In The Beginning, Take Three

Our lunch was winding down but our beginning writer friend had several more questions. What, she asked, is the one habit that most effectively supports your writing career?

My answer came relatively quickly but I couldn’t limit it to one habit; I had two: writing every day and finishing what I start. Those two habits are the backbone of my writing career.

While I’ve blogged before about the importance of a daily writing practice, I haven’t spent a lot of time discussing the importance of finishing what I start. To be fair, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have a few half-baked ideas waiting for me in the drawer. I was going to call them partially finished manuscripts but they aren’t even that. They’re embryonic ideas in paragraph form. A couple of them go on for maybe two or three pages. They’ll be there when I’m ready for them.

Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are waiting for us to give them life. That they hang out in the ether somewhere until a creator comes along, picks them up and breathes them into being. I don’t know if it’s true, though I love her idea. What I do know is that once I start a story or a novel, I can’t not finish it. Even when I suspect the story isn’t hanging together or the character’s motivations aren’t working or I don’t like what I’m producing, I can’t stop. Finishing it becomes a compulsion. To leave it undone would be akin to gathering the ingredients for a cake, preparing the pans, mixing the batter and failing to put the whole thing into the oven. Finishing what I start and writing every day have taken me from unpublished to published. It’s as easy (and as hard!) as that.

For Lea Tassie, her most effective daily habit is self-discipline and making writing part of her routine. “It’s not easy,” she says, “but it’s necessary.”

The last question our beginning writer asked was also the hardest for me to answer. What has been your most rewarding accomplishment?

There were milestones for sure: my first sale, my first foreign edition, my first award. And while those certainly were accomplishments, with the exception of my first sale which I definitely had something to do with, many of my other career milestones came about because others worked to make them happen, or because of serendipity. Claiming them as my accomplishment didn’t feel right. And the more I thought about it, while getting books published was an accomplishment I was proud of, it wasn’t the true reward. The real reward came later when readers wrote to say how much they loved my story. Touching readers through my books is, and always will be, my most rewarding accomplishment.

Lea Tassie shares the sentiment. In her futuristic Green Blood Rising series, trees fight back against development and begin to take over the world. One of her most rewarding moments came when someone read the novel and afterwards commented that they were “driving home one night and these young trees were growing up out of the ditch and I got scared.”

Writing a book that lives on in the hearts and minds of readers is the most gratifying achievement. In the end, I think it’s the only accomplishment that truly matters.

In The Beginning

Not long ago, I was asked by a woman just starting out on her writing journey if I’d be willing to answer a few general questions about the industry, and some specific questions about my path to publishing. Our conversation really made me think. Over the next few weeks I’ll bring you some of her questions and my answers, along with answers from other authors as well.

This week, question one: what does your writing day look like?

That one was easy. I write every day, or at least every weekday. I don’t strive for a set word or page count, nor do I put in a minimum number of hours, but I usually work from 9 or 9:30 until 4 in the afternoon, with a short break for lunch. Mornings are reserved for whatever novel I’m writing, and if I have an article to write or an editing job to do, I usually tackle those in the afternoon. Unless I’m on a deadline, I don’t write on weekends. Perhaps it’s a throwback to when my kids were young and I wrote when they were in school, or perhaps it’s a holdover from my days working a five-day-a-week job, but I usually take a break on weekends. I might ponder my work-in-progress or attend a writing workshop or do some kind of research, but I try to avoid sitting at my desk and staring at a screen.

Author Stephen King has been quoted as saying that when he works, he ‘works every day, three or four hours, and aims for six clean pages.’  Working daily for two months, he ends up with a 360-page manuscript. And if his books and interviews are to be believed, he also doesn’t outline. He starts with a basic ‘what if’ premise and sees where it takes him. I like the idea of deep daily immersion in a story, and I LOVE the idea of producing a 360-page manuscript in two months. But without an outline? It’s unlikely to work for me. For one thing, I don’t have King’s experience. He’s written close to 90 books; I’ve written about 25.

