Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Thick Hide

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.” - Harper Lee

It's been twenty hours and nineteen days since I sent out my first query for Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two: The Memoirs of an Emotionally Unstable, Middle-Aged Marathoner. Considering I've been working on this book since 2012, that doesn't seem very long. But it's killing me. I'm not sure I have what it takes to do the dance of finding an agent and publisher. While friends urge me to self-publish, I really want to give this agent thing a try. This is by far the best book of the many I've written.

While I wait, I'm researching other agents using my favorite tool querytracker.net. I sort agents by genre then genre within genre and even genre within genre within genre. I narrowed the 1,400 agents in the data base down to those accepting queries, limited that to those interested in memoir, then narrowed that list by those who are interested in pets. (Morgan, our yellow Labrador, is featured prominently in the book.) And finally, just for fun I limited it again to agents who are interested in sports. That only left me with twelve agents, two of whom work for the same agency, so I decided to just use the 300 some folks interested in memoirs as my working base.

Querytracker also lets me see, according to the data its users provide, which agents are more likely to request pages. This is a limited sampling of course since not all writers use this data base, but it's a way to sift through the agent pool in a manner other than just throwing darts at their names pasted on a wall.

Another useful bit of information it provides is all known clients of an agent. With the links to amazon.com, I can skim the books each agent has represented and see if any are like mine. I'm not always certain what to do with this information. If a book is similar, does that mean the agent is more likely to take on my book or does it mean her stable is full of memoirs by middle-aged, bipolar, marathoners who love dogs. The process is complicated.

An additional quandary is what to do when several agents who seem to be good matches all work for the same agency. It's bad form to query more than one agent at the same place. The other day I found five agents who all like pets and sports and who represent memoirs and are open to queries. Five! Do I pick the most senior agent on the theory that he or she is more experienced and therefore "better?" Or do I go with the newbie who has no clients listed and who might be more eager to take a chance on a new author? I'll probably take the goldilocks method: not too hot, not too cold. I'll take the middle way and query one of the mid-range agents.

Thankfully this process gives me something to do while I await a response from agent number one. In the future, I'll submit to more than one agent at a time. But I wanted to give this one agent who seemed like an excellent fit a chance before sending simultaneous submissions. I've been told by people who know that I should wait three weeks before sending a "nudge" email to the agent. I'm not a patient person so it's been interminable.

When I'm not researching agents, surfing Facebook, or playing computer solitaire, I've filled the remaining hours researching contests. I submitted to one contest after being terribly confused by seemingly inconsistent deadlines and instructions. But I received a kind email saying they had received my submission and would let me know in August (August!) if I'd won anything.

Time. This process takes time. If you can think of anything else for me to do while I wait, let me know. I already run nearly twenty miles a week. Maybe I should take up crochet or needlepoint. Maybe not.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Head, heart, or gut?

"Don't you dare underestimate the power of your own instinct." - Barbara Corcoran

I believe there are three ways to figure things out: with your head, with your heart, or with your gut. I'm a gut person. Whatever I'm trying to figure out, I have to get a feeling deep in my stomach about it. I suppose we're all a mix of these three things, but I think each person has a preference or maybe a skill at one of the three. It's kind of like being left or right handed. You're either a head person, a heart person, or a gut person.

I have friends who say they turn problems over and over in their minds until finally an answer comes. When I do this, I simply find myself in knots with a headache. Other folks claim they must trust their hearts. My heart has led me wrong many times, thankfully not recently, but I don't get the same warmth in my chest they do when making a decision. The right answer comes from my belly. It's a deep feeling around my navel.

Recently, when I hired a developmental editor to provide feedback on the latest version of Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, she wisely told me to sit with her comments for a bit before deciding what to do. She didn't tell me to think about them or ask my heart for an answer. She said something like, "What does your gut say about this?" At least that's what I heard. So when it was time to make the revisions, I listened to my gut.

As it turned out, I made nearly all the changes she suggested. Not because my head told me to (although it agreed) and not because my heart felt for them (it feels so much it's like a flood in there), but because I got a strong feeling in my belly that what she was asking of me would improve the book.

How do you figure things out? Head, heart, or gut? I'd love to hear your perspective.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Continue Under All Circumstances

"Continue under all circumstances. Don't be tossed away. Make positive effort for the good." - Katagiri Roshi, Zen Master

I'm just back from ten days in New Mexico. I had the honor of speaking in Taos at the thirtieth anniversary celebration of Writing Down the Bones, the best-selling book by my teacher, Natalie Goldberg. Friday February 19, the Mayor Pro Tem of Taos declared it Natalie Goldberg Day. Saturday, eight of us, Natalie's long-time students, spoke in the classroom of the new building at Mabel Dodge Luhan House with New Mexico sunlight streaming through stained glass windows. After, we went to lunch at the home of two of the speakers, Tania Casselle and Sean Murphy.

On the plane to New Mexico, as I had skimmed "Bones," I rediscovered a chapter entitled, "Doubt is Torture." In it, Natalie describes a conversation between Katagiri Roshi and a young man who was moving to California to become a musician. Katagiri asks the man how he would approach his goal. The man told Katagiri he would try his best and if it didn't work out he'd just accept it. Natalie writes:

Roshi responded, "That's the wrong attitude. If they knock you down, you get up. If they knock you down again, get up. No matter how many times they knock you down, get up again. That is how you should go."

