I’ve moved

I’m blogging over on my author website now, and I hope you’ll join me.

I haven’t been consistent for quite some time (understatement). But I have a plan to start posting at least once a week, on Saturday mornings. I’ll continue to write about life in general, marriage, family, and so on — but my main focus will be the craft of writing and the struggles and joys of the journey.


Begin Again

A common problem with first novels is the saggy, flabby middle. But it seems that the portion most often tackled by writing books and workshops is the beginning. The first five pages; the first page; the first line.

This is crucial, of course, because readers (agents, editors, or Joe Schmo browsing at Borders) generally begin…um…at the beginning. Your middle can have the literary equivalent of six-pack abs, but your readers won’t know it if they never turn a page.

The classic prescriptions for fixing a slow first page have a common theme: get things moving.

Begin with action.
Start with the moment that everything changes.
Put your character in jeopardy on the very first page.

Here’s the rub: my writing leans toward literary. (Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean that nothing happens.) How do I begin my work-in-progress with “the moment that everything changes” when I want the reader to care that it happens before it does? This requires some understanding of the complicated attachment my brother and sister protagonists have with their father, and the distance they feel from rest of the family. I don’t want to resort to flashbacks since my novel-in-a-drawer was crawling with them (hence the drawer).

When I’ve ignored my own instincts and followed the “rules” anyway, I’ve hated my beginning and found myself utterly disinterested in working on the thing at all. So, what’s the solution?

One afternoon, after again trying to rework my first page and getting nowhere good, I turned to my bookshelves and grabbed a few of my favorite novels to do some research.

I was delighted to find that all my favorite beginnings share something in common: they start with the central longing, or at least preoccupation, of the main character. In just the first few lines, the reader sees what the main character most desires, regrets, fears, loves, or hates.

Sometimes it’s concrete and stated outright, as in Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.

From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with—given circumstances, you might presume, for an American baby of the twentieth century.

The main character, Reuben, is a young boy with severe asthma whose father just happens to work miracles—one of which was bringing Reuben back to life after he was born dead: “a clay boy.” Reuben’s battle for breath and his father’s miracles are central to several pivotal moments in the book, and both are introduced within the first three pages.

In other examples, the desire is more abstract, but still gripping. Anne Tyler is the master here. From Back When We Were Grownups: “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” And Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant:

While Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occurred to her. It twitched her lips and rustled her breath, and she felt her son lean forward from where he kept watch by her bed. “Get…” she told him. “You should have got…”

You should have got an extra mother, was what she meant to say, the way we started extra children after the first child fell so ill.

This kind of opening is a powerful way to reveal character immediately (it’s pretty obvious that Pearl is not the cuddly sort). It’s especially clear when comparing the first lines of Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons with those of The Secret Life of Beesby Sue Monk Kidd. Both are first-person stories told by young girls who are abused and neglected by their fathers.

Ellen begins: “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy.”

Lily of Bees is more introspective and a wee bit less vengeful:

At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam.

The fact that Ellen savors the notion of murder while Lily envies the freedom of insects tells you straight away that you’re being introduced to two vastly different girls.

Once I found the similarities between my favorite literary novels, I wanted to see if I could find the same in other genres. So I cracked open a book I had read recently—Down River, the Edgar Award-winning mystery by John Hart (one of PPWC 2011’s featured speakers). It positively oozes with both longing and regret.

The river is my earliest memory. The front porch of my father’s house looks down on it from a low knoll, and I have pictures, faded yellow, of my first days on that porch. I slept in my mother’s arms as she rocked there, played in the dust while my father fished, and I know the feel of that river even now: the slow churn of red clay, the back eddies under cut banks, the secrets it whispered to the hard, pink granite of Rowan County. Everything that shaped me happened near that river. I lost my mother in sight of it, fell in love on its banks. I could smell it on the day my father drove me out. It was part of my soul, and I thought I’d lost it forever.

But things can change, that’s what I told myself. Mistakes can be undone, wrongs righted. That’s what brought me home.

Not only is there overlap between genres. The advice itself—the classic ideas and this “longing” thing—can intersect. Pearl and Reuben are both in jeopardy as they face death on their respective first pages. In Back When We Were Grownups, Rebecca’s realization that she’s “the wrong person” leads her to change everything about herself.

And look at this beginning from the thriller The Oath by Frank Peretti: “She ran, tree limbs and brambles scratching, grabbing, tripping, and slapping her as if they were bony hands, reaching for her out of the darkness.” This one’s got all the tried-and-true elements: action, jeopardy—and everything seems to be changing. But it’s got longing, too, as the character tries desperately to escape from something or someone.

