Archive for the ‘About writing’ Category

The Perfect Word

August 9, 2014


The power of one significant word should never be underestimated. As Mark Twain reminds us, the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Replacing a boring word with a better one can change a character. I remember once replacing the word “green” with “emerald” on the first page of a story and having it transform the way I felt about my protagonist. The more romantic way of describing the color of a leaf infused her with a certain longing I had overlooked in previous drafts.

Discovering the perfect word can inspire a scene, a chapter, or even your entire manuscript. I feel like the word “inexplicable” gave my first novel just the right tone.  And finding that perfect word can increase your confidence: This is the kind of writer I am—I will always be able to find the perfect words whenever I need to.

In Your First Novel, the book on craft I co-authored with my literary agent Ann Rittenberg, I talk about using one right word instead of a bulky phrase that means the same thing. “Norman was unable to cope with the demands of his social environment” is better as “Norman was maladjusted.”

Noah Lukeman in his writing manual The First Five Pages talks about the overuse of words like “very” and “really,” red flags that point out bad word choices. Very happy could be ecstatic, really angry could be furious, really very tall could be towering. (Okay, I’m being silly, but you know what I mean.)

By the way, I also recommend trying Lukeman’s exercise in which you take a paragraph or page of your manuscript and remove all adverbs and adjectives and then change your verbs (nouns, too) making more powerful word choices. The rewrite of the following sentence makes his point.

Before: For the first ten minutes, George seemed very reluctant to share what he knew or felt, but suddenly he began to repeat Sally’s story, word for word, exactly the same way she had related it.

After: At first George was reticent, but then repeated Sally’s story verbatim.

But it’s not just about being concise or non-cliché. Great writers can lure us into a story with a perfect word or woo us so that we fall in love with a character or suspend our disbelief with the spell of a well-chosen word.

 I greatly admire the novelist Janet Fitch (White Oleander.) When writing A Certain Slant of Light I studied her unconventional descriptions. She creates metaphors using just the right words–a potential cliché becomes a fresh image that startles the reader by elevating the prose.  Rather than “I saw something that deflated my mood” Fitch writes “I saw something that sucked the winds out of my sails, they flapped and then hung empty in midocean.” I would read Fitch and think, ­midocean, much better than out at sea. I learned a lot from her.

Others I have been inspired by:

 “Vines strangle their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight.” Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible. That plants had “kin” sucked me in from that first page.

“I suppose she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life.” Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca. How perfect that the character of Frank uses the term creature rather than woman or girl, because the first Mrs. de Winter turns out to be quite a monster.

“The thing tore the throat out of Hugo Baskerville, on which, as it turned its blazing eyes and dripping jaws upon them, the three shrieked with fear.” Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles. How chilling that the beast’s mouth wasn’t merely bloody but dripping.

“During the day, I lived a life of stripperly sloth.” Diablo Cody, Candy Girl. She had, in fact, been a stripper, but I never would have thought of turning that noun into an adjective.

That was fun, but now I must go find the perfect words for my current novel rewrite. Happy choosing to you!




A blessing for the new year.

December 3, 2013

For over a decade I was the props wrangler for the Portland Christmas Revels, a musical celebration of Christmas and the winter solstice, each year set in a different country and a different period of history. The show always includes a lovely quote by Fra Giovanni, a Renaissance genius and Franciscan friar.

“I salute you. There is nothing I can give you which you have not, but there is much that while I cannot give, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven. No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace. The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. Take joy.”

Portland Revels presents The Christmas Revels 2010, Spanish Treasure.”

Inspired by this blessing, what I want us all to take with us at this change in the year is three-fold.

We should love our writing. Not in a “I’m settling for you” kind of way, but in a “you are my soul-mate” way. We should do whatever we have to do to make our manuscripts worthy of being adored. Every page should be our favorites. I had a friend named Mark, when I went to the Pasadena Alternative School in the mid 70s. Mark was only ten, but he was writing an action novel called Earthquake in the Underground City. He carried it around with him everywhere. And he had a favorite page. He’d read it to you as often as you’d let him. And I had to admit it was a good page–he had a flare for dialogue and made excellent use of suspense. That page was dog-eared, he shared it so much–I suspect he also read it aloud to himself now and then. If we ever feel “just not that into” our stories, we need to do something about it. We could try a writing exercise, like the ones I listed in last  month’s column, or inspire ourselves by re-reading passages from our favorite books before we revise, to put ourselves into that “Mark” zone. We will stir up a new passion for our work because we need to be smitten.

Take love.

It’s the darkest season–it feels like the sun sets too soon and we never get enough writing done, but we shouldn’t be fooled—there are still the same amount of hours every day. Maybe things do slow down a bit in the publishing industry between Thanksgiving and New Years, but it doesn’t mean that anyone has lost or is rejecting our manuscripts. Also, in medieval England, Christmas was the time the King would open the prison cells and forgive the debtors. It’s time for us to let ourselves off the hook for any perceived mistakes. So that last story didn’t turn out as good as hoped. It’s okay. We’re becoming better writers with every page of practice. Maybe we feel guilty that we still haven’t sent in those fifty pages promised to that agent we pitched to at conference. There’s still time to send it. It’s not too late. This is also the perfect time to forgive others (like the editor who passed on your novel or the reviewer who held back praise.) 2013 is plump with possibilities.

