The joy of filling your head with stories

When I was eight, I declared it to my dog, the world, and the stuffed animals on my bed.

I was going to be a writer. 

I read everything. I read the back of the cereal box as I ate breakfast. I checked out books in my school library and devoured them through the week like cans of Pringles. 

I poked through my parents’ bookcases and read my mom’s old literature textbooks, since, like me, she’d taught high school English. I read my dad’s books on European history, even though I didn’t understand all of them—I loved the stories, the heroes and the battles. 

Yep, I read this entire Will and Ariel Durant series of my dad’s – from the age of 8 to 12.
It’s history written as stories, and I was sucked in.

I had no idea of what I should be reading, as a third grader, so I read everything. Fiction, nonfiction. 

I was a young little sponge. At a time where there were difficult things going on in my family, reading brought me joy. I read curled up on my bed till late at night, or tucked myself under the overstuffed chair in the living room, or holed up in the fort I built in the woods behind our house. 

I didn’t usually reread books as a child.
This series was an exception.

At one point, I felt so filled, so inspired by stories, that I started writing my own. Illustrated, of course. It was my response to what I’d read, all I’d taken in. It was part homage, part that naive ballsiness that kids have—I can do this!

Stories in, stories out. 

This weekend, I listened to a talk by Lori Rader-Day, teacher in the MFA program at Northwestern, and former president of Sisters in Crime. One of her steps to re-connecting with your writing project is to fill your brain with stories. Read the best books in your genre. Read things in your genre that are a little different than what you write. It will all percolate in your brain, and you will begin to write again. And your writing will get better. 

That’s kind of what I was doing as an eight-year-old. 

I don’t read as voraciously as I did back then. I fall too easily into the black hole of social media. I get sucked down internet rabbit trails. Not to say that all of that is bad—part of it is research. But it’s the kind of quick skimming that doesn’t produce the same results as sitting down with a good book and giving it your full attention for a few hours.

My goal is to reduce that time I spend on my phone, where I’m easily distracted by snippets of information. My iPhone conveniently tells me how many hours I’ve spent on it each day. It even congratulates me when I’ve reduced my daily time. 

I’m going to enlist it as my ally in this.

I want to feel that joy of stories percolating in my head again. 

Getting through your *%&;$! first draft

Two weeks ago, I finished the rough draft of my second book, Across the Red Sky.

It was, like all first drafts, a mixed bag. Some really good twists, some so-so scenes. There are plot holes big enough to swallow SUVs.

But it is done.

Those plot holes are BIG.

As a perfectionist, I’ve always had a hard time with that “write as fast as you can without stopping” method. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a big challenge for me.

The idea of spilling out a stream of imperfect words onto a page and letting them sit there is torture. But if I wasn’t forced to sit down and do exactly that, I would never write.

Having written three books now (the first I didn’t publish), I am starting to see that the first draft helps you work out something very important.

The shape of the novel.

I have an artist acquaintance, Kevin Courter, who is a brilliant painter. A few years ago, he showed what one of his paintings looked like before color, details and textures were added. It was beautiful in itself, but it was an underpainting–outlines of the painting to be. Trees, buildings and hills, sketched on the canvas in dark, transparent paint.

Over the next few days, the painting came to life. Colors, textures, lighting, depth. It was fascinating to see the full beauty of the painting revealed.

I think of the rough draft that way. It’s giving you the outlines of your novel as it emerges from your head. After you’ve got your shape, you can tweak it. Maybe you’re not satisfied with your protagonist’s arc and want to add some challenges. Maybe you want to switch events around to optimize the tension. After you’ve got your basic shape, you can make changes before you commit to writing all the rich detail. It’s easier and faster to make changes in this rough draft.

Be careful of your self talk during your first draft. This is, as Anne Lamott says, your shitty rough draft. It’s a sketch of what your final novel will be. Yeah, there are probably writers who toss off achingly beautiful first drafts, but rest assured they’re also critical of their work at this point.

Everybody writes a shitty rough draft.

