Happy Book Birthday: Author in Progress

 

Today I’m excited to announce the release of Author in Progress, a book for novelists in progress, published by Writer’s Digest and written by the writers on Writer Unboxed (including me!!). On Writer Unboxed today, there’s a full description of the chapters in the book, along with a GIVEAWAY!!

A little over four years ago I had my first post at Writer Unboxed: I’m Not Above Spying. Since then, I’ve gone from being an occasional contributor to a regular contributor to an assistant editor and contributor. Writer Unboxed started out as—and still is—my favorite blog for writers. It inspires, educates, informs, but above all else it’s positive and empowering. This is what sets WU articles apart from what you might see on other sites for writers, and it’s also what sets Author In Progress apart from other books for writers—all thanks to the vision of editor Therese Walsh, also the co-founder and editorial director for Writer Unboxed.

Author in Progress is for novelists in progress at every level, featuring all new essays on everything from how to push through challenges to how to thrive throughout the process of writing a novel, broken into 7 sections:

  1. PREPARE
  2. WRITE
  3. INVITE (critique)
  4. IMPROVE
  5. REWRITE
  6. PERSEVERE
  7. RELEASE

My essay is very-appropriately located in the section on persevering. It’s called, “The Torturous Waiting: How Waiting Becomes a part of Writing”—because I’ve done a lot of that. Let’s face it, we all do a lot of that—waiting for agents, for publishers, for critique partners—and it’s important to keep a positive attitude while we wait, focusing on the one thing we really can control: the writing.

Here’s a tip I offer in the article: find a writing accountability partner (like I have), someone to check in with weekly, to talk about how the writing is going, and to bounce ideas off of.

I hope you enjoy the book and find it as useful as I’ve found it (and I hope you’ll check out Writer Unboxed, if you don’t already!).

Cheers,

Julia

 

Adaptation: The Missing Link

IMG_2928Today I’m on Writer Unboxed with a post about Adaptation. Specifically, as a writer why it’s so necessary during life changes to reassess how things are working in your writing life then to adapt to current circumstances—but more specifically than that, about why it’s so necessary in my writing life right now.

It didn’t feel right doing that (talking about things, deeply personal things) that I haven’t shared on my personal blog. So here I am, out of my comfort zone for the second time this month (see last week’s post), writing about something I’ve grappled with about whether or not I want to talk about publicly.

Here’s the thing. A few years ago, I wrote about MEH (My Engineer Husband) losing his job. I’ve written a lot about MEH in general—he is, after all, a huge part of my life. My partner in crime. My ummer (don’t worry, I don’t expect you to understand—he will). Last week I wrote about how I met MEH. The story of how we fell in love.

What I haven’t written about here is MEH’s depression. After he lost his job, he fell into a depression. Clinically diagnosed. It’s been hard—hardest for him, of course, but hard on our relationship, too. And hard for me. MEH has always been the most positive, upbeat person I’ve ever met. It was hard to see him not be that way.

Things are much better. We’re okay now. More importantly, MEH’s back. Really back. For a while I felt like I was holding my breath, but now I can breathe again. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a ways to go (he does, we do), but the depression is in our rearview mirror. And that’s a very good thing.

My post on Writer Unboxed isn’t about the depression—not really. I only mention the depression in passing, to illustrate my point—but it didn’t feel right to not tell the story here first, the whole story (as much of the whole story as I’ll tell right now). Because you all know MEH, some of you have even met him in person.

So, now that you know, I hope you’ll read my post on WU. It would mean a lot. Because for a while now, it’s been hard to write, and now I feel pretty vulnerable even posting a blog at all, but especially a blog post that is this intensely personal, and I could really use your support right now.

What have you struggled with that’s been hard to write about? More importantly, what do you need from me right now? I’m here for you.

Sending love to all of you, and out into the world, too,

Julia

Summer, How I’ve Grown to Love Thee

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“It’s gonna be a hot one,” he said as he stepped onto the boat.

I’m not a summer person. What I mean by that is I don’t like the heat (usually).

But I grew to love summer when my kids were young and they played outside all day long, soaking up the summer warmth and fun. I loved it even more when they were school age and teens, when summer meant long vacations, sleeping in (for them), leisurely trips to the beach, long summer car vacations. In short, I loved summer with my kids.

My kids no longer have summer vacations (not long ones anyway, they both work full time)—although they’ve both been to Maine for a taste of summer—and I’m rethinking how I feel about summer, in general… Last winter was the winter from hell. It was colder and snowier than any winter we’ve had in a long time, and now I suddenly find myself a fan of summer. I can’t even seem to mind the heat. And I don’t want it to end.

Yesterday we—and by “we” I of course mean MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I—went to take sunrise photos on the dock at Littlejohn Island (that’s one of the photos I took at the top of the post). As we stood and watched the sun rise, a fisherman walked down to the dock and stood with his gear, waiting. “Mornin’,” he said as he walked by. Across the water, we could hear a boat approach from Chebeague Island. As MEH and I watched, the commercial fishing boat pulled up to the dock and the fisherman got on board.

He looked up at us as he stepped onto the boat and said, “It’s gonna be a hot one.” He smiled and waved as the boat pulled away. He was right.

This summer I’ve found lots to do. I haven’t blogged (here on my blog) for almost two months—the longest break I’ve taken ever from posting a blog. I’ve been doing other things during my summer break…

Writing. I’ve revised one novel (cut over 15,000 words and wrote a new first chapter), and now I’m querying. I’m also 20,000 words into a new novel; it opens with four kids graduating from high school and starting summer vacation. It’s sweeping me away.

Reading. I’ve read a lot of books this summer. I really loved middle grade When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. And Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor—which I just wrote this review about for Great New Books.

Editing. At the beginning of this summer Therese Walsh asked if I’d be an assistant editor for Writer Unboxed. I was honored. I’ve been working for Writer Unboxed, coordinating guest posts, for about a year and a half. I’ve also been blogging there for about three years (how is that possible?). I had two posts there this summer, one about why I’m rethinking my spying ways, and last week, I posted one about my writing rules (and why I have only one).

Watching. MEH and I just finished binge watching Alias, which I loved. I also watched HawthoRNe (not about the famous writer, which is why I started watching in the first place), which I didn’t love. VEEP, which we loved and laughed through, and I strongly recommend. We watched movies. Spy in the theater, which we loved and laughed through, and also strongly recommend. We went to see Paper Towns which I wasn’t crazy about (I read the book, too, also not so crazy about it). And last night we watched The Rewrite on DVD and it was (yes) about writing and was a good movie although not deep in the least.

Gardening. But not enough. The weeds and woods are taking over the garden. And the deer ate most of the beans and a good deal of the Swiss Chard, and about half the potato crop was eaten by some kind of grubs. It’s the way life is as a backyard farmer in Maine. But we still have lots of tomatoes and kale. And we have a lovely volunteer pumpkin (the plant reseeded itself from last year). And we’ve been going to the Portland Farmers’ Market every Saturday where we’ve bought the best blueberries we’ve ever eaten. Summer makes eating local so easy and good.

And that’s what I’ve been doing on my summer vacation, how about you?

Cheers,

Julia

9 Questions: How I Write

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“Am I?”

Last month my writer friend Kristen Ploetz asked a series of questions in a blog post called Nine Things I Wonder About Other Writers. I answered Kristen’s questions in comments to her blog, but two of my other blogging friends—Nina Badzin and Lindsey Mead—answered the nine questions on their own blogs, and I liked the idea so much, I decided to do the same.

Because here’s the thing…Kristen hit a nerve. With me. With a lot of others, too. Many have answered in blog posts, and I’ve read a lot of those  posts, too. They make me feel more connected to the online writing community and help me understand what it is to be a writer, to call ourselves writers—because, here’s the thing, just like Kristen (her incentive to the post), sometimes I struggle with identifying myself as a writer.

For me it’s back to that old question. What is a writer? I’ve worked as a technical writer and a freelance writer, and now I write fiction, blogs, and essays, yet, I do sometimes wonder if I have the cred to call myself a writer…which goes back to the question of what “other people” think of when they hear the word writer, i.e., a novelist? A traditionally published novelist? A newspaper writer? Aren’t we all writers?

Ironically, this was the topic of my very first blog post, published  February 6, 2011. Yes, I’m approaching my fourth blogiversary. In that post, I wrote this:

As a long-time technical writer, by training and profession, I’ve often been told “you’re not a real writer.” I remember the first time someone said that to me, I’d just finished writing a 400-page technical manual. Let me tell you, I certainly felt like a writer. Still, even as I branch out to business, creative non-fiction, fiction, those words ring in my ears. But, when I really think about it, I come back to this: words are words, writers are writers. As a cross-over writer, going back and forth from technical and business to fiction and creative nonfiction—I’m blurring the lines. This blog examines those writing lines and the people and pieces that blur them. Writers are writers, regardless of genre or specialty, we’re all putting words together. As Maya Angelou wrote: “We are more alike, my friends,/ than we are unalike.”

I still feel that way! And that’s why I’m chosing to revisit this question through Kristen’s nine questions. And here they are.

1. Do you share your work with your partner or spouse? Does it matter if it’s been published yet?

Yes. I (almost) always share with my husband. Sometimes in draft form, sometimes even as I’m writing.  In fact, MEH (My Engineer Husband)—as he’s known in this blog—is one of my trusted readers.

2. How much of your family and/or closest “friends in real life first” read your stuff…let alone give you feedback about it?

This is complicated. Some of my friends are also part of my beta reader circle. For fiction—my WIPs—four friends have been part of that circle for one or all of my novels in progress. As for family, I have one aunt who’s read three of my novels in progress. I also have one self-published mystery novel. A lot of my friends and family have read this.

As for my blog, I can’t say for sure. My gut reaction is that almost no one I know IRL reads what I write—but I’m not sure. I’ve had comments from unexpected people, like random people I’ve run into at the grocery store, someone I met at the gym, one of my daughter’s college friends…my mother-in-law. Sometimes people will tell me they “keep up with what I’m doing” by reading my blog, and it makes me cringe because my blog is NOT necessarily representative of my life.

3. What do you do with the pieces that continually get rejected–post on your blog? Trash? When do you know it’s time to let it go?

