My first mystery novel, Swift Horses Racing, is now out.
Putting yourself out there is scary. I’ve been writing for years—blog posts, songs, short stories and even a novel previous to this one.
It was hard for me to release Swift Horses Racing into the world. I had lots of reasons why I wasn’t ready to do this. Why I needed more time to work on it.
Fear is persuasive—and kind of a bully.
One day I realized that the comfort zone I was keeping myself in was no longer comfortable.
I’ve been writing stories since I was eight years old. I love holing myself up in my room to write. But at some point, you want to “complete the handshake,” as writer Michael Chabon says. Let what you’ve written connect with another person.
Last month, when I was still having minor panic attacks about putting my book out there, I was driving and a song came on at the end of my Spotify list. It sounded vaguely familiar. It was Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 vintage soul song, “Move on Up.”
Bite your lip. And take the trip
It was like the voice of God to me, the final word capping the thoughts I’d had the past few months. Even though you’re afraid, do it. Fear is not a sign you shouldn’t do it. You just have to bite your lip and keep going. Take the trip.
Now that I made the decision, the fear has backed off—like a bully often does when challenged. I’ve learned so much during this process. I’m excited to hear what people think of the story I’ve put out there. Meanwhile, I’m hard at work on the follow up to this book.
Though it feels good to celebrate the end of a year that has constantly surprised us at how low it could go, I don’t think things are going to dramatically improve in 2021.
But one thing I have seen this year: good things don’t just happen in “good” years. They happen all the time. And if you look for them, you will see them. Even in a time of hard and painful things.
This year in California’s Bay Area, we’ve been in quarantine since the second week of March. We have celebrated my daughter’s 21st, my husband’s, and my birthdays at home. I’ve been teaching my high school English classes online since March. With the current travel quarantine, we had to cancel a Christmas getaway to Seattle, where our whole family would be together for the first time in a year and a half.
Also, this fall we lived through an unprecedented California wildfire season, with fires in the hills on either side of us. We breathed hazardous levels of smoke on a regular basis for about two months.
Add to this, a painful, contentious presidential election season that dragged on way past November 3.
As I read over this list, I realize how outrageously privileged I have been.
This year I didn’t lose a job. I didn’t lose a business. We didn’t lose our house to a fire. And even though I know people who did, I did not lose a friend or family member to COVID. My husband and I were both able to work from home (which was, on most days, not life threatening).
There were so many good things that happened this year. Some of these were deep things, perhaps more deeply felt and appreciated because they contrasted with the chaos, grief and destruction happening this year.
1. We and our kids stayed healthy.
2. We learned how to make toilet paper last a long time.
3. We got creative with our family times to stay connected – did lots of board games via Zoom as well as virtual Thanksgiving and Christmas.
4. I realized I actually like teaching online and have worked to make it more engaging for students with the use of community building and more audio/visual tools.
5. I wrote more this year than I ever have. A lot of support for this came from being in community – with my writers group Highway Writers and my awesome, local Sisters in Crime chapter, Coastal Cruisers.
6. I improved at my craft – and had a story chosen for a mystery anthology that will come out in 2021.
7. My daughter, who had been struggling with some serious issues, is doing much better.
8. I learned more about racial injustice–and about inequalities I never knew existed. We started supporting organizations that work to fix these. I took my daughter to her first protest.
9. I found out that many things I thought were important—weren’t.
10. The isolation made me see things I did not like about myself—attitudes and habits I’ve carried with me too long. With God’s help, I am determined to make changes.
One of this year’s themes—because, hey, I’m an English teacher—has been “joy and sorrow deeply mingled.” I can’t remember right now what hymn this is from, but the idea is you can’t separate the good from the bad. They come together. The bright seems brighter because of the darkness that surrounds it.
The new year won’t be a big level-up to peace, happiness and complete health for everyone. But I have grown up this year and many of my friends and family have, too.
Whatever comes in 2021, we will be better prepared for it.
And more able to appreciate the good that comes with it.
In the first few weeks of quarantine, I was one of those people who couldn’t get anything done.
I did what I had to do for the classes I teach, then I turned on my comfort TV, The Great British Baking Show, and numbed out to polite, adorable British bakers trying to perfect their tarts and puddings.
[Blue eyes flashing in disapproval]: “So Victoria…why aren’t you writing?”
