Category Archives: September 2012

Take These Chains From My Heart

Last week must have limped in on sore feet.  No full moon, Mercury not, as far as I know, in retrograde, but something odd in the air.  Something more than the autumn nip, although I’m hard-pressed to name it.  At any rate, last week I received similar-themed emails from two women I know.  One of these women is a friend; we’ve known each other a long time, have seen each other through many of life’s vagaries, live in the same city and see or speak with each other about once a week.  Let’s call her Abbie.  The other woman was my best friend in high school.  Even then we were mismatched in a number of ways, but united by our adolescent geekiness and uncommon love for a certain singer of the time.  We’ll call her Beth.

Beth moved to the southern US in 1980 or so.  We have spoken on the phone perhaps 5 or 6 times since then:  on milestone birthdays; when her husband died; during the US election campaign that resulted in Barack Obama’s presidency.  Beth and I are political opposites, separated by geography, time and interests.  We call each other on our birthdays now because we cling to some sentimental memory of our young selves and because we have both experienced and recognize the fragility of life.  We have become, in a strange way, a constant for each other.  Beth recently got connected to the internet and has become a forwarder of cyber humour, images and chain mail.

Abbie is a teacher.  She’s smart, funny, kind and has – even she says this about herself – infinite patience.  Abbie knows when to speak and when to listen – a rare quality.  She is the kind of friend who is there when you need her, both physically and emotionally.  I love and respect her very much.

Neither of these women will read this blog unless I direct them here which I probably won’t because no matter how I approach this particular topic it’s bound to smack a tiny bit of scolding.  I am comfortable with a bit of scolding when it’s warranted and when it’s valuable, but we all know it’s seldom valuable no matter how warranted.  By golly, I wish I could conceive of a photo or two to accompany this rant, but alas…  Anyway, these emails came within a day of each other and I went through a few ch-ch-ch-changes before hitting the delete key and mostly getting on with other concerns.

Back in the day chain letters came by snail mail and were cruder: “Mary Ellen Yablonsky sent this letter to 20 of her closest friends and within 15 days met the man of her dreams, had her book published and won the Irish Sweepstakes!” – “Clarabelle Bibb meant to ‘get around to it’ but didn’t forward this letter.  She was struck by lightning while hanging her wash.  She will never sing or dance again.” Yes, back in those days I would clutch said letter and writhe in superstitious paranoia, reluctant to succumb to what felt like manipulation, angry at whoever sent this missive to my mailbox, and terrified that there might be even a grain of truth to the – threats is what they were – that terrible things would befall me and everyone close to me if I didn’t do what the letter directed.  I admit to performing a few ritualistic burnings.  And, I made a point of telling anyone who cared to listen to please not send them to me, that they freak me out.  I loathe and do not forward them.  Ever.

So imagine my surprise and chagrin when into my email box landed these two different but similar chainmail “invitations”.  They are more sophisticated now, better written, and appeal to our acknowledged good fortune at having loyal and invaluable women friends.  How could we not want to forward a letter of love, support and appreciation to 8 or 12 or 20 our closest female friends?  They’ve been with us through thick and thin and will be with us until we draw our last breath.  Why wouldn’t we show them that they are not only held in highest esteem but that they belong to an exalted canon of such precious friends?  Oh, how I writhe!

Abbie’s letter asked me to imagine eight women I’d like to invite to dinner, to send them a copy of this letter telling them how important they are to me and what pleasure we’d all derive from sitting down to dinner together.  It   directed me to copy her into my invitation so she’d know she was one of the recipients of my dinner invitation.  According to this email I had – no kidding – 5 minutes to respond.   The “or else” was implied but not specified.

The odd thing was that Abbie and I had eaten dinner together two nights earlier.  Granted, all those other women weren’t present, but I knew she had seen at least 6 of them a week earlier and they’d eaten together at a social gathering.  More than eight of the women I might have put on my list have planned a get together in a couple of weeks.  We’ll see each other face to face, full volume, full hearts.

The message from Beth was slightly more disturbing.  This one was laced with Hallmark-ish stuff about Really Good Friends and the Importance of Really Good Friends.  This one demanded I make sure to let twenty – TWENTY! – close women friends know how much they mean to me, a message that was also to be delivered in the next five minutes.  The “or else” was clear.  In rhyming couplets it stated that if I didn’t do this in 5 minutes and if I didn’t include the sender in my reply she’d “take the hint”.

