Thursday, November 3, 2016

Throwback Thursday: A New Brand of Insanity

I am a slow writer. I am always astounded by people who say they write a draft in a month, or even in two months. I placate myself by saying such drafts must not be very good. Otherwise I think I would completely despair, close the laptop permanently, and take up life as a pig farmer. 
When I write, I open my files, and my characters stare at me from the page patiently waiting for stage directions. I give them setting, and they tap their feet. I give them description, and they cross their arms.
I say, “What do you want me to do? You’re the character! Do something! Make some plot happen!”
Meanwhile, my characters look at their nails, stifle a yawn, and reply, “You’re the writer. What do you want me to do?”
This continues until I’m so disheartened that I skip to the end and take a cue from Scarlett O’Hara. I’ll think about the middle tomorrow.
So the whole concept of NaNoWriMo has always smacked of insanity to me. It seems as if you’re just setting yourself up for failure, disappointment, and disillusionment. Not to mention a future of pig-farming.
I made one attempt at NaNoWriMo a few years ago—not to write a new novel, but to finish the one I had been working on.
It was awful from start to finish. Family responsibilities cropped up, a national holiday, and plans for the eldest gingerbread boy’s birthday party. [On a side note, that was the year in which the Christmas tree fell down the night before the party, shattering all the glass ball ornaments into the carpet. That happened at 9:00 pm, too late to vacuum as the gingerbread boys were in bed. That was also the night the power went out, leaving me with the glass shards remaining in the carpet. With a group of children coming over for a birthday party. And tons of snow outside. And no heat. Thank you, Mother Nature. Just a walk down memory lane.]
Anywho, you may be surprised after reading this that I have signed up for NaNoWriMo this year. Remember this? And this? Well, the stars have aligned, and I have a new project. A new outline. Characters who speak to me. An actual plot. AND it’s November.
So I’ve decided to push myself a bit—in the same way I pushed myself to shimmy up the rock-climbing wall and run a 5K. A sort of manic (rhymes with panic) attempt at lassoing life. We’ll see what happens. It’s certainly not going to be pretty, but that’s what revision is for, right?
Are you doing NaNoWriMo? If so, look me up. I might need a little encouragement if my characters decide to stop speaking to me.
Originally published at Quirk and Quill 11.1.12

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Throwback Thursday NaNoWriMo: A Report