What it boils down to is that there are different ways to tackle those all-important first lines. If you’ve struggled with your beginning, or if you want to make sure it’s everything you want it to be, then pull out your own favorite books. Find the openings that grab you and see what they have in common. Action? Longing? A bit of both? Something else entirely? Whatever it is, go with that. You’ll be on your way to crafting the kind of story that you’ll love writing—and readers will keep reading.

Originally published on Writing From the Peak: Pikes Peak Writers Blog, 02/14/11

Just Because it’s Gorgeous

I’m working on my next column for the Pikes Peak Writers Blog, and I’m pouty because I can’t seem to justify the inclusion of one of my favorite novel excerpts. My article is (loosely) about different ways to open a novel. To illustrate my points, I’m using the first lines of some of my favorites, and the excerpt I’m trying (and failing) to use is one of my all-time top three.

The trouble is that the book (Gilead by Marilynne Robinson) is complex and richly layered, so if I were to use it in the article, it would need a good deal of explanation to show how it relates to my central thesis.

But I love it and I want everyone else to read it and love it too. So, just because I’m the blog boss over here, and because I feel like it, I’m offering it below for you to read and enjoy. (FYI: the liberties with grammar and punctuation are intentional.)

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.

It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you’re a grown man when you read this–it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then–I’ll have been gone a long time. I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.


There. I feel better. Don’t you?

A Bit About Believing

My creative writing students are required to write in composition books every day. Often, I find notes to me: “Sorry this is boring,” or, “You don’t want to read this,” or, “I’m lame!”

They’re wrong, but I have to laugh because of what I’m thinking when words won’t flow: “I’m a hack. This will never happen.” It’s hard to maintain belief in your dreams when the road is so long and curvy and filled with pot-holes of disappointment.

That’s what made my latest birthday present from my husband so amazing.

He’d asked a friend of ours–a photographer–to make mock-up book covers for my two novels. Mind you, neither has been published (the second isn’t finished). But the book covers are so gorgeous, one guest at my surprise party asked where he could buy the books!

What’s truly incredible is what they represent: my husband believes. That there will be real book covers one day, covering real books, filled with words that I wrote in those impossible-feeling moments. When I can’t believe in myself, I look at those book covers and let his belief take over.

My students can’t wait to open their composition books when I return them. I write notes like, “You’re not lame,” and, “This isn’t boring–I wish you’d kept going.”

Find someone who believes in you; and find someone to believe in. It makes a difference–believe me.

Originally published in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of Pikes Peak Writers NewMag.

Photos by Sandi Evans
Note: The Gathering Summer is now titled The Things We Leave Behind.

Living the Life

Yesterday I was in my all-too-usual state of barely suppressed frustration.  I was thinking of all the tasks on my to-do list, and how most of those tasks will only need to be redone in a matter of hours, days, or a week at most.  Dishes, laundry, bill-paying, cleaning the floor that looks streaky and attracts footprints the instant it’s dry.  Not to mention the tongue-marks that our puppy leaves, since apparently the floor is quite tasty.

Minor annoyance at life’s tediousness isn’t an enormous problem.  But too often, I find myself letting it balloon into frustration at life in general.  That’s when I start grumbling to myself — audibly if I’m alone.  And I wind up cranky, snappish, and not much fun to be around.

But yesterday, my normal progression of thoughts was interrupted somehow.  I don’t know why, but just before I got to the point of frowning and huffing, I remembered something.

When I was four years old, a bright, shiny dream took shape in my imagination and became a persistent, life-long goal.  That goal stayed with me all through school, college, early marriage, early motherhood, and even to this day.  That goal was to be a published writer.

So the thought that stood me upright yesterday, letting the steam mop do the huffing for me for a minute, was that I have reached that goal.  Five times over.  My name isn’t on the binding of any library books.  And that would be some kind of wonderful, to be sure.  But on five separate occasions in the past two years, editors have found my words to be worth paying for–worth printing and sharing with their readers.

Not only that, but I am living in a quiet, beautiful rural area–another dream I have nurtured for years, along with my husband.  Everybody in my little family likes one another at least 90% of the time.  I get to hang out with teenagers a couple of times a week, which is its own special sort of crazy, surprising joy.  And I’ve recently been dubbed the Editor of the Pikes Peak Writer NewsMag, which is as fun for me as playing video games is for my sweet husband and our girls.  (Yes, I really am that odd.)

