Author: A State of Mind or Reality?


Having a book published was merely a gleam in my eye and a trash bin full of crumpled paper when I met my first “real live author,” several of them, actually. It was years after my stint as a reporter on a metropolitan newspaper and then a freelance feature writer. I knew the brief satisfaction of seeing my words in print and the letdown of seeing them wrapped around leftovers jammed into a garbage bin. Writing a hardcover book appealed to me. Let someone try and wrap that around last night’s mashed potatoes!

I’d even predicted in my high school yearbook that I’d write my first novel by age 30. [For anyone not familiar with newspaper tradition, for reasons I don’t remember or never knew reporters wrote “30” instead of “the end.” Thirty also seemed like the Rubicon for accomplishments at that cocky young age. I was extremely shy, so in addition to working on the high school paper, I took a speech class. I needed that boost of confidence to face people if I was ever going to be a reporter, my first step toward fame and fortune. Besides, as an author, I might need to “put myself out there.” Because I’d need that credit to graduate, there was no way to run and hide.

My college classes seemed like a mish-mash to the counselor, but I chose my electives with my future double life of reporter and author in mind: journalism major, family and criminal psychology [crime fiction always appealed to me] and drama [to study the expressions and movements, the “tells,” of people in situations. For good measure, I took scriptwriting and television news. Fiction writing was not an overnight whim. I had a plan.

A marriage, three children, and plenty of closet manuscripts later, I had stars in my eyes at my first fiction writing workshop. The secrets of the universe were about to be revealed. The speakers were an author of four picture books, one with three mystery novels, and the third, a non-fiction hardcover. I was a sponge for every word and took copious notes.

At my 10-minute one-on-one with the picture book author, she handed me the manuscript I submitted. “You’ll never publish. You just don’t have what it takes,” she told me.

One Opinion is Just That—One Opinion

 I was heartbroken. She was an author, after all. She knew her stuff. I was not the only one she told that during the workshop. Two people there never wrote again, sadly, because I felt that they had unique voices that would have found success. Her words served only to make me more determined than ever. The best thing that came from that workshop was to learn of a local writers’ group, and I heard about a how-to book. I followed the exercises in that book and amassed seven manuscripts that I was confident in before I submitted them to publishers two years later. I continued to write more while those manuscripts were repeatedly returned and went out again. I always had another publisher in mind so that the manuscripts never remained home overnight. By the end of the year, I sold all seven.

Those first seven were the beginning of many. Seven books were the lifetime limit for the author who told me I’d never publish. The moral of this story is to listen to check out the speakers before you go to a conference, workshop, or classroom. Read what they have written. Read their reviews. Do they write stories you enjoy? Do they write well?  

If they are not visible on the web, be a little suspicious. Workshops have limited money for speakers. They generally have a headliner, but often fill in the staff with locals that are no more experienced than you. Talk about false prophets! I’ve been on panels with speakers whose only publishing credit is a letter to the newspaper editor, and they talk about their novels and giving sage advice as if it were the gospel according to Rowling. Not that they don’t have advice worth learning. They probably read the same how-to books that you did [or should]. It was pencils down when a selling writer mentioned rejection or revision. It was more fun to believe the fantasy when they should have felt good that the road to publishing is filled with rejections.

Be More than a 1-Manuscript Writer

Take all the applicable advice, but in the end, find your own way. Read, study, analyze, and compare. Don’t put your hopes into one manuscript; chances are that you’ve turned a blind eye to its faults. If you don’t figure out why it isn’t working, you doom yourself to repeat the mistakes. You must prove to the editors and to yourself that you have more to offer than a single manuscript. When they buy the first book, they are investing in the future. Once that first sale comes, be ready with something more to offer. You’ll find holding that first book in your hands is like eating potato chips. It is satisfying, but only briefly. One is not enough.

 I remember the picture book woman telling us, “You are just writers. You can call yourselves authors only when you are published like I am.”

The Thesaurus reveals a slew of synonyms to author: Writer, creator, journalist, originator, novelist, playwright, dramatist, poet, biographer, and essayist. The words don’t discriminate between published and unpublished work. We can bask in the more illustrious descriptions without challenge, but to me, they sound as final as an obituary.

I prefer writer. It is a working word, and to me, it says actively moving forward, one word at a time. Write on!


Settings Matter-II: Time, Season, and Weather Add Depth and Suspense


A setting is more than a place. It is the time of day, the season of the year, and the weather. As a reader, I take it personally when a story has a few asterisks to indicate a passage of time because it takes so little effort to use a few words to tell us we are not in the same place or the same day. I believe it was Faulkner who once wrote a short story using a different word for each paragraph: Later, Finally, At last, Next, Afterward, etc. A different setting is equally functional.

No setting is exactly the same throughout the story. The sun makes its way across the sky, constantly changing the shadows until it disappears from view. Some days the sun is unobscured so that the sky looks like buttermilk. Other days it plays peek-a-boo with clouds that look like cotton balls.

Occasionally, roiling clouds move in, and it rains or snows. The moon appears new like a bright smile against the ebony sky and gradually the shadowy veil slips away to reveal a full moon. We feel at peace or war with nature, depending on whether it rains on our plans or enhances them. A change in plans might affect not just the immediate venture but creates a domino effect that alters our remaining days. The character runs late and misses being in the 20-car pile up on the highway but takes an alternate route and sees a house for sale, which puts her next door to the marine on leave or serial killer or…

Settings Affect the Mood and Activities

The creak of a rocking chair on the front porch of an isolated house in daylight says leisure and peace. At night, with the palest of moonlight, add the snap of a twig nearby, and goosebumps slither up our arms. Settings affect the mood and attitude of the viewpoint character in subtle or overt ways.

As important as the setting is, we sometimes get so caught up in writing about the characters’ struggles to reach a satisfying solution, that the time of day, the season, or where we are is forgotten. Every location affects the story and its characters. Where I live, characters cannot descend steps into a dark basement. They rarely have attics sufficient enough to hold treasures from past generations. At sea level, homes were built on pillars before the 1950s and on concrete slabs afterward. If I need my character to find an abandoned trunk in the basement, I need to move my story to a different location.

The realtor is correct: Location is everything. It affects the noise your character hears: Sirens or bird chirps, automatic garage doors or loud voices on the other side of the wall. What kinds of flowers and trees flourish? What insect species annoy her? Each one of these details makes excellent transitions from season to season.

Where you set your story affects the weather and seasons, and whether we call that dark, rotating column of air a twister, cyclone, or a tornado. In a mystery it might tell your detective that the speaker is not from “around these parts.” Are water spouts dancing across the water or dust devils whipping up dry leaves more common? Details help set the mood.

Settings Transition between Seasons and Time

The setting can transition from one season or passage of time to another:

The sun was no longer visible above the city skyline when Derick got the call. His brother was about to do something stupid. He shoved the gear into D1 and raced toward the lake.

By the time he spotted Bob’s yellow Mustang, the full moon had drawn a shimmering silver line across the dark water.

We don’t need to spend any words telling the reader how long it took Derick to arrive or that he left the city behind or even what he thought as he drove. The switch from the sun to the moon, from the buildings to the lake told us all we need to know without unnecessary exposition.

I remember clearly the opening of a Joan Aiken novel from about 30 years ago. Died on a Rainy Sunday [] began with the setting: the puddles, the rusting toys, and the pale yellow-green sprigs deprived of chlorophyll for many weeks. It set a mood that kept the reader clammy and cold, and in full dread until the solution, and the sun, brought hope at last. The barely furnished house and the weather were metaphors for the wife’s situation.

Time is a good way to add suspense to the setting. The viewpoint character believes that he has plenty of time to get to the dry cleaners to claim his suit for the important job interview, and then realizes that his watch has stopped. Or he sees the city hall clock tower and realizes that he forgot the time change, and it’s really an hour later. Has he lost his last chance to get the coveted position? Setting a time limit, and then shortening it can revive suspense once the reader is relaxed.  

The time of year affects where and when the sun or moon rises. That affects the shadows. It affects whether the main character grabs a sweater, a heavy coat, or sunscreen. Did she pull a sundress or running shoes from her closet? How the character responds to the setting tells the reader in fewer words than it takes to describe the scene in full.

Sometimes The Setting Becomes a Character

What about the holidays? Is downtown festive with wreaths on the lamp posts and windows with animated displays? It is the little details that tell us a lot by describing little:

Angela tapped the steering wheel impatiently. The exhaust from the car in front nearly obscured her vision. She adjusted the windshield wipers before glancing toward the sidewalk. A red-suited man chopped the air with his bell, ignored by the passersby jostling each other. She smiled smugly. Fools. Why didn’t they shop online like she did?

 The writer doesn’t need to tell us that she’s in the car downtown, it’s December, and she’s in a rotten mood. When we integrate the character squarely with the setting and let them experience it with their senses, we save a lot of explanation and description.

Sometimes, the setting is like a character: An undetected fire, a volcano building toward eruption, a crack in the earth worsening while the characters continue their spats, competitions, and ordinary lives build suspense. We might begin the story with the setting before bringing in the viewpoint character:

The Victorian house sat on a hill overlooking a field of weeds. The paint had long ago peeled away leaving mouse-gray wood. In the waning light, the twin towers looked like horns, and the tattered red drapes in the upstairs windows resembled time-weary eyes. With only a yawning hole where the door once was, the place looked as if it might swallow anyone that ventured too close. The locals called it “Devil’s Inn.”

Lydia sighed. It was worse than she’d imagined. At least, its reputation guaranteed that she’d have plenty of alone time to paint.

Nothing funny ever starts that way. Once Lydia enters the scene, we’ll see the interior through her senses.

For a skill exercise, pick a season and describe a setting without telling us overtly when and where. Who will you choose to stumble, run, or stroll into that setting? Why?

Settings Matter-I: Where Am I? Readers Want to Know


Settings are more than mere backdrops for our stories. They help define our characters. In a few words, they let readers know the season, the passage of time, and even the social status and the attitudes and characters’ interests. Readers know only what we tell them. Yet I sometimes am several hundred words into a story and have no idea if the characters are contemporary or historical, rural or urban, indoors or out.

A student in my college writing class wrote an all-dialog story in which a man catches his best friend with his wife. The two eventually concluded that saving their friendship was more important than their relationships with the woman. She had no dialog in the story, although she must have been in the room.

He defended his lack of location. “That’s the beauty of it. It can be anywhere.” He bet me that Playboy magazine would buy it as is. It didn’t. The truth is because it could be anywhere, it was nowhere.

To demonstrate, I create two versions of his story with settings. One version was in the contemporary bedroom with the two men sitting on the side of the bed conversing as the speechless wife slipped further under the covers. The other was in outer space with the astronauts tethered to the ship’s exterior working with potentially lethal tools. The dialog remained the same, but the settings made the stories distinctive. Setting matters.

