When characters refuse to die (with good reasons)

I was pretty sure I had killed off all the mom characters in the book but I think I might have been a bit premature. I read something interesting in my notes last night. I was reading about flaws and one of the things I had printed out (I’m not near it now to get the quote exactly) said that the fatal flaw should be in direct opposition to the theme. I found that fascinating because as I played out what I first thought the theme was in my book it just didn’t work with the fatal flaw I gave to my MC. The initial theme was too vague; not focused enough. So I kept doing questions on the theme to spiral deeper and deeper and finally realized what the heart of the book was all about. And I realized I need the birth mom in order to help me do it.

She’s still dead, but she’s back in the book because I think he needs to find some things from her or of hers that will fuel his negative expectations in himself. There is much work to be done on the idea still. I need to think of what he might find of hers that I can mirror in some fashion into his world but it should be an interesting journey.

The grandfather? He’s still dead.

Sunday, November 25, 2007|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |8 Comments

From research to index cards to story – I hope

Writing progress. I have been working hard on the YA novel. I have gone through about 90% of the notes I have made over the years on VZ and transferred the keeper pieces of information to a variety of color-coded index cards. I’ve almost gone through 3 packs of cards. I need more of a couple of colors to finish off. I had already made the decision to toss all the old versions and start anew. But even after packing those old pages away I was left with a binder full of  notes about characters and airplanes and various plot possibilities. Not all of it is usable but reading through it has helped me sink deeper into the story. Reading more about planes has helped me remember the initial pull to tell the story from 20 years ago. I have one colored card just for questions that need to be answered and as I went through the notes I’d find questions leading to more questions which lead to more plot points. I just kept jotting them on cards without trying to analyze them. That will come later.

I find it all very interesting to see that way my young writer mind worked back then – better in some ways (at taking notes) not so good in others (lots of cliche) but still workable. Still a very writeable story. A story I still want to tell. This is good news because for a while I wasn’t so sure. Anytime I have to do a lot of research for a book I reach a point where I don’t think I can do it. I get scared with all the facts that have to be perfectly correct and want to run and hide behind a story that just has to be emotionally correct. I think that’s why I wasn’t able to write this story before now – I just wasn’t writer enough to stand up to the material. To do it justice.

Jane Kurtz once told me that, “It isn’t just about telling the story but about becoming enough of a storyteller so that people will listen even to the hard things.”

That the kind of writer I want to be – one that compels you to keep reading even though you know some of the story isn’t going to be pretty. Am I still chasing demons of my own? Yes I am.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007|Categories: Writing Life|Tags: , , , |15 Comments

How young are your memories?

As I plod through this plotting process I set up for myself I’ve been finding odd bits of notes from the various versions of the book over the years. I realized that a big chunk of something important in the book deals with memories and how much we can remember from a young age. Basically I have to decide how old my MC is when a certain thing happens so I can use the memories. For years I’ve had him at 4 but now I wonder if that is too young?  He is 16 then 17 in the book. I want him to remember some things over time but not a lot. And I don’t want him to have the conversational capability that an older child would have.

So the question is – how far back can you remember? How old or how young are your memories?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |34 Comments

characters – another one bites the dust (I think)

 Sometimes you think there’s a character who belongs in the book. Let’s call him, oh say, the grandfather. You describe the grandfather. You write scenes the grandfather. You have a list of plot points between the grandfather and the main character. He’s a fun character to write.

Then you think about the book and how because it deals with adoption you already have a set of birth parents and adopted parents and an adult in the book who is sem-parenting the kid already and you ask yourself, if there’s a grandfather in the book is he going to do something important? And you answer yourself, well sure. Then you ask yourself, is he doing something that could be done by someone in the book? And as much as you hate to admit it, you know the answer is yes.

There’s really not a compelling reason to keep the grandfather in the book.

At least not THIS book. Muhhahaha!!!

