Good morning kids. Today’s blog is about memoir. Before you close out of my page, thinking you’re too young to write such a thing and that it’s for little old people who are trying to recapture the sand slipping away in their hourglass…let me stop you.
Good stories are ones we relate to, and so can come from anywhere, in any time period, in any state. Being able to tap into your memory, isn’t just good for memoirs, it’s also good for descriptive scene setting, character development, and capturing those beautiful ‘show’ moments.
How do I figure?
Fiction or not, being able to recall details, sift through what you remember and why it was memorable, is a skill that will serve you in any genre. The perspective of ten-year-old you is a charming voice that we all, in some part, want to re-experience. Retelling from your memories is a practice that can help you see the world through different lenses, and what you remember tells you a lot about where you were in life and the character you embodied. A mom’s perspective and memory of her child’s first day of school is going to be completely different than her child’s memory of the day. The first breaking of your heart at 16 is going to harken a different intensity than your last broken heart a decade later. Understanding the humanity of your memories will bring you closer to creating depth in your characters.
So, how do you even begin?
Everything has a story and the best stories are told by ordinary people. It’s not about what happened, necessarily, it’s what happened to you. What you remember and what stands out to you from past memories, creates a personal tie to your reader and their own memories. It also shrinks down big events and forces the humanity into view.
“I remember the spiky Velcro of my sneakers, scratching my legs as I sat criss-cross in the lunchroom (still smelling of sloppy joes and spilled milk) while the third-grade teacher wheeled in the small TV to the center of our circle. The grainy picture of a rocket puffing out into a cloud of white with the trailing boosters snaking off into the atmosphere was confusing and anticlimactic to the excitement in the room. But what was more troubling was the way the teachers behind us gasped, crumpled to the floor, sobbed and looked to one another for explaination that could not be found, before hurrying us back to our classrooms.”
“The Challenger, carrying high school teacher Christa McAulliffe, exploded shortly after takeoff, on January, 28 1986”
The biggest obstacle to this practice is, the human brain is often complex and muddled and gleaming the true memory of an event or time can be hard. Having practiced this a little, I can tell you that it’s really shocking how much of my childhood I don’t remember. Because I simply haven’t made a habit of talking about it. Many of us don’t. We no longer live in an oral-storytelling society and it’s a real detriment to how we solidify memories.
When writing from memory, we have to work from both memory and imagination, and reassemble the past with both. We have no other choice than to see it through the lens of who we are now, so even the best memories are filtered by the knowledge and experience we’ve gained since the time we’re trying to remember. We often reframe memories in a way that fits into our whole story, and as soon as we write about it, we begin to shape it. That’s not all that’s funny about memories.
If you’ve ever noticed telling a story and retelling it to a different person or group, the story starts to change depending on the audience. Other factors that can contribute to muddling the memory water are how long its been since the event, who was there, and how we want people to perceive it.
My suggestion to you is to start writing events down that you remember. Big and small (the death of a family member, to the first time you tied your shoes). Pick a year, an event, a memory, just one a day and write what you remember about it. Find a quiet spot. Close your eyes, think of the memory and with pen and paper (or laptop if you simply must) write down whatever comes up. Even if it’s murky, even if its disjointed. These are shadows that exist for a reason. In fact, write down what you can’t remember (I remember the flowers were bright pink and orange, but I can’t remember walking out of the funeral home). Those details speak to the state of mind you were in.
These are the rough drafts of human interest and ways to connect to others. Your essays on memories can be the the bulk material needed for character history, short stories or poetry. And maybe one day, your own memoir.
Whatever your past, however dull or fantastical you think it is, whether it’s 89 years worth of experience and life or only 12, you have a responsibility to put it down.
Nope. I didn’t miss a “t”. And this isn’t a self-reflective rant about the aging spread going on behind me. Today’s blog is about excuses, dare I even say… self-imposed limits.
I believe I’ve talked about the dangerous ‘but’ in terms of how we love one another, and how we limit feelings by making excuses from perceived imperfections. However, today’s talk is more about the detrimental “but” that gets between us and our dreams.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from friends, colleagues, and even acquaintances the exact phrase:
“I’d love to write but…”
But…I have no time. But…I just can’t get started. But…I’m not very good. But…It’s hard to publish these days. But…people may not like it.
Stop it, no.
Not valid (and who cares if they like it?)
Article done! BAM! Shortest blog ever. Happy writing!
Those big buts up there don’t lie. They are all valid excuses. Excuses that we build like walls in front of our potential. Walls of excuses to keep us from even attempting the loving art of writing because it also keeps us safe. Safe from rejection, safe from the work, safe from the expectation. Safe from failing. Safe from succeeding.
But is a wall builder.
But builds walls based on fear and hatred and not scientific, psychologically proven facts.
But keeps you away from ever having to actually start.
Now I’m sure there are people out there saying they want to write a novel to make me feel like I’m not so strange, all wholed-up in my pajamas, afraid of the general public. Maybe people tell me they’d “love” to write more, to make polite conversation.
This blog isn’t for those small-talkers (but bless your heart for trying to make me feel comfortable about my chosen/driven profession despite its financial drawbacks).
This blog is for those whose eyes shine with longing when they talk about that book they want to, need to, would love to write. This is your permission slip to the great unknown outside your stuffy, self-imposed safety.
No more buts.
Say it outloud…softly “I would like to write a book.”
Little bit louder now: “I would love to write a book!”
Say it like you mean it!: “I want to write a book!”
So the people in the back can hear!!: “I WILL WRITE A BOOK!”
Deep breath you crazy loon.
And rejoice in not using the but.
You will write that book.
Stop looking at the world as a place of excuses waiting to trip you up and make you fail and start looking it as the beautiful, messy experiment that has no wrong turns, only lessons.