The setting is to characters what the jeweler’s cloth is to diamonds. It shows our characters at their best and worst as they experience situations. A setting can add additional complication and conflict to their lives.

Always let the readers know when there is a scene change. That sounds simple enough, yet I read submissions without any alert. It doesn’t take much. While it is important for the writer to visualize the details of a setting, we need only to tell the reader enough to be there with us. For example:

Angela tossed the picnic lunch into the receptacle and fled the park.

That evening, she flicked the light on and slumped onto her bed. What a nothing day.

We accomplished a lot in those three sentences, more than meets the eye.

Look Around You; Settings Generate Plot Ideas

Settings sometimes are springboards to a story idea. I was exploring a town an hour’s drive from my city. Its one-block downtown was across the square from a courthouse that looked extravagant compared to the modest storefronts. I was eager to hear that grand bell in its clock tower. “Oh, that old bell hasn’t worked in 30 years, not since the last hanging,” the man I asked told me.

My thoughts went into overdrive. What if one night that old bell tolled? What if the clock started to run, but backward? And what about that separate 12 square foot tower to the side? “That’s the hanging tower,” he told me.  “It’s welded shut.” If that didn’t flick a switch in my brain, I’d trade in my computer for an easy chair. Who might live in this town? Would he be the sheriff, or perhaps the great-grandson of the hangman? In whose viewpoint will my story take place?

The setting might be contrasting or friendly. It might be both, depending on the mood and perspective of your viewpoint. Rain clouds on the horizon will upset a bride’s plans for her outdoor wedding, but the farmer in a drought might stand in his field, arms spread wide, welcoming those first drops.

By choosing contrasting settings, we show off our viewpoint character.  We might put our ordinary character in an extraordinary place or an alien character in a setting familiar to the reader. We wouldn’t feel the same about the story if E.T. were on his planet with his friends. Nor would the American Astronaut be as challenged had he not been left alone on Mars.

I collect settings for future use—not just what I see, but what I hear, smell and touch. We are not always aware of the nuances of our surroundings, but that is part of being a writer.

Characters in Harmony or Conflict with Their Settings

You can tell a lot about a personality by his surroundings. Or can you? A friend was hired as a census taker to collect the forms from those who never returned them. Her jurisdiction was the cluster of mansions on the other side of the freeway from us. It was such an envious zip code that some people rented postal boxes to claim it as their address.

Little did they realize that behind a few of the tall wrought iron gates, manicured yards, and stylish homes lived people who had little more than pride. My friend said there was no furniture. The occupants rented furniture and party supplies and used velvet ropes to bar guests from the living quarters. What was hidden away? Bedrolls, cots? What fun we could have with those settings and the people who live there.

We might use real places as settings. When writing Singin’ Somebody Else’s Song  I researched online and knew the locations and descriptions enough to fake it, but if I had not spent a week in Nashville, I never would have imagined the cacophony of noise pouring onto the sidewalks along Music Row. I would not have realized the nose-taunting aromas of stale beer and musty peanut shells. I might not have felt the energy of those showcases where the aspiring musicians pooled their money to rent a space for a few hours to perform for friends, managers, and publishers.

Circumstance doesn’t always permit going on location. On the web, you can search a specific year and place to see the buildings, the name of the streets, and flora and fauna of a location. I researched Orca Island to find the ferry schedule for tourist and offseason. The website even carries live video of a ferry docking. I might have forgotten what a dislodging bump the pilot sometimes makes had I not witnessed it. That made an important point in the text. The web even has recordings of specific bird calls and animal noises.

Use Real Locations or Create Your Own But be Consistent

If your setting is historical, don’t overlook the Smithsonian for sources. I sent for a map of pre-colonial Boston so that I knew where it was muddy after a rain and whose homes Goody Sherman passed on her way to town.

When using real locations for settings, some authors turn intersections into parallel streets, especially when creating a murder or incident that might reflect on the current residents or owners. You can also give a real place a fictional name. I often create my own world with neighborhood maps and homes with floor plans. That is especially necessary if there is a chance that the story will be the first in a series. I like to know if my viewpoint turns to the left in the morning she will slip on her sunglasses or feel the warmth on her back.  Settings should be as consistent as a character’s personality.

You might create fantasy worlds with pink skies and orange trees, where the wind is so strong that inhabitants travel by sails. Anything goes, as long as we make it believable and allow our readers to plant their feet firmly into it.  

Working Through Writer’s Block: Train Your Brain to Unlock the Jam Up


Writers feel some comfort knowing that wherever we go, we take our word factory with us. We might be driving to work, jogging, walking the dog or luxuriating in a bubble bath, but our ideas keep chugging along: Standing in a bank line, we spot a fragile-looking elderly woman with thinning gray hair and gnarled blue veins on her hands. We amuse ourselves wondering what if in that hand-crocheted purse is a revolver. What if she is here to rob the bank? Is it because she is desperate, or because she is bored?

On our afternoon walk, we see a robust man jog past with his platinum blond Afghan hound. We think that he would be perfect for our antagonist, or perhaps the heroic whistleblower in our Wall Street story. Or, we wonder who lives behind that high solid wall, and what secrets it hides? Writers’ thoughts seem to never take a day off. They skitter about our brains like butterflies against the window pane.

Or maybe we attempt to unravel the bizarre dream we had last night. What triggered the chaotic mishmash about being lost in a hall of doors and mirrors, something like a fun house and unable to find out way out? Is there a coded message that we’re supposed to use? Sometimes our mysterious idea escapes our subconscious, and we can’t get it out of our thoughts.

Some of those curiosities vanish quickly from our consciousness along with remembering where we set down the car keys. I read that we retain only three of those thoughts in our short term memory. I’m not so sure about that since neurologists test your memory with five unrelated words. That is especially true about that brilliant idea we had in the middle of the night. By morning, it is only a vague memory that it was our best ever. It might pop up unexpectedly in the future, but for now, it is buried under the trivia and to-do lists.

Use the Three Stages of Consciousness to Break Writer’s Block

Writers constant call on our conscious awareness to work through the stuck places in our stories. Some of our answers float up from our subconscious if we ask nicely. But did you know that beneath our subconscious is a sub-basement that is a great tool for writers who get stuck? It is the supra-conscious. We might have accidentally tapped into it on occasion. When we got frustrated enough to shut down the story and decide to sleep on it, we probably engaged our supra-conscious without realizing it. But knowing how to deliberately utilize it in solving those stuck situations was huge. But with a little practice, we can add it to our writer’s toolbox. I don’t have to understand something to use it to my advantage, especially when it works.

She told us, just before turning out the light to sleep, we should reread the passages where we got stuck. The next morning, somehow the words are supposed to come. It didn’t work the first time I tried it—not even the second or third time.  I woke without a thought in my head, except “coffee.”

About the fourth time with the routine, something happened when I put my fingers on the home keys. The answer was there. If it was magic or science, so be it. I had the crowbar to pry my story loose from the block. I have been using this method ever since. The supra-conscious is as mysterious to me now as it was in the beginning. I visualize my brain like a giant office with hundreds of file cabinets, all labeled miscellaneous, that I frantically search for relevant facts or useful information. All the while that sub-basement holds everything I ever read, heard, or felt, filed alphabetically and numerically. It is one of the best gadgets in my writer’s toolbox.

Right or Left-Brain Dominant, We Still Split the Difference

I’ve always thought of myself as hopelessly right-brained—creative, inspired, inventive, and rebellious against the absoluteness of numbers. I vaguely understood that artists, writers, musicians—most creative people—were “right-brainers.” Writers who were good organizers, logical, and “got” math and science were the left-brainers and leaned toward non-fiction.

If we are aware of the switch, we can use that to our advantage in creating and editing our manuscripts. We alternate between the sides every two hours for the entire 24 hours a day. It is involuntary and natural. When we use our left nostril, our right brain is “on.” Switch to the right nostril, and our left brain takes over. Before I learned that I planned my day to write in the mornings when I was fresh and more energetic. With this new awareness, I write two hours of creative flow and followed by two hours of organized, practical logic.

It isn’t a rigid routine, but when I’m struggling to make sense of my own story, it helps to take control of a runaway brain and break through the block once more. Good luck!

Working Through Writer’s Block: When All Else Fails, Go for Ice Cream


When I’m stuck in a story, I step away from it a while and write a totally unrelated scene. That allows me to observe my character at some minor crossroads of no consequence and see how he reacts. One of my favorite exercises is the Ice Cream Parlor Test: My protagonist is passing the neighborhood ice cream place on a hot summer day. The chilled air and the aroma of vanilla leak out to where he is. Does he keep walking or go in?

If he goes inside, he might act impulsively. If he keeps walking with determination, he is more pragmatic and duty-bound. Inside are ice cream flavors with delicious-sounding names, all of them colorful and aromatic. Does he choose something safe like vanilla or chocolate? Or does he consider the flavor of the day? If so, will he request a sample taste or take a chance? If he wants a sample, he won’t likely take chances in that story where I got stuck. I can return to my story, knowing that my protagonist, despite the urging of his best friend, will probably decline to buy the new stock that went public. His idea of camping is in an RV, and he will leave that tartan tie in the drawer. With that simple little test, I understand my protagonist’s action, and all the thinking about ice cream killed my need for a sweet snack: pure serendipity. Now to shake him up with a situation where he must take a chance!

What Does Your Character Fear?

When stuck, it pays to remember that abandonment, failure, appearing foolish, and death are among our strongest fears. Fears are the engines that drive our characters. Choose any situation for your scene. The best scenario is that the scene might fit into your story at some point, and it is already written. The worst that can happen is we are jarred loose from those places in our stories where we are stuck like glue and can’t see a way forward. No writing is a waste of time.

Stagnant characters are boring. What reader will stick with us through 300 pages of cotton candy and rainbows? Without contrasts, all the characters blend into the background. We can’t tell them apart. Characters need challenges to their core beliefs and understandings about who they are and what they want. Consult your trusty thesaurus. Under challenge, we find the words test, encounter, dare, defy, dispute—all words that give us action, emotion—the things that dig us out of a stuck situation. People slow their speed on the highway to stare at the car wreck. Voyeurs wonder if someone is hurt and which driver might have caused it.

Writers wonder too:

  • Where were they going?
  • What will go undone because of it, and what are the consequences?
  • What if the driver was speeding to stop a wedding, and why?
  •  What if the driver was rushing to the hospital to say farewell to a loved one, and were they estranged until now? Why?
  • How will the drivers’ lives be forever changed?

We are drawn to conflicts. If we ask those questions when we are stuck, we quickly free ourselves from those stuck spots.

What Is Your Character’s Purpose?