When it was my turn to speak, I cited this chapter. I may have previously forgotten the details, but not the sentiment. "That's been my journey," I told the group. Sometimes it wasn't an external "them" who knocked me down. Just as often it was mental illness, distorted thinking, or bad habits. But I was knocked down just the same. "Having studied writing practice with Natalie for so many years I knew what to do," I said. "I got back up."

Today I'm ready to throw myself into further revisions of my current project, Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two. It's entirely possible I'll be knocked down again by forces both without and within. That's the process. But, again, thanks to my training, I know what to do. Get back up. Period.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Dating for Writers

"Whenever I want a really nice meal, I start dating again." - Susan Healy

Thankfully I don't have to date to get a great meal. Ed, my husband, is a fantastic chef. I'm not looking to replace him, but I am looking for an agent and the process feels so similar to dating that I'm having flashbacks to my twenties. This time instead of hanging out in bars, I'm going on-line. Folks looking for potential partners have match.com. Writers have querytracker.net.

Since I've been happily married since before the Internet became a thing, I've never used a dating website. But I've heard stories. You put in that you're a dog-loving runner who writes and you wind up with an animal-hating couch potato who hasn't opened a book since high school.

Querytracker.net has many useful features that will help me narrow my choices. There's a list of "who represents whom" you can use to find the agent for a particular author. Annie LaMott's not in there, but there is a long list of authors who are.

You can also filter agent results. You can find agents who are currently accepting manuscripts or agents with offices in the United States or agents who accept both memoirs and books about sports. Seriously, it filters that specifically.

And you can see what other authors think of particular agents. It's not quite as helpful as Yelp, but it's a similar idea.

Once you've found some agents to query, querytracker.net has an extensive tracking system to help you keep tabs on where you are in the process. And if you upgrade to the paid version, you can track more than one manuscript at a time.

Although I have some trepidation, I'm eager to get Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two into the world. I'm going to work hard to find a good match. I'll keep you posted. And if you try querytracker.net, let me know what you think.

Sunday, January 03, 2016


"Give someone a book, they'll read for a day. Teach someone how to write a book, they'll experience a lifetime of paralyzing self-doubt." - Lauren DeStefano

People ask me for advice. I don't give it. Instead, I share my experience. And my experience is that paralyzing self-doubt comes with the territory. The more I learn about the craft of writing, the more difficult it seems and the more I doubt my process. But I don't stop learning. I continue reading, taking classes, attending workshops, visiting writing groups, and practicing. This final thing, practice, is key.

But what counts as practice? Do the whiny writing practices I send via email to a small group of fellow Natalie Goldberg workshop attendees count? Do the completely disorganized, more of an outline than a manuscript, first-drafts of several novels count? Does the polishing and re-polishing and polishing again of the book about my father that may never be published count?

I'm going to count it all. Every. Last. Word.

I suggest you do as well.

Why? Because any other answer means we've been wasting our time and I don't believe that. I had to write every word I've ever written to get me to the state of mind to work on my current project, Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two: The Memoirs of an Emotionally Unstable, Middle-Aged Marathoner. For the first time in my life I have confidence in my work. Yes, paralyzing self-doubt creeps in from time to time, but beneath that lies the knowledge that with this book,I've created something worth sending out into the world.

So if you ask me about paralyzing self-doubt, I'll tell you not to give up. Look up the many resources available on my website. Find methods that work for you. And when the doubt creeps in, think of me sending whiny emails. Let that image make you strive for something greater! I'll be here continuing to practice beside you as well.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Homework for the Rest of Your Life

"Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life." - Lawrence Kasdan

At first blush the thought of having homework for the rest of my life sounds depressing. After journalism school, law school, and an M.F.A. program, I thought I was done with homework. But after giving it some thought, I realized having homework for the rest of my life might be a good thing.

First, it gives me a purpose. Chronic depression sometimes makes me question my reason for being. And I'm not talking about the state of the nation. My mind with its terrifying mental twists need not look beyond the four walls of my office to find a way to bring me down. Writing gives me a reason to exist. Writing gives me the motivation to carry on. That book won't write itself. It's waiting for me to show up.

Some days, writing gives me a reason to get up in the morning. Especially if I've made plans to meet another writer to work on my project while she works on hers, I'm more likely to make it out of bed and into the shower.

Writing is also an antidote to boredom. With writing, I have no reason to be bored. I have a book to edit, another to write, query letters, revisions, and on and on. There's not enough time to be bored.

It's also a multi-faceted cure for loneliness. My characters, real or imaged, keep me company. I'm rarely lonely when writing. Plus, when I immerse myself in the writing community, I have a host of like-minded friends who understand the trials and tribulations of attempting to put words on the page.

When I mentioned the idea of eternal homework to my husband, Ed, he extolled the benefits of "the eternal quest for knowledge!" I don't get that. He's an intellectual. I'm a gut person. But for him and others, writing as a quest for knowledge is a boon. Some people love seeking information and learning things they didn't know.

Of course, I could easily turn this homework business into a weapon and bludgeon myself with the work I haven't done or the lack of quality I perceive in the work I have done. That's why it's important to have good readers who want me to succeed. If I have chosen carefully who sees not only my early drafts, but even my more polished work, I have cheerleaders along the way.

So no. Having homework for the rest of my life is not a bad thing. Remind me of that the next time I complain. Okay?