Need help starting? Great! Let’s strike while your fire is hot!
If you have an idea for your novel, or article, or short story, write it down. Loose outlines are great but if you are a type-A outliner, then give yourself an hour or two to adequately plot it down. There are some great computer programs if you’re that kinda nerd. Or if your MY kind of nerd, post-it notes on a wall or story board are awesome.
Chances are if you’ve been thinking about a book then you already have some characters in mind. Spend twenty minutes (or whatever you can spare at kid’s practices or boring meetings) writing down your main and sub characters’ physical attributes, their strengths, their weaknesses. Write about their childhood, their friends, their parents…none of which needs to go into the book, but it will help you understand their motivation so that when you write the story, they behave in ways coherent with their core.
Join a writing group and take the classes they offer. Todd Mitchell (Todd’s Website) once offered an amazing four week class on writing a novel that covered everything from plotting, to dialogue, to genre, and story arcs. It was maybe the most profound and important class I’ve taken and I highly recommend you start with something like that if you are struggling at the start. Plus going to classes and joining groups helps to build the immensely important network of friends and cohorts who will help you along in your process.
Stock up your library. One of the first things I did after scribbling down a rough outline was lay in the fetal position in tears (well, not quite that dramatic but it makes for a better story) and wonder how someone actually created a functioning plot. Enter the Write Great Fiction Series. They’re some of my favorite resources and they offer everything from plot and structure, dialogue, character and viewpoint etc.
Final bit of advice. Don’t let the but come back into your process. (I’d love to edit my novel but the laundry needs doing– the vacuuming, the scope of work meeting notes, the kids fiftieth soccer game this month.)
Nope. Fuck that noise.
There is time in your life to write a novel. You just have to want it and learn to say no to buts.
You have to make your word count your priority. And no cleaning for god’s sakes until your daily goal is met. No video games or puttering around either.
If you want the novel; if you want to unleash the story burning inside of you, then stop giving yourself the excuses to not write it.
Make the time. Make the novel. Banish your but(t)… to the chair.
Friends, I’m taking off tomorrow morning at 3 a.m. That’s three in the goddamn morning. All because, on a whim built by the impending doom of middle age, bouts of deep depression, and a general lack of self-preservation, I decided it would be a “fun” idea to sign up to fill a vacant spot on a random Ragnar Trail Relay team one short month ago.
I’m not sure if I was thinking it would count towards training inspiration, an escape from my day to day, or if it stemmed from some kind of deep-seated desire to find an adventurous death, but whatever the case—I’m soon to be on my way up the mountain, for a trying 30 hours and 15+ miles of no sleep, altitude climbs, rough single track, and hanging out in a sweaty tent with 7 other people I don’t really know. (They’re mostly comprised of lovely nurses and good-hearted runners, so I will be in capable hands, even if I try to die by wild animal attack.)
While I’m in some ways dreading the experience, there is a part of me that understands that this challenge, while unnecessary and possibly adding to my overall stress, is something of value.
My life of late has been…tumultuous. It’s been a rough day… since about 2020… and personal conflicts and their responding growth have come at a cost to the security I once felt with my place in the world. I’m in a state of upheaval and I honestly don’t know what next year, next month, or even next week will look like.
Sometimes, when we undergo these painful growth spurts it can feel that we’re a little lost in the world. As Paul Simon once sang. Nothing is different but everything has changed. Oceans and Mountains
Part of us is still lagging behind in our old ‘knowns’, part of us has been thrown into a blender of new and frightening possibilities. We are, as a species, not designed to stay stagnant. Challenges, hardships, changes, and losses are elements of the journey that test our ability to adapt and grow. If we don’t…we’re doomed to stay immobile an maybe what’s worse, risk living half a life. You should really watch this movie…
When you only get 76 years, 42 starts feeling like a decline to the end. A sharply steep trail, in the dead of night that only seems to drop faster, the farther we go down. Rocks slipping under our feet, scrub tearing at our ankles, and the out of control realization that nothing we do, really matters. We’re all headed to the bottom.
So the question then becomes, do we stay stagnant and let the gravity of life take us down the hill, a complacent body rolling over cactus and sharp stone? Or do we try to stand in the midst of the pull. Control the hill so the hill doesn’t control you?
Now, I’m a bit free-wheeling, and I’ll never tell you to try to control things in life outside of your power. The hill is there, you’re going down it. The path has rocks you can’t see until they’re tripping your toes, and falls that will scar and scare you. But you can control your legs, how you view those rocks, and perhaps most importantly, how you rise after you fall. (I prefer cursing, gritting my teeth, a bit of healthy anger, a good laugh at myself, and continuing on)
The thought occurs to me that one of the reasons I signed up for this crazy race…might have been to remind myself of how strong I am. Of how many mountains I have climbed, and how many falls I’ve survived. A good dose of suffering can sometimes bring out the heart that has been shuttered for too long. Maybe in every aching footstep, is a starlit night. Maybe in every scraped knee and bruised elbow, is a view you’d never have seen if you didn’t choose to fight your way up that hill. Maybe it’s not a good death I’m looking for, but a better life. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll find it, on a dark starlit night, beneath a blazing sun, alone but still supported, on the long and distant trail. Find Your Heart
Yeah, I did just title this blog that…No, I’m not sorry. Yes, I hope that song plays in your head all day. Yes, it may seem “Ludacris”. Yes, I did just make a dad joke out of it. No, you can’t get a refund, this shit is free.
Now, on to the blog
This week, tomorrow actually, I’ll be pitching a novel to a publishing company at the Wyoming Writers Conference in Sheridan Wyoming. I know that this should be something I do at least every year but with the past couple of years spent in lockdown and my creativity taking a giant dump of late, I haven’t had the drive, material, or need to throw myself into the ring.