Humans want purpose in our lives. It’s what gets us up in the mornings. We thrive on challenge. We vie for the top jobs, to be the first to reach a precipice, to discover the unknown, to conquer space. We want to rear children that are happy and adjusted. Throw barriers between our character and his purpose, and we have a conflict that keeps readers turning the pages.

Why would we want to read about nothing happening? Even Superman had his kryptonite. It is the contrasts that attract us to a story and the challenges and competition that keep us there. When I’m stuck, and the outside scene doesn’t help, I call on my favorite word game.

Spider’s Web, Starburst or Sputnik—whatever you call the modern adaptation of word association, is my 911. I added a step, a contrasting word, to the original exercise, and it worked so well that it is a permanent item in my writer’s toolbox. I use it as I plan out my plot, or anytime I get bogged down with no obvious way out of a stuck situation.

Let’s say that I’m writing about 70-year-old Geoffrey who abandoned his family, job, and lifestyle to live isolated for decades. His health has deteriorated. I want to bring him back into society, especially with his family. Using the non-linear blockbuster exercise, I jot down a trigger word and its antithesis encompassing his situation. I might try two contrasting words like old/young in my bubble.

Old makes me think of set in his ways, opinionated, impatient, deteriorating health, fall, and that might lead to confined, helpless, and so on. On the young side, I write rebel, trouble, angry, impatient, and impetuous. Each one of those words is a separate spike shooting out of the core. They inspire their own associations. Almost before I realize it, I have a stubborn, opinionated old coot and his great-grandson, equally stubborn and impatient, thrown together one summer when the exasperated mom believes that the only solution to keep her son from the juvenile hall is to get him out of the city for the summer. If the grandmother finds out, it will cause more trouble, but she has no other choice. The man and boy are equally strong characters that are as much alike as they are different. There will be plenty of contrasts and action before the story concludes.

We have plenty of ways to keep the boy there so that the two must deal with each other. Weather or time immediately comes to mind. Weather can be a severe storm. A search on the web will reveal a location where severe weather is likely in the summer months. I will isolate the two so that they must cooperate to survive. I can use that same storm to inflict an injury, perhaps a fractured leg or arm to keep the old man immobile long enough for him and the boy to learn from each other.

Practical Advice from an Editor Ended My Writer’s Block

When I first switched from short writing to novel, I wondered if I had not grown up in the city would my determination to be a writer been as strong and possible. I created 12-year-old Ginny Ruth in rural Texas to see if she could do it. The chapters seemed more like a string of short stories about unrelated incidents. I was totally stuck. What next?

My editor pointed out the obvious: Save the last paragraph for the beginning of the next chapter. With a slight revision, that small change created the “cliffhanger” I needed for that chapter and created momentum for the next one.

The other practical advice was to never resolve one problem before introducing another. Some problems need many chapters to resolve. Other challenges were minor and took little time. The surprise for me was to see that those incidents were related after all. They were all threads of the whole cloth: Ginny Ruth’s need to write her stories.

Those two suggestions saved writer’s block. I’ll throw this one in for good measure: When all else fails, type in XXX and skip forward. You can always go back after the first draft. By the time you have a first draft, you will know so many nuances about your protagonist. I told myself that the theme of Growin’ Pains was that ambition finds success, will find a way. Until I reread my first draft, I hadn’t even realized that the real theme of the story was my own inner conflict—to find balance as wife, mother, daughter, and writer. It is the conflict between pragmatism and idealism that we face every time we choose to write.

A Writer’s New Year’s Resolutions


1. I WILL SET ASIDE A BLOCK OF TIME FOR MY WRITING CRAFT EVERY DAY. For that purpose, my slow cooker will be my faithful office assistant.















Celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas are so traditional to us that it may not seem like fodder for our stories. But these holidays bring family and friends together, and while we don’t like to think about it where there is family there is emotion and sometimes conflict.  Those sibling disagreements resurface: Along with the love and generosity demonstrated there is sometimes the unspoken or insinuated messages that children have disappointed parental ambitions, one is celebrating promotions or special honors while another  is mourning job loss, disappointment or a feeling of failure. The petty differences are magnified.

There are senses tested more—the spicy aromas of mulled cider, the unmistakable smell of turkey in the oven, the sharp scent of cranberries, a real tree and the tallow from candles. The sounds of laughter, the din of mingled voices and Auntie’s annoying laugh, dishes clattering and those sleigh bells attached to the door preceding the shout of “Don’t slam the door!” just before it slams hard enough to rattle the pictures on the wall. And then it is all over for another year. All of this is exaggerated, of course, for the sake of writer’s license to create conflict.

These are the details that form a background on which to build a story. Our writers’ group for Christmas brought a holiday themed story to our December meetings to read aloud, our gifts to each other. I found  in the exercise of remembering Christmases past that nearly every one of them contained drama that with a bit of tweaking would make unique stories. They varied from the year we postponed Christmas when my beloved collie Sable was stolen Christmas Eve to make some other child happy, perhaps. There was the year when I expected nothing at all with Dad away on war defense work and I woke to find a beautiful bicycle—and my Dad. There was the joy of creating a full Christmas dinner care package for my pen pal across the ocean  and getting a letter back that it all arrived in time for the holiday. The laughter we shared when she described preparing the popcorn for the first time in her life. Apparently the instructions failed to mention to use a lid on the pot. “We thought it was the blitz again,” she wrote. “We all took shelter under the kitchen table.” Then there was the mysterious gift she sent us. It took some research to discover that it was a “tea cozy.”

I’d learned something really special about my uncle after his death, that despite their lack of money and his physical affliction he brought a bit of Christmas spirit to a family with even less. I wrote that for my gift one year. The scene haunted me through Valentine’s and Easter, and that summer that story became the first two chapters of my middle grade novel, Growin’ Pains. It sold the first time out and was reprinted in several paperback editions and in Swedish language.  So as you prepare to celebrate and memories—positive and negative–come rushing back, don’t tuck them away with the tinsel and ornaments this year. Nourish them into your best stories ever. You have the opportunity to rewrite the disappointing and hurtful times and relive the good ones.

There are as many holiday stories as there are writers to tell them. Yours is unique because it is yours. There are many more holidays throughout the year, particularly during the school year when librarians and teachers are scrambling to find related material. Holidays that honor ethnic groups and environmental causes and personalities are received well. They needn’t be the main crux of the story; they make good backgrounds against which a rollicking good story of ordinary struggles play out, Happy writing




I hope that your writer’s resolutions are still on track. I put my chapter book manuscripts on the priority list to finish a “final” revision and market. I don’t have an agent. As you may remember, I’ve tried that twice over the years and for me found it unsatisfying for many reasons. The one positive—having more time to write—I regret. I am back to studying the potential markets again. Brrr, it’s cold out there. All those publishers that I I previously sold multiple titles to accept agent submissions only.

I found a few publishing houses that said that they “prefer” submissions through agents or that they “do not take unsolicited manuscripts. I take that as a code word meaning that they will consider a query, and if they are interested enough to see the manuscript, they will contact you. Once they do that, you are no longer unsolicited.

For this go-around, I looked for houses that published chapter books and accepted queries or manuscripts direct from authors. I used those removable sticky flags to tag everyone that met the criteria leaving the tail protruding so that I could return for more study. Since I write in multiple genres, I will use different colors for the others. When I checked each tag, I made a chart noting specifics:

Email submissions or Postal mail only

Whole manuscript or samples and synopsis

Author biography, cover letter or provided form

Response time or only if interested

As every one of them appears to want something different, before I submit anything, I will go to their online sites and double-check. As I reviewed my research, I found surprises.

I found 44 houses that take chapter books and will consider a query or the whole manuscript. Of those, 25 want hard copy through the mail, despite the quick email. Their response times vary from one week [only one of them] to 18 months to no response unless they are interested. Only five of those who want regular mail only request a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope to reply. The other 20 recycle your hard copy and don’t reply unless interested.

Only five out of the 44 said that they accepted simultaneous submissions if you inform them. I find it reprehensible that as a whole, the industry has so little regard for the talent that keeps them in business. I realize that it comes from the desperation of the bottom line, plus the thousands of those who make a little effort to learn the craft or get professional editing before submitting.

It’s the time lapse between submission and response [if any] that I question. I’m sure with the budget cuts that few editors have first readers anymore to cull the slush pile. But a quick glance of the cover letter or the first page of the manuscript reveals subject and style. That eliminates the bulk of the pile right there.

Our best chances of finding the perfect match are to write the best we are capable, research the market thoroughly, follow through with a visit to their website, and follow their instructions to the letter. As for those excessive response times, it’s your decision whether you play the guess-and-hope game until you haven’t heard after six months or a year, or you send a letter withdrawing your manuscript from consideration. You might be missing out on a sale, but more likely you were withdrawing something recycled months ago.

We who prefer traditional publishing are in a buyer’s market. It has its frustrations and disappointments. But there is nothing quite as satisfying as knowing that someone believes in your work enough to invest their own time and money to offer it to the public. Good luck!


Mental Exercise for Your Writer’s Brain over the Holidays



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Just because we turn off the computer to prepare for the holidays, it doesn’t mean we should or even can turn off our minds. We are blessed to carry our best writing tool wherever we go. My family once gave me a custom tee shirt that said, “Just because I’m not WRITING doesn’t mean I’m not WRITING.”

As we scour the Christmas wrapping paper, we can stretch our vocabularies for as many descriptions of red as we can from blush to burgundy. Then there’s the saffron-green of the sun-starved, rain-logged shoots, or the nearly black-green just before dawn awakens the leaves.

While we tie the bows on gifts, we might consider the alternatives for tying up the loose ends of that story after the decorations come down.

Remember the feeling of frustration of standing in the post office line, shifting those packages from one arm to the other. Hold on to that ache; it might come in handy in that scene you want to strengthen with some sensory detail.

As we wrap that wool sweater for great uncle Dave, remember how your hand sinks into the cloud-like weave. What would you call that gray? Is it gun metal, mouse, or driftwood gray?

Until the timer goes off for those cookies, try a word association exercise. Not the linear kind that is so limiting, but those sometimes referred to as spider web or starburst. I like to think of it as a dream catcher. In the center of a blank sheet, write your key word, a diagonal slant, and the antithesis.  For example, bridge/gap, or arid/flood, etc. Now circle those. Think of as many words as you can from each of the words and let those start its linear line. For instance, from bridge I might put washed away, grandpa’s teeth, construction, covered, game, and one and on. For gap, I might start with generation, trendy clothes, Reconciliation. Follow each of these, and you will see story ideas forming. The nice thing about this exercise is that it is perfect to work on in the short spurts between cookie batches. If I succeed in uploading the photo of my exercise, you’ll see that everyone one of those threads can inspire a story.

And, oh those scents of Christmas everywhere: what reaction do you get? Did it bring a tickle in your nose? Did a familiar scent bring an incident to mind? Christmas is a virtual feast for your senses. It’s a good time to expand our descriptive capacities. That’s a gift that will keep on giving all year.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy, Productive New Year.