Ernest Hemingway wrote every morning, without fail. Susan Sontag wrote every morning too, and always by hand. Another Susan – Susan Wiggs – also writes her first drafts by hand, in a spiral bound notebook and always with a peacock blue fountain pen. Michael Connelly writes daily and wherever he finds himself, but if he’s at home and in any kind of routine he prefers morning since he ‘likes to get a lot done before the city wakes up.’  Stephenie Meyer is the exact opposite: she can’t focus on writing anything fresh when the sun is out. Only when her kids are in bed for the night can she concentrate on writing her books.

Which just goes to show you that a writing day can also be a writing night.

Next week, what lessons did you learn the hard way, and what do you wish you knew starting out?

My October Reads

Some days chickens, other days feathers. When the feathers are flying and the chickens are in short supply – in other words when life isn’t unfolding according to plan, escaping into a good book can be a godsend. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing lately. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

Beside the fire: The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh

At the gym: The Road to Enchantment by Kaya McLaren

Before bed: Bringing Your Soul to Light by Dr. Linda Backman

Books read to date in 2018: 65

Fitness . . . Just Another F Word?

For some, the mere mention of the word fitness sends us into, well, fits. One friend of mine is convinced fitness is the ultimate F word. She’s a nurse with a job that keeps her active and on her feet, but that’s not the case for us writers. Writing is, by nature, a sedentary activity and so are many writing-related activities. Things like reading, research, and interviewing people for background information are almost always done sitting down.

Since this Wednesday marks National Women’s Health & Fitness Day, it’s a great time to look at some of the ways writers can get out of that seat and stay active.

Get a treadmill desk. You’ll get used to it quickly (I did) and you’ll find your energy, creativity, and general fitness improving. If a treadmill desk isn’t doable for you, consider a standing desk, or sit on a balance ball chair. Any of those options don’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition; I switch from my sit down desk to my treadmill unit multiple times a day.

Set a timer so you remember to get up and move around, ideally every hour. Some writers go so far as to do push ups and sit ups during their break time. I am not one of them.

Take a daily walk. Team Sheltie demands a walk several times a day, even in inclement weather. I normally take them out first thing in the morning and again just before dinner, but in the winter when the light levels are low, I sometimes switch it up and get them out midday. Invariably, I come back to my desk energized and primed to write.

Look for reasons to be active. Gardening keeps me upright and moving (and my muse seems to really like digging in the dirt). Work in a hike when you visit with a friend. Cycle to the library or the grocery store. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Small things, simple things, but the small, simple things add up.

Stretch. My weekly yoga class is a lifesaver, not only for my cramped and tight muscles but also for reducing stress. You don’t need a class to do yoga, however; the stretches can be done anywhere you have a few feet of floor. Pick postures to loosen your shoulders and neck from being hunched over the keyboard (bow pose, eagle arms, fish or ear to shoulder) and your hips and hamstrings from sitting (lizard, half-pigeon, the warrior, or the bridge).

Finally, baby your hands and wrists. It may not be part of being fit and active, but injuries to hands and wrists will curtail output, which could lead to depression, which could lead to more time on the couch. Check your posture; improper posture when typing can strain your wrists. Use an ergonomic mouse with a track ball and alternate hands. Stretch and flex your wrists and hands regularly. I like to use a squeeze ball; I keep mine on the desk as a reminder to use the thing (it doesn’t work sitting in the drawer). Finally, seek help the minute you feel pain. I’ve successfully treated wrist pain with acupuncture, while other writers rely on physiotherapy, ice or a wrist brace.

Happy healthy writing.

Hats and Books, Oh My

Writing books and making hats have something in common. Who knew? I certainly didn’t when I commissioned Lynda Marie make a fascinator for me to wear to our daughter’s wedding. She knew the color of my dress (royal blue), the basic style (simple) and that I was wearing fun, in-your-face pink shoes. I wanted something elegant, I told her. Wedding guest classy, maybe with a little touch of sass.

I was excited when she showed me some of the elements she planned to incorporate. It was going to be beautiful; I had no doubt about it.