But, by strange happenstance, the novel that I had intended to independently publish started getting noticed by some publishers that I had sent it to months ago. Three days before its release date nonetheless, so I slammed the breaks down and took a breath. A pause. A consideration. That if the story was “Well written, with a voice we really like” that maybe I should give it another tour around the pasture before settling it on my own.
So here I am again, years later, still sweaty palmed, reading and re-reading, and choking on my elevator pitch and changing it a dozen times to get the most depth of the story in the fewest words. And it’s exhausting. The sudden surge of trepidation inspired me go through some of my notes from previous classes and books on pitching. And here’s what I have to offer:
Agents and publishers are human beings. They’ve probably slept horribly, are sore and uncomfortable from sitting, have heard a lot of story ideas, and are probably thinking about the cash bar. Just like you. So don’t treat them like a god up on Olympus, cowering or waving tribute in their faces. Be kind, be polite, and use some of your allotted time to treat them with dignity and respect. They’re there because they love reading and want to find a good story.
Tell them why you love your story. Yes, yes, the general plot, genre, main character and conflict…but what is it about your book that fills your heart. Why do you find a reason to read and re-read it? What were some of the best compliments you receive from your beta readers. Human beings respond to enthusiasm and genuine admiration. Otherwise, we’d never watch baseball. Moving on.
Be organized. Have a synopsis ready, bring a query letter and your business card. It’s been a long day for them and you; stories might start running together and they may need a gentle reminder what the 1:20 pitch was.
Be open to suggestions and critique. Whoof, this one is hard, right? After all, we just gushed about what we love in our book. While you love it (or hate it depending on how many goddamn times you’ve had to read it and rewrite it) it is also a good time, before you sit down at that table, to think of your fledgling story like a kid going off to college. Its stepping out into the world to be made better, smarter, stronger. It has a lot to learn, so let it be open to becoming something more and living up to its potential. It isn’t a reflection on you as a parent, it’s a starting point for even more amazing results to come.
Follow up. I’ve sat in the pitch sessions where every agent gave me their card and asked for ten pages. I thought I was a goddamn genius and that they’d be engaged in a bidding war over my book within weeks. Um…hate to ruin the ending there but THAT didn’t happen. Sometimes agents are required by the conferences they attend to receive a certain number of pitches. Sometimes an agent is mildly interested and looking for something to pad up their own resume. Sometimes they’re just bust-ass tired and like a parent giving in and handing their kid a remote cause they just can’t listen anymore, they pass along their card with a defeated…”stay in touch”. That being said, if it happens, act as though it’s the bidding war situation, not the tired parent. Send them what they asked for, in the format they asked for it in, and be respectful with your letter. ALWAYS INCLUDING: your name, that you met at ‘such and such conference’ and that they requested your pages. If you can, PLEASE include some other more personal detail. “It was fun talking to you about your dog, Jasper” (write that kind of thing down on their business card) but don’t make it too personal “I hope his rash has cleared up.” (that’s getting creepy)
After it’s all said and done a pitch session is like any other interaction introverts dread. You have to talk, somewhat excitedly, about something you love and worked hard on, and thereby risk rejection and public shaming. But please remember that the person sitting across from you is also probably an introvert (or works with a lot of them) and just wants you to tell them a good story.
Good luck out there, and if you’ll be in Sheridan this weekend for the conference I’d love to sit down and chat about pitches, your book, all the wonderful things we’re working on. Happy writing.
Today’s poem is something from a few years back that I unearthed in the midst of looking for some pieces to critique during this year’s Wyoming Writers Conference. It’s a little rough. But that’s how gems are found. I’ve reworked it but I’m going to leave it a little raw. Because I remember that’s how I felt writing it. The rain outside today only compounds a lot of the heavy things in my heart these days. They are days of muffled creativity and the feeling that my bones are too old to carry the weight. I hope the sky clears soon.
Today, we have the next installment of “Wesbury Falls” and an announcement that the series is in the works for publication to Kindle Vella this fall. So, unfortunately, I will only be running the next two chapters. I hope you’ll be able to follow it on that platform and will give you the links as the project gets ready to run. If you’ve followed this far, know that the series on Vella will contain more details and bonus chapters not given on The Beautiful Stuff thus far. I hope you’ll all be able to continue the adventure.
And now, this…
Lillian was worn thin. The difficult conversation with Matthew, the afternoon of people and the lack of any progress in her plan to leave this god-forsaken time, and hopefully save herself and her Aunt from certain death all cumulated in her having what Miriam described as “a bout of horrible exhaustion”.
Her feelings for Matthew especially had distracted her from the purpose of her being here, or what she thought was the purpose. He made her want to stay. He made her consider living the rest of her short life out in horrible yards of linen and under the control of a man she knew nothing of except that he might very well be the one responsible for her future death. Simply because it meant she would still see him in the same social circles even a few times before her untimely end.
As she lay in bed, watching the mid-morning sun crossing the horizon, she thought through the options that were limiting themselves with every day that came closer to the day Lillian had disappeared. But while her rational mind beat itself against the still injured skull it was trapped in, like an angry bird yearning to be free, her heart commandeered its power to dwell on the hurtful words of Dr. Blackwell, and the fact that he had not spoken to nor seen her since that sunny afternoon on the blanket a three days ago. It was the longest she’d ever gone without seeing him since her arrival.
The door creaked open, even as she was drying her eyes yet again and thinking herself a foolish and stupid girl for wanting something so ridiculous. Miriam poked her round, cheery face in the crack and whispered.
“Pardon me, miss.”
Lillian sniffed and quickly dried her eyes. “Yes…I’m awake, I’m sorry. Please don’t bring me breakfast, I’ll come down soon.”