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The Only You

"Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there'll always be better writers than you and there'll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or that - but you are the only you." - Neil Gaiman

When I was a little girl, I wrote about horses. As I got older, I wrote about the people I loved. Older still, I wrote about myself. My writing professors said, "Write what you know." I tried to oblige them.

I think Gaiman explains this concept more accurately. It's not that I have to write about horses, the people I love, or even myself, but I have to tell whatever story I'm telling from my perspective. I see the world through a particular lens. Any story I tell will have that frame of reference. Even in fiction, my personality will come through.

Let's say I choose an unreliable narrator. Even then, the story is mine because I choose how the narrator will hoodwink the reader. I select every detail. And my unconscious will have a lot to say about what decisions I make.

This, I believe, is a gift. If each of us is unique as a snowflake, then no two stories told by two different authors will be alike. There may be similarities, common themes, and familiar characters, but underneath, if we are true to ourselves, a special something will lie. The foundation will be our personality. And this is what makes our story marketable.

At least I hope this is true. I've written what I believe is my unique experience running a marathon. I'm a middle aged woman who was overweight when I began running. That's not unique by any means. I also suffer from several mental health challenges. That doesn't separate my story from those of others either. I run with my dog. I know plenty of folks who do that as well. But no one else has had the specific experience of living with my brain and body during this experience. No one else has had my precise thoughts and feelings as I walked (or ran) through this adventure. And that, I hope, is what will sell the book.

We'll see. I've done my final edits . . . for now. My next step is to begin querying agents. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

A Horrible, Exhausting Struggle . . . that I Love!

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” ― George Orwell

Writing a book isn't quite that bad or I wouldn't do it. And I make it more of a struggle than it has to be. I stall, him and haw, second guess myself, delude myself into thinking it will be a best-seller, then beat myself up for writing such drivel. Still, I have the affliction for which there is only one cure: writing. I have the bug. The illness. The fever. The plague. I've given up writing more times than I've brushed my teeth and I have good dental hygiene.

I'm at that "horrible, exhausting struggle" stage in the current draft of the book about running. The first draft was more like a fever. What I've got right now is the tail end of a nagging cold with a lingering cough and exhaustion. The worst is behind me, but it's still rough going.

I'm doing what our 4-H adviser used to call, "turning down the screws." It was the detail work we did before taking our animals or exhibits to the state fair. The pieces are in place, the screws are in, and you grit your teeth and tighten. It's tedious, precision work. The book must be in top shape before the next step. So I drag myself to the page and complain a lot, but I do it.

There's a saying in running, "Forward is a pace." That's my pace: forward. And for today, that's enough. I can see the end of this stage of the project. There may be a jagged cliff beyond my line of vision, but I'll deal with that when I get there. In the meantime, I'll tend to my symptoms and continue working on the book.

Thursday, September 03, 2015


"First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you're inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won't. Habit is persistence in practice." - Octavia E. Butler

Several writing habits keep me involved in the practice. The first is an on-line writing group I joined back in 1999 after attending several writing workshops with Natalie Goldberg. A group of us formed an email list. We agreed to send eight ten-minute writing practices to each other. Eventually the list grew and now it is a listserv, but there are still a handful of us writing and sending these writes to each other.

This newsletter is another set of habits. Throughout the month I gather events that I see in the paper or other sources and individuals email events to me. On the first of the month I scan fifty to sixty websites for more events. On the third of the month, the day the newsletter is due, often at the last minute, I write an essay to include.

I rarely know what I will write about ahead of time. Sometimes I use a quotation to feed my thoughts. Other times I take the dog for a long, slow walk and an idea will form. And sometimes I do sitting meditation and allow an essay to arise that way. It's as if my body and mind know that it's the third of month, time for the essay, because only a few times when I've been in extreme emotional distress have I been at a loss for words. These habits have served me well.

What habits do you use to get the writing done? I'd love to hear about them.

Monday, August 03, 2015

How Deep Are You Willing to Go?

"Either you decide to stay in the shallow end of the pool or you go out in the ocean." — Christopher Reeve

Saturday I taught my semi-annual class, Writing From the Inside Out. Teaching reminds me of all the things I forget between classes. I have to review the materials, especially the rules of writing practice I learned from Natalie Goldberg, and be awake enough to explain them to other people.

We had an splendid mix of novelists, poets, lyricists, memoirists, and children's book authors. They asked interesting questions and each contributed to the conversation. One woman lamented that the in-class writing practice was taking her places she didn't want to go. This gave me the opportunity to talk about Natalie's suggestion to "go for the jugular" meaning to dive into the dark scary places that come up.

The reason for this "rule" is simple. Those unwanted memories lie below the surface whether we write about them or not. You wind up writing around them. Either they crowd out the more important things you want to say or, more often, they are the important things you need to say. That's where the heat is, the juice of the writing. If we don't at least acknowledge these dark places, they fester and interrupt the writing flow. Better to get them out in the open and shred or burn the writing practice later if you must, than let these unspoken truths suppress our writing dreams.

My writing is no different. In my current book project, Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, I had to face some dark places in my mental health journey in order to show how much running has done for me. There was no hiding. To do so would have cheated both the reader and myself.

Are you willing to go out in the ocean with your writing? How deep are you willing to dive to pursue your dreams?

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

When is it done?