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November is Picture Book Month, and since we have nearly two full weeks left, it seems appropriate to acknowledge such an important contribution to children’s literature. Many aspiring writers are attracted to the genre because they mistakenly believe that the deceptively simple books are easy to write. Just stick a bowtie on a puppy, give it a cute name, and you can whip up a story on your coffee break. How hard could it be?

That’s fine if you want to read it to your grandchild. She’ll enjoy your grocery list and the attention. But if you want to write for publication, my motto is, “The easier it reads, the harder it writes.”

The first step is to know your audience. Children are neither Goody Two-Shoes nor the “bad seed,” or are miniature adults. They share the same needs as any of us: To love and be loved, to achieve and learn, to have peer respect and self-respect, and to feel secure physically, emotionally and spiritually. Additionally, they have some unique needs. I remember feeling it was so unfair that I arrived at the party late. Everyone else seemed to know the rules already.

Primary children have a limited world: home, neighborhood, church, daycare, and regular school. Their interests are self, family, [siblings, being the youngest, oldest, or middle child], nature [animals, growing things], God, and accepting things that they cannot see. Even the ordinary things, like changes in seasons, are new experiences. These are your readers. Writers have a lot of potential subjects for fiction and non-fiction. That’s the good news.

The bad news is we have to get our wonderful manuscripts past an array of adults to reach the child: editors, publishing review committees, book reviewers, librarians, teachers, and parents. The final approval belongs to the child. Is it entertaining enough for multiple readings? A good story is like a familiar friend to share many times. That means it must appeal to an adult too.

Specifics and sensory details appeal to them: two sparkly sugar cookies on a smooth apple red plate, instead of cookies on a plate. Bring in numbers and colors where they are natural to the subject.

For practical purposes, we define all heavily illustrated books as picture books. They may be anywhere from no words to around 1,000 although most publishers seem to favor around 750 words. Remember that you are dealing with short attention spans. You should write as if you’re paying per word. The true picture book needs illustrations for the text to make sense. Subjects might be numbers, shapes, or colors, even. The toughest skill to master might be to switch from short story format to picture book format. They may contain the same number of words, but they are not the same. A short story might take place in one scene, in a span of a few minutes to a year. In a picture book, each page is like a chapter in a novel, moving the story forward quickly, making each page suspenseful enough to be a cliffhanger making the child ask, “and then what happened?” Plus you need to think like an illustrator. You’ll need at least 20 pages of unique scene changes. Type it out that way and imagine the scenes. Read it aloud to be sure that a pause is naturally at the end of a page turn. Is the sentence too long? Do you take a breath in the middle? Then the answer is yes.

Early primary children [birth to kindergarten] start out with the concept books. They may review something the child already knows [animals, colors, numbers, etc.] They might introduce the unfamiliar, like a visit to the dentist or first day at school. Every page is of equal value, like stepping stones, or a string of same-size beads. They usually end back where they began. There is no suspenseful buildup. Except for numbers or the alphabet, many of them have interchangeable pages without spoiling the subject. To appeal to a publisher, we need a unique approach. You might consider combining two concepts or find a unique vehicle for it. For example, a traffic jam with ten vehicles stopped at an intersection. One red firetruck turns right, leaving nine. One blue van turns left, leaving eight, etc. There is a preponderance of these on the market, but they still sell if your idea is special.

Picture book writers need not be illustrators. Unless a publisher requires illustrations accompany the text, you could be jeopardizing a sale. Not all artists are illustrators. Publishers like to pair a newbie with an established illustrator to guarantee sales. Check out the publishers’ websites for their policies. Don’t be one of those micro-managers. Leave the art to the illustrator. After all, they will get half the royalties.

Some illustrated books have plotted stories. The art enhances the story but is not necessary to the understanding. These are picture story books. All half-text/half art books for the young we’ll refer to as picture books. They must stand a read-aloud without awkward stumbles and tongue twists, and they must be graphic. Even if the author isn’t also the illustrator, he must think like an artist. That means plenty of action with the dialogue and exposition. Illustrators complain that they can’t draw talking heads. Move the characters around. Maybe they are on backyard swings and then run indoors to retrieve an apple—anything to keep them active. Another character joins them. Visualize your story as you edit it. Can you see the illustration as a close-up, a single character? Then it’s time to write a group scene for variety.

It is okay for writers to use a less familiar word. I try to limit unfamiliar words to no more than three in a story because the child might start out listening to a story. Their oral vocabulary is much larger than their reading abilities. I like to keep the sentences short and words simple. That way the manuscript sells for a storybook or a beginning reader. On the copyright page, look for a bracketed “e” [E].

Picture books are like islands. The story is visible. The theme is the strong foundation beneath the water line. That is what the child carries away from the story. The hidden themes are as serious as those of Shakespeare: brother against brother, abandonment, the powerful abusing the weak, etc. They are real life made palatable by costumes and those magic words, Once upon a time, or in a land far away. The optimistic classic and they lived happily ever after, might be missing from tomorrow’s classics. There is virtually no subject that is taboo as long as you keep in mind the child’s level of understanding.

I worried for days trying to work my way through a story on child abuse, The Ghost in the Garage, one of the Goosehill Gang series. I wanted to punish the parent, just as that classic abuse story, Hansel, and Gretel. I finally realized that I saw the story through my adult eyes. Once I saw it through the understanding of a primary child, the denouement became clear.

What we see is not a “happy ever after” but young characters overcoming one barrier and achieving one small goal against all the odds. Writers can show the young that each success is worth the effort, and we might get the message too.




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We are in the midst of the longest holiday season of our year, with Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Cuanza, and New Years among them. These holidays are a literary feast for writing ideas. Family and friends come together with good intentions. It is a time for joyful reunions. We catch up with all the wonderful news.

But the reunions might also trigger memories of slights and misunderstandings that we long ago tucked into dusty corners of our minds. Holidays also usher in those gushing/annoying letters naming all the successes and awards that they achieved while we were battling poverty, feeling as if we were at wits in, and underappreciated by our bosses. These are fodder for stories for children or adults, secular or non-secular.

Not all writers want to write holiday stories because they have such a brief window for publication and promotion. The competition is fierce for short stories in magazines, and even more for books. Holidays are a microcosm of conflicts that could happen anytime, anywhere, and you still have the differences of opinion, conflicting goals, and memories of conflict. Sometimes old slights fester from childhood and erupt into a contemporary rage. A 70-year-old woman burst into a rant about her sibling tearing the heads off her paper dolls when they were little girls. I imagined that was easier than recognizing the abuse that was too recent and raw to confront head-on.

Holidays bring with them high expectations and the inevitable disappointments, opportunities to heal old wounds or inflect new ones. They sometimes skewer our objectives and magnify our human needs to love and be loved, to achieve and learn, to have respect from others as well as self-respect, and to feel secure spiritually, physically, and emotionally.

I once wrote a Christmas short story based on a memory a relative told me about my deceased uncle. It focused on his love and generosity to a family at Christmas time when he had little to share and embodied everything I thought Christmas should be. It was my gift to our writer’s club holiday party. I was too impatient to wait six months before shopping for a market. Meanwhile, the idea nagged at me–the bond between the two people seemed a living thing.  It became the first two chapters of my middle-grade novel, Growin’ Pains, which followed a troubled girl through her year of coming of age. We writers should never waste anything when we can recycle.

The dinner conversation with those we rarely see is a highlight of holidays. It is also the catalyst for conflict and story ideas. When I worked on a metropolitan newspaper, we single folk worked the holidays so that our married coworkers could spend time with their families. [That reminds me of another Christmas story, but I think Dickens already did it]. With nearly everything else shut down, the city desk was sluggish. To while away our quiet morning, we had a pool going as to when the phone would ring with news of the first murder of the day, and whether the weapon was a gun or carving knife–big cities; you can always count on them. Inevitably, it was the carving knife at the table, and it depended on when they sat down to eat. At some point, someone at the table would ask, “And just what is that supposed to mean?” The second most used dialogue was, “We don’t talk about that in this family.” How’s that for a story-starter?

Whether your own holiday story is a mystery, burying the hatchet on old grievances, or the story of redemption, it is your opportunity to rewrite a bothersome past.

Holidays make the perfect starting point for a good story or a renewed commitment to work on our craft. Happy Holidays!




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Since a lot of you joined lately, I’e updated and reprinted this from four years ago.

When readers open a book [or flick on their electronic reader, I reluctantly add], they expect to enjoy it, or at least to FEEL something. Most adults will continue to read, even when a storyline is only so-so. I do that, too. I keep hoping that it’ll get through the rough or boring spots and wow me at some point. I am disappointed to find that it’s boring or unrealistic. I don’t know if I am more disgusted with the book or with myself for continuing to read. Perhaps we must read what we think is inferior to recognize what is good.

There is no way a child will read a boring book. There are far too many books and electronic distractions to choose from for children to spend a boring moment hoping a story will get better. They simply toss the book aside the moment it fails to interest them. That is why editors can tell by the first page if they want to read a manuscript further.

Our job to start out with great writing so that the reader doesn’t stop before page ten where the action begins. It doesn’t have to be a Mickey Spillane “two shots ripped into my groin, and I was off on another adventure” type of lead. But hook the reader with something familiar enough to make them feel comfortable and different enough to whet their curiosity.

A sure way to grab a reader is with emotion. Think of all the emotions we experience in a day—joy, anger, fear, shyness, etc. We give the reader the opportunity to experience emotion with whatever challenges they face. Readers expect to not only learn about a piece of life they have not experienced themselves, but they also want to laugh, to cry, to empathize–to feel. But they want to do it vicariously by identifying with a protagonist much like themselves.

The character is a surrogate for us, and a buffer between us and danger,  the same way those magic words, “Once upon a time,” let us know as children that ogres couldn’t reach us. The emotions will be greater than the story itself. It is a scary world in reality, and few of us feel we can control any of it. Stories allow us to face those fears whether they are as overt as an abusive parent in a contemporary story or facing down a fiery dragon in fantasy.

Words can’t erase a feeling. The main character overcomes a negative emotion with a stronger more positive feeling. [Example: A young boy is afraid of heights. Everyone tells him it is silly to be afraid; just be careful. It isn’t until his kitten appears trapped on a branch higher than an arm’s reach that the love he feels for his kitten overcomes his fear and he takes his first step off the ground Our desires direct our reasoning. We can justify just about anything if we put our minds to it. If you don’t believe that, remember the last time our boss or leaders told you that what they are doing is for your best interest. We internalize our emotional struggles that eventually cause our actions or inactions. [Example: I know I’m not supposed to stay up past my bedtime, but I can do it without being caught. But what if Mommy catches me? Etc.] It adds tension when the character has hidden emotions that are contrary to the overt feelings:

I would dearly love to dump this pitcher of water in her lap. “More ice, Aunt Maude?”

