Staying with it

red petal and brass potThe work this morning was meant to be tackling the division of a long outline for a side project I’ve been working with, on and off, for awhile now. It’s non-fiction, unrelated to anything I’ve done before, and it’s never easy to charge out there with beginner’s mind and agree to fall on my face if that’s what it takes.

And often, with writing or any other creative pursuit, there are 100 failures for every success. I much prefer success, but that’s just not how it works.

Sitting at my desk, I noticed this pink geranium petal that had fallen on to the cactus, like a little cap. Because there was that challenging task blinking on the screen, I naturally had to find the camera immediately and shoot a photo of it. It was a straightforward close-up, no big deal, but when I uploaded it to the computer, there were visible strands of long white hair (no doubt left by Leo the Cat who insists this is his window and doesn’t know why I insist on putting plants there). Well, and the pot was in focus but the petal was a little blurry.

So I shut another volley of shots, realizing I also loved the look of that brass pot. The light today is the diffuse snow light that makes for such peaceful shots, and it was quite enjoyable. I shot some intense close-ups, some farther back. Turned the pot this way and that, avoiding the shadow of the geranium and the boring lines of the window casing itself.

Sure I had something decent, I uploaded those, too.


None of them were quite right. The depth of field was wrong, or either the pot or the cactus or the petal were slightly grainy or out of focus or…something. I didn’t like any of them, but I was still eyeing the contrast of that vivid color with the green with the light and the lovely texture of the pot, thinking it was so great and I didn’t want to give up. I thought about giving up and uploading the one with the three strands of barely visible hair, knowing you would not mind–I am not a professional, after all, and the photos are for decoration and my own pleasure–but there was my camera. There was the shot, waiting for me to get it right.

I dumped the bad shots and tried again. Uploaded them again. One was decent, but not great.

By now, it’s been an hour of attention to one single photo and I’m feeling anxious that I should get my day started, do something real , but it was feeling like something I needed to do for my own satisfaction and really, it was only mid-morning, there was plenty of time to work afterwhile. I was committed to getting the shot.

It still took awhile. I finally captured several that were were worth looking at more closely in the photo editing program. I discarded a bunch more. Realized I loved some of the brass pot as much as I loved the petal, but the job at hand was the combination of petal and texture, color and light. The anxiety disappeared. I zoomed and cropped, swooping through the non-words of image, and forgot it was supposed to be a walking day and forgot the number of times I tried to get it right and failed.

Finally, I got this shot. I could have shot another round, and come even closer to my original idea, but this one pleased me greatly and I decided to stop here. Happily, I saved it, made a cup of tea, opened the word processing file and managed to knock out the outline in about twenty minutes flat. Is is a good outline? No. Not yet. But tomorrow, I’ll go after it again, and the day after that, and the day after that, and eventually, it will be a good one.

Sometimes, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking things should be right the first time through, or at least the third time through. Getting it right on the first try does happen–just often enough to create a Pavlovian desire to have it happen every time, but first draft great is an accident, not a regularity. I forget this over and over and over again. Luckily, there is often something like this photo, which I like a lot, to remind me that persistence can have a gigantic payoff.

Writing conference possiblities to consider 2008

For the past few days, I’ve been hammering out the details of my travels this year.   I’ll be teaching at The Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference again in June, and Australia in August, and San Diego in October.   I’m also going to play in New Zealand with CR’s brother & family, and in NYC with my boy who is (seriously, I’m so not as old as this makes me sound) graduating from law school.   

I promised to post great conference links for you and never got to it, but here are some to think about for this year.  It’s not cheap to attend conferences, but once in awhile, it’s worth it to splurge.

First up, the Magazine Conference in Boulder, which I attended last fall and enjoyed very much.  This is the least expensive of the lot, and they’re going to offer several focused versions this year, from travel writing to the nuts and bolts of magazines.  At $350 and in the stunningly beautiful city of Boulder, it’s hard to go wrong with this. 

I love the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, June 21-26 this year.  I’ll be teaching a lot of voice and creativity along with the usual Iowa-style readings that feature so prominently at this conference.  This one is pricier, but it is set right on the beach in a stunning hotel, and Ray Bradbury will be speaking Saturday night.  Enormous variety in faculty and speakers.

The Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, Italy
.  One of the most delightful experiences I’ve had.  The conference is intriguing, the parties delightful (Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene acted out on the square while we drank wine in the soft evening breeze), and the company varied and intriguing.  You will never be sorry you went to this one.  But yes, the price tag is…a teeny bit painful.

And of course, there is the big Romance Writers of America bash in San Francisco this year.  I’m quite torn over whether to attend this year, and doubt very much I can squeeze it in, but I am mourning the possibilities (French Laundry!  Chez Panisse!).  This is one of the most complete, most intense, most vivid writing conference experiences out there, so if you have never attended, even if you are not strictly a romance writer, I guarantee you will learn a lot. 

There are hundreds of others, of course.  I’ve heard the Surrey Conference is a treat.  There are some retreats in Barcelona I wouldn’t mind attending someday, and really, I just think I must find one in Ireland one of these days.  I could visit my friends Tom and Emer and explore Ireland for real.   

What are some of the conferences you know about that we should consider? What’s the best conference you’ve ever attended and why?

Practical writing tips

The holiday crush is beginning (or might be in full force for some).   Some ideas to keep you on track with writing goals through the crazy season:

1. Get your pages in early.  Do it before you check email.  Before you watch the morning news. Before anything, if you can.  Try it for a week, and you’ll be amazed, I promise.

2. Limit email and Internet access.  I’ve been reading The Four Hour Work Week, and he’s narrowed email to Monday mornings.  Since a good portion of my email is social outlet and relaxing, this wouldn’t be realistic or even appealing to me, but I am making changes.  For quite some time, I’ve made myself do my pages before I let the world in, as Ray Bradbury says.  No email at all until I’m finished for the morning.  I notice when I travel that brief checks of email every few days is enough to keep up.  That’s illuminating because I check a LOT more than that at home.  Like four or five times a day.  It’s easy, right? Why not?

Because I’m using it to waste a lot of time.   I’m sure you have more discipline than I do, so you don’t need to cut back, but I’m thowing it out there for what it’s worth.  I’m checking only twice a day for one week, to see how it feels.  What I notice: I check and READ a lot, but responding takes a lot of time, so I end up only reading, filing emails into various files to be answered, then feeling guilty about how much I’m neglecting my correspondence, even with people I genuinely like and want to talk to.   

I’d like to get back to email-as-tool, rather than email-as-time-sucking-monster.

3. Set goals and reward yourself for meeting them.   Whether the goal is one page or ten pages per day, when you actually meet that goal each day, REWARD yourself.   Set aside some half-hour episodes of television you like to watch and use those.  Give yourself some time to read entirely for pleasure.  Have a truffle or a glass of wine.  (If you can keep it to one or two–otherwise, then you’re on another goals-reward loop, right? Hearts_and_stars)

4.  One of my favorite tools:  erasable whiteboards and calendars to mark your progress.  I use markers in many colors, as I’ve posted before, and recently, I found I love the reward jolt in seeing rows of post its in bright colors and shapes, like orange stars and neon green circles.

I had to start over on my hundred days, by the way, since I let outside events get in the way of writing 1000 words per day, every day (as per Carolyn See).   

Which is also a good lesson.  If at first you don’t succeed, try 100 more times.

Anyone else have a good writing tip for this very busy time?   

Digging through the basket of scene and detail

I am not a natural synopsis writer.  That’s just not how my process works–laying out the bones and then working from there to add muscle and flesh and clothing.    It always seems to me that the girls in the basement collect a basket of intriguing bits and pieces and leave it to me to sort out.  What is this telescope doing in here?  And what about this article on dahlias?  And what are all these pine needles for?

The Ways of Publishing, however, require me to write a synopsis.  I am capable, of course.  One doesn’t write more than 30 books of commercial fiction without figuring out how to write a synopsis.   I just don’t particularly like it and it made me grumpy yesterday.   There are way too many pages, too many loose ends, and I’m not sure what goes where yet—

And then I remembered that my agent and editor know me.  Some writers put together a fantastically beautiful and polished snapshot of the book they’re going to write.  I hand over a very rough sketch, with blurry faces in the corners and some swirling action and a few strong, bold lines.  The book is the thing.

