Friday, February 27, 2015


One of the best things about the writing process as I experience it is the gradual discovery of what the story is about. Character motives reveal themselves over time. Coming up with a title often gives me further insight.

I don't think I deliberately incorporate layers in a story. Some part of my brain plants them there. But when I notice a thin layer, just a suggestion of a theme or symbol, then I consciously build the layers more thickly. I find places where I can repeat a symbol naturally. I find ways to echo or point to the theme. I look for places to make connections.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


I've continued my decluttering process, slowly letting go of books and magazines that I knew I wouldn't reread--or in some cases, never got around to reading in the first place, despite once-upon-a-time thinking that I wanted to. I'm lucky to have places to donate these books, so that they can find new readers.

I've been noticing how the books on my shelves have changed over time. I buy less fiction now, and when I do, it's usually YA. I buy many more memoirs, many more books of personal essays.

I'm also noticing there were books I once loved and reread regularly, but haven't touched in years. Have those books served their purpose in my life? Have I entered a different phase, where I need different stories? Or will I go back to those old favorites at some point? These are the questions I try to answer, weighing these books in my hands.

I've never been good at letting go of things, but in the past year, I've become so much more willing and able to do it. To do it with few pangs, with much relief. With the sense that I am making room. For what, I don't know yet. But I'm looking forward to finding out.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Figuring out the next step

There's knowing what needs to be done, and there's doing it.
Although I sometimes grumble about the work, energy, time, involved in doing what needs to be done, I prefer that situation to the other--the one in which I don't know what needs to be done.
And I really only know three ways to figure out what needs to be done: Trial and error. Seeking advice. Waiting.
None of them is a surefire, fully successful path to the answer. Sometimes one works, sometimes the other.
Maybe they are all, in fact, a variation on "Trial and error."
What's the next right thing to do? The answer often seems to hover just beyond reach.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The A in YA

When I'm writing YA fiction, I sometimes feel very close to my characters. Everyone has experienced love and pain, worry and fear, guilt and shame. It doesn't matter that my characters are in their teens and I am--older. But occasionally, when I realize they are worrying about their homework or driver's test or getting into college, and I realize I am getting a medical checkup for one of those conditions people don't have to worry about until later in life, or reading up on the rules for my retirement accounts, or discussing home-improvement projects with my husband, then I do feel a bit of a gulf between us.

In an essay about Gourmet magazine (reprinted in Scribble Scribble), Nora Ephron wrote, "'Does everyone who gets married talk about furniture?' my friend Bud Trillin once asked. No. Only for a while. After that you talk about pistachio nuts." This sentence sums up the perceived distance between settled adulthood and impetuous youth: the gulf, again. And then I remember some of the rambling conversations I had about trivia--maybe not pistachio nuts, but on that level--when I was younger. Grownups don't have the conversational market cornered on furniture and snack foods. And I remember that I am still vitally interested in politics, education, travel, and other let's-change-the-world-or-at-least-explore-it topics that engaged me when I had my whole life, and many untested choices, still in front of me. And the gulf narrows again. Some things about us change as we move through different phases of life, but others are evergreen, eternal.

Monday, February 16, 2015

What shall we call it

I'm good at coming up with titles for books that nobody has written. It's harder to come up with titles for the books I've written. When they're in progress, I use working titles that are most often named after the main character or some feature I had in mind when I first began the book. For example, Until It Hurts to Stop was in a file named "Margaret," after the main character. I got the title for that book by pulling a phrase out of the text, a phrase that seemed to work on a couple of levels.

But it never gets easier. For my work in progress, I came up with what I thought was a decent title. When I did a search, I discovered that it is a good title--so good that another writer is using it on a book coming out this spring. Titles can be reused, but not so close together.

I keep saying I should write about something so strange and obscure that there will be no competition for possible titles!