I have been given to understand that these things are really phishing expeditions, a method retailers – and perhaps more insidious organizations –use to gather addresses for their databases in order to bombard us with less friendly propaganda than an alleged invitation from a friend to invite her to dinner in cyber space.  This is probably true, but I don’t care as much as I care that my friends, particularly the ones I see relatively often and share intimacies with, carelessly forward vaguely threatening directives without consideration.  Hey, invite me to dinner.  I’ll probably say yes.  Let’s tell each other how much our friendship means – from your lips to my ears and vice versa.  And if it takes more than 5 minutes to do that, well, I can wait.



Guest Blogger: Morgan Keyes

Many thanks to everyone at Black Ink, White Paper for allowing me to visit and tell you a bit about my writing process.

The heading at the top of this page says:  “If you want to write life, live it.”

I would amend that slightly, dropping out a single letter:  “v”.  If you want to write life, lie it.  Tell a lie, or two, or three.

Okay.  I’m not quite the sociopath that statement makes me seem to be.  I prefer to think of myself as a person with an “excess of imagination”.  I am a storyteller, not an unredeemed liar.

I know all about lies.  I mastered them – or at least, I mastered the consequences of telling them – in fourth grade.  I remember the incident as clear as day:  Caught without my homework done, I told my teacher I’d left my completed problem set back in my locker.  She let me retrieve my work, and I returned to class with a blank sheet of wide-rule paper in my hand.  No fool, my teacher asked for my paper so that she could grade the problems the class had already worked through.  I was busted, in a major way.  And then, ahem, I compounded the error by forging my parents’ signatures on the note my teacher sent home.  In pencil.  With three erasures because the signatures didn’t look right.  I was really, truly busted.

With an experience like that, you’d think I would never have lied again.

But no.  I lie every day.

I lied when I took my childhood experience of losing a best friend and turned it into a chapter of Darkbeast.  I lied when I re-worked the rites of my faith, turning them into the rituals of my twelve-year-old heroine.  I lied when I captured my work as a stage manager, building and striking the set of a play that will never be seen in the real world.

I lie when I tell my stories.

The best lies (as I should have realized in fourth grade…) are ones that have seeds of the truth.  I really did lose a best friend.  I really did study for my bat mitzvah.  I really did stage manage plays.

But those seeds have to be planted.  They have to be tended just so, with creative exaggeration.  They have to be coaxed to germinate, to grow into the sturdy stalks of a wholly new story.

I lost my best friend because I moved away.  That transition was well before the days of Skype, even before email.  My friend and I exchanged paper letters for a few years, but eventually we drifted apart.

That last paragraph wasn’t very exciting, was it?  You certainly have your own friends you’ve grown away from, and my story isn’t very different from your own.

But what if I take that seed of truth and water it with new, untrue details.  What if I tell you I lost my best friend because of religious differences?  Because she followed her faith blindly, while I bravely struck out on my own, seeking my own way of believing in the world around me?  What if I tell you that we parted during a life-or-death struggle over who would find salvation and who would be damned to eternal torment?

That story isn’t quite true.  But it’s a lot more interesting.

I always know when I’m lying.  I’ll even admit it, if I’m called on the practice.  But usually?  People would rather hear the story, enjoy the made-up world.  It’s almost always more interesting than the truth.

So?  How about you?  Have you ever twisted a truth from your own life to create your stories?  If and when you do that, is your story stronger than one that is completely made up?

In Darkbeast, twelve-year-old Keara runs away from home rather than sacrifice Caw, the raven darkbeast that she has been magically bound to all her life.  Pursued by Inquisitors who would punish her for heresy, Keara joins a performing troupe of Travelers and tries to find a safe haven for herself and her companion.

Morgan can be found online at:

Darkbeast is for sale in bricks-and-mortar and online bookstores, including:  Amazon | B & N | Indiebound

Morgan Keyes grew up in California, Texas, Georgia, and Minnesota, accompanied by parents, a brother, a dog, and a cat.  Also, there were books.  Lots and lots of books.  Morgan now lives near Washington, D.C.  In between trips to the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery of Art, she reads, travels, reads, writes, reads, cooks, reads, wrestles with cats, and reads.  Because there are still books.  Lots and lots of books.

The Right Tools for the Trade

Howdy everyone!

Once again I’m here writing about cooking. It is my favorite pastime right behind reading a really good book.