My other fallback was the news, though obviously not for escapist reasons. I had to know everything that was happening with COVID and quarantine. But after gorging on the news kept me awake at night, I learned to set limits on my consumption.
As I settled into my SIP rhythm, I entered a new quarantine phase:self examination.
I started to see things about myself that I didn’t like.
It’s one thing to become tired of the people you live with. You can go for a hike, suit up for a daunting trip to the grocery store, or go sit out in the backyard. But when you’re frustrated with yourself, you’re pretty much stuck.
My nagging question was, why aren’t you writing?
If writing is your dream—and it makes you feel good to do it—why is your go-to activity watching people make tarts?
I decided that if writing and publishing were important to me, I couldn’t let SIP keep me from doing them. My goal is to publish a novel. I left my second novel hanging—a completed first draft waiting for revision—and hadn’t gone back to it since before quarantine.
I also felt distanced from that good feeling that comes from writing. My novel hung over my head like a threat. Writing felt like an obligation, not a happy place to go to.
After some thought on how I tend to work and think, I decided to do the following things. So far they seem to be working.
1. I started a short-term project, to experience the fun of writing again. I started a short story, something I could finish quickly. I wrote a locked room Shelter in Place mystery, with a completely new protagonist: a single-mother private detective. I had a blast writing it.
2. I now set a timer and sit down to write every day, even if it’s a short increment of time. A sneaky trick I play on myself! I set a timer for maybe 30 minutes. But then I get really into what I’m writing and end up going past the timer.
3. I meet with my writers groups. I am privileged to be a member of three awesome writing groups. Many of the writers have been dealing with similar issues. It’s helped to see how they’re handling this time. Even if it’s meeting on Zoom, it’s life-giving to connect with other creative people.
4. I do online write-ins. Accountability for the win! Whether it’s on Zoom or FaceTime, it helps to sit down with other people who are writing. You’re doing this together and your butts stay in the seats. After the timer beeps, you can check in and get encouragement from each others’ breakthroughs.
5. I faced the big project I was avoiding. I’ve gone back to the overwhelmingness of my big project—revising my novel. I have my list of big revisions and the research I want to fold in. It will be a big undertaking that will probably continue to be overwhelming, but now I remember what I loved about my novel concept. And how much I love my characters.
I’m back in the game! Still quarantined and not going anywhere.
Someone who enjoys discovering the book as I write it. A pantser.
But a few months ago, I wrote myself into a cul-de-sac. I was stuck, so I avoided sitting down to write. And this is a book I love and have invested a lot of time and research in.
Based on feedback from my writers’ groups, I tried something very different. I decided to pick up from right before where I’d gotten stuck and plot the rest of the book in detail.
Cool story:After plotting the rest of the book, I finished my first draft within a month.
So I guess that makes me…a plantser.
The plantser: the pantser-plotter hybrid
When I first started writing, I read all I could about the writing process. My favorite mystery and suspense writers had inspired me to write in the first place, so I read everything I could about their writing processes. One of my faves, Elizabeth George, is a committed plotter, so I tried to do the same. I wrote up detailed outlines of each scene and plotted character arcs.
Then once I started writing, I completely disregarded them.
My story started telling itself. My characters came to life and wanted to make their own choices. It was so much fun, I just went with it.
That was my first book. On my second book, things have developed differently. I started with a compelling concept: a saintly old man is killed in a deliberate hit and run, and gradually you find out he was not the model human being he seemed to be (hint: Nazis may or may not be involved).
The last act of the novel then dealt with the consequences of the truth being revealed. This is where I got lost. There were too many directions to go in, and the one I wanted didn’t seem to fit. So I sat down and plotted my path to the final scene and denouement.
I found that when I finished plotting, I could easily pick up where I left off writing the next day. Hence, I didn’t procrastinate about sitting down to write.
I knew what I had to write each day. And I actually sat down and did it!
I didn’t have to refresh my memory as to where I was in the story. Also, a benefit for my ADD self—I could break the writing up into doable chunks. I assigned myself a chunk for each session. Though as a pantser at heart, I sometimes kept writing because I got into the story and couldn’t stop myself.
Plotting in advance didn’t mean I couldn’t change things up once I got going. The climactic scene changed as I wrote it, and it wasn’t a big deal to go with that in the moment. I could throw in some interesting detours, since I knew where I was going to end up.
