Friday, December 30, 2016

The hazards of biography

After reading a few biographies of well-known writers that left me liking the subjects less than I did beforehand, I began to ask myself whether it's possible for this not to happen. Generally we come to know writers through their work; we see the polished product. In a sense, we're seeing the best the writer has to offer. But any biography will acquaint us with the writer's flaws, sins, and worst moments as well. This is even true of writers who write memoir. After all, memoir is not autobiography, and what's included in a memoir is carefully chosen--not so much to make the writer look good, but to show us the world through that writer's perspective. Seeing the writer through a different perspective may be jarring.

But then, I don't need to like a writer to enjoy his or her work. There are several writers who sound, quite frankly, like pains in the neck IRL, but whose books still move me and entertain me. And who's perfect, anyway?

Tuesday, December 27, 2016


At YA Outside the Lines, we've been blogging all month about endings. My contribution is about surprise twist endings. Which I love in fiction, if not so much in life.

It can be difficult to bring off a surprise twist without its feeling gimmicky; another danger is the reader feeling betrayed by the misdirection. But it can be satisfying if we think we are plodding toward a predictable resolution, only to find ourselves transported somewhere else. Every now and then, a surprise is a delight.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Talent, persistence, and luck

"The other day I had a letter that asked me to what I attribute my success. Of course, I do not have 'success' in the ordinary definition of that word, but I answered, 'A talent, persistence, and luck.'"
--May Sarton, At Seventy

Sarton was able to support herself with her writing, in a lifestyle that included a beautiful house on the Maine coast. She gave poetry readings to packed houses, and people waited in long lines at her book signings. Even though she often wrote of feeling short-changed by critics, she actually achieved a measure of success that few writers attain.

I don't have her level of success, but from what I've seen of others' careers, I would agree with her choice of the three ingredients. I've heard a few established writers say that persistence was the number one factor they saw in writers who "made it," that simple perseverence was more important than talent in the long run. And in recent years, I've come to appreciate the significant role that luck plays in writing success, as well as in life generally. Talent alone doesn't go far enough; it needs healthy doses of the other two.

Of the three, persistence is the only one over which we have any control. So we keep on typing, and thinking, and reading, and revising.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Home is

"Home is the cats, my books, and my work never done."
--Patti Smith, M Train

My version would be slightly adjusted:
"Home is my husband, the cat, my books, and my work never done."

The fact that the work is never done is actually a blessing, even though I have to stop and remind myself of that every now and then.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Digging through the toolbox

One of the advantages of having been at this writing game for so long is that I have a vast array of tools in my toolbox. Some of them get shoved to the back, covered up, or slide between the cracks. But eventually I remember they're in there.

Today I had a high-level, big-picture writing problem to approach. After staring blankly and apprehensively at the screen for a bit, I decided to brainstorm and plan in longhand. I routinely do my drafting and revising on the computer nowadays, but for some reason this task needed the concreteness and simplicity of pen on paper. Then I sat down to the electronic manuscript with a (handwritten) list of specific edits to make to this draft. For some reason, this worked on this particular day with this particular problem.

Another example of living my motto, "Whatever works." If one approach doesn't work, there are plenty more to try.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Auto reply

Some light humor at a time of year when the nights are long and the days are cold.

Out-of-office messages:

"I am out of the office for the next week. If you have any questions in my absence, please look deep inside your soul for the answers."

"I am currently on vacation and am not giving this place a thought while I frolic in the sun and surf. I will answer your message when I drag myself, weeping, back to the office in two weeks."

"I am away. Whatever you are contacting me about, no, I didn't get to it before I left. Probably won't get to it when I come back, either."

"I am out searching for the meaning of life. If I don't find it, I'll be back at my desk in a week."

(These were inspired by a humorous out-of-office message I saw recently.)

Friday, December 2, 2016

The questions we need to answer

"I have never written a book that was not born out of a question I needed to answer for myself. Perhaps it is the need to remake order out of chaos over and over again. For art is order, but it is made out of the chaos of life."
--May Sarton, At Seventy: A Journal

Monday, November 28, 2016

Delayed discoveries

Imagine that some creative work you produced in your late teens--for which you had high hopes, but it never went anywhere then--has been "discovered" decades later. This work that's so far in your past is current and fresh to others. It's what they know you for. Whatever directions you've taken since then, however much you've changed, now you must revisit that old work.

This is the premise of True Story, volume 1, a nonfiction essay called "Fruitland." Two young brothers recorded an album in the late 1970s, which only received wide attention and celebration within the past few years. It makes for an interesting read, but it also made me question how much of my own adolescent writing I would still stand behind. I'm a better writer now, I hope. My perspective on many issues has changed; I'm much more politically aware now. There's little of my unpublished work from back then that I would care to put forward now.

And yet, who would want to turn away new fans, no matter how belated the attention, no matter how far we've come since creating that work? We all know that some artists aren't even discovered until after they're dead.

It just reminds me that fate is quirky, and art is unpredictable, and we never know where the dandelion seeds of our work will drift and take root.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Writing for the family

On this blog, I mostly talk about writing for general audiences and writing for publication, but today I'd like to encourage another kind of writing: writing for one's family.

Take the time, and encourage your relatives to take the time, to jot down some of the following:
--What you know of the family history
--Funny stories and memories (You know, the ones that get told and re-told around holiday tables over the years? Write them down.)
--Your own accounts of big moments in your own life: wedding day, first job, birth of children, etc. Maybe you've climbed a mountain or won a Pulitzer or competed in the Olympics. Tell about it.
--Your personal accounts of historic events: where were you and what were you doing on 9/11, during the moon landing, during any big event for which you were alive? How did you feel? How did the average person experience these?
--How you've experienced life: do you remember what life was like before the internet? What have we lost that you don't want to go unremembered?

People say we will no longer need personal historical documents like letters and diaries because we document everything on social media. If you want to know what Great-Grandma's life was like, you'll be able to look at her Facebook account!

Well, maybe. But maybe not. The fate of our social media accounts is not entirely under our control. And even if all that information is preserved in perpetuity, it still might be nicer to have the information in a more reader-friendly format.

Your kids may not want to read your account right now, but sometime far in the future, they probably will. And even if they never do, someone in your family, somewhere along the line, will get interested in family history and will want to know this stuff. Which reminds me: label your photographs, too. Include first and last names, and dates.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving

Here's hoping you are surrounded by the people for whom you are the most thankful, and that the blessings you're counting are many.
Here's hoping that you find joy in the day, common ground with family and friends, and renewed energy for the season ahead.

Saturday, November 19, 2016


Put butt in chair, fingers on keyboard. Write every day. Stop procrastinating. Pull the plug on the internet. Make time.

There's merit to all these sayings; writing never gets done if we don't sit down and do it. That part of the process is under our control.

But for me, there's a part of the process that can't be forced, that doesn't follow the schedule of my will. Certain writing problems get worked out below my conscious level. I turn them over consciously, and when I start going in circles I let them be. I take a walk or do chores or sleep, and I can feel something percolating at the back of my mind, but I can't articulate it. I don't know the answer yet.

When the solution eventually seeps (or bursts) into my full awareness, it's a relief.

When I took a cognitive psychology course in grad school, one of the things I heard there was that the solution of a stubborn problem was often not so much about attacking the problem to figure out the answer, but stepping away and forgetting the wrong answers so the right solution was no longer blocked.

I haven't yet found a way to rush this process. I recently had a door open in my current project, and although I've been knocking at that door for a while, it seems that what I needed to open the door was simply time.

Monday, November 14, 2016

There comes a time

There comes a time in the life of a manuscript when it is hideous to the eye, when one cannot bear to read it yet again, when entire sentences have been accidentally committed to memory, when one begs for something fresh to work on.

In my experience, that time is usually when there is one more pass to go. The end is in sight, but ... not ... quite ... yet. The finish line is just a crawl away.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Comfort and magic

I'm rereading Patti Smith's M Train this week, which is a comfort read for me. I have many comfort reads: childhood favorites; classics; plot-driven bestsellers of yesteryear; humorous essays; just to name a few. M Train is the quietest of quiet books, but its spell lies in the way Smith finds magic in daily life, in memories, in objects that act as talismans, in habit and in dreaming.

As writers, we are constantly observing the world around us, seeking the magic in the moment. Today I saw golden beech leaves fluttering to the ground, and piled up a satisfying stack of library books, and listened to hopeful music, and signed some petitions, and did some work that needed doing, and revised part of a manuscript. A quiet day--a useful day, I hope, with a few bits of magic. Darkness comes early now, and it suits my mood of settling in with a comfort read to cap off the day. I hope you, too, are finding comfort and magic.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A weekend with librarians

I've been at the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) conference where I was refreshed--as I always am when I attend a librarians' conference--by their enthusiasm and dedication. These are the kinds of questions they are discussing: How can we better serve our communities? How can we reach more people? How can we ensure that our collections and services are diverse? What materials do our communities need? What's next on the horizon?

