Thursday, October 30, 2014


I love seeing/listening to the play lists that inspire authors. Sometimes I end up poaching a song for my own play list; at the very least, I get a trip down memory lane or an education.

And of course, I love making my own play lists. My music tastes run the gamut: rock, r & b, folk, roots rock, classical, jazz, pop. I am just old enough to have loved Bob Dylan before he was a "Golden Oldie"... 

... and just young to know that dancing it out to Pink cures most ills.

But you know what else my muse digs?


I've always loved poetry. Reading/speaking/hearing my favorite poems makes me warm inside, makes me dreamy or fired up or achingly melancholy. Perhaps I'm in the minority, but I still thrill to the Eliot lines "Dare I eat a peach? Dare I disturb the universe?"

Or how about Cummings's Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls ... This: "if sometimes in its box of sky lavender and cornerless, the moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy."

I am forever in awe of that line. Forever. It makes me swoon.

And so, for me the act of writing is necessarily accompanied not just by music, but also by poetry. I have created poetry lists for each ms -- poems that inspire the plot, the characters, the dialogue, and most certainly the mood of my writing.

My latest includes these:

1) The Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot
2) Melancholia, by Paul Laurence Dunbar
3) When Lilacs Last at the Dooryard Bloomed, by Walt Whitman
4) The Unquiet Grave, Child Ballad 78

And my play list?

1) Awake My Soul, by Mumford and Sons
2) The Unquiet Grave, by Joan Baez
3) The Unquiet Grave, by Ralph Vaughan Williams
4) Where Was Eva Sleeping, Unknown
5) Mr. Rabbit (From Music Together - children's arranged music)
6) Somewhere Down the Lazy River by Robbie Robertson

Does poetry inspire you? Who are your favorites?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Query First, Please

It's true.
Writing your query first really is the best way to write a book.

For those who call themselves "pantsers", meaning "fly by the seat of your pants", the query may be the LAST thing you write -- because, well, pants.

Looks so lovely and carefree and spontaneous, no? And I love to be all those things, because, well, creativity.


What if, in your splendid creative writing surges, you NEVER narrowed your vision of the actual plot because you were so excited by all the action scenes you were coming up with?
Or if you CAN'T ACTUALLY ARTICULATE your character's motivation?

My first book, which I love and am determined to publish one fine day, had those problems and more.

It wasn't exactly a pants book per say -- I'm a plotter. But, because first book and all, I didn't really know what I was doing. I was consumed by the story, by the relationships I was building, by the excitement of writing the thing.

But when query time came, I was lost. Drowning.

Partly because I didn't know how to write the dang thing, had never even heard of one when I began writing the book. But also partly because I didn't really understand the point of my book.

Now -- as a public speaking coach I have always told my students that they need to be able to summarize their speech in one or two lines -- if they can't, they really don't know what they're trying to accomplish and neither will their audience. Which means their presentations are doomed to aimless meandering in the desert. Yes, I've said that in my more dramatic moments.

I have sent students back to the drawing board a million times to distill and understand the essence of their words so they can be pithy and brilliant.

But alas, I listened not to my own advice. I couldn't give an "elevator speech" about my own book.

Lesson learned. Write the dang query first. Figure out what your character is trying to overcome, what the second plot point is, what the catalyst is, and why we care.

And lest we forget and begin to meander in query desert, it really only comes down to this:
Character, Conflict, Stakes.

Here are some terrific resources for helping you nail it:


 Michelle Hauck (@michelle4laughs) has a semi-regular feature called Query Questions, which features different agents talking about what does and doesn't work in a query. Nice resource because you can also research agents while you iron out the query kinks!

Amy Trueblood's blog features a weekly post called Quite the Query. Go read successful queries that landed agents - very helpful to see how others do it! (@atrueblood5)

Andrea Brown agent Jennifer Laughran (@literaticat) has an Ask Me Anything section on her Tumblr. She answers questions quickly and forthrightly.

Another Laughran resource is her blog, which frequently addresses query questions/issues:

4) Plus there's the master of them all, Query Shark, written by uber agent Janet Reid:
All you have to do is read the blog to figure out what you're doing wrong, but if you're brave, you can submit yours to see if she's willing to critique yours. She's tough, but that's what you need, right?

5) Finally -- an excellent workshopping option and the way I finally got really valuable feedback on that first disastrous query:
The Become an Agent contest.
@SC_Author features it semi-regularly -- next one is probably in January. Agents don't participate -- it's just a terrific chance for writers to pitch in and help each other figure out what does and doesn't work.

Check out his blog:

What do you think? Do you write your query first?

Thursday, October 16, 2014


First, my mea culpa.
My blogging habits have been terribly lax, and I am sorry.

 I allowed the summer, then a new WIP and then binge-watching the X-Files for the first time (yes, I'm pretty late to the game) to derail my blog.

Quite frequently, I've had a thought that made me say, "hey! That'd be a great blog post!" And then I do nothing about it. And suddenly another month has gone by.

So here I am, months before the official time to make new resolutions, resolving to be a better blogger.

Onward.... about change.

I've learned this lesson so many times, you'd think I wouldn't be so surprised by it. But this is the first time I've actually begun to acknowledge this truth as it applies to my creativity, not just my life.

When I was in college, I thrived in my major -- poli sci. Out of that rather broad inquiry, I created my own focus: feminist political (largely deconstructionist) theory. I planned to be a forward-thinking, ground-breaking lawyer.

My life was very meticulously planned out: go to Kenya to teach English for one year, come back and attend Boalt School of Law.

Hah. Because yanno, plans that specific always work out, right???????

So this is what ACTUALLY happened:

1) I fell in love with Kenya, for all its beauty and tragedy, and decided to extend my contract.

2) While there, I realized I was better suited to advocate for women by telling their stories. The way I saw it, both could be public service -- but I preferred the pen and its wider public forum to the courtroom.

So, 2 years in Kenya, followed by a Masters in Journalism, and my life looked nothing -- I mean, NOTHING -- like what I'd planned. And it was awesome.

Fast forward to today. Nearly 20 years in journalism, several stints as a teacher/professor/instructor of all things English and writing (and some politics and media thrown in for spice). I became a war bride and then a mother of two.

And I could no longer ignore the muse. She called gently, then firmly, then finally hit me over the head. I hadn't planned on this career step until the kids were older, until I could get some more sleep.


I'm working on my third book. My new WIP is a ghost story and I LOVE it. I am having so much fun writing it, it feels like I was BORN to write this book. I've planned and plotted it meticulously because it has a lot of moving parts and I want to be sure I don't get lost along the way.

Over the weekend, my characters hijacked the plan.
I mean, they TOOK OFF and went somewhere I had not plotted or planned.

Wait, what?

And it's not the first time this has happened to me. In fact, it has happened every single time, with each of my books.

Because things change.  Usually without warning.

I don't try to resist the change. I actually never did, in spite of how uneasy it made me -- so now I just have to learn to trust that, in my books, as in my life, my characters will take the lead and they'll do fabulous things. Unless they don't, but that's what revisions are for. (Which is so much nicer than real life, where you don't get that lovely, infinitely forgiving do-over).

Does change wig you out?
What do you do when your characters take over??