how we write

Friday Five – in which I ponder titles

Okay, I can’t manage a poetry Friday post today but I’ll try for a Friday Five which, I’m not sure, I think means five short snippets of something that do not have to be related. (Feel free to correct me.)

1 – A title for a new book came to me but it’s not a book I want to write yet. But it is a perfect title. I also have the perfect opening line. But it is about something that really happened to me, something I am still living through, so I can’t write about it, yet, because it is about someone who would probably not appreciate it at ALL. But it’s a great title.

2 – The WIP which also has a perfect title (which, if you read my Teaser Tuesday post you already know) necessitates some research including, most likely, flying lessons.

3 – The other WIP (I can’t help it, I want to write them both right now) has a perfect character and a lot of terrific scenes are coming to (though they have yet to make it out of my head and onto the page) but alas, it still has no title. Which means, probably, it can’t be a WIP yet because I can’t write it without a title. 

4 – And the verse WIP has a bunch of very interesting dark poems and yet ANOTHER perfect title but absolutely ZERO plot to hold it together.

5 – I am good at titles. Really good. Now all I need to do is figure out how to get paid for just coming up with great titles.

Friday, October 12, 2007|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |19 Comments

Agents and writers – the balancing act

Over the years I have had several agents:

HM  was my very first agent for a single YA romance that only sold to Germany. I was so new and scared of everything in the business that when she took me on I was so grateful that I didn’t even research her or attempt to get with any other agents or anything. (Of course this was pre-Internet times too.) It was enough to get me started taking my writing seriously though and that was a good thing.

LC  was my agent for an adult ghostwriting project. LC came with the project. I was hired by someone for a ghostwriting project and she and LC had a huge plan for how to make the client a new life via writing. She scared the heck out of me. She is now a big name agent for some big name clients and I am sure she  doesn’t remember my name. I am fine with that.

R&J are the agents who sold Can I Pray With My Eyes Open for me. They were full of energy at the start of their business, wooed me over the fairly new Internet and bulletin boards and then went out of business after a few years. It was a learning experience for me and that is always a good thing.

KH sold Oliver’s Must-do List for me and was a tireless promoter of my work. Although she is no longer agenting I am proud to call her friend.

JR  is my current extraordinary agent. When she took me on I felt like I had “made it” to an extent because I finally had a fabulous agent at a very big name agency. She had clout and negotiating skills that amazed me. She sold Hugging the Rock for me. Although I’ve given her a historical picture book a year or so ago, since then I’ve sent her nothing (because I had nothing in any shape to send her.) Granted, there was the wind-down time after HTR came out and then the great move and until this weekend, I thought that was okay.

All these years I thought a big part of the great writing quest was to get an agent, to get a great agent that you loved and felt understood you and would go to bat for you and get you wonderful contracts. And when you finally got said fabulous agent, life was good. I figured they would sometimes pester you for your new book but mostly wait patiently (taking care of other clients, of course) until I would send them something else to sell. 

Sometimes I am so dense. 

After a couple of conversations with other writers this week it dawned on if writers can dump agents then agents can dump writers. And one of the top reasons agents dump writers is that they aren’t giving them anything to sell. They aren’t working hard enough or producing enough to be worthwhile.

I already felt overwhelmed with life and the day job and not enough time to write but now I feel like if I don’t get my agent something soon, I could find myself walking the plank.

That scares me. A lot.

Hopefully enough to push the writing into high gear.

Monday, October 8, 2007|Categories: Writing Life|Tags: , |22 Comments

a question about titles

I’m a title kind of gal. You know the type, the one who can’t start writing a book until they have the title. And I mean it, really, I can’t skip this step. Without the title the book just flops around in my brain like the proverbial fish out of water. And I’ve been really lucky thus far in that none of my titles have been changed. So I get attached to them.

So here’s the thing. I have this title. It feels pretty darn good for the new WIP. It is also the MC’s name but it speaks a lot about the story. It feels right.


But there’s another book out there with the same one word title. And that book is more of a YA romance/chick lit sort of thing. And mine is not.

So would you use the the title or not?

Tuesday, October 2, 2007|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , |27 Comments

thought for the day – character

I’m working on character flaws at the moment and came across this note that offers lots to ponder:

Character is what you do when you know that no one can see what you are doing. 

So I’m pondering.

Came back to add this question – what does your character do when no one is looking?

I decided to try to do this with a rapid, first thought that came into my head on some characters I’m getting to know. It was interesting because one of them gave me an idea for a scene.

M – picks his nose
B – pulls the leaves off of flowers
C – steals from his dad
D – ah well, the idea that I had no thoughts about what D would do only further proves I have no handle on this character. He is too nice, too good, too perfect and not real at all.

Thursday, September 20, 2007|Categories: Writing Life|Tags: , |11 Comments

more thoughts on plot

Well more thoughts on me and plot. I was going through more old notes I had made about plot. Have you ever read something you have written, something you said you were going to do, and then reread it some time later and have absolutely NO IDEA what you were talking about? Sheesh.

Here’s what I mean. I found this bit I had written as I was contemplating going back to work on my flying book. (Hmmm – I’ve also noted that I seem to write more about NOT writing than writing about writing.)

I am not going to think about the “P” word at all. I love my character and I want to give him the best possible book in which to share his story. Instead I am going to concentrate on scenes and conflict. I am going to deconstruct the current version, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, so I can see the first layer of holes. I know this story, VZ, has a braid of 1 internal conflict and 2 external conflicts. They have to balance throughout the story or the braid won’t hold. I’m pretty sure that when I start to color code the story I will find that I am heavy on internal conflict, okay on one external conflict, and way light on the other external conflict.