I was there as an author, but I'm also a library user and a library supporter. A grateful one.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Fear in stories

It's the season when we replay scary movies, testing and exploring our fears. I blogged over at YA Outside the Lines about the ways in we can use our fears in storytelling, and the ways in which we use storytelling to deal with our fears. A sample: "the page provides a great way to pin down a fear, dissect it, even control it."

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Yes and no

One thing I've always struggled with is the yes/no balance in life: when to follow new opportunities, and when to hang back and rest. It doesn't help that opportunities tend to come in clusters. I'll say yes to a couple of things because life has slowed down and I have time and energy, and then a few more things will crop up: emergencies I can't ignore; goals I've long pursued and can't refuse even if the timing isn't optimal; and so forth. Sometimes I'll look at a particular week and laugh at how events have piled up close together, despite my attempts to spread them out.

I wrote about the yes/no challenges in Loner in the Garret. I don't have a universal magic answer, but for me the yes and no end up taking turns. When I have to, I'll even set aside precious days for cocooning, for an absence of formal plans, for the gathering of energy in between the busiest stretches.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The ghostly reader

Purely as a warmup, throwaway writing exercise, I've been keeping a journal this year. I ask myself to write at least 100 words a day, and they don't have to be good, or tell a story. I just have to put down a few sentences.

This is not a journal ever meant for anyone else's eyes, and I can't imagine why anyone would want to read it, since it's the equivalent of finger exercises for a pianist. And yet, I still find it difficult to write with the assumption that nobody else will ever read it. I'm not revising or polishing what I write, but I often find myself adjusting my words or topic as if to accommodate some nonexistent audience. I was talking with a writer friend about that, and she agreed: she also feels that ghostly imaginary reader hovering over her shoulder when writing a journal. Does every diarist feel it, I wonder? I suppose we're too aware of how many journals have been published, even when their writers never intended it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Trust the story

One of the little scraps of paper I have kept around my writing desk for inspiration says, "Trust the story." That's to remind me where to look when I need the perfect ending, or climax, or when I don't know how to connect a couple of essential scenes, or when I'm floundering. That's to remind me to go back to the story itself, the theme, the characters' goals, the point I'm trying to make, the reason I started writing the story in the first place. Often the key is already there, and I just have to recognize it.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


Today I wrote myself a note. When I stumbled across it just a few hours later, I'd forgotten it so totally that it was as if an alien had written it. What note was this? What was it about? What was that word--potato? Why was I writing a note about a potato?

After a minute or so, I not only deciphered it but remembered the context, and had a good laugh. The word I misread as "potato" was "portable," and the note was about an email I had wanted to send someone. I had sent the email, and so my brain apparently decided not to waste any more energy on the note.

When I look over old journal entries, they bring to mind things I would otherwise forget. Writing is, among other things, a way of remembering. We change, we forget, and so much is fleeting. So I pin a moment in place with words, capture a memory, and then I have it for good. As long as I don't make my words too cryptic, or too illegible!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Striving for the better

Life is unfair. Bad things happen to good people; justice is often not served. Hard work doesn't always reap proportionate rewards.

It occurred to me that stories are one way we deal with this. Some of the earliest stories I ever read were fairy tales and Aesop's fables. The good people lived happily ever after, while the ones who were cruel or deceptive suffered. The tortoise won the race by working hard--never mind that the hare was born to be faster. Every event had its lesson to teach.

As I grew older, I encountered stories in which the good weren't always rewarded. Things got more complicated. Yet I still looked to stories for insight and comfort. Even if the scales didn't balance in a story, I looked for the author to signal his or her awareness that the scales didn't balance. Atticus Finch loses the big trial in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the defendant ends up dead, but every reader knows that the book is, in a larger sense, calling out injustice. This outcome isn't supposed to be a happy ending.

In stories we often strive for our better selves, the best world we can imagine. Even when we show it by using the worst world we can imagine as a counter-example or warning (as in dystopian literature). Characters change and grow, and even the darkest stories usually end with some ray of hope, the hope we all need.

Monday, October 3, 2016


For a week, I've been hiking, and reading, and enjoying scenery. I have written nothing except for brief daily journal entries. I've been completely unplugged from social media, and I barely watched any TV.

It was wonderful.

Before I go away on vacation, I am so deeply immersed in my world that I hate to disconnect. The packing, the air travel, the many arrangements, all seem like too much trouble. Why am I doing this? I ask myself. I could stay home and relax, and that would be vacation enough.

Then I see my first mountain, or giant sequoia, or canyon, or beach, and I remember why.

The world is so large, so beautiful.

I need to slow down, every now and then.

I need to step away from the screen.

I need to reconnect with some part of myself that gets buried in the busyness of work, the daily minutiae.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The in-between time

I've been a little scarce around these parts because I've been pouring my writing energy into a certain writing project. That project has now reached the milestone I was aiming for, so I get to come out of my cave, blinking, and see what's going on in the world. I will be scarce for another week or so while I pursue another, non-writing, interest.

But while I'm here, I'd like to speak about this in-between time, this break in a writer's life. I used to jump almost immediately from one project to another, as if I were trying to outrun ... something. I don't know what. Sometimes that jump can be eager, an excitement to start the new thing, but for me I think it was more about fear, about losing a day or not staying relevant or something. Now I savor a break. I have more trust that the next project will bubble up when it's ready, and in the meantime it's OK to reacquaint myself with the world beyond my keyboard.

Enjoy your time, whether you're inside or outside of the writing cave at the moment!

Thursday, September 15, 2016


It doesn't surprise me that there is such a thing as a "list poem." I'm a big fan of lists--I could hardly navigate my way through a week without them--and there are some lists that do evoke the poetic. I've always loved lists of colors (as in a watercolor paintbox, a box of crayons, a clothing catalog, paint chips). A menu is a mouth-watering list. A trip to the airport offers a horizontal list poem as I walk past other gates to get to mine, reading the destinations off the gate screens and mentally adding an exclamation point to each: Honolulu! Phoenix! San Francisco! Denver! Seattle!

I snuck a list poem of sorts into my third novel, Until It Hurts to Stop, when the main character muses over the names of mushrooms in a field guide. Tree names, bird names, and wildflower names are just as satisfying. (I used to pore over a flower book that included in its offerings "viper's bugloss," "blue vervain," and "butter-and-eggs." What more could a word person ask, than such names?) The challenge in a creative list, such as a list poem, is deciding what to include and what to leave out, and how to arrange the items. But sometimes I just enjoy the lists I stumble across in the world as found poems.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Thankful for the window

Before I set up the writing office I have now, I read or heard somewhere that your desk shouldn't face the window. It should face the wall, because a window is too distracting.

I've been grateful a million times that I ignored that advice. The window over my desk shows me trees in all seasons. It has shown me spiderwebs glistening in the sun, and squirrels jumping through branches. I have seen ice and rain, a bat, birds and insects of all kinds. Cicadas have clung to the screen, and fireflies have drifted past to blink their lights at the green lights on my computer.

But what about writing? you may ask. Isn't that what I'm supposed to be doing here? Haven't I just proven how distracting a window is?

For me, it's the kind of distraction that has enhanced my writing rather than blocked it. Something about facing a blank wall felt stifling, like a punishment. (This is just me; it isn't so for everyone. Many writers may find a blank wall a perfect canvas for their imaginations.) This window of mine reminds me there's a world out there, the world I'm writing about. It gives me breathing room, a view of nature. I spend a lot of time staring at a computer screen. Every now and then I need to lift my eyes to the greenery out my window.

What's your favorite feature of the place where you write?

Friday, September 9, 2016

What kind of writer am I?

When people say they want to be writers, that can mean many things; there are many kinds of writers to be.

There's journalism, technical writing, advertising. There are educational materials and novels and poems, mysteries and biographies, memoirs and instruction books, screenplays and short stories. At some point a writer gravitates toward a genre and an audience.

Along the way, writers also discover what they expect and hope for in terms of pursuing commercial success. There are writers publishing their own work, bringing out multiple books a year, figuring out how to get their work edited and marketed and formatted. There are writers who publish poems in a local newsletter for free and find it a happy addition to their lives, but they make their living in other ways. There are writers whose chief aim is to do something new with language or form, and writers whose chief aim is to reach a large general audience.There are writers everywhere along these spectra, writers with many different goals.