PS to Kelly – please mark this down as one day of progress on VZ

Monday, November 19, 2007|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |4 Comments

and suddenly a door opens and plot unfolds

 It’s always amazing to me when a book makes a shift from being just an idea or a concept to an actual story with a life of its own. 

Sometimes it’s a result of changing format, like when I moved from straight prose to free verse in Hugging the Rock

Sometimes it’s because a book has percolated long enough that it just bubbles to the surface in a boil that pours onto the page (after over 25 years of simmering as it did with Can I Pray With My Eyes Open?)

Sometimes it’s because you just keep asking your character the same question over and over again until he finally answers you just to get you to shut up. And then you make a phone call or two or three or ten (I lost track) to verify what’s real and what’s not and before you know it, you have piles of conflicts and questions without answers and people keeping secrets and dozens of scenes waiting to be written.

And so it begins.

And not all of it takes place on solid ground.


Thursday, October 25, 2007|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , , |11 Comments

One true sentence

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” Ernest Hemingway

My current WIP is an old story. By that I mean I have been writing it for most of my writing life. (over 20 years) I have had it coming from the POV of a teenaged boy and and teenaged girl. I tried it as a YA romance. I tried it as a diary. I recently came to the realization that I was too wrapped up in all the stuff I’d written that didn’t work. I kept trying to cut and paste and tweak and edit my way to a good book. That’s not writing, that’s an art project.

I made the decision to read through my old stuff once and then not look at it again while I went back to work on VZ. It is both exciting and terrifying. Especially as I had been away from writing for so long.

This is a typical writing session for me now:

I sit at the screen and stare at it. I type the main character’s name. I delete it. I type it again and realize I have no idea what he is doing. I leave my Word doc open and go off to read blogs or do some online shopping or anything that ISN’T writing. I pick up my student pilot manual and read some of it until my eyes start to glaze over. I go back to my Word doc and look at the character’s name. I sigh and decide to go brush the dog.

But the book is there, just nibbling at the edge of my subconscious. I want to write it. I have to write THIS story at THIS time in my life. I know it is the right time. And then I remember Hemingway’s quote about writing just one true sentence. I think I can do that. Just one. It doesn’t even have to be a long one.

I go back to computer and start playing with verbs. 

He runs . . .
He sees . . .
He thinks . . .
He likes. He likes….hmmm….I can’t work with that. 

Wait, he doesn’t like. That’s better. Conflict. What doesn’t he like?

And then I have it – one true sentence. I know one thing about my MC that he doesn’t like. I know that for a fact. And when I know what he doesn’t like I know a few things he DOES like. So I write another sentence. And then a couple of more.

It’s not even a full page. Just a very small paragraph. But it’s a start.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |22 Comments

music that makes you want to cry

Okay…so this subject is very subjective, I know, but I’m building a list of songs for a writing mix and what I am looking for are songs that for some reason or another elicit a very strong emotional reaction and could easily (if you are in the right mood) bring you tears. Now just because a song affects you like that, doesn’t mean it will do the same to me, but I think it could be interesting for me to hear what songs have that effect on other people.

I listen to all sorts of music so go ahead, give me your best “brings you to tears” (or pretty darn close) songs.

Friday, January 13, 2006|Categories: Random|Tags: , , |44 Comments

Well duh – if my main character is me then

it all makes perfect sense.

When a good friend reminded me years ago that my main character, DC, feels the same way about planes as I do about writing I agreed and then let it go. But this week as I have been trying to do as much pre-writing and prep work as I can on the book I am learning how I know tons of stuff about everyone else in the book EXCEPT the main character. I know the main character wants to know about his dad. I know all the bad guys. I know what a father is willing to do for the son he loves. I know that some people don’t make good parents and that the best parents aren’t always those you’re related to by blood. I know who’s willing to help the MC reach his goal and who will throw up the blockades. I know the very blackest moment, though I’m not sure what the reaction will be. But I still hardly know the main character.

Then I realized that if DC and his love of planes is a mirror of me and my love of writing, then DC is standing for me in some way and for some reason I am afraid to acknowledge that part of myself. All that therapy gone to waste.