What am I going to do then? I will start with index cards, all one color, and put a sentence about every single scene in the book on its own card. I’ll put a code in the upper corner or maybe a small colored sticker that says either IC, EC1, EC2 for internal and external conflicts.

Then I will take a new color of cards and start jotting down as many possible scene ideas as I can that will show one of those pieces of conflict (one scene per card). I’m not going to judge the validity of the scenes at that time, but just generate the ideas. I’ll label them as well regarding conflicts. I’ll probably lay the whole book out on the floor so I
can try to feed in the ideas for new scenes throughout the book and look for more holes that need feeding.

And then I’ll write. 

Where did I get that stuff? I must have just read some writing book that proposed it as a way of figuring out your plot holes. I do know I haven’t done it yet because said flying book is still sitting in multiple boxes in my office waiting for attention. I’ve never worked like that before but so far, for this book, nothing else has worked yet so it is worth a try.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , |9 Comments

Which came first, the plot or the character?

This is a variation on the old chicken and the egg story because of course we need both plot and character in order to tell a compelling story. But I wonder for other people, which comes first, the plot or the character?

I’ve always thought it was the character for me because I absolutely have to have the characters and a piece of the character’s voice before I can begin a new book. But lately I’ve been doing a lot of pondering about various book projects and realize that it has often been the snippet of a plot that lead me in search of a character. That doesn’t mean that I found the character right away. And in the case of one book I’ve been working on for years and years and YEARS I realize that I’ve got tons of plot and nothing but wooden characters.

What about you? What comes first, plot or character, and is it consistently the same or does it vary?

Monday, September 17, 2007|Categories: Writing Life|Tags: |27 Comments

Use the doubt in yourself to fuel your work

Those of you interested in the creative process might want to pop over here to Wordy Girls to read my new post on how we should use the doubt we carry to fuel our creative work.

(And while you’re at it, you could add the community to your watch list so you won’t miss further discussions on creativity.) 🙂


Monday, April 9, 2007|Categories: Writing Life|Tags: |8 Comments

In which the writer rambles about the evolution of her WIP

Even when you think you know what your book is about, it’s important to keep an open mind so when those stray ideas fly in from never-never land you’re smart enough to write them down.

Example. In an effort to procrastinate research I decided to try to do something I had never done before – make a collage of about my main character. Okay, back up a step. The idea for the collage came because someone asked if I had a picture of my MC and I said no. And the reason they asked me if I had a picture was because I wasn’t even sure, back then, if I had the right name for him. I don’t normally know what my characters look like. (I’m one of those writers who hear voices.) But I decided to give it a try. I sorted through all the pictures I had saved from magazines, checked the online photo banks, and nothing. None of the faces jumped out at me and said, “Hey, here I am!”

So I stopped looking. And started watching television. And I caught sight of this kid and he sort of whispered to me so I slowed down and watched a little bit more and thought, hey, that might be my kid. But of course once the show was over I couldn’t remember his face. I went looking online (thank you, Google) and I found him in not just the show I saw him in but in a couple more. I ended up saving a ton of pictures to a folder to check out later. One thing leads to another. When I was looking at all those pictures I saw a house. It wasn’t “his” house but it got me to thinking about what kind of house he might live in so, you guessed it, I started looking for houses. I never found one, but I did find a yard and the yard reminded me of the rock that I thought this kid had in his pocket when the book first started. (I realized it would be weird to have a real rock matter in this book after writing about the other rock in Hugging the Rock, and no, for the record, I don’t believe I have any deep-seated issues with rocks.)

Along about then it was time to go work in my own yard and pull some weeds. Which I did. But then I got distracted by collecting seeds off my flowers and I thought about my MC while I was plucking seed pods and carrying them around in bottom of my shirt held up like a pocket and I wondered what my main character thought, if anything, about plants and flowers and things that grew in the ground. It was hot. My MC didn’t say much and it was too hot to work any more in the yard so I went back inside with a glass of ice chips, the fan on high, and I started to look a bit closer at all those pictures I had saved of this kid who might look like the one who is really telling this story. In one of those pictures his face was filthy and his eyes were filled with tears. And then ZAP, it hit me, the missing piece in my story braid. An entire subplot just burst onto the scene and I’m pretty sure it’s a keeper. The piece of the story the picture gave me had nothing to do with the movie the picture was from. It was the visual of that face that clicked the switch in my brain.

I still don’t have the collage (which I may or may not do) and I don’t even know if this particular kid really is my MC (and it doesn’t matter) but in the past few days I have captured, print out and cut up dozens of pictures, some of which might even belong in the book. I’m doing no-pressure plotting and a lot of playing.

What’s the moral of the story? There are a few of them actually.

1. Enjoy the process. Writing is supposed to be fun and when it IS fun the positive energy that the pleasure brings will feed your creativity and bring new ideas to your work.

2. Remember that each book will write itself differently and that each revision will unfold differently. It goes back to #1

3. Try something different. Sometimes I try something different because I am blocked and sometimes I try something different just because it sounds like fun. Yep, all goes back to #1.

Monday, June 5, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , |20 Comments

Research is another word for procrastination

I usually start researching a new book while I am in the midst of a current project. The idea behind that being I want to shorten the down time between finishing a book and diving into something new. It doesn’t work because no matter how much pre-research I have done I seem to always need a few months of down time (woe-is-me I’ll never write again time) between books. It’s my process and I try to honor it even if I don’t like or understand it.