Take heart.

If we feel the urge to go in a new direction with our stories, or one of our characters, if the idea makes us happy and at the same time makes us a little nervous, we’re on the right track. We will follow our bliss. And not tiptoe into the shallows, but cannon ball into the deep end. Do something to shake ourselves out of hibernation. The comfort zone is closed for the winter. I see into the future—some of us will find a new narrating voice, one that feels natural, stylish, powerful, and fresh. Some will try a new genre and take off like rockets. Some will be bold and make a phone call or send an unsolicited sample out and end up signing with the perfect agent. Some will dig out and finish that screenplay that got stuffed in a drawer a decade ago, revamp it and enter a contest. And someone will win. Some will write poems and give themselves shivers. Others will go on week-long writers retreats, or participate in the Three Day Novel Writing competition or Nanowrimo. Doors and windows long shut or ignored will fly open. I see it and feel it. It’s a new year and a new world.

Take chances.

And I join Fra Giovanni in greeting you all “with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.”

(adapted from a column in the Willamette Writers newsletter in 2012)

Why I Love Halloween, Christmas, and Things that Go Gray in the Night

November 11, 2013

brownies with jack-o-lantern

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been in love with Halloween. Maybe you’d think it was the treats. When I was a kid we didn’t have candy very often at our house, so it was deeply appealing to end up with a full bag of Hershey’s chocolate and pixie stix at the end of an evening of trick-or-treating. Maybe you’d think it was the costumes – I loved dressing up and we had trunks full of old gowns, hats, and props in the cellar. My siblings and cousins, like Alcott’s little women, would garb up and put on plays every time we got together. Maybe you’d think it was the celebration – the last school day before the 31st was always fabulous:  story time with the lights turned down, special songs in minor keys, and on each desk, after last recess, a collection of orange and black cupcakes, cookies, and popcorn balls that had been secreted in by stealthy moms.

But I think mostly I adored the mysterious part of the holiday. My earliest Halloween memory, the October I was three, I remember stepping out our front door after dark, dressed as a princess in a flower girl gown and fake crown, flanked by my sisters who were 9 and 11. It was wonderful. I was entering a world of shadows and secrets. Children darted by on the sidewalks dressed as skeletons and monsters. Underneath I knew they were probably just children like us, but maybe not all of them. People’s yards were thick with cardboard tombstones and pipe cleaner spiders, but when we knocked and the doors opened, faces beamed at us as sweet as those of our own aunts and uncles. There was something delightfully contradictory about that.

That weird, confusing quality appealed to me, like the darkness between streetlights where even the kids in the lightest, easiest to see costumes–white rabbits, brides, and fairies in pale dresses–would fade like ghosts as they moved down the block. I especially loved the gray moment when they were almost gone, but not quite.


For much the same reason I’ve always been smitten with Christmas, as well. Yes, presents and chocolates were involved, but it was going out shopping after dark in the rain, with garlands of lights that spanned the streets transforming it into the Emerald City, that fabulous drug of sweet pine every time you open the front door—how strange is that, to have a tree in your living room? The mystery of a blazing star in the winter sky and a magic baby that even wild animals love. And something else hid behind the manger scene–winter solstice tales older than the sea.

As a kid I always wanted to expand Halloween. My best friend and I imagined a night and day that comes before Halloween, like an All Hallow’s Eve Eve. And I have always loved Christmas Eve even more than Christmas day—it’s the night that holds the wonder. A span of darkness vast enough for a world of chimneys to be explored. Really the whole time from October first to January first seems like one big mystic festival, my favorite part of the year.

I’m just figuring out this peculiar attraction I have to the holidays, but as a writer I use these shadowy areas as inspiration for details and texture in my descriptions of settings, characters, and moments. The gold of jack-o-lanterns grinning in the blackness, the stink of their burning skulls and of rotting leaves in the gutters mixed with the scent of apple cider. The dizzying tracks of flashlights like pixies, leading children over the broken sidewalks as they trick-or-treat.  And also creeping up on the Christmas tree, seeing the Escher-like reflection of my warped face, the presents below and tree branches above, all curved in the convex silver of a hanging ornament.

And as a writer I use the mystery that floats around Halloween and Christmas as inspiration, too. How much is true and how much pretend? That strange mix of light and dark, fear and hope, superstition and ritual. And there are other shadowy areas that inspire me, other unanswered questionsfull moon.

When my nephew was perhaps six, he bonded with a baby bird that I’d rescued from a busy street. He and my sister and niece made the tiny thing a bed and fed it with an eye dropper of water and a tooth pick of bread soaked in egg yoke. The little bird grew and learned to fly. At first it would flit from Nicky’s shoulder around the room and later he’d stand in the back yard and it would swoop from his hand all around the yard and then back to its boy. Then it would watch at a distance, from the far end of the yard, perched on the hedge. We saw the bird every day for perhaps a week. And then one day he never came back. That last time that little creature sat on the hedge and looked at our yard is frozen in my mind. He remembered us then. Maybe he even recalled the box he slept in or the warm salty sweetness of a little boy’s palm.  Did he wait for a moment to see if Nick would come out and raise his hand? By then the bird had already spent many an hour being wild and nameless. In his last moment of being tame, what did he think?

