bum in the chair, getting my words written, and over the years, I’ve really worked hard to get past what Steven Pressfield calls “resistance,” which is that force that presses against us and prevents us from doing our creative work.
All of these interests, practices, and passions combined and came out at the other end is Faster Fiction—a way for me to help other writers to get their bum in the chair and to deal with resistance and all the things in our lives that can prevent us from getting our books out into the world.
Matty: The “suffer less” part of Faster Fiction sounds like it wasn’t so much based on your own experience, but on you seeing what other writers were going through as they try to act on their creative vision.
Alexandra: Yeah, I think so. There has been a bit of suffering in my writing life as well. I did notice that that started to ease the more I wrote, which is a paradox, but that’s something I like to share with other people as well, that the better we get at having a regular practice and getting our words onto the page every day, the less we suffer. That was certainly true for me and I’d love that to be true for lots of other writers as well.
Matty: The Faster Fiction podcasts that I’ve listened to have been all about those practical tips for getting your bum in the chair and acting on creative goals. I think in some cases people are suffering not only because they’re not able to produce the work they want to, but also because there’s an aspect of, “Am I good enough to do this? Am I going to be confident in the reception of what I write?” Is that also part of what you’re trying to aim at addressing people’s emotional resistance to doing any creative work?
Alexandra: Yeah, absolutely. I call myself an Author Mindset Mentor, so those things that you mentioned really all have to do with mindset as well: fear of people judging our work, which of course they’re going to do, and the fear of exposure—that’s a big one as well. I think there’s also a big element about the suffering that we experience when we try to squeeze writing into our already busy lives.
I want in the future to talk a lot more about time management. Lately I’m on this stint about how being organized provides a really safe container for us to be creative. I think sometimes creative people feel that those two things exist in opposition. My position is that they don’t. You and I have talked about this because you were a guest on my podcast: that being organized and structured actually does create a safe place for writers to create. So, yeah, I think unfortunately there are lots of different areas we can suffer as creative people and I like to try to address any of them that have to do with what goes on between our ears.
Matty: The other interesting challenge that writers sometimes face is that, if you hear about the suffering artist enough, you start to develop the feeling that that’s how it’s supposed to be and if you’re not suffering, you’re not artistic, or you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do to be a creative being. Any message that’s out there that says, “No. It doesn’t have to be painful. It can be fun. It can be a positive experience,” I think it’s really valuable.
Alexandra: Thank you. That’s another great point. That’s something I hadn’t thought of today, that there is that myth about the suffering artist. One of the books that I really like lately that addresses that is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. She totally tears that myth apart and I love that she does that and says that, “In actuality, creativity wants to work with us.” It’s looking for someone to play with and creative projects can only be born through us, human beings. They can’t exist otherwise. The myth of the suffering artist is really a false one. That’s a myth I’d like to bust as well.
Matty: I heard that you’re in a mastermind group, correct?
Matty: Can you describe what that is and how that contributes to your creative endeavors?
Alexandra: Yeah, it has been amazing. We’ve been meeting for almost a year now. We started in January of this year, 2016. There are four of us and we meet on Skype once a week for about 45 minutes or an hour. We refer to it as an accountability group. We’re all members of Joanna Penn’s Creative Freedom course. She has a private Facebook group for that. We met in there and one of the people in the group organized the rest of us.
What I love about it is the accountability of this. One of the things we do each week is we go around and each of us talks about the goal that we had set the week before and, very often that’s a word count or an amount of time spent writing and being creative. Maybe we talk about a win that we had and the challenges that we’re experiencing as well.
Like I said, we’re less than a year into it and yet already we’re so closely bonded and we’re all independent authors. We speak the same language and we understand the same challenges. None of us is writing full time. We all have other day jobs. I think right at the surface, the accountability is such an important piece of being an independent author so that really keeps us all meeting our goals. And if we don’t meet them, then we can reflect on why we haven’t, which is really great. But then the emotional support is underneath that and I really appreciated that this whole year, that there are people who are like-minded, who I can talk to, and who will understand my struggles and I understand theirs as well.