Even though I ground my books by tying them in some time or way to an aspect of myself and my life there is always some sort of research to be done. Research for me usually starts with reading a bunch of fiction that has been pubbed in an area that might be similar to mine. (Books that would show up on a list of  “If you liked this book then you might like this one.”) So for HUGGING THE ROCk I read every verse novel I could get my hands on. Then I read a lot of novels about divorce and mental illness and family relationships. After I feel full up on fiction it’s time to dig in deep for the details and move to the non-fiction. For Hugging the Rock that meant a lot of psychology stuff, case histories, divorce stories – you get the idea. When I couldn’t stand to read another word it was time to get down to the actual writing. Well, the trying to write. As I explained in a recent interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith the words didn’t exactly race from my fingertips to the page.

Anyway. HUGGING THE ROCK is done. I’ve gone through the galley for the final corrections and after a last chat with my editor tomorrow it heads off to the printers next week. It’s time to write. I made a commitment to start a new verse novel that I will refer to by the acronym MTLB until it is sold. I know sort of what it is about. (It’s inspired by the year long writing program I did at an alternative school a few years ago.) I know sort of who it is about. (M and his dad and N and his dad and Mrs. W.) I did a lot of research the last six months on juvenile justice and poverty and teaching and a bunch of other stuff that may or may not make it into the book. I wrote a few poems. I wrote a couple more. Then I got stuck and found myself using the excuse that I needed to do more research. Read just one more case history. Google a few more phrases. Watch one more movie. (Hey, movies are GREAT for research.) But after a few days of this I realized the truth. I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t researching. I was just procrastinating. Sometimes I wonder if procrastination is just a stew bubbling on a backburner, waiting for us to throw everything into the pot, stirring and adding interesting ingredients until the smell overpowers us and we simply have to dig in.

So yes, research is important. But knowing when to stop researching is important too. The research will still be there after I finish a draft, if I feel I really need it but you can’t factcheck a book you haven’t written yet.

And in the “thank you for all the kind words about me” department, I’ve had a few more shout-outs. It always feels a bit awkward tooting my own horn but here goes:

My picture book Oliver’s Must-do List received a nice review from Jen Robinson’s Book page.

Jen also reviewed Hugging the Rock. My favorite lines in review? “Rachel’s voice is pitch perfect.” and the fact that she calls the Mother’s Day poem “brilliant” and that she said, “I give it my highest recommendation.” Wow! Thank you, Jenn.

More lovely words about Hugging the Rock over here at Mindy’s Book Journal. and here at  Bec’s Book Blog.

Thank you so much for your support of my book.

The conflicted writer

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t creating smack dab in the middle of things. Of course I also do my share (more than I want) of NOT creating in the middle of things but the fact remains that life is all about stuff going on and happening around you and to you and with you and if you wait for life to stop so you can create you will soon be an expert at not creating, but at waiting.

I create differently though than I did in the past. When my kids were young I had no trouble writing in the midst of chaos, perhaps because chaos is all you know with little kids in the house. I used to take a notebook with me and write wherever I was, baseball practice, karate class, gymnastics, no problem. But not anymore. And the chaos in my life now isn’t normal family chaos it is more of the emotional kind and the health kind and it is much more difficult to create in the midst of that kind of gunk. What has been effective in the past no longer works the same. Now I need quiet. Lots of quiet. And it takes me longer to get to that internal quiet place of creating than it used to.

I am one of those that can’t, absolutely cannot, create first thing in the morning. I never have and I have finally admitted that it just doesn’t work for me and that’s okay. There’s nothing “wrong” with me, it just means I operate a little differently than those “instant on” morning folks. At 5 in the morning the only thing I can manage to do is crawl to the shower and head to the day job. For a night person this schedule is agony. I come alive in the afternoon. Luckily I leave work at 3 so the bulk of my awake and “able to focus time” is for creating, that is when I don’t let everything going on around me get in the way.

Creating in the midst of conflict is one thing but it isn’t always the kind of creating of creating I want to do (meaningful work) and that can become just as big of a problem than not being able to create at all. I am an obsessive creator and if I can allow myself to work (for that is really what it is all about for me . . . allowing myself to say  to heck with everything going on around me and go ahead and work anyway) if I can allow myself to work, the work will overtake me and I will look up at 7pm, my husband home, and realize that I am starved and it is time to eat dinner.

The trick then is how to give myself permission to be selfish and take care of myself by creating the work I love.

I remind myself of the worthiness of me and the worthiness of my work. 

I tell myself that it selfish not to use my gifts.

I think about the possibility that one book of mine might be the book that “clicks” with a reader who was sure that no one in the world would ever understand just how they felt.

But how does one create when conflict overshadows creativity?

Let’s face it; sometimes you just need to give into the conflict and forget about creating for a time. When that happens, don’t swallow the guilt pill about what you should or shouldn’t be doing. Deal with what needs dealing with and then get back to work. Conflicts are a part of life. The intensity of them might vary but they never go away completely. And we shouldn’t want them to. We need conflict in our lives to fuel our work. This doesn’t mean that I manage conflict well but I do understand its value to me and my work. When I’m hit hard with a conflict the first thing I usually do is try not to cry. Then I usually just go ahead and cry anyway. I worry and pace and bother all my friends with emails and phone calls. I hug my dog. Then, in spite of the pain, the conflict begins to obsess me until it becomes a story question which turns over and over in my mind and I start to wonder how can I use this in my work?