It’s like the way babies still seem able to see angels. They live in a blessed grayness that we never get to hear about since they are too young to describe their visitors. When we are first falling asleep at night and when we are first waking up in the morning, those are shadowy areas, too. We whisper wisdoms in our sleep that sound like nonsense once our ears become alert and play that losing game of telephone with the other side.  But deep waters run through these foggy areas. I try my best to pan for writing gold in these kinds of streams. I’ve often used parts of my dreams in the pages of my novels. And I know that something about that rescued bird’s last glimpse of our yard will end up in one of my stories someday.

And how I love that grayness when you are sensing a new idea for a story forming in your head, like Moby Dick deep enough to be hidden, just close enough to the surface of the water to appear as a ghostly glow.

Pardon my ramblings. And Happy Thanksgiving! Revel in the shadows between streetlights, write down the nonsense you hear when you are just waking from a dream, and tonight as you fall asleep, try and remember the angels you saw when you were two in that last moment before you were tame.

(reprinted, with slight changes, from a 2012 column in the Willamette Writers newsletter which drew on material from a 2011 post on this blog)

Ten Writing Books That Have Helped Me

October 13, 2013

(At the risk of repeating myself, this is reprinted from a Willamette Writers newsletter column I wrote in fall 2012.)used books


There are so many great books on writing out there that I haven’t read yet, and many that I’ve read and enjoyed but didn’t have time to mention below, but here are a few that have made a difference in my writing life.

On craft:

“To write a breakout novel is to run free from the pack . . . to say “no” to merely being good enough to be published.” –Writing the Breakout Novel  (Donald Maass) This book startled me, at first made me nervous, then fired me up. The author’s advice on heightening tension to create a fast-paced story was the clearest I’d ever heard.  He taught me that for my novel to touch and thrill readers, and to render them unable to forget my story, I needed to create characters (especially my protagonists) with vivid desires and wounds and quirks. My characters need to be heartbreaking, heroic, and charming. And they must be believable as well as larger than life. A proverbial light bulb snapped on in my brain.  (There’s also a workbook for this one that I found helpful to use on a couple of projects.)

“This is not a book of theory. It is a book of usable solutions.” –Stein on Writing (Sol Stein) This one fascinated me—the author talks about advice (increasing tension, establishing credibility, composing dialogue) that lots of other writing teachers discuss, but Stein makes these topics fresh. He uses an acting exercise to illustrate the heightening of drama in a two person scene. He calls his method for fast revision “Triage.” And he gives some effective (often amusing) advice about the art of the love scene. This book is packed with wisdom you forgot you already knew. Sometimes you need someone to give you a little shake and wake you up.

“When a character believably shifts to a higher level of consciousness, energy is released. A surge of emotion is generated in the audience.” The Writers Guide to Writing Your Screenplay (Cynthia Whitcomb) This writing manual works not just for screenwriters but for novelists, playwrights, poets, all of us.  The sections on Set Ups and Pay Offs and on Character Evolution are particularly great. I know, she’s my sister, but that’s not why I love this book. I love it because it works and it’s written in an endearing and accessible voice—feels like having a long lunch with a brilliant friend who talks fast which is awesome because you listen fast!

“The quickest and easiest way to reject a manuscript is to look for the overuse, or misuse, of adjectives and adverbs.” –The First Five Pages  (Noah Lukeman) Here’s a book I found useful in unexpected ways. The title implies it’s all about refining the first 1000 words or so of your manuscript, but it is the seemingly simplistic advice on cutting and replacing words that worked the best for me on any page of my novel. In one of Lukeman’s exercises he has you remove all the adverbs and adjectives on one page of your manuscript, list them, cross out the cliché ones, change the strongest ones to less expected choices, put these new ones back in and then reread the new version of the page. Then do the same with nouns—list them and find replacements that are more unusual. Once, while teaching a workshop for the Oregon Writers Colony, I had each student take a paragraph or page of his/her manuscript and change every noun, verb, adverb, and adjective. One woman was working on a first-person story and when she read back the original followed by the rewritten version, people in the room actually gasped. The narrator’s voice came to life in a startling way. Seriously, even if you end up keeping just one improved sentence on the page, I think you’ll find Lukeman’s exercises are worth it.

“It’s not a question of gimmicks to personalize the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.” – On Writing Well  (William Zinsser) Here is some very effective instruction on refining descriptions (of settings and characters) and on narrowing your story’s scope (why it’s better to tell a story by focusing on one year, or even one summer, instead of years of plot, for example.) One of my favorite chapters is about crafting a memoir, but it’s applicable to all writers.



“Writing this way is a little like milking a cow: the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it.”  –Bird By Bird  (Anne Lamott) There is some great advice on craft in this book (looking at a character through a one inch frame, for instance) but for me it was all about inspiration. Lamott’s writing is all heart—her pages are filled with quirky passages that make you want to write and make you proud to be in her authors’ club.

“You make a path boldly and follow it fearfully . . . the path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over. I hope birds ate the crumbs.”–The Writing Life (Annie Dillard) There are a couple of life experiences that the author relates in this book, metaphors for understanding and overcoming writing obstacles, that still resonate with me almost a decade later. The wood chopping scene, when she realizes how to get farther by aiming at the block instead of the piece of wood, struck home.