Back to the mines…..

Layering in Lusciousness Worksheet

As promised, here is the worksheet from the 5 Senses workshop


Layering in
 by Barbara

1. Take time to
do things that feed your senses, all of them. Go to beautiful gardens and museums, fabric stores and restaurants. Smell roses, perfumes, other people.

2. Make a habit of eavesdropping and buy sunglasses so
you can stare more easily.

3. Carry a notebook and make sketches of things. They don’t have to be skilled or even
competent, they’ll just help remind you to really SEE things. A good second is to use your cell phone
camera, a LOT. If you see something that jolts your senses, take a picture of

4. Travel. Wherever you can. Go to new neighborhoods. Go to faraway places. Pay attention to your surroundings, but also
pay attention to how you feel exploring them. Are you excited, standoffish, worried about looking foolish or intruding
where you should not go? 

5. Find music you
love and play it often. Go to concerts
or out to listen to music in whatever venue you can enjoy. Go to the symphony. Go to plays. Watch movies.

6. Develop
hobbies that excite your senses. Visual
people might enjoy things like making stained glass or quilts or learning to use
watercolors. Auditory people might like
learning to play an intrustrument or collecting the music of a certain form or
era. (I like the blues and
baroque.) Texture people might like
models or sewing. 

I think a lot of writers are magpies, and that’s
good. If you get a yen to learn to cook
Indian food, or learn to speak Arabic,
or play the cello, go for it. I promise
that far from taking away from your writing, it will add to it. 

7. Read poetry. Aloud. This is something we’ve moved away from in our society, but writers are
the natural audience for poets. Read it
and feel it. There is a poet for
everyone out there. Find one you

8. Be alert to
the themes and ideas you love to use in your work. How do you use them? What interests
you? How can you keep coming up with
fresh ways to illustrate them? 

9. Spend the
extra two weeks to make a manuscript really sparkle. To layer in those colors, the details of
smell and touch and song, to tweak a scarf from blue to orange. 

10. PLAY. ENJOY YOURSELF! Remember, this is about making something
beautiful, not a big, impossible challenge. 

Playing with the girls in the basement

A new book is brewing.   Rather dramatically at times, as will sometimes happen.  My office is scattered with magazines and new CDs and paintbrushes.  I’ve scotch-taped a bunch of photos to the closet door while I’m letting it all brew.   To the outside view, this doesn’t much look like work, honestly, and I can fall prey to the "just get busy" syndrome that can be so devastating to an idea that’s winding its way through my imagination, sending out runners of silk to anchor itself here, there, all sorts of odd places.  This makes me think of the first trimester of pregnancy, when you’re so tired and when you close your eyes for three minutes, you fall into that other world, the dreamer world, and it’s hard to tell which is the real world.  There’s a lot going on below the surface.  Hidden.  Quiet.  Gossamer.

This very morning, I was thinking, "I guess I should make a
chart or something. So I have a plot. So I know what I’m doing."
And the Girls in the Basement, who’ve been playing Keb Mo really loud, and cutting things out to glue on the walls, and ordering
CDs like Sonny and Terry  and Marc Broussard and getting SO excited about the storm map on the
wall and practicing their accents, looked up and said, "Plan? We don’t need a
plan.  WE know what we’re doing.  If you know, you’ll fuck it up, so just
mind your own business."
So I went for a walk with the dogs and listened to Lucinda Williams and
smelled biscuits baking and remembered a really cool bit of woman-magic that always has intrigued me, and figured out the hero’s name, and there is a big southern thread to this book, which has been missing from my books over the past few years.  Suddenly, it’s just there again.   Maybe I am pining for my grandmother, or for my late mother-in-law.  They both passed in the autumn, two years and three years ago, and I wish I could have a chat with them.   Or maybe, the girls want to play with other material, taste new things.  Maybe I have no idea where books come from or why, but my job is to say, "Oooh, this one seems like it will be fun."
And I remind myself to play.  Just play.

Building great characters

I’ve been talking with an aspiring writer who is very, very smart and driven, who confessed she didn’t really understand how to develop character beyond what she was already doing. She’s had some revision requests and wants to understand more about how to write great characters.   

