Category: | Writing

Living The Dream

I arrived in New York Monday night. It was dark and cold and I will admit to feeling a little intimidated, but there’s an energy to this city that’s infectious. By the time I dropped my things at the airbnb, bought some flowers at the corner bodega and caught an Uber to the apartment of an old college buddy for a late dinner, I was giddy with excitement.

A big part of my fantastic attitude is that I’m here on business. I have meetings with my agent and my publisher, and I just have this deep sense of living the dream. I am a writer in New York, meeting with people who care about my work. I mean, how fabulous is that? Even the stupidly frigid temperatures can’t bring me down.

Yesterday morning while walking (scurrying) to the subway station, I saw a little white dog with red booties. I helped up an old woman who slipped on the ice. A man shoveling snow yelled out “this is America!” for no discernible reason as I walked past. I figured out the metro all by myself (it’s actually really easy) and got myself uptown to the Met where I popped in my headphones and spent a few hours wondering around listening to cello music and soaking up the art.

I took an Uber through the park (yes, it was only a mile, but it’s REALLY cold) so I could walk past the Dakota, which felt like a literary pilgrimage as I am reading Tom Barbarsh’s new novel The Dakota Winters, then had chicken soup in a little cafe where I sat reading said book and watching the snow fall outside.

In short, it’s been a fantastic trip so far. This morning I’m meeting the agent for breakfast, then cutting across town to my publishers office. I’m hoping my editor has had a chance to read those edits I worked so hard on so we can discuss how the book is coming along.

Tune in next week and I’ll let you know how it all goes.

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Celebrate Milestones

Celebrating MilestonesA few years ago I quit drinking. It’s changed my life, honestly. I sleep better, I’m more patient with my kids, and my writing improved on two fronts. The first was that I had an easier time getting up in the morning to write (no brainer, that one). The second was that I came to understand myself a little better. When I could no longer just drink away my frustrations I had to actually look at what was bothering me and deal with it. It’s a skill that translates well to understanding characters. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I finally finished my novel after quitting drinking.

All that said, having been a drinker my whole adult life, I celebrated every milestone with a cocktail. Maybe champagne. Maybe a glass of whiskey. But booze of some kind.

Then, in 2018 I finished my manuscript, found an agent (my dream agent), sold my novel to a publisher, and got accepted to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. I had a shit ton to celebrate. (Oh, 2018, I love you so much.) I had to get a little create with my revelry.

To set a framework, I calculated how much my husband and I could spend on a night of drinking back in the day. Bottle of wine with dinner. A cocktail or two (or three) at the bar after. Honestly, it wasn’t hard for us to spend $100 in a night. And that’s not counting dinner and the babysitter. So I set myself a budget of $100 and here’s how I’ve used it:

Ways to Celebrate for $100 or Less

The Korean Spa
I love, love, love the Olympic Korean Spa here in LA. It’s been a special treat since I moved here a decade ago and my sister took me there. They have this treatment called the Akasuri Scrub where a woman with unusually strong hands sloughs off the top few layers of your skin. It’s a little intense, but my skin is so silky smooth afterwards. And you can hang out all day in the soaking tubs (taking a cold plunge from time to time to balance things out). They even have a restaurant and a little spot for napping. This has become my number one go-to celebration ritual.

Frozen Treats With the Kids
My kids are old enough now that they understand that it’s a big deal when I finish a draft or sign a contract or get a short story published. If I don’t have time to spend a whole day at the spa, I like to take the family out for Pink Berry, or YogurtLand, or some other sweet treat.

Shopping
I almost never going shopping for myself, by myself. Most of the clothes I buy are from Target, grabbed from the rack as I walked by with the kids, hoping they will fit and look cute. So it feels luxurious to take a few hours and just go shopping on my own. That was how I celebrated the completion of my most recent edits. I bought a sweet pair of boots.

Being A Bum
After I drop the kids at school, I come home and read a book. I lay in bed, or on the patio if it’s sunny. I take long shower. I nap. Honestly, I can only do this for one day before I get antsy about all the shit on my to-do list, but taking one day to do nothing feels like I won the lottery or something.

