How Do You Write When the World Is Falling Apart?

I can barely write this title because I’ll miss a second of news coverage. Here’s an update: Beeker has blown the whistle on Facebook data mining (no idea what this means) and a horse-riding, chest-baring dictator has won an “election” for the fourth time. In the U.S., leaders are running away, crumbling, getting sicker while others tread water, wondering if it’s really so bad. Some are working very hard to fight and keep the faith. If I sleep, I know I will miss something important.

This is sort of how I feel when I’m flying. Even though a few competent professionals have control over my life, the plane will crash if I fall asleep. Because I’ve never witnessed such chaos in my lifetime—sort of like the time I flew through three storm systems at once, thank you, Toronto to NYC October 2006–I must pay attention.

Our world is very different from what it was two years ago. With so much going on, creativity can either thrive or vanish. For a writer, a personal or external crisis affects that right brain (or is it left), which serves us so well on some occasions, then goes silent on others. As a writer, I know this. As an editor, I see this. As a human being, I want to understand how to safeguard my creativity during these very bumpy times.

It seems trivial, though, to worry about creativity or the state of one’s imagination. Kids and teachers are getting shot in schools. Basic human rights are being questioned, which is absurdity itself, that time has gone backwards. Each day brings a new shock. So why get anxious about the inability to write?

There are several reasons:

The creative state feels the most normal to so many of us. Take it away and your zombie has won.

Shutting down the thinking, imagining brain for an extended period of time can turn into a habit, not necessarily a good one, i.e. a week of “coping” can turn into years. Some writers, like Anthony Trollope and romance writers, are highly disciplined. Many will stop to pick up a speck of dust, then mop the floors, then go out for a smoothie, then come home to realize the day is gone. These not-normal times only exacerbate one’s distractibility. I write this with love because I’m frequently distracted by dust—and Breaking News.

I won’t go into the medical repercussions of ignoring your creative urges. You know what they are.

I’d say this is the most important reason: Am I going to let Armageddon or a group of psychotic criminals take away my future legendary status? Absolutely not. Here’s where I get mad.

There is too much to do. Great theater to watch. Books to read. Books to write! Tap dancing classes to embarrass myself in. Cakes to bake not from scratch. Husband’s sunshine to bask in. Selfies to take. Restaurants to try. Walks to take. Moms to fuss over. Siblings to have church giggles with. Cats to purr with. Music to blow out eardrums to. Coffee to drink. Madeleine moments to have. Blog posts to post. Stories to dream.

There is life flashing in front of our eyes, which is why this is the moment to reclaim your writing and creative time:

Know that you may still be preoccupied with the crisis, i.e. watching a lot of CNN, checking Twitter, who used bad grammar to say what thing to whom? A total news fast is not recommended but if you can turn off the TV and social media for at least an hour, you’re a fierce warrior.

Schedule your creative time. I tend to set a clock or insist on a number of pages. If I’m too ambitious, I will not meet the goal so I do a little at a time, with dust-busting and cat-chasing sandwiched in there. If I do anything, I feel great.

As you notice the silence around you, thoughts might happen. It’s very strange. I went out for this walk, which is when you put one step in front of the other and the scenery changes in a three-dimensional way. My brain switched on. Taking advantage, I kept my devices off and got to work, digging out a thought, one by one, and putting it on the page. You’ll be surprised by how much you have locked away. I remembered how to conjugate second conjugation Latin verbs.

Find a book that has nothing to do with what you write or what you read from day to day. Get lost in something totally different. For me, that’s been books about gems and how to boost my intuition, which I don’t think needs boosting, but it’s fun to dream that maybe I’m secretly Samantha from Bewitched.

Notice things on your own, without having them presented to you on a screen.

Repeat all of this, maybe not the next day but the day after. You can’t be perfect every day. Maybe you can, in which case, more chocolate for you.

For the 10% of energy you have left, by all means, I invite you to join me as I keep tuning in to our world and staying informed. If there’s ever a time when it’s understandable to be confused or outraged or paralyzed, it’s now.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t be inspired, too.

Thanks for listening.



Writing Tips

Ramble On (but please edit), Brave Writers!