I have lots and lots of words and articles and essays and multiple novel manuscripts in “the drawer.” Sometimes an essay I write and submit will end up on my blog (more usually a blog post I write might be expanded into an essay I’ll submit elsewhere). Fiction, which is what I am focusing on almost exclusively right now, never winds up on my blog. Anything that I write that gets rejected continually (there’s a lot, by the way) goes into the drawer. I view this as my training ground. Everything I write makes me a better writer, I know that for certain.

4. Are there pieces you write for one very specific place that, once rejected, you just let go of, or do you rework into something else?

Everything I write gets reworked some time, some how. It may just be a feeling or emotion, maybe a character, a scene I’ve witnessed, a conversation overheard. The specific passages I’ve written for one thing are rarely (I can only think of one chapter I ever pulled out of a past WIP to rework for another), but the feelings of a piece are definitely used at times for the bones of other scenes…everything is always stored away in my mind for future work.

5. What is your main source of reading-based inspiration (especially you essayists)? Blogs? Magazines? Journals? Anthologies? Book of essays by one writer?

Novels, short stories.

6. What tends to spark ideas more for you: what you see/hear in daily life or what you read?

My biggest inspiration is what I see (and hear) and what I imagine. I have a crazy insanely wild imagination.

7. Who have you read in the past year or two that you feel is completely brilliant but so underappreciated?

Last year I read a book written in 1986 that I think is the best novel I’ve ever read, certainly my favorite by a long shot: The Blind Corral by Ralph Beer. It is out of this world good. It’s the only novel he ever wrote. I also love Tim O’Brien’s writing in The Things They Carried, and think it should be essential reading for content alone, but the writing is brilliant. I also reread The Scarlet Letter last year. I think Nathaniel Hawthorne (though well read) is not appreciated enough in the current day. His writing is incredibly modern in thought.

8. Without listing anything written by Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, Lee Gutkind, or Natalie Goldberg, what craft books are “must haves”?

I really liked the first half of Stephen King’s On Writing. And the other craft book that is indispensible for me is Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Burroway and Stuckey-French, editors.

9. Have you ever regretted having something published? Was it because of the content or the actual writing style/syntax?

I’m not sure “regret” is the right word, but if I had it to do over again, I doubt I’d have self-published my mystery novel.

As I said to Kristen in comments to her post: “Long story I’ll tell you over coffee someday.” If any of my writer friends make a trip to Maine (or I travel to wherever you are), we can meet up. We can talk about why I’m not so sure I’d self publish again and much, much more about writing—I’d love that.

Now it’s your turn. I would love to see how you answer these questions—in comments to my blog or on your blog (if you do answer on your blog, please link back to this post and of course to Kristen’s).

Happy Writing!

 

Are You A Lonely Writer (like I am)?

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Maine winters are long. Not just by the month, but by the day. Darkness falls around four in the afternoon and the sun doesn’t rise again until after seven. Then there’s the snow. A lot of snow. Worse, once it falls, it never goes. Piles and piles and heaps of it stick around until at least late March, could be May.

This post is not about the weather.

All that darkness and gloom takes its toll. On a body, on a mind. On a writer. More time inside. More isolation. More potential for aloneness and loneliness.

For me, this has already been a problem this year. In case you wonder what loneliness looks like, this is what it looks like for me.

You know that overly-chatty mailman you usually run into your house to get away from? You invite him into your mudroom when he delivers a certified letter—then you chat for five minutes. You’re sorry to see him go. When you hire a carpenter to do some work around your house, he tells you, “We need to limit our conversations to two minutes a day.” (No I didn’t make this up.) You have gone through your friend list—twice—and wonder why it’s taken half a day (okay ten minutes) for people to respond to coffee invitations. You look forward to grand re-openings of the grocery store, of the library, of the new bridge to town. You spend more and more time on social networking (which of course raises its own set of issues). Your characters become your best friends, and you talk to other people about them as though they are real. You stop random people on the beach to tell them how much their dog reminds you of yours that died the month before (except they have a Shizh Tzu and you had a black Lab)…

That’s an excerpt from my post on Writer Unboxed today: The Lonely Writer. I hope you’ll head over to read it—it talks about the loneliness of being a writer, of this writer, but it also talks about ways to cope.

I’ll look forward to your thoughts, your input, but mostly I’ll look forward to having one more writer friend by my side along this solitary path.

 

Do You Believe in Magic?

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Back to the coffee shop… more magic!

It’s all coming back to me. Two days into NaNoWriMo and the drama has begun. And it’s not all about the writing. I’m beginning to think NaNo (or birthing a first draft of a novel) is a bit like birthing a baby. You forget all the bad parts—the physical pain, the fears and the feelings it can’t be done, the fear that something will go wrong, the sleepless nights, the anguish of worry—or maybe you’d never be willing to do it again.

Last year I “won” NaNo. That is, I wrote 50,000 words during the month of November: National Novel Writing Month. Actually, to be technically accurate, I wrote more than 50,000 words. And I finished the first draft of a novel.

Last year I also wrote four blogs about my NaNo drama. In one, I detailed how I decided (somewhat spur of the moment) to commit to NaNo. In one I recounted my injury that I was afraid might sideline me from finishing (I shut my hand in the car door)—well actually MEH (My Engineer Husband) typed that one for me. In one I recounted certain NaNo truths (and lies). And in a final one, I talked about how I won.

Today I reread those four blogs. Believe it or not, I’d forgotten all about them—except the one that talked about winning! I forgot I slammed my hand in the car door. I forgot it was a last minute decision. I even forgot how much fun it was. It kind of went by in a whirlwind to be honest.

Yesterday after my first writing session (I wrote only 782 words—and I knew that to finish the 50K I’d need to average about 1600 a day), I was discouraged. I felt pretty sure that my idea wasn’t a very good one. Then this morning I got up early. I made a pot of coffee and started writing. Before I knew it I’d written a thousand words. Then two thousand. The idea still didn’t feel like the best one I’d ever had, but I was inhabiting the world, I was seeing the scenes in my mind. I’d even identified a song that was emblematic of the story. (It wasn’t  one of the ones from my last post. It’s “A Sky Full of Stars” by Coldplay. It’s now on endless loop while I write. Yesterday I heard it on the radio in the car and I had to turn it off—I started to feel my eyes drift closed, started to feel a writing trance coming on…no, really.)

And there’s more. That drama. It’s all falling into place. Like magic.

Drama.

I forgot when I got up that it was Daylight Savings. In fact, last night I accidentally set my clock ahead instead of back. So did I wake up two hours early?

I made coffee.

I wrote my words (2695 this morning).

I went into the kitchen and a spaghetti squash fell off the counter onto my little toe (as MEH said, “a squash squashed your toe.”

The first snow of the season started to fall.

After I posted a snowy pic on Instagram, I started thinking more about the novel I’m calling TYAAD.

More pieces fell into place, and I fell a little more in love.

Magic.

What are you doing for the month of November? Do you believe in magic? I do.

Cheers,

Julia

p.s. if you’re doing NaNo, too, let’s be buddies! I’m Julia.M.Martin!!

Poetic Crossroads

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“At the Crossroads” by Thomas Guignard, Flickr Creative Commons

I’m pretty excited because today I’m having a blog exchange with writer friend Annie Neugebauer. I’m also excited because its the first time I’ve had a poet guest on my blog! To be honest I can’t remember exactly how, where, or when I met Annie, but from the beginning I was drawn to her blog for it’s varied and interesting content and also as a writing resource (she has a series called “The Organized Writer” and another called “The Decorative Writer”—all about writer spaces), but one of the things I love most is that Annie writes amazing prize-winning poetry and she’s a horror writer. And to be honest, both those things frighten me as a writer. (Okay, I couldn’t resist the joke, but it’s true. I am a mediocre poet, and I’m such a wimp I’m afraid to even read much horror.) Now Annie and I are co-workers, too: we are both bimonthly contributors to Writer Unboxed.

My post at Annie’s is part of her Decorative Writer series, where you can see photos of my home office. Check it out!

 

Last year, I found myself staring at the fast-approaching deadline to a national poetry manuscript contest. (A poetry manuscript is an unpublished book-length collection of poems. The winner’s prize is $1,000 and publication.) It was a well-respected contest that I had entered once or twice before, but for some reason that year I was procrastinating, and I wasn’t sure why.

Route Fatigue

I had two different manuscripts “ready to go.” One was a memoir collection of poems about me and my relationship with my father, whose alcoholism eventually led to his death. Obviously, that one was intensely personal. It was a mix of traditional form poetry, rhyming, and free verse poems. I knew it was a good manuscript; it had placed second in a state poetry manuscript contest two years before. But almost winning did something strange. When my name wasn’t called, I felt relieved. Sensing that something was wrong – but having no idea what – I shelved the collection for the next year.

My second collection was less narrative and less personal. Instead, it focused on life theories, true but less intimate anecdotes, and it mixed those together with poems about Pandora and the surrounding Greek myths. The theme of the collection was hope. It was almost entirely free verse, which is what most prestigious judges/contests are looking for these days. (Don’t get me started.) It had some great poems in it, but my gut told me it wasn’t quite cohesive enough as a collection.

Perhaps it was my subtle doubts about both of my manuscripts that had me hesitating. I suddenly felt I couldn’t justify a $20 entrance fee for something I knew I wouldn’t win – that’s $40 to enter both. (Hey, I’m a poet; I’m not exactly raking in the dough.) I knew that my use of rhyme was out of vogue enough to discount the first manuscript, and I knew that the lack of cohesion was enough to discount the second. Despite my husband’s encouragement to send both and “give it a shot,” I felt it was useless. Why bother?

The deadline loomed. I pouted. I decided to skip that year. Even if I knew how to fix either manuscript, it was too late this go-round.

Changing Course

Three days before the deadline, I woke up perfectly awake. If you don’t know me well, you might underestimate that. Trust me; I’m the polar opposite of a morning person. So for me to wake up and my brain be not foggy – that’s something on its own. But not only did I wake up perfectly alert, I woke up with an idea fully formed, sitting right at the top of my head. What if I combined my two manuscripts?