What Am I Missing?

How do you celebrate your milestones? I know there must be things I haven’t thought of yet. Or maybe you just go with the old faithful champaign. To be clear, I’ve got not problems with that. It’s just not for me anymore.

So lay ’em on me. What are your go-tos?

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Final Edits (Round Two)

final editsThis morning I submitted the final edits of my manuscript to my editor. I’ve been working on it since November first (with a few weeks off there in December while the kids were on vacation), and it blows my mind that I could spend that much time editing something that, last January, I thought was done.

What exactly have I been doing all this time? Basically, I added 5,000 words and then cut 5,100 other words.

Bigger Changes

Going in, I had to accept that the time for really big changes is long gone because my publisher likes my story and wants to put it out into the world and I don’t want to mess with that. So I re-read it (and asked my beta readers to re-read it) with the idea that I’m not making any more “big” changes but I still want it to be as good as it can be. I will admit to being super anxious as I waited for their thoughts, but ultimately the feedback I got helped me to make a few key changes that I’m calling “bigger” not “big.” Mostly these edits involved two things: expanding and maintaining tension.

The consensus was that I had one character who readers wanted to know a more about. Specifically, they wanted to know how my main character navigates her feelings around this guy. Conveniently, this was a note I also got from my editor. So I did a lot of expanding around this character and one other (to a lesser extent).

Next were the places where I actually went into the story to organize. It was pointed out to me that I tend to dispel tension in my scenes by explaining how things will work out. I’m particularly bad about doing this when it’s not a major plot element. But I upped the tension through the entire book by going through and rewriting these minor scenes so that my main character isn’t sure it will all work out. Now she has uncertainty coming at her from all sides and the overall story hums along at much more compelling pace.

Smaller Changes

Once I’d done the bigger changes, I hunkered down with a list of words that my readers found repetitive. I’m embarrassed to say how many there were. Before submitting to agents I had gone through and weeded out the words I know I use as crutches (just, felt, seemed, realized), but I guess cleaning those up only left these other words room to stand out.

Using the word search function in Scrivener I systematically went through every word on the list (see below). Some of them I could just delete, but at least half of them had to be rewritten. I had to really push myself when I saw how often I relied on “shaking hands” to denote intense emotion, and instead dig in and really describe what that character was feeling. I can’t believe this is a lesson I’m still learning. But that shit is hard. No joke. And what’s more, I found countless places where I could be more precise in my writing, turning three sentences to one.

The end result was a slow, but steady, decrease in the overall word count. Arg!

The Overall Result

When I was done, my manuscript actually had 100 fewer words in it. After all that. But the story is richer and fuller for the edits. I am actually saying more (considering that I added backstory and adjusted plot elements to be more compelling) with fewer words. So I guess that’s what I’ve been doing these past three months.

The List

Okay. Even though I find it wildly embarrassing, I’m going to share the list of words I spent the last month trimming. Don’t judge. Maybe they can help someone out there make their own manuscript better. (Not you, of course, but someone.)

Turn
Look (ug, how could I have so many people turning and looking at things?!?!)
Gesture
Start
Stop
Step
Soften
Tighten (throats and chests)
Shake (as in hands)
Squint (in my defense – my story is set in the desert)
Gravitate
Circle
Exasperate
Thick
Faint
Long
Old
Wide
Curious
Defensive
Front
Back
Air
Breath (lots of deep breaths)
“in my mind”
Moment
Stomach
Chest (see note above about tightening)
Bodies
As if
Paused
Sad (I mean really, there must be a hundred ways to depict sadness)
Angry (ditto)
Fear
Confusion
Sweat
Feathers (it IS a book about ostriches)
Morph
Strange
Odd
Imagine
Point (as in “no point”)
Remembered
Think/Thought
Occurred
Struck
Laugh
Fell
Get
Sink

What words do you overuse? Share a few so I can feel a little better about my writing ticks.

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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

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.

Seriously.

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.

April

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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