When I decided to be a great novelist, I knew exactly how to start my story. With me! And my Extraordinary and Very Rare experience of dating a tortured intellectual who drank…in college…and sometimes he was mean! This narrative went on for pages and pages. Oh, the pages! The fact that my pen glided so effortlessly across the paper meant I was genius and this story would capture the hearts of millions. I wasn’t even at the good part or even the beginning. By the time I was done, I had filled a notebook, one I couldn’t go back and reread because, I’ll be honest, it was a little boring. But someone else would find it fascinating!

And so I began my relationship with writing fiction. As an editor, with now daily experience in reading critically, I notice how rambling points of view can kill a story. Mind you, I still do this—go on and on for pages (or even blog posts). What one writer might consider fascinating character revelations, one editor might use as a sleeping agent.

Is this Rambling POV bad?

Only if you don’t edit it. Rambling POV is actually a good thing. It gets your brain moving and pushes you to free your imagination. In editing, you can make that point of view more succinct and targeted to your storytelling.

How do you know you have rambling POV?

Keep rereading what you have written. If you find yourself skipping over paragraphs, consider cutting those paragraphs. You might feel liberated. In case of regret, always save your drafts. If you have the energy to go back, cut and paste, your words were meant to stay.

When I read submissions, a common mistake is a rambling POV at the beginning. Too much of a good thing can bog down the pacing and a character with sass can quickly turn off an editor if the sass goes on forever before anything happens.

Just remember that all talk and no action renders your character a big snooze fest.

When can rambling POV be good?

In narrative nonfiction, it can be lovely. Though in this format, it’s not so much “rambling” as “telling a true, gripping story.” You can bet that the editor is looking at every word and trimming what comes off as rambling.

One way to tell rambling from elucidating prose is that it seems to be more about the author than about the reader. There’s a sense of “I so love my voice” or “I need to get this out before I move to the next thing” or “I’m writing so fast, this must be brilliant!” So, in the end, rambling POV can be good—as in, a good start, but amateurish if not done well.

How do you deal with rambling POV?

Understand from the beginning that may overwrite in places. Often, it’s to show your character. You can always go back and cut. In fact, you should go back and cut.

Think about how your character moves through the scene rather than thinks. We all think. It’s easy to share thoughts on a page. But what does your character do?

Don’t censor yourself from rambling. More writing is better than no writing.

Remember that most of the time, rambling doesn’t help. There are many exceptions, authors who do it brilliantly. Sophie Kinsella comes to mind. She can immerse you in her story with her rambling characters, who do very little but are ablaze with thought and insight, all of which is highly entertaining, at least to me! Those thriller writers with the unreliable narrators or fascinating protagonists, also pros at rambling POV. And good memoirists can go on and on with a purpose.

It’s always good to err on the side of knowing you’re probably not an exception, though maybe you are. It never hurts to experiment.

Back to important stuff: my “fictional” story about the alcoholic in college. Yeah, she’s sitting somewhere in my mother’s closet along with Teacher’s Pet, my attempt at writing a romance. And my master’s thesis, a truly rambling onus from the depths of Hades.

May you fare better than this. Go forth and ramble, experiment, and edit. And lastly, read the exceptions and learn.


Romantic Life Lessons

Tough Year, Still a Crazy Lucky Wife

At the beginning of 2017, I reasoned that we should adopt a cat because it would help offset the raging depression sure to come after the inauguration. You said no. I asked if I needed to be gravely ill before we finally got a cat. Don’t be silly, you said. It was a shameful thing for me to suggest (a few times) and you didn’t fall for it.

Accepting this pet-less fate, I went along with my year, so focused on current events that I couldn’t have spared love for anyone else. You are sort of right about everything (except MSNBC is amazing, no matter what you say). Would an adorable, twitchy feline make the horror go away? Or in that never-ending trigger-fog, would I remain absent, as I’ve been most of this year? It’s one thing to be alert, and another to be obsessed with that darkness. I don’t expect to be perfect, but I am aiming for better.