A few months ago I went in search of the perfect chef’s knife – that I can afford. This is a tough thing, because what I want to do is drop $80 on a professional knife, when I know I don’t need it – it’s for cooking at home, not cooking for an income. So, I bought one at Walmart that looked like the one I really wanted. It was cheap, and you get what you pay for, right? Well, so the search goes on. I also need a good cutting board. I’m picky about my cutting boards, and because I’m picky, I’m not ready to drop too much money until I find the right one. Therefore, I’m stuck using the poly-whatever one I’ve had for ages that’s cut and scarred and bugs me every time I use it. You know, while I’m at it, I would so love a new fry pan.


Well, along comes Gordon Ramsay on BBC with his Ultimate Cookery Course. 100 recipes to stake your life on. I’m hooked. First off, I find him really attractive. He’s my dream man. Cooks great and looks great, and well, gee, lovely accent on top of it!

He says, throughout the 100 tips he also gives, all you need is 3 good knives, one good cutting board and one good fry pan that can go from stovetop to oven. Yes, there are other tools, but he’s talking right to me!


So, over the weekend I went to the mall (not my favorite place in the world) with my daughter. She dragged me into Hot Topic, and I dragged her into Kitchen Connection. I walked out a bit poorer, but I got my knife, my cutting board, and my fry pan. Tonight for the first time I got to put them all to use, and I can tell you it’s true, the right tool for the job makes things soooo much easier.

This made me think about the tools I need for writing. It’s not quite as complicated as cooking, but then sometimes it’s even more complicated.

My tools, if you asked me, I would say all I need is my laptop and a power source and I can write. My Thesaurus and Dictionary are helpful, and I always have my Manual of Style close by…but I don’t need them to write.

But then, I also need peace and quiet. Not as substantial a “thing” but necessary for me to create. Then there’s the need for some kind of inspiration, but there’s no telling when or how that will hit, but I need it at some point before I begin writing. I need the support of my writerly friends. Writing can be such a lonely career, having the support of a select few friends who understand the writer’s mind, who know when I need a nudge or need to be left alone, or if I need to be redirected is vital to my wellbeing. I need my family to understand when I don’t feel like cooking, cleaning or even talking. I need them to know that yes, I am ignoring them but I still love them, but Mommy’s working, her office just happens to be in the living room.

Every author needs to know and understand what their individual tools of the trade are, and they need to demand them. It makes the job more fun!

Anna Leigh

A Perfect Day

My husband and I had a wonderful mini-getaway this month. We drove down to San Francisco on a Friday morning to see the current show at the Legion of Honor.

Fog season is over and the weather was stunningly gorgeous. The view didn’t suck, either.

I didn’t know much about Man Ray or Lee Miller before I saw the exhibit, but the description in the museum magazine sounded interesting, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I love focused exhibits, particularly if they’re set up to tell a story about the artist(s) or the period or both, as was the case here. The show was divided into four sequential galleries. The first three showcased their work and their lives before Miller became Ray’s student/muse/lover, their photographs and art from the period when they were working and living together, and their individual works in the aftermath of their dramatic breakup. The fourth featured pieces from some of their friends and fellow surrealists, including paintings of Lee Miller by Picasso and Dora Maar. There were so many interesting pieces, but what I loved best was the narrative surrounding the works. The story of these two brilliant, creative people and how their relationship – first as lovers then, after a brief estrangement, as lifelong friends and confidants – shaped and framed their work absolutely fascinated me, and the companion shows were also terrific.

René Bouché’s Letters from Post-War Paris featured his “letters”, written when Vogue Magazine sent him back home to Paris to cover the first post-war couture shows. The letters are accompanied by sketches and watercolors, many of which were later published in Vogue. Bouché was distressed to see his people struggling to rebuild their lives, so his words and his seemingly whimsical images felt shadowed with nostalgia and bitterness.

In the tiny gallery right next to the café was Marcel Duchamp, The Book and the Box.  I loved Duchamp’s “readymades”, his idea of a portable museum, with several pieces of art enclosed in a valise or a box. So cool.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as a bad day in a museum. But this one was particularly awesome, and we capped it off with a late lunch and a delicious glass of pinot grigio out on the sunny patio, overlooking the sea. Like I said, a perfect day!


The Sagging Middle

And, no, we’re not talking about the change that arrives with middle age. Last week, Lisa, K.B., and I talked about the things each of us needed to begin a new book. Now we’re going to talk about how we get through—and what we need—for that sagging middle.

