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}

After classes end, people often contact me saying they are having trouble finding time to write.  Do I have any suggestions how they can do better?   As a rule, I am against the how-to approach to writing because what makes the work sacred is how personal it is. 

Experience may bring a few tricks of the trade, but I’m not an expert on how to use time.  After all, managing it has spawned an industry of tracking apps, self-help books, and consultants.  Generally, people do not turn to fiction writers for tips on productivity.   

Still, I might answer a struggling student with some obvious ideas.   

1. Can you get up ten minutes earlier and write before the day gets away from you. 

2. Can you skip TV at night and write after the dinner, kids, and pets are squared away?   

3.  Can you miss a lunch hour work-out and write instead?  

Even if the answer is yes to all three, it won’t change that time is a writer’s most necessary ingredient and that there’s no magic trick to finding it.  

It always involves a trade.  It won’t be an easy one, it just has to be the right one.  

Early in my career, I tracked my spending until I saw how to cut my expenses by a fifth.  After talking to my boss, we agreed that for a pay cut, I could work four days a week.  I purchased writing time – a string of Tuesdays that I still look back on as some of my quietest and happiest days – for the price of never eating out, not turning on the heat before sunset, and any chance of getting promoted.   

For me, it was a good trade, but for you it might not have been.  

Just as there is no one way to write (and please run very far and fast from anyone who tells you there is), there is no one way to find the time; only the way that works for you.  Even though I was getting up at 5 am to write before work, I still needed the extra day for the convoluted story in my head to sort itself out on the page.  The time we need is measured by the gap between our ideas and what we can write.  

What I aim to do at Write to Read is provide a space where you have a home in the struggle to narrow that gap.  I don’t teach so as to tell you what to do.  Instead, just as I meet my work exactly where it is, I teach by gauging where you are in your work and try to point you in a useful direction.  

That includes editing, yes, but also encouragement to get to your desk.  You can remind yourself that the story that waits for you is fun.  But what works best is how much you value working to close your gap between the idea you have and what you’ve written.     

I will never tell you it is easy, but I will swear at sword’s point that it’s worth it.  

Trading for time to write is not akin to cleaning out your closet or going on a three-day detox.  Both of those tasks have a built-in end date, while the beauty of writing is that it transforms more than it finishes.  I will complete a draft, but guess what?  

It. Always. Needs. Work.  And the work can be elusive to measure (even if you have a daily word count quota).  

I can’t explain to myself, let alone to anyone else, why on some mornings I get five hundred words in with my coffee and on others I wind up deleting more than I keep.  But I do have one last suggestion that is more useful than how you spend your lunch hour:  Listen to what time has to say.  

If I took a dollar from every person who has said to me, upon hearing what I do, If I could find the time, I’d write a book, my bank balance would be much improved.  But there’s nothing you could pay me for the expression on their faces when I reply: If you listen to your time, you might find it.  

When I make everything but my writing a priority, I’ve learned that it means what I’m doing isn’t working.  Maybe I’m trying to finish chapter fifteen when it’s the prologue that needs revising.  Whatever it is, I need to listen.  And then act.  So, perhaps, in the time you’ve cleared at lunch or in the morning, don’t sit at your desk:  Go for a walk, knit, or fold laundry.  

Listen to what time has to say about how you’re closing the gap between the story in your head and the one getting on the page.  Listen to what it has to say about possible trades.   

And then get back to work.     

{Top photo by Patrick Fore, Koch poem originally published in the May 18, 1998 issue of The New Yorker}

As I write children’s books, yet read widely outside the genre, and, by passionate choice don’t have children, Why do you do this comes up a lot.   How I respond depends on who is asking (and how).  

My students always merit answers about voice, point of view and the young protagonist as the ultimate outsider in a world created by adults.   

To social acquaintances, who are expressing polite interest, I say that Mary Poppins Comes Back and The Secret Garden are two of my favorite books and that we tend to write what we most love.

 Then there are the people who ask variations of, “Why don’t you write a real book?”  This took some trial and error, but I’m now saved a lot of trouble if I just shrug and smile.   

All of these answers (including the shrug-smile) share an aspect of what is true without actually being true.

However, as a romance reader, in the awkward position of writing her first romance novel without it being anywhere near her first book, my answer never varies when people ask either: Why do you read romance novels? or Why on earth would you want to write one of those?

“You know how in a movie, TV show, or serious novel, there is a man at the heart of it, and in the background there is also a woman?” I will ask, my voice deepening at the word Man and dropping to a whisper over Woman.  “Well, in romance novels, there is a woman at the center and there is also a man.”   Here, of course, my voice does the opposite; sounding important with Woman and dropping in significance at Man.

Certainly, a good romance novel has a hero who is worthy of our attention and he goes on his own emotional journey. But, in the end, it is the woman who has claimed her power:  true love, an orgasm the first time she has sex (usually), and a deeply satisfying and pleasurable life with her soulmate. 

Along the way, money troubles are solved, the clothes are nice, and the food is delicious.   

The experience of daily life – meals, work, clothes, friends, children, family – oh, and taxes, is given full celebration from the female point of view.  And one more thing:  The happily-ever- after that is demanded by an entire genre, that is known by the reader to be waiting at the end before the book is even purchased.   

An HEA is a revolutionary act and a battle cry.  That statement will inevitably get me the quizzical look I need to proceed. 

Using the criteria created by men, a novel about female passion, power, sex, and love is only Art if the heroine, one of literature’s most famous and brilliantly drawn, is killed by a train.  

In a romance novel, the heroine ends up owning the railroad along with her beloved’s heart.   

But among those of us who know all this already, I will simply say:  I read romance novels (and am writing one) because they are fun.    

If, like many of my students, you are struggling to get to your desk, it helps to remember that what awaits you is not simply a love story and a revolutionary act that views women and their needs as worthy; it helps to remember that it’s fun.  And if your are a romance reader (any kind of passionate reader, actually), you know you are writing the novel that you most want to read.

If your answers to Why do you do this are different, use whatever they are to get you to the desk.  

{Photos by Michel Stockman (top) and Aliis Sinisalu.}