Whether you make it up as you go along or you plot your story in detail, it’s not a bad idea to shake things up. A YA writer in my writing group, a very detailed plotter, is now writing a sci fi romance with no plan at all. She’s loving it.
Part of learning the craft of writing is to try new things, to consider yourself a learner. And as someone only on her second book, I am not an expert at this. It’s possible over time I will settle into a completely different routine of sussing out a novel.
Pantser, plotter or plantser. We’ll see which way I go with book #3!
Writer friends, which one of the three Ps are you?
There is a famous quote about writing:Write drunk, edit sober.
Though it’s been attributed to Hemingway (whose name lends gravitas to quite a few things), Hemingway never said it. We probably attribute it to him because of his tough, whiskey swilling image. Those who have researched this say that the quote actually came from humorist Peter de Vries.
The career of writing tends to pick up more “image” language than most other profession. Writers are hard drinking and mentally unstable. Out there living life brazenly and defiantly, like Jack Kerouac, drinking, driving and womanizing alongside Neal Cassady.
The fact is, most writers I know are hardworking rather than hard drinking. They work day jobs, persevere through MFA programs and take care of young children. They squeeze their writing into precise, regular pockets of time. While carefully curating their social media platforms in their spare time.
They persist through rejection, sickness and financial pressures like a protagonist fighting her way through the rising action of a novel.
You can’t do this drunk. Let alone edit with a hangover the next day.
Here’s my take on it. This quote lives because there is some truth in it. As writers, we wear many hats. When you write a first draft, you need to ditch the inhibitions. Let the words flow. Follow the dark, twisting paths of your imagination, and don’t stop to censor or rewrite. Then when you do go back to edit, look at what you’ve written as a critic.
Sometimes great inspiration looks less-than-great the next day. Sometimes chemistry and creative writing don’t mix.
After you’ve had your coffee: Does that awesome metaphor you wrote about relationships even make sense to you this morning?
In a way, this quote is a metaphor. Write without inhibition. Edit with common sense.
Today I did something I’ve always wanted to do: I saw this year’s reel of Oscar-nominated shorts.
I love animation. It brings out the kid in me, the one who used to get up way before my parents to watch Saturday morning cartoons like Scooby Doo, in pre-cable days. Animation is the medium of whimsy, wonder and the joy of the impossible. The narrative is limited only by your ability to draw/digitize it.
When I teach creative writing to kids, I use Pixar shorts. These tiny stories have a beginning, middle and end. And they’re especially good at something that every writer honing their craft needs to learn: showing and not telling.
This year’s nominated shorts included Pixar’s “Bao,” the story of a traditional Chinese mother whose “dumpling” grows up and finds his own way in the world, to her dismay. She takes the disturbing step of devouring him before he can run off with his blonde girlfriend. It’s a startling image.
Teen rebellion: Little dumpling would rather eat Cheetos and talk to his friends.
You see the despair of this mother, desperate to keep her child “safe” from his own (non-traditional) choices at all costs. No words here, only the fears of a empty nest mother and her son’s fierce desire for independence.
“Late Afternoon,” from Irish animator Louise Bagnall, starts off with an old woman named Emily drinking her tea, helped by someone who looks like her caregiver. When her biscuit falls into the tea, she follows it, transformed into the little girl at the beach with her dad. She falls into other wells of memory when the caregiver (who we learn is her daughter) brings her some old books and pictures. Scenes from her life are shown amid bursts of bright colors that fade as she grows older.
At one point, Emily returns from an old memory and stares at her wrinkled hands, shocked that she could be so old now. I remember my mother, who has dementia, doing the same thing. It’s a beautiful, seamless way to tie the sea of memories back to Emily’s present self.
Watching these reminded me that words are flexible and wonderful tools to tell stories. You can use them to simply tell what happens or you can invite the reader in deeper. I’ll show you something – What do you think is going on?
You’re crediting the reader with intelligence. The reader’s takeaway is greater. They will be more invested in the story, since they were part of the revelation.
I’m inspired now to revisit what I’ve written on this current book, to see how I can envision and write my scenes as an animator or filmmaker would.
2019 Oscar Nominated Shorts is playing for at least the next two weeks (up to Oscar Sunday).
The hills, barely visible behind our local high school.
