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Posts from the ‘Craft’ Category

4 years of writing, publishing…and life!

path of the thunderbird

4 years, 2 months, and 25 days! That’s how long it’s been since I’ve posted. Bet you thought I’d given up on writing. There were several times when I thought I’d given up on it, too. And then there were the times that I put my nose down and just did the work. So much life has happened. No apologies. No excuses. Just life…and writing…and not writing…and more writing…and publishing…and more writing!

Here are the highlights. In that last four years, I…

  • turned 40 years old!
  • moved to a new house;
  • took six months off from writing to throw myself into volunteering at my sons’ school;
  • stopped writing my freelance column for the newspaper because…
  • signed a book contract for a Middle Grade book;
  • co-wrote that book—Path of the Thunderbird (more on that in a minute);
  • became a published fiction writer;
  • went back to work full-ish time for 18 months, and then cut back to part time because…
  • spent a year touring elementary schools teaching students about writing and about Grand Canyon National Park;
  • was the keynote speaker at a writing conference for students in grades K-5;
  • was a finalist in the Juvenile category of the Colorado Book Award;
  • went into a second printing on the book;
  • earned out my advance!
  • and, dove back into writing—tentatively at first and then with renewed enthusiasm.

That’s the short version of the last four years. About a week ago, I felt this overwhelming urge to start blogging again. No promises on how often, but I missed having this space to write about writing—mine and other people’s. So, here I am!

I’ll publish a longer post about the adventure of writing Path of the Thunderbird from idea to publication and all the steps and missteps along the way. For now, I’ll say two things about it:

  • It was a dream come true for me, and I consider myself even luckier because my co-writer was my mom, Pat Toole. Pat is a tireless researcher, an unmatched plotter, and a prolific writer in her own right. It was the chance of a lifetime to share the experience with her.
  • If you like Middle Grade adventures, love the National Park Service, or both, please consider purchasing a copy of the book. Here’s a link. Lord knows the NPS can use all of our support right now. The publisher of Thunderbird was Grand Canyon Conservancy, the official nonprofit partner of Grand Canyon National Park. GCC raises private funds, operates retail shops within the park, and provides premier guided educational programs about the natural and cultural history of the region. GCC supporters fund projects including trails and historic building preservation, educational programs for the public, and the protection of wildlife and their natural habitat. A portion of the sales of Path of the Thunderbird directly support GCC and Grand Canyon National Park.

That’s it for now. Tune in tomorrow when I launch a writing prompt series I’ve been cooking up. As I’ve jumped back into writing regularly, I look for things to get my synapses firing. After searching for prompts that work for me, I decided to create my own. Then I thought, “Why not share these with other writers.” Happy writing!!

We write against the void…

wewriteagainst the void

A mental map of a writer’s mind

I have been to all of these places and will return to each a thousand times more.  I am currently headed to the Glade of Hopeful Aspirations after a bout in Crippling Insecurity-ville.  How about you?  Where have you been hanging out lately?
mapofawritersmind
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Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk: Your elusive creative genius

For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, TED talks are delivered at a global set of conferences owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading”.  TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design.  Past presenters include Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, and Bill Gates, to name a few.

I love this talk on nurturing creativity delivered by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love in 2009.  Enjoy and happy writing with your elusive creative genius.

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Writing a novel is like driving a car at night…

el doctorow

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Crawling out from under my rock…

It’s always tough to come back after a hiatus without some sort of apology.  So I’ll just get it out of the way.

I’M SORRY FOR MY ABSENCE.  Very sorry!

Between writing non-fiction, consulting, mothering, PTAing and managing a household, life got the best of me.  This isn’t an excuse and it isn’t a woe-is-me-look-how-busy-I-am plea.  I know we’re all busy.  The truth is:

if-it-is-important-to-you

The bottom line is I’ve been finding excuses.  But this blog is important to me for several reasons:

  1. I’ve made some wonderful virtual connections because of posts written here.
  2. I’ve discovered the joys of interacting with readers and writers through blogging.
  3. I’ve discovered my fiction writing voice because of this blog.

These are all important, but number three is HUGE.  Scour the internet and you’ll find hundreds of articles on voice. Articles from Writer’s Digest, from writer Nathan Bransford (I love his blog and my boys love his Jacob Wonderbar books), from Chuck Wendig, and even an entire book about it here.

