Friday, April 30, 2010

Obeying the Muse

Summer is fast approaching (YAY!!), and so is the pressure to think up a new novel. I teach 6 classes (160 students/1,200 papers to grade) per semester, so I take great delight in taking my entire summer off each year. I make no apologies for it. I travel a wee bit, but mostly, I rest my tired brain and I write. My goal is always to write a novel per summer. Sometimes I meet that goal, and sometimes I don't.

Currently, I'm on Book 4 of my "cottage" book series. I have no idea how many books will be in the series, but so far, I have vague ideas mapped out, up to Book 10! (The literary agent has Book 1, and if - huge "if" - she takes me on as a client and it sells, that'll give me motivation and affirmation to continue into the series that far. For now, it's just wishful thinking....).

Anyway, I've been having lots and lots of ideas and inspiration lately for Book 5, but absolutely zilch at the moment for Book 4 (these two books really can't be swapped - one of the character's stories needs to be told before the other's, in the scheme of things).

So, I've decided to give in. The Muse wins. Apparently, she wants Book 5 to be written first. Thus, I'll abandon Book 4 for the meantime and write Book 5 in the series next. It's not a big deal, writing them out of order this way, especially since they're sort of "stand-alone" books. But I like things in order and had always planned to write these in order. It feels funny, going against the grain, doing something out of sequence this way. But, it's necessary to write the book that apparently wants to be written. In fact, it's downright insistent - I found my mind flooded with plot details this morning, and could hardly write them down fast enough. If that's not a "sign," I don't know what is.

Question: Has your Muse ever nagged at you, urged you to go a different direction than you'd first intended? And the bigger question - did obeying her help or hurt your material or the process itself? I'd love to know your experiences...

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Learning from the Masters

I love hearing authors talk about their work. Writers seem rarely to come out of the shadows of their writing rooms to offer public interviews, but when they do, the results are fascinating. I showed my students this John Grisham interview a couple of days ago. It's a great look inside his writing process, his writer's journey, and the publishing world.

I first read John Grisham's books way back with The Firm (my personal favorite) in the late 80's. If you're looking for a page-turner, look no further than Grisham. He's an absolute Master at it. And because he was once a lawyer, he knows what he's talking about, with these legal thrillers of his.

In the above interview, I like Grisham's honesty. He makes no apologies for not being a favorite of the critics, and for attending to plot over character development. He's spot-on, regarding things like rejections and pacing and outlining. It's nice to hear the tricks of the trade verified by one who's been so successful. Not that I have any outlandish notions of grandeur - but it's nice to think that, once upon a time, the Grishams of this world were sitting at a desk, writing, not knowing if their work would ever see the light of day...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Protect Yourself!

I've mentioned this in a previous entry, about the dangers of sharing one's work with the "wrong" (aka, untrustworthy) people. There's always a possibility that your ideas, even the writing itself, could be stolen. (Of course, writing groups and critique groups are usually quite safe - but even then, you have to be a little bit careful...).

In that previous blog entry, I never really touched on the specific issue of internet sharing. That can be a dangerous prospect, especially if you ever want to publish your work. You'll notice I've been VERY careful about sharing specific ideas of my novels, or first paragraphs, or plotlines on this blog of mine. There's a reason for that. I'm trying to protect my work. The internet is so big and so broad and so anonymous, that I just don't want to take a chance. Call me paranoid, but I think it never hurts to be cautious.

Yesterday, I came across a wonderful article by Chuck Sambuchino, that addresses this issue in great detail -"Be (Slightly) Afraid of Posting Your Work Online."

It contains solid, common-sense reasoning and advice, and I agree with what he says. I like his idea, of asking yourself WHY you're posting your work online. Is it to share with others and "put it out there"? To get feedback? To get lucky with an agent/editor who might, just might, see your work? If you have no desire to get a piece published and you really just want some honest feedback, well then sure, go for it. Post away. But - if you want to get it published someday, my advice is to err on the side of caution. You can never truly know who's reading your work online, or what their motives are. So, protect your work. Keep it safe.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Tip of the Iceberg

Found a great quote yesterday: The dignity of an iceberg is due to only 1/8 of it being above water. A good writer does not need to reveal every detail of a character or action. ~Ernest Hemingway

I love that "iceberg" idea - the notion that we don't have to "write" the entire iceberg. That if we just reveal 1/8 of it, the reader will "get" that there's another 7/8 below the surface.