It was a mad idea. They were both full-length, so to mesh them into one manuscript I’d have to cut half of all of the poems. (Ouch!) And yet… once I’d thought it, I couldn’t let it go. The more I considered it, the more it made sense. At the root, both manuscripts were actually about the same thing: the dual nature of hope. And cutting so many poems might allow me to get rid of the rhyming ones that, though I adore them, really worked against me for the judges. I called my mom (she’s a great sounding-board), and as soon as I started explaining the idea out loud, I felt excitement bubbling. It was crazy, but what did I have to lose? I saved both original versions an extra time, just in case, and then I printed them off so I’d have hardcopies to play with.

I wish I had a video of the next few hours in my office that day. I must have looked like a madwoman, muttering to myself, shuffling through binders, tossing pages over my shoulder. I went through each manuscript as fast as I could so my subconscious would do the work. I threw out every poem that I even suspected needed to go. If it rhymed, it was gone. If it was weak, it was gone. If it didn’t fit in with my new, more cohesive theme, it was gone. If something nagged at me about it, it was gone. I didn’t let myself second-guess for even a moment – a trick accomplished by promising myself I could always put them back in later – and pages started flying. My floor was coated in poems. Good poems, solid poems, even poems that had already been published on their own. If I hesitated for a moment on a poem, I cut it. It felt like an exorcism.

Once I had cut a total of 121 pages of poetry down to 50, I set to work mixing them together and getting them in order. The poems from the first manuscript were easy to do, because they told a story, so they went in chronological order. The poems from the second manuscript were a little trickier, since they were about Pandora, but it didn’t take me long to realize how beautifully that myth spoke to my experiences with my dad and his addiction. I started “clumping” poems that spoke to similar things. I had a beautiful poem about Hephaestus, for example, who was the god who created Pandora, and how after creating her he had to let her go. It fit perfectly with the poem about my leaving home for college, which left my dad by himself in a house that used to hold four.

A New Path

In the end, I put the entire collection together in a day. I wrote eleven new poems to fill in some gaps and flesh out the new intertwined stories and motifs, but they flew from my fingers like they’d already been written. My personal story brought the myths to life in a new way, and the myths leant my personal story a new level of sophistication and universal meaning. It felt exquisitely “meant to be.” I gave it a new title that brought out the best of both books and sent it off to the contest on the last possible day. I knew that even if I didn’t win I had something special. The real clue was that I didn’t miss any of the cut poems, and I knew I would never, ever go back to the original two manuscripts.

The new manuscript received an honorable mention that year, which put me in the top five in the nation. It’s the biggest honor I’ve received for my poetry to date, and I couldn’t be more proud. I’ll continue to polish that manuscript and send it to other contests in the next couple of years, and maybe I’ll get lucky and hit the right judge at the right time – who knows?

But what I really gained from the experience was much more than acknowledgement or bragging rights. I learned how to trust my artistic instincts. There was a reason I didn’t want to submit those two manuscripts, and that reason was that I knew, deep down, that I could do better. I learned to take greater risks. I learned how amazing it feels to let old work go, even if I still like it.

Most of all, I learned how truly in control I am of my own narrative. I’m not chained to what I’ve done and exactly how I’ve done it. I am free to tear down and rebuild, to restructure and recreate, to go back and reinterpret again and again, because this story is mine. And somehow, in making it more fully my own, I’ve made it more fully everyone else’s, too. I think that moment when we reach the crossroads of fully realized self and fully accessible public consumption is what art is all about, don’t you?

 

Annie lives in Texas with her husband and two cats. She describes herself as “hyperactively organized” and she willingly shares “that neurosis” with other writers at The Organized Writer. While you’re there, check out her current projects, and browse pictures of writers’ offices at The Decorative Writer. She posts new blogs two to four times a month, and she loves to read comments! You can also connect with her on Twitter @AnnieNeugebauer and on Facebook. She also writes a bi-monthly post for Writer Unboxed.

What’s Your Story?

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N and the Forever Young

“I don’t have a story,” that’s what he said when we first started talking, when I asked if I could talk to him sometime, hear his story. Everyone always says that. No one thinks they have a story.

Like I said in a recent post, I’ve been doing a lot of photography in one particular place—the dock and town landing of a nearby town. I’m lucky I live in a beautiful, photogenic place. The coast of Maine. “Vacationland,” the license plates say it all. It’s a five-minute drive to the picturesque spot where I go to take photos, where about a thousand boats are moored. A small community, that’s the way the Harbormaster describes it. And every boat, every boat’s owner has a story. That’s what I think. That’s what I’m after with my photos—the stories.

A few minutes earlier, “N” (the lobsterman) had made his way up the ramp from the lower dock. It was a misty morning, and I was taking pictures of blue boats in the mist, of a man loading a red bag into a small rowboat, of dark birds against a gray sky—of anything that stood out, of anything that I could actually see in a picture.

N stopped at the top of the ramp and leaned against the dock railing, squinted out over the water. I’ve been going to the landing enough days this summer that people recognize me. I think N must have.

“If you’d been here half an hour ago, you’d have been caught in a downpour,” he said.

I nodded.

We stood next to each other at the end of the long dock, N leaned comfortably against the dock railing. We watched the man with the red bag row out in the rowboat. A kayaker went by, and I snapped a photo of him over N’s shoulder.

“It’s not really a fog, but you couldn’t call it rain either,” N said.

“Definitely not,” I agreed.

“Do you ever come here in the winter?” He asked.

I lied and said yes. Well, it wasn’t a total lie. I’d been there once or twice but not regular-like, like N meant.

“Lots of people don’t see the beauty,” N said. “They just come here and never see.”

N had a story; I could see it in his eyes. I could see it in the way he wouldn’t look me in the eyes.

“How long have you been lobstering?”

“My whole life,” he said. “That’s my boat.” He pointed down to the end of the dock at a clean and tidy—a beautiful—lobster boat.

I didn’t see a name on the boat, often it’s on the hull. “What’s her name?” I expected a woman’s name. Many boats are named after a wife, a sweetheart, a mother. Linda Kate. Nicole Marie. Skinny Girl.

“Forever Young.” He turned and looked at me. His blue eyes clear under white raised eyebrows. We smiled. “I’m seventy-one,” he said.

“You were born here?”

“Yup. Grew up on Diamond Island.” He turned and looked back over the water.

I nodded. No story.

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Another day, the Nicole Marie

“My father was at Fort McKinley during World War II—have you seen the concrete batteries that are still out on the island? He was part of the Maine Artillery, met my mother when she was seventeen, bicycling through town. He left for Hawaii less than a year later…right after that I was born…”

Definitely no story.

N and I chatted a few minutes more, much of what he told me too personal to share in this blog—or anywhere. But it certainly won’t leave my mind, and when I got back to my car I jotted a few quick notes in a notebook I always carry.

I probably have two or three conversations like this each week. I take some photos, I ask some questions, and I hear amazing stories of other peoples’ lives. I love hearing the stories unfold, especially when whomever I’m talking to thinks they have no story to tell. It makes me want to write, too. Not necessarily a specific story I hear but just write. The more I hear, the more I think about life. The stories make me think about my own life, help me make sense of it all. And the more I think about life, the more I want to write…about life…about the interconnections and intersections and relationships of life, and about how we all fit together.

N and I chatted for a few more minutes—he wanting to tell as much as I wanted to hear. I wanted to ask if we could go out for coffee, so I could hear more of his story, but I didn’t. Instead, after just enough to whet my curiosity, I said good-bye and walked down the long dock to the small parking area. As I got in my car, I looked back and watched as N stepped onto the Forever Young.

I know where to find him when I want to hear more of his story…and when he wants someone to listen.

Where do you get your stories? Are you like me that you like to talk to people you meet about theirs? Do you have a story to share? I’d love to hear it.

 

It’s All About Relationships: A Conversation with Novelist Erika Marks

9780451418869_large_It_Comes_In_WavesToday I’m beyond excited to be interviewing my author friend Erika Marks – here with her fourth novel It Comes In Waves. As with each of her novels, Erika has been kind enough to visit my blog. Thank you, my friend! Erika describes herself in her bio this way: “a native New Englander who now makes her home in North Carolina with her husband and their two little mermaids.” Here’s what the bio doesn’t say: she’s one of the nicest and funniest and most-fun-to-talk-to writers I’ve had the good fortune to get to know online. But here’s the best part. Erika grew up very near where I live today, which we realized  after we met through our blogs, and so we can talk about all the places I go that she used to. So fun! I’ve also met her in person when she was home visiting!! Believe me that was one fun meeting and I have high hopes we’ll meet again next time she’s in her hometown here in Maine.

If you haven’t already read it, you should check out Erika’s new novel It Comes in WavesI loved it as I have all her wonderful novels: The Guest House, The Mermaid Collector, and Little Gale Gumbo.

It’s All About Relationships: A Conversation with Novelist Erika Marks

It Comes in Waves addresses many kinds of relationships—romantic love, friendship between women, friendship between men, mother-child, father-child, even grandparent-grandchild. This Q&A will focus on those relationships…and I’ve learned through her four books that Erika is a pro at describing these relationships. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to focus this Q&A on just that.

I warned you I would ask this question! One of the things I really enjoy about your novels is that each of them has a (well, at least one) love triangle. It Comes In Waves is no different. I don’t want to give anything away but how could anyone not be in love with Foss? What is it about the “rule of three” that makes love relationships more interesting to write about than “just problems” and tension in a relationship? Where do you get your ideas for the love triangles…do they come from your real life, or…?

This IS a great question—and I know you will think I’m being coy, but the truth is the theme of love triangles is not born of my own experience but there’s no question I find the idea intriguing. Okay, maybe it had something to do with playing Helena in my high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and as anyone familiar with the play knows, there is no end to the drama (and humor!) when a love triangle (or square in the case of AMND!) ensues. However, I am always interested in exploring how we evolve in our relationships and how, as we grow, our attractions grow and change—which will often lead to having conflicting romantic feelings and not knowing how to express them, which is what I think happens to many of the characters in my novels. Dahlia from Little Gale Gumbo, and Foss from It Comes In Waves, are examples of that.

I’m not giving anything away (it’s on the back of the book) when I divulge that best friends Claire and Jill reunite after a long estrangement. Have you ever had a friendship that ended? If so, did you end up reuniting? If not, did you base the Jill/Claire story on other friendships you watched crumble? How did your own friendships make you more or less sympathetic to each woman?