Voice is an elusive concept for writers.  It is still an elusive concept for me.  But after so many years of honing a non-fiction “voice,” I was struggling with finding my fiction voice.  Consequently, I was struggling with fiction writing in general.  But thanks to this blog, I’ve come one step closer to unlocking that fiction voice.  I’ll be posting about this discovery, my experiences at the Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference this April, and lots more things in future posts.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear how things are in your neck of the writing woods.  Are you working on any new projects?

Happy Writing!

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Words of wisdom

This is a week of blank pages – either metaphoric or literal. Make the most of both.

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Visual Thesaurus for the Right-Brained Writer

Stick around for any period of time, and you’ll learn that I’m a visual person.  I buy books based on their cover. I buy cereal based on the box design (this sometimes leads to disgusting forays into cardboard-like spheres floating in my milk.)  I forgo the use of a Favorites folder in Internet Explorer or Firefox because I’m so in love with the slick design and visual kaleidoscope of Pinterest.

As much as I have my left-brained tendencies (anal about work organization, a perfectionist when it comes to household projects), my juices really get going when the right brain kicks into gear.  If I’m stuck on a problem, there is nothing better than a blank sheet of paper and 20 minutes of free flow writing or mind mapping.  Imagine how delighted I was when I stumbled upon a thesaurus that gives me a visual representation of my synonyms and antonyms.

I give you the Visual Thesaurus:

This program is a word playground.  You can see above, I typed in “bold” and it returned a full map of words.  The colored dots at the end of a branch indicate whether the word is a noun, adjective, verb or adverb.  To the right you can see definitions for the word.  Click on the megaphone symbol and you can hear the word pronounced.  Visual Thesaurus will even define and provide adjectives for proper nouns.

On the left, the program provides a word history so that while you are playing with the word “sausage blimp” you can always go back to your search for “reverberance.”  You can even create favorite word lists and name them.  See a word that looks interesting on the map? Just drag and drop it to your word list so that you don’t forget it.

Visual Thesaurus has myriad uses in a writer’s life.  The obvious? Find just the right word for the sentence.  Warning: don’t use this to overcomplicate things!  You’ve decided that your character is “bold.”  Bold doesn’t feel right because she’s not “fearless and daring.”  But don’t look at the list and throw in “temerarious” just because it sounds cool.  Maybe “bold” doesn’t have quite the right shade to fully describe your character.  Maybe it’s her careless unconcern that makes her “reckless” not “bold.” Or maybe she’s not “bold,” but “emboldened” because she recently became “fearless” but hasn’t always been that way. Writing is all about the subtle shades of language and words.  The Visual Thesaurus can help you pinpoint those shades.

The more “temerarious” use? (Did you see how I did that there?) Use the Visual Thesaurus to build layers in your scene.  After you’ve written a scene, pinpoint the key emotion swirling around the action.

Donald Maass says in Writing 21st Century Fiction:

“To deliver a strong effect to your readers, you’ve first got to give yourself permission to go big. Big feelings aren’t bad; they’re just big. We all have them.  They’re dramatic. They connect. The only time they don’t is when they’re false: rote, hackneyed, pasted on or unearned. Think of them as primary emotions that take on unique hues in the heart of your main character. Love? Sure, but different this time. Rage? Never before like this one. Sorrow? Yes, but now utterly specific.”

Make a list of other words that can add subtle layers to increase the tension in the scene.  Here’s an example.  Maybe your character is “angry.”  Let’s type in “angry” and make a list:

  • Sore – “Causing misery or pain; hurting; an open skin infection”
  • Tempestuous (i.e., tempest) – “A violent commotion or disturbance”
  • Smoldering – “Showing scarcely suppressed anger”
  • Indignant – “Angered at something unjust or wrong”
  • Wrathful – “Condemnatory”

You can see from the list above that “angry” has many hues.  What type of anger is your character experiencing?  If you find just the right word to define the type of anger, you can build the scene around those hues and make your character’s anger uniquely her own.

Pretty amazing that you can do all this with a simple online program that costs $19.95/year.  Or $2.95/month.  Sure, you could open up your 15 lb. Roget’s Thesaurus, but for me seeing the visual connections between words and the ease with which I can click on a new word and follow it down a separate rabbit hole is priceless.