This is where we have to treat the reader as intelligent. We need to assume that the reader will read between the lines, will think for himself/herself, will "get it." I've mentioned before that I have a tendency to over-explain in my writing (the hazards of the job of teaching, I suppose). I'm constantly having to remind myself that if I write the 1/8th of that iceberg well enough, the readers will then see the rest of it on their own.

Now, of course, Hemingway was well-known for VERY sparse description. In fact, for me, it's often too sparse. But he is right, about not revealing too much. It's unnecessary to do so, and it will probably bore the reader. Better to reveal too little than too much, I think...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Value of Scars

A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar. ~Stephen King

Powerful words, and so true. I don't know that we can be good writers, even exceptional writers, if we don't acknowledge the scars we have, the difficulties we've experienced in our lives. Because, even in fiction, we can draw from the scars. We should draw from them. Any loss or heartache or challenges we've faced can be translated into a fictional plot with fictional characters. Of course, the truth inside that fiction is the genuine emotion. That's real. And it comes from remembering those scars.

This idea, of self-examination helping us to be better writers, reminds me of another quote I love: The unexamined life is not worth living. ~Socrates

How can we be good writers if we don't sometimes look back, examine ourselves? We need to be looking inward to see what we believe, to know how we feel. To be as comfortable as possible with who we are, as people, as writers. Ultimately, we have to be honest with ourselves before we attempt honesty in our fiction, or else it will never ring true.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Epic Smallness

"We tried to write small, tried to find what’s epic in the small." ~Ed Zwick, discussing his goal as creator/writer of "Thirtysomething."

What a great paradox - finding something "epic" in those smaller moments. A wonderful writing philosophy, I think. And, knowing the series as well as I do, I'd say Mr. Zwick achieved that goal, and then some. One of the things I most adored about "Thirtysomething" was the way the writers handled the little moments in characters' lives. The ones that seemed so insignificant at the time, but ended up being, well, epic.

One example that springs to mind is an episode in which happily-married Michael is reunited with his college love, Emily. She comes to town for a visit and mentions the back-and-forth poem they once co-wrote (and kept in a journal). During college, years ago, Michael would write a stanza in the journal, then give it to Emily. Then Emily would write a stanza, and give it to Michael, and so on.

That innocent journal soon becomes an epic symbol in this episode. It begins to represent unrequited love, unresolved weighty feelings, that threaten a marriage. Before she leaves town, Emily shows Michael that she kept the journal all these years, and lets him know she still has strong feelings for him. He's tempted to reciprocate - very tempted - but in the end, he stays true to his wife.

Just an insignificant journal, but there turns out to be something "epic" found in something so small....

When "Good and Bad" Intersect

I'm on a "Thirtysomething" kick this week (see previous entries), and am offering info that I've learned from the writers of that series - both by my observation of their scripts/episodes, and by interviews they've done.

One thing the "Thirtysomething" writers seemed to do often in that series was to have bad things happen to characters at the same time something good was happening. And isn't it that way in real life? You get a new job -- and you get a flat tire. You get engaged -- and your best friend gets in a car wreck. Your article gets accepted -- and you lock your keys in the house. Not that these things are directly connected - in fact, they aren't at all, which makes them so challenging and frustrating. But isn't that just real life? ;-)

***SPOILER AHEAD**** (on the off-chance that you've never seen "Thirtysomething," but plan to someday...)

The sharpest example of this good/bad intermingling on "Thirtysomething" is an episode called "Second Look." In it, Nancy Weston has been fighting cancer for almost a year, and is having her second-look surgery, to see whether the cancer has been eradicated, or whether it's spread. The tension is felt throughout the entire episode, building to that singular moment when she gets the news. And it's, thankfully, good news. The best. The cancer is gone!

