The damp, dewy beginning

I’m at the beginning of a new book.   This is probably my favorite part of writing—every possibility exists.  There is a freshness to the material, a scent of dew and dawn filling my work hours.  There is always the chance that this time I will have matured enough, learned enough, that I will be able to draw the material from the Land of Book Children with such care and expertise that it will be perfect.

That never happens, of course.  I love many of the books that have flowed through me, and feel a mother’s pride over every single of one of them.  But never once has one emerged on the page just as it exists on the other side of the veil.  I am only human, not an angel or a goddess.  I show up and do the best I can.

But right now, I haven’t yet marred this new book.  It’s still wet behind the ears, delicate and full of potential.  This stage of development is what makes non-writers think they could write books—they have a great idea, they have ideas for structure and originality, and it’s so much fun to think about the book project that a person can spend endless hours daydreaming about it.   It’s exciting to imagine turning points, discover the details of characters.  I love it when the girls in the basement send up a picture of something I know but would never have thought to use this way, like the gorgeous, solid houses built of red sandstone blocks in Pueblo.   There is a whole neighborhood with street after street of mansions built of this lovely material.   The girls said, “Hey, what about this?” and I realized it works perfectly.  The house, the neighborhood.

There are rituals for this process.   I like to start collecting a soundtrack.  The cornerstone piece for this soundtrack is Glitter in the Air, by Pink, because there is one line that captured me completely, and as sometimes will happen, a whole book reeled out from that starting point.   (No, I will not tell you which line it is, but maybe someday, I’ll bring this up again and someone will guess.)  I suspect there is some Adam Hurst again because I’m so crazy for cello right now and I like listening to his slow, melancholy strings while I write.   Maybe some Sarah McLachlan

I don’t have page counts to meet each day, but instead have time requirements. I have to be at the computer by 9, after a walk with the dog, and it is weirdly important not to get online or otherwise let the world in at this stage of development.  I need to be able to hear the soft voices of the novel.  The world is like static, interfering with my ability to tune in.

I like to write a dialogue between me and the main character.  It might sound silly, or a trick, and it is, in a way, but it also works.  I say hello, and I am glad to be working with you on this.  Let’s talk.  Tell me about……

And I give the character a chance to respond.  This is a surprisingly long standing ritual.  I started it years and years ago, and it nearly always gets my imagination moving.

I dream and play.  I write possible ideas for direction, play with character arcs.  To really start writing, I need a pretty clear idea of the shape of a novel, the basic themes and ideas I’m working with.  Most of what I will do in the first 100 pages will be more like building a skeleton than actual writing—I’m capturing motives and moods, planting stakes for support.   It’s all very plain and messy, with the odd flash of beauty.

It’s a delight to be in this stage.  Before anyone sees it, before things settle into solidity.

If you are a writer, do you like this stage, too?  If you are a reader, is there some part of your life that mirrors this sense of fresh starts?

New! Online Voice Class available this fall

Finally!  I have a couple of months that are a little less demanding so I can offer the voice class again this fall. It’s been almost two years!  I love teaching this, and believe deeply in the power of voice, so I’ve missed it a LOT.

What it is:

A six week writing intensive designed to help each writer recognize the unique elements that form her own voice, and to recognize voice as a whole.    Each week, I’ll post a set of exercises, and you will have several days to complete them.  Then you will post your work to the group, and we will then discuss what elements of voice have been showcased that week.   There is plenty of time to discuss questions that come up, and to address each writer’s concerns about her own voice.

The exercises are mostly timed writings, and are designed to build, week by week, to help you see what elements make your voice unique, and how you might be able to best match it to the marketplace. Are you a funny ethnic writer with a thread of poignance?  A serious historical novelist with deep roots in a particular time?  What influenced you to come a writer, who taught you to talk, what have you read and loved?   All these elements form the developing writer.

It’s a very deep workshop, very hands-on, and I believe it can be very helpful for writers who are floundering for whatever reason–too many contest judges, too many rejections, a crazy critique group, an editor who undermined you. Maybe you aren’t at all sure where you belong in the writing universe and need to figure out where you fit.  Over the years, a number of students have found their voices in all kinds of surprising and interesting ways, and have formed friendships with other writers as well.


The class is SMALL, and very intimate, and I will be reading and commenting on your work personally, which is why this is more expensive than the average online workshop.  I do offer two scholarships every time, so if you are aching to do this and just can’t swing it, please drop me an email at with SCHOLARSHIP REQUEST in the subject line and I’ll put your name in a hat.

Start date: August 31, 2010

Price: $225

If you are interested, send an email with Voice Workshop in the subject line to

And any of you out there who found it helpful, either online or in person, please let me know that, too.

Shrinking Violets

I’ve been on vacation in Michigan and will be headed out to the annual RWA conference in five days, so posts have been sparse.  I do have stories for you, and pics, and love (as ever), but tonight’s simple post is a link to a great website I think you’ll love, Shrinking Violets:

Run by two fantastic women writers I adore, who are both introverted and smart and cheerful.  Check it out.