Despite an ever-present Apocalypse and that distant cat dream, I have much to be thankful for. You are healthy, no matter how many “procedures” you threaten to have. And now my mother has an iPhone, which means I can text her frantic emoji-filled texts. My knitting bag is full, a hobby that prevents that disastrous trip to the deli for candy. My job of twenty years keeps me busy in a way that is comforting and absorbing. Friends and family, lovely. I am writing. Most of all, I’m grateful for you.

Exactly eight years ago, when I thought my life was plodding along quite well, I took a fun detour, meeting you for our first date after a twenty-six-year gap. From there, everything changed and I found myself on an even wider path with off-shoots, wildlife, and adventures that make me glad to be alive. Thank you, Sam, for bringing such joy to my life, even though it’s very irritating that you know me so well. As I write this you are watching football, using my stability ball as an ottoman and eating my fries–a sight that is very dear to me. And thank you for the $500 litter box you showed up with a few days ago.

I love you madly!

Writing Tips

10 Reasons Why You Should Write that Book

1. It engages your brain. How easy it is to sit and let others entertain you. If you’re like me, you want to sit on the couch and take the easy way out of writing: watch a movie or hours of reality TV. Because mama is tired. She’s so tired of the idiots fighting, the long hours, and oh me, I just need a break. I’m not saying that these are wrong, but they can keep you from getting back in the chair. So, let’s put down the Snickers and say, “Extended breaks and self-care are good. But it’s time to put my creative genius to work.” Hop to it!

2. Why not expound on your favorite topic? I really love cake. Someday, I’ll write a story about cake, but until then, I love reading about cake! May the gods bless cookbook authors and the chefs creating desserts on TV. I also love knitting, astronomy, jewelry, celebrities, romance, cooking shows, and serial killers–maybe even in the same story. I know exactly where to turn to get my fix: a writer like you. Show us readers something delicious–and dangerous!

3. That life is too short thing. My grandparents told me that watching TV was worthless. That said, they clocked at least four hours daily of Wild Kingdom, nightly news (aka The Murder Show), The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Search for Tomorrow (aka Search). At the end of the road, you may have a better story to tell than the ones parading in front of you. Think about it.

4. Don’t we have enough short form outrage right now? You know what I’m talking about. Believe me, I’m there, too. Twit/Face/Inst (short form) eats up whole days, months, and the more informed I am, the stupider I feel. Social media has a hold on me and I need to be plugged in at all times. There are so many better words we could be writing. Take your life back, writers!

5. If you’re reading this, you might identify yourself as a writer. I caught you red-handed! Don’t worry, I’ll keep your secret for now. In the meantime, show me I’m right and get yourself in that chair. I hear Nanowrimo is next week (wink wink). So, sure, you have your day job or whatever, but you’re a writer. You’re a writer. Say it over and over again, then stop and write. 

6. Writing a book is an actual accomplishment. It’s one of those empirical beliefs that finishing a book is a big deal. Not many people can write a book. But you can. Maybe you have. Or you just feel strongly that you can. Write one page, then another, etc… Eventually, if you keep pushing, you will get to the end. There will be MANY DISTRACTIONS. It’s okay because you’ve got support and talent and persistence in your DNA. Do the work and get to the end.

7. Living vicariously can be a whole lot of fun. I don’t know about you but sometimes I like to pretend that I could be a moviestar–like completely overhaul my wardrobe and makeup situation and try to act! Or that I’m a psychic 32-year-old shopgirl who heals people. Or a sweet middle-aged manager who plots a murder, then actually goes through with it. This is when I shut out the real world and start tapping furiously on my computer. Am I right to think you have an awesome life/story/character that you like to dream about? 

8. Because a world without creativity, well, let’s not even go there. The more we scroll for that quick fix, the more our attention spans and imaginations die. What would our lives be like without books? I’d be sitting on the couch. Oh, and unemployed. Think about that. An existence without those great classics, those romances, those writers conferences. Can you feel the emptiness? The world needs you.

9. Don’t you have something to say? Everyone I’ve ever met has something to say, even (especially) those who pass under our radars. So many stories out there! You may be that quiet person who thinks she’s nothing special. Or the opposite. At each end of the spectrum and everywhere in between, you have an experience, an imagination, and a message.