You can check out the details of Visual Thesaurus here:

Online – http://www.visualthesaurus.com/

Twitter – @VisualThesaurus

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/visualthesaurus

Nope.  I wasn’t paid or perked for this write-up.  I plunked down my own $19.95 to gain access to Visual Thesaurus. When I love a program, I simply want to share the love with others.

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Writer’s Notebook: An Idea Gold Mine

Take any writing class or read any writing book, and the first thing you will learn is, “Keep a writer’s notebook.”  It sounds elementary, but so many writers today don’t keep that notebook tucked away for capturing random thoughts before they are lost.

I started keeping a diary at the age of nine or ten.  At the time, I was obsessed with unicorns, so receiving this diary was a dream for me:

Unfortunately, this isn’t the original diary. (I found the picture on Ebay.)  I haven’t seen mine in years, but I’m guessing it’s somewhere in my parents’ garage along with that popcorn tin that holds all of my carefully folded, hand-written notes from middle school.  Back then the idea of a diary was romantic.  I had very little real drama in my life, but it was fun to pretend that my boy crushes and straight-versus-curly haired days were traumatic and secretive.  I went in phases during which I wrote every day and other times where six months passed between entries.  But writing in that diary was always like coming back to an old friend.  Turning the wheel on the combination lock never lost its appeal because I knew that my secret thoughts waited inside.

In middle school and high school, I spent many years diary free, but I did write poetry.  Some were tormented poems about the boy who was in love with my best friend.  (They ended up getting married.  So I guess it wasn’t meant to be between us.)  Others were more esoteric poems about imagination, the industrial revolution or gargoyles in Paris. I just found a box of these in my own garage last weekend.  They are a treasure trove of embarrassment and a time capsule of my life.  I love the way these poems instantly transport me back to the 80s and 90s.  I can often picture the exact place I wrote the words.

In college, I continued with my writing, but it was more class-driven. Somewhere on that Brother word processor, which I so proudly carried to my freshman dorm room, live files filled with comparative literary papers and poems about Mott the Hoople, sunflower seeds and a sunset from a mosquito-filled dock.  These images became a diary of my life at a college in the middle of rural Indiana.

But many of these words and images are locked away in the bowels of technology.  Yes, I did refer to my antiquated Brother word processor and box filled with floppy disks as the bowels of technology.  And my thoughts are trapped in these bowels. Sure I can fire up the Brother, but I can’t open a dusty box, pull out a stack of notebooks and immediately connect with my most treasured images.

Today, it’s even easier for our fleeting thoughts to get lost in “the cloud.”  I’ll admit, I’m a technology junkie.  I record my thoughts in Evernote, Pinterest, Scrivener, Word documents, and the Notes app on my iPhone.  In spite of the convenience of technology, there are times when we need to simplify these recording mechanisms.  That’s why a few years ago, I finally wised up and decided to go old-school again.

The notebook!

This little gem is a Moleskine knock-off I found at Target.  At 5.5″ x 3.75″ it slides right into my purse and goes everywhere with me.  And at $5.99, you can’t beat the price.  This notebook is my savior.

When I was young and had few responsibilities, I could afford to linger for hours on a mosquito-filled dock and wax philosophical about beautiful images and life.  But as a writer, mom, wife and chronic over-committer, I rarely get to linger over anything.  Consequently, inspiration strikes at the most inopportune times.  Usually when I’m washing dishes or driving in the car.  Enter: The Notebook.

This little baby is filled with thoughts and images.  Here are some examples from a randomly-selected page.

  • A quote from an interview I heard with Anthony Hopkins: “As a child I wrote to escape the desert of my mental emptiness.”
  • A description of the woman accepting my donations at Goodwill. She appeared to have been badly burned at some point.  The smooth texture of the scar tissue on the side of her head was beautiful and heart wrenching at the same time.
  • Notes about the tattoo a friend’s brother just got – an Illinois license plate.  Why would someone want “the Land of Lincoln” tattooed on their arm?  Fascinating!
  • A quote from an interview on NPR about the new Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again.  “You can take parts away, but Chitty is still Chitty.”  Something about the gestalt-ness of Chitty (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts) makes me love this childhood icon even more.  AND…
  • An entire conversation between my MC and her love interest about fish scales which came to me all at once while I was elbow-high in dishwashing suds.