My own expectations and desires have changed over the past few years. I've come to see how much writing vs. everything else (editing, marketing, selling, teaching, etc.) I want to do. I've come to learn where I want writing to fit into my life. I've come to the point where what I have and what I want are much more closely aligned. I've thought about how I want to spend my time and energy.

Sometimes I read writing advice about how writers have to do X, Y, and Z to be successful, when what the advice-giver really means is that X, Y, and Z gave him the kind of success he wanted. There is a natural variation in whether X, Y, and Z will produce the same results for every writer who wants that brand of success. But before that, a writer can ask: Is that the career I even want? Or does my ideal career look somewhat different?

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Thoughts while line editing

What did I mean by that?
I'm going to have to rewrite this section. Needs tension.
Used that word three times in this paragraph. How about a synonym?
I still love this scene.
That character needs to sound more natural.
I will shrink this page of exposition down to a potent, useful nugget.
Ah, there's a typo.
Didn't I give that character a different first name earlier on?
I'm going to finish sooner than I thought!
This is going to take longer than I thought.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The receding finish line

As I work through the items on a revision checklist, I discover new things to fix, new items to add to the bottom of the list. It's the old game that manuscripts love to play when the finish line of a draft is in sight.

Maybe the manuscript knows that if it showed all its flaws at once, the writer would run screaming in horror. So it reveals them slowly, tantalizing the writer with the idea that someday this draft will be complete.

Friday, August 26, 2016


Before a writing session, I like to read a little, but not a novel with a strong voice or complicated plot that might distract me when I'm getting ready to focus on my own plots, my own voice. The journals of May Sarton work well for this. The entries are short, there isn't a traditional "plot" to keep track of, and she usually says something about writing.

This morning, I happened to be reading an entry for an August 26, which is also today's date. The entry opened this way:

"Doris Grumbach is here for two nights and a day and it is good to know someone is working downstairs, a fellow writer. It is rarely that a writer comes to stay, and it makes me see once more that no one who is not engaged in this particular struggle, to bring a vision of life out into words, can really understand what it is all about and the hazards that assail the writer every day ... It is wonderful to be able to talk freely without being thought absurd, self-pitying, or narcissistic about these silent battles."--from Recovering: A Journal

It was remarkable to read that entry with today's date, because today I hosted a fellow writer for a mini-retreat at my house. She worked downstairs while I worked upstairs, and at lunchtime we "talked freely" about our "silent battles!" It really is encouraging to have another writer in the house, as if the progress of each of us feeds into the progress of the other. Also by committing to this, we each formally set aside writing time that would not be disturbed by the distractions, household chores, etc., of a typical day.

I made substantial progress on my manuscript, and she processed a detailed critique in order to plan a revision. Altogether, a most satisfying day.

Monday, August 22, 2016

What's in a name? More than I'd like

One great thing about writing nonfiction is that the people and places come already named. Naming fictional characters and places severely taxes me. The problem isn't just finding a suitable name, but finding a suitable name that also meets these criteria:
1) I didn't already use that name in a previous book
2) It's not the name of any family member, friend, or colleague
3) It's not the name of a celebrity, noted historical figure, notorious criminal, unsavory person, etc.
4) It's not too similar to any of the names of the other characters in the same book
5) It's not an unusual name that was just used recently in a more famous book, or has been used in a lot of recent YA already
6) It's not the name of a fictional place that's already part of some other well-known world like Pokemon, Disney, Game of Thrones, Narnia, etc., etc. (I may yet fail on this one; it seems like EVERY place name I can invent has already been used by someone. Or else it is the name of a new pharmaceutical.)

Just wait until I get around to choosing a title. That is when I really get dramatic!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The challenging read

Once again, I'm reading a book that I'm not sure I'm into. I was really looking forward to this book, mostly because of the setting--it's in a time and place that I find very interesting but is a bit unusual for historical fiction. Also, the main character is very different from me, and I was looking forward to a different viewpoint.

None of that is the problem. The problem is the plot. As in, there isn't much of one. I reached page 50 wondering why I wasn't more enthusiastic about this story, and then I realized: What story? Nothing's happening. We had descriptions of the main character and descriptions of where he lives and where he works and where he hangs out when he is not working, and there were descriptions of his relatives and his boss and his acquaintances, but by page 50 none of these characters had done much of anything to warrant all this ink.

I have been more willing lately to abandon books unfinished if they're not holding my interest, but I decided to give this one a bit more of a chance for the sake of the setting. Also, it's very well written on the sentence-by-sentence level, so I know this writer has some chops, and I'm hoping that persistence will pay off in the end. There are times I will stick with a difficult book to challenge myself, and I'm willing to challenge myself a little longer here.

Fortunately, things picked up a bit between pages 50 and 60, so we'll see how it goes from here. I'm not yet committed to finishing, but I'll see how the next 20-30 pages go. Also I am using this experience to remind myself that as a writer, I must never let a story go on anywhere near this long without some change, some progress in the conflict.

Sunday, August 14, 2016


I've been recovering from a medical procedure and so have been a bit scarce around here. I popped into social media for short periods of time, but mostly I have been just enduring, distracting myself with radio stories (This American Life archives, I'm looking gratefully at you) and Olympics coverage (even when I could only listen to it rather than watch it, it was a welcome mind-occupier). It's only within the last day or two that I feel like I'm finally getting my life back.

I've thought a lot about pain this week, too, about how we can prepare ourselves for a certain amount of it, but once its reality exceeds our expectations in either intensity or duration, our inner resources are sorely taxed. Sometimes we equate the ability to cope with pain with morality, and I do admire those who can endure without complaint, but I don't know that that's really a moral issue. There are times when all we can do is make it to the next moment. As writers, these are the lengths to which we push our characters, and I think the central question for me as a reader is: How do characters cope with pain?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The best intentions

A couple of sentences from the book I'm reading, Split by Suzanne Finnamore, jumped out at me. (In the book, they appear a few pages apart):

"I intend truth, but some of what I believe to be true is doubtless untrue."


"'Everything is going according to plan,' Christian says. 'Just not the plan you made.'"

They could apply to writing. Or life in general. We are always aiming at truth, but we're never sure what we might have wrong. We must be confident, even while we know we're not perfect. We weave coherent narratives, knowing that any thread could loosen and start the unraveling if our understanding changes.

We plan even though we know our span of control is limited, and things will happen that we can't predict.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Pen and paper

Over the years, I've gone from longhand drafting and editing on paper to drafting and revising on screen. Cutting and pasting is certainly easier on a computer, although it took me some adjustment to go from physically marking up a manuscript to editing wholly with a mouse and keyboard.

But the other day, I was working on chapter breaks and calendar dates in a manuscript--trying to pin down when every scene must take place, and identifying the arc and natural stopping point for each chapter--and it drove me batty, trying to do this on screen. Finally I printed out the whole manuscript, so that I could feel the heft of a chapter, flip back and forth easily, spread many pages out at once, mark and cross out things, more easily than I could on the computer. It worked so much better for me, for this particular manuscript.

Sometimes the tool we pull out of our writing toolboxes is the old-fashioned one, the one we haven't picked up in a while.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Summer afternoons

A couple of years ago, I started a summer-afternoon tradition: reading on the porch for an hour.

I'm technically too busy for this. I never run out of things to do, and if I didn't make time for this by putting off something else, it wouldn't happen.

But I decided I was tired of watching golden afternoons pass unsavored, tired of seeing my front and back porches go unused, tired of never stopping to enjoy the beautiful place where I live.

So I began setting aside this hour on weekend afternoons whenever it's warm enough to be outside. And it's been wonderful.

Time slows. I sit and read. I look up from my book to enjoy the sight of leaves waving in the breeze. I hear the wind chimes, the birds, the cicadas, the squirrel that scolds my cat. I sip some cool water. I catch the scent of pine needles or lilacs or holly flowers, depending on the month.

It's the simplest of simple pleasures. It costs nothing. It's one of my favorite parts of the weekend.

Happy reading.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Mix 'n' match: from the closet to the keyboard

Usually, when I buy a piece of clothing, I have some idea of where I might wear it and what other clothes I'll combine it with. How wrong those ideas can be! A good deal of the time, when I get it home, I discover that the brown in the shirt doesn't really match the brown pants I was thinking of. Or the lack of pockets bothers me even more than I thought it might. Or it never is the perfect temperature for that shirt, or I never find the right occasion for that dress. I once had a skirt I loved but never found the right top to pair with it. Nothing matched it. So eventually I donated it, and I hope whoever got it found the perfect shirt for it.