10. You will change someone. It’s unrealistic to think that you don’t affect someone else’s life. If you’re a writer—and I suspect you are—you know which writers have changed you. If I hadn’t read Mario Puzo’s Fools Die, I’m not sure I’d be sitting here writing this. Reading Emile Zola helped me understand that I never wanted to live as a drunk in 19th Century Paris. And Penny Jordan’s romances helped me find a better path (and a way not to fail my history exam). Just think of the good you can do for someone by the story you have inside you. It’s time. Don’t you think?

Writing Tips

Stand Out with Some Expertise

I’ll come out and say it. It’s not enough to be a wonderful person anymore–in life or in literature. I mean, it’s still great, but these days, a person, a character, even an idea needs to be grounded in some sort of knowledge or expertise. You can see the dearth of knowledge all over Twitter–lots of personality but often not much behind it other than arguing and a link*. It doesn’t take much to become a ten-minute phenomenon. This is why more and more, the way to stand out with a book and, I guess, as a person, is to put one’s nose to the grindstone, work, and keep learning.

This is why I love books. Books elucidate, inspire, and elevate. Sometimes, they can send you into dark territory. Though I must admit, I love that. If you want me to read on, scare me to bits.

With each book, at the very least, I expand my horizons, even if it’s a stinker. After twenty years of editing, I understand why certain books are bad or what is needed to fix them (often more editing). When I pick up a book, I think of the usual things: Who is the author? Why do people love this book? Why should I even read it? What will I discover? The plot might hook me at first, but the characters keep me going. I want to care about them as people. And these days, I want to know what they do–aside from being awesome characters who deserve love. What talents do they have? What keeps them from being blah?

This is where a writer needs to research and find a way to infuse the character with some kind of expertise. Maybe it’s an unexpected skill she acquires: the writer and the character in her story.

Here’s sort of an example of what I mean. Recently, I was asked to give a talk on overseas marketing. Do I know anything about this? No. In fact, I’d say I was the worst person to send to do this. But after twenty-six years of standing in front of people, I could definitely fake it. I can talk to anyone now**, but faking a speech would be just lame.

The solution was simple: for me to seek out the experts in the marketing field and get a lot of help. It meant watching less news coverage of our imploding world and fewer Housewives gallivanting in the Hamptons. So much the better because the information turned out to be fascinating, like how we sell books to different territories and the surprises about what themes are successful and what aren’t. When you learn something new, your enthusiasm shows and your audience appreciates it.

The experience built my confidence. And now I can say interesting things to someone new.

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about expertise and how valuable it is to amass skills and information. It builds you as a person and, as a writer who researches myriad topics, your writing can’t help from benefit from this. When I read books, characters with skills win out over those who are bumps on a log. A heroine who is passionate about designing wedding dresses? Yes!  Especially winning is when the author does research and shows us in detail how the character creates her masterpieces. What about a medical examiner who has the truth about how a murder was committed? I’m so with her and want to understand science the way I didn’t bother to do in high school.

In romantic suspense, I learn a whole lot about law enforcement and how to hide one’s tracks (wear gloves, don’t leave hair behind). I also gravitate toward non-fiction to soak up new information, especially if about a skill/passion that I have (Joe Torre’s book on management, Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running). Then, there’s the book that shows off a writer’s research (Botany in Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things and gems and jewelry in Stoned by Aja Raden). Who knew I loved the plants I can’t help killing or that Japan created an empire of cultured pearls?  Not me!

In romance novels, you learn about the careers/backgrounds of two main characters (at least) and this brings the reader into a new world. I especially love books with military themes since that life is fascinating to me. I was speaking with an author recently who generally writes contemporary romance but loves to delve into historicals because the research is so much fun. Another author told me excitedly about her seminar with a forensic expert. I love writers and characters who know and can do things. They can perform surgeries, run ultra-marathons in bare feet, explore different time periods, serve in the military and write about it with knowledge and precision, just to name a few.

I get that it’s okay to read about a lovable person, too.