Well, friends, it seems as if a future in pig-farming is not imminent, thank goodness. I am beyond thrilled to report that NaNoWriMo was a success for me. Of course, it helped that there were no falling Christmas trees, no snowstorms, no power outages. There were no major illnesses, and only one trip to Urgent Care during the month of November.
At the end of 30 days, I had a complete first draft: a beginning, middle, and end, not to mention characters who spoke to me. In fact, they often wouldn’t shut up.
Winner-180x180So what did I learn from the experience?
1. I can start and finish a project quickly.
As I said in my last post, I’ve always considered myself a slow writer. Signing up for NaNoWriMo eliminated any prior conceptions or misconceptions I had about my writing speed. One caveat, though: some serious preparation was key. Before the month started, I designated a composition notebook for this project and brainstormed characters, settings, plot lines, and ideas.
2. I can use an outline.
Who knew? OK, I didn’t really have a true outline, more like a road map, but I pretty much always knew where I needed to go. I did muck around a bit when I got to the middle, but I always went back to my notebook to see what I had planned, or even just to see what possibilities existed.
3. Working five days a week (taking Saturday and Sunday off) really helped me.
The fact is that I have a family and a house as well as other responsibilities. I cannot go into my writing cave for 30 days and come out at the end without some serious consequences. I needed that weekend down time. Come Fridays, my brain was exhausted. Having those few days off gave me time to recharge my batteries, and regroup my characters and plot.
4. I work best first thing in the morning.
When I’m wearing my “mom” hat, my mind has to balance a zillion things at any given time (for example, this week I’ve got to remember band days, piano and cello lessons, two family birthdays, volunteer time at the school library, blogging assignments for two blogs, after-school Latin/chess club/bridge club/library pick-up, cub scouts, a meeting, my husband’s days at his office vs. days at home, third-grade spelling words, an immigration assignment, when the new sofa is being delivered, three Christmas parties, Christmas cards, a Nutcracker performance, a new ballet class I’ll be taking, ski club fitting, and a partridge in a pear tree.)
Do you feel overwhelmed? I do, too, on an hourly basis. Consequently, if I let my day “begin” before getting my words in, I’d never have the focus to get any writing accomplished. So I wrote when I first woke up, before anything else had a chance to rear its needy head. It was much easier to get my words done, and I was frequently done by noon. The rest of the day I felt like I’d accomplished something. I didn’t have that monkey sitting on my back prodding at my guilt gland all the time.
4. I can use other methods of tuning out the world.
On those days when I couldn’t write immediately, or when I didn’t finish by the time the school bus rolled around, I found another way to help my brain focus.
Don’t laugh. Don’t judge. Seriously.
I put on the Pandora new-age music station. I don’t normally write to music; it interferes too much. I start choreographing in my head. Too many memories, too many lyrics, too much sensory input in general.
But since I don’t listen to new-age music, there was nothing to spark a memory. There were no lyrics to give me cause for pause, and so it allowed me to tune-out all the other daily chatter that goes on, both internally and externally, and the words came easier. Strange, but it worked.
5. Quantity eventually leads to quality, and fluency helps get you there.
While writing five days a week helped me balance my other responsibilities, it did IMG_1207mean that I had to increase my word count from 1667/day to 2250/day. At the back of my notebook, I kept a chart of my daily numbers, with date, starting point, goal, and ending point, as well as the final daily word count to keep track. It got easier to write those words each day.
You’ll notice I wrote at the top, “I refuse to be derailed by migraine, monster, mandate, or muppet.” That was my way of saying no excuses. During the month of November, all of those things tried to claim my attention. I refused to let them. Even the Muppets — and that was really hard, because they were singing the Banana Boat song with Harry Belafonte.
6. Challenging myself and completing a goal is empowering.
I suffer from the imposter syndrome, but really? An imposter writing a novel in 30 days? No chance. This experience made me feel like a real writer. That’s not to say you can’t be a real writer if you don’t write a novel in 30 days. It just validated me in a way other things have not, even with an MFA from VCFA. I can’t say I’m an imposter anymore. I’m a writer. Of course, it helped that when I finished and verified my word count at the NaNoWriMo web site, I was sent a video of the people at the Office of Lights and Letters cheering for me. :)

7. The writing community is incredibly supportive. (Even though I already knew this) 
While it might have been annoying to lots of people, I posted my daily word count on Facebook. I went public, which is something the NaNoWriMo organizers suggest. It did help, too, to see comments from friends cheering me on. Thanks.
8. My own circle is incredibly supportive.
I recognize that I’m extremely lucky in being able to have a large block of time daily to write. I know many writers hold down other employment, in addition to writing and taking care of family, and I stand in awe of all that they do (I’m looking at you, Annemarie O’BrienLinden McNeilly, and Varian Johnson). I couldn’t do what I do without the support of my gingerbread man, and the understanding of my gingerbread boys, each of whom lends an ear and keeps me going.
So would I do it again?
Perhaps. If the timing was right…and I start feeling like a pig farmer.

Originally published at Quirk and Quill 12.6.12

Monday, October 24, 2016

Art and Fear

"[W]hat we really gain from the artmaking of others is courage-by-association."
                                                 -David Bayles and Ted Orland
                                                 Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

Friday, October 21, 2016


I am currently obsessed with houses. Old houses. Giant houses. Houses with far too many bedrooms and bathrooms for my small family. Houses with porte cocheres and carriage houses and barns. Houses with fireplaces and tall windows and leaded glass. Houses with peaks and turrets and bay windows and balconies. Houses with libraries and butler's pantries and multiple staircases. I even found one with an elevator.

I visit more often than I should. I scroll through pictures when I should be organizing my tax documents. I look at house plans when I should be folding laundry. But laundry gets undone almost as soon as it's done, so why bother?

If I lived in one of these houses, I would have a room of my own. In fact, I would have several rooms of my own. Probably one for each day of the week. One could be an office, one an art studio, one a dance/yoga studio, and one just for empty space where I could lie down on the floor and make snow angels, minus the snow. I'd have a guest room for anyone who wanted to come visit. I'd have a room for foreign exchange students or refugees or foster children. There would be space in the kitchen for absolutely everything. Even the plastic food storage tops. And think of the Christmas parties!

