I have been a working writer (and teacher) for over 20 years, and in that time, I’ve come to believe that a writing life is uniquely structured to transform the soul. It will not give you the glib and easy surface of #blessed on Instagram but, if you clear space for it, writing (and its Siamese twin reading) will keep you forever curious and interested.  And if that’s not the recipe for a good life then what is?

I didn’t realize how passionately I believed this about writing until COVID hit.  ER doctors in New York started sounding the alarm about the scarcity of ventilators. I knew, with the tranquility of truth, that should I land in the hospital, the 30-year-old mother must have the ventilator, not me.  

Not because I don’t have children – after all, there are people I love fervently in this world who depend on me – and not even because I have a good 10+ years on that mother.  But because I can say, without hesitation, that I’ve had a good run.  And when I look to why, beside the people I love, it’s that I’ve read amazing books, terrible ones, and really fun ones. And because, I’ve worked like crazy to make space to write my books.  Certainly, I have others to write, but if I don’t get to them, I’ll know that I did what I could with the time I had.

Which includes my writing here.  

The last time I tried my hand at blogging, I discovered that if you don’t feel passionately about something you shouldn’t be posting about it.  And, back then (in the days of MySpace and LiveJournal), I felt it was only ‘appropriate’ to discuss passions with friends, in person; not with strangers in cyberspace. 

In the intervening years, I’ve built a teaching career and worked with students as far flung as Europe and Saudi Arabia.  I’ve come to believe in the value and possibility of sharing what I care about from a distance.  It is absolutely true that much of writing is a solitary endeavor, but nothing important gets done alone.  No matter where you are in your writing journey, I’d like to share it with you. Even if it’s only by sharing what I’ve learned on mine.  Please poke around, email with questions, take what is useful, and discard the rest.   If you’d like some free writing exercise to get an a feel for my teaching, please help yourself.

{Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger}

I’d planned spend the 3rd week of November talking about plot and conflict. Or plot and meaning. Or plot and purpose. But definitely plot. And then two things happened: one of my students wanted to quit and I had to abandon over 50,000 words of a passion project. My student wasn’t having any fun with NaNoWriMo, her manuscript didn’t make any sense, and it all seems pointless. For me, other than the grief over lost material, the shift away from it allowed everything else to come into focus. The shift wasn’t easy but after a lot of back-and-forth and writing this way and that, it was the right thing to do. At this point in my career, I know to listen when my inner writer has different ideas than the woman doing the typing. I know to listen, and yet I didn’t. And not listening meant I went via the scenic route to nowhere. It happens. Bummer.

Given that, I certainly wasn’t going to tell my student she had to keep going at all costs. Instead, I asked if she wanted to shift goals. What if the point of the month-long challenge wasn’t to finish the novel, but to practice writing in a way that would allow her to develop skills? Skills that included listening to her own inner writer. She agreed to try, and I agreed to stop sobbing about the 50k+ words in my manuscript that will now gather dust.

Now, on to plot.

I am not a plot-driven reader or writer. And that means plot as a tool in the writing craft is not my default as a teacher. I have an incredibly brilliant friend with a PhD who has written many a poem to make your heart stop. She also teaches and starts every creative writing class with a discussion on plot and conflict. I remember the first time I saw her syllabus, I thought, huh, that’s odd. And forget a plot that you can describe in an elevator pitch. I’m one of those people who thinks that if you can talk about a book in the elevator, I don’t want to read it.

But one of the ways that my writing has changed since writing about dragons in Vienna, is that I have become more story driven. If you find yourself stuck and it’s not because you are chasing 50,000 words in the wrong direction, look at your plot with these questions.

What is the conflict at the heart of the scene (yes, my friend was right. She is brilliant for a reason)?

What is the purpose each character has in the scene?

How does this scene move into the next?

Lastly, if everything is feeling futile, go and re-read The Second Coming. It will put NaNoWriMo, your wasted time, your work, and the world into perspective.

When I was young, my father used to say that the Devil is in the details. I went to college in North Carolina, where the expression was that God is in the details.  Whoever is in there, details are important.  Why else would supernatural beings reside in them?

But which details, why, when to use them, and how?  Too much bogs you down in another writer’s minutia (hello, Caleb Carr), and too few fail to do the job.

1) Before you open up your WIP, ask yourself, what 3 things matter most to the main characters.  You can practice by asking yourself what 3 things you (not your characters) would grab if the house was on fire (for me, it’s dog, cat, laptop).

2) As you work this week, experiment and practice with detail; it will become your strongest tool in bringing elements of fiction to life.  Questions posed to writers help us to leave our non-writing lives behind.  We start with what if and then have to get down to brass tacks.  Let details be what brings you to the heart of your writing.

3) How to describe the place around the action?  I am working on a scene in the front yard of a house near the woods.  I know what the road running by the yard looks like, the exact green of the woods, and that the house’s big front door is not only heavy but painted black.