“My earliest memory is of imagining I was someone else—imagining that I was, in fact, the Ringling Brothers Circus Strongman.” –On Writing (Stephen King) It was fascinating not only to hear how King went from broke to bestselling author, but how certain life experiences steered him toward his genre: a recurring ear infection, dropping a bee-infested cinder block on his foot, observing an awkward girl at school who later became the model for Carrie. And the book also includes plenty of down-to-earth advice. I especially loved the section about a mentor advising him to cut out half the words on each page.


On career strategy:

“Your agent’s job is to hold on to your belief in your work so he can get you the most favorable possible contracts and relationships with publishers.” –Your First Novel (Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb) Ok, I know, this is my own book, but hearing about the business side of things from my agent’s (and co-author’s) half of the book (how Ann gets an editor interested in your novel, her most common reason for rejecting a project, advice on writing a great query letter) is fascinating and her writing style is charming. The section on how a book auction works is thrilling.

“You will probably work with your agent for a long time. You owe it to yourself to choose one you like and enjoy, one who lets you feel free.” –The Career Novelist  (also Donald Maass) Again Mr. Maass taught me things I didn’t realize I needed to know but was grateful to learn. Like what kinds of agents there are out there so I’d know how to focus my search. And when to give up one’s day job. Wonderfully straight forward and easy to grasp.

The Book You Write and the Book They Read

September 5, 2013

During one of my monthly Supernatural Tea Parties, my sister brought up the possibility that my novel, A Certain Slant of Light, might be read by a ghost looking over the shoulder of a living reader—perhaps that ghost might more easily find her way to the Hereafter by reading my dead protagonist’s journey to Heaven.  Maybe that human reader, who never knew a ghost was reading over his shoulder, would also recall my story someday on his deathbed and have a smoother passage to the other side. The idea seemed strange, almost funny, but I was so intrigued by the concept that in the companion novel to ACSOL, Under the Light, I had my ghost character, Helen, talk about how she wished the novels she’d read so voraciously in her youth  had taught her what to do when faced with death.

reading over shoulder

“No one teaches us how to die. No mother sits her daughter down beside her at the quilting frame and gives her this knowledge. No boy is given these facts by a thoughtful father while mending fences. Perhaps if the stories I read and reread all my life spoke more of the natural act of death I would have had an easier passage. What if the novels I loved, Daniel Deronda, Mansfield Park, Lord Jim, described entering the afterlife as readily as they described unfortunate engagements, unrequited love, and suspenseful misunderstandings? ”

The  passage was cut for the sake of pace, and I’ll probably never know if a spirit is ever helped along by my writing, but it got me thinking about the mystery of what happens to a novel once it leaves the page and goes into the minds of the readers.

When you write a novel it changes less from first draft to final product than a screenplay, a teleplay or a stage play does since they get filtered through directors, actors, sometimes cinematographers and editors. As novelists we think that (except for the refinements we make with the help of our editors) what you see on the page is what you get. But the real final versions are infinite because your book becomes part of each of your readers, filtered through each of his or her unique minds.

Fans will tell you that they loved exactly what you loved about your story. The trials that your hero overcame helped them deal with similar troubles of their own. Or your book gave them the courage to face a new challenge. But sometimes your fans will thank you for gifts you hadn’t intended to give them.  Maybe they’ll relate to a character who is gay that you did not write as gay. Maybe they’ll thank you for writing such a powerful mother-daughter story when you thought those two characters were estranged. For example, a reviewer of my second novel, The Fetch, said that I had borrowed heavily from Pilgrim’s Progress, a book I’ve never read. Significance is in the eye of the beholder.

And that’s okay. People will also take things the wrong way and be offended. In A Certain Slant of Light one of my characters, Jenny, grows up in a conservative Christian family that is oppressive. I did not intend to imply that all Christian families are oppressive. Not even all conservative ones. But putting Jenny and the spirit of Helen in a dysfunctional Christian household worked for me as a storytelling element. I got about four or five “anti-fan” emails from folks who were angry at that choice. Which is okay. In my opinion, if 5% or less of your fan mail is negative, that’s healthy.

What people take away from your work will be a surprise. There are writers I love that I want to rewrite sometimes. For example, when I read Dr. Seuss books to my son, there are a couple of things I edit. In Scrambled Eggs Super I change the word “uncles” and the word “fellows” to “aunties” and “girlies” because males do not lay eggs. When Binny (only three and a half at the moment) gets old enough to read that book himself he can ask me why I read it “wrong” and I’ll be glad to explain. Also, in If I Ran the Zoo I change the couplet “I’ll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant with helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” to “I’ll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Torgeous with helpers who all wear their eyes simply gorgeous” because I find the original version racist.

And yet I love Dr. Seuss books. The first book I ever read all the way through by myself was One Fish Two Fish and Binny has made me read him If I Ran the Circus and The Cat in the Hat more times than I care to count. Maybe Dr. Seuss would be surprised at the bits of his writing I paraphrased, but Dr. S did his job. He wrote great stories. Bless his heart for making my kid (and millions of other kids) happy.

And that’s all you have to worry about. Write the stories that you want to write. Revel in what greatness your fans find and let the others complain about what they bring to the stories themselves. It’s all just part of the writer & reader dance.