It's a lovely dream, isn't it?

The reality is more likely to be lots of dust bunnies and cobwebs. Acres of floors to clean and far too many toilets to scrub. There would be a huge mortgage, not to mention the property taxes. And oh, the maintenance. All those chimneys to have swept. The grass to mow. The roof? Oy.

Still...a library and a butler's pantry?

I think I could find a way around the dust bunnies and cobwebs for a library and a butler's pantry.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Warming Up

Before practice or performance, dancers stretch their muscles, head to toe. Not only does stretching feel amazing, it prevents injury, and allows the performers to push the limits of their physical capabilities. See here for some favorite photos of dancers pushing their limits)
Visual artists complete quick warm-up sketches or gesture drawings to loosen up the hand, and to practice before drawing more complex and detailed work.
Singers perform vocal gymnastics in preparation for a performance. Lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-POP. (That used to be my favorite.)
And we writers? We open up a scene and dive in.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ve found in the past week that a warm-up really helps my process. These warm-ups are nothing elaborate, nor are they award-winning writing. They are simply meant to get the internal editor out of the way and get the words flowing when I finally do sit down with my work-in-progress.
The rules? I write one side of a page in my notebook with a freely flowing pen, top to bottom. I don’t time myself, because I don’t want to get pulled out of my process wondering if I have 5 seconds left or 15. I just write from top to bottom as quickly as I can. If I get stuck, I write something stupid until another thought comes to me.
Here are some of the topics I’ve written as warm-up:
  • A description of a city I’ve visited
  • What I’ve neglected
  • My mother
  • I must be nuts to do this
  • Leaving
  • Being eternal
  • All boundaries will disappear
  • What am I obsessed by?
  • The details of life
  • A description of my morning
Many of these topics have come from Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which is more like a visit with a writing coach than plodding through a craft book. With a quick google search, you can find dozens of other writing prompts, as well as writing prompt generators.
I write three of these pages then turn to my manuscript. It doesn’t take long, and by the time I’m done, I’m easily able to transfer my attention to my manuscript. Because of the practice, my words just fly out, without any hemming and hawing, and that makes me a happy writer.
Try it and see what you think, and be sure to let me know if it works for you.
Originally published at Quirk and Quill 10.4.12

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Throwback Thursday: On Becoming Revisionary

Last week, I helped a woman who is moving from a very large house (probably over 3000 square feet) to a three-bedroom apartment.
We sorted the contents of her garage into piles of garbage, piles of recycling, piles of donations, and piles of things to keep. Some things were easy to sort: the bags of trash that had been sitting for weeks; the broken picture frame; the dented metal garbage can; the bags of clothes that no longer fit.
Some things were not so easy: the dollhouse that needed a few touch-ups but still had many hours of good Barbie time left in it; the unused $600 ski rack; the deflated soccer ball.
It was not my stuff, so it was easy for me to be objective. I had no emotional attachment to any of it, no history, no story, no memories lacquering the surfaces of these objects.
They were just things.
If I were to sort the contents of my own garage, I might not have such an easy time. We humans have a touch of the squirrel in us, a touch of the magpie. A response of “Oh! Pretty!” A desire to own and consume. We place an emotional value on things. With a nod to Tim O’Brien, some of us carry peaches in heavy syrup when we’re slashing our way through a war zone.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
In contrast, others carry very little at all, preferring to live a Thoreau-like deliberate existence. A guy named Dave created the 100-Thing Challenge, the goal of which is to “live a life of simplicity, characterized by joyfulness and thoughtfulness.”
He explains that so many of us feel “stuck in stuff” and the way to get unstuck is to reduce (getting rid of stuff), refuse (to get more stuff), and rejigger (your priorities).
simonevans_everythingihave_closeThe artist Simon Evans created a personal inventory cataloguing everything he owns. Sometimes, we need a proper inventory to see what’s what.
I fear I would brilliantly fail the 100-Thing Challenge. I suspect I have more than 100 things just in the drawers of my desk, and if I were to create a visual personal inventory, it definitely wouldn’t fit on one poster.
You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?
We writers collect words. We drape our stories with them, roll ourselves up in them, and swing them around until our worlds are filled with them. We say, “Oh! Pretty!” and hang onto them. We are unable to see that many of these words, while perfectly serviceable, do not fit our need.
As I approach revising my current manuscript, I’m trying to become a revisionary. I’m trying to see what’s there, to see what’s necessary and what’s not. It’s hard to be objective about the verbal stuff hanging out in my manuscript file-garage.
When I get to the end—when I get to what’s left behind—I’m hoping I’ll be left with what really matters. I’m hoping I’ll be left with an economy of words that are deliberate and that sing. That’s becoming revisionary.
Originally published at Quirk and Quill 1.21.13