But before we (and the characters) even get the chance to breathe out our sighs of relief, something else happens. Another much-beloved character, Gary Shepherd, dies in a tragic car accident, on the way to celebrate the good news at the hospital. Stunning. Horrible. The irony and contrast in these two pieces of news is incredible. It makes an impact that "only having good news" would never have made. In fact, when Nancy hears about Gary's sudden death, she gasps and says, "It's not supposed to be Gary..." (indicating that it was supposed to be her). Once again, this t.v. show explores the messiness of life, the imperfections and heartaches of it. The goods and the bads, intersecting.

This very much reminds me of a real-life example - Rick Warren. His philosophy of life is that it's not composed of hills and valleys - good things, then bad -- but rather, of railroad tracks that run side-by-side - the good right alongside the bad. Here's what he says, in an article:

This past year has been the greatest year of my life [the great success of his books] but also the toughest, with my wife, Kay, getting cancer. I used to think that life was hills and valleys - you go through a dark time, then you go to the mountaintop, back and forth. I don't believe that anymore. Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe that it's kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and at all times you have something good and something bad in your life. No matter how good things are in your life, there is always something bad that needs to be worked on. And no matter how bad things are in your life, there is always something good you can thank God for.

So, back to the writing: all this isn't to say that you must always mix the good and bad so obviously in your stories. But I think sometimes intersecting the good and the bad simultaneously stirs things up a bit, adds contrast and depth and realism that might not have been there without it.

*btw, for anyone wanting to see that "Second Look" episode, here's Part 1 of five, on YouTube...(get those Kleenexes out - it's a sad one...)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Write the Ripples

I love DVD commentaries. They give amazing, behind-the-scenes insight, don't they? It's like watching the movie/show with the actor or director or writer, sitting right there in your living room!

Well, the other night, as I watched the "Thirtysomething" episode about Michael writing a story (see yesterday's entry), I decided to watch it again, using the commentary. Joseph Dougherty, who wrote many of the episodes, gave his insight into this script. And it was fascinating. I wrote down a couple of "writing gems" and wanted to share them with you.

One thing he talked about was plot. He referred to Ed and Marshall (creators of "Thirtysomething") and said they had a very specific way of looking at plot. It's nothing brand-new or earth-shattering, but I loved the way Mr. Dougherty worded this: "When dealing with characters and plot, you take a huge rock, throw it hard into the middle of a pond, and write the ripples."

Yes. Take your characters and make something happen TO them. Then - write all those lovely ripple effects - what happens to them after the rock has been thrown.

"Thirtysomething" writers did this time and time again: Give womanizing-commitment-phobe-Gary a baby and watch him deal with it. Give Nancy cancer and watch her struggle (and triumph) over it. Let Michael lose his job and see how he copes with it. Let struggling-photographer Melissa taste some success and see how she handles it.

There are so many more examples of this, but the point remains the same -- give your characters something to react to, something to deal with or fight for, and voila! You have plot.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Okay, so this is the last week of my entire life that I will ever be 30-something (<--how's that for a melodramatic statement? lol). Yep, I'm turning 40 on Saturday. (*pout*) So, in honor of that, I thought I'd spend this week's blogs devoted to my favorite t.v. show in the world, "Thirtysomething." Now, before you click off, or roll your eyes at me for loving this "yuppie" show (sadly, that's the stereotype it got stuck with), or think this week's posts will have nothing to do with writing -- just take a second to hear me out...

I love "Thirtysomething" for many reasons, but the main one is the writing. Deep, thought-provoking, realistic, witty, smart. Those characters dealt with rivalry, job loss, death, miscarriage, cancer, divorce, and pregnancies. They had complex friendships that sometimes broke apart and never recovered. They loved, they fought, they struggled through this thing we call life. That's what I enjoy so much - the realism the show provided. The fact that there weren't clear answers all the time. The acknowledgment that life is messy and complicated and difficult - but that it's also still hopeful and precious. Even if you've never seen a single episode, I hope the posts this week will still be relevant to the writing process.