This is one of my favorite subjects, so I thought I’d offer a few ideas this sunny Saturday afternoon, and a few exercises for you to try.  Most of these are taken from a talk I quite like to give, so some of you might have heard me talk about this before. 

Women’s fiction and romance novels are character-driven plots.  The only thing that makes a romance interesting, no matter what style or subgenre you might be writing, is the particularity of THESE particular characters and our feeling that these two people really must be together.   To believe that, especially in our cynical world, we have to know and understand what makes each character tick, what motivates them, how they get through each day. 

I’ve talked before about Tony Soprano, and will say again, if you want to study character, The Sopranos has a lot to teach, especially about layering and the various influences that combine to create a character.  I’m slowly, slowly finishing the series, and last night watched one in which Carmella went to Paris with her friend Roz.  As always, the layering of character is quiet and you have to be paying attention to see what’s there.  Carmela is stunned by Paris.  By the beauty and the art and the weight of time and history.  This is a woman who was born into a time and place where her considerable brains and hungers have no real chance of finding expression through her own efforts, so she’s directed those energies into her husband, her children, her standing in the community.  She’s a tortured, loving, hungry soul, and watching in her Paris made me cry.  I wanted to know what would have happened to her if she’d had the chance to go there at seventeen, after taking three years of French.  Her reaction to the city was profound, and she tried to reach out to her friend, but Roz simply doesn’t speak Carmella’s language, and Tony won’t understand either. She returns home, and in the last scene of the episode, she carries her laundry downstairs, and nothing in her external world is changed, but we know something huge has happened within Carmella. 

The lesson is, great characters are complex.  They are a mix of good and bad characteristics, just as every human being on the planet is a mix.   I am. You are.  Your husband, your children, your parents.   

How do you get that on the page? How do you find out the layers of your own characters and bring them to life? 

We all start with the simple stuff.   Sex, age, career, cultural background, family history.   I think of these as the things that would show up in a police report: "White male, age 34, accountant."  The family history comes in the next level. Stuff a psychologist might want to know:  birth order, class, education, etc.

Next comes the passions:  He loves fly fishing, watching reality television, drinking iced tea with big chunks of lemon, a juicy steak on a hot summer day, his ex-girlfriend whom he hasn’t spoken to in five years but secretly believes he will never get over.   What does he hate?  What would he banish from the world if he could?  What does he believe about God? 

What one thing does he believe in absolutely? What is he most afraid of?   What would he do if he could do anything at all? 

In voice class, we do exercises that begin:  "The house I lived in when I was seven years old….."   "I am twelve and….."   and "I am eighteen and….."   Doing those exercises in first person from the POV of the character can take you a lot deeper into their psyche.

One thing that powerfully brings a character alive is the inconsistencies.  Tony Soprano the mafia boss who can be so tender.  The socially conscious queen of the mob who is slain by the beauty of Paris.  Think of some of your favorite characters–can you pinpoint those inconsistencies?   

Where is that tension?  Think of your mother. Right now.  Where are the inconsistencies of her character? What maddening, endearing tics and attitudes does she carry? 


A few little tricks that are fun to try:  write the starbuck’s order of your character.  For example, I used to be a triple vente latte with skim milk and seven raw sugars.  I always had to make a little joke about how much sugar was in the coffee because it was embarrassing, but I wanted it my way.   What does the dichotomy of skim milk vs seven raw sugars and TRIPLE coffee say?  (Babe, you are so in denial.)  I’ve since downsized considerably because the more I run, the less I can tolerate large amounts of coffee.  A modest grande, regular, skim milk, two (or three if I’m feeling indulgent) raw sugars.

What does your character order? Or would she skip Starbucks for the local coffee shop down the street? 

Another great trick I learned from great romance author Jennifer Greene many years ago: look inside the purse of a woman, the glove box or pockets of a man.  What are they carrying with them? What does it say?

It is also true that each one of us is the star of our own movie.  With a secondary character, imagine that person is the start of the movie and see how the layers begin to appear. 

There is always something brilliant about every human. Every human.  There is something disgusting or reprehensible about every human.   Find the two, and you’ll be well on your way.