Up to my neck: the revision process

I’ve spent the past few weeks going through the new book (formerly 100 Breakfasts now officially titled THE SECRET OF EVERYTHING).  Ed and agents came back with suggestions and I had some thing I knew I wanted to smooth and fix, too.  

I wish I could say I had a process I use, over and over again, to rewrite a book, but I don’t.  Different books require different fixes–tweaking a character’s arc in one book, smoothing a bumpy or unrealistic plot in another; adding or taking away elements, shifting a time line.  Uncovering a secret.

This is the point when I remember all the stages of the book, from the first glimmerings of the idea, through the development and writing and drafting, now to the deep polish and smoothing.  It’s a lot of work, writing a book! I always end up with a big box of materials, research and backstory and draft upon draft upon draft. I wish I was a less messy writer, but I do require many drafts, often up to 20 or even 30 , though not 30 whole drafts.  Some scenes emerge whole and clean.  Some are elusive and take many rewrites to show themselves.  Some are raw and need toning down.  Whatever.  It’s a lot of words. A lot of attention. 

At this point, what surprises me is how often changing three sentences can shift the meaning of an entire thread.  It’s a lot of tweaking. Starting on the first page and combing through carefully, checking for tangles, for dropped details or threads, for repetition and banality and the Words of the Book, which are the words I have overused to the point of absurdity in a particular manuscript.  (The words this time? Crisp, pelt, and pirate. Make of that what you will.)

I’m always hoping to find a grace note, though happily, I found one early for SECRET, which I hope you will enjoy as much as I do.  In THE LOST RECIPE FOR EVERYTHING, the grace note is when Julian smells his mother’s perfume in the air–which I can tell you without giving anything away because you have to read the whole book to understand the significance.  A movie example I love is in Titanic, when the old woman finally died, but finds herself on the beautiful, significant staircase of the great ship, dancing with her beloved.  It’s the thing that doesn’t have to be there, but offers so much more emotional pleasure for the reader.  In commercial fiction, it is often a symbol of life returning to order.  In literary fiction, it can embody the theme.

Sometimes, the muses are kind and drop something in my lap, as they did with this book, when I wrote the last scene, completely exhausted and ready to send my child out into the world so I could sleep. (It is part of my process that I don’t write the last scene of a book until I have completely written and rewritten and rewritten the entire book, so I often write it the day before mailing.)  The grace note simply arrived, sweet and real and true.

Because there is so much food in this book, as with Lost Recipe, I had a lot of last minute food testing to do. How, for example to poach an egg.  Have you ever done this?  It’s hard!  I used almost a dozen eggs to figure it out–but that happily gave me a new scene that brings a character alive.  I had to try Hollandaise, too, but that was pretty easy in comparison.  (And yummy, though by the time I finished the testing, I was tested out and the dogs lucked out.)

I’ve been up working on the last couple of scenes this morning and will take the dogs for a walk, make a couple of more passes, then email it off again into the world.  It will be coming your way at the turn of the new year. 

Wish me luck in finishing up today!


A great writing book

THE ART OF FICTION, by John Gardner  (Click to order from the publisher)

One of my editors, very early on, recommended this slender paperback to me. It is one of the premier books on writing, and over the years, my copy has become as grimy as the Velveteen Rabbit. Instead of fur being worn way, the pages are dog-eared and chipped and stained. The cover has a thick crease down the center from some forgotten trip. Entire passages are underlined. Stars and exclamation points are scrawled in the margins.

It is a small book, and speaks directly to the heart of what a young writer, starting out, wants most to hear: “this book is designed to teach the serious beginning writer the art of fiction. Assume from the outset that the would-be writer using this book can become a successful writer if he wants to, since most of the people I’ve known who wanted to become writer, knowing what it meant, did become writers.”  [Italics mine.]

Which, he acknowledges is not what beginning writers usually hear. They hear how difficult it is, how the long odds are against them ever becoming published. He dismisses it by saying that while writing does take some talent, what it really requires is good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing. If you have the love and this little book, you can probably figure out the rest.

He doesn’t write the book for literary writers, necessarily, either. He says directly that “drugstore fiction can have more to offer than fiction thought to be of a higher class…” and blames literary snobbery on the limited range of teachers, and the desire to teach ethics and lessons in school settings. “At all levels, not just at the high schools. novels, short stories, and poems have for years been taught not as experiences that can delight and enliven the soul, but as things that are good for us, like Vitamin C.”

He argues that good fiction is written by passionate writers who are interested in their subjects, and offers examples and lessons to help the individual writer to “create the fictive dream,” by not making the errors that yank a reader out of the story. As readers, we want to fling open a window and climb into another world, and John Gardner knows how to help writers do that. He leads us through the choice of genre, which he insists is our first decision, and he urges the young writer to choose one he knows well, whether that’s a ghost story, a science fiction or a serious story about childhood. He then leads us, step by step, through the science behind fiction and how it works, and how we can use the techniques of detail, character, plotting, and language to write books that succeed on every level.