For that’s really how I  create IN conflict . . . I turn the conflict INTO my work.

Writers use the conflict in our lives to help us bring that emotion into our stories. It is writer who writes with emotional honesty that touches the reader in such a way that the reader can then see the conflicts of their own, albeit different ones, mirrored back at them.

When real life threatens to overwhelm me I will always first try to tell a story and in the telling I will hope to find my peace. Some days it will work to just sit down and write and some days it won’t and that’s okay. I won’t beat myself up for not writing because it is just as important, when the beat of my soul tells me to, to sit still in the sunshine with a cat on my lap and a dog at my feet and listen to my heart.

Tuesday, May 2, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: |16 Comments

and so it begins

I did a pinky swear with kellyrfineman to formally start work on MTLB, my next verse novel, TODAY. My goal is to have the first rough draft of the book done by September 1st, if not before so I can’t put it off any longer. Acting class was dismissed early so this is just my procrastination, I mean pre-writing, before I actually dive in. I want to have one new poem roughed out before I go to bed. It will probably be the day that is different. It may not be the beginning of the book but it is a scene that needs to be shown early on and better yet, it is a scene where I already know what happens. 

It still surprises me how every book begins differently. Some with a whisper, like Hugging the Rock, and some, like this new one, with a scream.

When I began Hugging the Rock I never intended to write in free verse. I tried everything BUT poetry to find the voice. Yet it was through short poems written in stolen snatches of time that Rachel’s voice came to me. This time I am deliberately choosing the form of a verse novel. And it scares me to death. I have a main character. But there is no voice. I don’t think think there’s a voice. No, I’m pretty sure that I’m just talking to myself and M isn’t talking to anyone. Of course, who could blame her for wanting to stay quiet after what she did. It isn’t like friends are breaking the door down to talk to her. Which is just as well because, like I said, she’s not talking to anyone.  She IS doing a powerful amount of thinking. And then there’s that teacher who just can’t resist the chance to meddle in M’s business. Lucky for M she does. If you asked her, and if you could get her talk about herself in the way that shrinks and best friends can make you talk, I think M would say that it all started on Tuesday when her shoe came untied in front of the bus stop on the corner and she bent over to retie it and . . .I don’t think she’s ready to spill the beans yet. I have more of a plot than a voice and I don’t know how to write like that. I’m thinking about backstory and motivation and if it is even an interesting idea or just a collage of cliches when really, all I need is a voice. 

If your character refuses to speak to you, how can you tell their story?

I hate the uncertainty that comes with starting a new book, of committing myself to a story as yet untold. What if I can’t find the voice? What if I don’t remember how to tell a story? What if it just plain STINKS? Yes, I know, enjoy the process, which I do. But at the beginning of something new I also go through this “omigosh I don’t think I can ever write a book again” time. 

My husband reminds me that this is part of my process. I fall apart, sure that I have forgotten anything I ever knew about how to tell a story. I throw myself against the mountain, again and again, until some little crack breaks open and the story takes off. I’ve done it before and I will do it again. But I’d sure feel better about it all if I had a voice.

And so it begins.

Monday, May 1, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |19 Comments

A post full of random thoughts (minus the knots this time)

Thank you to everyone who offered support and advice for holding it all together the other night. I hesitated between posting or not posting because I knew I could go on and on and whine and where’s the fun in that? I guess that’s one of those things I need to accept. I am not the type of writer/person/blogger who will be posting blogs that are full of fun stuff. I wish I had that kind of personality but I just don’t. I am an angsty person with angsty thoughts who writes angsty stuff. At least I have friends that post things that make me laugh. (If you haven’t read the latest from lisayee you simply must, but don’t be drinking anything at the same time.)

What I will endeavor to do is get this blog back on track about writing. Saying that, there is, at last, a review up for Robert Smalls Sails to Freedom. And a nice one at that which contains the lovely phrase, “Brown’s telling is vivid . . .”

In other writing news, last night I did something that was very difficult for me; I turned down several work-for-hire projects and crossed a couple of articles off my to-do list. In the past I have always snapped up every writing opportunity that came my way, never knowing where it might lead. I need to accept that I don’t have to say yes to everything. It’s hard because part of the saying yes is the ego gratification that comes with someone wanting your work enough to pay for it. Heady stuff. But as my brilliant husband pointed out to me, at this moment in my career I am in need  of words more than money. Not that money isn’t good, great even, but  I don’t need to chase every few hundred dollar opportunity that  comes my way. I need to make words. Lots and lots of words.

We were talking about my new book project, MTLB. The opening scene has the main character in a new home, a home that is much different that the home she grew up in, a home on the wrong side of town where lots of kids have a parent or sibling in jail, where there are bars on the windows, where roaches and rats roam all too freely.

I asked him why was it so hard to let go of the work-for-hire project and the articles and all the other things on my to do list? Why can’t I just focus on my novels?  Why am I so afraid to write this book?

He said, “Because you remember the rats and the roaches.”

So true.