"Finish your novel, because you learn more that way than any other." - James Scott Bell

When do you know a project is finished? I'm not done with the book about running. I continue to layer the mental health thread through it. And I'm not sure even after I finish that if I'll be ready to let my baby fly.

When can you let it go? When is it ready to see more than just the eyes of the few folks you've entrusted to give you feedback. The essays and magazine articles I've written were only completed with a deadline. There could have been another round of edits, another writing practice to find the perfect description, another review by someone else. But I had to let each piece go. An editor was waiting.

I haven't sold any of my books before I've written them so it's different. I'm the one creating the deadline and it hasn't worked that well. I'm a critical critic, an evil critic even. The product is never good enough. Now honestly, the previous book-length projects haven't been finished, not even the one about my father that I worked on for a decade. The shape is still not there. It might be good enough for someone else, but it's not enough for me.

That's the dilemma. How do I get it to a place where it's ready for me to let it go? Perhaps it would be easier if I did have an agent or an editor. Perhaps then I would accept that person's judgment and say, "They say it's done, so it must be done." But I'm not sure if even that will soothe my perfectionistic heart. There is so much space between the idea that's in the mind and the black and white squiggles on the page. A vast distance, that.

What's a writer to do? For today, I will continue to work. And when it feels right inside of me, I'll start sending it off to agents. I might have to ask for help letting go. We'll do some ritual. We'll chant or do an incantation. Then we'll burn a symbolic copy of the manuscript and toast it with decaf lattes.

How do you let a manuscript go -- other than by abandoning it? This is an area where I really need to grow!

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


“Every exceptional writer holds a Master of Arts in Daydreaming.” ― Richelle E. Goodrich

Daydreaming gets a bad rap. In our culture, if your mind wanders, you are labeled lazy and unproductive, two of the worst things you can be called.

In her Tedx Talk Rosanne Bane, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer's Resistance, explains the importance of daydreaming.

Bane confirms that writers and other creative types need to daydream. Daydreaming is a different mind process from focusing on tasks. Daydreaming allows parts of the brain to connect that don't normally talk to each other during a task-oriented focus.

Bane suggests allowing yourself to daydream while you're standing in line at a store or other times when you might normally stare at your smartphone. I'd add meditation and writing practice to the mix.

In meditation, while sitting quietly attempting to focus on your breath, the mind is bound to wander because that's what minds do. They generate thoughts. Meditation is inherently creative. Ideas pop into the mind and solutions arise that can't be force by trying to focus on the problem.

Writing practice produces similar results. If you keep the hand moving and write down whatever thoughts arise, that too feels like daydreaming except the hand is recording it as it flows. Many conclusions come during writing practice.

Do you allow yourself to daydream? As writers, we owe ourselves what some might call this "guilty pleasure." If someone says you're dawdling, direct him to Rosanne Bane's Tedx Talk. Explain how deep daydreaming leads to realizations. Daydreaming is part of the writer's job!

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Embrace the Suck

Yesterday at the Capital City Half Marathon, my pace coach Lynne brought signs for those of us who were cheering. Her sign read, "Embrace the suck." We stood at the twelfth mile of this thirteen point one mile race greeting the runners and walkers who had just climbed a hill. "One more mile!" we shouted. Their sweat-stained faces were filled with exhaustion. When they read Lynne's sign, most laughed. When they saw the twelve mile marker behind us, all of their faces lit up. They were so close to finishing.

I sometimes feel this exhaustion when I'm writing. I've revised and revised and received positive feedback, but there's still so far to go. Some days writing is difficult. Unlike the runners, I don't know how far I am from the finish, but I know it's out there. There's nothing to do, but face the difficulties and push onward.

At a recent writing retreat some friends and I were discussing how many hours we spend trying to make writing less difficult. We concluded that perhaps ninety-five percent of the time we're supposed to feel lost and worried that we don't know what we're doing. Maybe we've been mistaken trying to make it easier. Maybe expecting it to be hard might make it easier to embrace it when it is.

I don't have an answer to this question. Writing isn't always tough. Often it brings such joy I feel like the luckiest person alive. But on the more frustrating days I worry I've chosen a path of torture. That's when there's nothing left to do but embrace the suck and run up that hill toward the finish.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Learning to Sparkle

"Success rests in having the courage and endurance and, above all, the will to become the person you are, however peculiar that may be." - George Sheehan

I recently discovered sparkle running skirts. Today as the dog and I ran through our neighborhood I wore a multi-colored skirt with attached shorts and a matching tech shirt. I felt like a middle-aged woman parading as a little girl, but I'm practicing being the person I am. I need to practice this with writing as well.

Deep into the revision process of Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, my memoir about running, I realized I'd need to show more of myself than I'm comfortable with. The book is subtitled, "The Memoirs of an Emotionally Unstable, Middle-aged Marathoner." The current draft has plenty of middle-age stuff and the beginning shows my mental health challenges, but a beta reader confirmed my fear that I'd lost the mental health thread halfway through. It was there in the first draft. I found it embarrassing and took it out. Now I need the courage to put some of it back.

The "emotionally unstable" part makes the book special. The mental health angle, I hope, will catch the eye of an agent and editor and differentiate my book from the other health and fitness memoirs on the bookstore shelves. For the book to do this, I'll need to show how peculiar I am and reveal some secrets I've kept hidden. It's terrifying and necessary. I'm afraid people will turn away. But I owe it to the book and to myself. And I owe it to the reader. The subtitle makes a promise. And nothing pisses off a reader more than a promise unfulfilled.