Today, I wanted to share a clip of a fantastic episode devoted entirely, ironically, to writing. The main character, Michael Steadman, takes a Creative Writing course. The problem is, he's rusty. Like, REALLY rusty. His writing is exceptionally bad, but he can't see it. And the teacher, throughout the episode, pinpoints the problem - Michael's lack of HONESTY in fiction. (I see this quite a lot in my own students, actually - a lack of truth/honesty in fiction).

Michael's characters don't seem like real people. They move/walk/talk like cardboard cut-outs. The metaphors are heavy-handed and the dialogue is odd and unnatural -- compared to his other friend who's also taking the course, Nancy Weston. Her writing is real, based on her own life. It holds bits of truth that readers can latch onto. So, in this clip (fast-forward to the 5:00 mark), you see a hilarious bit where Michael is writing the story, messing up, re-writing, and reading it aloud. And then, you'll see the contrast of Nancy's quiet writing, full of truth and poignancy.

I just think it's a creative scene that any writer can relate to. Enjoy!

Friday, April 16, 2010


So, there's this little t.v. show that aired on the CW (previously known as the "WB") a few years ago. It lasted 4 years, but they were a good 4 years. If you can't already tell, I loved that show. Adored it. Created by J.J. Abrams ("Lost," "Alias," "Star Trek," "Regarding Henry"), it's about this high school girl, Felicity, who makes a decision in the first episode that changes her life. Right after graduation, she throws all her plans for medical school away and traipses across the country to follow her teenage crush. Along the way, she meets quirky characters, and learns about life and about herself. It's a coming-of-age story, during a time (college) when so many of us faced life-altering decisions. Each episode starts out with a "Dear Sally" segment, where Felicity records a message to her friend (who, by the way, we never see, not in the entire 4 years. We just hear some of her taped replies at the end of episodes).

Okay, all that to say this -- the reason I loved the show so much was because the writing was downright brilliant, at times. Sure, the series had its flaws and one season, in particular, spiraled down into flat-out, eye-rolling soap-opera territory. But the episodes that didn't were pure gold.

Here's a great example - the first 9 minutes of the pilot episode. Listen to the language, the dialogue, the voice-overs, from a writer's perspective. Really deep and creative, I think. Especially for a show that most people dubbed as a "teenage" show. I think it was a lot more than that.

One of the most clever moments in the series was one that contained no words at all. In the 2nd episode (which, sadly, I couldn't find on YouTube), Felicity is sitting at this incredibly awkward dinner with her parents, who are pressuring her into coming back home. They think her trek to New York was crazy and stupid, and they offer her an expensive car as a bribe to return home. In this particular scene, the father passes the keys to Felicity across the table. Felicity slowly looks at the keys, thoughtfully picks them up, and ponders the offer. As she looks down, she notices her finger subconsciously rubbing the "panic" button. Love it. That says SO much. Does she panic? Does she let her parents convince her that the decision was wrong? Does she take the easy way out and move back home? Or does she stay brave, stay in NY, and make her own way? Obviously, she chooses the latter, or else the show would've probably ended there.

Anyway, I love subtle-but-obvious scenes like that one. So much "said" in a small space of time, with no words at all. Now that's powerful writing!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Haiku - Deceptively Simple

I love haiku. I'm not great at writing them, but I admire their deceptive simplicity. On the surface, they seem easy. 3 lines, no specific rhyme, set syllables (5/7/5). But I dare you to pack something meaningful or terribly creative into those 3 lines. It's harder than it looks! (Of course, tell that to my brilliant 20-something student who rattles them off with sickening ease, lol - she wrote five in five minutes' time last week, all of them extremely good).

What's wonderful (and challenging!) about the haiku is its brevity. It forces you to say something big in a tiny, compact space. It's wonderful practice for people like me, who tend to be wordy. You're forced to trim the fat, re-think your words, make each word count. Never a bad thing.