Then there are the clothes I end up loving more than I thought I would. The pants that are so comfortable, the shirt that matches everything, the sweater that's just right for chilly days. I don't always recognize these "greatest hits" when I first meet them; they grow on me.

Today I wore a black T-shirt  that I originally bought to wear under a particular low-necked sweater. I found out that I don't like the way it looks under the sweater, but it pairs perfectly with a skirt I've been holding onto for years. The skirt originally came with a matching top, and I wore that outfit until the shirt began to fray. The skirt, with its shades of blue and purple and black, was so pretty that I couldn't bear to throw it away too, and after all it was still perfectly wearable. So it's been waiting in my closet--apparently waiting for this shirt to come along.

My writing is the same way. I have the stories that seemed like great ideas at first, but didn't really work. The stories I thought I'd try to write, but weren't really "me" after all. The ideas I pursued on a whim just to see where they went--and ended up loving. Like pairing that black shirt with that skirt, I have pulled characters out of failed stories and paired them with plots or settings from different failed stories, and realized they were made for each other.

Despite all the planning I do, surprises are still inevitable.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Inner compass

I've been lucky to have writer friends going through similar experiences at the same time I have. Seeking that first book publication ... launching a first novel ... juggling the writing of a second book with promoting the first ... We rode those roller coasters together. And many of us have also hit a point, a few books into our careers, where we ask ourselves what's still working for us and what isn't. Where we refocus on the writing, and reconnect with whatever spark led us to pick up a pen or tap a keyboard in the first place.

Most people don't start writing because of riches and fame, which are rare in this field and more easily had by pursuing a different career. We start writing because we have something to say. And sharing that writing can be wonderful; it is the natural next step. But along with that comes pressure and worry about what people will think--will they approve, will they condemn, will they ignore, will they pay? What will sell? What will please that one reviewer who pointed out that one flaw? What will please the reader who thought the ending was too sad? What will please the parent who thought the language was too rough? What will please that bookstore buyer who wants more zombies?

I'm not saying that thinking about the audience is wrong, or that we should never take feedback. I'm saying that when we find ourselves lost in projecting and predicting the reactions of others, when their voices (as we imagine them) drown out our inner voice, it might be time to reset the compass. And ask: Where was it I originally wanted to go? What do I need to say?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


Just a few days after posting my own Tale of a Trunk Novel, I found this in a memoir I was reading:

"... I'm mulling over the story I spent years writing and failed to turn into anything ... Nothing is wasted when you are a writer. The stuff that doesn't work has to be written to make way for the stuff that might; often you need to take the long way round."
--What Comes Next and How to Like It, by Abigail Thomas

So often, writers find this happening: our own thoughts or experiences there on a page written by another. As a reader, there's that joy of connection, that "Me, too!" moment, that feeling of being less alone. As a writer, there's that worry that no thought is really new or original.

But if all we do when we write is find new ways to say old truths, I'm okay with that. Because we each have to discover life for ourselves.

Saturday, July 16, 2016


I've never yet been able to write a book without, at some point, creating a calendar showing on which date each scene takes place.

Otherwise, I lose track. What day of the week is it? How many weeks have passed since the opening scene? What season is it now? What holidays are coming up? Should the characters be wearing shorts or parkas by now?

To this end, I save the free calendars that come in my junk mail, and I use them to help with this aspect of plot and setting. Since I have never specified a particular year in which my books occur, I can pick any year. I'm not looking for my dates to match a specific year; I'm only looking for the relationship between scenes to make sense. A scene that happens seven days after a Sunday should also be on a Sunday; a scene that happens six months after midwinter should take place in midsummer, and so forth.

Monday, July 11, 2016

New territory

In my last entry, I mentioned some short pieces I've written in the past year. One of these has been published in The Head & The Hand Press's Bible Belt Almanac, an anthology of writers grappling with questions of faith and religion. And in my short memoir, "What I Learned in Sunday School," I definitely have more questions than answers.

Memoir is a genre into which I've been sticking my toe. I've been reading lots of them (whatever I write, I start as a reader first), and participating in Creative Nonfiction's #cnftweet Twitter challenge (tell a true story in the space of a tweet). I took a short workshop with Beth Kephart (who is now offering multi-day retreat workshops in writing memoir), and I've been exploring this territory more and more.

I haven't given up on novels, however. I've always liked variety: I've published short stories, short nonfiction, a nonfiction book, novels, and even a couple of poems. Writers tend to get known for one form or another, but many of us write various forms. There are so many options.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Tale of a trunk novel

Last year when I took a break from writing for a time, part of the reason was that I didn't know what to write about. I didn't have a story, an idea, an issue, that called to me the way my four published books (and a few unpublished ones) had. I wasn't burning to say anything in particular.

And so silence really was what I needed then.

Finally I wrote a book, the only book I could write then, the first thing I'd been driven to write in a while. I even had hope that others might want to read it eventually.

You've probably heard stories like this before: writer has slump, writer flounders, writer turns inward and writes from the heart, writer produces great story that brings acclaim.

This isn't one of those. Because the book I wrote then turned out not to be ready for prime time. After I considered the feedback, it didn't seem salvageable, and more than that, I was no longer interested in trying. The fever in which I wrote that book had broken.

Its destiny is to be a trunk novel, but that book did what it needed to do, which was to break the logjam. To get something out of my system. To help me on to the next story, and the next. Since then I have been writing more and more, both short- and long-form pieces.

Not a word was wasted.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Letting go

One of my themes over the past year or two has been letting go. Letting go of excess possessions, of one-sided relationships, of illusions of how life is "supposed" to go, of expectations about my writing career, of youth and the energy and quick physical healing that went with it, of books I don't want to finish after all, of papers that are not so important as they once seemed, of certain fears and worries, of beloved people lost too soon, of bucket-list items that have lost their appeal, of a heap of intimidated self-consciousness (good riddance!), and much more. Some of it drifted away with much regret; some of it I shed eagerly.

Writing is still here, though. I need breaks from it, and I took a long one last year, but in the long run it seems to circle back to me.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The highs and lows of a writing career

If you've ever believed that a writing career is a marathon, not a sprint, this conversation between Janet Lee Carey and Janni L. Simner will ring true. It reflects a reality I've experienced and seen other writers go through. A few sample quotes:

I thought I understood so much, but most of my advice came down to, “Just be like me.” That’s terrible advice.

At some point, it also hit me that there were no guarantees as a writer and that success wasn’t as simple as just being intense enough or doing any other one right thing.

We forget that everything cycles around, and that any book can be commercial one year and uncommercial the next—or vice versa.

The fear of not belonging as a writer is another really common thread I see among writers, especially new writers. I wonder if our initial intensity is in part an attempt to outrun that fear.

No one can make us stop writing … it’s always the writing this comes back to.

The whole thing is recommended reading. (And there's a book giveaway, too!)

Monday, June 27, 2016


I could use a few dreamy, idle moments--how about you?

Here's how I spend mine, as recorded in my monthly YAOTL post, this one my favorite things about summer.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Finding an ending

I've been working on a project whose ending has been elusive. I wrote toward a specific ending, but when I got there, it seemed a bit--off. Underwhelming. But I wasn't sure what else to do with it. I tried this and that. I went back and seeded certain things earlier in the story, to set up the ending better. I rewrote the ending scene. I made it longer. I made it shorter. It got better, but I was still plagued by nagging doubts.

I usually have trouble with endings, much more so than with beginnings. Here's how I have solved a few of them:

--Look back at the theme. What's this story really about? That gave me the ending of one of my short stories, "Feed the City."

--Go back to the beginning. Have I fully explored everything that was present in the opening scene? Where else can I take it? These questions led me to an entirely new climax and ending for Try Not to Breathe.

--Lop off material that seems to be starting a whole new story. Get into the character's head in order to give him emotional resolution. Go all out emotionally, and then dial it back just a touch. That's how I wrote the final scene of The Secret Year.

For my current project, I took an idea from a novel I just finished reading. That novel's author had written a climactic scene full of sparks and confessions and consequences, a real payoff for the tension that had built up over the course of the book. As I read it, it reminded me of the way movies often end; I could really visualize that scene happening in a movie. So I looked at my own story and asked whether it could end with a bang instead of a whimper. In my latest draft, the main character takes an important, but quiet, step. I started looking at what kind of step could have the same meaning, but be much more interesting and significant, involving more characters and a bigger emotional payoff. How could my own book have a movie-style ending? And I've come up with an idea. It may or may not lead to a better ending, but after several hours of thinking it over, I'm still enthusiastic.