Nine days after the start of the most destructive fire in California history, the Bay Area is filled with smoke. When you walk out of your house, you smell it. There’s ash on your car in the morning. The parks, normally filled with kids, are eerily empty. Our air quality index has been between 160-180. Unhealthy.
In our western part of Silicon Valley, you can barely make out the hills a couple miles down the street. The scenery around us is grayed out, like an unavailable option on a computer screen.
We’re staying at home. Inside.
I’m trying to write for NaNoWriMo, so this has worked pretty well for me. When I get antsy, my go-to is usually a hike. Since I can’t do that, I write. I research. I dip into that stack of unread books spawned by my serious book buying addiction. More than usual, I’m getting stuff done.
In the evenings, we’re watching movies and playing games. My youngest is obsessed with 1980s movies, which is amusing to me, since these are the movies of my youth and young adulthood. She’s obsessed with the Back to the Future series, which has made for lots of deep discussions. The kind that you hope for and don’t easily get. What events in your life caused you to be who you are today? What if things had happened differently? And, more importantly, was Biff Tannen really modeled after Donald Trump? (Yes—confirmed by screenwriter Bob Gale in a 2015 Rolling Stone Interview).
And we’ve played board games, one of my husband’s favorite things to do. As an introvert, he socializes more easily when he’s doing something. And occasionally, I do win a game.
Our bad air quality is expected to last through Tuesday (four days from now).
Indoor life has been less frustrating than I thought, a reprieve from busy Silicon Valley life. The sad thing is to go outside, smell the air and think of the cause of all this. Two hundred miles away, people’s lives are going up in smoke. I have nothing to complain about. I have my family around me and a house to be indoors in. The people in and around the town of Paradise, California do not. And their situation is heartbreaking.
The door closes. There is that beautiful sound: silence.
The sound I’ve longed to hear, through years of being a mom to three children. No video game boss battles. Nobody banging away at musical instruments (which I admit I enjoy). No requests for food or money.
I’ve made up my to-do list. All I will do with this time. Clean the bathroom, read that new magical realism novel I downloaded. Pay a bill. Write my book.
With the house to myself, with no interruptions, I should be able to write literally THOUSANDS of words. I should be able to sit at my desk and nail down the scene that’s been coalescing in my head.
The characters in my book—the young police detective, the unhappy wife, and the grieving family of the murdered ex-Nazi—are breathing sighs of relief and exchanging grateful glances. Finally, she’s alone! Now we get to do something.
It’s our time. Our time down here, my book’s cast of characters chant as they launch into Sean Astin’s speech from The Goonies. They can get on with their investigations, conversations and illegal/sketch activities! At least they are motivated.
I have my special coffee mug and hot water in my French press. I have a healthy, Whole30 compliant snack. I turn on the MacBook, open Scrivener and I sit.
A phone call interrupts my thoughts and now I’m out of my seat. I remember I haven’t watched the latest episode of The Great British Baking Show. And oh, my God, it’s Cakes! If I watch it, fold the clothes from the dryer and maybe think about that scene some more—that wouldn’t be so bad, would it? At least I’d be getting somethingdone.
And so the rationalization begins. If I do sit back down and write, my time is short and full of distractions.
After a few of these frustrating sessions, I decided to work with myself and my distractible tendencies. Just as I would with students I teach or one of my kids. Let’s strike a deal here, make this work.
My thought process went something like this:
Realization #1 I don’t get much time to myself. I am alone-time deprived.
Realization #2 My self discipline fails me when I feel deprived, whether it’s a diet or schedule I’m trying to adhere to. (If you’re an enneagram person, I am a Self Preservation 4, which means I’m a creative type with a high priority for self care.)
Brilliant hypothesis! If I indulge myself for a set period of time, I will get rid of those feelings of deprivation.
My latest tactic:For an hour, I allow myself to relax and enjoy the quiet house. Watch that Great British Baking Show episode. Prepare myself something that tastes really good. Maybe put on a Spotify playlist of my favorite songs.
Then I sit down in front of my computer. I have fully savored my alone-ness, given in to any desire to dance around like Tom Cruise in his underwear in Risky Business. I am ready now.
And so I write.
Thankfully, this is working pretty well for me so far.
If you’re a parent or spouse who doesn’t get much time by yourself—how do you stay focused when you get your alone time?
