A writer’s life

“Every  morning, no matter how late he had been up, my father rose at 5:30, went to his study, wrote for a couple of hours, made us all breakfast, read the paper with my mother, and then went back to work for the rest of the morning. Many years passed before I realized that he did this by choice, for a living, and that he was not unemployed or mentally ill.”

(Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird)


Why I love three-star reviews

The first days after releasing a book, it’s hard not to compulsively check Amazon and Goodreads every ten minutes to see whether there’s a new review. As a writer, I LOVE four- and five-star reviews. Let’s be honest. I like being told that I’m a brilliant writer.

But as time has passed, I’ve found that, while five-star reviews are the most encouraging and exciting, the most useful reviews, both as a reader and a writer, are the three-star reviews.

I know some people who get upset at three-star reviews, as if it’s a negative rating. It’s not. On Goodreads, three stars is described as “I liked it.” And you know, I’m okay with people liking my books.

And the thing about three-star reviews is, the reviewer is often much more fair about presenting the strengths and weaknesses of a book. It’s not nearly as fun to hear about my writing weaknesses as it is to hear about everything I did well, but it’s so necessary. If I don’t know what problems readers have with my writing, I don’t know how to polish it up, make my words smoother and more powerful.

I also appreciate the frank honesty of three-star reviews. Higher ratings tend toward effusive praise and lower ratings tend toward vague, snippy generalizations; but three-star reviews are (generally speaking) more thoughtful and complete examinations of a book’s merits.

How do you feel about three stars? Do you tend to rate books high, middling, or low?

The Magic of Words

“I find I think of myself not as a writer so much as someone who provides a gateway, a tangential route for readers to reach the circus. To visit the circus again, if only in their minds, when they are unable to attend it physically. I relay it through printed words on crumpled newsprint, words that they can read again and again, returning to the circus whenever they wish, regardless of time of day or physical location. Transporting them at will.

When put that way, it sounds rather like magic, doesn’t it?”

(The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern)

The Power of Focused Creativity

When I was in college, I dreamed of the day that I would be graduated, published, and making enough money off of my books that I could just spend all day writing and be so productive all the time.

But an interesting thing happened. There were a few months in my life where writing was pretty much my sole focus and priority, and you know what?

I wasn’t really that productive.

Now, I have a little girl with another on the way, and I teach piano. Those two things alone take up a lot of time, and when you throw in all the other little life things that turn up from day to day, things can get pretty busy. Yet I’m just about a month away from publishing my second novel.

People ask often how I have time to write. As any writer will tell you, it’s all a question of priorities; but I’ve also found that writing does not take as much time as I used to think.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve put hundreds of hours into writing, editing, and designing my novels. I can’t even begin to estimate a ballpark range of how long it’s taken me to get my books from an idea to a solid, tangible paperback.

But the thing is, those hundreds of hours don’t have to come in eight-hour-a-day increments. For me, I have maybe an hour in the afternoon to work while Scout naps, plus a couple of hours in the evening after she goes to bed. That means I generally have three hours a day, tops, in which to work. With other things in life and occasional lack of motivation (gasp!), it’s probably a better estimate to say I work for an hour or two daily on writing and writing-related things, including this blog.

But because my window of opportunity is so narrow, I wring the life out of those precious hours. I cut off social media (unless I’m social-media-ing for my books), plant my butt in my office chair in the farthest corner of the house, and get to work.

For me, this limited amount of time to work actually increases the quality of my writing. I know I don’t have long, so I’m focused, and I don’t work long enough to start going cross-eyed at the screen. My word count (when I’m counting such things) is just as high as it ever was when I had all day to procrastinate writing.

Moral of the story? Yes, it’s hard to write when you have a day job or kids or a million other things you could be doing instead; but if it’s important enough to you, if you’re willing to suck the marrow out of the small chunks of time you do have, that’s enough. You can do great things, and you will. Just keep getting those words down on the page.

What’s your writing schedule like? Do you write in small chunks of time, or sit and pour out words for ten hours straight?

Naming beyond the names

When I was on study abroad in Berlin, our professor came to have dinner with the family that was putting up with–I mean, putting up six students from our university. This professor was an 80-year-old German who was kind of a grandfatherly figure among the students: gruff, soft-hearted, funny, exasperating, totally uninterested in political correctness, and dear to our hearts in spite of the times he drove up absolutely up the wall.

We, being young American students, generally addressed him as Herr when we were being good, though he tolerated a number of less-formal nicknames during those three months we traveled together. So when our host mother asked us how she should address him, we all looked at each other blankly.

After some scrambling to recall the German protocol for titles, we hesitantly responded, “Herr Professor?”

She didn’t look convinced. “Isn’t he a Doktor as well?”

“Oh, yeah. Herr Professor Doktor.”

Still not good enough. “Is it Herr Professor Doktor or Herr Doktor Professor? That’s an important distinction, you know.”