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Throwback Thursday: You Want a Story?

You say you want a story? A true-life story, an end-of-the-road type story?
Yeah, yeah, that kind.
A what’s-important story?
You got a story or not?
Alright, alright, keep your shirt on. I’m thinking, ok? Ok.
Ok. I’ve got it. Here’s your story. So my grandfather used to fly planes during WWII.
Yeah, you know those things in the sky?
He was a test pilot. And one day, he was supposed to test fly this one plane, only for some reason his emergency pack wasn’t complete. See, they were supposed to carry a bar of emergency chocolate, and his pack had no chocolate. Yeah, I know, right? They had emergency chocolate! Smart brass, eh?
So my grandfather’s missing his chocolate.
No, I don’t know what happened to it—maybe he ate it one night when the mess hall had fiber fish for dinner. Maybe it melted in the Georgia sun. Maybe the rats got it, or the cockroaches carried it away. Who knows? That part’s not important to the story. For whatever reason, his pack had no chocolate.
So what did Grampy do? Well, he had two choices. One, fly the plane anyway, and risk getting written up for testing a plane without a complete pack.
Not so good.
No, not so good. Or, he could simply get a replacement bar of emergency chocolate.
I’d go for the chocolate, myself.
That’s exactly what he did. So the replacement bar of chocolate is across the base, and Grampy runs for it. The guys are waiting for him, checking their watches, checking the schedule. Come on, Sam, they say under their breath. Hurry up!
But there’s no Sam.
The minutes tick by. No Sam.
They prep the planes for flight. No Sam.
Five full minutes pass, and the other test pilots are sweating, there in the hot Georgia sun. “Go get Remus!” one of them says, disgusted that Sam’s not back yet.
Remus obliges. He’s got a full pack, complete with regulation chocolate. Sam will have to wait for the next group of planes. Remus will take Sam’s plane.
So Remus goes up.
And his plane goes down.
And Grampy not only had his emergency bar of chocolate, he had his life.
That’s some story.
Yeah, ain’t it, though?
Exceptin’ I don’t believe it.
It’s true, every word!
Every word?
Well, I made up the name Remus.
And Georgia. I don’t know if he was in Georgia.
But everything else is true, I swear it.
Originally published at Quirk and Quill 3.21.13

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Throwback Thursday: A Love Song for Libraries

Ginger and her sister
In the beginning was the Word. In her beginnings, there was a book. Her mother told her she could read before she started kindergarten, and she started kindergarten at age four. Each week, she would walk with her grandmother and older sister the nine or ten city blocks to their local branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, a low brick building down a side street.

There, she and her sister would settle in the children’s section, while their grandmother browsed through paperback mysteries and Regency romances. She remembers little of that library—windows, low shelves, Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day, and the front desk, where a stereotypically severe-looking librarian stamped their books with a heavy rubber stamp—ka-thunk!

By the time she was in fifth grade, her mother was in graduate school studying to become an elementary school librarian. Long Saturday afternoons were spent in Lockwood Library at the university: Mom at the copier with piles of coins, sister claiming the best of the blocky chairs available. The options were limited. Ride the elevator up and down, up and down. Run out to the vending machines, having first snatched a quarter from her mother’s towering pile. Quarter in, press F8, curly-cue swivels around, out pops frosted nut brownie. Or, of course, there were the stacks.

