Tuesday, December 31, 2013

But that other idea is so shiny

"As it turns out, I have had this same crisis with every novel I have written ... . I am sure my idea is horrible, and that a new idea is my only hope. But what I've realized over the years is that every new idea eventually becomes the old idea." --Ann Patchett, "The Getaway Car," This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Patchett has a lot more to say about this, but I don't want to copy her whole article. I relate to her point about novels taking so long to write that it's especially hard (harder, say, than when writing a poem or short story) to keep one's enthusiasm high for the duration of the whole project. Short stories were always satisfying that way: I could draft from beginning to end in one sitting; I could keep the whole thing in my head as I revised; if a story failed I could just go on to the dozens of other stories I had in various stages of completion.

But a novel takes more commitment, more tolerance of the slow times, more trust that all the little ripples you set in motion will reach the various shores you've aimed at. It takes so much longer to build in the layers that a novel needs (a short story can be layered, but it can also be punchy or piercing, and even if it has a hundred layers none of them need to be a hundred acres across, the way the layers of a novel must be). A novel takes more patience. And when a novel fails, it can mean months or years of work without a visible product.

As happy as I am with the books I've written, every single one of them gave me days (or weeks) when I was ready to give up on them, when I'd had enough or didn't see how to fix them or wondered who else would care about them besides me. They also gave me days of pure joy, days when I was so wrapped up in the story that I never wanted to leave that fictional world.

Mostly, it was a matter of waiting out the darker days. Trusting that another day's work might bring me to the corner I needed to turn.

Sunday, December 29, 2013


"Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours ... . Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story."
--Ann Patchett, "The Getaway Car," This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

This quote reminds me of an article on Quantity vs. Quality that I stumbled across recently (and I'm sorry I can't remember where I first saw this link). The takeaway from it was that putting in the time, repeating exercises again and again, will improve your craft just through sheer volume. (The Write Practice, where this article appeared,  also allowed for the opposite approach, focusing on quality.)

And all of it resonates because I've been cleaning out the boxes and files in my writing office, a slow task that will take a long time, and I have found some truly hideous poems and stories from years ago. But two things struck me about these early efforts:

--That there are so many of them. I wrote a lot. And when I liked a story, I produced multiple versions of it.

--That I've gotten better.

There are people who can write something brilliant the first time they try. But most of us don't. Most of us reach the art through the craft, as Ann Patchett said. People recognize that playing the piano, skating a triple Axel, or hitting a three-point shot in basketball takes practice and repetition. Writing's the same way, in my experience.

I have notebooks full of my stumbling, my practicing. I'm finding that only a small percentage of it is worth keeping. But the sheer quantity of it reminds me how much I have put into writing, and how silly I'm being when I expect things to be easy (say, when I expect to produce a perfect first draft instantly!)

Friday, December 27, 2013


It's my day to blog at YA Outside the Lines, where I talk about the transition from December to January, from old year to new. A sample: "January is the month that gives me trouble: it seems bleak and boring in comparison. The party’s over, quite literally, and what do we have to look forward to?" [hint: I do find some optimism about January eventually!]

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Thirteen memorable books

I’m not going to list all the books I’ve read in 2013, nor the “best” books (too hard to determine), nor necessarily all my favorites. And many of the books I read in 2013 were published in earlier years. But here, just FWIW and in no particular order, are 13 books I read in ’13 that have stuck with me for one reason or another:


Still Alice, by Lisa Genova. A brilliant professor develops early-onset Alzheimer’s. As she loses her memory and her career, what remains of her identity? This story has stayed with me—and based on conversations I’ve had with other readers, I’m not the only one.

Birthmarked, by Caragh M. O’Brien. Gaia works as a midwife just outside the Enclave, the protected community she serves. But when officers of the Enclave imprison her parents, she starts to question the rigid rules of her society, especially the forced reassignment of children to new parents. A good book about power and the possible consequences of environmental destruction. Also includes some code-breaking!

Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan. Two boys trying to set a record for the world’s longest kiss form the central story, but the plotlines weave through several characters’ lives, tying together the generation of men lost to AIDS and the generation for whom coming out is more common—but not necessarily easy.


Plume, by Kathleen Flenniken. This is a book about betrayal, loss, and invisible dangers made visible. Centering on the community of Hanford, Washington, and the various forms of radiation exposure its citizens experienced, it’s a horror story and a discovery story and a love-of-family story. I reread it almost immediately; it still grips me, weeks later.


Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams. Vivian Maier was a nanny who spent most of her free time perfecting her amateur-photography skills, capturing the world around her. When she died, she left behind thousands of photographs and negatives, a small fraction of which were assembled in this collection. The images are stories in themselves.


The Test: Living in the Shadow of Huntington’s Disease, by Jean Barema. There was a 50-50 chance the author had inherited the incurable, degenerative disease known as Huntington’s. This book chronicles his agonizing over whether to get the genetic test, his siblings’ and mother’s experience with the disease, and his countdown to his own test and receipt of the results. Even those of us who don’t fact Huntington’s confront many of the same questions about mortality, and the physical losses that may come with age.

Days That I’ll Remember: Spending Time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, by Jonathan Cott. This book captures Lennon in his post-Beatles life, dealing with couplehood and parenthood, exploring new creative frontiers. It’s a relief to see a book that doesn’t vilify Ono as the woman who “broke up the Beatles,” but rather explores the artistic and political views that she and Lennon shared and kindled in one another.

Rapture Practice, by Aaron Hartzler. Hartzler grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household. But much of what he was drawn to (partying, rock music, dating), his family viewed as sinful. This book records his ever-more-painful attempts to please the family he loves, while unable to resist exploring the music and relationships that call to him.

Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders, by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Boylan shares her own experience parenting before, during, and after her transition from male to female, and she also interviews so many other parents that the result is a rich and diverse exploration of what it means to be a parent, what it means to be a child, and how gender does (or doesn’t) affect parent-child relationships. Plenty of food for thought here.

Stories from Jonestown, by Leigh Fondakowski. I blogged about this book here—an unforgettable look at a movement that started out in hope, peace, and brotherhood, and ended in the tragedy of murder and suicide.

Into the Tangle of Friendship: A Memoir of the Things That Matter, by Beth Kephart. Kephart explores all kinds of friendships: how those bonds form, and how they strengthen, and how and why they sometimes dissipate. And it’s as beautifully written as all her books.

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A. J. Jacobs. Jacobs attempts to follow the Bible literally. He immediately confronts a few problems: which version of the Bible? How to interpret passages that are unclear or conflicting? What to do about actions that are now illegal (like stoning people)? But in studying and trying to live the Bible, he discovers plenty about both God and humankind.

Gift from the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Concise, poetic, and meditative, this is a book that’s meant to be savored and reread. It records the kind of deep pondering, the questions and discoveries, that can come to mind when we let ourselves stop and think and reconnect with the natural world.

source of recommended reads: all from library, except Gift from the Sea, Plume, and Two Boys Kissing, which were purchased.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Yes, it's supposed to be that messy

The post called "Building and wrecking walls of words," by Jeannine Atkins, really spoke to me. A sample: "I used to have a fantasy that one day I’d get the hang of this, and put in the right words the first time. Now I take the rhythm of type-delete-type for granted. Starting out writing badly is kind of the point. There’s a lot of scatter before sentences. Words like to free flow before lining up ..."

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Fear of conferences: Survival tips from Carol J. Garvin

Our latest guest post on the topic of fear will hit home for introverted writers who long to touch base with other writers, but are hesitant to face conference crowds. Today, Carol J. Garvin provides conference survival tips:

As gatherings go, the Surrey International Writers’ Conference is a big one for me. It’s my favourite weekend of the year but it’s also my biggest challenge.


Approximately 600 people fill the ballroom for keynote addresses and calorie-laden meals, crowd into conference rooms for their choice of seventy-two workshops given by fifty-eight writing professions, and cram into elevators to get between the two.