As you think your story through, see it in your mind’s eye as scenes, each leading to the next. Be aware that your reader will “become” the character as he or she reads. Your reader will experience the emotional struggle going on with a clear view of the protagonist’s thoughts. That’s subjective viewpoint, whether you use the preferred third person or first person version. That is what bonds you, the reader, to the protagonist until the last word.

Practice makes near perfect. Try your hand at writing scenes of frustration, jubilance, sorrow, regret, etc. Avoid using those descriptions. Show don’t tell. We’ll FEEL those words.

If I haven’t laughed out loud or had a good cry by the end of a book, I feel cheated. How about you?






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Whenever I spoke to writers’ groups, “Where do you get your ideas?” always came up. Like the unique platypus, the final story is usually a combination of odds and ends that somehow fit together. I eavesdrop, soul-search, collect bizarre facts and observe animals and fellow humans. Some ideas come from experiencing life itself. When I was a reporter, I covered The Salt Grass Trail, an annual event where we ride horseback or in wagons once followed by the pioneers, sleep under the stars, and eat from the chuck wagon. Many of the riders are genuine ranch hands on a “busman’s holiday.” I was one of the substantial numbers of wannabees.

Armed with a large supply of liniment and a boutique western outfit, I rode the three and a half days and ended up with the worst sunburn, sprained ankle ever, and er, uh, various sore spots. The real cowboys were no worse for wear. I concluded that the difference was their practical work gear from the broad-brimmed hat to the pick-toed boots. It inspired my non-fiction book; HATS ARE FOR WATERING HORSES: Why the Cowboy Dressed That Way. That book was the springboard for the biography for children, HATS OFF TO JOHN STETSON, and THE COWBOY CAPER, the humorous Sebastian [Super Sleuth] series. Whoever said that you are limited to only one book per idea?  If something raises your curiosity, follow through with research. You never know where it will lead.

Perusing a century-old school reader, I came across a tall tale about a trapper, John Coulter, and recognized his name from the Lewis and Clark expedition. Everything I’d learn about the adventure had been more about the sacrifices and hazards. If Coulter had a wild imagination and sense of humor, he appealed to me as a different viewpoint. Further research inspired WHO’D BELIEVE JOHN COULTER?

But the most unusual catalyst was probably a dot on a pre-colonial map that hung on my neighbor’s wall.

With the dot was a hand-lettered notation: “Goody Sherman’s pig penned here.” I was immediately intrigued. Who was Goody Sherman? Why was one pig so important that it was on a map?

Research brought up more names. Captain Robert Keane [keeper of the pound], Deer Island [the pound: where livestock spent the summer], and Governor Winthrop. A governor would have left a broad footprint in history. He was the logical place to start.

His diary referred to Goodwife Sherman as “that woman and her pig.” Ah ha! Conflict, animosity—all the ingredients of a suspenseful story was coming together. He mentioned a seven-year court battle over “that pig.” Through the Library of Congress, I secured the court records, which contained a wonderful collection of little-known facts.

By the time I concluded my research, it had a stack nearly three feet high. Goody’s lawsuit became more than an argument over a pig. The Magistrates and Deputies originally met together, Parliament-style. They became so divided over the fate of the pig that they refused to meet in the same room. This strong, determined woman lost her case, but she nonetheless split the government into two separate houses, inadvertently creating a model for our congress when our forefathers wrote our Constitution150 years later.

I came to know this woman as if we were contemporary neighbors chatting over the fence. I cared what happened to her, a sign that I was ready to write. The story theme grew beyond a picture book; the goal morphed into a chapter book. It seemed a natural for classrooms and school libraries as a supplemental text in social studies, history, celebrating The Constitution, Women in History, and so forth.  That was something that teachers were always clamoring for, and librarians would stock up.

It didn’t sell well. In fact, it never made back its advance. The publisher couldn’t wait to drop it. The book, like Goody Sherman, faded into obscurity.

Perhaps the title torpedoed sales. It sounded more like humorous fiction than a story based on a historical event and a little-known figure. It is difficult to gain acceptance, no matter how factual, when it goes up against long-accepted facts. Whatever the reason, the two other biographies followed like lemmings. I suppose many of us wish that we could have retroactive-do-overs. Maybe I should have insisted that we keep the qualifying title, GOODY SHERMAN’S PIG: How a Pig Split Our Government in Half. Perhaps the impressive list of sources should not have been omitted. It didn’t look like authentic history.

Consider this a cautionary tale. Be prepared to argue your case for what you believe is appropriate to include. You might have to sacrifice a page’s worth of story to make room for the source list, but it could be worth it to be accepted by your target audience.

Whenever you hear yourself utter “hmm” or “I wonder,” follow through with research. You might stumble into the best story yet. Don’t overlook your family tree for ideas. It’s the ordinary people unaware at the time that they are making history. Their anecdotes could become the springboards for your best stories, even if you disguise them in the name of family peace. I have, but I’m not telling!


The above-mentioned titles are available on many of the online booksellers if you’re interested.

The Manuscript is Done. What’s Next: Agent or Publisher?



The question that most writers ask is, should I send my manuscript to a publisher or an agent? It is a little like the old chicken vs. egg dilemma. The best answer anyone can give is it all depends.

You have a better chance of getting a great agent if you have a few sales under your belt. You have a better chance at selling to a great publisher if you have an agent. It is a classic catch 22. Finding an agent might prove as difficult as finding a publisher. For either, it is a case of no one size fits all. Editors and agents are like fingerprints. No two are alike. Just because your best friend sings their praises doesn’t mean that the two of you will be a good fit. And just because that stranger you enjoyed chatting with at that cocktail party doesn’t mean that you should sign without reading the fine print.

There are advantages and disadvantages either way. Without an agent, you have a limited number of houses open to unsolicited manuscripts. Many of the major publishers are agents-only. They do not even allow query letters. A few occasionally put a call for manuscripts on their websites. Editors at regional writers’ conferences will sometimes agree to read one manuscript from the roster list of attendees. If you’re particularly lucky, you might get a one-on-one consult during the conference.

It might take you months to find an agent, if at all. Professional journals like The Writer, and The Writer’s Digest list agents and what genre they specialize in.  Check out the website, http://www. for a list of Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc. Its members operate under a canon of ethics and must be professionally active for the two years preceding application for membership and sold at least ten different literary properties in the previous eighteen months. For an agent not listed, find out what they have sold and how long they have been a full-time agent. If they take you on, you might be the sale that qualifies them.

You need to be sure that the two of you are a good fit. I’m not a good example since I’ve had two unsuccessful tries. Of the more than a hundred traditionally published books, I marketed all but one. The first agent I signed with almost cost me the book sale I already made. The second one sold only one manuscript over the years. Severing the “partnership” was traumatic for me, and it took me far too long to accept that we were not a good match. I think we were both relieved.

There are good reasons to have an agent:

They know the editors and what they want.

They know the trends at least two years in the future.

They do the marketing, leaving you to concentrate on writing.

They can get your manuscript to an editor who doesn’t read unsolicited manuscripts.

They get the rejections, which can negatively affect your writing.

They might be your most effective booster in low times.

On the other side, you have relinquished control over your baby. You are not their top priority since they have many clients, and a sale is a sale [except to you]. I heard from one author that her agent withheld other clients’ manuscripts as a bargaining chip to get her a better contract. That may be fine for her, but did the other clients know and approve that they were hostage to someone else’s negotiations? In another incident, the agent wouldn’t withdraw a manuscript or even ask about its status because she didn’t want to bother or offend the editor. Oh really?

Some agents are hands-on in revisions before submitting your manuscript. Others decide which of your manuscripts they will represent and leave the rest to you to place. Some are timid about inquiring about the submission status. Another might be so pushy that editors avoid their calls and considering their submissions.

You have to understand what you agree to give up and weigh the benefits against the losses, so ask questions. Even if you solicited their services, you are not obligated to sign on.

 Once you get over the hurdle and sign with an agent, it could take months longer to find a publisher, if at all. There are no guarantees.

You might decide to market your material yourself. The benefits are:

You keep control of your manuscript.

No one will believe in it more than you.

You will develop a more personal relationship with the editor so that she is more willing to work with you on a flawed manuscript.

Publishing houses have personalities that vary from experimental to ultra conservative. Within those houses, the editors want the stories they most enjoy reading for pleasure. Publishers have websites with their submission requirements, and a few websites like carry updated lists. Publisher’s Weekly carry updates. It’s expensive, but most libraries I’ve been in have them in their magazine section. My experiences with editors are mixed. One couldn’t stop noodling with every sentence simply because it was there. She made me feel as if I was not a writer at all. We were not a good fit. Another editor asked a question and then stepped back to let me work through it. We worked together so well that I had only to make a quick phone call to contract without an outline or full manuscript.

Editors and agents have one thing in common. They want successful manuscripts. Write and revise, and keep at it until you have a super manuscript that appeals to many. Whichever route you take is the right one for you. Write on!




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As a wife, mother of three, and a traditionally published writer, I often heard from others, “I would write, too, if I could find the time.”

I was never sure if that implied that I didn’t give my family priority, or if they thought that somehow I managed to “find” 48 hours hidden within the 24-hour day. There was no secret. I didn’t find the time. I MADE it. I pieced it together from a minute while the water boiled, a half-minute spreading bread with peanut butter, and fifteen minutes folding diapers or searching for the elusive matching sock.

It meant moving my desk to the window that overlooked the front yard to watch the two older kids with their playmates. [Hint: Being a touch typist helps.] It meant setting the playpen by my desk chair with one leg slung over the rail for my toddler to ride horsie while I typed a sentence, or an entire segment if I was lucky.

How I came to have a sentence to type is another problem. As I grocery shopped, stored and prepared meals, I mentally formed sentences, twisting the words until they seemed better than the alternatives. Then quickly, I jotted it in the food splattered notepad on the counter. I stashed pencils and pocket-sized notebooks throughout the house. When a spare moment availed itself, I gathered them and typed their contents into a whole paragraph—victory.

Carpool lines were opportunities to dictate into the tape recorder. Checkout lines added precious minutes to edit a sentence or two. Late afternoons, reading to my kids [and any neighbor’s kids who joined them] was an opportunity to research published stories and see firsthand what kept listeners’ attention and what didn’t.

Writers, who MUST write, find ways to match wits with time vampires: Can I have a drink of water? I’m hungry. I was not to be denied. I made sandwiches, chilled drinks, and snacks, and stowed them within reach on fridge shelves. “When you see me at that desk, I am not here. I am at work just like Daddy. You have everything that you need right here. Do not interrupt me unless you are bleeding.” I stopped short of adding bandages to the shelf. That worked for a while. I even spotted the smaller neighbor rummaging there because, as he explained, “I can’t reach stuff in my house.”