So write like your life depends on it. Like you’re being chased by a pack of hungry wolves. Don’t go back and look at what you’ve just written. Look only at the path ahead of you, asking what happens next?

They’re coming for you. Keep your eyes on the path ahead.

Keep going, even if you’re tempted to stop. You are the only one qualified to write this book.

Five Things to Remember about your Shitty Rough Draft:

1. Everybody’s first draft is shitty.
2. DO NOT edit till you’re done.
3. You’re creating the shape of your novel, not its final form. I find it helpful to think of my novel in three acts as I write, visualizing it like a movie.
4. More detailed ideas will come to you later.
5. You can do this, so don’t give up.

Now, after a few weeks’ break and a road trip, I’m settling down to make revisions. I know there are things to be fixed. I’m actually looking forward to my book improving.

To see how a visual artist handles a similar process, take a look at Kevin’s blog demonstration:

https://kevincourter.wordpress.com/2009/07/20/days-end-the-progession-of-a-painting/

Good luck with your first draft!

Sneak peek: Across the Red Sky

I’m happy to give you a peek into the upcoming sequel to Swift Horses Racing. And tell you a little bit more about the book.

I’m a big fan of historical mysteries, but I also love to explore issues in modern life. In SHR, actions from 80 years ago had a huge influence on characters in the present.

It makes me think of this quote from William Faulkner (my mom’s literary idol): The past is never dead. It’s not even past.


In Across the Red Skies, I go back to a more recent past: the year 2000, during the dot com bust
in Silicon Valley, a time when internet companies failed quickly and much of the country feared that Y2K would wreak havoc on life as we know it.

Four young Stanford graduates start a tech company that turns out to be more successful than they could possibly imagine. But the secrets of these four people—who call themselves The Fantastic Four—surface twenty years later, as what happened in the desert outside of Las Vegas now threatens all of them.

Investigating the murder of the company’s CEO are detective James Ruiz and his young partner, Daniela Grasso, who is heading up her first murder case. Dani Grasso loves video games and is dealing with the unpleasant fallout of her decision not to take her place in the family grocery business. As Ruiz deals with his struggling marriage, Dani finds herself without her wise mentor—on a real-life hero’s quest of her own to solve a crime rooted in the past.

For fans of Swift Horses, Detective Mario Flores does make an appearance in the new book!

Tana French is one of my favorite writers. I love how her books weave in and out of the lives of different Dublin Murder Squad detectives. Her books have been an inspiration to me in writing this series.

I look forward to sharing more with you as the book gets closer to release!

If you haven’t yet read Swift Horses Racing, now’s your chance!

Ebook on Amazon: https://amazon.com/dp/B08ZMDL9X3

Paperback order: https://www.amazon.com/…/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_glt_fabc…

Writing myself out of a corner

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It happened with my first book, and it’s happening with the second.

I plunge into writing my book gleefully, without an outline. I love creating an interesting cast of characters and putting them into painful, impossible situations to see what they do. And what they think.

I am a discovery writer to a certain point.

Then I get stuck. I can’t “pants” my way out.

I remember hearing author Louise Penny say once that she started with writing mysteries because they have an expected format. It is definitely easier when you sit down to write, to know you’ll have a murder near the beginning and a denouement at the end.

Nobody does a denouement like Poirot.

There are conventions you’re expected to follow when you write a traditional mystery, such as introducing the killer in the first third of the book (I played with that a bit on my first book and a few of you did notice).

Writing the first book, I forged my way through about seventy percent of the story, feeling good about my direction. Then, I got stuck. The ending I was foreseeing wasn’t a good payoff for the story I’d set up. I had to completely step back and look at what I had.

I set it aside for a week, then came back and tried to view it as a reader would. I also reviewed all my info on story structure, which I keep in my files and, since I teach literary analysis in my high school English classes.

I decided to create an outline of major events in my story, then chop it into three acts, so I had categories for beginning, middle and end.

It took me a while, and yes—it pulled me away from the writing part, which I love. But at this point, I was able to rearrange things strategically, according to where they would make the most impact in the story.