But I am not in that place any longer.
I need to remember that.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006|Categories: Writing Life|Tags: , , , |26 Comments

Pa-pa-pa Pages – I have pages

I’ve spent the last few days going over the pages for Hugging the Rock. What a difference it is to see it in actual design form. I LOVE the interior font they chose for the titles. It’s perfect. It’s a little scary being at this stage of the game, going over each line knowing you can’t really rewrite something unless there is a very VERY good reason for it but still needed to make sure the book is as strong as you possibly can make it. I still love the book, though, and that’s important. A few of the poems still made me teary eyed which I consider a good thing when you think of how many times I’ve gone over the book in the last oh, 3 years.

And the cover. I can’t show it to you yet but can I just say that the cover is amazing. It “speaks” volumes and that’s a bit of a clue for you mystery buffs.

Okay, back to work. Pages need to be back to my editor by Thursday and then I have a book proposal on another project due by the end of this month before I take off for our SCBWI Asilomar conference.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006|Categories: Susan's Books, Writing Process|Tags: , , , |5 Comments

prologues – yes, no or maybe so

How do you feel about prologues, really,  I want to know. Love ’em? Hate ’em? Skip ’em til you finish the book and then go back and read them all over again? I’ve heard that many young readers just skip right over a prologue and dive into the book. So what’s a writer to do when you want to set up a scene that happens 12 years before the book takes place and gives the readers clues to figure things out along the way? Some people say they still do a prologue but they call it something else. (I’m playing with that idea.) Some people use lots of flashbacks. (Not fond of that idea myself.) Some people come up with something new. (That’s what I’m working on now.)

So come on, tell me how you feel about prologues, really. I want to know.


Tuesday, January 31, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: |47 Comments

What is your character's flaw?

The pain. The pain. The pain of letting go of a piece of a plot that you love. Sigh.

Backstory first. VZ is the YA novel I’ve been working on for over 20 years. DC is the main character, a 16 year old boy. Last night I’m brainstorming DC’s plot with my husband and it hits me how similar DC’s story (the original one) is to Hugging the Rock in that both stories had a mom who wanted to abort the baby and a dad who convinced the mom not to do it. While I know that we do tend to tell the “same” story over and over again, there must be a limit as to how close we come to doing the same thing. Here I was thinking I was all ready to sit down and go back to work on the book and I have a MAJOR problem. Grumble grumble. I’m back to thinking stages trying to figure out some reason that the birth dad would need to get a bunch of money for some reason that involves DC. I suppose it could be a court battle (or lack of) but it isn’t nearly as exciting as my original idea.

But that’s not why I’m posting. Since this book is a story I’ve known for a whole lot of years I’ve been looking for fresh ways to approach it so that what I write is NEW and not a rehash. I have heard for years that many people study screenwriting techniques to help them with their novels. As I came to the end of the edits on HTR I ordered a bunch of screenwriting books to find out if it would work for me. I’ve never 100% grasped the “hero’s journey” concept of writing though in bits and pieces, it makes sense. Some of these screenwriting books are great because they break down well-known movies and map them to various pieces of myth. I’m learning to understand some of the roles that I need my characters to play for each other in order to have a strong story. (I’m still working on the execution part of it.) The biggest thing I’ve been trying to do before I started my rewrite was to understand DC’s character flaw. It’s the key to everything. In all the other versions this kid is a nice kid and he has nice parents and isn’t it sad about his dad and everyone is just, well, too damn nice. Not anymore. I’ve found it fairly easy to rethink all the other main characters in terms of flaws, attitudes and actions except for, well, the most important one. Grrr.

Rob Tobin’s book
How To Write High Structure, High Concept Movies talks A LOT about character flaws and basically says that the flaw in your MC is one of the most important thing in your story. I quote, “The relationship between the hero’s flaw and the lifechanging event is the most important element in any story.” He also talked about the things at stake for our hero, which we all know is important, but that the ultimate thing at stake was that the hero would have to give up his flaw which is akin to “asking them to take off a bulletproof vest in the midst of gun battle.” I like that.

Some light bulb moments because it all resonated with me. So I scratched my head some more and wondered, as I have been a lot lately, what DC’s real flaw was because that’s the big issue. THEN Tobin gives me the answer. Well, okay, not an answer but a clue. He says, “you can use one element to figure out the other ones.” Well duh. I just never thought of looking at plot that way before – maybe all of you already did. If you want a character who is brave at the end of the book he needs to be afraid of something at the beginning. Which means for this book, I need to know how I want it to end before I can figure out how I’m going to get there. Whoa. And there we have it. That’s what I think has been the stumbling block for years with this story. Normally when I write I sit down and follow the character around and see where he goes. I’ve done this for years with DC and he’s taken me to some interesting places but not the right places.

I had a 2 hour brainstorming session with a friend on the phone yesterday and she asked me, “What story is it that you want to tell?” Well I had that answer before she even finished the question. I’ve ALWAYS known what story it is I wanted to tell about DC. I want to tell a story that shows readers that it doesn’t matter what kind of people you were born to or how you are raised but that you are in charge of the type of person you will become.

Well maybe that’s the story I want to tell but I am not so sure it’s the story that DC NEEDS me to tell.

Oh my. My brain might just explode. Every time this happens, every time a story takes wing and becomes its own, I am amazed. Where did it come from? How does it happen? Will I ever be able to do it again?

The story I think DC needs me to tell (and that I needed a member of my critique group to help me see) is that it is all about trust and forgiveness and unconditional love. Sure, some of my ideas might be woven in, but it’s a different ending than I was originally aiming for and that means a different approach from the beginning. I’m still not sure how this will translate into a character flaw but I feel like I am getting closer.

I feel like this is the fundamental thing I need to understand about the book before I can go much farther.