Traditionally, haiku is nature-centric, but modern haiku can be about anything - death, love, even humor. Also, modern haiku is no longer the super-strict 5-7-5 syllable pattern. As long as it's not wayyyy outside that (like 2-28-5, lol), it's acceptable to bend those syllable rules just a bit.

So, today, I felt like attempting some haiku. It's not anything spectacular, but I wanted to share. And to encourage you to rattle off your own haiku today. If you've never tried it, your really should!

Okay, here goes.....

Where does the time go?
Seconds unaccounted for --
I-Pad, I love you.

Sitting at the desk,
Haikus are impossible.
See me try one now.

Delicate friendships
Seem to teeter on the brink --
Talking politics!

Old faces, new friends
All in one place together.
Facebook is surreal.

Perched at a canvas,
Brushstrokes filling up the days
Since her husband died.

Car, dusty yellow
Sneezes and watery eyes,
Springtime at its best.

Don't forget to breathe
Semester is soon over,
Freedom awaits! Ahhhh....

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Nobody's Perfect

I spend a significant amount of time in my Creative Writing class each semester, talking about characterization. Primarily, about giving characters flaws and/or quirks. Doing so makes them multi-dimensional and, more importantly, identifiable to the reader. Nobody likes a "perfect" character. How boring!

Here's a wonderful blog entry I found today, about this very thing. I like how the author draws from classic literary characters as examples. Enjoy! The Unique Appeal of Flawed Characters

Friday, April 9, 2010

ABC's of Writing

Here's a little bonus post for today - I just found a gem, this wonderful Sue Grafton article. I always love it when authors (especially well-respected, and yes, well-paid authors) take the time to give interviews about the craft of writing.

Sue Grafton's Advice for Writers: Put in the Time
Five books from the end of her alphabet series, Sue Grafton says it doesn't get any easier—and there's always another lesson to learn about the ABCs of writing.

*note - I like reading that, even as well-established as she is, Ms. Grafton still struggles, still has insecurities and doubts. Hey! Published authors are human, after all! That gives me hope. :-)

Oh, and my very favorite part of the article is this --

Do you have a sense of what’s going to happen to Kinsey when you hit Z?
No. You have to understand, this is a form of mental illness. I fully own it. In my mind, I am only privileged to know what she chooses to share, and she assures me that some things are just not my business, thank you. I don’t tell her. She tells me. I discover things about her in the process of writing. I don’t have a great scheme afoot. I try to keep honest, I try not to repeat myself. I try to let her evolve as she will, not according to my dictates. It’s a very odd process.

Great Expectations

My excuse for not blogging this week? I'll borrow a quote from Ashleigh Brilliant: I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once.

lol - it's just been "one of those" weeks. Too many essays, errands, classes, etc, and not enough time.

But, it's FRIDAY, so I'm relaxed and felt like blogging again...

Let's talk about expectations. Today, in my literature class, I lectured over a poem called "Living in Sin." There are a couple of different interpretations, but I prefer this one: a woman has just moved in with her boyfriend. She has high expectations, romantic ideals about what this "new life" will be like: "No dust on the furniture of love." She pictures a living space that cleans itself, a loving and romantic boyfriend, a happy life. But - reality soon hits, and she starts to see the cracks - the dripping faucet, the domestic duties, the roaches, the inattentive boyfriend who barely acknowledges her in the morning. The rose-colored glasses are stripped away and, if only temporarily, she sees the truth.

That poem can be applied, I think, to ANY situation in which we have certain expectations. Life is hard. It's never perfect. It's never as good as it is in the movies. Marriages can be tumultuous, parenthood can be incredibly stressful, and work can be tedious. Our youthful, rose-colored glasses are soon stripped away.

Relating this to writing and getting published, here's my personal example: When I was on the cusp of getting a magazine article published, I had the picture set in my mind -- I would receive the email or phone call from an enthusiastic editor who "LOVED!" my article and couldn't wait to publish it. I'd get paid a nice amount of money. The article would come out within a few weeks, maybe months. It would be available everywhere and many people would read it. Hmm. My expectations weren't met. At all.

