A Post In Which I Incidentally Reveal That I Watch Bad TV

So a strange thing happened while I was doodling and making notes about my favorite American Idol performances–I found myself writing down one of judge Harry Connick Jr’s comments, “Work on the things that are hard. Work on the things that make you uncomfortable and you will improve.”

I love that advice.

What is hard for me? What makes me uncomfortable? Poetry.

No form of writing makes me feel more stupid than poetry. I still vividly remember one of my high school teachers quoting a poem in which the narrator feels “big as a house.”
My teacher: “Of course that means she’s pregnant.”
Me: What the huh? I thought she was fat. Man, am I stupid.

Poetry plagued me in college, too. Those fat Norton anthologies contained stumps of partial stories (who wants to read part of a story?!?!?) packed between poems, poems, poems, and more poems.

I would never want to be married to a guy who wrote poems for me. Just watching contestants on the Bachelor read poems makes me squeamish.

About a year ago, I decided to tackle my poetry problem. Poetry might make me feel stupid, but fearing an entire literary genre is stupid. I bought Sage Cohen’s Writing The Life Poetic: An Invitation To Read & Write Poetry.

Slowly I’ve read through each chapter and worked through most of the writing exercises. I’ve written a lot of bad poetry in my writing practice notebook. But I’m determined to shape a few of those messes into something worth reading. Although I did scrawl a note next to one verse-y passage, “maybe a better short story?” No. I will make it a poem first.

I can’t say that I’m comfortable with poetry yet, but I have been reading poetry before bed. I started with the accessible Billy Collins and now I can say that I’m actually enjoying Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska’s collected work. I vow to continue reading poetry–just a few poems a day. I can’t say that I understand all that I’m reading, but every now and then I feel a spark of joy when a poem speaks to me. I get it! I get it! Yes!


I’m going to continue to write poetry, even though I really do suck at it. Even though it scares me more than spiders and snakes. I do think that my study of poetry has helped me think about word choice, description, and unique phrasing in my fiction writing. Harry Connick Jr. is right: work on what’s hard, work on what’s uncomfortable and you will improve.

I’m Having An Affair…

A few weeks ago, I started sneaking around, peeking at my ex-WIP, leaving my current WIP to wonder where I’d been all day. Why hadn’t I opened it’s file? Am I seeing someone else? Is that–lipstick?!?!!?

I’m having an affair with my abandoned manuscript.

Is it because things got tough with my new manuscript–like the day I realized that I’d need to rewrite 20,000 words because I’d rambled off in the wrong direction, following a whim? Yeah, that’s part of it. 80 pages is a lot of deleting. My ex-WIP is all mapped out, planned and plotted. Maybe it will be fun to write those last few chapters?

Also, my sixteen-year-old daughter keeps calling me a quitter for not finishing ex-WIP. She likes the story much more than I did while writing it. Because writing it was HARD for me. I eked out words, slowly, painfully. I doubted so much. But maybe it’s not so bad…

And it isn’t. I’ve never followed the writing advice, even when Stephen King said it in On Writing, of setting a manuscript aside before revising. Now I see the value of putting space between the emotion of drafting a challenging story (this is hard, so it must be bad) and reading it again months later (ooh, this part is good, but that part could be better).

I’m having fun, even sneaking off for a bit of revising on the weekends. I love my ex-WIP! Sorry, current WIP, you’re going to have to sit in the drawer for a little while longer. Maybe you could talk to one of Stephen King’s manuscripts and learn about being a bestseller?

Learning From Other Genres

People often say that if you want to write in a particular genre, read 100 books in that genre, and I really like that advice. But I also think there are advantages to breaking free from your genre and learning what another has to offer. 

Last weekend I took a class about writing Collage Memoir from Paisley Rekdal who teaches in the MFA program at the University of Utah. While I do write in a journal every night, I’m not quite sure why, since my life is usually pretty dull. I read, I write, I cook, less often I clean…I watch soccer, drive carpool, chat with friends, watch TV, bad Reality TV…

ZZZZ.

So it was interesting to discover that I do have interesting things to say as Paisley guided us through a series of readings, followed by writing exercises. Collage writing combines personal writing, poems, photography, art, fiction–or even “found language” from news articles, etc. 

I actually came up with a few essay ideas that I’d like to pursue. And I added several unusual books to my ongoing To-Read list–books I never would’ve heard of otherwise–like Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud which provided the starting point for the class. Talk about a different genre! 

Best of all–I found myself jotting down note after note about ways I could use collage writing techniques to develop characters in my novel and move the story forward in unique ways. So, if you’re looking for a way to pump some energy into your writing, try taking a class outside of your comfort zone. It’ll spark your imagination for sure!  

Thanks [email protected] for sponsoring the class! 



The Outline Advantage

My task this week: plan and plot my new WIP. I know, I know, outlining is not cool, not artistic, it hampers inspiration… Tony Hillerman says, “Usually the book is finished long before the outline is. Go with the flow. Sometimes plots don’t make sense, but it avoids that awful problem of outlining.” Anne Lamott (Bird By Bird) is against outlining. So is Stephen King (On Writing).