I shared that thought with a friend who came back with an answer that had me doing the “duh” and forehead slapping routine. She pointed out that I have always had a desperate need to know my father but because my mom doesn’t remember/won’t talk about it, his memory is lost to me. It’s over. Done. And there’s not a darn thing I can do about it.

And there’s the difference between me and DC. I have to get in touch with that part of me who screams for the truth, but may never get it. DC will keep searching and fighting until he DOES find the truth.

It will be total jealousy and grief when DC gets his answer, and I don’t.

Thursday, January 12, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , , |0 Comments

Character flaws, ALA & other writing rambles

My editor told me today that we have to go another round of revisions on Hugging the Rock. I sort of expected it but each go around makes me worried that I’ll mess up the book or not be able to do what she asked me to do. She also said that they’ve printed up “The First Day” which is the first 14 poems in the book as a “teaser” for mid-winter ALA. So if you’re going to mid-winter be sure to stop by the Tricycle Press booth and take a look.

I woke up this morning and realized I have no idea what DC’s character flaw is….or much of anything defining about him outside of his love of flying. Oh my. The more I move forward, the less I know about the book. It reminds me of a favorite Ray Bradbury quote, “You’ve got to jump off cliffs and build your wings on the way down.”

Here’s hoping I can fly.




Wednesday, January 11, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , , , , |12 Comments

I just realized

how much of the old versions of DC’s story were based on real stories a real person had shared with me. It was obvious how much of the book was trying to fit pieces of my real life into it and it wasn’t a good fit. Not then and certainly not now.

Now that I have finally admitted to myself that I am writing something completely made up…I feel very free.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |0 Comments

A whole lot of words

but not a lot of story. I went through the old version of VZ again. Back then it was called FMBTY, something that makes me gag when I say it now. I jotted down on index cards a note from each idea I might want to keep and carry forward into the next version. I have 35 cards. It’s not a book but it’s okay.

It’s enough to build a skeleton and a skeleton is all I need to get started.

Monday, January 9, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |2 Comments

How many versions does it take

before a story becomes a book?

I don’t know. But I spent time today rereading the last complete version of VZ. The last time I had tried to tell the story from start to finish was over 12 years ago. I was both surprised and pleased when I finished the reading. Oh, it’s a long way from anything that should be published. But I had more plot than I had remembered which was a bit of a comfort since I am often plot-impaired. And I had a couple of well defined characters that I can carry with me. I could also tell that the new ideas I had should work well into the shell that is already there. The best parts of it were, of course, the flying scenes. I say of course because that’s where I had done such tremendous research and it showed. And when I shopped this book around in the past, those were the scenes that editors always commented on positively.

So there’s more to work with than I remembered and that’s good. I’m stalling. I know it. I could say simply that I don’t know where to start but it’s more than that. It’s almost like I am afraid to start. I don’t want to call trouble to come looking for me by listing what I might be afraid of so I will, instead, make a few commitmentsfor my writing week.

This week I will block out all the scenes I already know in the book so I can see what needs more attention. For me this means a stack of index cards and each one has a line or two about the scene I know I want. I’d like to have that all done by Friday night so we’ll see how much I can get done each night after work.

In addition I’m giving myself a sleep suggestion every night before I go to bed. It’s the same one every night until I figure it out. For now the question is

“Where did DC’s sister find the piece of paper that changed DC’s life?”

Sunday, January 8, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |4 Comments

Saturday thoughts

DC is starting to talk a little louder, at last, but if he’s not careful his sister Allison will drown him out. She’s a feisty little sister who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. DC is more of a thinker, prone to keeping things locked inside. Allison tries too hard to be the woman of the house, even though she’s only 10 or maybe she’s 12. DCs 16 so I think she’s 10. She needs to be verbal enough to spar with him but young enough to be in danger.

I feel so much better about the family dynamics now that I got rid of the mom. Whew!

