Category: | The Writing Life

Waves of Self Doubt (and a knock knock joke)

I have three weeks until the latest draft of novel is due to my editor and I’m surfing some serious waves of self doubt. I look at what’s on the page and I think “how did I ever get a book deal?” Then I turn the page and I think “actually, this isn’t all bad.” Then I turn another page and congratulate myself on being fucking brilliant. Then I start the cycle over again.

It’s brutal. I promise to write a full post about it, with examples and everything. I might even convince my husband to write a post about how this all looks from his perspective. But today it’s all I can do to keep working. Editing is the only thing that keeps me from sinking under the emotional weight of this process, because with each little tweak I know the manuscript is getting better.

So, until next week, here’s a little gem of a joke to share with your writer friends:

Knock knock

Who’s there?


To Who?

(wag finger) Ah, ah, ah… it’s “to WHOM”

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My In-Person Creative Writing Class

Over the past nine years I have used this platform to share what I’ve learned about the craft of writing as I worked toward finishing my manuscript, finding an agent and selling my debut novel. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the act of expressing ideas in writing and so I’m very excited to announce that, starting next week, I will be teaching an in-person class on creative writing at my local community center.

Starting on January 17th, I get to sit down with fellow writers every Thursday night for eight weeks and explore the specifics of storytelling as an art. I’m super excited about it. And if you will permit me a little shameless self-promotion, you can sign up for the class by visiting the CCLCF website. (In terms of geography, La Canada is north of Downtown LA, just west of Pasadena. It’s an easy trip for anyone on the east side and the Community Center has lots of free parking.)

For anyone who can’t make it to the class, I thought I might compile a few of my most popular blog posts from over the years.

  1. Seven Tips for Getting Up Early to Write (Even if You’re a Night Owl)
  2. Friends Becoming Enemies, Enemies Becoming Friends…
  3. How to Write Faster
  4. A Few Thoughts on Better Book Titles
  5. The Dreaded Cliché (And How To Avoid It)
  6. Making Your Characters Want Something
  7. Oh S**t, Oh Cool (or How to Keep a Story Interesting)
  8. Keep Focused with a Writing Punch List
  9. Hang a Lantern on Your Plot Problems
  10. Beta Readers

In summary – sign up for the class if you can. I would love to meet you in person. But if that’s not feasible, just keep writing! And cheers to a prosperous 2019. May all your writing dreams come true.

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Rules of the World

Rules of the WorldI went to a reading in November at Skylight Books to hear Wayétu Moore discuss her recent debut novel She Would Be King. Without giving too much away, it’s a cross between a slave narrative and a super hero story and it’s no surprise that the book is getting a lot of attention. As with any good super hero story, it plays with reality, bending the rules of the world as we know it.

Magic in Stories

I absolutely love stories that play with magic (and or advanced science that reads as magic), but there is a trick to it and sometimes I feel like authors get in over their heads. Stepping away from reality in a story can go awry quickly if you don’t establish the rules of the world and stick to them. Nothing will make me ditch a book faster than a story that breaks its own rules.

For instance, say you’ve set up a world where anyone can do magic, but they have to be holding a wand. Then you have a character cast a spell without their wand. Bam. That’s me putting down the book.

Say your characters can fly, but then you have one character who can’t. You have about three pages to tell me why or I’m getting frustrated and losing interest.

A Few Thoughts on the Rules of the World

I read a lot, in a lot of different genres, and there are a few things I’ve noticed that are critical for magic to work (whether you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, super hero stories, or some combination thereof):

  1. Establish the rules as quickly as possible.
  2. Do it with example. This is the big challenge to you as the writer. Using exposition is boring, so you have to find a way to show the rules of the world, as quickly as you can, through example. It’s difficult, but you’re a writer, damn it. Make it happen.
  3. If there are exceptions to the rule, tell us right up front. I would actually prefer a bit of exposition here so that I understand the rules up front before someone breaks them, but again, if you can, better to show than tell.
  4. Once they’ve been established, do not break the rules of your world. Don’t do it. If you come upon a point where your story really can’t continue on with the rules you’ve established, you have to go back and change the rules throughout. You can’t bend them just to get through a scene. It’s cheating, and your readers will notice.