It helps us get in touch with the lovability in all of us. But it’s even more fun to become engrossed in someone whose pursuits may not always be inward focused. Your character is an investment for the reader. Do you want to read about someone who languishes on the couch and is generally nice? Or do you want to read about someone who is multi-faceted.

It is the difference between having a conversation with someone who talks about their feelings and someone who discusses their feelings and maybe also understand how a diamond goes from being carbon to rising to the earth’s crust.

For me, a story succeeds if your protagonist is more than just charming or a survivor of hardship. We all endure so much. Of course, a writer can bring out the unique elements of a universal experience. But it’s even more powerful if the main character has a gift of some kind: wacky intelligence, medical expertise, a legal mind, artistic genius, leadership, a caring nature that transforms others, deep knowledge of…something cool. This is more parallel to real life where we are all carrying around gifts in abundance.

*Did I mention I have a Twitter addiction and am endlessly scrolling and reading what everyone says. I really shouldn’t speak.

**Except for celebrities.


Marriage Minutia in a Time of Chaos…

I’m trying to lighten up and not rage about politics, so while I’m taking a knee, yelling at the TV, and donating to relief efforts, let me offer this bit of annoying privilege.

In our early courtship days, when Sam asked me what I wanted for dinner, I started crying. That’s totally weird, and I didn’t expect this emotional response. How bratty that I can’t choose. Figuring out what to eat is like passing Econ 101 for me. I just can’t do it.

Because he’s so nice, Sam took over food preparation. We’ve been married for almost seven years and I’m very spoiled now.* We are happy, ebbing and flowing like any couple. He’s a social butterfly, which is fun to watch from my comfy corner of the party. On quiet nights at home, he likes our movie marathons. But food is his arena, not mine (except for Cheetos and dessert).

I won’t mention some of my concoctions, mostly involving ranch dressing and canned peas.

This semester poses a challenge. Sam has long hours this fall and I need to start cooking. There is no space for my cooking panic. In the grand scheme, this is nothing. Look at these hurricanes, these earthquakes, the floods, the chaos in government. We don’t even have children (or pets). I am fortunate to chop wood and carry water for him.

Still, there are neuroses to conquer. Let’s start with grocery stores. So full of delicious things, but so full of choices. What goes with what? The longer I walk up and down these cluttered aisles, the more I want to run home. You have to bring a list and plan. Grab a cart, dodge people, find the shortest line, and dart home. Repeat. Readers who grocery-shop (and with children) on a regular basis, you are heroic to me.

Last week, I made salmon, a monumental feat since I’m afraid of fish. Sam told me to cook it for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. I cooked it for 30 minutes at 375 degrees just to kill any critters lurking inside. Progress.

It occurs to me that this is part of marriage, helping your spouse, and his happiness when he sees the laundry and dinner ready is so worth a million trips to the store. Though, he really doesn’t like my cooking. He pretends, like the prince he is.

Next stop: Cooking chicken or going vegan altogether.

*While knowing and appreciating every day how lucky I am.

Romantic Life Lessons, Shameless Promotion

Weekend at Williams College

I’m a firm believer that leaving the house is a good thing. Two weeks ago, at Williams College, I sp18033806_1841392116120242_235358556887425489_noke about my employer’s global marketing program at a conference about romance. Following this, I signed my book at Water Street Books, a lovely bookstore that is too friendly to be your typical college bookstore. Where were the shotglasses and school banners? Maybe they were there, but I was too focused on the wall to wall books.

Given my new fearless status when it comes to travel, this whole trip was a labor of love: hopping on a train and getting into a car with like-minded romance-aholics. I had the pleasure of talking with stars of the genre: Eloisa James, Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Sonali Dev who writes Bollywood in a romance novel, Katy Regnery, Radclyffe of Bold Strokes Books, Alison Case who is a professor at Williams (and fellow Oberlin alumna!) to name a few. We had a blast, and not because of the constant Dunkin’ Donuts outside the lecture hall.

And now I’m packing for the RT conference in Atlanta. This is my first time going. Except, of course, I have three emergency edits to do. Is it me or are work and Crazy Life Events falling from the sky all at once? Well, this just means it’s time for chocolate and dessert.