The part of the novel between the beginning (which might be as much as five or seven chapters) and the end (which might be as little as a single chapter and as much as four or five chapters) is called all kinds of names: the tricky middle, the sagging middle, the middle-of-the-novel mud, the great expanse. But for almost everyone, the middle (also the longest part of the book) is the hardest part.

Here’s a list of each of our techniques for dealing with the mud in the middle.


The middle for me is a great expanse of mud. It’s where I get stuck in the dirty muck of routine—or at least that’s how it feels to me. The beginning is pure joy, making me feel as if I’m flying and everything is going right. The end, while sometimes complicated, is so satisfying that the complications don’t seem to matter. But the middle?

It’s hell.

I’m a fogwalker, so I don’t have anything to fall back on when I get stuck. I don’t have an outline, don’t have character sketches, don’t have a page count or the slightest idea of what’s going to happen next. So what do I do?

I fall back on faith. I’ve gotten through that mud dozens and dozens of times, finished dozens and dozens of stories and novels and novellas, so I believe I can do it. Mostly.

When faith in the process isn’t enough, I try:

1.         Going for a walk. That often jogs loose the thing—that all important thing—I need to carry on. Walking on the beach is best, but any long walk might work. I can’t be thinking about the thing, that just makes it harder. So I think about grocery shopping or what I have to do for the rest of the week or what movie I want to see or book I want to read.

2.         Talking to a friend, usually a writer, though not always. Sometimes talking is enough of a distraction that when I sit back down to write again, the next line, the line, is there.

3.         Reading the previous three or four chapters out loud. This gets me solidly into the voice and the rhythm and then I just keep on keeping on. Or at least I hope I do.

4.         The one thing that always works? I sit down with my yellow lined newsprint pad and my perfect pen and I start writing by hand. That physicality seems to funnel the words through a different part of my brain and out the end of my fingertips. I might have to do this once, or twice, or when it’s really muddy, a dozen times before I come out at the end of it.

Like Kate, I’m a fogwalker, though I tend to have somewhat better visibility. I usually have a sense of what’s coming in the next chapter or two, and I generally have two or three scenes or events in mind when I start a book, though I don’t have a clue about when they’ll happen. I’ve tried reading through from the beginning of the book when I get stuck, but that tends to throw me into editing mode, never a good thing for me in the initial writing phase.

And, really, I don’t get stuck as often as I get lost; the trees get so thick I lose sight of the forest. It’s not unusual for me to hit the 45K mark (or thereabouts) and panic, thinking OMG, nothing’s happening, this isn’t even a book! What the hell is this mess?

So for me, that squishy middle ground is the place where I turn to my trusty companions, the cherished few who read along as I create. When they tell me “the pacing is great” or “yes, this is a book”, or “tons of stuff is happening”, I believe them. Because, chances are, they remember what I’ve written better than I do at that point, and they’ve always been able to talk me down off the ledge.

When I do feel stuck somewhere along the way, when I can’t make a scene work or figure out what comes next, I’ll try the following:

  1. Go for a walk or a drive, or take a trip to the grocery store. I’ll put my playlist on my iPod or the car stereo and turn it low, letting it feed the back of my brain where the story lives. I’ll endeavour not to think directly about the work, but I’ll let it play around the edges of my mind until something bubbles up – or shakes out – and triggers the great Ah hah!
  2. Brainstorm. Sometimes, I think my mouth uplinks directly to the Muse and talking things through with someone is often the best way for me to get unstuck.
  3. Take a creative break. Go to a museum, get out the paints, mess with some clay, read a bunch of poetry, watch a play or a good movie. When the story isn’t driving me to the computer at every free minute, it usually means I’ve derailed myself and need some perspective (which only comes with time away from the screen) or that I’m running on empty and need some kind of inspirational recharge.
  4. Talk to my characters. Yes, I talk to them, often aloud. And they talk back, usually in the middle of the night when the cat wakes me up to be let outside. Story, for me, arises from character, so it pays to trust them, to listen to them and let their choices, thoughts, actions and reactions drive the plot. If I’m stuck, it’s usually because I’m not listening, not trusting, not allowing their stories to unfold organically. And that never ends well.



I’m apparently the oddball of the group. (I’m sure you’re all surprised by this.) I do not have a lot of issues with sagging middle. *shows off writerly six-pack*

Ha! I’m kidding, sort of. I really don’t have a huge issue with writing the middle of stories. Those are the points where I usually hit my stride and power my way through. My issues are more often found in the beginning or about three quarters of the way through the book.