Examples to Check Out

If you’re working on a story with unusual world rules, be it magic realism, fantasy, or sci-fi, you can learn a lot by checking out some rule-heavy works to see how they do it. Here are a few to read:

  1. Ready Player One (fantasy/sci-fi by Ernest Cline). This book is FULL of rules. Rules for every section of the made-up world. Rules that change constantly. And yet I didn’t feel bogged down in them as I was reading. A great example of how to set the rules of the world without losing the story.
  2. Red Shirts (sci-fi by John Scalzi). Or really, pretty much anything by Scalzi. He is great at making up worlds (and even whole universes) where the drama is dependent on the rules of the world.
  3. The Name of the Wind (fantasy by Patrick Rothfuss). This book, and it’s sequel The Wise Man’s Fear, exists within a world with pretty hard and fast rules. Certain powers can be evoked to make certain things happen. The fun comes when our hero begins to learn magic and can manipulate the rules.
  4. The book by Wayétu Moore mentioned above: She Would Be King. For all its magic, it’s pretty straight up literary fiction. So if you’re working on something in that genre that plays with reality at all, it’s definitely worth a read.
  5. Not a book, but the movie Wreck It Ralph is another example of story with a TON of rules. Yet, the narrative roles along easily without getting mired. An easy way to check out how rules can be shown through example.

If anyone else has some examples they can point to, share ’em here. To be a writer is to be always learning.

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Writing Every Day (5 Things I’ve Learned)

writing every dayIf you’ve been a writer for any length of time you’ve probably heard people argue about writing every day. Stephen King is a pretty famous proponent of the practice, insisting that he writes 1,000 words a day, no exceptions.

I don’t. So I’ve always cringed at that little bit of trivia. Then, a couple of months ago, I realized I write ALMOST writing every day in my journal without even trying. Writing in my journal isn’t work for me. It’s how I organize my thoughts and prepare for the day. So I decided to make it official and commit to doing it every day, just to see what happened.

Then I read about the Runner’s World run streak challenge. The idea is to run at least a mile every day between Thanksgiving and January 1st (#rwrunstreak). It seemed like a great way to keep in shape during the holiday season, a time that I traditionally get super lazy. So I’ve been doing it. Today is day 21. Three weeks! It feels good.

As I have worked to do these things every day, I’ve been fascinated to see how my relationship to them has changed. Here’s what I’ve learned about doing it (whatever it is) every day:

1. You’re going to have to say it out loud

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you have to tell the people in your life what you’re doing. Because there will be a day (probably many days) when you need help carving out a little time and it’s going to be really hard to do that without a little help from the people in your life.

The scariest part about telling everyone that you’re trying to do something every day is that they might *gasp* be supportive. Even if it’s just a simple “how’d it go today?” people will ask. If you’re inclined to keep your work secret, this might be an uncomfortable situation. It was for me. But the simple act of saying I needed twenty minutes to write in my journal (even though it made my throat tighten up) turned out to be the difference between getting it done and not.

2. Your mood will no longer be a factor

When you commit to doing something every day you have to get over any excuses about how you’re feeling when it’s time to get the job done. Some days you will have a sore throat. Some days you will be tired. Some days you will feel sad, or hungover, or (fill in the blank).

But something really cool happens as you push through those excuses. They start to have less power. On my fourth day of running every day I woke up with a sore throat. I almost didn’t do my mile that day. But instead of letting a mild sore throat derail me, I sucked it up and pushed through. And I actually felt better for it.

3. You will discover that you have preferences

I like to write first thing in the morning and I like my Uni-Ball Ultra Micro pen.

It’s nice if I can get the running out of the way then too, but not as critical. I can always hit the treadmill while dinner is cooking if I have to.

As a runner, I’ve discovered I can’t stand thick socks. I like thin little ankle sock. I just do.

When you do something every day you figure out, real quick like, what little things help or hinder and because you’re committed to keeping going, you add or subtract those things from your routine without hesitation.

4. You will get better at it, whatever it is

There’s just no way around this one. If you do something every day, you will get better at it, but it’s also important to keep in mind that your gains might not be linear. That is to say, you will have good days and bad days.

For instance, on my thirteenth day of running a mile every day, I ran my fastest mile ever. The next day, I ran one of my slowest. I was tired from my stellar performance the day before. So tired that I was tempted to quit, telling myself that I’d earned a break, but I slogged it out. On the whole, I am getting faster, but I still have days when I run at a slow pace and that’s okay, because I know I have tomorrow to try again.

Also keep in mind that this little bit of truth holds true for our bad habits too. If you flop down on the couch after work every day, ignoring that little voice that tells you how you could be writing or running or whatever, eventually you will get better at ignoring that little voice. Something to keep in mind.