If anything is a test of your will as a writer, it’s resisting the distractions that curl up a ghostly cartoon finger and lure you away from the page. They’re evil, I tell you. Evil.
And the rationalizing that goes on in a writer’s head could fill volumes.
Everyone has their own temptations. Mine are food and the internet. I’d love to hear yours in the comments. Wait–maybe I could do some research on the subject of distractions! Now that could be interesting.
Let me just pop onto Google and look this up (disappears into bottomless void).
Distraction #1 What’s for lunch?
What’s in the fridge? It’s only 10:30 am, but it wouldn’t hurt to get something started. Rationalization: Food is necessary to sustain life. Nobody disputes this.
Note: This distraction gets worse when you’re on a diet and all you can think about is food.
Distraction #2 I need another cup of coffee.
Making coffee will take maybe ten minutes, but it will make me write faster. Rationalization: So I’m actually creating time if I take a break to make coffee.
Distraction #3 What’s Trump doing right now?
He’s up to something, that’s for sure. I’ll check my news feed and find out what it is. Rationalization: If it’s nuclear war, I want some notice so I can revise my less-than-perfect first chapter. It may be found in the Cloud someday, after the apocalypse.
Distraction #4 Let me go online to check something. It’ll only take five minutes.
If I go online, I will head down a rabbit hole and emerge 40 minutes later, knowing a lot more about gopher traps and French property laws, but completely derailed from my story. Rationalization: But if I don’t check, the mistake will end up in a published book because my revising self and all my beta readers will miss it. Readers will write me mean letters.
Distraction #5 Because…cute pet
Look what Fur Ball just did! This is so going on Instagram. Rationalization: The little guy is adorable. Posting a pic of the cuteness will make people happy. After all, nuclear war could break out at any time. Don’t we all need joy?
Since I currently don’t have any pets, the members of my writing group have kindly sent me these pictures of their adorable distractions:
Charlotte, the therapy cat. Courtesy of rcgwriter on instagram
One of Ariel’s very literate cats, courtesy of leiraklewis on instagram
That face! O’Neill, courtesy of onceuponrosanna on instagram
What are your big distractions, writing friends? How do you overcome them to stay focused?
I am a writer and a writing teacher. So I deal with my own writing motivation issues, then I turn around and help high schoolers with theirs.
My personal catchphrase and what will inevitably be engraved on my tombstone is: No one should have to dread writing.
But I do, sometimes. If I take the time to analyze why, there are usually two reasons: 1) I’m afraid I’ll fall short of my own expectations; and 2) I’m not excited about what I’m writing.
There is a great quote by public radio personality Ira Glass about the gap that creative types experience, between what they churn out initially and what they know in their hearts to be really good. Here’s a short, creative video rendition of the quote: https://vimeo.com/85040589
As you hone your craft, you will be painfully aware of how short you fall of your own expectations. The only way to close that gap is to practice more of your craft. The more you write, the better you will get.
There’s one magic solution to this–don’t quit. If you keep writing regularly, closing that gap will be inevitable. One thing that encourages me is to go back and re-read an old draft or a story I wrote a few years ago. Then I see the truth. I’m getting better.
The other reason why I and so many of my students dread writing is, we’re writing about something we’re not excited about. So here’s my oh-duh solution: write your passion. Write about something you daydream about. Or about what you fear most. Write about something that’s stuck in your head, that you’re trying to come to terms with. Write about something that pisses you off.
Last year I had a freshman who hated to write and did the very minimum on his writing assignments. When I asked him what he loved to do, he said, “Play the video game Fortnite.”
I asked him what he liked least about the game. He said, “Bush camping. It’s unfair and I hate it. Players hide in the bushes, and they ambush you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
That next week, he turned in the best piece of writing he’d done in the class, a persuasive essay arguing in detail that bush camping should be taken out of the game!
If you’re writing something you’re not passionate about, write about something else. If that’s not an option, research angles on the subject till you find something you do care about. Pick at it. Find something that gets your emotions going, for good or bad.
Here are two books that have inspired me and some of my students:
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Tips and encouragement for any writing process, whether it’s fiction or an essay for school.
If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland
A sparkling and encouraging book for fiction writers, filled with the author’s sense of humor. Gets to the heart of why we want to write and how to move forward doing it.