How do you keep your promises to your readers even when it's terrifying? I'd love to hear about it.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

A Contact Sport

"Writing is like a contact sport, like football. You can get hurt, but you enjoy it." - Irwin Shaw

I'm incredibly fortunate. In MFA school where critiques can be brutal, professors Aimee Liu, Diana Gould, and Victoria Nelson were gentle in their criticism of my graduate school work. Their words were sometimes difficult to hear, but they weren't mean or bitter and I knew they wanted nothing but the best for me.

Recently a former MFA advisor from the college I attended, thankfully he never advised me, wrote an essay criticizing his students after he had resigned. In reading his essay, I'm not sure why anyone wanted to study with him anyway. He had little respect for his students except for a handful he referred to as the "real deal." If I'd been assigned to him I would have asked for a different advisor as others did. And no, I'm not going to dignify him by linking his article or giving his name. If you must, sniff the interwebs for a recent essay by a jaded former MFA professor.

So be careful choosing who reads your work. Back in 2002, a close friend who had just begun to write made the mistake of giving her work to a former English teacher she met at yoga. There's nothing inherently wrong with former English teachers or yoga, but my friend realized too late that this woman was angry and blocked. There's little more effective than a blocked writer armed with the rules of grammar to kill a fledgling writer's mojo. The teacher's comments were petty and stung enough that my friend has written hardly a word since. Stories like this are endless. Some might say my friend wasn't meant to write if she couldn't withstand the criticism. I disagree. I think she subjected herself to criticism too early and trusted her work to the wrong kind of person before she'd built some resilience.

For my previous books, I hired two different editors after researching and getting references. I found their feedback genuine and helpful even though it sometimes hurt. Through the years, I've also carefully gathered a supportive net of what the youngsters like to call "beta readers." I've met these writers through classes, groups, and happy coincidences. For the manuscript of Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, I chose both runners and non-runners. But all were writers in some stage of an active writing process. None of them were blocked and none of them struck me as angry, bitter people. I respect each of them and will gladly read each of their work in return. Much of the feedback I've received is positive and the recommended changes honest and respectful. This is the kind of criticism I can hear.

How do you find critique partners for your work? How have you built a spine to help you hear criticism? I'd love to hear about it.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Ten Minutes at a Time

"Your toughness is made up of equal parts persistence and experience. You don't so much outrun your opponents as outlast and outsmart them, and the toughest opponent of all is the one inside your head." - Joe Henderson

When faced with a task, if I spend too much time in my head, I'll convince myself I can't do it and won't even try. In the mid-1980s when I read Natalie Goldberg's best-selling book Writing Down the Bones, I learned to use a timer to combat this problem. She set one for ten minutes, said "Go!" and wrote without stopping. This practice still works three decades later. Whether it's keeping my hand moving in writing practice, editing a manuscript, or tackling a cluttered shelf in my office, the timer produces results.

First, I choose a task. It must be specific. Once the task is defined, I set the timer and Go! It might be reading part of a manuscript until the ten minute timer goes off. If ideas for changes come, which they often do, I'll start the timer again and begin revising. Sometimes it means reading page edits someone has given me. It's daunting to see what another person thinks of my work. So I set the timer and read until it goes off. I don't give myself time to think, just read. Once I've gotten started it's easier to make notes as I go. The key is to get into motion and stay out of the negative place in my head. With the finite period set by the timer, I can do nearly anything.

I keep kitchen timers all over the house, one in every room, to help me with all manner of tasks. It creates a pressure cooker effect that expands time and helps me focus on the task instead of worrying about how many minutes I have to go.

Other programs use this technique. Pomodoro has an app. HIIT exercise (short for "high intensity interval training") is all the rage. For me, it began with Natalie's simple suggestion of ten minute intervals. I can do anything for ten minutes. The timer is the "gym boss" at my desk turning difficult tasks into manageable ten-minute interval workouts.

Do you use a timer or some other similar technique? I'd love to hear about it.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

The Best Remedy

"Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness." - James Thurber

I have a vivid imagination. Unfortunately it lists toward the negative. If my mind drifts too far into the future, it projects tons of excruciating work followed by showers of rejection letters not to mention the death of all my family members, friends, and the dog. Some people can project a future filled with success. My mind won't play that game.

The past is no better. There I relive regret for work I've failed to complete, anger at imagined slights, and pain over the actual deaths of family members, friends, and our former dogs. Days gone by offer no solace.

Meditation helps me stay in the moment. Each breath brings relief from the relentless barrage of thoughts pushing to and fro. And after sitting there is nothing to do, but open the notebook and get to work. Work is the best remedy.

Only the present is safe. In the actual work I find peace. I relax into writing, taking tiny steps one after another. There my mind hums.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Quantifiable Goals

“If you don't know where you are going, you'll end up someplace else.” ― Yogi Berra

National Novel Writing Month 2014 has come and gone and I'm happy. The ginormous manuscript about running my first marathon which was 114,400 words on October 31, 2014 now stands at 83,228 words approximately the length of many published memoirs. The secret? A quantifiable goal.

You've heard me talk about National Novel Writing Month again and again. Why does it work for me? There are many reasons, but this month it was the ability to turn something that seemed like an overwhelming challenge into bite size pieces I could work on every day.