5. It helps to have an end date

Committing to do something every day is easier if it’s for a specific period of time. I’ve tried to run every day before, but without an end date, the task felt somehow overwhelming and I never lasted more than a few days. I mean, forever can be daunting.

It’s really helpful, psychologically, to know that come January 2, I will have met my #rwrunstreak goal and can stop if I want to. I’m not sure if I will. Maybe I’ll keep going. Or maybe I’ll take a one day break and then try to go another month. I haven’t decided yet.

As for writing, I just really like starting my day with my journal. And because I’ve been doing it almost every day for so many years, taking the leap to actually writing every day isn’t daunting at all. That one I will keep up.

Do you have something you do every day? Or is there something you might try to do every day for a little while? I would love to hear what other people have found with this sort of practice.

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Please Don’t Send Your NaNoWriMo Manuscript to Agents

Well, it’s officially December, and for a lot of writers out there that means NaNoWriMo is over. Did you do it? Did you hit your goal? If you did (and, hell, even for those who gave it their best shot) I’m so effing proud of you. You did it! You should do something to celebrate: go out for drinks, get a massage, buy yourself a tub of cookie dough ice cream and go to town. The one thing you should not do, under any circumstances, is send your NaNoWriMo manuscript to agents.


I’m kind of surprised this even needs saying, but apparently there is a whole contingent of writers out there who slap out 50,000 words and start querying agents. WTF?

First of all, 50,000 isn’t even long enough to be considered a proper novel. And never mind that, you’re sending a first draft to an agent? I don’t even let my husband read my first drafts. First drafts are supposed to be shitty. And they are. Count on it.

Okay, okay, I’m sure you’re the exception. I’m sure that you are so brilliant that an agent will totally overlook the typos and inconsistencies in your writing. I’m sure they will be so enamored of your pages and pages of dialogue that they won’t be able to sleep and will sit by the phone until it’s 8am and they can reasonably expect you to be awake so that they can call you and beg you to be their client.

I’m also sure you’re insane.

Please, please don’t send your NaNoWriMo manuscript to agents. It’s not only embarrassing for you, it builds a bad reputation for every serious writer who used the NaNoWriMo challenge to kick off (or make progress on) a serious writing project.

Here’s what to do instead:

  1. Keep writing (until you get to about 80,000, depending on what you’re writing – check out this word count guide to see what the standards are in your chosen genre.).
  2. Then stick it in a drawer for about three months and do something else.
  3. Come back and read it through.
  4. Edit. A lot.
  5. Have some trusted friends read it. 
  6. Edit some more.
  7. Stick it in a drawer for another three months.
  8. Read it again.
  9. Edit again.
  10. Repeat steps 5-9 as necessary
  11. Hire a professional editor to do a final pass.

Then, and only then, start sending out your query letter.

Or don’t do all that. There’s no law that dictates what you have to do with your 50,000 words. You could serialize them on your blog, or self publish, or make yourself a suit by stapling the pages together then use the remaining pages to make a paper mache hat to match. It’s your art.

But if you want to go the traditional route of finding an agent and a subsequent publisher, you still have a lot to do.

Writing is work. To pretend it isn’t is insulting to us all.

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Tidying Up Those Double Spaces in Your Manuscript

double spacesI was doing some freelance work a while back, working with a small marketing team, and I was lamenting the prevalence of double spaces after periods. It’s a pet peeve of mine. The woman I was working with, who was about fifteen years younger than me, voiced her theory that people tend to hit the space bar twice because that’s how texting works (for the old fogies who don’t know, if you hit the space bar twice while you’re texting, you automatically get a period – very handy).

I paused for a moment and said something that made me sound really old, something like “that’s why someone from YOUR generation might hit the space bar twice, but in MY DAY, when we learned to type on typewriters, we were taught to hit the space bar twice after a period to give a little extra space before beginning a new sentence.” Nothing says “over 40” like those double spaces.

To be fair, because I’m really not THAT old, I fall somewhere in between. I actually learned to type on a word processor. A Brother (anyone remember those?). And by then you didn’t have to hit space twice because the computer automatically put 1.5 spaces after a period.

But whatever the reason, there is a whole contingency of people who put two spaces after every period. So I’d like to state for the record: you don’t have to do that. ALL modern fonts put 1.5 spaces after a period, so that you get that elegant bit of extra space before the next sentence starts.

Cleaning Up in Word

Most word processing programs have a find-and-replace function, so if you have a manuscript full of double spaces, all you have to do is use this function to clean up your document. In Word, for instance, go to Edit -> Find -> Replace. In the “find” field enter two spaces. In the “replace” field enter one. It will look a little strange, since you don’t actually see anything in either field, but hit “Replace All” and the program will automatically tidy everything up for you.