“Mistress, begging your pardon, but you’ve a gentleman visitor, waiting down in the parlor.”
Lillian’s heart leapt, and she threw the covers from her legs, exposing them to the coldness of the room, but barely noticed. Her heart tripped to life.
“Has Dr. Blackwell—”
“Begging you, no miss!” Miriam looked at her confused before continuing. “Tis your fiancé, Mr. Sutton. He’s asking if you are well enough to be seen?”
Lillian sat back down, deflated. Of course it would be her fiancé. Dr. Blackwell had no reason to see her. If any indication could be made from their last meeting, he had officially deemed their patient and doctor relationship over. Any relationship they may have held, as friends, as co-conspirators in the dangerously strange game of honesty that never passed between two of the opposite sex in this era, was over. Lillian sighed and nodded.
“Of course, I—” she smoothed her wayward hair. “If it would not aggrieve him to wait in the parlor while I dress, I shall be down presently.”
“If you are not feeling up for such a visit, I have no qualms about letting him know you are not yet recovered.” Miriam said and her eyes softened.
Lillian rose again and walked to the door. She smiled sadly and took the older maid’s hands in hers. She felt the calloused and hard worked hands and the appreciation for such loyalty, not just for her as a charge but as a woman forced into a situation against her heart’s will.
“I appreciate that, more than you know. I shall make his acquaintance…er meet with him. It would not do—” she sniffed, “for a woman to refuse to see her betrothed after so long an absence.”
“Shall I serve tea? And if, you are feeling unwell, you may signal me by dropping your spoon. Then I shall make sure to devise a distraction. So that you may take your leave.” Miriam offered boldly. Lillian smiled widely and placed a kiss on her cheek with childlike warmth.
“Yes please, Miriam, that would be lovely, thank you.”
After Miriam left, Lillian dressed herself in a pale blue, cotton dress, tying it as tightly as possible on her own, and feeling that her ribs hurt from the deep drawing of breath. It made her think of the run she’d so brazenly taken on the day of Matthew’s leaving. She had wished she would have caught up to him. Or that he had come after her. But she hadn’t. And he hadn’t. And it appeared, by all accounts that the universe was reminding her that Dr. Blackwell was not to be hers. Her hair was an absolute horror, but she tamed it with a comb and water and put it back into a simple bun, something Kitty had shown her she could do herself in a pinch. It certainly wasn’t the same spiked pixie she was used to. Lillian still found comfort in toying with it. And she needed comfort now.
Taking the stairs and deep breaths very carefully, she descended and thought through all of the possible questions, comments, and conversations she might have with Mr. Sutton. What would he wish to speak of? What if she wasn’t able to pretend to know about their previous interludes? What if he found her much changed, so much so that he deemed her mentally unsound or worse, an imposter?
What if—she turned the corner of the parlor and saw him standing, stoically against the fireplace. He was a large man, hands clasped behind his back and reserved as he stared over his long and straight nose down at her. The nose was akin to Matthew’s but the eyes that stared at her above it were cold and brown; disinterested but for the slight shock at how quickly she had rounded the corner. His brown hair was trimmed neatly to the staunchly pressed and tight collar around his thick neck
She made a small surprised sound before remembering herself.
“Mr. Sutton, it is a pleasure to see you again,” she lied as she had never met the man, but bowed her head and knee low, curtsying far longer than necessary in order to gather her wits.
“Miss Byrne, the pleasure is all mine,” he said in a clipped and authoritative voice and came nearer. “Forgive me for being away so long,” he bowed and she offered her hand. He kissed it with cold lips quickly and in a perfect example of withheld emotion. “I hope I am not interrupting your convalescence. I would have offered to—come sooner—” he paused, blushed and cleared his throat. “But I’m afraid business in London has kept me from your bedside these long weeks.”
She could not see this large and reserved man, his jowly face and barrel chest sitting at her bedside calling her Angel and Lily. Her heart fell and she smiled despite the pain. She must maintain the act if she were to buy herself the time and opportunity to save her ancestor. The bigger picture had to come first.
“I am much improved, and am happy that you’ve given me a joyous reason to leave the confines of bed.” Now she blushed and turned away as he looked at her. “That is to say—I am much rested and anxious to return to my normal tasks.”
“I am glad I could inspire you,” he said and sniffed. He looked at her forehead. Studied the wound and shook his head. “Tis a shame you shall be scarred from the event.” Lillian tried not to scowl and used her strongest effort to not reply the way she would have with Matthew. She had no such pact of honesty with this man, he was, after all, her soon to be husband.
“With some skill, I can learn to arrange my hair to hide much of it, and you can make the effort to always stay on my left.” She said. It was the closest thing to polite she could manage and she wished she’d held her tongue a bit harder. He turned his head to the side and studied her and she wondered if she were about to be found out for the liar she was.
“I suppose your right. In any case, our sons will not inherit it.”
“Sons—“? Lillian choked on her response and fell into a fit of coughing.
“Do you find my assurances too forward?” he said and put his hands behind his back. “But, of course our future will hold the blessings of male heirs to the Sutton name!”
She smiled demurely above clenched teeth.
“Of course, my—dear—Mr. Sutton.” She forced herself not to throw up in her mouth. The strangest thought of being too forward, and Matthew’s intimate comment to her on the day of the picnic flashed in her mind. How she had wanted to be alone on a blanket with him in the afternoon sunlight and feel his warm strong fingers trailing up her thigh.
“You are quite flushed, my dear. I see you are as impatient for our future nuptials as I.”
Lillian took a step back and her thoughts were brought back to the present. The gall of the man. It was one thing for Matthew, who knew her best and felt genuine affection for, to make inappropriate comments. This man was, by all accounts a stranger and she felt sick to think of what was running through his mind. He watched her face turn downward. Probably attributing it to the necessary outward propriety of young women in the era.