I made two complete passes through the document. During the first half of the month and the first read-through in November I found words, sentences, paragraphs, and whole scenes that didn't belong. I removed approximately 1667 words per day. During the second half of the month and the second pass I gave myself credit for the amount of time I spent clarifying unclear passages, remedying inconsistencies, and turning the thing from a bunch of scenes into a book. I was ruthless. At the end of the month I had the equivalent of the golden 50,000 words needed to "win" NaNoWriMo in my own rebel way. Having a tangible method of tracking my progress gave me the motivation to get the work done.

The book still needs more polishing. It's a long way from being ready to send to an agent, but I nearly have a draft for Ed, my husband and first reader, to review.

Do you create quantifiable goals? How? I'd love to hear your methods.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

It's Still Too Long

"All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary—it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences." - Somerset Maugham

Shortly before Ed and I moved to New Mexico, a friend gave me a going away present. It was a tiny dictionary. In the front she wrote, "So you'll never be at a loss for words."

Right now I have the opposite problem. After I completed another pass through the ginormous manuscript about running my first marathon, the word count stands at 114,400. This is down from 190,000 words, but still.

Last night when I couldn't sleep I pulled up memoir after memoir on amazon.com and looked at the page count. Multiplying by the approximately 250 words per page confirmed my fears. The word count of book after book totaled something close to 80,000 words, 34,000 fewer than my current manuscript.

I have options. I could turn the story into two books. I could ignore editorial wisdom and let the book stand at nearly one and a half times the conventional word count of most memoirs. I could pay someone else to figure out what to do. I could put it in a drawer and start something new. Or I could do the thing I most dread: cut more words.

You know what I'll choose. Wish me luck! And if you have any tips for whacking still more of my precious prose from this document, please send them my way.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Fall: When The Wrimos Gather

“When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘one word at a time.’” - Stephen King

When the leaves in central Ohio begin to turn, I think of two things: the Columbus Marathon and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This year I'm running the half marathon instead of the full so I have more energy to plan for NaNoWriMo.

The NaNoWriMo motto is, "The world needs your novel." I don't know if the world needs any of the books I've written, but I definitely needed to write them and I've enjoyed using the NaNoWriMo structure to write the first drafts.

There's something about knowing more than 100,000 other writers are out there pounding the keys just like me. Attending the write-ins and hearing the keystrokes of three or four or twenty other writers from my area inspires me. It was intimidating at first, but once I began the first sentence, I was fine.

If you want to write a novel or need a structure to get your work done, NaNoWriMo might work for you. The official goal is to write 50,000 words of fiction in the thirty days of November. That's what most wrimos (folks who participate in NaNoWriMo) do. Nano rebels write nonfiction, poetry, short stories, or songs. And some folks, myself included, use the structure for revision. Last year I used it to remove 50,000 words from the 190,000 word manuscript about running my first marathon. I called it reverse NaNoWriMo.

I'll definitely play along this year as well. I'm at the place in my revision process where I need to make another pass through the book. I'll divide the number of scenes by the thirty days in November and read and make notes on a set number of scenes each day to get through the whole book by the end of the month. The communal energy of NaNoWriMo will pull me through.

What are your goals for November? Do you want to play along? You can find the ABCs of NaNoWriMo on the website. For more information, get the books No Plot? No Problem!
and Ready, Set, Novel!.

My screen name on the NaNoWriMo website is willwrite4chocolate. If you decide to join, please look me up. It's good to have friends wherever you go.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Remove the Scaffolding

“Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then, when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity...edit one more time!”
― C.K. Webb

I continue to remove as many words as I can from the crazy huge manuscript about running my first marathon. My latest trick is what good friend and award-winning author, Tania Casselle, referred to as "removing the scaffolding" when she critiqued a different book I had attempted.

Often first drafts contain phrases, whole sentences, or even entire paragraphs that prop up the real thing we want to say. If our work is strong enough, it can stand on its own. Our job is to remove that scaffolding.

Here's a very brief example:

First draft:
I spent some time standing by the window looking out at a pale moon. The light that it shone glinted against a thin layer of ice on the cracked sidewalk. That cracked sidewalk was where I had fallen when I was running just a few weeks before. Then it had looked ugly and swollen even though the crack was the merest of things, just a bit of a thing, not even an inch of difference in the two edges, but there I had fallen down hard on my arm and my knee and hit my chest. It hurt bad. It still hurt. The ribs were still bruised and I favored them even though I tried not to.

Second (third or fourth) draft:
I looked out the window at the pale moonlight. It glinted off a thin layer of ice on the cracked sidewalk. I'd fallen there a few weeks before while running. Then the small crack had looked ugly and swollen, the merest bit of a thing, not even an inch of difference in the two edges. My skinned arm and knee and my bruised ribs still hurt. I favored them even though I tried not to.

I've removed the scaffolding. Only what I want remains.

Now you try it. Let me know how it goes.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Trimming the Flab: A List

“The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.” ― Henry Green

My progress in reducing the word count of the ginormous manuscript about running my first marathon continues. I'm cutting unnecessary material, the flab. Sometimes an entire scene must go, but more often I whittle at the subcutaneous fat deep within the sentences. Here are some examples of things I trim:

1. Verbs that end in "ing:" "I was standing" becomes "I stood." This removes a word and turns the sentence from passive to active.