Matty: Are the mastermind groups usually about the writing processes as opposed to exchanging drafts, for example, for people to weigh in, in a more editorial way?
Alexandra: I guess it could be anything you wanted it to be. I’ve belonged to writers’ groups where we did share our work. We read something that we were reading and that was really about supporting one another to develop the tools of the craft. I’ve had experience with several different kinds of writing groups and each one had its own focus.
This one specifically, the fellow who organized it wanted it to be about accountability. We don’t share our work that we’re working on at all. We just touch on our goals and the things that we have planned and what we want to accomplish and we do that in a larger sense. Next Monday, we’re meeting to look at 2017 and we’re going to each talk about the goals we have for the full year and then we’ll break it down into quarters. Then each week we meet and we work on the micro tasks that go into making those things happen.
Matty: I think it’s very interesting that a lot of the terms you are using are terms you would expect to hear in the workplace. What you’re describing sounds like agile software development. You meet every day—you’re not meeting every day, but you meet in a frequent schedule—where you’re reviewing, “What did I do yesterday? What am I doing today? What barriers am I facing?” That’s all very much a work way of talking about things.
In the conversation that we had on your Faster Fiction podcast about applying left brain strength to achieve right brain goals, I had said that I had this book idea in my head that was something like Project Management Lessons for The Indy Author, but that was such a horrible title I knew I wasn’t going to use that.
But what I’m coming to is the idea that the creative process is like building a wooden boat. I just got a book called Wooden Boats by Michael Ruhlman and he follows the creation of a couple of wooden boats at a boatyard in New England. It’s very interesting how you can look at a boat and look at the beautiful effect, moving through the waves, carrying its passengers safely to their destination and it’s very artistic, yet you look at the process that goes into doing that: the planning, the blue printing, the sanding.
Every aspect of it has this great writing analogy—that the polishing off the rough edges, whether you’re working on a book or working on a boat, is the same. I think it’s really empowering for people to know that there are these steps they can take to move them toward the goal of creating a book or creating some other creative endeavor that doesn’t just rely on inspiration hitting out of the blue or the muse speaking in your ear.
Alexandra: Yeah, I’ve noticed even personally in my life, several writers who don’t write because they’re waiting for inspiration to strike. I think Steven Pressfield and Lee Child too, who writes the Jack Reacher novels, talk about how successful writers really take a more of a blue-collar approach to the writing. They show up every day, they show up whether they feel like it or not, they’re organized about it, and get the work done. What Pressfield talks about that I totally agree with—and Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this too—is that when we show up in that way consistently, it’s only then that inspiration is really able to find us.
I talk about how we have to show up for inspiration first and let it come to trust us and then it will be able to work with us in a way. But walking around going to coffee shops, talking about writing, waiting for an idea to magically fall out of the sky, have it be the perfect book, and all you have to do is channel it down onto the page—it might be a bit of a disappointing experience.
Matty: The other thing I heard you mention in one of your recent podcasts was The Story Grid, and I’m always anxious to find other people who love the Story Grid Podcast and the Story Grid concept. I think that that’s the perfect example of someone who is very committed to creating a book—Tim Grahl, who’s the host and who I think even he would say is not coming to it with a completely natural, innate sense of how to create the story he wants to.
He introduces it by saying, “I’m a struggling writer who’s trying to find the best way to tell the story.” Shawn Coyne provides those very concrete steps that you can take. “You need these three parts and you need to follow this set of rules and you need to make sure that changes are happening in the story in a certain way.” I think it’s heartening to know all those tools are out there that you can apply to get past the suffering and to write faster.
Alexandra: That’s right. And just like you talked about with building the boat, I think of The Story Grid as the blueprint or the framework or whatever tool it is that you’re using. There are other ones out there, the Snowflake Method and lots that I don’t know about. The Story Grid can be the blueprint and then there are tools, I’m sure that boat builders use.