If you’re one of those people who kind of goes crazy with the space bar every now and then, hitting it two or three or even four times, you might have to repeat the above process a few times, replacing three or four spaces with one.

Tidying Up in Scrivener

If you have Scrivener, it’s even easier to clean up your manuscript. Just go to Edit -> Text Tidying -> Replace Multiple Spaces With Single Spaces.

You’ll also see options there to remove extra lines or page breaks. These are new since the 3.0 upgrade. Pretty cool. Especially when you get to the point that you’re doing a final polish for publication. Yeah Scrivener!

And down with unnecessary spaces!

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A Thanksgiving Poem

I will admit, it was the title of this poem that initially caught my eye, but it’s just beautiful. I hope you like it. Happy Thanksgiving.


returns like an expatriate, a defector
from the forest. Her feet are wrapped
in old rose petals, her eyes
are the color of wet sand under moss.

She guides a wounded caravan
of spiders and dilapidated memories.
Combing her dripping hair with elegant
fingers, she announces the forsythia and pain.

She waits in the summerhouse
for summer while the moon comes in empty,
a ship bearing her transparent name.

~ Richard Shelton
from The Tattooed Desert

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Setting Goals for a Writing Career

writing career goalsLast week I was at a Halloween party where a tarot card reader was telling fortunes. I love fortune tellers. I love to geek out over their predictions and try to suss out how much is coming from some cosmic source and how much they’re just reading me. So of course I was the first one to sit down.

She told me to shuffle the cards while thinking of my question and the one that came to mind was: how do I build my writing career? Well, she wasn’t the greatest card reader. She asked me to tell her my question, so I did, and the rest kind of felt like a therapy session. But there was one thing she said that stuck with me. She told me that if I didn’t know what my goals were, I would never reach them.

Um, duh. This is not rocket science. This is not even fortune telling. This is just plain common sense. But I had to admit, I don’t have any goals in place right now.

The thing is, I’m usually ALL ABOUT planning. I mean, if you follow along at all you’ve seen my bullet journal posts. You know I’m a total nerd for making plans and executing. But here’s what I realized: for the longest time my goal was simply to finish my novel and get it out into the world.

Well, it’s not out in the world yet, but it has been bought by a real honest to goodness publisher and has a publishing date set for March of 2020. Done and done. And while I wait for things to progress on that front, I’ve been working on another story. I just finished a draft of that one last week. It’s a mess, but its a story. So I’ve just been writing and writing without any real sense of what my goal is.

The Money

I know I want to make a living with my writing. Good news for me is that I don’t have to make six figures to make this happen. My husband makes a good living, so I really only need to bring in half of our household expenses. That’s a goal.

But there are just so many unknowns when it comes to writing and income. A person could write a dozen books in obscurity and then have a breakout hit that makes bank. They might get a book optioned by Hollywood and make some money that way. They might hit it out of the park on their first go, getting a six-figure advance on their debut, and then not be able to sell their next book because they didn’t sell out their advance.

There are just so many unknowns around the money side of a writing career that it’s hard to hitch my goals (and my eventual joy or depression) on whether I hit some arbitrary financial goal. It’s not about the money. (That said, if you’re curious, this website does an interesting breakdown of what some writers are making.)

So I’m inclined to set other goals, centered around inputs I can control, and hope the money comes sooner rather than later.

Books Per Year

When I first met with my agent he asked if I thought I could put out a book every year. I’ll admit I flinched. He adjusted: how about a book every two years? Well, this idea is actually really appealing to me. At that rate, the odds of making money go up. Not only is a writer more likely to get to that one book that is a big hit, but with each book you gather a few more readers who like your books and might be inclined to buy them when they hit the shelves. They might go back and buy your previous books.

Some writers write four books a year to reap the benefits of accumulated work, but there’s just no way I can do that. Maybe if I had started writing before I was a mom, before I started spending five hours a day driving these little people to various practices and appointments, not to mention a husband that I actually like spending time with. Oh, and my two blogs. There’s no way.

But a book every two years? That I feel like I could plan for.

Three-Month Chunks

I started thinking about how, as I pushed to wrap up the draft of my second story, I was writing about 2,000 words a day without sacrificing too much in terms of life balance. At that rate I could put out a rough (and I do mean rough) draft in three months.