Uh . . . it was? We shuffled our feet and shrugged, and she finally gave up on us. When he showed up for dinner, she apologized profusely for not knowing his correct title and blamed us. We tried to look repentant, but I was mostly wondering how appalled our host mother would be if she knew my friend occasionally referred to our professor as “Kelly -Belly.”

I still don’t know the difference between a Doktor Professor and a Professor Doktor, but the experience drove one thing home to me: the effect of culture on names and titles.

Writers put a lot of effort into names. We look at meanings, look at sounds, look at origins, sometimes changing a character’s name twenty times before we find the one that fits just right. Names are a big deal, especially when that’s the only visible representation of your character to the reader.

But to be honest, I’ve never liked picking out names. I don’t like doing the research, and if the character isn’t on the main stage, I’m guilty of just making a name up out of thin air and throwing it on the paper.

What’s far more interesting to me is the culture of naming. How a society dictates the framework of its citizens’ names. Not just what mother name their babies, but how people refer to each other, levels of formality, titles, nicknames, etc.

Determining the naming practices for your fictional culture not only adds depth to the society, it also creates a unique unity that subtly tightens the believability of a culture that does not, in fact, exist. What people are called leads to exploration of why they are called that; and even if the answer to that why is only barely hinted at in your story, the important part is that you, the author, have a deeper understanding of the motivation driving the culture as a whole and where that motivation has come from.

For example: in Demon’s Heart, the length of names determine social status on the Courei peninsula. The longer the name, the higher the ranking. Another culture, in quiet disdain of that practice, keeps all names to one syllable. Yet another culture cares nothing for the length of the name, but every person is given a title before their given name, even the children. If the person is important enough, the given name is dropped, leaving only the title.

I’ve enjoyed finding naming cultures in other books: the titles in the Lunar Chronicles, the changing of names with age in Gathering Blue, the naming/numbering system in The Giver.

What are some books you’ve read with unique naming cultures? How do you incorporate the idea of naming into your stories?

Show Tunes and Character Voice

I grew up playing piano. And there was a very long stretch of time where “practicing” meant resentfully plopping down on the bench and plunking out whatever notes I’d been assigned from my method books that week.

Thankfully, my mother was more persistent than I was stubborn, and I eventually reached a point where I could play the songs I wanted to play, rather than those I had been assigned. One of those songs was “All I Ask of You,” from Phantom of the Opera.

I learned the notes, and I could play them fast. That meant I had learned the song, right?


My fabulous, long-suffering piano teacher pointed out that the song was a duet sung by two very different characters. She challenged me to play the song so that she could tell who was singing without looking at the words on the page.

Something clicked. I realized that all those circles and lines and dots and swirls were not just blobs of ink on a page. They told a story, as much as letters in a book did. I went through that entire Phantom of the Opera book, experimenting and learning how to make the piano speak for the characters.

I was already a writing addict at that point, and I started thinking about how my newfound insight applied to my love of words. I looked at books I loved, and I looked at what I had written, and I realized:

Characters are not supposed to sound the same!

But my characters did. And I wasn’t sure how to fix it. So I took a long hard look at my favorite books–specifically, Harry Potter. There were big long segments of dialogue with absolutely no tags, sometimes between three characters, and you know what? I could tell exactly which character was talking, because they were so distinct.

How did she do that? And how could I manage that?

I decided to take the same tack I’d used with Phantom of the Opera. I took Harry Potter, the characters that were so well developed and so distinct, and I experimented with them. I tried to imitate their set voices in new situations, to get a handle on who the characters were, how they sounded different, why they sounded different.

Fanfiction gets a bad rap, but I’m here to tell you that it’s one of the most useful ways to learn the art of writing. With a good example to study and follow, a writer can pick up and practice subtleties and intricacies that eventually get translated from imitation to original stories and characters.

Writing, like anything else, takes practice and study. The difference is, our textbooks are novels, essays, poetry, picture books–whatever it is we’re seeking to write. Writers learn so much more from a well-written book from their intended genre than they could ever learn from an instruction book on the writing craft.

So go forth and study the books that stick with you. See what it is about those books that make them stand out, and then indulge in a little fanfiction. Absorb. Emulate. Then take those lessons and bring them back into your own work.

What books have taught you the most about writing? Have you done fanfiction?

The Care and Keeping of Your Writerly Friends

Let’s face it: we writers are a quirky bunch, sometimes requiring special care. Here are some suggestions to pass on to anyone who might need help knowing what to do once they have unwittingly befriended a writer:

  • Get used to stray pen marks. Hands, face, couch, clothes–writers can’t be bothered with neatness when they’re trying to capture the fates of their characters in a flash of blinding inspiration.
  • Don’t be offended if your writer friend stops talking mid-conversation. Just give them a few minutes to work out the plot snarl that is beginning to untangle in their mind.
  • Sometimes your writer friend will discuss possible ways to kill/kidnap/torture someone. Don’t call the police. Just accept it as story research.
  • Reassure them. Frequently. Writing is one long series of ups and downs, and writers need to be told they’re not crazy at least 500 times a day. (Yes, I know writers are in fact crazy, but we like to be told that we’re not.)