Saturday, February 14, 2015


Success is "not about fairness. It's not about talent."
--Sting, in 20 Feet from Stardom

"I thought if I gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star."
--Merry Clayton, in 20 Feet from Stardom

"... financial success in front-list publishing is often very random ..."
"It is my strong impression that most of the really profitable books for most publishers still come from the mid-list--'surprise' big hits bought with small or medium advances ..."
--Daniel Menaker, My Mistake

What are we to do with the unpredictability, the role of randomness and chance, in success in the arts? (Perhaps in any kind of success.) Hard work and talent can increase our chances of success; laziness can ruin our chances. But we generally can't wrestle destiny to the ground and bend it to our will.

The older I get, the more I see how big a part chance plays in our lives--a much bigger part than I was led to believe when I was growing up, and was taught the Horatio Alger-esque narratives of hard workers reaping rewards.

Yet, would I say there's no point in trying?

No. There's every point in trying.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Yes or no

Sometimes you say yes to everything.
Sometimes you say no to everything.
Those are the extremes, the "I'll try anything!" or the "I'm so burned out I can't do anything" ends of the spectrum.
In the middle, it's more difficult. Figuring out how to balance time, energy, ability, interest, ethics, and so on. Thinking about whether it's a yes or no, and not deciding too hastily.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Progress report

I find that approaching writing as a craft requires a constant balancing of external and internal voices. In the past year or two, the external voices were very strong, sometimes to the point where I could not write at all.

I had to find my way back to the inner wellspring that makes me want to write in the first place. There are other ways I could be spending my time; if I choose to spend it this way, then what is it I really need to say? What story do I feel an urgent need to deliver?

Since last summer, that has (once again) been my main goal in my writing: to tell the stories I need to tell. As John O'Donohue would put it, to "do at last what I came here for." Or as Martha Graham puts it, "It is not your business to determine how good [your art] is nor how valuable it is nor how it compares with other expressions. it is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open."

It's probably not coincidental that my enthusiasm for sitting down at the writing desk, and my overall happiness, have been on the upswing ever since.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Elusive success

It always gives me pause when writers who seem to me to have attained enviable success reveal that they don't feel successful. They are worried about their sales numbers, their readership, their ability to publish again. They're not sure their work in progress will pan out, or that their manuscript on submission will find a home, or that their self-published novel will find readers. They've parted ways with their agent, or their publisher has gone under/merged with another/changed direction, or their books have gone out of print, or they don't yet have an idea for their next book.

I'm reading a memoir by a well-known actor--someone I would certainly call successful--and I'm finding the same thing in his story: Times when his career cooled. A longing to have had better box-office numbers, different roles, more recognition. Worry.

Others can see our achievements, but we always see the ladder rungs that we haven't reached, the projects that didn't pan out, the opportunities that never quite materialized. I'm beginning to suspect that it is common, if not universal, to find success elusive. Like the horizon, it's just beyond one's grasp.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The convenient inheritance

I came across a couple of pet peeves of mine recently while reading. I'm enjoying the book otherwise, so these flaws are not fatal, but they tend to draw an eye roll from me.

One of them is what I call the "convenient inheritance." The main character needs money to live on, and maybe even to support someone else (a child, elderly parent, or sibling who can't live independently). What to do? How can this character earn a living and meet her other obligations, too? Well--how about if someone just ups and dies and leaves her the money? Problem solved! Aside from the fact that this plot twist usually strikes me as unrealistic, the bigger problem is that it's a deus ex machina, and a missed opportunity for the character to take charge of the situation, to be the one driving the plot.

The convenient inheritance doesn't have to be just an inheritance--it could be any unlikely windfall: a lottery win, a casual invention that proves unexpectedly lucrative, a rich celebrity who becomes suddenly attached to our unassuming protagonist. Such windfalls have to be very carefully set up, and even then I usually find myself wishing the author had figured out some other way to resolve things.

This device doesn't bother me as much when it's the catalyst that starts off a story. In that way, it tends to be the beginning of other challenges. This plotline goes: Given that this unlikely event has occurred, what's going to happen next? The convenient inheritance bothers me the most when it occurs at the end, serving as the facilitator for "happily ever after."