“Though you are ill, you are still quite beautiful. I shall be the envy of all the men in the hunting club.” He tumbled through the backwards compliment and turned quickly away.
He’s a bumbling idiot and vulgar, but I won’t have to marry him if I can figure out a plan of escape quickly, Lillian thought and sunk down to the couch as her legs grew noticeably weaker. Mr. Sutton came to sit in the chair beside her. He was studying her now, as if trying to decern if she had changed in other ways. His brow scowled at the scar. As if his favorite statue had been gashed in transit.
“How has your business been?” she said suddenly in an effort bring his attention off of her face. “I hope that you are not too weary from your travels.” She said “The weather has been quite unpredictable and I know not enough to understand how that must affect the ships in your care.”
He looked at her as if she’d grown a second head and it occurred to Lillian that women were probably not allowed or expected to talk of business, even with their husbands. At least not this husband.
How she wished Dr. Blackwell were here.
“You musn’t worry for the boring details of running a shipyard, my darling. Let us talk instead of Dr. Blackwell.”
Lillian’s eyes shot up at the mention of his name. “I beg your pardon? I’m not sure I quite comprehend the subject.”
She feigned ignorance and shook her head. “I’m not sure there is much to speak of.”
“Well, I understand I have him to thank for saving your life? Though he could have used a lighter hand on that stitching.” He added. Lillian’s mouth turned down in anger.
“He…his first stitches were quite perfect. I tore out the others accidentally while slipping up a hill in the rain. He—aided me in getting back to Westbury Manor and had to repair them with wet and cold fingers.” She defended quickly, remembering every detail of the moment and the way he’d found her, wanted her, held her. Her eyes filled anew. Mr. Sutton watched the tears with a glint of something sinister within his eyes. An understanding…a need to stake claim on her as his property.
“I cannot fathom a reason why you’d be out walking in the rain to begin with, let alone up hills on your own. Nor why you thought it acceptable to accepting such aide from an unmarried man.” His voice was thick with disapproval. “When we are married, you must know that kind of behavior will simply not be tolerated. You do know that you are to remain at home, I will not have my wife traipsing about the countryside like some common bumpkin. Did anyone see you? Besides the doctor? Scrambling through the rain like a witless peasant?” Mr. Sutton’s voice rose, and a strange darkness took over his features. His rounded cheeks clenched into hard lines and he rose to pace before the fireplace.
“I am quite fond of walking.” She said simply.
“I am quite fond of a complacent wife,” he said back in a tone that brought a rising of bile into Lillian’s throat. The door burst open unannounced by a knock and Miriam stepped in with rattling tea service tray and a face quite flushed itself. She looked once at her young charge and her beady, hard eyes landed on Mr. Sutton.
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir. Miss Bryne requested serving tea after your long journey.”
Lillian loved her for the complete lack of respect in her tone and she smiled even though her eyes stayed downcast to the patterned rug beneath her feet.
“Fine,” he acknowledged with a curt nod, and held his tongue while the woman, whom he felt far beneath the benefit of his words, set the tea service down in front of Lillian. Miriam began to pour him the first cup and looked up at Lillian’s pale face.
“When we are married, you will find everything you need in our family’s grounds and shall have no reason to leave. Ever. I assure you. You will be quite content.”
Content. No reason to leave. Complacent.
“As for my cousin, you will no longer cause him the grief of maintaining your propriety as he is leaving in short time to seek his fortunes elsewhere. You shall have no reason to leave when we are happily betrothed. Walking or otherwise.”
Lillian knew what her proper place was supposed to be, knew the reaction she should give, when a man, the man who was promised to be her husband, the man she was to obey and cherish spoke to her in such a commanding tone. She knew the decent and right thing to do if she were to keep up the façade long enough to escape.
She knew all of these things and chose to open her mouth anyway.
I know it’s been said that a writer must read a lot in order to write well.
This was probably said by someone whose only job was to write. It was definitely not written by a mom who works two extra jobs in addition to writing and parenting. I know that time is limited. And although I LOVE to read, I also know that it sometimes takes a back seat to the ‘have-to’ list that is my life. So I would amend that you should read as often as you can. And it doesn’t have to be grand, sweeping novels of classical literature. Reading articles (well written and somewhat brain stimulating), short stories, poetry, or flash fiction all count.
Being what it is, when I get to sit down and read a book, I will often fall into lighter genres of fiction, usually, with a preference for romance, suspense, psychological thrillers, fantasy and urban fantasy, speculative, some sci fi, and a dash of historical fiction. That’s not to say I don’t read non-fiction. But I tend to reserve those books for book club invites and I’m not too proud to say there are some of those I never finished.
So, in thinking about reading, I’d like to offer you some good rules for every writer to follow when it comes to the limited time you have.
You should always have three different books on your nightstand at all times.
Something you love (by genre or author)
Something that challenges you (out of your genre, or tougher content)
Something that broadens your knowledge base or improves your craft.
Take a book along whenever you
have more than five minutes to wait
are traveling, anywhere
want to feign being ‘busy’ in the company of people you’d rather not talk to.
When you find yourself dreading a book, not because it’s challenging to your beliefs or makes you similarly uncomfortable, but because it’s nauseatingly boring or poorly written…stop reading it and move on. Life is too short to waste reading time on something that doesn’t bring you joy or positive change
So, now that you have a good reference for how to choose a book and how to get it written, here’s a list of books I’ve recently finished reading or are on my nightstand. I encourage you to be eclectic and curious when you chose your books, but always have something familiar for the nights when you need the comfort of an author or genre you’re familiar with.