Basically, I conclude that brainstorms come from anywhere and everywhere. That's one reason to develop a large writing toolbox; you never know which tool a project is going to need.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A for Effort

"The effort of writing itself is nothing. It is that intense concentration, the imaginative heave before I can write a word that is exhausting."
--May Sarton, Recovering: A Journal

Writing is at its easiest when I can see the scene unrolling in my mind's eye. But getting that mental film loaded into the projector is the hard part.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Whatever works now

A writer friend and I were talking about process today: how much time to sit at the writing desk, and when, and how to fit in everything else, and how to end a writing session. I noted that my process has changed over the years: I do more writing in the morning now than at night, for example, and I write more regularly rather than in the occasional binge-like sessions of my college days.

Both of us realized that marriage had correlated with more productivity at the writing desk. We could think of a few possible reasons--more stability, happiness, less need to invest emotional energy searching for potential partners and navigating the uncertainty of the dating world--but of course there's no guarantee it works that way for everyone who marries. We just found it interesting.

One thing I have observed is that many writers' processes change over time. Life happens, medical conditions happen, our day-job and family circumstances change. Beyond that, we change as writers: we try new things, learn what works, explore new genres and formats. And then, technology changes, too. I used to write primarily in longhand; now I write primarily though not exclusively on the keyboard. Whatever works now is my motto.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The slowness of words, the illusion of immediacy

"When I write, I am trying through the movement of my fingers to reach my head. I'm trying to build a word ladder up to my brain. Eventually these words help me come to an idea, and then I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite what I'd already written (when I had no idea what I was writing about) until the path of thinking, in retrospect, feels immediate. What's on the page appears to have busted out of my head and traveled down my arms and through my fingers and my keyboard and coalesced on the screen. But it didn't happen like that; it never happens like that."
--Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock

This is one of the most apt descriptions I have found for how I myself write, and revise, and why I am often unable to write about events until long after they happen.

Friday, June 10, 2016

On author newsletters

For a while, every writer "had to have" a Myspace page, and then you "had to have" a blog, and then I lost track for a while--maybe it was Facebook or Twitter you had to have. Nowadays, a newsletter seems to be the thing to have.

The trouble with these must-have platforms is that they tend to work best for the early adopters. Then the audience becomes saturated, then oversaturated, and people decide something else is the new must-have.

And I suspect that is what will happen with newsletters. More and more writers seem to be doing them. I don't send one out myself, but I do get a few, and I thought I'd share FWIW what I like and don't like as a reader.

I am currently very careful about signing up for any new newsletters. I get a lot of email as it is, and by far the best email falls into two categories: 1) personal messages from people I know; and 2) messages about my writing (fan mail, communications from agent, acceptances from editors, etc.). I get tons and tons of spam, and fundraising requests, and political-action messages, and I'm not eager to add new email to my box unless it's more like categories 1 and 2 than like the spam.

Some of the newsletters I most enjoy getting (not in any particular order) are from: Powell's bookstore; Brent Hartinger; Beth Kephart's Juncture; my local library. There may be a couple of others I'm forgetting at the moment. But here's why I like them:

--I asked for them, either by actively signing up or by initiating contact with the writer. One thing I really dislike is when authors with whom I've had no contact add me to their mailing lists, or when companies start bombarding me with messages when I haven't actively signed up for their lists. A few authors have sent me newsletters that had me scratching my head: Who is this person and why is he announcing his new books in a genre I don't even read?

--They include interesting information beyond just "buy my book!" Powell's has author interviews and essays that are about interesting topics. My library's newsletter lets me know what is going on: upcoming workshops, for example. Beth Kephart invites a conversation with her readers, most of whom are also writers.

--They have a unique flavor and a personality. Beth Kephart and Brent Hartinger both address their readers in tones that are typical of their author voices (Kephart's thoughtful, intimate, poetic; Hartinger's fun and often funny), and that show an awareness of audience. Too many newsletters just seem to be slick, slapped-together commercials that are being flung out into an anonymous universe: an ad for an upcoming book, with perhaps a favorable review quote, and maybe a short, generalized message to readers that could just as easily appear in any other author's newsletter. I like knowing that a favorite author has a new book out; I'm not saying that an author newsletter has to coyly sidestep that fact. But a book ad is not the same thing as a newsletter.

--They are fairly brief; any longer material is click-to-see-more. Nobody can spend all day reading newsletters. The ones I've mentioned are succinct. Powell's is the longest, but it's formatted so that you can see at a glance which features and interviews are of enough personal interest to click through and read the whole thing.

I have absolutely bought or checked out books that I found out about from newsletters. But I still find most of my books in other ways. I think a newsletter can work well for authors who really want to do them (rather than feeling obligated to), who can think of ways to put their own personal spin on them. But I also think newsletters are not "must-haves" for those who'd rather not do them.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Real life stories

I have been watching several of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's bird webcams this spring. At one end of the spectrum, we have the happy tale of the redtail hawks: three eggs laid, three birds successfully hatched, three juveniles well fed and tended by their experienced parents. The first hawk fledged (took its first flight off the nest) last night. From here, the young hawks will face riskier lives as they learn to fly and hunt, but they have had as good a start as young birds could have.

On the other end of the spectrum was the disaster unfolding at the barn owl nest box: rainy weather that kept the parents from providing enough prey for their six hatchlings; the disappearance of the male parent; attacks on the nest by another owl; the gradual loss of the owlets until only one was left; and then the injury and disappearance of the female parent. (It was hard not to wish that the redtail father in New York, who provided an abundance of food for his young, could also provide food for the hungry owlets in Texas. But nature doesn't work that way.) The remaining owlet appears to be the lone survivor of her family. She has been relocated to a wildlife rehab center, having begun life in just about as difficult a manner as possible.

Nature deals the cards unevenly. In every life is a story: unpredictable, riveting, and leading us to ever more questions.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The wall

Katie M. Stout just posted eloquently about "hitting the wall," and it has become such a familiar story that I think it may just be a phase in many (most?) writers' lives. Which is not to say it's easy, or trivial. It can last a season, or years, or anything in between. It can be brutal while it lasts. I've gone through my own version of it.

But what I've seen happen to so many writers is that the well refills, one way or another. As Katie Stout says, the writers' goals often change. What the writer writes, or for whom, or how, can change. There is a door in the wall--invisible as it may be for a while--with new territory on the other side.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Dreams and goals

I've been posting about hope, the future, and the value of dreams over at YA Outside the Lines.

I've been thinking about my own dreams and aspirations, too. Many of the goals I set out to reach at the age of 20 or so, I have reached. Some of those dreams turned out better than I expected; some worse. For many writers like me, publication was a big, concrete goal. I'm glad I reached it, but I find it's not an end in itself. The writing road stretches out beyond it, and I've been thinking about where I want it to take me. That's one reason I've been posting a little less here. I have actually been writing a lot, but in an exploratory way that I'm not ready to discuss yet, because I'm still figuring out certain things. (How's that for vague?)

I'm also reading a lot. That's one ambition that has never changed: to read early (and late) and often!

Friday, May 20, 2016

Carpe diem

I've had busy weekends lately, and the chores I usually do on weekends have been piling up, waiting for me to have a block of open time.

That would be this weekend. I had Friday off from the day job, so it's even a three-day weekend. Not that I don't have plenty of things to fill it up with.

But today was also one of the few days we've had all month of warm, sunny weather. Mostly we have been dragging around here, shivering in the cold rain, forgetting for weeks at a time what the sun even looked like. And tomorrow it's supposed to be wet and cold again.

So after this morning's writing session, I glanced at my long to-do list. I looked outside. And I grabbed my husband and we went on a hike.

Then this afternoon, I took an hour to read on the front porch, which is one of my favorite things to do, and can only be done "in season."

My to-do list is still long. But I regret nothing.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Support your local library

Some years ago, I used to do a blog comment challenge to raise money for my local library, and I got other bloggers to join me. Basically, we pledged to donate to our local libraries for each comment or tweet we got. We used it to raise consciousness as well as money.

That was the heyday of blogs, and I haven't done the challenge since social media splintered into a kajillion different platforms, but I still donate to my local library each spring.

And in that spirit, I'd like to encourage you to support your local library, if you have one and appreciate what it brings to the community. There are many ways to contribute beyond monetary donations. Here are some:

1. Donate money to the library and/or Friends of Library group.
2. Volunteer time at the library, friends group, or library board.
3. Donate books and other materials (but check first to see what the library accepts; not all libraries are able to accept all materials).
4. Write to your local officials (at whatever level of government funds your library) and express your support for the library.
5. Attend local-government meetings at which library funding is discussed and voted on.

And the most fun way: Use your library! Circulation statistics may help demonstrate the need for the library with hard numbers.