(first published in the Willamette Writers newsletter)

Five Unexpected Things

August 22, 2013

Sometimes you can’t tell what things will have an impact on your breaking in as a writer until much later. With me, these were some of the surprises.

the traveler

I took a stand. I always wanted to be a writer, since grade school. And I was a writer. I practiced a lot and produced many mediocre stories, embarrassing poems, and not-half-bad unpublished novels before I sold my first book. But what I think made all the difference psychologically (and spiritually) was the day I declared what I wanted. It was a Monday holiday in about 1998. I had a full-time job and was fantasizing about how much writing I could get done if every day were a holiday from my 9-to-5. I said aloud, “My favorite job would be to make a living writing what I want to write.” In ways too complex to describe here, from that point on circumstances aligned to land me my dream job.

I made mistakes. Sometimes when I tell people about the mistakes I made in my early years, I do it to warn them about various common pitfalls they should avoid, but the truth is that we learn from our mistakes and I needed to screw up and find out how the business worked in order to become a professional novelist. For example, I had a bad agent before I had a good agent—with the first one I didn’t ask the right questions, I didn’t do research, I was afraid no one else would want me. I used to believe I had wasted a couple of years as her client, but the truth is I needed those two years to write that next manuscript which would launch my career. And stumbling through a bad agent experience taught me a lot about myself and the publishing biz. I have barked my proverbial shins in other ways, as well, such as having my hopes crushed by a vanity publisher’s offer, but it was all part of the process.

I stopped fretting and started listening to the voice in my head. As I was writing the novel I broke in with, I stopped about halfway through and wrote a draft of a screenplay. I wasn’t sure why I hesitated to move on with my book. When I decided to go back to it (I’d taken a two month break) I was nagged with doubts: Maybe I should be trying to get another teaching job. Maybe I should write a different movie. What if this book doesn’t pan out? What if I never get published? But a voice in my head said, “Just write this book.” The next day the anxious thoughts would return: What if no one likes this story but me? But the voice kept saying, “Just write this book the best way you can. Don’t worry about anything else right now.” And pretty soon I couldn’t hear the doubts any more—I could only hear the voice that told me to write this story.

I learned to love the rewrite. I used to hate the revision process. I’d write first draft after first draft of novels and put them away without rewriting one sentence. It was good practice—can’t knock that. But I think something inside me shifted just before I broke in. I went from thinking that the creation phase was the only fun part of writing (other than getting praise) to thinking, “I can’t wait until I get a draft down so I can start making it really good.” It’s not that I began to dread composing the first draft—there’s nothing like discovering your story as it appears on your laptop screen—so powerful and delightful. But in order to become a full-time writer I had to find a balance between writing and rewriting.

I took some (very) old advice. This is probably the oddest inner shift I made before I broke in. One I never would have guessed at. Back when I was in my early twenties, and had written only a few manuscripts, I got a long rejection letter from one of the editors I’d queried. She’d read one of my YA novels and was not offering me a deal, but she said she was so intrigued by the plot , my characters, and my writing style, that she wanted to list for me some revisions that, if I chose to make them, might improve my book enough for a second read-through. I was pleased that she saw something in my work, but as I read the letter, everything she suggested seemed wrong to me. I ended up thinking, “She doesn’t get my novel at all!” But years later (let’s see, over 15 years later) I thought about that letter and remembered her ideas. Removed from my former ego attachment to the book and generally wiser by age, I embraced the advice in a new way. 1. Be more specific. Don’t make the place or period of history vague as if you are trying to make it every place and time. Instead be very specific to make it feel real.  2. Don’t be so gentle with your characters. They shouldn’t just get into physical trouble (in danger of hurt or death) they should be troubled in their hearts and souls. 3. Maybe the lovers shouldn’t get together at the end of the story. At the time I thought this was madness—it was a love story! Of course boy gets girl! But I later understood the message. Sometimes you need to give the readers something they aren’t expecting or something more believable. The editor said that perhaps the hero should be sent away and at the end of the story so that the heroine has to go find him. Again, I thought she was crazy, but now I know that some of the best stories end with the beginning of a new journey.

Every writer’s path is different, but if any of the above experiences can help someone out there get to a book deal faster, I’m all about sharing.

(reprinted from the Willamette Writers newsletter)

Thank you, Mr. Bradbury

July 11, 2013

(reprinted from the Willamette Writers newsletter one year ago)

ray bradbury

Thank you for throwing the literary gauntlet in my face. My ninth grade English teacher, from the Pasadena Alternative School, took a few of us to hear you speak back in the mid seventies and you looked me right in the eye (I swear) and told me to get off my butt and write. You didn’t claim that being a writer was an elite club that I’d have to struggle for years to get into and then still be rejected from. No, you said there were amazing stories already inside me and that I should stand up and do my job. So, thank you for that. At fifteen years old I started my first attempt at a novel.

Thank you for making the short story such an appealing medium.  You demonstrated that a work of short fiction did not have to be a cryptic masterpiece. It could just be interesting or creepy or fun. I didn’t need to be Tolstoy or Salinger—I just needed to have a cool idea and the perseverance to make it as good on the page as it was in my mind. In high school, after reading a few of your collections, I wrote dozens of short stories, for me a prerequisite for becoming a novelist.

Thank you for making dark things beautiful, even sentimental. And thank you for making mundane things mysterious and often frightening. You turned my crush on Time Travel and the Supernatural into a life-long love affair. I will never forget reading R is for Rocket, The Illustrated Man, and Something Wicked This Way Comes while riding the school bus—a sea monster attacked a lighthouse out of unrequited love; a sinister carnival appeared in the dead of night with a merry-go-round that ran backwards, carousel horses smiled with “panic-colored” teeth.  I wouldn’t realize we had pulled up to the campus until someone accidentally thwacked me with a book bag.