Sunday, January 29, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |11 Comments

D for Done, done, done

Whew! I finished going over the copy edits of Hugging the Rock. My editor finished going over what I did and the book is now on it’s way to design. Thanks to my critique group and my verse novel group for all their help with my rapid requests for input.

I won’t see the book again until it is in “pages” or “galleys” which is the same thing. Evidently the term pages is rising to the top to mean the same thing as galleys. It was hard going through the book, yet again, wondering, worrying that anything else we did might “ruin” the book. All I can say is thank goodness for my wonderful hand-holding editor who assured me that she wouldn’t let me ruin it. It’s just a different part of the brain when you reach this stage. I did end up writing a new poem for the book, well several but we only used one new one, but for the most part it consisting of tightening things, wondering if there were stronger words that could be used in some places, agonizing over my line breaks. I think the part that amazed me most of all, it always does, what a difference a single word can make to a sentence. Gosh I love that part of the writing.

We’re waiting for sketches still on the cover and I’m anxious to see them. I’m VERY excited about the person who is doing the cover but I can’t say anything yet. Oh boy, though. Oh boy oh boy oh boy.

Thanks to all who have read the excerpt of Hugging the Rock and sent me kind words. I really appreciate the support. For those still looking to read, you can find the excerpt on my website.

Now off to get caught up on a week’s worth of everyone else’s blogs.


Friday, January 27, 2006|Categories: Susan's Books, Writing Process|Tags: , , , |19 Comments

Take one savvy editor

add one sharp copy editor, let them work their magic on my manuscript and wow!

I’ve read through the changes after copy editing, the suggestions, and the questions and I have to say that there is again very little that I don’t agree with. A few lines in one poem that I will fight for. Some poems need new titles, stronger titles. The hardest part is that there are a few places that need more material, new stuff. I’m doing research but I’m finding it the hardest to get back into the voice of my character, especially since this character is a young girl and the character in the next book, the one I’ve been anxious to jump into, is teenage boy.

But I’ll get there. Word after word.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006|Categories: Susan's Books, Writing Process|Tags: , , , |0 Comments

Word after word

It came back today.

Hugging the Rock. My middle grade verse novel.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006|Categories: Susan's Books, Writing Process|Tags: , , , , |31 Comments

Well duh – if my main character is me then

it all makes perfect sense.

When a good friend reminded me years ago that my main character, DC, feels the same way about planes as I do about writing I agreed and then let it go. But this week as I have been trying to do as much pre-writing and prep work as I can on the book I am learning how I know tons of stuff about everyone else in the book EXCEPT the main character. I know the main character wants to know about his dad. I know all the bad guys. I know what a father is willing to do for the son he loves. I know that some people don’t make good parents and that the best parents aren’t always those you’re related to by blood. I know who’s willing to help the MC reach his goal and who will throw up the blockades. I know the very blackest moment, though I’m not sure what the reaction will be. But I still hardly know the main character.

Then I realized that if DC and his love of planes is a mirror of me and my love of writing, then DC is standing for me in some way and for some reason I am afraid to acknowledge that part of myself. All that therapy gone to waste.

I shared that thought with a friend who came back with an answer that had me doing the “duh” and forehead slapping routine. She pointed out that I have always had a desperate need to know my father but because my mom doesn’t remember/won’t talk about it, his memory is lost to me. It’s over. Done. And there’s not a darn thing I can do about it.

And there’s the difference between me and DC. I have to get in touch with that part of me who screams for the truth, but may never get it. DC will keep searching and fighting until he DOES find the truth.

It will be total jealousy and grief when DC gets his answer, and I don’t.

Thursday, January 12, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , , |0 Comments

Character flaws, ALA & other writing rambles

My editor told me today that we have to go another round of revisions on Hugging the Rock. I sort of expected it but each go around makes me worried that I’ll mess up the book or not be able to do what she asked me to do. She also said that they’ve printed up “The First Day” which is the first 14 poems in the book as a “teaser” for mid-winter ALA. So if you’re going to mid-winter be sure to stop by the Tricycle Press booth and take a look.

I woke up this morning and realized I have no idea what DC’s character flaw is….or much of anything defining about him outside of his love of flying. Oh my. The more I move forward, the less I know about the book. It reminds me of a favorite Ray Bradbury quote, “You’ve got to jump off cliffs and build your wings on the way down.”

Here’s hoping I can fly.




Wednesday, January 11, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , , , , |12 Comments

I just realized

how much of the old versions of DC’s story were based on real stories a real person had shared with me. It was obvious how much of the book was trying to fit pieces of my real life into it and it wasn’t a good fit. Not then and certainly not now.

Now that I have finally admitted to myself that I am writing something completely made up…I feel very free.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |0 Comments

A whole lot of words

but not a lot of story. I went through the old version of VZ again. Back then it was called FMBTY, something that makes me gag when I say it now. I jotted down on index cards a note from each idea I might want to keep and carry forward into the next version. I have 35 cards. It’s not a book but it’s okay.

It’s enough to build a skeleton and a skeleton is all I need to get started.

Monday, January 9, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |2 Comments

How many versions does it take

before a story becomes a book?

I don’t know. But I spent time today rereading the last complete version of VZ. The last time I had tried to tell the story from start to finish was over 12 years ago. I was both surprised and pleased when I finished the reading. Oh, it’s a long way from anything that should be published. But I had more plot than I had remembered which was a bit of a comfort since I am often plot-impaired. And I had a couple of well defined characters that I can carry with me. I could also tell that the new ideas I had should work well into the shell that is already there. The best parts of it were, of course, the flying scenes. I say of course because that’s where I had done such tremendous research and it showed. And when I shopped this book around in the past, those were the scenes that editors always commented on positively.