We usually think of books first when it comes to libraries, but libraries do so much more nowadays. Including:

Lending movies, music, magazines, ebooks, museum passes, tools, and other objects.
Hosting workshops on a variety of topics (citizenship classes, job hunting, estate planning, history lectures, etc.)
Hosting arts and crafts workshops and "makerspaces."
Having book clubs and summer reading programs.
Providing community meeting rooms.
Showing movies.
Providing free computers and internet for onsite use.
Hosting a community garden and teaching kids about organic gardening.
Hosting story time for kids.
Et cetera!

Monday, May 9, 2016


"It was essential to feel thankful for the few who stopped to watch or listen, instead of wasting energy on resenting the majority who passed me by. ... All I needed was ... some people. Enough people. Enough to make it worth coming back the next day, enough to make rent and put food on the table. And enough so I could keep making art."
--Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking

In this book, Palmer writes a lot about finding your audience, and how that audience doesn't necessarily need to be (in fact, it probably can't be) every single person. She relies on this conclusion: "Given the opportunity, some small consistent portion of the population will happily pay for art" (emphasis in original).

This is a model that rivals the blockbuster-or-bust mindset. It's about patience, and diligence, and trust, and about asking ourselves what is enough.

Sunday, May 1, 2016


Along with the serious work of writing--the construction of plot, the research, the emotional delving, the observation, the rereading and cutting and rewriting, the double-checking--it's important to keep sight of the fun in it. "Fun" may be a relative term when our subject matter is deeply tragic, or purely informational (like an instruction manual), or when we're racing a deadline.

But writing is creative work, and some of our best writing may come from playing. From word games, fun exercises, creative risks. From asking "What if?" or procrastinating on another project by starting something new. From pursuing the project we want rather than the one we ought be be tackling. Experimenting, trying a new genre or style or medium, mixing it up. Remembering the love of words and stories and characters that brought us to this crazy avocation in the first place.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

On impulse

At YA Outside the Lines this month, we're blogging about foolish things. I reminisced about some foolish trips to the beach on April days.

That's the thing about being spontaneous; things don't always go as planned. But sometimes you gotta try. Sometimes just breaking the routine is worth it.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Yeah, I meant to do that

"Talking about art requires artists to sound purposeful and sure of themselves, but she'd never felt that way. Over the years she'd made up a lot of reasons because people didn't seem to like the arbitrariness of the reality."
--Still Life with Bread Crumbs, Anna Quindlen

I think most writers do have plans and purpose, but it may not always be what readers see, and readers may find connections we didn't (consciously) intend. But I like this quote because it speaks to the intuitive part of art-making. I don't find writing to be a wholly calculated, wholly intellectual exercise, but to include some of what Quindlen's character thinks of as "arbitrariness," which we may also call "inspiration."

Friday, April 22, 2016

Same character, different audience ages

A writing student asked me if it's possible to write a publishable story about a character at a young age, for young readers, and then write about the same character at an older phase of life for older readers. Several years ago, I would have said probably not, but by now I've seen a few examples--and of course, now self-publishing is a more viable option than it used to be.

I've heard it argued that the Harry Potter books advance from middle-grade through young-adult. Author Brent Hartinger has taken his YA character, Russel Middlebrook (of Geography Club and its three sequels) into some new-adult books featuring the character in early adulthood (The Thing I Didn't Know I Didn't Know and its sequels). Hartinger refers to the new-adult phase of the character's life as the "Futon Years." (For other characters, this phase of life might be referred to as the Dorm Years, the Studio Apartment Years, the Living with Roommates Years, or the Sleeping on Someone's Couch Years.)

Recently, thanks to a post on the Read is the New Black site, I was reminded of my affection for Marilyn Sachs's books, and I discovered she has a sequel to an old favorite of mine, A Pocket Full of Seeds. That book took its main character from early childhood through the age of thirteen, and the sequel takes her from age thirteen to seventeen. Even though the books are billed as being for the same age reader (grades 5 through 8), I suspect that the sequel, Lost in America, would appeal to somewhat older readers. I plan to check it out.

Anyway, the point is that the rigidity of expectations about audience and branding, and how older people won't read books for younger people and so on, is fading. You may know of even more examples than the ones I've been able to find. Even though it still might be unusual to take a character into different audience age ranges, it's not unthinkable. And the conventions that traditional publishing houses and booksellers still follow don't have to apply to anyone who self-publishes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Ever shifting, ever elusive

Jeannine Atkins writes of the slow strange process of fiction writing, of groping for the story we want to write, mean to write, and must accept our imperfections in pursuing.

Natalie Whipple writes of each book's tendency to come out in its own way, of how the process differs from book to book. I too have been frustrated on occasion with each book's insistence on being a special snowflake in the way it arrives, but it really shouldn't be a surprise. We change, our lives change, and the things we need to write about change.

If each story came out perfectly, the same way each time, it would certainly be easier on us, but easy isn't the point. I won't go as far as John F. Kennedy did in his moon speech, saying that we do this because it is hard, either. It is just necessary--somehow, some way.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Look at this

Here's another quote I wanted to remember from Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, ed. by Meredith Maran. This one is fromJames McBride:

"You don’t write it to show how smart you are or how dumb they are. You’re trying to share from a sense of humbleness."

It is in the same ballpark as this one from Darin Strauss in the same book:

"If nonfiction is any good, it has to be harder on the protagonist than on anybody else."

I think these quotes apply not only to memoir but to fiction as well, and they dovetail with the advice not to protect your characters too much. There's a vulnerability in sharing a story. Reading the written word is in some ways an intimate act; it's like a whisper in the ear. "Look what I discovered," the writer tells the reader, not in a boastful way, but in the way one person might call another to a window to see a rainbow, a tornado, a falling star. Look at this amazing world we live in; this scary, funny, perplexing, beautiful, horrifying, sweet, mysterious world.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The joy

Here's an uplifting quote from Sue Monk Kidd: "Writing is an amazing way to spend your life. It helps to be grateful for that, to stand in awe of it a little."

It appears in Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, ed. by Meredith Maran.

It's just a reminder that with all of the frustrations of writing--the second-guessing, the uncertainty, the plots and characters that won't behave, the wondering whether anyone will care--there is joy. The joy of finding meaning in life and conveying it somehow, of reaching out to others in the hope of sharing a vision, of informing or entertaining. The joy of connecting with those around us.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Secret projects

Sometimes it's nice to have a writing project that you don't talk about.
You don't discuss it with anyone, so all your writing energy goes into the story, into moving it forward and making it better.
It's just for you. Maybe someday others will get to read it, but in the beginning it's just the two of you.
There's immense freedom in that, in knowing that nobody else's expectations will sway it. Nobody's criticism matters; nobody's approval is necessary.
Nobody else is awaiting it, so even if you stop dead in the middle of a sentence and never touch it again, it's OK. If you write 5000 words a day on it, it's OK. If you do just one draft, it's OK. If you do 71 drafts, it's OK.
Everything's OK, which is the really marvelous part. You are not worried about selling it. You are not worried about anything, really.

I have had secret projects, and they were fun. Maybe they're not for everyone; some people like to talk through plotlines and characters as they write. But this post is for the ones who hug a work-in-progress close to the vest, maybe not even admitting that it exists. For a while, anyway.

Have you ever had a secret project?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Procrastination, or rest?

I've long held that goofing off, time wasting, and procrastination may not be all bad. They may have a worthy purpose. There's something about those times when the mind is engaged in something light, frivolous, or easy that allows us to rest, or think, or plan. There's something about idle or semi-idle moments that kicks the creative mind into gear, behind the scenes.

Like anything, goofing off can be carried too far. But we're not robots who can fill every moment of every day with productive activity. Maybe the reason the brain often leads us down these distracting little side paths is that we need some distracting little side paths.

Saturday, April 2, 2016


Spring is a good time to try something new: in our writing, in our lives. April is the month that makes me feel that anything is possible. Have you any plans for new beginnings?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Upcoming event

Where I (and at least 17 other authors) will be on Saturday, April 9: YAPA Book Con

The event will run from 10 to 4 and will include panels, a teen writing workshop, book sales, door prizes, etc. It's at the Fredricksen Library, 100 North 19th Street, Camp Hill, PA, 17011. Come by if you're in the neighborhood!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

When to write

Working, exercising, doing taxes, hiking, eating, doing laundry, showering, picking out clothes for work, catching the train, checking email, explaining to the cat why it is too late to go out, going to the doctor, getting a haircut, looking up the weather report, looking up the latest delegate count in the primaries, cooking breakfast, going to the ATM, packing lunches, refilling prescriptions, sending cards, reading, making lists, crossing things off lists.