2. Forms of the verb "to be:" (were, is, are, be, being, etc.) I transform these with more powerful verbs. "There is a tree" turns into "A tree grows there" or "a tree stands there." Again, passive becomes active.

3. "Very, just, and simply:" These are words I use when I want to hedge my bets. "I just wept" becomes "I wept." "I'm very tired" becomes "I'm exhausted." "I simply couldn't manage" becomes, "I couldn't manage." I rarely find an instance when one of these words can't be removed.

4. "That:" I remove it and see if the sentence stands.

5. Unnecessary pronouns. "We sat down" becomes "We sat." "I stood up" becomes "I stood."

This list barely touches the possibilities. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

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Thursday, July 03, 2014


"The average pencil is seven inches long, with just a half-inch eraser - in case you thought optimism is dead." - Robert Brault

A rectangular eraser lies on my desk next to the lamp. It supplements the tiny eraser on the end of my mechanical pencil which would quickly run out if I used it exclusively.

Next to the lamp sits a pen and pencil holder. In it live roller ball pens of several colors. My favorites are the hot pink ones. I use those to mark up the print-outs of the scenes of whatever book I'm currently revising. I go through almost as many of those as I do blue or black pens.

While I appreciate the optimism of Brault's quotation, it doesn't reflect my reality. If I designed a pencil to accurately show the amount of time I spend on revision versus writing, the eraser would be two feet long and the pencil less than half an inch. This pains me since I thoroughly enjoy that flying blind bliss of the first draft. Sometimes I find that same pleasure in second or third drafts. But once I'm down to the deep cuts writing requires, it's all work.

I know others with the opposite perspective. For some, the initial draft is the hardest part and once they have "something to work with" they're golden. My hat is off to them. Still, I would wager even these people spend much more time rewriting than they did on the initial draft.

What about you? Do you spend more of your writing hours in drafting or revising? I'd love to hear about your process.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Hard Copies

“I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” Truman Capote, Conversations With Capote, by Lawrence Grobel, 1985

I spent last week in Arlington, Virginia at a Marriott while my husband attended a conference. I wrote and ran for five days. Each day after my post-run shower, I found a quiet spot with chairs and a table near a window in a hallway near the conference rooms to work.

Before we left home, I had printed several chapters of the book on running. I took the pages and a fuchsia roller ball to my quiet spot and began hand-editing. I prefer pink to red. It's more fun. I'd brought my laptop and could easily have carried it to the window seat. Or I could have stayed in our very nicely appointed room and sipped from a coffee made in the miniature coffee maker while I worked. I chose not to.

Stepping away from the computer prevented me from being tempted to check email or social media. Without adorable kitten videos to distract me, I spent several hours engrossed in the work. The world dropped away. With the tactile sensations of paper and pen between my fingers, the editing went well.

Back in November, during my reverse-NaNoWriMo, I worked directly on my laptop to reduce the book by 50,000 words. That technique worked then. Now, this second time going through the whole book, I prefer looking at printed pages. I do not have studies to cite, but I believe two slightly different parts of the mind are triggered by each of these techniques. I choose to tap both of them.

In my next writing session I'll enter the changes from the hand-edited pages into the document using the laptop. In addition to the changes on the pages, I anticipate finding other things to revise as well. So this typing-in of the edits is yet another pass through the manuscript. Nothing is lost by this "extra" step.

Do you print out pages? What is your process? I'd love to hear about it.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

There's revision and then there's revision.

“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.” —Philip Roth

There are two main kinds of revision: big picture restructuring and small picture polishing. In big picture work, I move whole pieces of the book around and reshape the thing from the spine up. Sometimes this means adding new sections or cutting out whole other parts. The beginning becomes the end and vice versa. This kind of editing has to come first.

The second kind of editing is my favorite. This is the word choice editing. It's grammar, punctuation, spelling, syntax, rhythm, and sound. This is where I remove all the unnecesssary words like "very" and "a lot." It's where I decide if I really need that second that. I rewrite the passive verb sentences into active voice. I polish and polish and polish.

The book I'm writing about running a marathon is still in the big picture editing phase. I am so tempted to jump into knit-picky grammar, punctuation, word choice, line by line revision, but that's not what it needs. I err on the side of polishing since it is my favorite kind of editing. This will cause trouble. Unless I have the shape of the book down, doing smaller scale revision is a waste of time. The section I am so lovingly polishing might not even be there on the next draft. How much more difficult will it be to cut if I've just spent two weeks crafting it?

So I have to force myself to only look at the big picture. What can I cut? Not just words, but what whole sections? Is this part necessary? Can the book live without that? Does this section go as deep as it needs to go? What else does it need? How can I bring it to life?

Do you have a favorite form of editing? How do you help yourself do the kind of work you least enjoy? I'd love to hear about it.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Business and Art

"Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art." - Andy Warhol

We don't talk much about the economics of writing. It's definitely not my forte. Still, folks have questions. Fortunately, some artists do talk dollars and sense or how to make sense of the dollars that come.

One such person is Elaine Grogan Luttrull. Luttrull addresses the business of writing in her book, Arts & Numbers: A Financial Guide for Artists, Writers, Performers, and Other Members of the Creative Class. Luttrull states, "I hope Arts & Numbers does this (subtly) in sharing relevant financial information with creative entrepreneurs in a technically-accurate and accessible way."