Believe it or not, so often my fictional relationships come out of a lack of personal experience. I think of a situation that I may not have any context for, and it fascinates me to explore it through the novel. Sometimes pieces of my own life creep in (You’re a writer, Julia, so I know you know how can it not, right?), but from the outset, it is the unfamiliarity of the relationship that intrigues me and compels me to write about it.

Slight spoiler question… if you haven’t read the book you might want to skip this one. Am I the biggest sap in the world? I kept hoping that the third generation (Jill’s son and Claire’s daughter) might end up together. I was kind of surprised, in fact, that Claire’s daughter left Folly Beach. Did you consider this possibility? Claire and her daughter have a tense relationship with some serious trust issues. Is it strange that when I write about teenagers I always take their side (not the parents’), so I’m curious—are you the same way? Did you find yourself on one side or the other or are you more impartial than I am?

Such a great question because I can’t tell you how many times my husband and I will comment after watching a movie how you know you’re a parent when you identify more with the plight of the adult than the child. However, that said, when I write, I go back and forth, depending on the character. In the scenes of Claire as a teenager, I definitely took her side more but when it came time to show her present conflicts with her daughter, I wanted to be more balanced, as I hoped to be when showing Claire’s tensions with her own mother in the present. What interests me as a writer is seeing both sides and showing them because the older I get, the more I see the different perspectives and I think it makes for a more interesting and compelling story to reveal both sides—or at least, have the characters grow through understanding that the other side exists.

Re: Luke and Lizzie, it’s funny—when my mom started the book, she assumed Luke and Lizzie would end up together too—and honestly, I never considered it. But now, I can’t help but wonder What if…

I don’t know if you ever saw that old movie Romancing the Stone? At the beginning of the movie, the main character is crying as she’s writing…she always does. I’m that kind of writer. When I’m writing, I always cry…at emotional times in the story but especially if there’s heartbreak and always when I’m writing (or reading) the end. I’m curious, do you cry when you write? If so, what kinds of things make you cry? What parts of It Comes In Waves did you think were the most sad…that you thought, as you were writing, would make readers feel most sad?

You mean, have I seen it in the last two months??!! (It’s one of my very favorites—and was even before I became published!) I love that you cry as you write—very rarely do I, but sometimes when I’m at the very end of the process, maybe far enough away from all the edits and can see the story through fresh eyes again, I will definitely tear up. (And of course, I always hope I look even one quarter as adorable doing it as Kathleen Tuner does in Romancing the Stone!) In writing WAVES, I definitely teared up when Ivy spoke of needing a place to honor her son’s memory—and when Luke admits that he didn’t want to see the shop go because it might mean losing the only tie he had to his father.

I’m playing relationship therapist here a bit! Here’s a list of (some of) the relationships in It Comes in Waves… for each pair, can you give me a few words to describe the relationship and tell me which character in each pair you related to more or perhaps felt more sympathy for? Also (of all of them) which of was easiest to write, which was hardest to write? For those of you who haven’t read the book, I’ve noted the relationship…now you can see what I mean about Erika being the expert, right?!

Jill & Luke (mother-son)  I related to Jill more but I definitely felt for Luke. I have daughters but I think there is something different about sons—so possibly this was one of the harder relationships for me to write.

Claire & Lizzie (mother-daughter)  It went back and forth—I felt for Claire needing a closeness to her daughter and being so afraid of losing that bond but I also felt for Lizzie’s need for independence.

Claire & Jill  (estranged best friends)  Honestly, this one was challenging to write, but in a good way. As I wrote their scenes, I vacillated between who I felt more tenderly for, depending on the scene. I wanted the balance because I didn’t want one woman to come off as “the good one” and the other “the bad one” which might have been easy to do based on their history.

Foster & Shep  (best friends)   For whatever reason, maybe because I had so many male friends growing up, and was very observant of the way males relate to one another, I felt this relationship came together very naturally as I wrote it.

Jill & Foster  (love)   I loved writing their relationship because there was a purity to their growing feelings, a sense that they belonged together and they both knew it, even if they didn’t dare act on their feelings for a long time to spare the hearts of those they loved.

Claire & Foster  (love)   This one was tough because I knew as I wrote it that their love would eventually become unbalanced and I hurt for Claire’s longing for something Foster couldn’t give her. The mother in me came out, wanting to protect Claire from heartache but knowing she had to feel the blow before she would accept the truth.

Jill & Shep  (love)   This was a tougher relationship to unearth, because there is so much history, and because Shep takes Jill back after she leaves him for Foster. But it was the layers of that history that made it such an interesting relationship to explore.

Claire & Maura  (mother-daughter)   I felt more for Claire when she was young in this relationship but in the present, I definitely felt torn between the two. For better or for worse, Maura is who she is, and Claire is resistant to accepting that, as well as resistant to taking responsibility for her own choices and not blaming them on her parents.

Ivy & Claire (friends…and kind of MIL/DIL…well, it’s complicated)  There was such warmth there—the mother figure Claire never got to have with her own mother, and Ivy saw so much of herself in Claire.

Ivy & Jill   (MIL-DIL)  By contrast, Ivy and Jill were forever prickly, but their relationship was a fascinating one to write, because the tension was thick and I knew eventually it would boil over—but what would be the final straw?

Ivy & Luke  (grandmother-grandson)  Like Foster, Luke is Ivy’s everything and he validates her choices and her dreams—even if she knows deep down they are ill-fated. I loved writing their scenes.

Gus & Claire (new love)  Gus is such a dude and I couldn’t wait for him to swoop in and shake things up for Claire. The fact that he knew her from way-back-when and reminds her of her passion for surfing (and the fiercely independent young woman she once was) makes him so irresistible and lovable. And let’s not forget…

Margot & Gus (just joking but you still have to answer…dog-man)  A man who loves his dog and makes her as much a part of his world as anyone? Sign me up! I know this will come as a big shock to you, Julia, but I’m tempted to say this might have been the easiest relationship of all of them to write!

Thank you again, my friend! So happy you were able to take the time for this visit!

Bio: Erika Marks is a native New Englander who now makes her home in North Carolina with her husband and their two little mermaids. She is also the author of THE GUEST HOUSE, THE MERMAID COLLECTOR, and LITTLE GALE GUMBO.

 

Fresh Ink Flipped: Q&A with Natalia Sylvester

ChasingTheSunLima-e1403897593544I can’t tell you how happy I am to post this interview with writer friend Natalia Sylvester—because it means her debut novel Chasing the Sun has been released! I hope you’ll forgive me for injecting a loud “YAHOO” here… because Natalia and I have been great blogging and Twitter friends since I first went online, and I have followed her path to publication with great anticipation and excitement. In addition to being a close writer friend, she is one of the finest writers I’ve met through social networking. I have been fortunate to have Natalia as a super-duper early reader on two of my novel WIPs, and she gave me invaluable feedback that helped me shape my thoughts not just about the partials she read but also about my fiction writing in general—thank you Natalia! Although Natalia and I have not yet met in person, I’ve had the great pleasure to talk to her via Google Chat, and I can tell you she is as charming in person as her book is in writing.

I highly recommend Chasing the Sun…And here’s the good news! You could win your own signed copy of this wonderful novel—Natalia has generously offered to give one copy away. Simply enter the Rafflecopter at the end of this post!

Natalia and I are often on the same wavelength in our blog posts (and without any coordination have posted about very similar topics on the very same day)…but her Fresh Ink series is uniquely her own. Fresh Ink focuses on debut novelists and their journey to publication. When I prepared for this Q&A, I thought it might be fun to ask Natalia some of her own Fresh Ink questions…and here’s what Natalia said when I asked her:

You won’t believe this! Talk about being on the same wavelength: JUST the other day I was thinking how it’d be fun to ask someone to do a Fresh Ink interview with me, flipped! So of course I’m beyond ecstatic to see question #1 (but not surprised that you read my mind).

I just want to take a moment to say how thrilled I am to be a guest at your blog today, Julia. You’re one of the first bloggers who I connected with when I sought out social media to meet other writers, and I never imagined that I’d not only find writers, but true friends. Thank you so much for having me!

Thank you, Natalia! The feeling is entirely mutual!

1. Here goes…this first question is Fresh Ink…flipped!

Length of time from book’s start to pub date: 9 years (Though I did set this book aside for a period of 5 years in between.)

# of agents you queried before signing: 17

# of books written before this one: 1

# of revisions you went through: 3 complete rewrites and probably 3 revisions per rewrite

We’re lucky that there are so many great resources for writers to learn about publishing these days. That being said, what’s the one aspect of the process you never could have predicted?

I never would have predicted how much I’d learn throughout the process of talking about the book and being asked questions I’d never really thought about. Since the book launched, I’ve learned that the first memory I have—one that I thought took place after we’d moved away from Peru—is actually me remembering a night in Peru when we all the power had gone off in our house. These blackouts were common at the time; groups like the Shining Path would often set off bombs, set fires, or set off the power throughout the city.

ChasingtheSun_Cover_jpegI’ve also remembered the moment I learned about my grandfather’s kidnapping in more vivid detail that ever before, because talking about it forced me to dig deeper than I’d tried to dig in the past. I’d always expected writing a book to be an act of self-discovery, but hadn’t anticipated that promoting it would be just as eye-opening. The curiosity that readers bring to a story opens up a whole other world of possibilities.

2. Can you describe a little bit about your writing process? I know that in addition to being a novelist you’re also a busy freelance writer—how do you balance those two (potentially competing) writing endeavors?

It’s funny that you ask how I balance them, when in fact I feel like they balance me! Writing fiction has always been a very emotionally intense process for me: most days, I’m overwhelmed by insecurity, wondering if the words will come, if the story and the characters will take shape like I hope they will. This, paired with the scary or difficult-to-imagine places that fiction tasks us with going, can be draining. So I can’t imagine writing fiction all day every day, but my work as a freelance copywriter allows me to keep pulling from my writing “toolbox” daily. Things like voice, word choice, tone, and the importance of telling a story, are parts of the craft I get to practice through copywriting.