Then one day, I became aware of at least twice my number of kids, plus an unfamiliar dog, around my desk. Admonished for breaking the agreement, my oldest, all of nine, asked me how, since I was at the desk and therefore not here, could I be bothered?

The moral of these confessions is that we must exercise our imaginations in making time and at any moment be ready to adapt and adjust. I started out with five minutes “at the office.” I worked it up to fifteen minutes and finally to an hour. It is possible to write a 365-page novel producing only one page a day. When I worked on the newspaper, my immediate boss was David Westheimer, who wrote his award-winning, bestselling Von Ryan’s Express by writing a few pages every morning before he came to the office. He told me that he used the drive to and from the paper to think about what he’d say the next day. Only wannabees wait to find the time. Real writers make it.

No one is going to take you seriously until you do, especially until your time starts to pay off in contracts. Even then, few people understand what goes into writing a publishable story. Most think that what they see on paper is it. Whether it’s your family or friends, who are relieved to find out that you are “only writing, so you’re not busy,” will try to coerce you into dropping it and coming over for coffee. This situation is where that thick skin you developed against rejections comes in. Use it. Learn to say no sometimes.

The best way to counter the distractions is to set a regular time and a minimum daily accomplishment. Writing is solitary by necessity. We need to feel successful to write on less fulfilling days. I have found that the best way to do that is to set small successive goals. I stop short of giving myself a gold star or a smiley face Imogi; a satisfied feeling is enough. At the start, I knew that I could write only one segment at a sitting. Now I can write anywhere from eight to ten pages a day that I am not ashamed to reread when I go back to cut and revise. But I set my goal for four solid pages a day, which I am confident, is achievable.

In the day square on the calendar, I make a diagonal line from the upper right to the lower left. On the upper left triangle, I write the modest goal [pages 1-4, 5-8, etc. or “plot chapter 1”]. In the bottom triangular space, I write the actual achievement.  On those days of unavoidable commitments or low creative energy, I have a visual reminder that I’m still ahead of my goal and don’t get paralyzed by guilt or anxiety, or miss out on something fun.

The system works if you are unwilling to fall behind your goals. It is a commitment. I can’t say often enough that writing is a pleasure; selling is a business. We must factor in time for experiencing life or else we have little to write. Only we decide if we want to make our living with writing or if it is a hobby. If you choose it as a pastime, that’s fine. Then you are free to “find time” to write. But if you NEED to write, and you want to quit your day job eventually, then you must approach writing as a full-time job with at least six hours a day in some phase of writing—research, plotting, marketing, writing, etc. It gets harder to adjust your time when you achieve the success you want. You’ll have to work in travel, guest appearances, video visits, etc. That’s why it is best to set low, achievable goals daily.

That’s when someone is bound to come up to you and say, “I could write too if I could find the time” you can smile knowingly. Time is elusive, but it is right there, hiding in the darnedest places. Write on!

Writers, Beware of the Tell



For me, a side effect of writing is the inability to read for pure entertainment. Every novel becomes a lesson in the subtleties of plot, or in some cases, the lack of subtleties. Readers have certain expectations. If the story is a romance, we feel sure that the main character, despite the bumps and potholes she goes through on her journey, will find love in the end. Rarely are two males of equal “value.” We root for her to pick the one or the other.

In every day stories, we presume the main character will reach some recognized goal or an acceptable substitute that is better. In crime stories, we expect the seasoned detective or amateur sleuth to uncover the criminal. Further, we try to beat the main character to the solution or enjoy the shock of the unexpected. This is especially true in mysteries, my favorite genre for pastime reading. Like many readers, I select a few favorite authors because I prefer the slow uncover of clues to unspeakable violence every other page or psychotic killers. Motives may seem illogical to us, but they are reasonable in the criminals’ minds.

I find that some authors in book after book, have a Tell like poker players that points out the villain early on as surely as if he had a tattoo on his forehead that said GUILTY. I know that if a particularly ugly man or woman sporting a grotesque mole somewhere on his or her face enters the story by chapter two, it’s only a matter of a few pages before that person commits a dastardly deed. If his teeth are yellow or crooked, the deed will be particularly horrid. In another series, I realize that if a character is snarky to the hero, scowls all the time, and is disagreeable and demanding, whatever the crime is—that’s the culprit. One author no later than page 20 in every story brings the lonely heroine and mysterious stranger together like two ships colliding for no other reason than they just felt like it. She has even lifted the entire scene from one book to the other, word for word. I can’t cast any stones. Reviewing some of my published books, I find that often my character names are a dead giveaway. Of course, Grossman is guilty in The Double Double-Cross. Only my main character is surprised.

Perhaps it is time to reflect and regroup. Recall those news clips when some serial killer is finally caught? Neighbors and friends all exclaimed shock. “He is such a quiet man. He never causes any trouble; we barely knew he was there.” Or, “I can’t believe that she murdered her children. She babysits my kids. She bakes cookies for the neighborhood.”

Criminals’ goals are directly opposite to those of our hero, who wants to find and expose them. They want to get away with whatever crime they commit. They blend in, appear just like everyone else. Unless they are bat-crazy, they hold their snarky comments inside. They may help carry your groceries, bake cookies, and repair that loose picket on your fence. Most are ordinary-looking, or perhaps even beautiful or handsome. The Venus Fly Trap catches flies by offering them what they want. If Evil were ugly or insulting, we’d avoid it.

I am more aware now of my own Tell. A review of the manuscript in progress revealed that I made the killer too unlikable. That tendency we have may stem back to our fairy tale days with Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters. If I were retelling that story today¸ I would make them beautiful. Only their behaviors are ugly. So I’m rewriting my perpetrator’s role.

In real life, not all heroes are drop dead gorgeous. Maybe they broke their noses in high school football, or they limp from an old car wreck. The females may be unable to control their weight or have bad hair days every day. We must fight our cliché characters as we fight cliche text.

Some writers have the faith that their story will eventually reach a desired destination, even if they don’t plot it out first. I’ve done it that way too. The anxiety was agony. Some plot backward. They know the solution and plant clues as they work toward the beginning. I tried that and felt it was too obvious for me. I like to be surprised. The same holds true for stories of possibility. I always know where I need to end, and it’s only a matter of how to get there with the fewest detours. A loose plot gives me confidence.

There is no one way to plot a story. My method may not appeal to you, but this is how I try to avoid telescoping the denouement up front. I honestly don’t know which of the characters is guilty. I plot my story right up to the last two chapters and stop. Then I read through what I have. I find that I have subconsciously revealed clues [real ones, not cosmetic ones]. I see that, without realizing it, I have pretty much eliminated most of the suspects. I’m lucky if I narrowed the list to only two suspects. Did I miss something? Which one is it? How can I make the least likely one be the answer? If I’m surprised, perhaps the reader will be too. I know it isn’t going to be the ugly, snarky one. He’s much too obvious.

I recall from criminology classes that the perpetrator’s conscience, assuming that he is not a sociopath with an inactive one, causes him to make mistakes. Perhaps after cleaning up a chaotic scene, he neglects to wipe his fingerprint from the underside of the light switch. Or the clever hero views photos of the party before and after the crime and notices that the lapels on the perp’s shirt are slightly different or perhaps the buttons are sewn on one shirt with the crisscross pattern and the other shirt’s buttons are stitched like prongs. Perhaps one had cuff-links, the other one buttons. A quick search uncovers the telltale clothes. When we avoid Tells, we give the main character the opportunity to be smarter than the criminal. These details may not be enough in a real court, but the writer’s job is usually to point out the culprit and end the story. It is a matter of slipping the clue somewhere into the story.

It’s the same with any story. It doesn’t have to be a mystery. Whether we write every day possibilities, probabilities, or raw realism, the solutions are hidden somewhere in the observations or dialogue that bring about a satisfying denouement for our main character. And we don’t have to brand it with a Tell. Write on!



An aspiring writer, when asked what her goals were, replied, “I want to write a bestseller so that I can live on the beach and donate millions to the less privileged.” Ambitious and benevolent—you have to admire that combination. She was about three planets away from the real world, though. About two weeks into the class, she presented me with three typewritten pages and said that she had finished her novel. Stunned when I asked where the rest of it was, she said that was the entirety. I told her that she was about 375 pages short. She tossed the pages in the trash can on her way out of the class, and I never saw her again. As with a few aspiring writers, her goals were beyond her willingness to put in the time and work.

Most novices have a more grounded notion about what it takes to be a seller, let alone a “best” seller. None of us start out saying, “I want to write a mediocre manuscript that no one will read.” We want to feel successful. Defining success is more elusive. To one it may be to salvage three strong pages from the ten produced that day. To those who wish more than they work, you are impressive if you received a complimentary rejection.

A sure way to sabotage your idea of success is to compare yourself to someone else without realizing that there were many rungs on the ladder to get there. Only imaginary superheroes can leap to the top in one mighty bound. It helped me to set small goals, plateaus of minor successes, little rungs on the ladder to feel the least bit successful:

  • To study the best writing examples and learn from professionals
  • To stop apologizing for being an unpublished writer
  • To write the best manuscript possible
  • To research the best potential publishers still open to submissions
  • To list at least five potential publishers and to submit to the firsts on the list
  • To get a favorable comment, even buried in a rejection, by an editor
  • To revise a manuscript according to an editor’s suggestion
  • To sell a manuscript
  • To have my title featured on the catalog cover
  • To be reviewed by a major magazine or newspaper
  • To be invited to speak locally
  • To be invited to speak elsewhere
  • To sign books at a national conference
  • To receive fan letter [that is not a class assignment]
  • To be reprinted in paperback and foreign language or short film
  • To achieve name recognition

My list of baby steps follows one title. Think of it as a round-robin song. The best plan is to continue to write the best manuscripts possible and to follow all of the steps with each one. The moment you send out one manuscript, you begin another.

You’ll notice that there is no mention of winning awards, bestsellers, or dictating that next novel beneath the shade of a cabana on the beach. They came, but I was surprised at how short-lived the feeling of success was. My thoughts were always on the current manuscript. “Success” is addictive. One taste and it becomes the white whale in your life.

Ask any writer that you consider the epitome of success, and you will find that they have traits in common:

  • They strive daily to improve
  • They are not easily discouraged but see failures as a learning experience
  • They find their own voice instead of following what’s currently “hot”
  • They accept constructive criticism as a tool to better their writing
  • Although they have long-term goals, they have mini-interim goals

There might be a few success stories that make you want to skip some steps. I doubt seriously that more than a handful of authors were ever an “overnight success.” Rowling had 13 rejections before she sold her first Harry Potter. But if you make that first goal to write the best you are capable, good things can happen. Good luck!