A few weeks later she called to say it was ready. Full of anticipation, I went to her studio. The fascinator was gorgeous, I absolutely loved it, but it wasn’t what I expected. In fact, Lynda Marie ended up using almost none of the original elements she’d planned to use. “I tried,” she told me. “I really did. I kept fiddling and rearranging and trying to incorporate some of the pink polka dots and a little of the other material too, but the result just didn’t feel right.”

I know that feeling. There have been times, particularly in the early stages of a novel, where I’ll fiddle and rearrange and fiddle again. Something just doesn’t feel right. If I can’t stop fiddling, I know I need to take a step back and re-evaluate. Is the premise weak? The character’s motive flawed? Is the tone off? Am I worrying too much about whether the story will sell rather than the story I have to tell? If my gut tells me something is off, then something usually is off. Gut feelings rarely steer you wrong.

The same can be said for bespoke hats. “I was trying so hard to make it work but that first creation didn’t feel elegant,” Lynda Marie says. “I was fighting with the pink polka dots and trying to force it because we’d talked about using them, but the result was nothing remotely close to what we’d envisioned.” She pauses. “Some hats come together easily and others don’t, but as my boyfriend reminded me, if I didn’t like the result then chances are you wouldn’t either.” As soon as Lynda Marie let go of what she thought she needed to do and went with what the fascinator was trying to tell her, the piece came together quickly and easily.

Sometimes we have to get out of our own way, leave our expectations at the door, and let the hat or the book or the painting or the quilt (or whatever else we’re trying to create) tell us what it wants to be. Sometimes we have to let the muse have her way.

The results, inevitably, will always be far more beautiful than we could have imagined.

My Favorite New Thing

The key word of this summer is noise. Noise from the neighbor’s chain saw as he removed the old pear trees bordering our properties (sob!); noise from the gut and rebuild taking place around the corner from us (the jackhammers are back for the second week); noise from a neighbor on the other side bulldozing part of his lawn and hauling in loads of gravel so he can park more cars.

And noise from Team Sheltie as they protest the auditory assault that has been relentless for weeks. We could shut our windows, but it’s been a hot summer and we don’t have air conditioning; we rely on air flow to keep things cool. I’m fine with that. Noise doesn’t normally bother me, at least not like it has lately. This summer the noise seems extreme . . . or maybe I’m more sensitive to it. Perhaps it’s a little of both.

Either way, after several weeks of listening to me moan and gripe, Mr. Petrol Head surprised me with a pair of wireless Sennheiser noise-cancelling headphones. They’ve quickly become my new favorite thing. I put them on, pull up some soft background music (orchestral, no lyrics, but not quite meditative or I’d get sleepy), and I start writing.

It’s only been a few days but my focus is sharper and my word count is up considerably. With any luck, the key word of the rest of my summer will be productivity.

Overheard This Week

 You don’t realize how hard you bite until you bite your own tongue.

I overheard this comment in the produce section of my grocery store recently. Two women were talking in front of the daily free sample: glistening red strawberries proffered in little white cups. Given that they were laughing, I assumed the comment was reflective rather than indicative of recently inflicted pain.

Biting my tongue made me think of biting back words, and that led me to contemplate the power we yield with our words, both those spoken and those written. I’m familiar with that power as a writer and as a reader too. It’s clear when the words in a particular passage lift me up or bring me down. The simple prose of a story or a poem can, and has, moved me to tears.

But we rarely contemplate the power of our spoken words. Since I overheard this comment right when Anthony Bourdain died of suicide, I was struck anew by that potential power and how blind we can be to it. We all know the pain of being on the receiving end of someone’s anger, but even a thoughtless brush off or a snarky put-down could, quite literally, mean the end of the world to someone. Conversely, a loving comment or a few words of praise might be enough to raise someone up from a very dark place.

It just so happened that a few days after I overheard those words, I was finishing up a rather arduous clean up and pruning job on the front garden. I wasn’t in a particularly dark place, unless you counted the dirt on my hands and knees. As I stood surveying the results of my work, the neighbor wandered over. She stood there for a few minutes chatting and then she said, “You know, this looks just amazing. You did an absolutely fabulous job.” I smiled and thanked her. As I went inside to wash my hands and pour a glass of water I realized I was glowing. Sweat from the hours of labor? A hot flash? Relief at having tackled that particular chore? No. The glow came from the power of what she said to me.