At the same time, switching between the two forms doesn’t always come easy for me, so I try to write fiction first thing in the morning—two hours before I’d normally wake—and then spend the rest of the day on social media, marketing, and also my freelance work. Of course, that’s in ideal conditions! I’ve had deadlines for revision force me to mix things up a bit, and that’s always a welcome challenge because it pushes me out of my comfort zone.

3. You’ve talked about how Chasing the Sun was partially inspired by your grandfather’s kidnapping in Peru. Having written fiction that started with a tiny germ of my own life, I know it doesn’t take much…and I’m so curious how your story strayed from reality and where…

Where it’s most rooted in reality is in the questions I was hoping to answer through the story, things I’d always wondered about my grandfather’s kidnapping but had been too afraid to ask: How does living through an experience like this affect a person? How does it affect not just the victim, but the family, who are also victims tormented by the waiting and the not knowing? What happens when this person returns—can things ever go back to normal, and does normal even exist? And most importantly, is there any hope left once we’ve survived such a dark, traumatic experience?

But from the beginning, it strayed from reality starting with the characters because I wanted this story to be about something bigger than my family. At the same time, I wanted to create some distance and give my grandfather’s story the privacy and respect to be his own, while still exploring it in what I hoped would be a more universal approach. Andres and Marabela very quickly took on a life of their own—I didn’t even realize they were having marital problems until the end of one of the first drafts. Suddenly the story wasn’t just about a kidnapping. It was about a frail marriage, and on top of it, Marabela is taken and all these hairline cracks in their relationship are exposed. I was much more interested in this because even tragedy doesn’t happen in a vacuum, under ideal conditions. There are always so many complex factors at play, rooted in the deeply personal. So the book also became a character study, which I think all stories are, to some extent: if we’re only looking at the action and not at the characters it’s affecting, are really looking close enough?

4. One of the things I loved about Chasing the Sun was your use of language—your writing flowed beautifully and simply and yet was complex in language (I hope that makes sense), and I found it quite reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in its descriptions and visual richness. I felt I was seeing the world as the characters saw it, particularly so with Andres. His voice and presence is so loud and clear. Very impressive. Can you describe a bit how you came to see the world through his eyes and talk through his voice? How did you make him come alive to yourself and to the reader?

You awe and flatter me by bringing up Gabriel Garcia Marquez—thank you! Much too kind of you!

It’s interesting that you bring up Andres’s voice because out of all the characters in the book, his voice was the one I struggled with the least. I think it’s because, while I don’t agree with a lot of the choices he’d made in his life (and does make throughout the story) I could most relate to him being on the outside perspective of this kidnapping, because that’s how I’d felt my whole life in relation to my grandfather’s kidnapping: I didn’t know what it’d been like for him, and all I could grasp at were my imagination and unanswered questions.

I also knew from the beginning that he was a very driven businessman, that he’d put everything into starting his company and growing it, sometimes at the expense of spending time with his family and nurturing his relationship with Marabela. As a freelancer, I’ve also started my own company, and though I don’t feel I’ve neglected my family for it, I’ve often feared getting to that point. So developing Andres’s character ended up being an exercise in placing myself in some of my deepest fears in order to better understand a person like him.

5. I love when I find a line in a novel that makes me realize where the title originated—and when I read the sentence about Andres driving like he was chasing the sun, I immediately understood the significance and the importance of the title. I know you had a different working title…and I’m wondering, can you discuss how you came up with the first—and this—title?

Oh my goodness, titles, my weakness! I went through so many throughout many stages of the process, but once I submitted it to my agent (it was called Take This Woman then, and already I was begging for alternate suggestions!) we decided to shop it as Where We Once Belonged, and that’s what it sold as.

During the revision process with my editor, we discussed how, while the title was beautiful and hinted at the importance of the past and relationships, it didn’t have a sense of urgency, or any heat (yes! She and my agent actually used that word). I reread the book, highlighted lines that stood out to me, and kept coming back to Chasing the Sun for many reasons. One: the sun is such an important symbol in Peruvian culture. For the Incas, the sun was their god (named Inti, Quechua for sun) and even our currency was once called the Inti and later became the Sol. And two, I felt Chasing the Sun captured how so many of the characters, including Andres, are always chasing after what most eludes them, and what perhaps will always be out of their reach.

6. “In the eerie glow of the red light, they work in silence, and when they’re done the room is just another poorly lit windowless office with a view to nowhere.” This sentence (on page 68) was so evocative for me. I loved that Marabela was a photographer during the time of darkrooms—as a photographer myself, I can say you described the processes and feelings and products so very well…particularly later about the spools for the film, in the pitch dark. Have you worked in a darkroom?

I took photography in high school, and this was a couple of years before digital had really become a thing. My school had this big, beautiful darkroom where I would spend hours and hours developing pictures, waiting for the images to manifest in the liquid-filled trays, and even days after, I could always smell the chemicals still on my fingertips. I loved everything about the process because it was so sensual: not just sight and smell, but a special kind of silence, paired with the act of feeling your way through the dark, developing spools of film in complete blackness. I have to admit this is one part of the novel that involved very little research. I miss the darkroom so much that really, Marabela’s desire to go back there is my own. It’s really what made her come alive for me, because I didn’t know she was a photographer until the second to last draft. Suddenly, we shared a passion and I felt I understood her, and how she saw the world, so much more clearly.

7. If you were a novelist being interviewed for your own Fresh Ink, what question would you ask her/yourself? (And then please answer!)

One question I was recently asked that I really enjoyed was from a reporter who said he loved the exploration of masculinity and what it entails, particularly because Ignacio, Andres’s son, is a teenager but also on the cusp of being a man. He wanted to know if this was intentional. I was fascinated by the question because I wonder how much of what we write is truly intentional, and does it really matter? Intentional or not, these words and themes still come out of us, sometimes from our subconscious, and the process of writing actually becomes a process of learning about ourselves. So while Ignacio’s struggle with becoming a man is something that I didn’t originally set out to explore, once I noticed it in my drafts it felt very true, and I intentionally left it in. I think in writing there are choices we make, and choices we don’t realize we make, and both teach us something new about ourselves.

Thank you again, Natalia. I am so thrilled to have had you on my blog for this Q&A! 

N_Sylvester-150x150A former magazine editor, Natalia Sylvester now works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas. Her articles have appeared in Latina Magazine, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and NBCLatino.com. CHASING THE SUN, partially inspired by family events, is her first novel. Connect with Natalia on Twitter and Facebook and on her blog, too.

 

Readers…don’t forget to enter the Rafflecopter for your chance to win a copy of Natalia’s book!

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My Writing Process: blog tour

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“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” Zora Neale Thurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

I’m not sure how, but all of a sudden it’s the beginning of June. It seemed like forever to get here, but now the sun is shining, boats are in the water, the lilacs are in full bloom, and our garden is a weed patch waiting for tending.

Meanwhile, there’s writing to tend to as well, and I’d like to thank my friend Jamie Miles for inviting me to participate in the “My Writing Process” blog tour. With a million things going on, I’m not sure I’d have gotten around to blogging this week at all. So thank you Jamie! If you haven’t visited Jamie’s wonderful blog, you should go take a look—she’s one of my favorites: lots of humor and life observations and full of heart. Well worth the read!

What are you working on?

I’m finishing up the ninth draft of my latest novel—I call it near-historical fiction coming of age. The seed of the idea came from a real life experience you can read about in another blog post. A teenage girl falls in love with a young man who is about to leave to serve in the Vietnam War, and after he deploys, she learns about and forms ideas about the war based on interactions with four other young men in her life. I wrote the first draft of this novel during NaNoWriMo last year.

I am also working on my next novel idea. It’s about an adrenaline junkie—so I’m challenging my fears by doing some of the things that I’ll write about in the book.

How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

This is a tough question because most of what I write is cross-genre. I’ve written mystery that has elements of women’s fiction (I self published Desired to Deathas J.M. Maison). I’ve written historical fiction that is combined with magical realism (I’m querying this novel); and my current novel is near-historical fiction (1960s), but it is also coming of age with elements of literary fiction.

Why do you write what you do?

I’m almost always drawn to stories of loss and change and themes of home, probably at least partly because I moved around a lot as a kid. I’m also the product of a broken family: my father walked out when I was only two years old. I often write about family and parental problems that I believe have a profound effect on children for their whole life long. Hence (regardless of their age) many of my characters are trying to figure out how to cope with the hands dealt them in childhood. I also tend to address topics that produce fear for me in my life (for instance writing about an adrenaline junkie or being forced to say good-bye to a friend or lover forever). These explorations help me make sense of my own life, fears, and limitations, while at the same time helping to distract me and make me feel less alone with my problems and fears. My stories also always include at least one love story—I love to write about love and relationships—often the foundation of life’s greatest joys and biggest heartaches.

How does your writing process work?

This is an interesting question because my process seems to be constantly evolving. It used to be that I’d always write a (pretty detailed) outline prior to starting to write. Then with my last WIP, I started writing and wrote about two or three chapters before I even started to outline—then I outlined the entire book. With my current WIP, I didn’t outline at all before I started to write and after I was finished with the first draft, I pulled the entire book apart, outlined it, and restructured it.

The one thing that hasn’t changed in all my outlining and writing process changes is that when I’m writing a first draft, I write every day. I like to write first thing in the morning, but I can write anytime. I think the reason NaNoWriMo worked so well for me is that I usually write fast and hard. During first draft, I’ll write between 1000 and 7000 words a day. I almost always go into “the writer’s zone,” and I barely notice what’s going on around me. When I’m in the zone I can write anywhere. In the past two years, I’ve come to realize that I can force myself into the zone with music related (in my mind only) to the story I’m writing. Ever since then, I’ve created a playlist for every WIP, and for the hour or so leading up to writing I’ll listen to the music, and I also listen to the music (but don’t really hear) while I write.  As I write, I become completely and totally immersed in the world I create.

Next week…

I’ve invited my blogging friend Jackie Cangro to participate in “My Writing Process.” Jackie and I met several years ago via Twitter and/or mutual blogging friends (I can’t remember exactly how)—you know how these things go. I absolutely love Jackie’s posts. She always delivers something entertaining but thought provoking, too, and I love her writing style. I also enjoy hearing stories and updates about her amazing dog Reggie.