ONCE MORE WITH FEELING: Check Points Before You Send Your Manuscript


Before you submit your manuscript, here are some points you can check for yourself:

Title: Is the title provocative? Aside from your cover letter, the title is the first thing about your manuscript that the editor will see. A dull, unprovocative title doesn’t bode well for your style. The editor that bought my non-fiction book, Hats Are for Watering Horses, told me that she fell in love with the title immediately. “Only a poor manuscript would have prevented me from my instant decision to buy it based on the title alone.”
Put as much thought into your title as you do in your plot. List the possibilities, and wait until you are satisfied with your manuscript before you make your final selection. It should give us the essence without telescoping the story, i.e. “Suzie Goes Shopping.” Perhaps something like “A Bag of Surprises” would tempt the reader better.

Introduction: Is the opening sentence a strong one? Do the first few sentences or paragraphs let the reader know who, what, when, where, and why of the story? Does the story begin too far back? Start with the moment the situation changes. We don’t need to get up, bathe, brush teeth, dress, eat breakfast, pack, etc. to go to Grandma’s. Start with the arrival, or better yet, start with the first time the protagonist stomps off angrily.

Character: Is your main character [protagonist] the most important one in the story? Is he/she interesting, likable and well-rounded [believable]? Is he/she the correct age for your readers? Can your readers visualize the protagonist through his/her actions, description and dialogue? Would the story be the same even if he/she were not in it? You need to rethink your cast of characters.]
Does the protagonist have a real problem that is appropriate for his/her age? Is it one the readers can recognize? Can he/she solve the problem without help? Have you kept to a single viewpoint? Review the manuscript to be sure that ONLY your protagonist’s thoughts and senses are overt. Show all other characters objectively, i.e., what you observe within your main character’s sight and earshot. Verbs like “thought, heard, saw, etc.” are for your main character only.

Style: Have you used strong action verbs? People don’t just walk. They amble, pace, totter, or stomp, according to their mood. Are the tone, style, and general feeling, portrayed in keeping with the time and setting? Does it move quickly toward the climax? Is the ending satisfactory with no loose ends, pat endings or coincidence? Did you omit obvious and extraneous explanations? Do the last several sentences wrap up logically? Does it leave you with a feeling that “justice” or that there is at least hope, if not a happy ending? Is it clear in unhappy endings that it was the character’s choice?
Is your dialogue natural? Does it move the plot forward? Does the story flow smoothly between scenes? [A simple “Back home,” or “Later” moves the protagonist from school to home. We don’t need the bus ride.] Have you kept the moral from hanging out there in plain sight? [SHOW the change in your character; don’t just tell us.]
Did you find weak spots that need to be deleted or strengthening? Are there gaps that need transitions or explanations? Is there variety in sentence structure? Do you have passive sentences [“started to,” “began to,” “was walking.” Did you eliminate verbatim greetings: “Hello. How are you? I am fine,” etc.]

Length: Editors reject beautifully written stories because they are longer than the magazines stated length allowance. Even books have limits for financial reasons. Check out the magazine markets for limits. No story truly suffers from cutting, and I’ve yet to see one bleed. Go through your story. Are there whole scenes that can be cut and the story still make sense? Is it still too long? Check for whole paragraphs, and then for sentences within the saved paragraphs. Look for unnecessary words within the saved sentences [So, well, really, very, just, even, at all, certainly, definitely, exactly, anyway, some, all of a sudden, there is, it is, forms of to be.]

There is a time to let go. When you have done the best you can at that moment, follow the publisher’s guidelines for submissions. Not many publishers have the courtesy of saying “no thanks” anymore. Mark your calendar for when you should move on to the next. Put it out of your mind and start a new story. If the recipient publisher lacks the foresight to purchase your baby, take the opportunity to reread your manuscript with a fresh eye. Chances are, you’ll find a few things you want to change before sending it to the next. That’s a good indication that you are growing as a writer. Celebrate!

Writing: How Serious Are You? Fighting the Summer Distractions

Those shouts you hear are students as they toss their composition books into the nearest bin and head home for the summer vacation. If you are one of the lucky ducks who work from home, you almost certainly will find your personal time giving way to chauffeuring and refereeing. Instead of packing away your creative spirit, it’s time to pack your “Writer’s Go-Bag.” What’s that? You ask? Maybe you know it by its alternative name, Sanity Survival Kit.
• Some of the items:

• Plenty of water and fruit: By having these with you, you won’t be tempted to stop and search at the food truck or snack stand or scour your refrigerator [emptied by the ravenous kids, no doubt] and then think you must go to the grocer’s. Time for home delivery?
• Small dedicated recorder: This way, you won’t have to scroll through grocery lists and date reminders that send you into another direction.
• Unread issues of The Writer and The Writer’s Digest: You know you’ve been stacking them all winter. And it’s time to catch up.
• Manuscripts you lost faith in and stowed in the file drawer: You’ve had time for it to sort itself out when you view with a fresh eye
• A stack of library books in the genre you want to write: Face it, the flip side of writing is reading. You learn a lot that way
• Timer: You won’t be checking your watch for when to pick up the kids
• Pens: They have plenty of ink and flow well in the summer heat. Pencil lead breaks.
• Paper: Preferably in a composition book so that pages don’t go sailing away in a breeze.

Anything that I’ve forgotten to mention, maybe some headphones because others are less likely to engage you in conversations.

Why No Computer, You Ask?

There is nothing so frustrating as running out of a charge and the absence of resources—like the bleachers of a little league game. Sometimes, it is inspirational to get back to the basics, anyway.

There is a great side effect to doing your thinking and editing somewhere besides your computer. It trains your brain to activate the plot prose once your fingers grasp a pen. It depends on your personal preference. I’ve never figured out how to diagram on the computer the way I like to follow threads of a plot, so manual drawing works best for me.

Get Serious Learning Your Craft

When you read those library books, read them through for enjoyment, and then reread to study the techniques the authors used. Did they catch your attention from the first sentence? Did every chapter ending draw you to the next one? Were all the questions answered by the end? Were you able to visualize the scenes? Did you like the characters you were supposed to like? Were the antagonists believable or just psycho-bullies? Did the story flow or get bogged down? How? How might you approach that story if you were writing it?

If you are reading mysteries, read it for pleasure first. I like to get those used paperbacks where I can mark them up without guilt. As you read through the first time use a highlighter to mark what you believe are clues. Did the solution surprise you? Now that you know the solution, reread and use a different color highlighter for the real clues. Were they subtle but in plain sight, or were they painfully obvious?

We learn by reading as much as or sometimes more than by reading how-to books. You can count reading in your own field of interests as research, therefore part of writing. We sometimes come across a book that we feel is so bad that we feel as if we have wasted our time, but we haven’t. We have to read poor examples to recognize the good and the great. Often, we might recognize something in the published book that seems familiar. E-gads, was I doing that all along? I won’t make THAT mistake again! Mission accomplished.
Happy Summer reading!

In Writing, Avoid Cliché Antagonists

We want our main character to have plenty of challenges to overcome in the course of a story, and that means having an antagonist that is equally motivated and skilled. If you look up the word adversary, you’ll see Opponent, Challenger, Rival, Enemy, Foe, Antagonist, and Opposition. Every one of those words indicates competition.  None of them necessarily mean obsessed psychopathic anti-hero with a scorched earth approach to the main character [MC]. Yet it is a rare month that I don’t come across a manuscript with an adversary that is so warped that only the MC doesn’t recognize the danger afoot. Who wants to identify with and root for someone with the judgment of a moth when faced with a light?

The story doesn’t have to be a psychological thriller. The theory holds true in those bloodless cozies, and every day, ordinary dramas. If you read in the first chapter that the MC is up for the same promotion as the guy with the leering eyes and a prominent black mole or jagged scar between his eyes, do you have to read further? If evil were so easily recognized, why would anyone ever be so stupid as to walk into the trap or know that the antagonist is going to bad mouth them to the boss? We might consider how Nature does it. Except for the tempting aroma, why would a fly not see those jaws of a Venus Fly Trap? If we intend to surprise the reader and render a rip-roaring story, shouldn’t we disguise the danger ahead so that the MC doesn’t look like a fool? Villains need not be clichés.

Protagonists and Antagonists Must be Equal

Both hero and villain need strengths and flaws—nobody is perfect. Not all villains should be recognized right away. They can appear supportive, all the while working against the MC behind the scenes. They might be well-intended but unable to keep a secret. They might be after the same goal and simply more socially skilled. Their flaw might be low self-esteem and instead of lifting themselves up, tear down the MC’s reputation. Writers are limited only to our imaginations.

Antagonists have backstories just like our MCs. If they had disturbing or deficient behaviors as children that they never moderated, they’ve had plenty of time to perfect them before they meet the MC. They use the past to justify their current reactions. They might feel that they are owed something, and for whatever reason, they want the MC to pay up. The antagonist is as motivated as the MC. Their needs for love, achievement, respect, and security are just as strong. Social and emotional needs must be satisfied for the protagonist and the antagonist, and if those needs are the same, they collide.

Some experts advise writers to name the antagonist a created or rarely used name. That is probably wise in children’s stories. Most kids don’t want to see their name as the mean one. On the other hand, would we suspect an antagonist named Timmy or Benjie?

Not All Antagonists are Evil or Overt

As the main character in your personal story, do you have an evil villain in your life, one that spends overtly sabotage your life, sniping, and insulting you? Do you suddenly have the perfect comeback to shut them down? Most of us don’t. To me, those seem more like soap opera material. The challenges I have faced are much more subtle, but just as debilitating, and my comebacks occur to me hours later with no audience. Life’s challenges, as one put it, is like being beaten to death by butterfly wings. It’s the smaller things like the domino effect of time eating into our day while we wait in the grocery checkout line. It’s trying to reach a doctor on a Wednesday or the baby throwing up on your last clean blouse.  It might be the MIL who never thought you were good enough for her child doing a white glove inspection of your house the day you leave the dishes to finish writing your story.

Situations, Others, and Self-Doubt Are Adversarial Challenges

So why when we are creating our villain do we go for the psycho killer, the sociopath coworker or the letch at the next desk? How do you create an adversary for your main character? Challenges to our main character’s success can be divided into three major categories: others, natural situations, and ourselves. We all know that indecisiveness and self-doubt might be paralyzing to action. And nature, like bad weather or timing, is out of our control. But others might not be deliberate enemies at all. The adversary has a motive too. Even one with criminal intent has what they consider a logical reason to do what they do. They justify it with “you owe me” or “it’s time things went my way” or “I’m the only one that can do this the right way.”

As readers begin a story, we introduce the MC, the one we want them to identify with and to care about. Gradually we add the other characters. Will they be friends or enemies? Will the friends function as sounding boards, encouragers, or cautioners? If enemies, will they be deliberate or unintentional?