I started rereading a bunch of my flying books today and realize I need to talk to some experts about one thing before I even get started because it concerns the title and I want to weave subtle references to the title throughout the work. Anyone out there a pilot who wouldn’t mind answering a couple of quick questions?

Saturday, January 7, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , |7 Comments

A day in the life

of a writer. Well, this writer.

Go to work at the non-writing job and spend most of the time working but with half of my brain thinking about VZ and when he first meets B at the airport and wondering whether or not B really knew DC’s dad or if he’s bluffing or if it’s just a non-issue. In other words, even though I was working, my brain was writing.

After work I went to a local school to pick up Oliver  where he spent the last couple of months. I was hoping to hear some feedback from the teachers but thus far, nothing. Then I went over to triple A to order my personalized license plate but couldn’t because they wanted cash or check and I never carry much of either anymore. Bummer. So I came home and did it online. And if you want to know what license plate I ended up with, email me. LJ friends have helped me get paranoid so I’ll not post it here.

Then I gathered up all my notes on DC and the research books on flying but haven’t put a word down on paper. Still. Why?

I don’t know.

Friday, January 6, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |4 Comments

I love it when a plot comes together

When I decided that I was pretty sure that I would go back to work on VZ, I started asking myself a lot of questions about what was wrong with the 20+ other versions I’d written over the years. There were a lot of things. Everyone in the book was too nice. The main character talked to himself and “thought” everything instead interacting with people. I had a mom that did nothing, added nothing to the story and another character that asked questions I never answered. It was FILLED with cliches. Oh and plot? Barely visible.

So I killed off the mother and brought the stuff that happens with questioning character to the front of the book. I kept the planes and the dog and the cross-county move but I lost the orchestra and maybe the fire. I think I’m keeping the gang but they need some help and a name.

I gave the main character a little sister but I needed something to weave her deeper into the story, something to connect her to her brother at the same time as it pushes her away. And last night, after many hours of not being able to sleep, I figured out what that is. Oh my. It excited me so much I wanted to get up and write but I knew the alarm for work would go off in a few hours and I needed sleep. Which was a joke because of course my mind was racing with the possibilities of what this could do to the plot. And I barely slept at all. And then today, after brainstorming with a friend, I realized I could add another layer (and take advantage of some great research that has been sitting in my drawers for 15 years).  Whew!

Exciting stuff. Now if I can just get the darn thing written. And after all these years with the book I never really could tell anyone what it was about. Obviously I didn’t know the story very well or wasn’t telling the right story. But now I know the basic theme. And feels right.

What makes a family and when is it okay to keep a secret?


Thursday, January 5, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , , |16 Comments

How far do you have to run before you can tell the story?

Hemingway said, and I can’t remember the exact quote so I’ll try to paraphrase it, he said that he couldn’t write about Paris when he lived there. He had to leave Paris before he could put the words on the page that would describe his experiences. While living there it was too much, too intense, too something and it skewed his vision. He needed distance and the passage of time before he could tell his story.

Some stories, while not easy, can still be written while you are in the midst of living them. When my kids were little I wrote about events within weeks or months of them happening. It was fun, like putting things in their baby scrapbooks. I recorded their awkward moments, their growth, and many of our special family memories. I told stories about our family and I got paid for it. Now I can go back and reread those old articles and it’s like picking up an old teddy bear and paging through a scrapbook of their childhood.