However, I do hit the occasional stumbling block, and when I do here’s what works best for me.

  1. Outline! Normally I’m a fogwalker. I let the characters take the lead and run the show. But I do have a habit when I hit mid-book (stuck or not) of going back to reread everything I’ve written. I’ve found this doesn’t slow me up, but rather helps me solidify the plot and various sub-plots, clear out any messes, take note of loose threads that have to be woven back in, and to do some foreshadowing.
  2. Brainstorm! Talking to my CPs or other trusted friends about what’s going on in the story. Normally that will knock something loose in my brain, but if it doesn’t I turn to…
  3. Fight Club! *laughs* Or more accurately hitting the heavy bag, hitting the trail, or anything involving a lot of effort and sweat. I turn the music up loud and put my body on autopilot so my brain can work through the problem.

Of course, sometimes none of those things will help and I still can’t figure out a way out of the mudslog that can be the middle of a manuscript. That’s when I pull out my secret weapon.

  1. Explosions! That’s right, when in doubt blow something up. Shoot someone, kill off a trusted character, have your MC’s life/plans/brain fall completely apart. Cause a little conflict. Have a plan go horribly awry. Have the pit viper in your characters’ midst strike. Anything to further the plot of your story and to get your reader to say: “Augh! Crap! I was gonna go to bed but now I have to find out if they’re going to survive this volcano.”

*grins* Trust me, nothing helps like an explosion.


I never wanted kids, so it went without saying I was never going to be a grandmother either, and that was fine; I accepted both parts of the deal.  Then I fell in love with a man who had a seven-year old son, which was OK partly because it was the “baby” part of babies I wasn’t keen on, and partly because I liked the little guy, who lived most of his childhood with his dad and me.  One day after he’d grown up and married and moved away, he phoned to say, “We have a daughter.”  And a funny thing happened – every cell in my body re-aligned and without ever having been a (real) mother I became in that moment a real grandmother.

My granddaughter is now five years old.  Her mother is from Ukraine and the child’s name – Zlata Sophia – means Golden Wisdom in Ukrainian and to my surprise, she is indeed a kind of “golden wisdom” to me.  Because they live in Europe, I rarely get to see my granddaughter more than once a year (not counting Skype) but in those precious times we’re together, grandmothering has taught me surprising things.  When Zlata asks why I have white hair, for example, or what happened to the dog in the picture on our wall, I explain that I am growing older, that the dog too grew old and then it died, which led to an intense and fascinating (on both sides) conversation about why death, who dies, and what happens after.

As a grandmother, I feel like I know something.  As I watch those wide eyes take in the world, I remember newness – how everything was once of dazzlingly equal importance – and I’m happy to give a few pointers in terms of yes, that’s important, and this, not so much.  Sometimes we’re silly together, building tents under the dining room table, piling rocks into careful cairns and decorating them with hair ribbons, or pretending we’re sisters.  “You be the baby sister,” she orders, “and I’ll be the big sister!”

I also love to watch her get bold.  OK, I’m shameless.  An ancient feminist, I have already bought her a comic book on the birth of Wonder Woman.  I tell her how proud I am when she’s strong, how clever she is when she builds an entire playground on the beach out of driftwood.  When we swim – blowing bubbles, opening our eyes underwater and counting fingers – I’m thrilled when she wants to show me how far she can swim, “Further!  Further!” as she orders me to move my hand another foot along.

Having a grandchild is so easy.  Her parents mind her manners, and I get to play.  I have discovered my inner five year old and it is so unbelievably, so magically, so blessedly good!

Kate Braid

When Life Collides with Art

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in Guys’ Night Out. Once a month, four of us go out for drinks and dinner. I am the one writer in a group of photographers, although had life not sent me down an alternate path, I could have wound up a photographer myself. I may become one still.

Lee Manning is the professional in the bunch. Drop by his website to catch a glimpse of his work: When he asked how my writing was coming, I told him I’d written nothing for several weeks. I’m opening a second business location in Portland, Oregon. It’s a huge financial risk, and if it isn’t to become a disaster, I have to give it all my attention. I know the caveat about writing daily, but I haven’t enough creative self to spread that thinly. Lee responded by assuring me most creative types find themselves in this predicament at least once, though the reasons are as diverse as the artists. He also said it is a place from which some choose to abandon their art. I’ve given it some thought and I’m sure that’s not yet me.