But then, I’m supposed to get notes from my editor on my first novel this week. Contractually I have four months to make the edits, but I’m hoping I can do them in three.

Then, I will switch to outlining novel 3. Yep, I already have ideas in the works, I just need some focused time to get it all worked out. I have never made outlining my main writing activity. I didn’t outline novel 1 at all (which I’m pretty sure is why it took my nine years to write it). Novel 2 I outlined while working on novel 1 and that baby was SO much easier to write. Turns out I’m a planner (big surprise, right?)

Anyway, I’ll spend three months outlining novel 3, then jump back to do another draft on novel 2, then work on a first draft of novel 3. I sketched it out on some graph paper. Here’s what it looks like:

writing career goals

The question is whether I can actually keep up this schedule. Because if I could, I would be sending a manuscript to my agent in January of 2020 AND January of 2021. I haven’t accounted for time editing in response to my agent’s feedback. Because I don’t know how long it will take to get feedback. There are frankly just too many unknowns. But if I could…

Writer Goals

All of this is to say that it’s hard to know how to set goals as a writer. There are so many external variables, so many things we can’t control.

How do you set goals? Do you go with dollar amounts? Do you maybe go for awards or accolades of that sort? Number of copies sold? I’m so new at this, would love to hear your thoughts.

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Awesome Cover Ideas From My Family

In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d keep things light today and share some of the awesome cover ideas my family came up with over dinner last week:

You can see in the top ones some of the elements of my story (including ostriches and a woman with a cowboy hat), but I think my favorites are the ones along the bottom. My seven-year-old boy gave me cover ideas along with his thoughts on how to improve the story: it really SHOULD have more underwater drones and ninja stars.

Even though I probably won’t forward these to my publisher, I was totally feeling the love. To see this book slowly taking shape is such a great adventure.

Now go do some trick-or-treating. I’ll catch you next week.

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Nineteen Nerd Words for Dictionary Day

Okay, so technically Dictionary Day was yesterday, but I’m celebrating all the same.
Here are nineteen nerd words for all my word nerds out there.

Nerd Words

Deipnosophist ~ an adept conversationalist at the dinner table. As in: He brought Rachel, the deipnosophist, in the hopes that she would distract his mother.

Nerd Words

Struthious ~ Of or relating to ostriches. As in: I’m writing about struthious birds in the Mojave.

Nerd Words

Celerity – swiftness of movement. As in: It moved with the distinct celerity of its kind.

Nerd Words

Grawlix ~ A string of typographical symbols used to represent an obscenity. As in: She told him to go #@$%*! himself.

Nerd Words

Callipygian ~ having well-shaped buttocks. The beach-bound collection of young, bronze, and callipygian individuals was enough to make one feel lightheaded.

Nerd Words

Insensate ~ lacking physical sensation. As in: A few moments barefoot left the cuffs of her pajamas stiff and her diminutive toes insensate.

Nerd Words

Truculent ~ eager or quick to argue or fight. As in: The truculent little beast would hide in the strangest of places, just waiting to attack.

Nerd Words

Lutaceous ~ pertaining to or made of mud. As in: The only color in the lutaceous landscape lay in puddles of water that reflected the brilliant blue sky above.

Nerd Words

Gnathic ~ having to do with the jaws. As in: Everything we know about that particular branch of the genus “homo” was deduced from a single gnathic fossil.

Nerd Words

Quomodocunquize ~ To make money in any way possible. As in: His baby needed food, so he set out to quomodocunquize.

Nerd Words

Atavistic ~ relating to or characterized by reversion to something ancient or ancestral. As in: They backed away from the atavistic scene, hoping they might remain unseen.

Basorexia ~ an overwhelming urge to kiss. As in: For months they lived in a constant state of basorexia.

Heterochiral ~ reversed (as a mirror image), but otherwise identical. As in: Her heterochiral self always inspired thoughts of parallel realities.

Amphoric ~ characteristic of a sound made by blowing across the mouth of a bottle. As in: She helped him up, taking note of his amphoric breathing.

Rime ~ frost formed on cold objects. As in: The rime on the window pane obscured the source of the rosy light.

Pareidolia ~ the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist. As in: Her shock stemmed from the most human of experiences, a common case of pareidolia.

Misogamy ~ the hatred of marriage. As in: The open bar helped to quell his misogamy.

Lambent ~ running or moving lightly over a surface. As in: Lambent flames were all that remained of the night’s inferno.

Pooter ~ A suction bottle for collecting insects and other small invertebrates. As in: I caught a wicked-cool beetle in my pooter.

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