Luttrull was interviewed by Doug Dangler, the host of the Wednesday evening show Craft on WCBE (90.5) about the business of writing. The interview will air on May 21st at 8:00 p.m., and Doug has two copies of her book to give away as part of the show.

The interview came about because Chang-rae Lee mentioned casually in an interview with Doug that he never discusses the economics of writing with his students because, "they know what they are getting into." She believes there is a better, more proactive, slightly more empowering approach to the subject.

You can listen to the interview with Chang-rae Lee here (and read their exchange in the comments!). More about Craft: The Show is on its website as well.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


"Writing a book is 10% inspiration and 90% not being distracted by the internet.” George Dyson

Facebook. Twitter. Buzzfeed. Instragram. Pinterest. Goodreads. And so many more. I mean just the internet in general. These potential distractions all make it easier than ever to avoid writing. We get sucked into this world of cuddly puppy photos, recipes, and political rants not to mention cat videos and e-postcards created by friends and relatives. What's a writer to do?

Lately I've been using Freedom, an inexpensive program, to minimize distractions (aka the internet). You tell the program how long you want "freedom" from the internet and it blocks you for that amount of time. To regain access before the time has expired you have to restart your computer. You can use the trial version five times before you must switch to a paid version. There's also Anti-social which only blocks social media. That way, you can do research, but not check Twitter. Freedom and Anti-social are not magic bullets.

I still find myself trying to click to Facebook before I realize what I'm doing. But once I remember my "freedom," I get back to work. Maybe these will work for you!

Monday, February 03, 2014

Poor Grammar? No Problem!

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” ― Dorothy Parker, The Collected Dorothy Parker

Last month I received yet another note from a reader who dreams of writing a book. Like many others, he fears his poor grammar will prevent him from succeeding. His note to me read:

I've wanted to write a book for as long as I can remember. I'm a voracious reader and I love to write. But I've struggled with grammar and punctuation since grade school. Do you have any suggestions on how to master grammar now that I'm an adult?
Many of my readers have similar qualms. Here was my reply:

If you want to write a book, just write a book. Don't let any of your fears get in the way. In WILD MIND, Natalie Goldberg suggests, "Don't worry about grammar, punctuation, or even the lines on the page." She's talking about first drafts, but she's serious. Later, after many drafts of the work are finished, hire a copyeditor to polish it for you.
As far as learning grammar and punctuation, there are many great books including EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES by Lynne Truss. I also follow a blog called Grammar Girl that may help. I subscribe and follow her on Facebook. I attempt to master each tip she posts. I discover my errors by reading about them and finding the solution.
Here's a list of 10 good grammar sites including Grammar Girl. Purdue Online Writing Lab and Grammarly are both very good as well. Enjoy and have fun!
Do you have any great sources for finding grammar information? I'd love to hear about them.

Monday, December 30, 2013

On To The Next

"Paralyze resistance with persistence." - Woody Hayes

Yesterday, The Ohio State University Buckeye football team landed in Miami. On Friday they face the Clemson Tigers in the Orange Bowl. Earlier in the season, they took a harsh defeat at the hands of Michigan State. I'm sure they were saddened, stunned even, by their loss to the Spartans, but they were not defeated in the larger sense of the word. Instead of stopping in their tracks, they kept moving in preparation for the next contest. They lived to play another day.

I'm going to use the Buckeye attitude as my writing strategy. I've had my share of defeats. It's been a while since I've put myself on the agent firing line or ventured into the editorial slush pile, but I like this thought of moving on and heading into the next adventure without feeling like a loser. Our Buckeyes just keep moving. So will I.

Is it really a defeat if you're still standing when it's over? Doesn't it just mean the time wasn't right? Perhaps it wasn't the right book or the book wasn't done or I wasn't ready for what came next. On we go. On to the next. In the interim, the writing itself is the reward.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

A Long While

"Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short." - Henry David Thoreau

Last month during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) I edited out 50,000 words from a 193,000 word manuscript. It wasn't easy. Partly because I am a writer and partly because of mental heath issues, I fall in love with my words. They seem hard won. Perhaps I just like to hear myself talk. But this document grew beyond anything I had intended or from my worst nightmares. I worked on it for a year and wound up with a monster.

I used the structure of NaNoWriMo to ease the editing process. I gave myself a goal of removing 1925 words each day since we were traveling at the end of the month and I would get no work done while we were gone. I started at the beginning of the book and read chapter by chapter asking myself difficult questions.

Does this scene belong? Does it move the story forward? Does it belong here? Could it be said in a better way? What is the point I am trying to make? Why should the reader care? Can I make it more interesting? Can I cut the scene altogether?

I was as honest with myself as I could be. Some days I removed only a few hundred words, but most days it was closer to several thousand. I found whole sections I could easily delete. I had repeated myself, drifted off-topic, or not made sense. These had to go. I found other places where the work held its own and those sections I kept. I wound up with a book of 140,000 words and a story that made sense to me.

There is more work ahead. Ideally I will remove another 50,000 words. I have stepped away from the book for now to let it breathe. The next edit will require even more self-honesty and brutal cuts. Some of my favorite parts will have to go. That is the work of writing. The first draft I wrote for me. These later drafts, and there will be many, are for the reader.

I'm reminded of the motto, "To thine own self be true." This doesn't mean I get to spoil myself or be sloppy. It means I must be honest with myself. Tell myself the truth. In editing, this is the only way.