Once before, I set aside the thriller I’m working on—needed time to do research—and when I returned to the task, the writing had improved. The current hiatus, while more protracted, seems also beneficial. After so much time away, I need to reacquaint myself with the manuscript and I am discovering nuances, seeds for future twists, planted before but now forgotten, that I am eager to develop. At the same time, as I reread these chapters, familiarizing myself with the first 43K words, weak sentences and inconsistencies are jumping right off the page, products, I suspect, of extended proximity.

During all of this, I have continued to make time to “read” audio books. As always, the techniques of those authors—currently, Gillian Flynn and Elizabeth Kostova—tend to refine the way I regard various elements of writing, like scene construction and tension. That brings me to the belief one’s time writing a book doesn’t always have to be spent writing. It can be spent considering plot defects, character development and involving the reader. Perhaps writing for the sake of it—creative drudgery—can even subvert the creative process by extinguishing the spark of spontaneity. Now, however, as I study each chapter, I am growing increasingly impatient to return to the task.

Have any of you found yourselves in similar straits?


Sun, Sand, Surf

Anyone who knows me, or has read this blog knows how much I love going to the beach. My favorite winter time escapes are usually tropical in nature. I need a good dose of vitamin D and days of swimming in the ocean to find my balance when the days are long are dark.
But, when our boys were young, we spent more time visiting the beaches in Oregon during the summertime. Now, I’ll agree that Washington has some gorgeous beaches. We spent a week camping on the Olympic peninsula many years ago. But, some of our favorite trips were down to the Cannon Beach area in Oregon.
We have a new generation in our family, our granddaughter Sophia, (who now that she can talk, prefers to be called “Sophie”). This summer, we wanted to begin creating memories and family traditions for her.
So, we rented a house down in Lincoln City, Oregon for week. She’s almost two years old, and it seemed to me that water and sand at the beach would be a perfect combination to entertain a toddler. Plus, with a stop in Portland in between, it seemed a manageable car trip.
I was right. From the moment we stood on the deck of the house and pointed out the ocean and beach, she couldn’t stop talking about it. “Beach, beach, beach” she repeated, before we’d even stepped a foot onto the sand.
Sticks, seashells, feathers, and piles and piles of sand, both wet and dry intrigued her. A pretty substantial amount was taste-tested, (maybe it was the salty flavor?) It was the simple pleasures of putting our feet in the ocean as it curled up to the shore, finding amazing starfish in the tide pools and watching whales frolic off shore that entertained us.
Our family meals were filled with jokes, laughter and memories of previous trips to the ocean. Sometimes a bit sad because of our loved one no longer with us. But, we did create new memories for Sophie, and as I look at the photos we took, it’s astonishing to consider how simple pleasures like this enrich our lives so much.
Like the sand on the beach, we pile up tiny moments of wonder into a rich, swirling life that stretches across years. Our memories are the things that link us together and connect our hearts.
Go find your best beach.

In The Beginning

I’m a lucky woman. Kate and K.B. aren’t just two of my best friends. I have close working relationships with both of them and, therefore, I just so happen to know that all three of us are starting new projects right now. Beginning new books. It sounds daunting, doesn’t it? The blank page, the first word, the abyss of 90K stretching out endlessly before you, it can all feel so overwhelming, so thrilling but scary. But fears are easier to manage once they’re shared (or so I’ve heard).

So here it is: Our take on getting started. How we do it. What we need in order for it to happen. How we feel when we’re sitting at our computers, hands hovering over the keyboard, waiting to write the first few words. How/when we know we’ve hit a project that will last past the first ten pages and carry us off on a grand adventure.

We hope it helps you with your beginnings. And we hope you’ll share a bit about your process, too.

Lisa, Kate and K.B.


Naturally, it begins with an idea, though in my case, “kick upside the head” is more to the point. My ideas don’t creep in softly; they gobsmack me, often right when I wake up from a deep, seemingly dreamless sleep. The ideas are vague things, concepts really, though sometimes there are characters lurking at the edges, holding up those signs you see limo drivers flashing at airports. They want me to climb in, go for a ride, let them take me where they will, and who am I to argue?