Taking time to do this helped me tell a better story.

Once I set up the three acts, I reevaluated how to lead into the ending. I discovered there was a better, more natural culprit behind the murder!

You did it, lady. I just realized it.

So I went back and did some rewriting and some seeding of clues. Then the way was clear for me to write a dramatic ending that I felt very good about.

With my second book, I’ve started this process earlier, at the halfway mark. It’s not gratifying in the short term to step back and not be writing! But I know from experience that it’s worth it.

Book two is moving along. Look for the cover reveal soon!

When the bad guys got a free pass

One of the inspirations for my novel Swift Horses Racing was a program after World War II that helped Nazi scientists emigrate to the U.S., while scrubbing their Nazi past.

The full details of this program, called Operation Paperclip, weren’t fully revealed to the American public till the 2000s.

As I mention in Swift Horses, the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union amped up after the war. The USSR moved through Europe snapping up countries along with scientists who’d worked for the Reich.

The United States also began detaining German scientists and their families, eager to get to them before the Soviets did.

They recruited over 2,000 scientists and engineers—in such fields as chemistry, aeronautics, medicine, and biological warfare. The United States also began detaining German scientists and their families, eager to get to them before the Soviets did.

Wernher Von Braun

The fact that many of these scientists were Nazis and had committed crimes against humanity was not as important as the determination that their expertise could not fall into Soviet hands. The scientists were brought to the U.S. and their records were wiped clean of any Nazi involvement.

The program was considered a necessary evil if the U.S. was to win the Cold War.

One big area of U.S. recruitment was the German rocket program. In 1942, the Germans sent an A4 rocket higher than any manmade object had ever gone—outer space. This program would produce the V2 rocket, which would bring destruction in bombing raids on London.

The architect of this rocket program? Wernher Von Braun, who emigrated to the US after the war and went on to create the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo missions.

As a resident of Silicon Valley and a former tech employee, I find it interesting to think about the technology angle of it—how important is technology? Is there a morality to it? What is its human cost?

Von Braun was a member of the Nazi party and Hitler’s SS. He oversaw the V2 rocket factory Mittelwerk, in the tunnels under the mountain of Kohnstein, where at least 20,000 concentration camp slave workers lost their lives. Because of the fear that the workers would revolt, digging tools were prohibited and workers had to dig the tunnels by hand.

Operation Paperclip is a fascinating moment in U.S. history. As a resident of Silicon Valley and a former tech employee, I find it interesting to think about the technology angle of it—how important is technology? Is there a morality to it? What is its human cost?

If you’re interested in reading more on Operation Paperclip, I recommend Annie Jacobsen’s book, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America (Little, Brown and Company, 2014). Another book that gives firsthand accounts of the slave conditions in Mittelwerk is Andre Sellier’s History of the Dora Camp: The Untold Story of the Nazi Slave Labor Camp That Secretly Manufactured V-2 Rockets (Ivan R. Dee, 2003).

Ashes, ashes

Maybe it’s the extrovert in me, but I love when people read my book and get back to me with feedback.

My first book, Swift Horses Racing, was released in April, and I waited (not very patiently) for comments and reviews. There’s something satisfying about putting your writing out there and hearing something back from the void.

This week I had someone comment on the last chapter of the book, where aeronautics pioneer Karl Schuler’s ashes are scattered over the Pacific Ocean. A reader commented that he wanted more detail about how that worked.

So I did a little more research. Scattering ashes by plane is a tricky process. You can’t just empty a box of ashes out the window. Because of the speed of the plane and the winds involved, the ashes are likely to come right back at you. Just like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, you’ll end up with ashes on your face–or a plane full of them. One comment I read from a pilot:  You may never fully get that person out of your plane.

Don’t be like The Dude

There are a few different ways to disperse ashes in a way that won’t coat the inside of the plane with them. There are special attachments for the wing that contain and release the ashes. Another homemade method involves rolling the ashes up in a cloth bundle like a sleeping bag. You secure the bundle with rubber bands, then cut a slit in the end so you can grip it. To release, you take the bands off, then unfurl the bundle out the window. The ashes are dispersed far enough away from the plane to not be sucked back in.