This is how I've been spending my time. Also writing, somehow fitting writing in there. There is never enough time, there will never be enough time, there will never be a lack of other things to do. I fantasize about having long clutter-free days in which to write, but in the meantime I write when I can and the words pile up somehow. And all that living feeds the writing too, and lines of writing come to me while I am doing other things. There will never be a perfect time. Or maybe this is the perfect time.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

A strange business model

I had been doing some YA reading that hit upon a couple of my pet peeves. One of them is the part-time job with nothing to do. I've seen a lot of YA books where the main character has a job in a place that is constantly deserted, with barely any customers and little work, and I keep wondering: How does that place stay in business? And why haven't they laid off the main character, or why did they hire him/her in the first place? Sometimes this is explained by having the business owner or manager being an eccentric who is not overly concerned with profit, but most of the time it's just a mystery.

The only job I ever had with significant down time was baby-sitting: after the kid was in bed and the five million scattered toys were put away, you could read or watch TV. But at every other job, I've always had far too much work and far too little time to do it in. At the first minimum-wage job I held, the bosses were constantly watching us to make sure we were busy. They liked to motivate us with this stirring bromide: "If you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean."

This pet peeve doesn't ruin a book for me, but it does take me out of the story a bit.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

One nest

Once again, the pair of red-tailed hawks affectionately known as "Big Red" and "Ezra" are nesting at Cornell University, watched by an ornithological webcam and a host of birdwatchers, expert and amateur. For the past four years, this pair have successfully hatched three eggs and fledged three juveniles while we watched. (Today, Big Red laid her second egg of the season. The next egg is due March 19, if she stays true to her established pattern of laying three eggs three days apart.)

Every year, I follow these hawks and their offspring; I await the eggs, the hatching, the fledging, with bated breath. A community of online chatters follows the webcam, teaching one another about hawk behavior, trying to guess when the next milestone will occur, worrying whenever a fledgling is injured.

It's comforting to me to think that these birds' drama is being played out all over the world in millions of nests. Birds go about their business of mating, nesting, and raising young, unwatched by any camera, and I only know about it because I've been privileged to see it happen at a handful of nests on a handful of webcams. When one of the Cornell hawks first learns to fly, I know about it because one camera is trained on one nest. The camera's focus on this nest shows us a story. A story makes us care about a particular life, or small group of lives, but that story also stands for all the rest--all the stories happening around us, the stories we might not otherwise notice.

Friday, March 11, 2016

When you need a break

Today the best thing I can do is point you toward two blog posts by Becky Ramsey. The first is about what happens when we push ourselves too hard, trying to keep All the Things on our plate. Or, as Becky describes it, "Welcome to The Embarrassing Evening in Which I Was Taught My Own Lesson." The second is about refreshing ourselves and getting back in touch with what (and whom) we care about: "Sometimes I think we need mandatory thinking time. Back when I was teaching ... we had a mandatory reading time, twenty minutes every day, I believe. Everything stopped."

Here's hoping you can take your break when needed.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Finding your voice: An ongoing process

This post from Victoria Marie Lees on narrative voice in memoir made me think about my own foray into first-person nonfiction. "Writers need to think who is telling the story," Ms. Lees writes.

It's something I didn't think about much during my early drafts of Loner in the Garret. I thought a lot about what I was saying and what the reader might want, but not so much about how I was saying it. One critiquer of this book said she wanted to see more of my humor. She wanted me to commit more, not to hold back, not to be so mild and diffident. To let my unique voice out.

This honestly hadn't occurred to me until I read her feedback--that the "I" who was speaking in my nonfiction book was an important character, just as in fiction. That a first-person narrator not only can, but probably should, have a personality.*

Last fall, I took a memoir workshop taught by Beth Kephart. At one point, we students exchanged our work with another person in the class. We were only doing short in-class exercises, so we weren't seeing much of one another's work--a couple of pages at most. And for that reason, I thought the person who gave me feedback was mistaken when her primary reaction to my writing was, "It's funny."

But then I thought about how I had re-drafted Loner in the Garret to let in more irreverence, to express more of what amuses me about writing and publishing (along with what frustrates, intimidates, and elates--so much about this gig is absurd). I thought of how people had told me that my YA novels, as dark as they can be at times, were relieved by an edge of humor. I know my fellow workshopper didn't mean that I was joke-a-minute hilarious, but she saw something in my work that I have thought about cultivating more, ever since.

What are you still learning about your own voice?

*After reading nonfiction by writers with such memorable first-person voices as Nora Ephron, David Sedaris, Dave Barry, Joan Didion, Anne Lamott, Anne Fadiman, Richard Rodriguez, Sarah Vowell, etc., etc., this should not have been a surprise. But hey, I can't always connect the dots myself, which is why I need critiquers in the first place.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Yes and no, old and new

In Loner in the Garret, I wrote about the power of "yes" and the power of "no," the times when we need to say one and the times when we need to say the other. Last year was a time when I said "no" a lot, as I needed to. Recently, "yes" has been more prevalent.

The one constant is the challenge of managing that shift, balancing the old and new. Finding room for what is added, knowing what and when to subtract. I talked with a friend today about decluttering, and she mentioned how it is not just about physical possessions, our material "stuff." It affects every area of our lives: what to keep, and what to let go of. Where to spend time and energy, not just money and space.

The changes are exhilarating. Making room for them is always a challenge.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Rethinking the list

Ah, the to-do list. It's the staple of my life. It's the plan I follow to get me through the day, to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

I love crossing things off, and it's a source of great satisfaction when I finish a list, or at least the most critical things on it. The non-critical things I didn't get to go on the next day's list.

It's so organized! So controlled! So efficient! So ... list-y!

The trouble I have is when I add new activities to my life. (Or when I have new activities imposed on me, such as "doing the taxes" this time of year, or doctors' appointments, or running out to buy new sneakers because the old ones are falling apart.) For a brief time, I delude myself that I can still do everything. And then the mound of items I push from one day to the next, the growing pile of the undone, forces me to face reality.

Choices, choices. I've talked a lot on this blog about letting go, and I have let go of a lot. But there is still more. There are still choices to be made, things to be put aside.

It's okay not to do everything. It's amazing how often I must remind myself of that fact.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

New adventures

Late February and the month of March will be a very busy time for me. I'll be doing a few new activities, and I expect I will probably be online less often, because there are only 24 hours in a day and I already manage to fill them all.

I talked before about how my decluttering is making room for new things--not only objects, but activities as well, and I'm looking forward to actually trying some of those new things.

Yet part of me still loves to have days when I have no outside obligations, days when I can sit home and write and read and reflect and set my house in order. I won't have as many of those days in the coming weeks, but I'm sure I will happily reclaim them when spring is well underway.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Creative workouts

Creative work sometimes needs a shake-up, a stretch. I like trying new things when I'm between big projects. Here are some examples to try if you're ever so inclined:

Write a short story all in the second person.
Write a story in the format of a letter or email.
Write a story in the format of social media posts.
Write a poem in a form you've never tried before: sonnet, villanelle, concrete poem, etc.
Write a scene using only dialogue.
Write a poem or story emphasizing any of these: alliteration, hyperbole, onomatopoiea, metaphors.
Write something in rhyming couplets.
Write an updated version of a myth or fairy tale.
Write a monologue or stand-up comedy routine.
Produce an ekphrastic work (i.e., based on another work of art, such as a musical composition or painting).
Use a photograph as a writing prompt.

Some of these exercises you may have done back in school, when you were first learning what these concepts were. It can be fun to try them again now that you have more tools in your toolbox.

The point is mostly to flex the creative muscles. If an exercise turns into something that can be used in a serious project, it's just a bonus.

Saturday, February 13, 2016


It's extremely cold here right now, and it affects our lives. We've had people change weekend plans on us, and my daily walk was very different.

Weather affects us. I'm sometimes mystified by books in which it never rains or sleets or snows, although the story is set in a place and time where this weather should occur regularly. The characters are never panting from a heat wave or shaking rain off their umbrellas; they never trudge through snow or snuggle in front of a fire. There doesn't seem to be any weather at all.

I'm not recommending a weather report in every story. I'm just suggesting that writers think about whether this part of the setting can be useful in influencing the characters, flavoring a scene, or even setting up critical obstacles. We live with heat, cold, lightning, tornadoes, drought, floods. Does your character have a leaky roof? A temperamental furnace? Does he know the sound of tornado sirens? Has she seen the aurora borealis? Does she lie awake on hot sheets, wishing her family could afford air conditioning? Does he live on the street? Does weather bring them closer to, or push them farther from, the other characters?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Unexpected magic

It snowed all day yesterday, one of those storms that sends lots of whirling flakes into the air to look all important and impressive, except that they never add up to anything. We had perhaps two inches on the ground when we went to bed, and it was supposed to stop around one in the morning.