But I still love it. I’m not talking about one of those big I, little i nightmares from school research papers, but rather creating a plan for the work I plan to write, or as Strunk and White say, “a suitable design.” Having an outline gives me an advantage as I draft a new novel.
Advantage #1: Plot. Outlining allows me to work out the structure of the novel. I like to see everything visually and puzzle out questions. If this happens, then what will happen next? I can see the pacing, story arc, etc. 
Advantage #2: Avoid Meandering, Wandering, Getting Lost. An outline helps me keep to the story I intended to tell. I won’t write hundreds of unnecessary words, or pages, that don’t actually contribute to my main character’s journey. Sometimes it’s hard to cut clever or pretty sentences that sound good–even if they don’t belong. 
A good outline also gives me a map through the middle. Knowing where I’m going prevents those panicky moments, “Eek! I’ve written 100 pages, but I don’t know what happens next, and, maybe the whole thing is bad, bad, bad.”
But–it is important to be flexible. I’m always adding and deleting things from my outline.
Advantage #3: Tracking Subplots, Minor Characters, Themes. To make outlining even more fun, I’ll use color for each aspect of the story. At a glance I can see if I’m ignoring a subplot for too long, or leaving out a minor character who will confuse my readers if she all of a sudden pops back into the story 75 pages later. 
Advantage #4: Remembering The Good Stuff. I do a lot of research before I write, and I’d probably forget about some of my most interesting tidbits if I simply dove into the story and started wandering about. Outlining forces me to really think about my story and figure out how to fit all of my ideas into my plot in an exciting, relevant manner.
Advantage #5: Fast, Smooth, Writing. I rarely sit and stare at my blank computer screen wondering what the &#*[email protected]  happens next. I’ve been letting my subconscious mind go to work. I always look at which scene I’m going to work on the next day, and think about it while I’m cooking dinner, driving carpool, walking the dogs, etc. I’m not worried about what will happen next, I’m focused on how to make it happen. 
Advantage #6: Cleaner First Draft. My outline serves as a first draft of sorts. And that makes revision easier. Oh, I still have things to fix, but I usually don’t need a bulldozer during revision.
So what if Stephen King thinks I’m a dork?

Writing A Pitch

Today my goal is to create a pitch for my next YA novel idea–something so intriguing that people will say, “I’ve got to read that. Write fast!”

I’ve been researching my idea for months, reading like crazy, thinking like crazy, watching YouTube videos, picking up random bits on NPR, steering dinner party conversations in unusual directions… My brain is STUFFED with information. But now I have to explain it to people. Um…

I’m a rambling mess!

Lucky for me, I discovered Save The Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s a book about screenwriting, but who better to teach me how to pitch than a Hollywood movie guy?

According to Snyder, a pitch answers this basic question: what is it?

(And it’s not Snakes On A Plane meets Three Men And A Baby–although who wouldn’t want to see that?!?!?)

A good pitch gives a clear sense of what the story promises to deliver (action, love, mystery). You want your audience to immediately form a compelling mental picture of your story. Better yet–you want to elicit an emotional response. A good pitch also includes a good title. Hunger Games? Yeah, I want to know what that’s about!

People also want to know who the story is about. Short and sweet, a good pitch characterizes both the main character and the antagonist. Is your character’s goal enthralling? The best way to hook someone with your pitch is to make sure that your character’s mission involves primal needs: survival, love, protection. Snyder asks: would a caveman understand your character’s needs?

Reducing all my research into a pitch only a few sentences long will probably be the hardest part to write. But I know that figuring out these basic elements will make the next 250 pages flow.

I’m excited and I want to write this story fast!

A Few Books on Writing Craft

I’m always surprised when I encounter one of those writers who thinks the struggle to master craft stops with publication. Learning is my favorite thing about writing and I’m always stretching myself to improve my craft.

April is Poetry Month so I’m working through Writing The Life Poetic by Sage Cohen and filling my practice notebook with a lot of mediocre verse. Poetry has always intimidated me (I never understood all the significance my high school teachers found in poems), but it’s something I want to learn. So I’m practicing every day. The short chapters and exercises in this book are, for lack of a more poetic word, fun.

Here are some other books that have helped me along the way:







Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg. This book gave me permission to practice. Until I found this book I thought that becoming an author required some elusive mixture of alcoholism and magical talent that I didn’t seem to possess. Twenty-three spiral notebooks later, I will always be grateful to Natalie Goldberg for showing me the first steps to becoming a writer.



The Write-Brain Workbook by Bonnie Neubauer. The gorgeous graphic design in this notebook has me looking forward to the next exercise. These short exercises are a great way to jump-start creativity, silence that annoying internal editor, and feel a sense of accomplishment no matter what else gets written that day. I meet a lot of writers who “just don’t have the time.” Everyone has the daily ten minutes needed for these quick prompts. No excuses!!!







If You Want To Write by Brenda Ueland. Published in 1938 this book provides timeless nuggets of advice as well as inspiration. Ueland writes, “Everybody is talented, original and has something to say…” After you’ve read Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing try this one.





The Fire In Fiction by Donald Maass. I read this one so vigorously the pages came loose! I’ve got high-lighted sections, sticky note markers, notes jotted… I especially love the Practical Tools sections at the end of each chapter. I find myself returning to this craft-intensive book again and again.



Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. I bought this book when I first started revising Jungle Crossing, but I’ve returned to it every manuscript since. It’s also the gift I give to all my friends who complete their first novel.

One last note: Take the time to do the writing exercises listed in craft books. It’s often too tempting, too easy, to think, Yup. Did that. Mmm-hmm. Did that too. I’m obviously brilliant–no need to revise. YAY!

You’re not really stretching your abilities unless you dig in and do the difficult work.