Mostly, she spent time in the stacks. One single row of children’s books, mostly books that sported shiny gold Newbery stickers. Somehow she got her hands on a bookmark that listed all the Newbery award winners, and she decided she would read them. Some of her favorite books were Newberies: A Wrinkle in Time, Tuck Everlasting, Bridge to Terabithia, The Westing Game, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. They were quickly joined by Summer of the Swans, My Side of the Mountain, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Great Gilly Hopkins, A Ring of Endless Light.

She remembers, though, mostly spending those afternoons with E.L. Konigsburg. Oh, they weren’t on a first-name basis, she and E.L., but nevertheless, she became great friends with Claudia and Jamie, wishing more than anything that she could stay in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that she could go to an automat (What was an automat, anyway?). She thrilled to the sound of Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. She gobbled up About the B’nai Bagels, while developing A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. She even became Father’s Arcane Daughter for a while.

Those Saturday afternoons ceased, but she found other libraries to haunt. She could make a dot-to-dot design on a map of the United States of libraries she has frequented over her lifetime. It would undoubtedly look like an open book. Some of those libraries don’t exist anymore; some of them have expanded. All of them have been important to her. This one is the one she went to in college, studying with her roommates while wearing large hats (to channel the brain-waves, of course). This one she frequented when she was first married, borrowing books with unlikely plots and even more unlikely heroines. That is the one she walked to with her first baby, borrowing books on child development, as well as board books and movies for cheap date nights.

This library, here, was one of her favorites. She brought her toddler there for story time, but also to see the fish in the fish tank, and to work the puzzles on the table, and to borrow picture books to read to him, and CDs to listen to (a compilation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems set to music was her favorite). It was there that she returned to her love of children’s literature, often grabbing Anne of Green Gables off the shelf to read while her gingerbread boy played quietly. It was here that she realized she liked children’s literature better than literature for adults.

Now she frequents her current town library, an old schoolhouse built in the 1800s. It is a place where the librarians not only know her name, they know her library card number. She also volunteers in the elementary school library, where she returns dozens and dozens of books back to their places on the shelves. Sometimes, though, she sees a book that catches her eye, and she sits down right in the stacks, caught up in the pleasure of a book, just like she did when she was in fifth grade. Some things never change.

Originally published here 3.31.11

Thursday, March 24, 2016

THROWBACK THURSDAY Guest Post: Life with a Writer

One of the most vital aspects of being able to fulfill one’s calling as an anguished writer is to have someone who understands. Today’s guest post is brought to you by William Johnson, also known as the Gingerbread Man. Ginger cannot confirm or deny any of the following allegations.
From the outside, to a non-writer, there are only three stages to writing a novel.
The first stage involves mornings when I awaken to the sound of pencil on paper, scribbling furiously. I see my writer intently pouring her soul into a small notebook. When I venture a question… “Honey, when do you think…?” I am greeted by a “Shhh, not now.”
If the muses have been kind, these mornings may involve an hour of ecstatic outpouring, rarely more. The activity sometimes comes in fits and starts, but often seems to most resemble the gush of a firehose from brain to paper. At times, there is transfer of notes to computer with smiles and giggles abounding. It seems that a writer truly enjoys this part of writing. But alas, with the dawning of the morning and the patter of size three feet, the muses are dispersed and the process comes to an abrupt halt.
The second stage of writing resembles sorting and folding laundry more than anything else. On these mornings, my writer goes to her office with her book map and sorts scenes and chapters instead of towels and socks. Here the disconnected ideas and anecdotes get molded by my writer into a coherent and compelling narrative. While something vital is getting done, it is considerably less fun for my writer. I see more mornings of furrowed brows and fewer of smiling and giggling.
The third stage of writing seems to be the least fun. I don’t recall having ever seen tears in the process, but they have certainly been warranted. Here my writer smooths the superfluous details and jagged edges; the unnecessary adverbs are speedily deleted and adeptly replaced. My writer has her axe: she takes her whet stone and sharpens and refines to make every word count, to make every phrase smooth, to make every paragraph a vital component of the story. Here the true poetry takes place. This is also the place where the fun and creativity of the project (for before this stage, a novel is really only a project) are transformed into something marvelous.
A prolific finance colleague of mine was once asked how he is so productive. His response was simple: “I am a good finisher.” It takes a good finisher to get through the third stage. The third stage of the writing process makes you want to pull your hair out. It may lead you to despair. But this is also the stage where you get to tell the world your story in your way. This is where you make the magic.
So, my writer, keep on.  Make your magic.
When Bill is not sending smoke signals to the Muses pleading for mercy on behalf of his wife, he professes finance at Suffolk University. Bill says the only difference between Ginger’s creative writing and his academic writing is that he gets to use more adverbs.
Originally published at Quirk and Quill 4.8.13