After MONTHS of emailing back and forth with the editor multiple times, we finally agreed on the necessary changes/edits. So, when I got the "acceptance," it was extremely anti-climactic. Dare I say, matter-of-fact. Then, it took exactly 3 YEARS to see my article in print. And it took me 2 weeks to find it on newsstands. When I did find it, I saw that the article was highly edited and choppy. They'd even changed the title. So, though I was ultimately pleased to have a publishing notch on my belt, the entire experience sank well beneath my initial expectations.

What's the lesson in all this? Lower the expectations. That'll help soften the blow of the inevitable. Of real life. Of the query letters, the researching, the agents, the WAITING, the re-writes. Having been through all that, many times over, I'm now more realistic. And, sure, even a little bit jaded. But here's the thing -- the end-goal is still the same: my words, my work, in print, for people to see. That's still my target. So, if it takes years and disappointments and discouragement along the jaded path, it's still worth it to me!

Monday, April 5, 2010

What's Your Platform?

I have another link to share today, courtesy of Chuck Samuchino's blog (if you can't tell, I'm a huge fan of that blog - it's soooo informative and helpful for writers at any stage of the game).

Anyway, this one concerns "author platforms." Basically, it gives information about what every newly-published author should know - about marketing, web presence, media contacts, etc. And since I plan on being a newly-published author one day (hey, I can dream, can't I? ;-), I perked up when I came across this blog post.

It's got some wonderful information that's new to me, so I'll definitely be filing it away with all the other tidbits of "when-I-finally-get-published" information I've been saving over the years. Just thought I'd pass it along...

Friday, April 2, 2010

Knowledge is Power

I have two great links to share today. One contains advice from a well-respected agent, Irene Goodman, who examines 3 common pitfalls she sees in weak submissions. Very helpful!

The second is from Lidia Blackburne's blog (listed on my left-hand menu, btw). She was brave enough to submit the first page of her manuscript to an agent for critique. Then, she was brave enough to share said critique with her blog readers. And I'm so glad she did! It was incredibly helpful for me to read it. The agent was so specific in her advice and feedback. Thanks, Lidia, for sharing that!

I love looking inside the minds of literary agents (okay, that sounds sort of creepy, lol). What I mean is, I like knowing exactly what they think about submissions they receive -- about what they love in a manuscript, and what they despise. Because, how can we know what pitfalls to avoid, unless we know what those pitfalls are? As with anything else, being informed can give us an upper hand. Knowledge is power.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Book by Any Other Name...

Give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy. ~Roddy Doyle

Finding the perfect title for your novel or short story (or even poem!) is hugely important. It gives the book an identity, something the reader can easily latch on to, recognize. And sometimes, a great title might be all the book needs to draw the interest of a new reader!

I struggle with titles. I just do. There's so much pressure to be clever, poetic, or attention-getting. And, to make it short. A few words? Please. I'm a novelist. I love long and winding sentences that ebb and flow and go somewhere. So, packing deep meaning into a few short words is a challenge. For my current women's fiction book series, I struggled and struggled with the title. I looked at important phrases or descriptions inside the work (I'd already written the first book, still untitled). I made lists of 30 possible titles and didn't like any of them. At one point, I was just trying too hard to make it sound unique or quirky. Then, one day, it struck me - it's a "cottage" series (with each book focused on a different person's cottage in each novel), so why not let that be a constant in each title? Whew. It all snapped into place for me. That lead me to Primrose Cottage, Hideaway Cottage, and Mistletoe Cottage. And so on...

An earlier novel I wrote (separate from the "cottage" series) is still untitled, even after more than a decade! I can't seem to get right. For the longest time, I called it The Time of In Between. It fits something specific that a character says in the book, and for me, it's meaningful. But for someone who's never read the book, it's not exactly a title that can be latched on to or embraced. It's a bit cumbersome.

So, my best suggestion when trying to title your novel - work on it until it "feels" right. It may take a few minutes, or it may take months, even years. Usually, you'll know when you've got it right. Something clicks into place. And when that happens, it's worth all the frustration it took to get there...