This leads to me scribbling a half-page or so of random notes and shooting off e-mails to Kate and K.B. (I won’t read those notes again until after I’ve written the book. So why bother writing them down? Because it’s funny to read them afterwards; they so rarely have anything to do with the final project.) Then I brush off my hands and file the idea in the back of my brain to let it percolate, since I’m always in the middle of some other project when the Muse strikes.

Sometimes, the ideas fade quietly in the interim. That’s a good thing, a writer’s version of natural selection. Other ideas stick, pestering me like a deep splinter, working their way to the surface until they simply won’t be ignored any longer. How do I know when I’m onto something good? I get a strange, tingly sensation on the top of my head whenever I think about/talk about a new project. (No really. My crown chakra buzzes, the same way it does when I have a profound spiritual or emotional realization.) I’m not one to disregard my intuition, so when that starts to happen, when the characters wake up and start whispering (or shouting) in my head, I take a deep breath, clear the desk, roll my sleeves and get myself geared up.

Things I Need to Begin a New Book:

1)      Whiteboard space. I’m a huge scribbler and I never use notebooks. I like to see the writing on the wall, preferably in colorful, fruit-scented dry-erase ink.

2)      Faces. It’s a trick I learned in Screenwriting 101. Cast your script before you write it. It makes visualizing your characters – and describing them – so much easier. You can use Pinterest to keep track of your cast if you like; I prefer pinning pictures on corkboard.

3)      A skeleton playlist. This will undoubtedly grow and expand as I work; most of my playlists shoot past the hundred song mark, especially if I’m writing a series. But to begin, I need a handful of songs that set the tone and capture the mood I’m hoping to set with the story.

4)      A title. I really hate starting without one. I can do it – and I have – but it bugs me.

5)      Location. I can’t write a story without knowing where it will take place. Ideally, the setting is a place I’ve actually visited, but if it isn’t, I’ll spend a day or two surfing travel blogs, reading official city web pages, studying maps, looking at photos on the web, trying to get a sense of the flavor of the place because for me, as a writer and a reader, setting always informs the story on some level.

6)      The first line. Obviously, I can’t begin without it and I’m not one for writing a false start and then going back to insert the real beginning during edits. I know that works for some folks, but not for me.


It’s difficult to follow Lisa because my process is so different and yet, in some ways, so much the same. I spend a whole lot of time envying her because she’s so clear about what she needs, how it works, and articulating it to others. That’s much more difficult for me, for a whole bunch of reasons.

But the first and most important reason is this.

I am the ultimate fogwalker and, because it’s worked for many years, I hate to do anything that might change it. So I’m uncomfortable—and more than a bit superstitious—when talking about my process. But I’m going to do it.

I’ll begin with the concept of fogwalking. For me, that means I have absolutely NO idea of what’s going to happen next. I don’t know what the next sentence is going to be, or where it’s going to lead me, let alone where the next paragraph or chapter will take me. I simply sit down and start writing. I might do that with a pen and paper or on my computer, but the process is the same. Get myself into the Zone and write. I can’t tell you what the Zone is, or even how I get there, but it’s important. It’s the only thing that is and it’s miserable—both for me at times and for you—that I’m unable to tell you what it is or how I get there. But I can’t. Or perhaps it’s more that I won’t. I’m scared that if I figure those things out, if I intellectualize them, they won’t work for me anymore. So I don’t.

So there are no notes for me, not even the vaguest of outlines. That would stop me from writing, and has done so many times. My process, if you can call it that, seems to be fixed in stone. And it’s a stone big and heavy enough that I can’t shift it.

Things I Need to Begin a New Story (I’m not saying book because I write a lot of short stories and novellas, as well as novels):

1)      Words. Everything begins for me with words; generally a phrase or a short sentence. I don’t know why this is, but it is. I have many directories in my computer that are simply that—a phrase or a couple of words that will one day turn into a story. I find these everywhere. Sometimes I make them up, sometimes I see them in a magazine, a story, or written on a wall as graffiti. It’s all about the rhythm, I think.

2)      Pen and paper: I begin every story by hand because, in the beginning, it takes time to get into it and I type too fast and get bored too easily when my hands are on the keyboard and I’m waiting for something to happen. I use, mostly, a very specific type of pen and paper—the pen is a uniball that flows easily (blue, never black) and a pad of yellow lined newsprint.

3)      Title: This goes back to the first point. My title is often, though not always, that phrase or those couple of words that have fascinated me. When that’s not true, I might write a big piece of the story without a title, because I’m waiting for it to come to me as I write.