It’s exhilarating, rejuvenating, motivating and terrifying! Why? Because I’m claustrophobic. Oh, not wildly so, but moderately, and the challenge is to keep myself under control so I can absorb all the benefits of the annual October weekend.

Many writers claim to be introverts, so I’m not alone in my reluctance to mix, mingle and schmooze with strangers. A lot of us would prefer to hunker down and write in solitude. That’s okay for a while. I get my best writing done in the quietness of my office, and I can learn a lot online about the craft and the publishing industry. But there are limitations to living in cyberspace, and eventually there comes a time when I have to make a choice – stay there and let my fears direct me, or take a deep breath and move out into the real world. Without making an effort to push past my reservations, I would miss out on unique opportunities for building my writing skills, getting personal exposure to writing professionals, and making new friends in the writing community.

So how do I do it? When it comes to conferences, how do I make the outer me do what the inner me resists?

1. First, I plan ahead and arrange to attend with a good friend so there will be someone else there who understands my limitations. Plus it’s just plain more fun sharing the conference experience.
2. I register online from the comfort of home (the SiWC website is familiar territory and thus isn’t intimidating).
3. I make advance reservations in the host hotel so I can slip up to my room any time I need a break from the horde.
4. When I make my hotel reservations I request a lower floor so I know if I can’t deal with the elevators at any time, I will be able to walk up and down the stairs.
5. I prepare my pitch material thoroughly at home, and then leave extra time before any agent/editor appointments so I’m not rushed. That helps minimize anxiety. (It’s not a bad idea to forego these appointments at a first conference.)
6. I try to be early for workshops to get a seat on the aisle or near the back so I can slip out easily if the crowding overwhelms me. Others might choose a seat at the front where they can’t see the crowded room behind them. It’s a personal thing. :)
7. Beforehand I connect informally with some of the event organizers and presenters via Twitter, Facebook and blogs, and after the event, I make a point of seeking them out to thank them. It helps to establish familiar relationships and build a sense of community, both of which contribute to expanding my comfort zone.


What works for me won’t necessarily work for everyone who has a problem with crowds and enclosed spaces. Panic attacks are no fun, but neither is being captive to a fear of them. I’m fortunate that if I emotionally prepare myself and stay alert to potential situations, I can often avert a meltdown. (And when in doubt, I resort to a lot of prayer and a little Ativan!)

Carol J. Garvin is a writer who blogs about writing, spirituality, nature, and other topics. More about her experience at this year's Surrey Conference can be found here.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


I don't give numbered ratings to books, and one reason is that I'm not sure how I would rate them anyway. There are a few books that I know I would give 5 stars to, if I did rate them, but mostly I just can't decide. My internal discussion would go like this: "Wow, that was good ... better than average. But not as good as my ultra-favorite books. But it's better than four stars ... four and a half? Maybe?" Or, "Well, that was okay. Nothing special, but okay. But if I were to give it two stars, that would sound as if I liked it less than I actually did." Or, "That was really well-written and I admire what the author did, but I just didn't love it. It didn't hit me at the gut level." Or, "This book really spoke to me, though I'm not sure how universal its appeal would be." How could I put a number on those reactions?

And then there is the matter of how our feelings about books change over time. I struggled through Babbitt as a high-schooler, but I've reread it voluntarily as an adult, and like it much better now. Some books I started out liking, but have grown to love upon subsequent rereads.

And then there are the books that lose something upon rereading. The main character who seemed so romantic is just annoying now. The fantasy world that once fascinated has become a bit of a yawn. Previously unnoticed racist subtext oozes to the surface.

We change, and the world around us changes, so there's no wonder our feelings about books change. If I did rate books, they would probably not carry a single number, but a graph of numbers, charting my rising and falling assessment over time.

It brings home to me like nothing else how subjective ratings can be, how personal our responses to books are sometimes.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Snow, and ups and downs

Snow turned the world extraordinary today. The branches are still frosted, the lawns still smooth. It looks like a stage set for a video of "Winter Wonderland." We're about to run out there in our old-timey cloaks and fur hats and jump in our horse-drawn sleigh, suitably bedecked with jingle bells ...