Pay as much attention to creating the antagonists and their backgrounds as you do to the main character. When two people believe they are right, they can make for conflict that will keep the reader turning the pages. Not all conflicts need to be life or death, but when the two are equal to the task, and in determination, both the writer and the reader are in for a great time and maybe a big surprise.

Writing Exercise: Create an MC and an antagonist with disparate positive and negative traits. Give them the same goal. One, two, three-write!

Settings Matter-III Writers are Like Anthropologists— in Reverse

Detectives, historians, and anthropologists study settings for clues to what happened and who was there. From the clues they uncovered, they know about people who can no longer speak for themselves.

Writers perform the reverse. We create and plant subtle clues for the readers to uncover. In a few stealth sentences, we reveal through the settings a lot about our characters—their interests, their tastes, even their habits, and attitudes. A setting is more than sight. It is a combination of the senses. Wherever we go, we get impressions: this place is happy and pleasant, or that location makes us anxious to leave. We might not be aware of why we feel that way, but it is probably a combination of sounds, smells, and touch sensations with what we see. Readers may not know the location we describe, but they have sensory memories in common.

Characters don’t stay in one place. In an ordinary day, they might go to work, shop for groceries, pick up the kids, and pop next door to check on an elderly neighbor. The houses they pass are a scene: Old Mrs. Smith’s yard is littered in dead leaves so that we know it is fall. With so many leaves, the trees are mature. We can expand on that by mentioning that Samuel is painting his shutters again. The sky blue paint is peeled away to reveal hints of the yellow it once was. All of these clues tell us that it is an old neighborhood without saying it overtly. That our character recognizes these clues tells the reader that she feels safe and content. If she blows past without acknowling them, she has more pressing things on her mind.

Experiment with Your Favorite Spot; What does it Say about You?

Try this: Sit in your most familiar spot and look around. We keep some favorites within arm’s length. Take note of everything you observe from that position: other furniture, the rug, the objects displayed, and the paintings on the walls. List the colors, the patterns, and textures of the rug and upholstery. Is there something that isn’t normally there—perhaps a cup or the book you left open to where you stopped? What genre is the book? Is it dog-eared, bookmarked or left open? Is the mug directly on the furniture or a coaster? Does it hold day-old coffee or tea remains? What does that tell you about the occupant? Is that setting a picture of you?

Early in my freelance career, an advertising CEO asked me to his office to discuss a job. His office interior was mostly navy blue with driftwood color paneling. The guest chair was a captain’s chair more suitable for dining than putting a visitor at ease. The massive polished desk was devoid of papers. He reached his hand across the desk to shake hands before sinking into his high-backed executive chair. What do you think about him so far? I glanced around the room. The walls held photos of sailboats. The bookshelf held a few gold lettered leather books between brass anchor bookends, a sextant, and a model sailboat. Are you coming to conclusions yet?

The empty desk told me that he had little interest in the firm’s daily activities or trusted his staff implicitly. The uncomfortable chair for guests was a warning that he didn’t want excess lingering. He must be eager to leave behind the high energy ad agency for cocktail hour at the area yacht club or get out on the warm Gulf. I had the feeling that he was ready to leave the asylum to the inmates. But wait!

To start the conversation, I commented about the marine décor and that he must be ready for the weekend when he could get on the water.

He replied, “I don’t sail. All this was my decorator’s idea.” I declined his generous job offer. When I observed some of their advertising claims, I knew that I’d been right in my analysis. He and his business were not what they appeared to be.

Most of us surround ourselves with what interests us. Rachel wants to be a ballerina; she might have a poster of The Nutcracker Suite on her dorm wall. Without telling the reader that Will is a slob, we might have him reach under his bed to retrieve a wadded t-shirt and sniff it before slipping it on. Above his bed, does he have a photo of the family, a single parent, or the dog?

Exteriors Might be About Convenience and not Tastes

 The exterior style might be a matter of location and not style preference.  Plants near the entrance or lack of them or yard ornaments might tell us about the occupant’s taste or economic situation. It’s the interiors that tell us about the character. You don’t need to see an ashtray stuffed with cigarette butts to know that a smoker lives there. You sense it with your nose.

You don’t need to write your name in the layer of dust on the coffee table to know that the resident has other priorities. What about the kitchen? Does it look as if it’s never been used, or what about the sign on the wall, “Never Trust a Skinny Cook?”

Is the mantle clear, or is there an abundance of ceramic owls or angels or whatever prominently displayed? What about multiple collections? Family photos, books, magazines?

If you were to open a closet, would you find it organized by category and color or jammed willy-nilly, sliding off the hangers?

Let’s build an interior to introduce our viewpoint character who is motivated, single, image-conscious, and with no close siblings. Reece is a whiz at technology and believes that she is up for promotion. She is aloof and wary of commitment or getting too close to anyone. Where does she live? We’ll put her downtown in a renovated loft near work—renting [no commitment, remember]. The apartment has a pair of semi-comfortable, modern armchairs, black fabric, facing the window. There is a glass-top coffee table with a large art book selected for its abstract cover in matching colors. An ebony candelabra holds white candles that are unused except for the precisely blackened wick tips.

Three current issues of business magazines are artfully staggered to reveal the titles. The bedroom closet holds solid dark suits, white blouses, and one little black dress suitable for funerals and business dinners. Forget a stereotypical cat. That would require water and kibble bowls in the kitchen, and horrors—a litter box and commitment. We’ll top the description with a bookmarked romance novel on Reece’s bedside table. Does that speak of an executive-bound, fear of attachment, and reluctant to be seen making a mistake, character?

For a fun exercise try this: The doorbell rings, and the woman who designs her life as precisely as her décor peers through the peephole. It’s her elderly loft neighbor obviously distressed and clutching her heart. How Reese responds will forever change her life.

Will the last one to the end of the story, turn off the computer?

Writing Through Writer’s Block: Learn to Let Go

A friend gifted me with a pendant. It says “Stay Calm Write On.” That’s good advice. When you find yourself slogging through molasses or knee deep in irrelevant strings of words, it could be one of a variety of reasons. Not the least of these is the failure to let go of a self-inflicted block.

 It might be a description that you believe is particularly literary, interesting dialogue that fails to move the story forward, or an appealing character that has no essential function in the story. If you fall in love with a phrase, you should delete it because it will stand out in the narrative and bring our readers to a dead halt.

That applies to characters too. You want them to succeed. If you are emulating life, you need to remove the bubble wrap and let go of their hands. They might win. They could lose, and sometimes neither the hero nor the adversary comes away as the victor. Trying to force a win can get you stuck every time.

I was midway in a first draft about a guy caught between wanting his family’s approval, and following his personal needs, I thought that I needed to justify his decisions, which was a complete turnaround from his usual behavior and brought in a grandparent, a free-spirit living life to the fullest and an alternative to the rigid, “my way or no way” family. I was fascinated by his clueless spontaneity. My main character disappeared into the huge shadow cast by my new guy. For the sake of the story, he had to go.

Let Go or Combine Weak Characters 

It’s not always the overpowering character you have to let go. When you get stuck with dialogue that doesn’t move the story forward or characters who only tagalong, it might mean that you are juggling too many characters. Someone has to go. If you have two or more characters that are too much alike, try combining them into one person that can act as a sounding board for the main character and as a cautionary one that reminds the protagonist about potential consequences on the horizon. They can still go along on the adventure despite being opposed to it. That’s what weaker best buddies do.

If you’re stuck, use the opportunity to review the cast of characters with their profiles and to reread the manuscript. That’s when inconsistencies show up. Do you need to revise the profile or might you insert an incident at the beginning to prepare the reader for that unexpected twist? Do you need to change his reaction? You need to let go of one of them. The two cannot co-exist. You create these characters and learn to love them and their flaws. Like a good parent, you need to accept that you have to let go of their hand and stop running interference.

They are strong enough to handle their own problems in their own way. If you feel blocked while trying to find a solution, let them lose that battle, and keep writing until they can win. They can’t solve their problem by winning the lottery unless it gives them more problems to solve. Otherwise, critics will say that they—and your story—are unbelievable.

To understand your protagonist’s motivation, borrow a technique from Gestalt—the empty chair. Interview your protagonist. Play both parts. Can you “become” your protagonist?

In rereading, did you recognize incidents that distract from the theme? Clear those out, and your focus will show you the story. It’s okay to role play. Nobody’s watching.

Let Go of the Urge to Finish

If you write to the point of exhaustion to finish a situation, you might be sabotaging your enthusiasm. It might give you a sense of wellbeing and a good night’s sleep. But the next morning, it might result in a block. If you stop just short of the resolve—like a personal cliffhanger—the next day it will all but write itself. You’ll be eager to get back to the story.

It’s not necessary to know exactly how it will end, but it’s essential to realize what the climatic question is. Try writing the first draft up to that point, and then revise. By the time you reach the climax, you will have your answers. Those last few pages will write fast.

Sometimes you become so familiar with your story that you’re are blind to its faults. It is a good time to get a second opinion. What you do next can be the difference between getting unstuck and abandoning your manuscript. Writer’s groups are a godsend letting you know that you’re not alone. There is a dark side to group critiques, though. In the past, well-intentioned comments have overwhelmed the writers with too many comments or too many complements. Neither is helpful. If the writer gives a dramatic reading to the group, it hides the problems. Or,  everyone picks at the story like a flock of hungry chickens. Although intentions were noble, it can get you more stuck than you were. It’s no more helpful than handing the story to a best friend, who doesn’t want to hurt your feelings.

Think about how your submission is handled in-house. An multi-tasking editor might read silently while eating lunch. It might be better to seek professional service or a trusted writer who is a level up from you. The questions they ask might break through that log jam. Their thoughts might not be the answer you need, but by seeing alternatives, you feel free to find your own way out.    

When All Else Fails There is Always Ice Cream

Personality is pretty consistent. A coward will always blame someone else. A hero reacts to others’ peril before thinking of himself.  You might even predict which ice cream flavor they will choose. The cautious will order one of the generic flavors—vanilla or chocolate, or ask for a sample taste first. The adventurer will order the flavor of the month without asking what it is.

When you feel hopelessly stuck, spy on your characters. What do they carry inside their purse or wallet: Family photos? Odd membership cards? If your story is stalled with writer’s block, try one of these:

•           Set it against a historical background

•           Set it in the future, even on another planet

•           Add an adversary with his or her own agenda

•           Make the current adversary the main character

Readers come to your story with various experiences. They’ve had their hearts broken. They’ve felt betrayed by a friend or wished that they could take something back. They have experienced the good and bad mingled amid the ordinary. Call on your similar experiences to portray what your protagonists go through. The readers call on their similar feelings to fill in the blanks, too. We don’t have to spend two pages to describe the anguish a protagonist feels at betrayal when a few well-chosen sentences will do. We can let go.