I was thinking about this the other day. I was thinking about it in terms of carpentry—nobody expects that if you’re taking on your very first carpentry project, that you’ll turn out an amazing piece of furniture that will last thousands of years and be an artistic marvel. Yet, I think sometimes when we sit down to write our first book, we expect that out of ourselves. What really matters more is writing consistently and continuing to produce those tables or those boats and getting better at it every time because we’re learning more and more about our own process and about how we create this thing that we’ve decided we want to create. I know I learn something every time I write a new book.
Matty: Yes. If your third book isn’t better than your first book, you’re doing something wrong.
Alexandra: That’s right.
Matty: We’ve talked a little bit about “suffer less” and some tips people could use to achieve that goal, and I’m curious now to talk about “write more.” Using your own experience as an example, I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the timeframes for your fiction book, and what your goals are? How much time do you give yourself for various parts of the book? When do you give yourself a break on timelines? Because I think that your timelines are quite fast, that you produce books quite quickly, am I right about that?
Alexandra: Yeah, that’s correct and it didn’t start out that way. It’s gotten faster as I go along.
Matty: Describe, for your most recent book, how long that took you and how that time was broken up in terms of writing it and editing it and the other things that would go into it.
Alexandra: It’s such a great question. This is the thing that I think really touches back to what you said earlier about the myth of the suffering artist. What I’ve realized in my journey is that, that is so not true, and the less we suffer, the more we can write. That’s the little summary.
Just to give you an example, the first book that I wrote was a memoir. It wasn’t fiction, it was about the 10-year period in my life. It took me about 18 months to write the book and then revise it as much as I could before it was ready to go off to an editor.
Now, eight years later, when I write a work of fiction, I can do the first draft in about a month, then I take about another month to revise it, and then it goes off to the editor so two months.
Matty: That’s incredible.
Alexandra: Yeah and there’s probably actually two weeks ahead of the first draft where I’m plotting and planning and figuring out what the story is. I write mysteries, so there’s the “whodunit”—I have to figure that out myself. It was probably a two and a half, three month process from beginning to end when it’s ready to go off to the first set of editors.
That timeframe has just gradually gotten shorter and shorter and shorter as I’ve become more practiced at it. One of the things that was really important for me to learn was that I was a plotter, not a pantser, so I do like to have the plot. I do like to be aware of it. I have a loose outline though, it’s not super tight. There is room for movement in it because otherwise I get bored. Things do come up that surprise me. I just think of it like the framework in a house. I’m working within those walls but there’s room for movement as I do that.
The other big tip I think that has really worked for me is about blocking my time. I learned this years ago because I worked as a virtual assistant for coaches. It was one of the things that they banged on about endlessly that blocking our time is really such a powerful strategy. That’s my number one tip for people is blocking a period of time—it doesn’t matter how long or short it is, but it’s sacred. I turn off the phone. I don’t use the internet or email during that block of time. Even if I get up to go to the bathroom or get a glass of water, I don’t let myself check social media or anything like that, so I’m able to stay in that creative space and not be pulled away by other things.
Then I guess another tip would be—this is an advanced strategy—using dictation to write the first draft. My philosophy is that when we’re writing a book and we’re writing a first draft, it’s really important to just get the words out onto the page as quickly as we can because paradoxically, we’re not actually writing a book at that stage, we’re just writing a first draft.
I think Nora Roberts said, “You can’t fix a blank page.” In other words, if you’ve got nothing to work with, then you can’t build a book, so my strategy is to just get the first draft out as quickly as I can and dictation really helps me to do that. For example, when I’m typing a first draft, when I’m really going as fast as I can and feeling really in the zone, I can probably do about 1500 words an hour and with dictation, I’m more than double that.
Matty: That’s just hard to imagine.
Alexandra: Yeah, Dragon Dictate or Dragon Naturally Speaking is just an amazing tool that I’ve just started to use in the last little while. I’m using it now to write the next Town Called Horse Mystery and it’s just phenomenal. I love it.
Matty: How many A Town Called Horse books are there now?
Alexandra: There’s just two right now. There’s a prequel that’s available at AlexandraAmor.com for free when people sign up for my newsletter and it’s shorter, it’s a novella. There’s a full length novel available at all the online retailers and the e-book version of that is free as well.