What’s up with you this early summer? Writing? Vacationing? I’d love to hear!

Cheers,

Julia

 

In Writing, Tell the Truth

The-Rooms-are-Filled

Today I’m very happy to have my friend Jessica Null Vealitzek as a guest on my blog!

Jess and I met online, connecting over writing and a mutual love of good books when she first got involved with Great New Books, where she is one of six contributors (by the way, if you haven’t seen this blog, you should check it out). We started talking about writing and reading and publishing (we were both writing novels). Fast forward to the current day, and Jess just last month debuted a wonderful first novel (that I just finished reading and loved!): The Rooms Are Filled. In addition to Great New Books, Jess writes for PDXX Collective and has her own blog at True STORIES. She also contributes to the anthologies Three Minus One and The HerStories Project. (Did I mention that Jess also has two young children?)

Please welcome Jess with a post about something near and dear to her heart.

 

In Writing, Tell the Truth

I often think back to one particular assignment in Ms. Jenewein’s Expository Writing class my senior year of high school. We had to interview someone and write an article.

I chose to interview a friend’s father because, starting with almost nothing, he had worked hard to become quite successful. I asked him questions, typed up the answers, and turned in my profile. Probably B-worthy. Fine by me.

Ms. Jenewein handed it back with something like, “You can do better,” written at the top.

Excuse me? It was a perfectly respectable article. I’ll take the B, thank you.

I walked up to her desk, article in hand, hoping to talk her out of making me re-do it. She asked me why it was so dry, why she didn’t feel she knew the subject of the interview. Finally, I crinkled my nose and quietly admitted, “I don’t like him very much.”

“Aha!” she said. “Write the real version. He’ll never have to know.”

The final article, the one I earned an A for–the one I was proud of–was called, “Interview with a Vampire.” (The movie was big at the time; I was being clever.) Ms. Jenewein hugged me and said, “This is the result when a writer tells the truth.”

Russian proverbI have never received another piece of advice more useful. Tell the truth. Readers know when you’re lying, when you’re fitting the story into the words you want to say, or don’t. You know it, too. And when, in the midst of writing, you hit upon a truth you didn’t even realize was there, it’s golden.

That happened to me just a few years later, in college, and it was an experience that has served as one of the more important moments in my life, both creatively and personally.

I sat in my dorm room revising a creative nonfiction piece, a letter to my alcoholic uncle I’d been working on for some time. The piece was dear to me, as was my uncle. He was a poor father, a poor husband, he was in and out of rehab, he borrowed money, but I loved him—we all loved him. He was a goofy, playful, charming man and I’d always felt a special bond with him. Once when I was young, he pulled me aside at a Christmas party and told me how much I meant to him. It was one of my most cherished memories. His slide into homelessness had been devastating.

I wrote all of this in my letter to him. And because he once wrote me a card that said, “I am proud to be your uncle,” I ended with, “I am proud to be your niece.”

Something about the piece, though, didn’t feel right and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I stared at the words. Then I found myself picking up the pen and writing: “I found out later that you were drunk the time you told me how much I meant to you.”

I continued writing almost without thought: “You were drunk. But that’s okay.”

And it was. It was okay. At the time, this was a revelation—that not only my uncle could be flawed, but our relationship could be flawed and I could still love him and be loved by him. Instead of writing the story I wanted to tell, I’d told the truth. I felt lighter. And my letter was much, much better.

There are loads of books that use many pages explaining how to write. In my opinion, it comes down to just three things: Read a lot. Write a lot. And tell the truth. These don’t ensure you will be a good writer, but you can’t be one without them.

It’s such a tall order and yet so absolutely freeing: simply tell the truth. It will be more than good enough.

pic-screen-shot Jessica Null Vealitzek is the author of The Rooms Are Filled, the 1983 coming-of-age story of two outcasts brought together by circumstance: a Minnesota farm boy transplanted to suburban Chicago after his father dies, and the closeted young woman who becomes his teacher. You can read more about Jessica and her book on her web site.

Erika’s All About the Love

Guest House Final CoverI’m delighted to once again welcome my wonderful writer friend Erika Marks to my blog! Erika is one of the first writers I got to know in the Twitter-blogosphere, and we became fast friends over writing, birding, and Maine . . . Erika lives in North Carolina, but she grew up in Maine, very near where I live now. We met in person when she was here last summer, and it was a blast! Two years ago, when I first met Erika, she had just announced the release date of her debut novel LITTLE GALE GUMBOLast fall her second novel THE MERMAID COLLECTOR came out. Today, Erika is here to talk about her third novel THE GUEST HOUSE.

Erika has generously offered to give one lucky commenter a signed copy of THE GUEST HOUSE! You will definitely want to read this book (I loved it and concur with Erika about Cooper!), so please leave a comment by midnight on Saturday (7/13), and I’ll let you know next Sunday if you win!

Please welcome Erika Marks!!

 

 

So what’s love got to do with it?

Well, for me, everything.

I know there are many, many life-shattering and world-changing issues that make for incredible stories. I’ve read those stories and I’ve bawled my eyes out and I’ve thought, time and time again, why couldn’t I explore one of those issues in my next novel?

Call me a one-trick pony, but for me, writing always comes back to one topic: love.

Recently, I was on a panel at a book festival and was asked why I had tried writing in so many different genres before finally settling on Women’s Fiction. I had explained that through the course of writing 14 unsold manuscripts (and believe me, there was very good reason they were never sold!), I had tried my hand at possibly every genre out there. You name it, I wrote a book for it. Sci-fi, horror, westerns, Viking romance, time travel, among others. And yet, as different as the genres were, every agent I queried them with always remarked that the strongest element was always the romantic subplot. By manuscript 11, I finally listened and began writing stories that featured romantic relationships as the driving force in the novel.

So what’s so great about writing about love?

What isn’t?

There’s a reason 9 out of 10 songs on the radio are about love*. We’ve all known about love, we’ve all searched for it, we’ve all lost it, and we’ve all, hopefully, found it again.

I’m happy to say that my newest novel, THE GUEST HOUSE, is my most romantic book yet. While there is a bit of mystery in its plot, the core of its story revolves around the love and enduring passion that ties together two rival families at a rambling cottage on Cape Cod, summer after summer.

What amazes me is how each time I sit down to write a novel, I still get that same excitement knowing that I will be creating a new love story with new characters. Even though the course of romance is often a road travelled many times before, I know that each romance will be different, each courtship fresh and unknown because the lovers are fresh and unknown to me before I flesh them out in the story. Sometimes they shock me, sometimes they frustrate me, sometimes they even make me swoon (I’m looking at YOU, Cooper)—and I can say with absolute certainty, that I will NEVER tire of writing love stories, in all their thrilling, confusing, heart-breaking glory.

I certainly hope readers will never tire of reading them.

 

*Please note: this is not an actual statistic derived from any real source except my own obsessive radio playing in the car. I’m just guessing here.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAErika Marks is a native New Englander who was raised in Maine and has worked as an illustrator, carpenter, and cake decorator. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband and their two daughters. THE GUEST HOUSE is her third novel.

Website: erikamarksauthor.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ErikaMarksAuthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/erikamarksauthr

Blog: http://erikamarks.wordpress.com/

 

To Do


This zinnia has nothing to do with this post. But did I mention it’s snowing again? I had to look at the
photos of my garden to remind myself what it looks like when it’s not covered in snow. (I’m not kidding.)

My day in a list.
Note: This was not intended as an amusing read, but when I read through it I was amused. My task for today is to get organized. Let me break it down.

Task 1: Get organized

Note: I don’t know how she does it (me, not the movie).

Task 2:Self publish Desired to Death

Subtasks:Approximately a trillion, perhaps infinity.

Task 3:Plan the second book in The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series

Subtasks: Ditto subtasks for Task 2. Enough said.

Task 4: Go gangbusters on writing YA WIP, tentative title E&F

Subtasks: I am so excited about this project I wish I could just write all day long! (But note subtasks of Task 2 and 3 and entirety of Task 1.)

Task 5:Keep the house afloat

Note to self: I don’t ever want to clean the bathroom again or fold another load of laundry!

Task 6:Exercise

Note: You’re right, it shouldn’t be so far down on the list.

Task 7: Blog

Note: Oh yeah.

Task 8: Sleep

Comment: Yes, at this point (and sadly) it is a task.

Task 9: MEH. Not the word, the man. My Engineer Husband.

It’s a good thing we live together and that he doesn’t mind hearing ad nauseam about self publishing or I’d be in big trouble.


What’s on your to do list? 

Cheers,
Julia

The Thrill of the (Blank) Page


Do not attempt to adjust your screen… yes,
this photo is blurry. I told you I faced the
blank page with dread…my hand was shaking.

After the new year started, I knew I was getting close to that time again. The blank page. And I was nervous. I told MEH (My Engineer Husband) I had a sense of dread—what if I can’t do it?
Since last August I’ve been in editing mode. Desired to Death, a mystery I’ll be self publishing this spring, is now complete. While I’ve been editing, I’ve been planning my next WIP, the one I wrote about in Julia and the Purple Crayon.

You see, in that post I was trying to decide if I should put aside the editing of my finished manuscript and move ahead with my new idea. In the comments to that post, I received tons of support (I always do) and some wise advise. Something about one comment, from writing friend Shary Hover, really struck a chord:

“…if you think you’re captivated by this new story idea because you’re avoiding something in your current WIP, promise yourself that you’ll go back to it…”

It made me realize something. Although I wasn’t avoiding my then current (now complete) WIP, the new idea was so exciting, so new, so shiny, I wascaptivated. And I was afraid I was so smitten, that if I didn’t finish the edits of Desired, I might never go back. Those words of Shary’s: promise yourself, really struck me. I had an obligation to myself, to my work, to finish. So I stuck it out, editing all through the fall. And I finished. More importantly, I enjoyed the process and I’m very happy with my finished manuscript.

During that time, though, the new idea was in the back of my mind. I kept researching, and I even wrote a few tentative scenes. I fell for the idea even more.

Then, last week with the shiny new year matching my shiny new WIP, I sat down at the blank screen. I was scared, like I said, but I was still in love. And now I had a folder full of research and photos by my side to help me along the way. I still worried. What if I can’t actually write any words?It’s a new genre, after all—YA historical fantasy.