Thank you for being a madman with your pen. In just one twelve year span, for instance, you published five short story collections (over 100 stories), four novels, 7 scripts, and a children’s book. You proved that a mortal can indeed burn the candle at both ends in a wild frenzy of productivity without dying young. You made it to 91. And your life by example cries, “Leap up and fly to the typewriter whenever that urge comes over you even if it’s 2:00 in the morning or you’re in the middle of math class or in a dark theater watching a play. Pick up a pencil stub, find the blank space in the margin of the program, and scribble away!” You taught me not to listen to anyone who says it’s impossible—you can write a three-day novel or more than one short story a day or dream a whole book while pushing a stroller around the block.

Thank you for telling us stories about telling stories. And not the regular writing career anecdotes about getting rejection slips or funny fan-mail or how a piece of personal history gave you fuel for one of your plots. No, your stories about writing pulled us into the sea. A white monster was rising under us as you spoke about the screenplay for Moby Dick. You brought us into the glow of a camp fire on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  In the wavering light, the footprints of the Son of God disappeared in the sand as you described your vision for the screenplay of The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Thank you for being the defender of used book stores and the champion of public libraries. I’m sure you appreciated people buying new copies of your books (I do, too) but you also saw the truth: used books are not trash, they are treasure. They are beat up doorways into the same glorious adventures you can enter through new, pristine doors. As a matter-of-fact, sometimes the smell of mildew, that certain shade of a yellowed page, and the sound of vintage paste cracking in the binding of an old paperback makes the story even better. And libraries are sacred—you taught me that. Books are for everyone. Poor people have just as much right to read as rich people.

Thank you for being so Ray Bradbury-ish. Not just in your writing and in your love of books –you wore your personality like a proud flag. And it wasn’t just your enthusiasm as a speaker. You were physically yourself down to every atom, from your thick gray hair to your glasses with lenses so deep your eyes seemed far away, able to gaze into other worlds. I hope you will always inspire me to look the way I look without apology. When I do book signings and speaking gigs, I want my spirit to shine out of me, like yours did, making the fact that my shoes aren’t fashionable or that I’m 53 instead of 33 not only acceptable but somehow cool.

Thank you for everything, Mr. Bradbury. Especially for those things I’ve forgotten or that I will not realize until years later were gifts from you.

The Name Game

June 26, 2013

One of my fans, who is also a writer, asked me recently how I name my characters. I do have a few tips which I will share, but the process is different with each story.

nameless man


When I started my first attempt at a novel (the summer before tenth grade) I used a book called Name Your Baby to choose the names Noelle and Christian. I’d flip through saying various names aloud and checking out their origins. I still have that yellowed paperback.  And sometimes I still use it, though now I often use the Internet instead for that kind of skimming . I’ve also used the phone book when choosing characters’ last names. Recently I bought a book of SciFi baby names, but it was a bit of a let down. Mostly just names of Science Fiction characters and authors. I thought it might have new, odd, futuristic names with made-up origins.  “Gugreel – female, Gugreep–male; Martian for Blessed Gift” – that kind of stuff. But I got it at the Dollartree so at least it wasn’t a big investment.


When I was writing a story that took place in Kentucky in the 1930s I went to the public library and looked up old records of real families who lived in that area during that decade. It gave the story an authentic feel. While writing The Fetch I turned to the Index at the back of a nonfiction book about the Romanov family to see what common Russian names might be at the time of the Revolution—if more than five people had the name Sergei it was probably safe.


Sometimes I don’t want a character to have a realistic name. I love fanciful ones. Holly Golightly (Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s–she was self-named, but still . . . ); Montana Wildhack (Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five); Bilbo Baggins (J.R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.) I recently played a game that a facebook friend sent me.  Turns out my Super Hero name is The Gray Lamp (color of your shirt and the object directly to your left) and my Spy name is The Blue Otter (your favorite color and the animal you would most like to be.) It’s silly, of course, but sometimes bad ideas put you in mind of good ideas. Think of it as a kind of brainstorming.


I’ve always been a list-maker–when I was a teen I had a list of what I would name my four children someday (Wesley, Mary, James, and Jane) and I also started a list of names I wanted to use someday in my writing. To this day when I run across a name I’ve never thought of before but that I like, even if it doesn’t fit my current project, I write it down for a character yet to be.


For the death escort in The Fetch I read through a baby naming book and chose a few unusual sounding possibilities. My choice had to be something that would work in the Renaissance. And something that would be odd enough to be memorable. I chose Calder because it meant “river of stones” which said a lot about his personality.  It also sounded like “call”—only a few dying spirits feel called to take up the Key and become a Fetch. It also sounded like cauldron, a magic and ancient vessel.

With the protagonist for A Certain Slant of Light I needed a female name that was not used much in the twenty-first century, but that was often used in the nineteenth century.  It also had to be simple enough for someone (Billy’s brother, Mitch) to hear once and remember. That’s how I chose the name Helen.


Finally, here are my naming tips:

I try to make sure my characters’ names aren’t hard to pronounce. I don’t want people sounding out Mr. Gerikov  as “jerk off” or Mrs. Pupontz as Mrs. Poop Pants.