Check these out:
In the category of craft/professional development:
Bursts of Brilliance for a Creative Life by Teresa R. Funke
Breakthrough: How to Overcome Doubt, Fear, and Resistance to Become Your Ultimate Creative Self by Todd Mitchell
Write Naked by Jennifer Probst
Ed Parker’s Encyclopedia of Kenpo by Ed Parker
Seishin Shuyo: Mental Training in Traditional Martial Arts by Jimmy Lockett
The Trail Runner’s Companion by Sarah Lavender Smith
For something that challenges/stretches my worldview and brains:
Killers of The Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
Rising Strong by Brené Brown
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
How to See Yourself as You Really Are by the Dalai Lama
TransQuality by Bethany Beeler
Ornkey: A Historical Guide by Caroline Wickham Jones
In the category of somethings I love:
Mr. Tender’s Girl by Carter Wilson (all of his books thus far have been phenomenal)
The Miriam Black series by Chuck Wendig (again, a smart, beautiful writer, with a heavy dose of IDGAF bravado)
Bravely by Maggie Stiefvater (haven’t read yet, but looking forward to it)
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides (I couldn’t put this one down)
The Gallaghers of Ardmore Trilogy by Nora Roberts (both of these series are ones I could reread every year)
The Three Sisters Island Trilogy by Nora Roberts
Well, there you have it. Go forth and spend some of these beautiful days, beneath the shade of a tree, losing yourself in the written word. Voracious readers (in the time they have to give) make better writers.
I know that I’ve written before about bolstering our creativity by keeping open minds concerning the direction our stories, characters, and plots can take. But in a world that can sometimes feel like a dark cloud over new ideas I think it’s important to revisit the power of a positive “What If?” in the way we approach our roadblocks.
We’ve all been in the middle of a down time in our writing and creativity. I know there are people out there that will preach that writer’s block does not really exist and you’re just procrastinating, or not wanting to put the work in.
While it is true that you’ll never write anything if you don’t actually sit down and write, trying to pour out a story (whether its 500 words or 100,000) from an overloaded, overworked, and over stimulated brain can be like trying to jam a king-sized sleeping bag into a twin sized sack. You know what I’m talking about.
There’s not enough room.
Some of the blocks taking up space may include fear (of failure and/or success), self-doubt, and perfectionism. These show up like the ghost in a Scooby Doo episode, unmasked to reveal depression, anxiety, imposter syndrome, and even ADHD.
So you’ll never hear me say that writer’s block doesn’t exist (and if I have claimed that before, I retract it). I believe that the inability to create can have very real sources that we sometimes need a dynamic team of teenage detectives in an ugly van to suss out.
Today, I’d like you to apply the two-word question to those moments of stifled creativity and see what happens.
Here’s an example:
“I have a novel, nearly complete, but you can’t figure out how to end it. It’s been on my laptop for a month and it’s driving me insane but every scenario in my head doesn’t ‘feel’ quite right, so I’m just not writing any ending at all.”
Why, that’s not a werewolf! It’s that dirty landowner PERFECTIONISM (who runs a floating crap game called FEAR).
By asking ourselves what we’re really afraid of, what’s really so hard about the situation (I don’t want to write the WRONG ending, none of the endings are GOOD ENOUGH) we can face the fear directly and start asking what if….
What if you took one hour each day to write three separate endings, for each of the different possibilities you have? Unattached to the novel, a separate document. Call it exploratory research. I would bet dimes to dollars that you’ll find one that is the BEST for your novel, and feel much more capable of completing the next project on deck.
Here’s another one.
“I haven’t written any new poems in over a week, I don’t feel creative, I don’t have any ideas. I can’t find the RIGHT words. I have submissions due, I can’t focus, and I can’t even remember how to write a good poem. I’m not a poet.”
Say, that’s not a two headed mummy! It’s the motel owner’s shady uncle ANXIETY and his henchman DEPRESSION. Your brain is overworked and can’t focus, you feel like there’s nothing new in the world to write about, or worth writing about. With a trace of PERFECTIONISM, and a dash of IMPOSTER SYNDROME, this combination puts an end to possibilities before they can even reach your brain.
What if you spent ten minutes outside? Find a tree, flowering bush, cloud, roly-poly, something not man made, and focus on it for ten solid breaths in and out. Don’t look at anything else, don’t think about anything else, don’t draw your attention away from that one object. How does it move, how is the light hitting it, how long has it been there, what color is it, does it smell, does it have a taste, what’s it made of?
Not only will being outside and remembering to breathe help you to relax and curb some of those anxious and depressive feelings, but you’ll realign yourself with the beauty of noticing the small things. And details bring poetry to life. Then sit down, in the grass, and write something, no more than a page, about what you felt, what you saw, what you took in through all of those sentences. Repeat, with anything. Human, animal, mineral, place, time, concept. The possibilities are endless.
Last one, best one.
“I can’t write a synopsis! It’s so detailed and I can’t possibly boil down my entire novel into a few pages. I wouldn’t know where to start, and what’s the point, no one will take my novel anyway!”
Oh, my little defeatist, that’s not a man-eating robot, why it’s nothing but the cranky heiress SELF-DOUBT dressed up in a spray painted, cardboard box!
Look, not every writer is birthed knowing how to write a synopsis. In fact, absolutely none of them are (I think they are, however, birthed with an extra gene carrying the appreciation of ‘old-book’ smell and a tendency towards adverb-overuse and caffeine addictions) We all had to research it, take a class on it, and put in the work including probably a dozen revisions along the way.