If you have not read it, you owe it yourself to find this great writing classic, and gulp it right down.  Does anyone love it as much as I do?


Untangling Character Problems

Last Friday, I didn’t get many words written. I noodled around, erased a few scenes on a chart, added a new one. Made a circle around another in red pen to remind me of what needs to happen. Noticing that I wasn’t being very productive, I met a friend for a sandwich in the afternoon.

Since Saturday is a make-up day, and in this case, it was a very mood foggy day (my favorite), I sat down to work. Still not a whole lot. Couple of pages, and they were not speedy. So I threw in the towel and baked two dozen red velvet cupcakes (get the recipe at Pinch My Salt)—truly heavenly.

Now it’s a Monday morning after a relaxing weekend with my beau. Visited with friends, went to a yoga class on Friday and Nia on Sunday afternoon, so my body is nicely exercised. I had plenty of sleep.

And I’m still stuck. It’s not writer’s block, because I don’t believe in that. There is always a reason I bog down in a story. Always. The girls in the basement throw on the emergency break, yelling, “Hold it right there!” And I’m marooned on the side of the mountain, halfway up, looking backward to the valley and up far, far, far away to the top.

Since I’ve written more than 30 novels of varying lengths and depths, and this happens in every single book, at least once or twice, I don’t freak out anymore. It’s exasperating, because I like to get going at a clip and show up, write my pages, and have time left over to do other things with my day. If I’m halted on the side of the mountain, it means I have to do more work. Or conversely, I might need a rest. (If Hilary, my bad Girl in the Basement, decides she’s going to sleep all day, there is virtually nothing I can do to make her get moving.)

Today, I am well rested, so there will be no slinking off to the movies or curling up to read all day, despite the fact that I’m longing for exactly that. Instead, I’m nudging my gut to see where the problem is. Plotting? Not exactly. Pacing? No, it’s not perfect yet, but this is a rough draft and that just happens. It’s just that I can’t quite see the scenes just ahead. My imagination is very visual and auditory—the next scenes should be like throwing open a window and stepping into the world.

At the moment, I’m just not seeing these next bits very well. They’re fuzzy.  I can visualize the ending and some of the major scenes a little later. Just not this next little bit. It is, I suspect, one of the main male characters. I don’t know him well, enough. His conflicts are not clear to me. Why is he so invested in his choices? What is his life story? What does he need to learn? What does he have to lose? What’s at stake? And the eternal, evil writerly question: how can I make life harder on him?

Later this month, I will be discussing my plotting methods over at Writer Unboxed (where they are doing plot-focused blogs throughout the month). Today, I’m working with character, and my plan follows the same pattern every time. I need to do some research. He has a career I know a little about, but not much. Finding out what people in his career do every day will help me see him more clearly. He had a bit of an exotic past, and I need more information about that, too. So, I’ll do all that reading, make some notes, then walk my dogs and post this blog.

Then the girls and I will gather up our tools—notebook and favorite pens and a few character worksheets I’ve developed over the years from various sources—and we’ll walk down to the local Starbucks. There, I will write a first person autobiography from this character’s point of view, and fill out the character sheets. It sounds a little like play, which is partly the point. Holding too tightly, fretting and worrying, is guaranteed to freeze the entire story in place and freeze my poor writer’s heart. The tense side of me wants to be able to write a page count for the day on my dry erase calendar, and I feel slightly anxious about it. But forging ahead is not the way for me to get quality work (others have different techniques, like the Don’t Look Down draft Crusie advocates). If I want to avoid a really nasty log jam later, the structure work needs to be done here, and as long as I keep it loose, keep playing, keep dancing and singing along, it will work out. It always does.

What tricks do you have for solving character problems?

Flickr creative commons photo by g-hat  (check out her photos of a derelict UK factory, covered inside with colorful graffitti)

A class-y fundraiser

This just in:

Bronwyn Jameson and Anne Gracie are offering a 4 week on-line romance writing course to raise money to help pay the massive hospital bills fellow author Jo Leigh is facing after her husband died of cancer earlier this year. A place in the course will cost US$100 –we are hoping to raise $1000.

The course description: Start the New Year with a gift to yourself, honing your story idea or draft with Anne Gracie (Berkley Historicals) and Bronwyn Jameson (Silhouette Desire.) Anne and Bronwyn are award-winning authors and multiple RITA finalists, much in demand as writing presenters down-under. Presented on-line over the month of January, the course will include lectures, exercises and workshopping. Topics include: mining your premise for gold, exploring your theme, delivering on emotion, creating page-turning tension, structuring memorable scenes, and more. Restricted to 10 participants.
To secure a place in this course bid here:
To read more about the fund-raiser:


This might be a great gift to yourself for the new year.  Anne and Bronwyn are both wonderful teachers–and lots of fun, too.