4) Is it true that clothes make the man?   My glamorous sister proves the answer is yes even in her comfy PJs (they have a distinct insouciance to them).  Even I, in my decades old skirt from the GAP, answer in the affirmative.  So, as you get your mind into your manuscript, ask yourself, who wears what?  How do they feel about it?  There is a reason I read Lisa Kleypas’ descriptions of clothes more avidly than her sex scenes.  The dresses, with their underskirts, flounces, bodices, and lace cuffs, show me more about romance than the throbbing does.

5) Details about Food.  I remember how in City Hall (a movie written by Nora Ephron’s husband) Bridget Fonda’s character ordered a burger and a coke.  And, I was like, there is no way that Fonda drinks coke (or eats a burger).  Compare Fonda’s meal to the special orders Meg Ryan has in Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally.  Or look no further than Louise Penny’s mystery novels.  They don’t simply reveal who murdered whom, they lovingly linger over meals with warm bread, butter, and rich coffee.  Food matters, so don’t gloss over it.

What 3 things would your characters leave in a fire?  For me, it would be the junk drawer, the flameless candles I bought on impulse, and the postcards I’ve saved over the years.

The poem for week two is Hurry by Marie Howe.  Howe reminds us of how little is needed to build a narrative, but also how much a story can break your heart.

Even if you are using this month to revise a finished draft, you can’t go wrong by starting with point of view.  As you sit down to write over the next few days, ask yourself:

Day One:  Who is telling this story?  

Day Two:  Why are they telling it?  

Day Three:  When are they telling it?   

The best example I can give about point of view (and why it is worth three days of questions) is Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird.   The narrator is a grown-up Scout talking over the head of young Scout right to the reader.  People like to say that if it were published today, Mockingbird would be published as a young adult.  I do not agree.  The narrator in Harper Lee’s novel is an adult woman capturing what it was like to be young through the eyes of both grown up Scout and the reader.  The reader and older Scout make a contract to understand why young Scout, whom the book is (in theory) about, can’t yet grasp.  

That’s why if you read the book in the seventh grade (as I did for the first time), you sort of miss the point.

Day Four:  What is the story behind the main character’s name?   When your full name is Rhodita Garret Michaela (and one of your sister’s is Lydia Alexandra Helene), you will believe that names have stories. But even Jane has a story behind it.  Is it from Jane Eyre, Jane Banks of Mary Poppins, Lady Jane Grey, or simply your aunt’s middle name?  Whatever it is, you know the story of your name. Your characters should as well.  

Day Five:  How much does a location dictate the story that your POV narrator tells?  I am thinking of Peter Behren’s Law of Dreams, a 3rd person tale of a young boy in the wake of the potato famine in Ireland. Clearly location has everything to do with the story even more than telling it from Fergus O’Brien’s viewpoint.  

Day Six:   A word on word count. Graham Greene wrote 350 words a day, no more and no less.  Edith Wahrton stayed in bed for two hours after breakfast and wrote during that time without ever counting her words. The romance novelist Sierra Simone swears by 2000 words a day.  There are plenty of charts and graphs telling you what you have to do during NaNoWriMo, but I say, be your own guide.  I have not weighed myself since high school and I wear the same dress size that I did then. I don’t count my words and I still manage to write books.   Sometimes numbers don’t mean anything.  

Day Seven:  A poem for your journey by the late, great Wislawa Szymborska.  

  

WISLAWA SZYMBORSKA

{Top photo by Jan Kahanek, Bottom one in public domain}

As COVID drags into its tenth month on the West Coast, we all feel like experts on the ways that solitude and loneliness shape us.  They’ve been my travelling companions for many a year and I think we should celebrate them.  But with the added caveat that both states are different for everyone and I’m only offering up the way I’ve made my peace with them.  

Between the publications of my first and second novels, as I struggled to find my voice as a writer, I lived with two cats.  I started my days at 5 in the morning so as to write for two hours before commuting to my day job.  When I came home to quiet evenings of reading and cat care, I began to wonder if I was on my way to embodying the cliché of cat lady.  

I didn’t mind, exactly, but I was in my 20s and, therefore, uncertain.  That first book (now mercifully out of print) had met with a small measure of success, but as I looked around at friends and neighbors, with their spouses and dental insurance, I began to think I’d made a terrible mistake by not going to law school.  

 My father, who is not a man you’d normally turn to for life advice, took me to dinner during a particularly bad month and said, “With writing, the trick is to eliminate loneliness without disturbing solitude.”   

Huh.  As my friend Sharyn would say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.  

One of the ways I gauge the quality of my work is by whether my solitude is enriched by the company writing creates. If, instead, the negative voices that flourish when one is lonely gain traction, then what I’m writing is no doubt deeply problematic.  

Both solitude and loneliness have their place in any life, and I’ve learned from both.  Like most of us, I like being alone, but get blue and cranky when lonely.   And that is why I have spent the past eleven years living with dogs.   

Now, I love and revere cats. My next book is about a cat.  Cats, as you can see, are excellent editors.