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Aristotle and Me

Back in the old days, or at least in graduate school, Aristotle and I became quite close. We were buddies.
Ok. The relationship was rather one-sided.
But being something of a structure freak and a lover of tracing one’s roots (be they genealogical, linguistic, or literary), I spent quite a bit of time hanging out with Aristotle and his Poetics. (Wouldn’t that be a great name for an English-nerd band?)
Here’s what I learned:
Aristotle’s unities (the unities of action, time, and place) went out of vogue around the time of Shakespeare, because of the wild and crazy influence of mystery cycles and morality plays. Aristotle was no match for Shakespeare, and his theories took on the patina of an antiquated relic, whilst Shakespeare shone.
Dear Aristotle remains relevant, though, when you’re looking for a structural way to help convey emotion, shape tone, and dive into complex thematic content.
Just for kicks, here’s a refresher on the unities.
Having unity of action means that you can reduce the plot to a universal form. In other words, can you summarize the plot in one sentence? The other part of unity of action requires a cause-and-effect structure where each plot point is logically and directly connected to the next one (the beginning, middle, and end of a piece).
The unity of time requires limitations on the time span of the action. Aristotle says 24 hours, but I think any specified boundary of time is sufficient.
The unity of place limits the location of the narrative to a single place, whether a single house or a single city.
So what does this mean for a modern writer?
Say you’ve written a middle-grade narrative with some difficult content—the death of a best friend or a parent’s mental illness, for example. Using some form of these unities in a story will set boundaries for the reader that will circumscribe a safe area to explore the complex or troubling subject matter. The pain and difficulty of the subject matter become finite in this contained cognitive space.
Even if your narrative doesn’t contain emotional content, boundaries of time, place, and action mark the fictional world of the narrative. They set the story apart from the reader’s reality, giving it a delineated time, a specific place, and a logical structure, all good things for a middle-grade reader who is making sense of her world.
As the middle-grade reader ages, though, these boundaries are not as developmentally necessary. The young adult reader pushes against boundaries and tests borders as he navigates his way toward adulthood. Knowing this, a writer of young adult fiction can be deliberate about disregarding the unities or artfully manipulating them. If you want your plot to evoke a sense of uncertainty or discomfort, such a feeling can be emphasized with a disunity of time, place, or action—when there are multiple episodes, or when the duration, succession, or chronology of a piece are not straightforward, or when the action takes place in multiple locations.
Without unities of time, place, or action, an unbound narrative will provide a stage of possibility for the young adult. More experimental or unbound narrative architectures (such as vignette or themed short story collections, plotless or episodic novels, or story-within-a-story) may hold more interest for the YA reader.
The Unities. Use them (for middle-grade) or lose them (for young adult). Either way, Aristotle’s got you covered.
Originally published at Quirk and Quill 4.18.13

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Growing Up

Writing a novel has often been compared to giving birth. I’ve done both twice, so I can attest to the fact that it’s a good metaphor–you write for nine months, then in a final painful push, drug-induced or not, you give birth to a being that didn’t exist before.
Too often, the metaphor stops there. It shouldn’t.
Just as no self-respecting mother would send her baby out into the world after the snip of the umbilical cord and a quick clean up, no writer should ever send a manuscript out into the world so new and so fresh.
It takes time and love and energy and dedication to raise a child. So, too, does it take significant effort to raise and revise a worthy novel. Some things cannot be rushed, no matter how much we writers seek validation or legitimacy, no matter how many times a well-meaning relative asks about “the writing,” and if we’re ever going to “finish that thing.”
It’s ok to be a first draft for a while. Perhaps we need to stop thinking of our first drafts with Anne Lamott’s famous descriptor. Perhaps we need to think instead that our first drafts are newborn babes, eating and sleeping and making good use of their diapers.
If we let them grow into a second draft, they turn into toddlers. The struggle ensues as personalities begin to develop. A third draft brings early childhood, with lots of learning going on. By the time the fourth draft comes along, our manuscripts are developmentally “in school,” persistently plodding along.
All too soon, the manuscript hits the teenage years and wants to break free and live an independent life. This, perhaps, is when our manuscripts need us the most. It’s time for tough love, friends. It’s time to say to our manuscripts. “Wait a while–there’s plenty of time for the jungle out there.” And then ground it until it’s 35.
Just kidding.
Sort of. ;)