You can find a great resource for how to write one here:
If you’re an plotter, a synopsis is easier. You have it all typed up somewhere, so work off your outline and put aside a time-specific block to work on it and only it. If you’re a pantster, may God have mercy on your immortally, unorganized soul, because it is fucking hard to do. Same thing though, set aside an afternoon (or two) with a start and end time and write it out like you would a copy of Cliff Notes
Add something enjoyable to the completion (extra coffee or old books?) to make the goal a little sweeter to reach. Have someone who doesn’t know your book read the synopsis (yes, it should give away the ending, no, don’t worry if Janet in Accounting knows how it ends). They can let you know if it’s easy to follow without being overwhelming.
Self-doubt, fear, perfectionism, anxiety and depression are not final resting places for your writing (or other creative endeavors). They’re road blocks brought on by your own expectation and unrealistic standards. The best advice I can give you about “What If” is to ask yourself, in the face of rejection, frustration, and doubt…
What if you can? What if you can write that book? What if you could write three poems in an hour? What if you can send your pitch, synopsis, and novel out by the end of the week?
What If, when used properly, can be the precursor to hope.
So give yourself hope. Give yourself a choose-your-own-adventure. Give yourself a good what iffing.
I’ve read a lot of books on this topic, scoured blogs, took any and every class I could at conferences and workshops on the matter, but I always still feel like there’s vast room for improvement when it comes to editing your own work.
Part of the reason is that it’s incredibly hard after writing, rewriting, and rewriting again (times a thousand) to edit all of those words. Not because we’re narcissistic megalomaniacs and don’t think there’s anything wrong with our novel, but because there’s a true phenomenon that happens in our brains as we read (and re read, and re read again) our own work.
The human brain is complex and the way it takes in and interprets stimuli from outside is a complicated and delicate dance. If we were to notice every single thing in our world, we wouldn’t be able to exist in it. The noise, the colors, the sound, the smells are so varied and ever present that our brains would be in a constant state of interpretation that would cause us to vomit, or pass out. Or both. (Which is one of the reasons so many people on the spectrum can have a difficult time coping with crowded, noisy, overstimulating places). As a result, we tend to soften the edges of a lot of information, block it out, or keep it in the peripheral of our consciousness, allowing our brains to make up a great deal of what we take in, through context.
It can be the same as when we edit. We tend to be in a taking-things-for-granted-because-I-read-it-so-many-times-before haze. We coast over the words and retell ourselves the story we already know in our heads, rather than focusing on what is actually on the page.
You, the author who created this magnificent book, know what it’s supposed to say, you know what you meant when you wrote it. So in your brain, when your eyes pass over the words, it will fill in the missed words, ignore the double ones, and forgive the dangling participles because in your brain, it’s reading correct. Very rarely do we ever approach our own work as a completely new reader. It’s practically impossible to do.
Does that mean we shouldn’t edit? Fuck no. Unless you’re incredibly rich and can afford an editor to take your first draft to your final over the course of 9 rewrites. And if you are that author, why the hell are you reading this blog? This is for the poor, struggling authors who are trying to procrastinate their own editing by reading my blog. Not for big money-bag writers who bang out twenty political spy thrillers a year because they have a nanny, and a cook, and a dog walker, and a personal shopper, and a house cleaner…
Where were we—ah yes, self-editing. Here are some of the biggest tips that have helped me produce a much better final version (before I send it in to an editor for the one or two rounds I can afford).
Take it line by line, sentence by sentence. Is the structure sound? Does it make sense? Is it passive? Is it clear who is doing the action, who is in control of the perspective? Is there a random “pineapple” thrown in at the end of a paragraph?
Read it out loud. When all else fails, read it cover to cover, out loud. That’s when I find most of my mistakes. Or, if you’re not into that (or you live with people who aren’t into listening to you and by people, I mean cats) at least read aloud the passages, paragraphs and parts that feel awkward or over the top.
It’s not too late to kill some darlings. I have been known to cut out scenes/sentences/dialogue, in my final rounds that I knew didn’t belong but I clung to them like a freezing poor boy on the wreckage of the Titanic. Save them in a different file, but if you know in your heart it’s there to stroke your ego at your brilliant wordage but it’s not doing the story any good then show some humility and axe it.
Check your tense, check your POV, be consistent in those little things because they make a HUGE difference on whether or not your reader can follow the story and isn’t frustrated trying to do so.
Print it out. You can get a good deal at local or national printing companies (my local FedEx cashier knows me and it is so heartening every time she asks “new book?” and hands me the brown box of hope). Double sided, nothing fancy, cheapest version possible will still only set you back about $30 for a 250 page book. You will see things in ink that you cannot see on the screen, guaranteed.
Get a Beta reader or twelve. Yeah, it’s not really self-editing, but it’s part of the process that will help bring new eyes to your work. And usually it’s a low cost way to get a ‘real readers’ perspective on your work.
All right, that’s all I’ve got. Good luck out there. Don’t think this bullet list will take the place of a good professional round of editing, but it should help in your process. And maybe it can even help turn your first drafts into better drafts.
As promised, I’ve thrown together a couple of flash fiction pieces that I’ll be running in the next couple of weeks. Before we get into the fantasy, I want to give you a reminder that submissions are still be accepted for The Beautiful Stuff’s 2022 Anthology, “A Beautiful Twist”. Here are the details (the short version for folks like me with a minor attention span)
Dates: January 28th to September 16th
Winners notified September 19th 2022
Publication Date: TBA Early November
Submission guidelines: Short stories (2000-5000 words), Flash Fiction (200-1000 words), Poetry (up to 5 poems allowed per submission), novel excerpts (up to 3000 words), Personal Essays (up to 2000 words). Non fiction, fiction, speculative fic, western, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, erotica, historical, hysterical, time jumping primates, talking frogs, brains in jars, and ANY combination thereof. Submissions translated to English are preferred. Contest is open to domestic and international writers but awards will be paid in US dollars. Please submit your work as an attachment to your email which will be a lovely cover letter about you (name, email, your submission title, brief bio). Email subject line should read BEAUTIFUL TWIST SUBMISSION_name. The submission file (please use .doc, .docx, or another Word friendly format) should be the title of your submission and your last name i.e. “Merry Krampus-Reichert”
Top 3 submissions will earn prizes as follows: 1st–$30, 2nd–$20, 3rd–$10 paid via PayPal or Venmo (or check if need be). Runners up will be published in the anthology with a chance to compete in the Colorado Book Awards.