So there’s more to work with than I remembered and that’s good. I’m stalling. I know it. I could say simply that I don’t know where to start but it’s more than that. It’s almost like I am afraid to start. I don’t want to call trouble to come looking for me by listing what I might be afraid of so I will, instead, make a few commitmentsfor my writing week.

This week I will block out all the scenes I already know in the book so I can see what needs more attention. For me this means a stack of index cards and each one has a line or two about the scene I know I want. I’d like to have that all done by Friday night so we’ll see how much I can get done each night after work.

In addition I’m giving myself a sleep suggestion every night before I go to bed. It’s the same one every night until I figure it out. For now the question is

“Where did DC’s sister find the piece of paper that changed DC’s life?”

Sunday, January 8, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |4 Comments

A day in the life

of a writer. Well, this writer.

Go to work at the non-writing job and spend most of the time working but with half of my brain thinking about VZ and when he first meets B at the airport and wondering whether or not B really knew DC’s dad or if he’s bluffing or if it’s just a non-issue. In other words, even though I was working, my brain was writing.

After work I went to a local school to pick up Oliver  where he spent the last couple of months. I was hoping to hear some feedback from the teachers but thus far, nothing. Then I went over to triple A to order my personalized license plate but couldn’t because they wanted cash or check and I never carry much of either anymore. Bummer. So I came home and did it online. And if you want to know what license plate I ended up with, email me. LJ friends have helped me get paranoid so I’ll not post it here.

Then I gathered up all my notes on DC and the research books on flying but haven’t put a word down on paper. Still. Why?

I don’t know.

Friday, January 6, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |4 Comments

I love it when a plot comes together

When I decided that I was pretty sure that I would go back to work on VZ, I started asking myself a lot of questions about what was wrong with the 20+ other versions I’d written over the years. There were a lot of things. Everyone in the book was too nice. The main character talked to himself and “thought” everything instead interacting with people. I had a mom that did nothing, added nothing to the story and another character that asked questions I never answered. It was FILLED with cliches. Oh and plot? Barely visible.

So I killed off the mother and brought the stuff that happens with questioning character to the front of the book. I kept the planes and the dog and the cross-county move but I lost the orchestra and maybe the fire. I think I’m keeping the gang but they need some help and a name.

I gave the main character a little sister but I needed something to weave her deeper into the story, something to connect her to her brother at the same time as it pushes her away. And last night, after many hours of not being able to sleep, I figured out what that is. Oh my. It excited me so much I wanted to get up and write but I knew the alarm for work would go off in a few hours and I needed sleep. Which was a joke because of course my mind was racing with the possibilities of what this could do to the plot. And I barely slept at all. And then today, after brainstorming with a friend, I realized I could add another layer (and take advantage of some great research that has been sitting in my drawers for 15 years).  Whew!

Exciting stuff. Now if I can just get the darn thing written. And after all these years with the book I never really could tell anyone what it was about. Obviously I didn’t know the story very well or wasn’t telling the right story. But now I know the basic theme. And feels right.

What makes a family and when is it okay to keep a secret?


Thursday, January 5, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , , |16 Comments

Telling the same story over and over

I think it was Marion Dane Bauer who said that she writes the same story over and over again, always about a distance between a parent and a child. And Isaac Baschevis Singer who said we all write the story of our life over and over again.

Jane Yolen says, “I really believe that to be the best writer you can be, you have to keep growing.”

Therein lies the problem for so many people, writers and non writers alike. Growth is scary. Growth is stepping off the platform dive into the unknown. Growth is recognizing that while we have already exposed one facet of ourselves we are now going to expose another and another and people will be able to see who we really are. To be the best anything, you have to be willing to stretch and grow, and that is a very difficult thing for most people to do. Because it means risking failure. If you have had success, it feels good. People expect a certain quality from you. You try to grow and try something new and what if you fail? What will people think of you then? So in not taking the chance to grow, you limit yourself the chance to fail and be judged unworthy of your previous success.

Success means different things to all of us. Literary awards, financial security, the respect of our peers, being able to write full time, being able to pay the bills, being happy.

How can we not tell the same story over and over again, at least until we discover whatever truths we were trying to learn in the telling? Not to the public, but to ourselves.

Wednesday, January 4, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |18 Comments

How far do you have to run before you can tell the story?

Hemingway said, and I can’t remember the exact quote so I’ll try to paraphrase it, he said that he couldn’t write about Paris when he lived there. He had to leave Paris before he could put the words on the page that would describe his experiences. While living there it was too much, too intense, too something and it skewed his vision. He needed distance and the passage of time before he could tell his story.

Some stories, while not easy, can still be written while you are in the midst of living them. When my kids were little I wrote about events within weeks or months of them happening. It was fun, like putting things in their baby scrapbooks. I recorded their awkward moments, their growth, and many of our special family memories. I told stories about our family and I got paid for it. Now I can go back and reread those old articles and it’s like picking up an old teddy bear and paging through a scrapbook of their childhood.