The more I found out about this method, the more I decided this process was something that my character Duke Sorenson, tinkerer and lover of aviation, would totally get into. It gave him a chance to interact with another character he’d had a bad run-in with—and it was a bonding moment. It wasn’t a huge change, but it enriched the scene. I was even able to include it in the next printing of my book. The last scene is richer and fuller because of that change.* So, reader—thank you for the feedback.

*If you have a previous copy of Swift Horses Racing, leave your email address in the Contact form (see website menu). I’ll send you a copy of the chapter addition.

Bite your lip. Take the trip.

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. 

My book, Swift Horses Racing, posing with my pet bonsai, Kubo

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. 

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.

Since I’m a music person, I’ve created a Spotify playlist for the characters in this book—including Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.” You can find it at:  https://open.spotify.com/playlist/2gsXELvdvHD690yXetvFme?si=to0k3VfnQlyZpn1ImH1GWw

Enjoy the book, and let me know what you think with a commentor better yet, a review on Amazon, Goodreads or the book review site of your choice.

How I got back to writing during quarantine

Today is day 109.

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.

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[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.

But feeling renewed and reset.

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Yep. One hundred and nine days.

How this pantser became a plotter

I’ve always been a seat-of-the-pants writer.

Someone who enjoys discovering the book as I write it. A pantser.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Running: my new writing buddy

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Sit as little as possible. – Friedrich Nietzsche

I started running again recently, after a long stretch of being sedentary.

I’m not saying it was an easy thing. I went through a few weeks of pushing my reluctant body out the door in the early morning, making sure I wasn’t awake enough to resist.

Then it began to feel amazing. 

Four years ago, I tore my meniscus and was hobbling around, at work and at home, my knee swollen and feeling pretty awful. Since I’d torn it running a race, I thought maybe my time was up. I’m too old. My body can’t take the impact any more.

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The infamous 5K in which I injured my knee. The beer was good, though.

I had knee surgery, did the physical therapy to get back on my feet and resigned myself to remaining safe. To prevent it from happening again, I would stick to gym equipment and the occasional hike.

Except that I didn’t do those things.

I sat.

I wrote, sitting or curled up on the couch with my coffee, before my family got up in the morning, or as my husband played video games in the evening. Most of my day, with the exception of going to work and teaching or getting groceries, I sat.

Writing and running are similar in some ways. There is that way-famous quote by Dorothy Parker or George R.R. Martin, whichever you choose:  I hate writing but I love having written.

I love having run.

In return for the energy I’m expending, I get energy back for the rest of the day.

When you start out, running feels like a job. You have to get yourself psyched up—or guilted—to get out there and move. But once you hit your stride, you’re good. It’s like your body thanks you for using muscles that were aching to get back to work.

A few months ago, I got nostalgic for that feeling of motion. For how good it felt in the cool morning to put one foot in front of the other. The rhythm. The flood of endorphins. So I downloaded the Couch to 5K app on my phone and ventured out to find dirt, grass and padded areas to try running again.

I ran in the park behind our house, then I moved to the padded track at the local high school.

And….no problems with my knees.

When I’m running, my thoughts fly giddy and free, like kids on a road trip hanging their heads out the car window. They’re having fun, along for the ride. New ideas pop into my head. Several times after running, I’ve gotten new insights into my characters. Yesterday I thought up a plot twist for a story I’d about given up on.

This is not a new idea. Author Laura Lippman has talked on Twitter about the value of working out before writing. Nathan Bransford wrote a blog post about how exercise helps his creativity:  https://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/12/importance-of-exercise-for-writers

So I encourage you. If you want to jumpstart your writing creativity or just get more energy, give running or some form of vigorous exercise a try.

To make sure you stick with it, look for a system to keep you accountable, like a running app or a local running club.

If I can do this, you can!

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I use Action’s Couch to 5K app. A little perky for early in the morning, but the interval training works.