You may submit in multiple formats, multiple times (ie poems and flash, or novel excerpt and essay) but each submission must be in a separate email.
PLEASE DO NOT submit anything that has been previously published or that you no longer own the rights to. Simultaneous submissions are absolutely fine but LET ME KNOW if your work gets accepted elsewhere as soon as possible.
Prohibited subject matterincludes: overtly violent or gruesome content that does not further the story, non consensual sexual acts, racist/homophobic/misogynistic/hate filled writing, violent or hurtful actions against children or animals, and anything that judges, stereotypes, or seeks to harm another human being based on their human being-ness.
Whew! Send in your stuff. I’m excited to read it. And now this:
FLASH 1: Raccoons and Moving On
“This is your fault.”
“Mine? How is this even remotely my fault?”
“You wanted to have the dinner party in that stupid farm to table place. With a stupid glamping theme. In the stupid middle of a stupid field!”
“Why is everything I do stupid?” he fired back. She glared over the dinner napkin pressed to her cheek and pulled away the bloodied cloth to show him, once again, the angry gashes that had undone the beauty of her Botox.
“This for one!” She put the cloth back on the wound and crossed her other arm in front of her low cut dress. The ER was always busy this time of the week, but she’d never had to wait for anything, and especially not with the general public, so it seemed even worse.
“I mean—the food wasn’t bad. The whole evening could have been worse.”
“Worse? Mark? Really? How could it possibly have been worse? A goddamn raccoon tried to take my face off!”
“You tried to pet it!”
“I was trying to scoot it out of the tent! Brought in by your ‘not bad food’ buffet!”
“Well, I mean, it was out in the woods. So technically, it was just like having a neighbor come over for dinner.”
“You’re a goddamn idiot.”
Mark laughed. He laughed so hard he doubled over. Hooting until tears came to his eyes.
“Wha—why are you laughing?”
“Just—the way your face looked when that little guy came at you! Eyes wide and—” he gasped for air between chuckles, “and shrieking like a banshee.”
“I want a divorce,” she yelled.
“I know you do. That’s why I planned the evening! To try and start to mend things.” At this he stopped laughing. “But I realized I can’t mend the past. I can only look at the future.”
She grumbled. “What does that mean anyway?”
“I’ve been seeing someone.”
“She’s a park ranger, actually. The one that recommended the venue?”
“Are you out of your goddamn mind?”
“I probably won’t be once the papers get signed. Look, here’s your ride.” She failed to even notice as the nurse came to her with a wheelchair and an exasperated look.
“The doctor can see you now, Mrs. Sinclair.”
“Oh, it’s just Ms.” Mark corrected before helping to move his near catatonic wife, soon to be ex-wife, into the dingy wheelchair and watched it disappear with a squeaking tirade down the hall.
FLASH 2: The Longest Light
At first he didn’t notice when the light hadn’t changed. Louis could always find an excuse to look at his phone, play a quick game of Candy Crush, or text that hot little thing from accounting. He just figured it was a long light.
But it turned into an excruciatingly long light. Three games in and an unanswered tawdry text about how he’d like to ‘spread sheet’ with her, he finally looked up and found that the light had not changed. In fact, nothing had changed. Louis put down his phone and looked over at the driver in the lane next to him. Sipping her coffee. He watched for a good thirty seconds. Still sipping. He looked up towards the person in front of him.
The guy had been reaching into his back seat, not moving since they’d stopped.
“What the—“? Louis paused to adjust his radio, but the same note was still playing. The same long C. Echoing through frozen airwaves. Louis turned off the stereo and got out. That’s when the light would change right. Isn’t that how it always worked? But it remained, stuck on red.
The street was lit in the garish tone of a sun that had seemed to stop. No shadows moved. No sounds of tires against asphalt. No wind blew. He looked up into the sky and caught a strange dark shape. He thought it was a plane, tiny and glacially moving across the sky. But it wasn’t moving.
And it wasn’t a plane. Louis closed his door and looked closer at the pigeon, suspended in mid-air. His heart hammered against his chest, the only beat in the city. He looked at the woman in the car next to him, the drivers in the opposite lanes. Everyone, like some strange flash mob in reverse, was holding perfectly still.
“Hey!” Louis yelled, angry in his fear. “Hey, what’s the big deal! Move your car!” He jogged up to the first car in the lane. A woman, bags beneath her eyes, white knuckling the steering wheel and glazed over stare into the quiet nothing. In the backseat, a toddler, with his face red and sweaty mouth open in a silent and unending scream, clutching an empty applesauce packet in one hand and a sodden blankie in the other.
“What’s the big idea? What is this?” He pounded on her window with a force that have been loud enough to wake the dead. It did not wake her. Louis went from car to car, with the same method and the exact same reaction. Nothing moved.
The world was frozen in time and he was the only one outside the loop. Louis dove back into his car and grabbed his phone. Candy Crush was now dormant, he tried tapping on his messages but nothing budged. As if the moment his hands put it down, it too became frozen. A cold shiver shot up Louis’ spine and he spun in a circle.
“Knock it off! Whatever this is! It’s not funny anymore!” When the strangled universe refused to reply Louis took off down the street, looking for any sign of life, in a world without.