I have an expandable file folder that I use in my Creative Writing Class, helping me organize assignments and notes for my lesson plans.  I customized it a bit with favorite quotes, and the one that I wrote on the front, with thick black permanent Sharpie, is by Henry David Thoreau.  It reads, “Live the life you’ve imagined.”

Even when I’m mopping, fluffing and folding, or filling a sink with hot soapy water for the second or third time in one day, I can remind myself that those tasks do not define my life.  They’re a small, necessary part of it, but they’re more like the salt and pepper, not the meat.  The core of my life, thanks be to God, is what I always imagined it ought to be.

I resolve to be grateful for the dreams I’m already living.  And then, to keep on dreaming.

National Novel Insanity Month

Let me first state the obvious:  a man–with apparently no interest even in football–must have been the one to decide that November would be the perfect month for hundreds of thousands of aspiring writers to write an entire novel (50,000 words, at least).

Because how on earth am I to write a novel AND cook a turkey with all the trimmings AND host out-of-town family members in a clean, nicely-decorated home, AND do my Christmas shopping, wrapping, and letter writing?  And by the way: I love football!  What could be a better end to Thanksgiving Day than to curl up on the couch next to my honey with an entirely unnecessary extra piece of pie, watching college boys toss around the pigskin.  Ah, I feel bloated and happy just thinking about it.

So I did most of the holiday preparation stuff early.  I have my Thanksgiving menu planned out, but not my shopping list.  I have decorative pumpkins on the table, at least.  Flowers can come later.  And I have all my Christmas presents squirreled away–but not wrapped.  The football?  Can’t do any of that in advance, unfortunately.

And I have decided to give myself the first twenty days of November, rather than all thirty, to complete the 50,000 word goal.  So far, I am on target, having written more than 2,500 words per day for the past three days.

And you know what?  It’s been fun.  As anyone who loves to write will tell you, writing feels like catching your breath after a long run.  Like the first few days after falling in love.  Like seeing someone you adore, when you haven’t seen them in ages and didn’t expect to any time soon.  Like laughing so hard and long and freely that after awhile, you are only laughing at the laughing itself.

My fear: that what I write this month will be horrible, and will betray the integrity of these characters who have lived inside my head for more than a year now, and with whom I have fallen deeply, helplessly, and inexplicably in love.  (Yes, I know they are imaginary.  That’s the inexplicably part.)  That what I write will be meandering and goopy and far beyond repair, which would mean the death of the idea and the story and those wonderful, aforementioned characters.

But the fact is that I had been thinking and talking about this novel for, like I said, over a year now.  And I needed something to force it out of me.

And so, I write.  For at least the first twenty days of November, I write.

Sleep?  There’ll be time for that in December.

Or not.

UPDATE: 50,419 words, completed on November 21st, logged on November 25th!  I’ll blog more about it later, but that time I thought I’d have in December has been unceremoniously swallowed up by my new position as Editor of the Pikes Peak Writers’ NewsMag.  First issue?  January!  November might have been Novel Insanity Month, but December is NewsMag Insanity Month.  Have to finish in time to write the Christmas letter…

Stepping Down

If you have followed this blog at all, you’ll have noticed the recent sudden drop in new posts. You’ll also recall that I’ve posted a few times about my struggle to balance blogging with wifing and parenting and home schooling and writing and teaching high school.

I have never been a gifted multi-tasker. As a result, I have lately felt very much like over-pulled taffy. I’m stretched in so many different directions, I am virtually useless in all of them.

In addition, I have found that I am a groovy writer. Which means that I get into very deep grooves in my writing habits and find it difficult to jump between them. When I am in a nonfiction (bloggy) groove, it is nearly impossible for me to jump out of that, into a fiction groove. Which makes any attempt at working on my second novel extremely frustrating.

So I have decided that I cannot continue to update this blog with any regularity. I will not delete it since I find that I still get several hits from search engines each day. I will update the Book Review page as I find new books that deserve a recommendation. And I will happily let you know whenever I have a new article out (like the one in the current issue of Marriage Partnership Magazine), or if I ever wind up with my own book on a bookshelf near you.

As for blogging, I have been invited to be a guest author and editor on www.weekendkindness.net, where I will post articles on marriage approximately once per month. I hope you’ll check it out.

Thank you for your readership, whether you’ve been here once in your life, once a week, or once a day.