Can you think of other examples of the tension in a great character?   Name some.  Scarlet O’Hara, of course.   Who else?


So, COOKING FOR THE DEAD (not sure we’ll keep that title, though I love it), the book I’ve been working on all winter, is in the final polishing stage.  My editor had a few suggestions to brighten things here and there,  and bring out two characters a little more.   My own need was to let the manuscript become cold enough that I could spot those pesky repetitive words and images. 

This is the fifth time through the entire manuscript, and the pickiest.  I’m sitting down with the book every day for a few hours to read carefully, sometimes aloud, marking the manuscript as I go, and making notes on a legal pad about what is still required.   I think I need to switch the order of a couple of scenes to give more sense of narrative drive.  Pare down the narrative to a leaner point in a couple of other places.  Backstory is very important to this tale, and figuring out how and where to layer that into the story without slowing it down is challenging.  I always put in more than I need at first, then cut back.   

Come to that, I don’t know why I write characters with such histories, either.  Maybe we all have that much history?

Anyway, slow going.  Careful, persnickety going a the moment.  I did stumble over one lovely alliterative, internal rhyme in a paragraph that was sweet, and I’m keeping it.  On the other hand, I’m slashing entire paragraphs in places.   Smoothing, smoothing. 

We have had a great time this year, Elena and I.  This is like the last day of camp.   

A writing exercise…..I believe in—-

In the Girls in the Basement class, one of the students wrote a beautiful paragraph based in the Bull Durham, "I believe in long, slow, kisses that last three days."  It was so delicious and empowering for all of us to read it that I turned it into an exercise, adding it to the week on Passion (which we are currently exploring).   The original quote from Bull Durham:

Annie Savoy:
I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major
religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah,
Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know
things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and
there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a
chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much
guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no
guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring… which makes it like sex.
There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best
year of his career. Making love is like hitting a baseball: you just
gotta relax and concentrate. Besides, I’d never sleep with a player
hitting under .250… not unless he had a lot of RBIs and was a great
glove man up the middle. You see, there’s a certain amount of life
wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds. Sometimes when I’ve
got a ballplayer alone, I’ll just read Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman
to him, and the guys are so sweet, they always stay and listen.
‘Course, a guy’ll listen to anything if he thinks it’s foreplay. I make
them feel confident, and they make me feel safe, and pretty. ‘Course,
what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games.
Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of
baseball – now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God’s
sake? It’s a long season and you gotta trust. I’ve tried ’em all, I
really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day
out, is the Church of Baseball.   
–Ron Shelton, scriptwriter

Here’s mine:

I believe in travel, in wandering far shores to discover all my
bullshit and
my earnestness and honor.  I believe in earnestness.

I believe in beauty.  Beautiful songs and beautiful skies and
beautiful days
and beautiful pears and beautiful pillows.

I believe
words can change the world, truly, and the right sentence at the
right moment
can turn a life from despair to progress.  I believe I was born
to write stories, and that’s the main
reason I‘m on the earth this

I believe God loves me and everybody else, even the people
I‘d personally
leave out of the Love
Everybody Commandment, like Hitler and Idi Amin and my
ex-lover, and She
wants me to succeed and help others to succeed and She
uses my hands to do
Her work, so when I‘m being pitiful and
awful, I‘m not
really doing Her

I believe in good work and
good thoughts and plenty of wine and long runs
and hikes in the silence of mountains and good friends and long lazy
with the right man or even the wrong one who makes you feel good for
I believe in sex, come to
that, that everyone should have as much as they
want, because it helps
headaches and heartaches and probably even diseases.
I believe in great meals and deep belly laughing, which could
probably cure
anything, even cancer.  I
believe in my sister, the cancer nurse, who scares
the heck out of
me and makes me proud.  I believe that sometimes getting
drunk is probably the
right answer, and other times, it’s a long run.

I believe in balance.

I believe in meditation and reading and good cups of coffee and
long airline
flights and in listening.
  I believe in dogs and good
movies and doing your

really, really believe in dogs.

I’d love to hear yours.  Post then in the comments.  Anonymously if that makes you feel braver.  Or not anonymously.   It’s a big amazing world to be in love with.