There are the basics! What would you add to the list?

The Lie That Tells the Truth

“We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all.” Neil Gaiman

Strong female leads aren’t enough

Along with the Demon’s Heart trilogy, I’m working on another series that’s been brewing in one form or another for a good decade now. I’ve worked at it on and off through the years, but it went through a long stretch on the shelf for one reason:

Both the main characters were boys.

I felt somehow that I was betraying my fellow women by writing a story in which the female characters play only supporting roles. I read articles about how we need more strong female leads, how girls need better literary role models, how vital female authors are in battling sexism.

And, you know, I agree with all that. I like reading MG and YA books about girls who are strong, compassionate, and resilient. In fact, after reading a post from a fellow blogger about how she made a special effort to seek out female authors this year, I went back to my Year in Books to see how much of my reading list was written by women.

The answer? Two-thirds. Easy. And I wasn’t even remotely making an effort to read more women authors.

(What I also found interesting was that there were two books I read this year with grossly shallow female characters, and only one of them was written by a man. But that’s for another post.)

Our girls today have an abundance of literary role models to learn from, and for that I am so grateful. I can’t wait until my girls are old enough to read The Penderwicks or Princess Academy or Jane Eyre or Tuesdays at the Castle.

But at the same time, I can’t help thinking–who are our boys looking up to?

See, most of my friends growing up were boys. While I spent most of my youth fielding jabs about all my boyfriends, the truth was, they were practically brothers to me. I loved them to pieces, and I worried about them a lot. I was painfully aware, especially in middle school and high school, that the fictional characters they idolized were often either trained killers or sex-obsessed. Often both.

And the thing is, that doesn’t just affect boys. Just as the portrayal of women in fiction affect what boys think women should be, the portrayal of men in fiction affects what girls think men should be. Do you know how many girls I’ve met who are in love with Captain Jack Harkness? Do you understand how this is a problem? The man is (according to popular opinion) gorgeous, charming, and willing to sleep with anything that moves. Is that the kind of man you want your daughter going on a date with?

What worries me even more is how often these stereotypically violent, shallow men are romanticized and “redeemed,” which often just means excused with the most fleeting explanation possible. I’m in the middle of the Lunar Chronicles, which are incredibly well written with a depth of world-building that makes me drool. BUT. Wolf? I’m sorry. “He can’t help it” doesn’t make me fall madly in love with a man who has spent his life tearing throats out. And as for Captain Thorne, you can’t spend two books setting him up as being dumb as a post and twice as shallow, then convince me that he’s turned his whole life around and suddenly has hidden depths.


Our boys AND GIRLS need upstanding male characters as much as they need upstanding female characters. If we want our boys and girls to grow up respecting each other and capable of working together, children’s literature is a good place to start modeling that.

November’s lessons learned


I crossed the NaNoWriMo finish line today, wrapping up my draft (rather hastily) at 52K words. I expected more of a sense of triumph; instead, I just feel a little lost. What am I supposed to do now that I don’t have to wring words out of every second of every day?

Write more words, of course!

Next up on my plate is getting Stone Alliance ready for publication on March 2nd. (Hooray!) But before I move on to that, I wanted to put together a list of things I learned from my first NaNoWriMo experience.

  1. I can produce 2000-4000 words a day. Regularly.
  2. Other things have to be cut out in order to make that happen.
  3. Social media is a great thing to cut out. Signing off of Facebook drastically increased my productivity and improved my general sense of well-being.
  4. I can’t keep up that pace indefinitely, nor do I want to. Devoting myself to churning out a first draft is good while it lasts, but at some point, I do have to get back to marketing and networking and, you know, cleaning the bathrooms.
  5. Word count deadlines are a great way to shut down my inner editor.
  6. I’m not sure I like shutting down my inner editor quite that much. I don’t know, I have to get a little more space between me and this craziness; but right now, I’m even less thrilled with what I produced than I usually am with first drafts.
  7. In the end, setting a goal is the way to go. No matter what the goal is, I’m much more productive when I have a solid, set goal to reach–and all the better when I have writing buddies to hold me to it!

So am I converted? Is NaNoWriMo going to become an annual event in my life? I still don’t know. I’m glad to have a finished draft of this story that has at least five half-written incarnations on my hard drive, but like I said, I’m not terribly pleased with what I’ve written. Then again, that could just be because I’m so ready to put Heather and Dean away and not so much as think their names again for several months, possibly even until next November. We’ll see what happens as time passes.

In the meantime, it’s time to get serious about the final stages of Stone Alliance. Also, keep an eye out for some giveaways coming soon!

How was your NaNo experience?