It's still dark when I leave for work. When I peeked out the window this morning, what I could see in the dimness didn't look much different from the way it had last night. It wasn't until I opened the door and stepped out into it that I realized: Hey, it's still snowing!

The world was fresh and crisp and quiet. It's the compensation for having to get up so freaking early.

It snowed most of the morning, but still didn't amount to anything. A most strange storm, but a welcome surprise. Sometimes when you open the door and walk out, you walk into a little bit of magic.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Making sense

When building a fictional world, it's difficult to ensure that everything makes sense. We envision things a certain way; we have plot-related reasons for things to happen a certain way. But our pursuit of plot can make us overlook more obvious alternatives. I was recently working on a story in which I had to keep asking myself, "Why don't the characters just do so-and-so; it would be so much easier?" It's like the scene in Indiana Jones where the swordfighter attacks, and your first expectation is, Oh, there's going to be a swordfight here, because we've all seen swordfights on screen a million times. But Indiana Jones has a gun. And then you think, Oh, of course! There's no earthly reason for him to use a sword.

Characters should not walk when they could fly. A trapped character will look for ways out of his situation; we have to make sure readers don't think of options that we ignore. Characters need a food source and a water source, and these should make sense for their environment. Characters living in the desert should not be eating seafood, unless they're rich enough to import it. A civilization needs ways to enforce rules, dispose of waste, treat sickness, educate children. Not all of these need to be explicit. But the story should allow room for them. I remember being driven crazy by stories that implied that characters never needed to eat, sleep, or take a bathroom break. We don't need to see all those breaks, but we should get the sense that there is room for them to happen.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Finding our people

The latest issue of the SCBWI Bulletin is out, containing an article by yours truly. My article is about the New Jersey Authors Network (founded by Jon Gibbs), which you may join if you live in or near New Jersey, or may use as a model for your own state network if you live elsewhere.

The power of author groups and networks has been incredibly valuable to me. From my initial critique group, to my debut author groups, to the Kidlt Authors Club and NJ Authors Network, most of my promotional opportunities, professional tips, and emotional support have come from such networks.

I'm going to sign off now, before I burst into a rousing rendition of "People (Who Need People)." Because what people don't need is to hear me sing. But I do cherish my writer groups.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

To whom it may concern

Nova Ren Suma has a lot to say about the long hard journey to finding your place, and it's inspirational in its own right; I recommend reading the whole thing. But I wanted to riff here on one particular line, which isn't the main focus of her post: "I was much better at blogging (and had more readers!) when I was angsty and unpublished and wanting to drown a box of rejection letters in the sea."

I think a lot of factors have contributed to decreases in blog readership generally over the past few years, most of it involving the wearing-off of novelty and the proliferation of new social media platforms. Yet I have noticed that, as Nova Ren Suma said, there are bloggers who blog more when they're having difficulties, just as I tended to keep a diary during the worst times in my life, the times when I most needed to vent.

I also notice, and I think many of us do, that some blog posts that draw the biggest response are those in which we openly discuss our problems. This is probably because people respond to honesty, are relieved not to be alone in their own pain, and/or want to reach out in comfort when they see someone suffering.

All this is making me think about online presence, what it is and what it's for. It can be promotion and marketing; it can be a performance. It can be the simple desire for communication, the establishment or continuation of a community. It can serve as a vent. It can be a mixture.

I started this blog because I wanted to talk about writing, and I didn't know many writers IRL. I loved the idea of having my own little platform out here in the world, for whoever cares to stop by. I suppose I've continued it for the same reason, which is also the same reason I write in general. It's even better when there is an exchange, when someone comments, but I keep on writing regardless.

I'm doing a lot of writing for myself lately, which is why I've been blogging a bit less than formerly, but I'm still here. Still reading blogs, too.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The redo loop

I posted at YA Outside the Lines about redoing, and when to stop redoing. (The theme for the month is "do-overs.") I reminisced about the olden days, when editing a manuscript--and especially retyping it--was technically more difficult than it is now, and discussed where the comparative ease of revision can take us. I'm grateful that computers make multiple revisions and major rewrites easier, but it's also possible to have too many options.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Making room

I continued some decluttering this weekend by reviewing my TBR list. This is distinct from my TBR pile, which is a stack (OK, technically it's multiple stacks) of books I already own and do want to read, but--later. Either I'm not in the mood for them right now, or I'm already reading something else.

The TBR list is a list of books I want to read, but that I will have to buy or borrow. I have a notation for each book: available in my library's system, or not? If it's not in the library system, I'll have to buy it. When I'm ready to get new library books, or to make a trip to the bookstore, I consult this list.

The list has more than 250 books on it. At the rate I've been reading, that's almost three years' worth, and I keep adding to it. And, of course, there is the TBR pile here at home, and the books I receive as gifts, and my rereading habit.

So I've started weeding that list. I'm letting go of books that I added impulsively, those that are not in my library's system and for which I can't even find a sample online to tell me whether they're worth buying, and those that I want to want to read more than I actually want to read them (if you can follow that).

The books on this list may not have been taking up any physical space, but they were taking up some mental energy, even if just a small amount. I continue my quest to free up space, and time, and energy.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Librarian appreciation

Today I had to get a piece of information--an equation, to be specific--from a document.
Someone had sent me an html version of the document, but all graphics were stripped out of it, and that included the very equation I needed.
Once upon a time, I could have gone to the shelf, pulled down a paper copy of this document, and looked it up in two seconds. But we don't keep paper copies anymore.
I decided to look it up online; I knew the host site generally has both pdf and html versions.
The website was down. For ten minutes I waited for the blasted thing to load, and it never did.
I tried to find the document on other sites. My searches were fruitless, even though I had very specific information to narrow them.
I then checked the microfilm in the library, since I knew that this publication had been stored that way up to a certain date.
The microfilm versions ended just three months before the date of the document I needed.
The librarian checked another source that she thought might have the document, but it didn't.
Finally, the librarian was able to find a PDF version somewhere. I don't know where. Librarians are always performing that kind of magic.
I love the internet, but it is a very big place. It's a graveyard of broken links. You don't always know where to look. Sites go down, sites disappear.
I think of school administrators who have cut librarians (and even libraries) because "we have the internet now."
Yeah, good luck with that.

Sunday, January 17, 2016


A couple of useful quotes:

"We fear disturbance, change, fear to bring to light and to talk about what is painful. Suffering often feels like failure, but it is actually the door into growth. And growth does not cease to be painful at any age."
--May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

"... if you spent most of the morning reading Twitter and then scribbling weird, indecipherable notes to yourself on your arm then you are probably on the right track to becoming a successful artist. Or to being homeless. Those things aren't mutually exclusive."
--Jenny Lawson, Furiously Happy

And Becky Ramsey has a great blog on the perils of perfectionism.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The missing ingredient

I was thinking about movies that should be better than they are. You probably know the ones I'm talking about: they have a great cast, a good director, a solid premise. And they're terrible. Sometimes you catch them on late-night or weekend TV. Seeing the big names in the credits, you think, "Wow, why haven't I heard of this movie before?" And ten minutes in, you think: "Oh. This is why."

It reminds me that creative work isn't just a matter of formulas and recipes. There certainly are formulas if you want them. Often, they even work. And yet, these should-have-worked-but-didn't movies show that you can have all the right ingredients, and the product still doesn't work. You can follow the formula and find there's still something missing.

Years ago, I heard a radio story about some people who attempted to find a formula for hit songs. In the process, they also discovered what elements people hated in songs. They used this information to create two songs: one that sounded like a generic pop hit, the other a crazy mishmash of unpopular elements. And yet, the second song was more interesting.

There is some spark we look for in creative work, something difficult to define. Maybe it's passion, or belief, or honesty, or freshness. Maybe it's inexpressible.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Trial and error

I've been thinking about mistakes and wrong turns, how much they're a part of writing (and life), and how sometimes the wrong turn becomes the right road. So much good work seems to be a product of trial and error. Julia Forster even has a guest post on Nathan Bransford's blog to that effect. She calls it "How Not to Write a Novel" but maybe that is how to write a novel, or anything else: exploring, testing, failing.

When keeping scientific records, you don't erase or delete mistakes. You strike them with a single line and write the correction nearby. Sometimes it becomes important to know what was written originally, so the single line is used to keep the original legible. "We went that way, but turned around," it says.

We're all just finding our way. A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, but it's not necessarily the most interesting route.