 But a dog takes you out of yourself on a regular basis and that, I believe, is what makes solitude so comforting.  You leave it and then return to yourself (and your work) in much the same way you happily hold a hot drink on a cold morning.  Dogs need basic things: walks, meals, and, yes, love.  But they also need love, games, belly rubs, and treats.  They need your company.  

Cats, on the other hand, powerfully need to ignore you.  I have been ignored by the same cat for over thirteen years.  And he has amused himself by hating my dogs.  

Start with Henry, whom I got from a rescue when he was five and who moved across country with me before dying at fourteen.  And Olivia, who came from a rescue in Los Angeles and blew into my heart during the 10 months I had her before she died unexpectedly.  There’ve been some fosters in there and the beloved dogs of beloved friends.  

Henry, who was odd looking, noisy, and loved everyone, was the model for the dragon in my novel, The Language of Spells.   There was something about him that made me believe in magic. 

Olivia, who was delicately beautiful, high-strung, and hated dogs, was the reason I wanted to write a romance novel.  There was something elusive and loving about her that said: Love stories matter.   

If you are lucky enough to be chosen by a rescue dog, that dog has a story for you.  

And, if a dog is not the right companion to put your loneliness on a diet while force feeding your solitude, I hope the thought of one points you in the right direction.   However you live with solitude and loneliness, they’re part of your process. And like dogs in the kitchen, they will come and go. Make friends and go to work.

{Top photo by Matteo Catanese, the others by my I phone}

I started teaching for the same reasons that someone joins a convent or becomes a priest; to share a transcendent faith.  Not the kind you may be picturing however, for this church is built on how writing transforms the soul.   In the classroom, I open the doors to my cathedral, and we all learn more about why we write, read, and live.  

If you are here, you too know (or have guessed) that writing and reading bring the same meaning and richness that love itself promises.  Maybe you teach and write as well, or are working on one, the other, or both. 

Teaching has turned out to be the perfect complement to my quiet life as an award-winning children’s book writer. Teaching brings the noise of efforts, glee, and good conversation. I work so my students flourish in the same way I write so my characters spring to life.  Both are a process, and I succeed when I don’t focus on results, but on what I love about the doing. 

I can’t force my characters alive, but I can work on them.  I can’t make students become writers, but I can show them how to work towards their unique voices.  The number one thing I teach is how reading teaches you to write.  Almost all of us write because we read.  

In fact, I would argue that we write in order to read. More on that later. 

At various times, I’ve had students who want to be writers, but don’t want to read widely.  It can’t be done.  The romance writer Sarah MacLean clearly has a lot of talent, but the fact that she reads a romance novel a day is why her books so epitomize the best of romance novels. 

When I was struggling to finish my first chapter book (which at the time, I thought was a picture book), my editor at Chronicle sent me books.  Picture books, middle grade books, and more.  Some were literary, some silly.  The point was to let me read myself into knowing how to write my book.   The point was for the books to teach me.

 To write, we should read deeply within genre but also outside of it. 

Part of my job is to play matchmaker between my students and the books I think will help them become better writers.  If I can’t reach the reader in my student, I can’t teach, something I learned the hard way. 

Some six years ago, a posh private high school hired me to tutor struggling students.  My focus changed from novels (whose redeeming power I honor) to analytical essays (whose efforts to suck the joy out of reading I do not).  My efforts increased tenfold, as did my failure to do what I do best; share my faith in books.  

 During my years of working at this school, I wrote my first middle grade novel, which totally changed the kind of writing I did.  I went from being preoccupied with how characters thought to how they felt.  As frustrating as it was to change writing style, it was also exhilarating to try something new.

My unhappy teen students, who were struggling through outlines into clearly argued essays, had plenty of frustration with their writing, but no exhilaration. I could get them to the finish line, but until they fell in love with writing, they’d never enjoy the process.  My best students knew they were being forced to write about things they’d never love (for example, motifs in The Great Gatsby), and my worst ones didn’t care.  

In the end, I quit, packed my bags, and moved to California.  My middle-grade novel was published, and I wrote and sold my first chapter book.  I officially became a woman of a certain age.  I stopped tutoring everything but the college essay because even if students don’t love the process, I make sure they love the story they write about themselves.   

With all the new things I’d done (including aging!), I started to wonder if I could do what I’d advised my unhappy DC students. Could I write what I loved?  And what did that mean if what I loved were romance novels?  

Would I, to steal from T.S. Eliot, dare disturb my universe?  In 2008, well before my DC life, I’d written an historical romance for my then agent, who also represented the great Linda Howard.  Two editors almost bought it and then didn’t.  Everyone else turned it down.  I put it away, unsure of where it fit in my career.  

Now, with 10+ extra years of teaching and writing behind me, I’ve pulled it out, ready to see what life looks like disturbed.  If your Cathedral, like mine, is full of books (maybe even one you’ve written without quite finishing), I hope you’ll join me as I learn – yet again – a new way to write.  Next time, I’ll be posting on why readers, specifically romance readers, write.  

{Photos by Susan Yin, Joanna Kosinka, and me.}