Sorry, I got carried away there. Anyway, the snow also gave me a poem--the first draft of a poem, anyway.

In other news, this post by Sean Williams on Janni Simner's blog was much appreciated. He writes: "It’s a natural law that careers go up and down. When I started out, up was the only way my career could go. Now, it could go either way ..." I liked it because I remember expecting, before I published, that I would struggle for a long time but once I "broke through," I would keep moving upward, steadily. I thought every success would be followed by a bigger success. I think many writers expect this, without even articulating it, because it seems so commonsensical: you work hard and you're patient, then you get the reward, right? Nobody talks about how sometimes the reward falls and breaks, or how the next reward may be farther away than expected. But a downturn is not necessarily permanent, either. A setback doesn't mean that a career is over--especially in a business that's changing so quickly. There are ways and genres of publishing now that weren't viable even six or seven years ago.

The only certainty is change.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

What if

There's a jewelry commercial on TV right now (I think it's for Jared jewelers) that features a guy proposing in the aisle of an airplane. (I don't know what kind of plane that is, because I've never been on one where there was nearly enough room to kneel down and propose, but I digress.) Anyway, in the commercial the woman says yes, the flight attendant makes an announcement, and all the passengers have a little story to tell about their flight.

It's cute, but the writer in me can't help asking what if the story went in another direction. What if this is the first hour of a very long flight, and the woman says no instead of yes? I could write the story of that flight in dozens of different ways.

That's where I get a lot of my story ideas: by asking what if an incident went the other way. What if these people took a different road, what if they chose this instead of that, went here instead of there?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Criticism and praise

Tabitha at Writer Musings led me to this article on "Tough Love" for writers.

And as usual with most writing advice, I agree in part and disagree in part. I do think that most of us overestimate the quality of our work when we first start out. I do think that rigorous revising is important, and that most writers have no idea when they embark upon a project just how much editing it will need. I've also found that it's often difficult for us to critique our own work at the level it needs.

But maybe all that is nature's way of protecting us, of keeping us from curling up in the fetal position and giving up before we even begin.

I've always needed that confidence--even if it qualifies as overconfidence--to write anything in the first place. The first draft is all about mental cheerleading for me.

And then I let the inner critic out of the trunk where he hides out during drafting, and unleash him on my manuscript. And later still, I invite other critiquers in. Not with the ego-shattering force that the article describes, but with a willingness to delete anything that doesn't belong. I don't need people to come down on me "like a ton of bricks," "[tear] my stories to shreds and [throw] them back at me ... shatter[ing] my ego ..." The fact is, it's not about my ego at all. It's about the story. What makes it a better story? Where is the plot unbelievable or slow? Which scenes are contributing nothing? It's not personal. My book is not me.

I do sometimes get upset over criticism, but that's mostly because it means I have a lot more work to do, and sometimes I don't see right away how on earth I'm going to fix everything. Critique is not a judgment of me; it's a to-do list. And whining over to-do lists is part of my process--not the most glamorous part, to be sure, but the part that clears out the sludge of my resistance so the words can flow again. Look, it's not fun to rewrite seven chapters that you thought you were done with, or switch the whole thing to a different POV, or cut the book in half and rewrite the ending. It's much more fun to hear that you're a literary genius and you don't have to rewrite a word.

But praise is no good unless it's true, and praise alone doesn't help most writers grow. Rejecting all criticism usually doesn't help much either. On that, I agree with the article.