Matty: Have you had the experience where you’ve been able to go back to something that you wrote earlier—not so much the memoir, because I think that’s a different piece, being nonfiction—but all your fiction work? I’m trying to justify the fact that it takes me two years instead of taking me two months. I think the thing that makes it so hard for me to understand even the concept of doing it so quickly is that I have to write and then put it aside and go back to it later.
Right now, I’m in the final stages of my third book, and part of that is that I’m reading through the whole thing out loud because I find a lot of errors or rough spots, typos that I would never catch if I had just read through it. Just reading through—it’s going to be about 95,000 words—takes an incredible amount of time. How comfortable do you feel like you need to be with the craft? I guess, in comparison to looking at it and saying, “That’s really going to provide a good entertaining and engaging experience for the reader.”
Alexandra: Yeah, it’s such a good question. It’s a bit of a complicated answer, too. One thing is that for me writing fast actually helps my brain to keep my thoughts around the scope of the book. I find if I put it down for a while and come back to it, I can’t remember the threads, the different things that are going on and the different relationships and who did what and when did they meet, so doing it quickly actually really aids me in that way because my brain is able to manage all that information in a short period of time. But if I set it aside and come back, then I forget. The balance between craft and speed, I think that is really the question that you’re asking.
Matty: Yes, exactly.
Alexandra: Typos are a different thing. I do go through several revisionary passes after the first draft is out and catch quite a few of the typos. But then, the responsibility is on people that I hire to catch the rest of those. That’s one thing.
The second thing is, this is my seventh or eighth novel, so I do really feel like my grasp of the craft has improved. There is a temptation to go back to the ones at the beginning, which were children’s novels, and rework them, and I haven’t done that. I may do that one day but I haven’t done it yet. But it is tempting because, like we said, you do get better with every single one and learn something every time, if not many, many things.
Matty: And learn what to watch out for. After a while you know where your own pitfalls are and it’s easier to look out for them and fix them on the fly, rather than the more time consuming approach of going back when you are all done and saying, “Oh, I realize that now there’s a whole section I have to rework because I fell into a trap.”
Alexandra: That’s right, yes, exactly. The other thing that I really, really recommend for new writers is to have a professional beta reader. That’s one of the steps that I do after the book is finished from my perspective. A beta reader will go through and tell you if the story is working and if the craft that you’ve used is working. For new writers especially, that’s a really essential step. Typos are completely separate from that.
What the beta reader is going to tell you is, is the plot working? Is this an interesting story? Will it keep the reader’s attention? I’ve heard other writers who are on their 20th, 25th book say that eventually, they themselves are actually able to stop sending the book to beta readers because they know the craft well enough then that they know it’s a good story, but it’s something that I continue to do.
Then the book will come back from the beta reader and there might be another month depending on that person’s notes, of cleaning it up and doing the things that she’s recommending to change it and make it better. Then it goes out again to a copy editor for grammar punctuation and then finally it goes to a proofreader for the last few typos.
Matty: That’s going to be my goal, to start shortening my time, to act on the faster part of Faster Fiction at some point. Those are great pieces of advice, Alexandra. I think that a lot of people are going to be able to benefit from that.
Alexandra: I hope so.
Matty: Do you want to give the listeners a little bit of background about where they can find you and your work?
Alexandra: Absolutely. If people are interested in my fiction, that’s all available at AlexandraAmor.com. There you’ll find everything that I’ve written—fiction and nonfiction. Then for the writers who are listening, which I’m sure is the majority of your audience, you can find information at FasterFiction.com. There’s a free series of videos about mindset that’s available if people sign up for my newsletter. The video series is training about why the mental game of writing is really so important. I think that the foundation of a writer’s career is developing a strong mental game, so that’s what I really want to help writers with.
Matty: I think you will have attracted some attention through this. Thank you again for all that great information. It was great talking to you, Alexandra.
Alexandra: You’re so welcome. Thank you for having me on the show, Matty. I really appreciate it.