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.
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.
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 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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
What happened when I decided to read a book by my mother’s literary love
My mother was the source of all stories for me. She told me stories. She read me books. When she got bored of reading me my favorites, she’d add silly details, mix the story up, and get me to laugh hysterically.
I love stories because of her. Reading them and writing them.
At 83, my mother still hangs on, three years after she was first put on hospice and given ten days to live. In the last stages of vascular dementia, she is confined to a hospital bed in the family room. She sometimes smiles, but usually I barely see her eyes behind her eyelids. She speaks only a few words, which have all the right sounds and inflections, but make no sense.
I reach for her hand, because then she turns her head to me. I tell her about my students and what we’re reading. I am a high school English teacher now, like she used to be years ago. I want to share these things with her. I don’t know if she hears or understands anything I say.
This month I made it my mission to read a book by her favorite author, William Faulkner. Maybe it’s because I can’t know what’s in her head now. I want to understand what she thought about, what used to be important to her.
Years ago, with a look in her eyes of distant remembrance, she told me: Nobody writes like Faulkner.
This month I got my hands on a copy of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.A book that has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses, for its complexity and the way it breaks the rules. Not an easy read. Some sentences are just strings of adjectives. The narrative often switches abruptly to a part of the story mentioned earlier.
To understand everything, I had to read chapter summaries in Spark Notes. And look up the meanings of words I’d never heard before. Suppuration, anybody? (It means the fluid produced by an inflammation.)
I’m a quick reader, but it took me a week to forge my way through the muddy wilds of Absalom Absalom.
My mom is not a southerner like Faulkner, but she loved the way he told a story.Absalom is told in an unconventional way:by multiple narrators, most of whom can’t be trusted. Like an impressionist painter, Faulkner paints layer upon layer, filling in the outlines of events again and again, making the picture deeper and sadder each time.
The book reads like a mystery, even though the first chapter tells the novel’s entire plot. Thomas Sutpen—a man who grew up poor in Virginia—comes back to the south from Haiti in the 1840s to build a mansion on a hundred acres of mud in Mississippi. He gets rid of his Haitian wife, along with his first son, when he finds out she is part African. He marries the daughter of a local merchant, to get some instant middle class respectability. It’s all part of The Design, the plan he set in motion when he left rural Virginia.
The man’s sins and his broken children come back to destroy his family. In the same way slavery and racism came back to destroy the pre-Civil War way of life and made the south an apartheid for the next century and a half. Absalom turns into a pretty depressing story for all involved (And I read it the week before Christmas!)
The mystery that drives the story is, we find out years later that there’s something hidden in Thomas Sutpen’s house. It’s evil, it’s scary. But what is it?
Several years ago I was in a class with a writer who grew up in the south. I remember teasing him that he had an advantage over the rest of us. “You have all the eccentric relatives and complicated history.”
I’ll need to read more of him to judge, but I don’t think Faulkner’s work was good just because he had rich material on his home turf. He dug into why all human beings make the choices they do, how people living through the same events interpret them so differently.
And how a person’s actions inevitably ripple down the generations. Like a father passing racism down to his son. Or my mom giving me her love for stories and good writing.
Almost a week later, the poetic cadences of Faulkner’s writing are still echoing in my head. As a writer, I want to capture some of his style (though maybe not the long sentences).
Many images from the book stick with me, especially one in particular. Faulkner describes the women of the south as “ghosts” after the civil war. I picture southern belles and tough old matriarchs, wandering the dusty streets of Jefferson, Mississippi, in their faded ball gowns, powerless and poor ghosts, far from what they used to be.
As I sit with my mom, whose eyes flicker almost imperceptibly between open and closed, it’s hard not to think of her as one of those. ♥
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 jet lag has worn off, but two weeks ago I got back from a wonderful trip to England.
I walked through London in the footsteps of my favorite writers. I ate lunch at the pub in Oxford where Tolkein and C.S. Lewis met on Tuesdays. I got to see the hangouts and graves of the classic writers who gave me my love for the English language. The weather and the people could not have been more congenial.
London was busy and energetic, full of so many people under 30 that I felt pretty damn ancient. As Harry Potter fans, our first stop in the city had to be Platform 9-3/4 in King’s Cross Station.
We saw Westminster Abbey, on a tour led by a bossy, hilarious verger who rolled his eyes at the new, abstract David Hockey stained glass window. I got to see Poets Corner, and the grave of my literary crush, Samuel Johnson. As a Californian, the history awed me. The site has been a religious gathering place since 960 AD.
It was a relief to get away from US politics, but we did catch a brief glimpse of British Brexit drama, when streets were shut down for the Wooferendum, a protest in which dogs and their owners marched against the travel quarantine that their dogs will have to endure when they vacation in the EU after Brexit.
In Oxford we ate at The Eagle and Child, where the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, Tolkein and friends) met. Our friend Ruth then took us over to the Bodleiean Library where we saw an exhibit of Tolkein’s drawings and heard recordings of him speaking the languages he invented for Middle Earth.
Ruth drove us (very fast, on incredibly narrow, twisting country roads) up to the Cotswolds for a roadside picnic.
After leaving our gracious hostess, we headed for Stratford-upon-Avon, a tourist town but in a good way. Shakespeare’s birthplace and the associated sites are well kept up and the tour guides are knowledgeable. The town had even more meaning for me since I’ve been teaching Shakespeare and watching the hilarious BBC show, “The Upstart Crow,” a comedic version of Shakespeare’s life as a struggling playwright.
We finished off our trip in Bath. I love this city! A beautiful abbey, the Roman Baths, the site where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and the Jane Austen Centre. We ate Sally Lunns, Bath Buns and many, many scones with clotted cream. I drank Samuel Johnson’s favorite tea.
I’m still feeling a pleasant buzz from the scenery, the history, and the friendliness and dry wit of the British people.
As I corral myself into my daily routine for NaNoWriMo, I’m dreaming of my next trip.