I suppose where I come down in the end is that we need a balance of praise and criticism to keep us going and keep us writing well. That mix varies from writer to writer and even from day to day. Whatever works.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Frozen on a mountaintop: Guest post by Ellen Jensen Abbott

The latest in my series of guest posts about fear comes to us from Ellen Jensen Abbott:


by Ellen Jensen Abbott

I grew up doing regular hikes in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, but I had never done any winter hiking until I met my husband, Ferg. When I met him, Ferg had climbed Mount Washington—renowned for the most severe weather of the lower 48—x times in winter. There is a harrowing story about he and a friend getting caught on the mountain as the sun was setting, exhausted and unsure of the way down, but most of his ascents were successful. That’s why I was willing to put myself in his hands for my first winter hike—Mt. Chocurua, a 3490 ft. mountain with a wonderful view of Squam Lake. (The blindness of love my also have been involved; we were newly engaged.)

We hiked Chocorua in late December. There was not a lot of snow on the ground and much of what had fallen had been blown off the mountain. We were well outfitted, and the hike kept us warm. There were few other people on the trail and the bright blue sky and the sun on the snow made the day breathtaking. As we hiked, I added new images to my dreams of married life: we would be an adventurous couple, dashing off to climb up and then ski down Mt. Washington’s Tuckerman’s Ravine, hike in the Rockies, conquer Mt. Ranier and Mt. McKinley.

Then we reached Chocorua’s peak, and my fantasies turned to fear. For some reason, being on top of that mountain in the winter—a mountain I had climbed several times in July—completely undid me. On the summit’s rock face we had no shelter from a stiff and whistling wind. The air felt thinner, the cold more intense as my body heat rapidly evaporated. The sky, rather than impressing me with its vivid blueness, impressed me with its vastness. Standing under that sky made me feel small, vulnerable, and exposed.

We were supposed to have a picnic, but I couldn’t sit down. I knew in my head that there was no risk whatsoever at that moment, but I was terrified. Ferg tried to lead me a sheltered place to eat—the poor guy must have been starving!—but I paced until finally he gave up and we started down. One-hundred yards off the summit, the fear disappeared. Back in the embrace of the trees, sheltered from the wind, and with branches instead of the thin atmosphere over my head, I relaxed. We sat down, munched on our sandwiches, and chatted. I don’t remember if we talked about my irrational fear. Ferg did not rethink our engagement, though we never have climbed Washington, Ranier or McKinley.

Watersmeet-4j centaurdaughter The Keeper10 (2)

As I think back on this experience, I can’t help but compare it to the experiences of my main character in the Watersmeet Trilogy. She faces many moments of similar vulnerability and exposure, but for her the risks are real: she is kidnapped by centaurs; attacked by reptilian leviathan birds; carried against her will up a waterfall and through a rock tunnel by naiads. I’ve used my irrational fear on Chocorua many times to bring a sense of real fear to Abisina. Though I feared only the openness of the sky—nothing compared to the shape-shifting evil Abisina faces—my fear was just as real as hers; and it’s the work of the writer to use whatever material the universe presents—even if it means that the writer will forever view Mt. Rainier from the base.

Ellen Jensen Abbott thinks that life would be perfect if she could move her home, her job, her friends and her family to the White Mountains of New Hampshire where she grew up. Until she can convince everyone to join her, she’s content to be writing, teaching English at the Westtown School, and living with her husband and two children in West Chester, PA.

The Keeper is the most recent book in the Watersmeet series. In The Keeper, Abisina is ready to embrace her destiny and become Keeper of Watersmeet. But can she unite this divided land to fight the gathering evil? Can she be the leader that everyone needs?

Sunday, December 1, 2013


Lisa Scottoline advocates "UnResolutions" instead of New Year's resolutions. Resolutions can be so negative, she says ... all about what we want to stop doing and being, the things we want to change. UnResolutions are the things we like that we want to continue.

I suppose "keep reading books," "keep taking walks," and "keep enjoying chocolate" would be on my list. And this year I finally got around to spending more time on my porch--the porch that is such a great feature of the house and that I had been too busy to sit on, until I made time this year. So, another UnResolution would be to spend more time on the porch--and I can combine that with the book reading, so double win! (I guess I could combine it with the chocolate for the trifecta.)

I figured I would give people plenty of time to think about this by blogging about it now. If you like this idea, you have a month to figure out what good things you'd like to continue. :-)