Originally published at Quirk and Quill 7.26.12

Thursday, March 3, 2016


On the last day of school, Indie Lee Chickory discovers a stow-away in her backpack: The Lobster Monty Cola, her pet golden lobster. In a series of misadventures involving a kickball, a chase, and a police siren, she ends up losing him in the ocean that day.
Indie wants to make things better: to find Monty Cola with the help of her new friend Owen, to regain the relationship she used to have with her sister, Bebe, before Bebe went all perfectionista on her, and to be a better Indie Lee Chickory.
But the Indie Lee Chickory she is when she’s looking for Monty Cola with Owen is a different Indie Lee Chickory from the one she is when she’s trying to be a better sister. The two Indie Lee Chickorys seem mutually exclusive.
One wears Carhartts and works in the set design studio with a pierced and fierce Mohawk-hair girl named Sloth. That Indie Lee recites fish names and makes fish faces, like the trout pout, to make people laugh.
The other Indie Lee wears French braids and matching outfits. She tells white lies to impress other people, and she does mean things, all in the name of helping her sister “network.”
In looking for The Lobster Monty Cola, she discovers the junction where these two Indie Lee Chickorys meet, and finds peace in her own skin, knowing she’s the best Indie Lee Chickory she can be.
This is a middle grade book with heart and hope, family and friends, and a whole lot of fish. Highly recommended.
Note: for the sensitive, there is one swear word in the text.
Originally published in Quirk and Quill 6.21.12

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Something to Say

Last month I taught a journal-writing class to a group of women at my church. Though I practically cut my teeth writing in my journal, I no longer write regularly. I justify myself by claiming that I spend my days writing other things, which absolves me from any sort of journal-writing guilt. Honestly though, at the end of the day I feel like I simply have nothing left to say.
The details of my life are mundane:
I eat, I sleep, I work. Repeat.
Of course, there are variations, but not many.
I eat, but I eat the same things on a weekly basis. (We follow a set menu at the Gingerbread House because of picky eaters.)
I sleep, but not much because my body keeps a monk’s schedule, awakening usually at 3 or 4 am.
I work: I write, I shovel, I cook, I clean, I drive, I organize.
These days, there’s little that’s noteworthy but for the snow, and even that’s lost its newsworthiness, as it simply keeps coming.
But then two weeks ago, I found myself in a situation that I had to write about:
I am sitting in an examination room at the Seacoast Cancer Center. I am not here because I have cancer. No one in the waiting room knows that though, and I feel like a fraud. There are people with real problems out there — one woman wears an eye patch, one came in a wheelchair. One man carries a cane, while another carries what I think must be a chemotherapy bag.
And here I am, because of anomalies in my blood work at my yearly physical.
The room I’m in is depressing, even though they try to make it otherwise. The walls are painted sage green. Three walls in a lighter green and one in a darker green. Everything else is khaki neutral: floor tiles, chairs, examination bed, sink, countertop. I, on the other hand, wear an incredibly bright pink sweater. I stand out.

There’s nothing here that’s particularly interesting. No major plot points, no great descriptions. So why did I feel compelled to grab a notebook out of my bag and write?
I suspect it was because this was something out of the ordinary. That is, it was out of the ordinary to me. It was a different beat in the regular rhythm of my days. So I wrote it down.
However, what I see as ordinary might not be what everyone else sees as ordinary. Is that not one of the reasons why we read? Is that not one of the reasons why we seek out diverse books? Sometimes we want to read about someone whose life mirrors ours. We need understanding. We crave validation. Other times, we want to slip into the shoes of someone entirely different and experience what constitutes their “ordinary.” We need a universality of emotion, even if the details are different. That is our humanity.
I value those stories, whatever they are and wherever they may take place. They are a connecting link in time and place and situation from one person’s heart and soul to another person’s heart and soul.
I don’t believe in ordinary. I believe in connections.
Originally published at Quirk and Quill 3.2.15