But as my fingers hit the keys, my mind started spinning. Before I knew it I slipped into the zone. When I looked up two hour had passed, and I’d written over 2000 words. I breathed a sigh of relief. The next day another 2000. The day after, I incorporated the scenes I’d “pre-written,” and that brought my word count to almost 6000. Yesterday another 300 words (hey, it was the weekend and MEH was home).

So, here I go. I’m on my way. And more than that, I know. I know I will be able to do this. It’s happening again. I’m in the zone. E&F lives and breathes in my head, demanding my attention all day, every day. I can’t wait to get to it every morning.

I’m remembering the thrill and embracing the blank page.

What about you? Do you worry when you face the blank page of a brand new WIP? How do you get back in the writing zone? How do you embrace the blank page?

Cheers,

Julia

The Coveted Moleskine

Right there on the label it says it all: Legendary notebooks.
Ever since MEH (My Engineer Husband) gave it to me for Christmas, it’s been sitting on the kitchen counter next to my to-do list. I kept it wrapped in its lovely shrink-wrapped perfection until yesterday when I finally opened it, stripping away the bright green paper wrap. I put the notebook back down on the counter—still nervous about opening it.

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted one of these notebooks… surely since the first time I saw one. They’re beautiful. The classic black cover is soft to the touch, the pages smooth. An elastic band keeps the journal closed, a narrow silk bookmark is attached within. On the bottom of the back cover, Moleskine is engraved.

I’ve watched for years as my son filled up Moleskine after Moleskine. (He got another one this Christmas, too.) But me? I have to admit I have trepidations to start even one. You see, I’m a failure as a keeper of journals.

Inside the front cover, on the facing page, is printed In case of loss, please return to, followed by four lines, then As a reward $: A reward? For something I’d written?

Most of my failed journal attempts are on a shelf next to my desk. Nothing as beautiful as the Moleskine graces these: a handful of spiral notebooks of various sizes, a few old lab notebooks, two or three less beautiful bound books—each one abandoned, each one with a painful jagged edge where I tore out the first few pages.

I’m afraid to start the Moleskine, that it will end up with the others. As long as I don’t start writing in it, I can save it from the shelf. But why? Where is this fear coming from? When I was younger—much younger: in middle school, high school, even the first years of college, I kept a journal. But something made me stop. It wasn’t that I stopped writing—I write much more than I ever did in those days. But I wanted to stop writing anything too personal.

Doesn’t that sound crazy as a writer? Somehow writing something so personal that only I would read, see, is slightly terrifying to me. When I wrote nonfiction (particularly technical writing), I never had one bit of myself on the page—never an acknowledgement or even authorship. Just one time, in just one computer guide, I used my name in an example—in the hundreds of thousands of pages of writing I did. That was as personal as it got.

And now, as I write fiction, I hide behind the mantle of my characters. Maggie True, Annie Byrne, Ellen Langton. Those women, each of them also a writer, two write in journals, one even has a Moleskine. They are free to write about their feelings, their innermost fears and dreams.

But me?

No. Right now I don’t know if I’m ready to bare my soul, to live up to the Legendary notebook, the coveted Moleskine. And so for now the Moleskine will remain unopened on the kitchen counter.

What about you? Do you keep a journal? A Moleskine? Are you ever afraid of baring your soul, of getting toopersonal?

Cheers,

Julia

Post-Thanksgiving Let Down


Abby with “her chair” in background

Every day MEH (My Engineer Husband) heads out the door to work around eight. Our ten-year-old black lab is used to this routine. Walked and fed, she jumps up into “her chair” and settles in for the morning. She waits until the door closes, casts a final look at me to make sure I’m not going anywhere except to the dining room (where I write), then she puts her head down and goes to sleep.

But not today. Over Thanksgiving weekend our daughter was home from college. Truth is, she’s Abby’s “real mother.” Last Wednesday, before we picked up our daughter from the airport, Abby was on high alert. She followed me around the house all day; she knew something was up. When my cell phone buzzed with an incoming text message she rushed over to my side and wagged her tail. When we got home from the airport, she was ecstatic, and she kept her eye on her real mom all weekend long—until we took her to the airport yesterday.

9:30 This morning it’s been hard for her to get back into routine. (Me too.) Feeling restless, I decided to edit on the couch instead of in the dining room. Abby jumped up onto her chair but her eyes kept opening. After a few minutes, I heard a chirping sound—at first I thought I was hearing things, but then Abby lifted her head and looked at me as if to say: “Aren’t you going to check that out?” When it chirped again, from somewhere upstairs, I headed up and discovered the smoke alarm battery was low.

I replaced the battery and returned to the couch. By this time Abby had jumped down from her chair and was sitting down in front of me. It was going to be a long day. She stared at me. Then somewhere outside someone started up a leaf blower….then another. Abby’s ears were perked up. Stupid lawn care companies.

10:13 I picked up my iphone to write an email to a friend, sending her the (above) photo of Abby.

“Abby is now on high alert—she usually sleeps in the chair in the distance, all day. But today she won’t leave my side, someone’s outside w a leaf blower and one of our smoke alarms is chirping …. No rest or editing for the weary. Must be my cue to write a blog…”

Mid-email Abby nudged me. Maybe she has to go out… I mean, most days she’s just fine from six a.m. until at least four in the afternoon, but you never know…

I put the email aside and snapped on her leash, heading outside for a walk. Nothing. Back inside. Back to the Abby stare down. 10:35. I got up and got a snack (okay, if you must know I had a powdered donut). Abby wanted some of it, but there was no way. I finished the donut and gave Abby the plate to lick (apparently there was a way). For some reason powdered donut crumbs are her new signal. She finished licking the plate then headed over to her chair and jumped up. She settled in and closed her eyes.

Back to editing. Still hard to concentrate—but then again, I miss Abby’s real mom too. 11:45 I finished a little editing and headed to the kitchen for lunch. Tomorrow maybe Abby and I will both have an easier time getting back into routine. 

But then what will I blog about?

Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving (like we did). Are you having trouble getting back into your routine? What about your pets? 

Cheers,
Julia

Julia and the Purple Crayon


I made it to the Jersey Pike
even without the purple path!
Whenever I go on a road trip, which is a lot these days, I rely on “Nuvi” (my GPS) to tell me which way to go. I just follow the purple path on Nuvi’s screen. That said, sometimes Nuvi does not give me the most direct path to follow—as is the case when I go to pick up my daughter from college and “she” sends me on a circuitous route to get from the Garden State Parkway to the Jersey Pike.
And by “she,” I mean Nuvi (not my daughter). It’s a female voice, so why not?
But I digress. The point is, this time before I left home I looked at a map so I could deviate (with confidence) from the path Nuvi directed me to take. Still, when I came close to the exit (.9 miles to be exact) Nuvi kept telling me to take the purple path on her screen. And I felt a sense of uncertainty and panic. Her voice, after all, is rather insistent and commanding. And I was, after all, surrounded by a zillion cars.

I couldn’t help but wonder: do I trust myself enough to go off Nuvi’s purple path?

It reminded me of what I’m going through with my fiction right now. I’m in the midst of revising a mystery novel I finished two months ago. And I’m also planning my next WIP—women’s fiction with dark, thriller overtones. But then something happened. Two weeks ago I had an idea for a new story—an idea that would cause me to deviate from my writing plan. And because of the age of the two main characters and the story’s premise, it makes sense it would be written as a Young Adult novel.

I’ve never written YA before, so this means going to an entirely new genre. My internal writer’s voice is telling me in no uncertain terms to not deviate from my plan, my map. And her voice, much like Nuvi’s, is rather insistent and commanding.
Yet here’s the thing: I can’t stop thinking about this new story. Not only has the whole thing come together very quickly, but it is also consuming my writing mind. And to be completely honest I’m already a bit in love with the premise and the MCs. Nonetheless, I’m also not entirely comfortable with going off the familiar terrain of the novel I’d already planned to write. Just like when I considered avoiding the path Nuvi directed me to take to the Jersey Pike, this time I’m contemplating taking a trip through unfamiliar writing terrain.

And I wonder: do I trust myself enough to go off the purple path?

Much like the iconic children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon when Harold draws his own path with a purple crayon, I took my crayon in hand and followed my own path. In short, I trusted myself to go off Nuvi’s directions and found my own way to the Jersey Pike. . . I made it!

But what about the writing dilemma? I don’t have a map to consult, to see the end point. Nor even an objective Nuvi telling me where to go, something to blindly follow. So this time, as I take my purple crayon in hand, I’m firmly on my own. Just like Harold’s, my path is a constantly changing landscape, fraught with uncertainty, my final destination unclear.

What about you? If you come up with a new idea off your planned route (in writing or on a road trip…or life) are you comfortable deviating? Is it an easy decision or one that’s tough to make?

Cheers,
Julia

‘Can Do’ Tomboy Lessons

“I saw only two vehicles this day – both as I was heading home. Both men with surprised looks on their faces when they saw me.”

Today I am very happy to have Melissa Crytzer Fry as a guest on my blog! Melissa was one of the first writers I connected with in the blogosphere. We became friends over our mutual love of writing, photography, and the natural world around us—even though we see very different parts of the world: she in the middle of the desert and me on the coast of Maine. Her blog, appropriately called What I Saw—helps me really see and think about what I see every day around me. If you haven’t read it, you definitely should. It’s an amazing combination of great writing, beautiful photography, and wonderful observations about nature (and life). Please enjoy this small sample from one of my favorite bloggers… 


‘Can Do’ Tomboy Lessons by Melissa Crytzer Fry


My dad wanted boys. But when two pink-bottomed girls were placed gently into his arms two years apart, he did what any good dad would do. He loved us without hesitation.

And he did something else. He taught us that we could do anything that his boys might have done. Was he still pining for the sons he didn’t have? Maybe.

But I wouldn’t change a thing. Because, in our rural corner of Pennsylvania with its cornfields, hay bales and Holsteins, we grew up doing things that most girls wouldn’t dream. We drove tractors, chopped wood, played basketball, shot guns, rode motorcycles and drove go-karts faster than we had a right to. We dug ditches, changed spark plugs, knocked down chimneys with jackhammers and restored vintage cars.