But other stories, perhaps those that touch the most painful parts of us, lay fallow for many years before the words begin to venture forth. I believe our emotions go into self-preservation mode and give us time to heal before we’re strong enough to attempt share a piece of ourselves through the telling of a story. My first picture book, Can I Pray With My Eyes Open? rested deep beneath the surface for over 25 years before it burst forth, near fully formed in one sitting. I can tie that story to an exact moment in time, when I was 10 years old, and I know that the book was an answer to a question asked long ago. Hugging the Rock is a novel about fathers and daughters, but more than that, it is about making peace with things you cannot change. I never knew my father and I wondered about him for many years. I can’t remember when I finally stopped searching but when I did, I realized that my own story was inching closer to the surface, closer to being ready to be heard. Hugging the Rock is also about picking up the pieces after a divorce. Though many friends advised me to, I couldn’t write about my own divorce in the years immediately after it happened. The pain was too immense, the emotions too raw. But time was a helpful balm. Eventually my emotions bubbled to the surface telling me when it was time to write the story. In the process of the writing there were still some deep and painful moments but because I had waited, I was strong enough to go to the dark places and still come out alive. Enough time had passed that I could accept the blame for what was mine and let go of the blame for anything else. I could see the details through the tears.

There are other childhood events I want to write about someday but they’re still simmering and I’m still healing. Those stories will have to wait a bit longer. It’s been over 8 years but I know I am not yet ready to write about my time in New Orleans. I don’t know how long it will take before I am brave enough to face those demons head on. Not all my writing is tied to a piece of my past but I am making an effort to mine the treasures I have within because I do believe that’s where the juiciest stories wait to be told.

What does all this have to do with my current project? Everything and nothing The new project, the old project which I have returned to doesn’t really touch on a truth from my own life. I don’t fly planes, I’m not adopted, and my dad wasn’t famous. But I know what it’s like for the main character to obsess about planes the way I obsess about writing. I know what it’s like to wonder where you came from and how that might affect where you’re going. I know what it’s like to feel lonely even in the midst of a family.

When you’ve been working on a book for over 15 years, like I have with VZ, the story becomes so wrapped up in your own life that sometimes it’s hard to remember what happened to me and what happened to DC. Was it DC or was it me that found the box that held so many secrets? Was it DC or was it me that met someone who knew their father and answered questions held silent for so long? Was it DC or was it me that finally realized the true meaning of family?

I hope it is both. I hope I can tell that kind of a story, one that feels like it happened to you.

I hope 15 years of running is long enough.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |13 Comments

Happy New Year – in which I resolve to blog more

Boy, I hadn’t realized it had been a month since I had been here. Life was just a wee bit too hectic to squeeze time for blogging into my day. But since today is the day of resolutions I will resolve to blog more, even if just a few lines of what’s going on in my writing life. For now I can say that much of December was spent working on revisions for Hugging the Rock. Several rapid go-rounds and the book was sent to the copy editor just before Christmas. We’re right on schedule. The publisher plans to print the first section of the book to hand out at ALA mid-winter in January.

Now I’m in that limboland of not really being committed to my next project. I know, I know, across the last few months I’ve thought I’ve known what I was doing next but Frankie and Max have gone mostly silent. I think, after wrestling most of the month with it, I’m going to work on the YA novel, VZ. There’s also a historical PB I want to do but I keep hearing my agent’s voice telling me to let go of PBs for a while and concentrate on the novels. Sigh.

I’ve been off two weeks for the Christmas shut-down and other than the revisions for Hugging the Rock and some clean-up in my office, I haven’t done anything writing wise and it makes me crazy. My friends remind me that this is my process, that I finish a book and then go through the “oh my gosh I don’t know what to do know and I’ll never write again” phase. I think I’ll never be able to write another book. I don’t remember how to start. I don’t think my ideas are good enough. I hate this insecure side of me but I do recognize that it is something I go through at the end of every project. Sigh.

I’ve been wrestling with the plot of VZ, which is the novel that I’ve been working on for over 15 years. Maybe longer. I’m not at the writing things down phase but I did pull a bunch of my old versions and read through them all. I’ve decided to add a younger sister because the main character was entirely too introspective and I’m hoping I can get more into scenes with a sibling. And I hope she’ll help me mirror some of the book’s theme. And I might have a new opening to the book, one that’s more of a grabber. At least I’m thinking writing thoughts. Here’s hoping I can keep it up once I have to go back to work on Tuesday.

Happy New Year to my LJ friends everywhere.

Sunday, January 1, 2006|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , |17 Comments