Friday, February 12, 2016

In the Woods

In the woods across the stream, there is a pile of bricks. There are 79 bricks. I know there are 79 bricks because the gingerbread boys counted them once when they were much younger, when counting things was cool. The bricks are not close to any house, nor are they close to any structure at all. There's no barn, no sugar shack, no hunting cabin. Nothing. They are in a no-man's land of pine and ash trees, brambles and firebush. How did they get there? Did the deer bring them, nosing them along until they formed a neat stack? Did the ants go marching one by one (Hurrah! Hurrah!), carrying them on their backs? Did the rafter of turkeys fly them in? Do they mark the spot where treasure is buried? Are they there as some post-apocalytic stash? I have questions.

In the woods past the old beaver dam, there is a tree with BUTTER spray-painted on it. There is also a tree with FLOUR spray-painted on it. EGGS, too. This grocery list is in a vast area dubbed the Marshy Swamp by the gingerbread boys. It's marshy. It's a swamp. No one goes there except in winter when we snow-shoe over the frozen ground, weaving in and out of cattails taller than we are. Who needs the reminder to pick up butter and eggs from the store? The chipmunks? The woodpeckers? The beavers? And why did they spray-paint it on the trees? Is it an art installation? Is it a permanent reminder of where one's priorities should lie--with the basics? Is it a subliminal suggestion to go home and make cake?

I have questions.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


Yesterday, after a solid day of BIC [Butt-in-chair for the non-writers out there], my brain was fatigued. The little decisions of revision -- To be or not to be? To keep or not to keep? Is this a separate scene or part of the same scene? Does it matter? -- immobilized me for any other decisions, like what to make for dinner. While most normal people would just order pizza or go for Chinese, the choices for pizza delivery and Chinese take-out in these parts are scant. I can't over-use them or I lose my sole ace. Sole ace. Solace. It's pretty lame when your sole ace/solace is take-out. No wonder writers tend to live in big cities. There are more options for take-out.

Anyway, I turned to Facebook. Let's crowd-source dinner decisions. And Facebook came through. With one single note that I had cauliflower, I got recipes and links to aloo gobi, stir-fried rice/cauliflower, cauliflower alfredo, roasted cauliflower with tahini and yogurt, cauliflower and bacon baked with gruyere cheese and green onions, curried cauliflower, Buffalo cauliflower bites, gobi manchurian, cauliflower in an omelette, and sweet and sour cauliflower. Also, my very first suggestion (thank you, Chris) was for bacon. Lots and lots of bacon. And just for kicks, there was also a link to baked potato soup.

All of which sound amazing to me. Sadly, I didn't see most of the posts until *after* I had already begun dinner, but because cauliflower is on sale at the grocery store this week again, the suggestions may still see my table.

Since I had bacon in my freezer, and since one of my gingerbread boys won't touch cauliflower but will inhale bacon, I decided upon bacon on the one hand and cauliflower on the other. Normally, I make roasted curried cauliflower, but I had a recipe for sauteed cauliflower with garlic and lemon. With one lemon in my hot little hand and one package of frozen bacon, I figured this was good enough. Some nights we feast. Some nights we have food. This was a night for food.

And that's ok.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Fear is a Hunter

I just finished reading an ARC of Ruta Sepetys's new novel Salt to the Sea. It is the story of WWII refugees aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff. The story is told in four voices, with the first four chapters introducing each of the four characters.

Sepetys begins these four chapters with "_____ is a hunter." Each character is given an emotion: Guilt is a hunter. Fate is a hunter. Shame is a hunter. And finally, the last character: Fear is a hunter.  I'm not doing justice to this wonderful and heartbreaking story, but I'm stuck right now on Fear is a hunter.

The emotion of fear is assigned to the despised character. I don't want to be like the despised character.

And yet, I'm fearful.

The fear of my inadequacies drives me to all kinds of activities other than what I should be doing (writing), what I want to be doing (writing).

So I turn around and face the hunter. I'm not perfect, I say. I'm not invincible, I say. You can't hurt me, I say. I have things to do, I say.

I refuse to be hunted today.