But other stories, perhaps those that touch the most painful parts of us, lay fallow for many years before the words begin to venture forth. I believe our emotions go into self-preservation mode and give us time to heal before we’re strong enough to attempt share a piece of ourselves through the telling of a story. My first picture book, Can I Pray With My Eyes Open? rested deep beneath the surface for over 25 years before it burst forth, near fully formed in one sitting. I can tie that story to an exact moment in time, when I was 10 years old, and I know that the book was an answer to a question asked long ago. Hugging the Rock is a novel about fathers and daughters, but more than that, it is about making peace with things you cannot change. I never knew my father and I wondered about him for many years. I can’t remember when I finally stopped searching but when I did, I realized that my own story was inching closer to the surface, closer to being ready to be heard. Hugging the Rock is also about picking up the pieces after a divorce. Though many friends advised me to, I couldn’t write about my own divorce in the years immediately after it happened. The pain was too immense, the emotions too raw. But time was a helpful balm. Eventually my emotions bubbled to the surface telling me when it was time to write the story. In the process of the writing there were still some deep and painful moments but because I had waited, I was strong enough to go to the dark places and still come out alive. Enough time had passed that I could accept the blame for what was mine and let go of the blame for anything else. I could see the details through the tears.

There are other childhood events I want to write about someday but they’re still simmering and I’m still healing. Those stories will have to wait a bit longer. It’s been over 8 years but I know I am not yet ready to write about my time in New Orleans. I don’t know how long it will take before I am brave enough to face those demons head on. Not all my writing is tied to a piece of my past but I am making an effort to mine the treasures I have within because I do believe that’s where the juiciest stories wait to be told.

What does all this have to do with my current project? Everything and nothing The new project, the old project which I have returned to doesn’t really touch on a truth from my own life. I don’t fly planes, I’m not adopted, and my dad wasn’t famous. But I know what it’s like for the main character to obsess about planes the way I obsess about writing. I know what it’s like to wonder where you came from and how that might affect where you’re going. I know what it’s like to feel lonely even in the midst of a family.

When you’ve been working on a book for over 15 years, like I have with VZ, the story becomes so wrapped up in your own life that sometimes it’s hard to remember what happened to me and what happened to DC. Was it DC or was it me that found the box that held so many secrets? Was it DC or was it me that met someone who knew their father and answered questions held silent for so long? Was it DC or was it me that finally realized the true meaning of family?

I hope it is both. I hope I can tell that kind of a story, one that feels like it happened to you.

I hope 15 years of running is long enough.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |13 Comments

four lines

That’s what I’ve written on the new version of VZ. The first four lines of the bookd. Four lines that ask a question about how such a thing could have happened and who did it happen to and hopefully suck you right in.

I’m very pleased.

Okay, so it may not sound like much to someone else but the problem with going back into a story that you’ve been working on for years is that it is all too familar and I needed to shake it up. I made a list of the major plot problems and one of the biggest ones was dealing with the birth mother of the main character (adopted). No matter what I tried it felt forced or, in some versions, I simply didn’t mention her at all and that didn’t work either. Then I remembered a piece of writing advice from someone, if you have a hole in the plot, point to the hole, don’t try to hide it. So that’s what I did and suddenly there is energy in the story and I can’t wait to see it unfold.

And in the morning, it’s back to the day job, eeek!

Monday, January 2, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: |7 Comments

Everybody does it differently, revision that is

What did you think I meant? 😉 For me I knew I wanted to immerse myself in nothing but my book during the process, hence, my abscene from blogging for a while.

When the manuscript for Hugging the Rock came back to me with all my editor’s comments, the first thing I did (of course) was to read every single comment she’d made then let out a big WHEW in relief because nothing seemed impossible. The second thing I did was print it out (we’re doing this all by email) so I could scribble on the pages because I like to revise by hand. The third thing I did was freak out because, well, that’s just what I do, when something I want to do well is close at hand and I don’t want to screw it up.

Friday, October 21, 2005|Categories: Susan's Books, Writing Process|Tags: , , , , |9 Comments

Where do the words live?

And what makes the right word or phrase come when you need it the most? Sometimes I just have to stop and give thanks, overwhelmed by the magic that is the creative process.

I should say first off that I am in intuitive writer. I can’t outline (in college I wrote all my outlines for papers AFTER I wrote the paper.) Pre-plotting in any standard fashion isn’t something that works for me. Deconstructing scenes for what is wrong or looking through a book and identifying the many layers and what they all mean/symbolize/or are supposed to accomplish makes me feel like I am in a foreign country driving on the wrong side of the road – I’m moving forward but I’m never quite comfortable that I know where I’m going or that I will get there in one piece.

That means I rely an awful lot on instinct in my writing and instinct, like the muse, can be a temperamental friend. Which makes last night all the most special to me. It was one of those perfect writing times when all the planets line up just so and the words come out of their hiding places, creeping, crawling, marching down my arm and onto the page, rearranging themselves into a poem I didn’t even know was missing from the book until I saw the finished lines on the page. And when I read the words, dinking with them here and there, playing around to find the perfect metaphor (and where do THOSE hide by the way?) when I read what is now the second poem in the book, I knew that it was exactly the right poem in exactly the right place and that if I looked closer, even I would be able to see how it set the stage for the crash that is just around the corner. Even I could see that it would lull the reader into thinking that things weren’t really bad as they were when they were really so much worse than they could imagine. Even I knew it was just what the book needed. Which certainly made cutting 8 other poems much easier.

I guess sometimes we just have to learn to trust not just ourselves or the process but the story. The answers are always in the story, if you look close enough.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005|Categories: Writing Life|Tags: |6 Comments