View of Grandpa’s silos from the backyard of my childhood
 home. Grandmother’s (and grandpa’s) house was not over the
 river and through the woods. It was more like “over the
 meadow and through the cornfield.”
I wouldn’t say we were fearless. We were simply beef-fed and garden-raised tomboys, groomed for independence (even though we had boyfriends, went to prom and knew how to apply our makeup). Maybe that independent spirit guided me to Arizona in 1998, while my family remained in PA.
Maybe that same “can do” spirit led to my newest creative outlet: Jeeping. Alone*. In the remote rattlesnake-, bobcat-, scorpion- and mountain-lion-laden Sonoran desert. With my laptop.

My Jeep, Betty, takes me to a nearby natural desert spring.
This aerial view taken from a helicopter on my 40th birthday
shows the remote road I traveled during my first solo
 adventure (see photo above).
This office location in another nearby wash included
serenading by a lovely canyon wren. Betty has
ignited my creativity!
Oh – did I forget to mention that, in between Jeeping, freelancing and blogging, I’m an aspiring novelist, chasing the same publishing dream as so many others? You know: feeling a bit knocked around, bruised and bloodied over the years – but equally hopeful, optimistic and determined. Probably more of the latter. Can anyone say Taurus? Or maybe … maybe it’s that ‘can do’ attitude inadvertently drummed into my thick-skulled tomboy head by my dad?

*Of course, all of this outdoor adventure required
some refresher training at the gun range (thanks, Neighbor Mark).
And I obviously depend on my wonderfully supportive husband
 to help me learn as I go. Yep – I still need to work on tire changing,
using the Jeep winch, and even more practice with 4WD terrain.
What holds you back from reaching for those seemingly impossible dreams? Naysayers? Gender or age stereotypes? Something else? What activities might you try in pursuit of that ‘can do’ attitude?

—————
Melissa Crytzer Fry is a freelance writer and journalist living out her writing dream in southern Arizona, among wildlife ranging from javelina, bobcats and quail to mountain lions, coyotes and Gila Monsters. She pays tribute to Arizona’s natural world on her blog, What I Saw, sharing photography and asking questions that apply to writing in particular, and life in general. Her literary novel-in-progress was named a semi-finalist in the 2011 William Faulkner William Wisdom Writing Competition. Twitter: @CrytzerFry.

Amidst Swirling Words & Leaves





Yesterday MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I went “leaf peeping,” which is to say we went out for the sole purpose of looking at the changing fall foliage. In this small and excellent adventure, words became a central part—as they often do for me. Because it’s funny how we use words without thinking (and when I say “we,” let me be clear, it’s the universal “we”). In other words, words and expressions become second nature to our daily life—yet others may have no idea whatsoever what we’re talking about.

And so it was with leaf peeping, which (it turns out) is a bit of a New England colloquialism, something I found out when I told Arizona writer friend Melissa Crytzer Fry we were going out to do some of the aforementioned leaf peeping. Thank goodness for Google so Melissa could figure out what the heck I was talking about. Otherwise she may have thought I was peeping through the leaves to spy on neighbors (although if you recall previous posts, I do that too…).

But my story doesn’t end there. Our leaf peeping travels took us to nearby Bowdoin College where once again I found myself thinking of words. This time older ones, because some years ago Bowdoin College graduated some pretty noteworthy writers: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Turns out these two great literary men (along with Horatio Bridge and Franklin Pierce) were good friends and graduated in Bowdoin’s class of 1825.

Bowdoin College’s Massachusetts Hall 

As we strolled and took photographs, we walked the paths they’d walked. And in addition to the leaves, we peeped the original three buildings that comprised the Bowdoin campus during those long ago years: the chapel, Maine Hall, and Massachusetts Hall (that now houses, appropriately, the English department). While we walked, I thought about words these early writers might have used to describe what we were seeing, and when I got home to my computer, I was delighted to learn that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote a poem about autumn.

Autumn

Thou comest, Autumn, heralded by the rain,

With banners, by great gales incessant fanned,

Brighter than brightest silks of Samarcand,

And stately oxen harnessed to thy wain!


Thou standest, like imperial Charlemagne,


Upon thy bridge of gold; thy royal hand


Outstretched with benedictions o’er the land,

Blessing the farms through all thy vast domain!


Thy shield is the red harvest moon, suspended

So long beneath the heaven’s o’er-hanging eaves;

Thy steps are by the farmer’s prayers attended;

Like flames upon an altar shine the sheaves;

And, following thee, in thy ovation splendid,

Thine almoner, the wind, scatters the golden leaves! 

And while not all the words in Longfellow’s poem are in common use today—Samarcand, almoner, wain, as examples—the verse is clearly English. Still, the language has changed enough over time that I had to read through it more than once and look up some of the words on Google—just like Melissa when I told her we were leaf peeping—to fully grasp its meaning.

This photo reminded me of the descriptions
in Longfellow’s poem.

All this made me realize that whether by distance of time or geography, words can take on different meanings or at times make no sense at all. Yet as writers this is our purpose and daily endeavor: to take words and make them meaningful, to help them take on a life of their own, and to ultimately help others feel the things we felt when we wrote them.

All in all it was a wonderful day amidst swirling leaves and words: “the golden leaves,” as Longfellow said. And as Hawthorne penned (and I can’t disagree):

“I cannot endure to waste anything as precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house. So I spend almost all the daylight hours in the open air.”

What are some words and phrases (whether colloquial or from another time or language) that you’ve labored to understand? Do you think by exploring and stretching they make you a better writer—like I do? As for autumn, is it autumn where you are? Or do you live somewhere that you don’t experience the changing seasons at all?


Cheers,
Julia

The Curious Writer’s Mind

Prince Edward IsAland

I am writing this post far from home: approximately 430 miles southwest of Maine. This early morning in Philadelphia, in a guest bedroom—more specifically guest bathroom (stay with me here) of my aunt’s house—I discovered this: I never turn off my writer’s curious mind.

But I get ahead of myself. MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I are here to celebrate an important birthday. Our daughter’s 21st! Last night we took her and four of her wonderful friends out for dinner at a delicious Malaysian restaurant. Then we wandered behind them through the streets of Philly, in search of a bar. Can I tell you it’s been a long time since I’ve done this? Of course I’ve never done it with my daughter! We had so much fun!

(An aside: If you have a daughter who at age two asks for a pony? Don’t expect she’ll outgrow wanting one. Even at age 21. Even as she’s sitting next to you on a barstool, ordering a drink called “Bulletproof.”)

I digress. What does this have to do with the writer’s curious mind? Earlier, on our way to the restaurant I took a photo—two houses with pretty unbelievable art displays in their front yards. I thought it was Halloween decorations, MEH thought it was more of a year round thing—and we discussed it for a while. But more importantly, I wondered: who lives there? What is their motivation? Why? What is the course of life events that leads someone to have such an assorted display.


The houses with the amazing art displays in their front yards.
Later, when MEH and I left our daughter and her friends to enjoy the late night scene, we wandered back to our small nondescript white station wagon. On the way we saw an amazing old building, beautifully lit up. I had to take a photo, of course, but I had no idea what building I was looking at—yes, I wondered and briefly tried to figure it out via Google on my iPhone. After I took the photo, we walked by the Ritz-Carlton Hotel—a couple dressed to the nines was getting out of a dark Mercedes, being helped by the doorman with their luggage. I had to wonder: who are they? Why are they in Philly? What’s theirstory? Are they in the foreign service? Are they spies? Are they here for their daughter’s birthday?
The mystery building turned out to be
none other than Philadelphia City Hall!
It just doesn’t stop. And so it was this morning (I told you, I’d come back to it), standing in my aunt’s guest bathroom, looking at the Map of the World shower curtain I noticed something. An island off the coast of Africa labeled: Prince Edward Isaland. No, that misspelled word is not a typo (well, not my typo). Of course I did what any curious writer would do: rushed back to my room for my iPhone to find out if there really is a place called Prince Edward Isaland—more specifically is it a typo?
The answer is yes, it is a typo. But, wait, there’s more! The first five search items returned in Google were other blogs written about this very same typo on this very same shower curtain (well, not my aunt’s shower curtain but another one just like it)! And one of the blogs was “overly harsh” (that blogger’s description, not mine) about this shower curtain, and not just because of the typo, but more about the mapping strategies and politics. And again, I wondered: why? Why the harsh reaction? What was that blogger’s motivation? It is, after all, only a shower curtain.

And that’s my short (not overly harsh) blog for the week—a look into this writer’s curious mind.

Do you, like me, see stories everywhere you look? Do you try to imagine what the people (and places) around you are all about? Can you turn off yourwriter’s curious mind?


Cheers,
Julia

Words for the Picking

In my backyard, the blueberries are ripening—plump and dark blue, bursting with flavor—so many on one bush they’re almost falling to the ground. But we have three bushes, and the other two have noripening berries, in fact they have no berries at all. It’s a mystery. All three bushes planted in a row. Why are there berries on one bush but not on the other two?

I know enough about gardening to know there must be a botanical answer: the soil is not acidic enough or the bushes are too shaded or they don’t get enough water or the bees got tired after buzzing around the first bush, or… some other unknown buried deep in the cells of the blueberry bush. But I also know enough to cover the one bush that does have berries—we draped it with netting—to keep those amazing blueberries to ourselves and away from the birds—and soon they’ll be ready for the picking.

As I’ve kept an eye on those berries, I’m thinking about something else, too—my writing. My current WIP is approaching 30,000 words, and most days (these days) the writing is easy, like the first blueberry bush, with lots of words—almost falling to the page in fact. But other days I can’t seem to write a word, and my pages are as barren as those two bushes void of berries.

I know enough about writing (and myself) to know that it could be I’m grumpy or didn’t get enough sleep or am allowing self doubt to creep in or my mind is wandering, or… something else buried deep in the cells of my brain. But just like the berries I cover to keep safe, I protect my words. I make writing a habit: I sit down every day, I reread what I’ve already written, I write as much as I can, and sometimes if that doesn’t work, I read.

And I wait, confident that like the blueberries, my words will grow and ripen, and soon be ready for the picking.

How is your writing going? Are your words there for the picking or do you sometimes feel barren of words?

Cheers,

Julia