4)      A feeling:  I know, I know, this doesn’t make any sense but I think it’s a big part of the Zone. Whatever the feeling is—and no, I can’t articulate it, even to myself—I sink into it when I’m writing well. Oh, and to make matters more complicated, it’s different for each story.

5)      Characters:  They come with the words, with the voice that begins the story (notice I don’t say I begin the story)– and now that I’m thinking about it, maybe the words are simply a way for my fingers to translate whatever it is in my subconscious?

6)      A Deadline:  This isn’t crucial, but it helps. If I have a deadline, I find it easier to get into the Zone because I write more consistently and don’t walk away when I’m stuck.

7)      First line:  My first line is always the words I begin with or a slight variation of them. I can’t begin without it and I rarely change it.


Gobsmacked. Ha! *laughs* Yeah, that’s pretty much how I get new ideas. Most often in the form of a “vision” or a character kicking me in the head and announcing their presence. (The best ones happen at 3am, or so they’ll claim.) I get story ideas from songs, random poetry, one-liners, seeing someone smile, even from Christmas tree ornaments. Used to be that I’d start scribbling madly on whatever I could find…and yes, before you ask I have written down ideas on my hand before. *sticks out tongue* You use what you’ve got. Man, the invention of smart phones was a godsend though!

I also used to let story ideas take me wherever (and whenever) they happened on the wild ride that was normally promised to me. Now I don’t have that luxury and I have to be a little more discerning about what I choose to focus on. So, much like Lisa, I let myself mull it over for a while. If it’s still at the forefront of my brain then it’s a go. If not, it gets relegated to the dust bin. *shrugs* Not gone forever, sometimes I scavenge bits of stories, characters, plots for other ideas. Sometimes I even resurrect them in their entirety.

My list is really close to Lisa’s. *laughs* Probably one of the reasons we’re such good CPs. But it does differ in a few key ways.

Things I Need to Begin a New Book:

1)      Voices.  I don’t make any bones about the fact that my characters talk to me. (Sometimes loudly and at great length.) Or that I’m not so much “making up” a story as I am telling it. This is, for me, just one piece of my characters’ lives. They all come with histories and futures – that sometimes they share with me, sometimes not – and I’m really just getting a glimpse of this moment in time. Without these voices the stories inevitably end up in that dustbin, if I can’t hear a character then I figure my readers aren’t going to either.

2)      Scenes. I “see” my books as I write them. For me, this process is pretty much like going to the movies. Because of this I do a lot of the same things that Lisa mentioned in her “Faces” category. I make collages (either on paper or on Pinterest) with people who resemble my characters. I’ll also often reenact scenes before I sit down to write them to help me get the feel for what needs to happen in writing.

3)      Music.  All my books end up with soundtracks. Sometimes (often) they evolve as the project does, but there are usually one or five core songs that will hold true for the whole book.

4)      My CPs/Readers. In the early stages of a project I bounce a lot of ideas off those closest to me. I’ve found the feedback to be extremely valuable, especially in the formation of a plot – something that’s often elusive in those first heady days of story creation.

*grins* If some of that seems paradoxical that’s because it is. No one claimed this business was either linear or sane. I have found that I don’t really have the tried and true method like Kate does, my process changes with every story I write and every world I am invited to visit.

Your turn, folks. The comment thread awaits your input. Tell us how you begin…

The Best Time…

to plot a book is while you’re washing the dishes. At least that’s what Agatha Christie said…

to plot a book is before you write a single word, or after you’ve written the first draft, or when you get stuck somewhere in the sagging middle, or never plot it at all…

to write is first thing in the morning before you’re really awake. Many people say this – that your sleeping mind is the most creative of all and if you write first thing, your writing will be more intense…

to write is after a glass or two of scotch, your mind is more creative, less reserved, and definitely more intense…

to write is when you have five hours free, or in those fifteen minutes between work and complete exhaustion, or that half-hour lunch break at the office, or the hour and a half before you fall asleep, while your family is watching your favorite TV show;

to sell a first book is when you’re young and hot and fresh or when you’re old and jaded and famous…

to win an award is when you’re young and can build on it or when you’re old and can appreciate it…

to write a memoir is when you’ve lived a life that readers will find interesting, you know the difference between life and fiction, and you’re a good enough writer to sell it…

to write a story about something that happened to you is when you truly, deeply, and completely understand the difference between life and story;

to admit to your family you’re a writer is after you’ve sold your first story.