I try to make sure the character’s name doesn’t sound too much like another character or place in the book. If my hero lives in Paris I don’t name him Parrish. I know I wanted to name two of my children James and Jane but they sound too much alike. And I try not to get stuck in a certain section of the Name Your Baby book, otherwise all my characters’ names start with the same letter. Which is confusing. I try to make things easy for my readers.

I make sure I don’t name a character after a famous person unless it’s intentional. In my first novel I named Billy after William Blake on purpose because it was a romantic touch the ghosts would understand but that Billy probably wouldn’t. But when I was a teen I named a villain Phaebian until my sister (eight years older than me) told me Frankie Avalon had a contemporary named Fabian. I didn’t remember him (sorry, Fabian)—I was from the David Cassidy generation.  I changed Phaebian to Valarian.

 I make sure the name I choose has not already been taken. Seriously, I google potential names. I was thinking of naming a female police detective “Easy” as a nickname her colleagues gave her for being the opposite of promiscuous. But then I found out Walter Mosley had a whole series of mysteries with a protagonist named Easy Rawlins (his nickname is still spelled Easy but comes from the first two letters of his real name, Ezekiel.) I have no control over the future (I laughed when a character in an old black and white movie was named Michael Jordan) but I can at least make sure the name I choose is original to date.

I make sure the first and last names sound good together. Gretel is a nice first name but not such a good fit with the last name Eddleman.

I try to make sure the name fits the story’s historical period and geography.  I try to avoid Victorian heroines with names like Stacy or Ninjas called Ringo. (No, wait, that sounds kind of fun.)

The final (and most important) piece of advice I will pass on to my writer friend is this: you are in charge–the most important thing about your character’s name is that it feels right to you. You’ll be spending a lot of time with this person. He needs to answer when you call his name.

Dancing Your Words by Hand

May 31, 2013

(reprinted from a 2012 Willamette Writers newsletter)

Her name was Rachel and she was eight years old and with her hands she was reciting the poem “Hope” by Emily Dickinson. She was the sign language interpreter as the poem was being read aloud by Claire Danes on a wonderful HBO special called “A Child’s Garden of Poetry.” With her arms, wrists, and fingers, Rachel was acting out a metaphor and, in a way, she became the metaphor. Like hope she was sweet, strong, and brave.

This performance was more powerful than the eye reading silently from the page. More than hearing the words read aloud. More even than copying the words out on paper (which I have done with many poems and passages from books and plays—it’s inspiring to feel brilliant words flowing down your arm, into your hand, into your pen and onto the paper—try it sometime.) Rachel was dancing with her arms and hands, creating the poem out of thin air:

Hope is the thing with feathers(she fashions feathers with pinched fingers, flaps small wings)
That perches in the soul (she draws an invisible thread from the palm of her hand)
And sings the tune–without the words, and never stops at all(her chop of the hand for “stop” is childlike and endearing)


And sweetest in the gale is heard and sore must be the storm(her splayed fingers create the gusting winds)
That could abash the little bird that kept so many warm (she is painting the story of a bird, but she knows the bird is something other than a bird)

I’ve heard it in the chillest land and on the strangest sea (her shrug for strange delights me)
Yet, never, in extremity, it asked a crumb of me (I can’t help it—I love her)

Rachel reminded me of one of the most thrilling experiences of my writing life. When I was an English major, I was in a writing class in which we had to create and perform a “piece” as our final project. Mine was called “The Dreamtale Quilt.” I made a simple quilt of squares, each representing a different dream I’d had—there was also a narrative about why the telling of dreams is important:

“Women came from the circles, and they lived in circles, and they lived like circles. You can see their circles through time, behind and in and over the lines of men. Some circles are sacred circles. Some circles are heavy and cold and are made to be broken out of. And some circles are rings of our languages, rippling out, sounding like silence, looking like something else, moving out to touch each other in secret speaking. A chain of voices, listening, surviving, waiting to hear, refusing not to listen and ripple back.”

I’d had many classes where an interpreter signed a lecture for a hearing impaired student. There were several signers, but I had a favorite. A couple of them signed in choppy or drab ways, another had a corny, overly emotional style, but there was one man who was so subtle and intelligent in the way he communicated the nuances of the speaker’s tone and the significance of the content that sometimes I couldn’t help but watch him instead of the professor. On the day of my final project performance, this man walked in the room and set up his chair to the side of the classroom in front of his deaf client. Strangely, I was both overjoyed and nervous as I realized my words would be translated through him.

As I read aloud I could see him from the corner of my eye. At one point the text nearly made me cry (a passage about a woman holding her baby) so I paused. I could see him raise a finger in the air and move it slightly as if to say, “Wait . . . wait . . .”

At the end of the class he came up to me and told me my writing was beautiful.  I wanted to say how much I admired him, but I was speechless (I know, ironic) so I just thanked him.

In turn, remembering that final project (could it really be almost 20 years ago?) I decided that I wanted to feel my own writing in my hands and arms the way he had, the way little Rachel had with Dickinson. So I learned (with the help of my sister, Wendy) to sign the first line of my novel, A Certain Slant of Light.

“Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead.” I especially like the sign for dead, flipping the hands from palm up to palm down as if a corpse is being rolled over.  It feels so good to sign the opening line of my novel that now I want to learn the whole Dickinson poem from which the title was taken. (There’s a certain slant of light winter afternoons . . . )

And here is my advice to you, fellow writers: take the title of your book or movie or memoir, or your opening line, or your favorite paragraph, and learn it in sign language. Paint it in the air for yourself–you deserve to feel the beauty of your work flowing through you all the way out to your fingertips.

Your First Words

April 6, 2013

opening book

(first printed in the Willamette Writers newsletter in 2012)

The other day I was cheering up my son with a rerun of “So You Think You Can Dance” when a comment from one of the judges caught my attention. The choreographer critiquing the number loved the first moments, before the two dancers even began dancing—it was the way the female dancer was breathing. That sounds odd, I’m sure, but it was true. The dancer was breathing in character, beginning to paint the story of the piece from the very first note of music.

This, in turn, made me remember the moment right before Josh Krajcik (runner-up in “The X-Factor” season one) began his audition song. I could tell he was going to be a great singer because of the way he brought the microphone up to his face during the intro to the song—he knew what he was doing—he was already part of the song before his first note. And it was thrilling to anticipate how well he would do.

And this, in turn, made me think about the importance of the opening line of a novel. (Forgive me, writers of non-novels, but I’m going to use mostly examples from novels here.) The first impression people have of your book may technically be the cover art, the title, or the premise description on the dust jacket, but the first sentence of chapter one is the real beginning of your story.

Once on a Willamette Writers conference panel, two editors from Tor Books joked about reading manuscripts from the slush pile (which was the size of a small office.) They admitted that they’d read the first line of a novel.  If it was bad they’d toss it and move on to the next. Especially if the first line was describing a sunset or sunrise. If the opening line was really bad they’d read it out loud to the other interns who were slushing it, laughing at the best of the worst. They would only read the first page of an unsolicited manuscript if they liked the first sentence.

You need a great opener to impress an agent or an editor (or that intern sitting in the slush pile room.) But that’s okay because you can write one (if you haven’t already.) I love a good first sentence. I stumbled upon a nice one for my novel, A Certain Slant of Light: “Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead.” And I’m both a little shy and very proud to say that that line landed me on the British magazine Stylist’s “Best 100 Opening Lines From Books” list.

Here’s the story of how that opener came to be. When I had a rough draft of the book finished, I went to a writing workshop where the instructor told us to open our novels with action rather than a description. I looked at my first chapter and found that nothing happened until the second page when my ghost narrator looked up and saw a teenage boy staring her in the eyes. I moved that moment forward, in front of the description of where she was and what she was doing there.  (Thank you, whomever was teaching that workshop.)

There are different kinds of great opening sentences:

Some first lines hook you—you want to read more even if you don’t know why. ”The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a
French scullery maid named Annette.” S. Morgenstern, The Princess Bride. There is a long introduction by William Goldman, but here is the beginning of the actual story. I had to know why this fact was important. I was sucked in instantly.

Some first lines give you the premise of the book in a nutshell, a great way to enroll you in the story immediately. “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan in August of 1974.” Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex.

Some first lines give a feel for the whole story, hinting at the shape it will take cover to cover. “I who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as ‘Claudius the Idiot’, or ‘That Claudius’, or ‘Claudius the Stammerer’, or ‘Clau-Clau-Claudius’ or at best as ‘Poor Uncle Claudius’, am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the ‘golden predicament’ from which I have never since become disentangled.”  Robert Graves, (you guessed it) I, Claudius.

Not all character-driven openers, like the Graves quote above, summarize the whole plot. Some merely speak with such vivid voices that the character who is speaking comes alive and calls you to follow them. “’When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,’ Papa would say, ‘she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.’” Katherine Dunn, Geek Love.

Some first lines are all about non-character narrators—it’s the author’s voice (rather than a specific character) that’s irresistible.  “The sun shone, having no alternative, on nothing new.” Samuel Beckett, Murphy.

Some first lines are simply great even if you can’t explain why.

”Psychics can see the color of time it’s blue.” Ronald Sukenick, Blown Away.

And here are two examples of great first lines from memoirs: ”No road offers more mystery than that first one you mount from the town you were born to, the first time you mount it of your own volition, on a trip funded by your own coffee tin of wrinkled up dollars—bills you’ve saved and scrounged for, worked the all-night switchboard for, missed the Rolling Stones for, sold fragrant pot with smashed flowers going brown inside twist-tie plastic baggies for.” Mary Car, Cherry. “Nobody comes to Minnesota to take their clothes off, at least as far as I know.” Diablo Cody, Candy Girl.

Sidebar ~ If you like first pages of novels, my sister Cynthia has a book recommendation: First Paragraphs by Donald Newlove.

When I got the editorial notes for my latest YA novel, Under the Light (a companion novel to A Certain Slant of Light) I knew I hadn’t found the right first sentence. But my editor (bless her heart) excavated the better first line out of my second page. Déjà vu.  I’d heard that most people’s first drafts really start on page two or ten or chapter ten. So if you already have a first draft done, and you haven’t stumbled across the perfect opener, scan forward a bit and be open-minded. You may have already written an award-winning first sentence and simply misplaced it.

Your first line doesn’t have to be weird or fancy–it just needs to be the right one for your story. Because it’s all about great storytelling and your first words are where your story starts.