You don’t realize the sweetness of a few simple words until you’re the unexpected recipient of them.

Words . . . they have far more power than we give them credit for.

My April Reads

Spring often conjures thoughts of spring cleaning. It’s more like spring purging around here these days as we go through cupboards and drawers and hidden corners of the basement eliminating the things we don’t use and no longer need. With the exception of my garden (crammed with plants,) my bookshelves (crammed with books) and an impressively stocked kitchen pantry (eight kinds of rice at last count, and herbs and spices into the triple digits) I’m something of a minimalist.

Part of it is necessity – a writer’s salary isn’t large (at least this writer’s salary isn’t large) – and part of it is the way I’m wired. I don’t love shopping. I don’t hate it, but it’s not what I do for fun or for relaxation. Reduce, reuse, and recycle was part of my lifestyle before it was trendy, back when it was considered weird.

So I was keen to pick up and read Cait Flander’s Year of Less. After getting rid of 70 percent of her belongings, Flanders stopped shopping, other than for necessities (and those were very narrowly defined), for an entire year. Unfortunately, the book didn’t have the depth I was hoping for. It wasn’t so much a memoir about living with less as it was a memoir about a millennial struggling with love, loss, career and family angst during a year when she also stopped shopping. It was a fun, easy read but it didn’t speak to me in quite the way I’d hoped. So if you’ve read any great books on minimalism, let me know. Spring purging should only go so far.

Here’s what I’m reading this month:

At the gym: Playing with Fire by Tess Gerritsen

Beside the bed: The Year of Less by Cait Flanders

On the weekend: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

Books read to date in 2018: 31

Writers and Their Pets

Today is National Pet Day. Writers love their pets as much as anyone else.

For years Dean Koontz resisted bringing a dog into his life, though they appeared frequently in his books. Eventually he agreed to adopt Trixie, a retired golden retriever service dog. Koontzwent on to publish a book about Trixie (A Big Little Life) and much love and many dogs later, Koontz continues to be devoted to the breed. His current golden is Elsa.







Diana Gabaldon is also a dog lover. Her Twitter feed occasionally features pictures of a pug (a grand pug if the comments are to be believed) or one of her dachshunds. For a time, Gabaldon was an ambassador for Bianca Associacao, a Portuguese shelter that rescues and rehomes 600 dogs and cats annually.





Lately Stephen King is a slave to his corgi, Molly.

Cats are also beloved by writers. Hemingway adored them, and at one point while living in Cuba his house was home to over fifty of them.

I had a cat once, for about a decade. Juna was a stray who adopted us, and even though I’m allergic I couldn’t say no. She used to wake me up every morning by delicately licking my eyelids. It did nothing for my allergies but it was good for my soul.





Then there was our beagle, Sugar. She was named by our daughter, and appropriately so. Sugar used to delight in ferreting out any sweet treats left by the kids in their backpacks when they came home from school.





Before we had kids, we had our rescue Pekingese pups, Clementine and Winston. The latter was named for Winston Churchill and the former was named for his wife (and, yes, there is a visual similarity; google Clementine Churchill)





Today we share our lives with Team Sheltie.

They keep us walking and laughing and enjoying life. Happy National Pet day to your beloved companions!

My January Reads

Last year, if my record is accurate, I read eighty books. Funnily enough, I apparently read eighty books in 2016 too. That works out to a book and a half a week. Broken down like that, the number seems low because I always have two or three books on the go at once, and most weeks it feels like I get through at least two of them. So either I’m forgetting to note some titles down or I’m not reading as much as I think I am. Either way, I’m not really bothered. I have a record of what I’ve read and enjoyed over the last few years, and more than enough titles on my ‘to be read’ list to keep me going for a long time yet. And here’s what I’m reading this week:

At the gym: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

For Research: The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee

Before Bed: Aging Backwards by Miranda Esmonde White

Books Read to Date in 2018: 5