Many of these images will never leave this notebook.  I’ll page through it now and then and find myself transported to a stuffy backroom at Goodwill, but that kind woman accepting my donations may never make it into the pages of a novel.  However, this notebook is my gold mine.  It is the place I go when I’m stuck.

Just yesterday, I discovered a note about the song “Danny, Dakota & The Wishing Well” by A Silent Film.  This song wafted through my car while I was waiting in line to drop my kids off at school.  I’m not sure why I wrote down a snippet of lyrics, but at the time the words struck a chord with me (no pun intended!) Reading over this note yesterday, it suddenly dawned on me how a climactic scene between my MC and her love interest can work.  That’s the magic of the writer’s notebook.  Disparate thoughts have a chance to stew together.  In the end that stew of thoughts becomes the Stone Soup of your writing.

Now it’s your turn.  Do you keep a writer’s notebook?  Scan the pages for a minute and tell me your favorite (or most random) snippet from the past week.

Here’s a great post on the pocket notebooks from 20 famous writers including Hemingway, Twain and Beethoven.

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Please loosen the corset

I’m smack in the middle of a rewrite.  When I say rewrite, I don’t mean simple revisions.  I mean ripping out the guts, adding in another 1/3 of the story and changing the narrative from third person to first person.  This is the type of revision that terrifies me.  Give me a full-length line edit and I’m in heaven.  Armed with my red Uniball pen and my Post-it notes, I can whip through a manuscript in a couple of days.  But this ripping out the innards, twisting them around and placing them back in the same body can cause any writer a severe case of anxiety.

Here’s how the week has gone:

Day 1: After weeks of scheming and planning, I was hesitant but happy to drag myself back to the computer. I even got a few new words down on paper.  The first person voice was bland, but Anna, my main character, is tricky.  (At least that’s what I’m telling myself.) And phew, it feels good to have 2,091 words under my belt.

(The truth: 1,800 of the 2,091 words weren’t new at all.  I copied and pasted scenes from my old manuscript, cleaned up the verbiage and changed the tense.  A few new dialogue tags and we’re ready to move on.  Right?)

Day 2: Coffee.  Computer.  Quiet house.  Ready to write. BUT nothing is happening.  I’m internally flogging myself for being a cop out.  Cut-and-paste was not the intention of the second draft.  So instead of setting off on the yellow brick road in search of my courage (and my MC’s voice), I’ll just draft a few blog posts and find out what’s happening with Hurricane Isaac instead.

Day 3: Run from meeting to meeting – all the while distracted because I’m the Cowardly Lion of writing hiding in a PTA mom’s body.

Day 3: (8:14 p.m.)  All’s quiet on the Miller front. Kids are in bed and hubby is checking the baseball scores.  The first line of my revised manuscript just floated through my head.  It’s odd and a little edgy, but it works.  I sit down and manage to spit out 379 polished words in 21 minutes.  And boy are they a complete departure from the original manuscript!  Anna has suddenly taken on a life of her own.  She’s opinionated and shy and bold all at the same time.  And she’s talking about condoms.  Whoa!  Where did that one come from?  You know what?  It felt great – condoms and all.

Here’s the beauty of it.  I was playing.  Playing with words and playing with ideas.  We get ourselves all wrapped up in the seriousness of our craft.  (At least I do.) Thoughts of deadlines and ditching the dangling participles can paralyze us.  I, for one, get very Victorian when I’m writing — trussed up tight and worried about how my words will be perceived.  On Day 3, however, I threw caution to the Victorian winds and loosened up the whale-bone corset.  And once those strings were free I felt like I could play.  My MC’s voice came to life.  She was throwing off the lace tablecloths that covered her dining table legs, she was using the word “leg” instead of “limb.”  She was even talking about… condoms.  I was blushing (and she was blushing). Our collective Victorian chasteness was threatening to tighten that corset back up with every keystroke.  But I filled my lungs with air, exhaled and tore those laces to shreds.

Here’s hoping that playtime will continue with every writing session.  It’s so much more rewarding to write when you’re having fun doing it, and it secretly feels a little bit exciting to throw off those Victorian shackles along the way.

What about you?  Have you (or your characters) done anything surprising this week?

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