The Sheer Terror of the Blank Page

ballpen blank desk journal

Photo by Jessica Lewis on

It’s been a long time since I started a new novel.

Well, maybe not as long as it seems. I had an aborted attempt around a year ago. But I’m really zeroing in on novel writing now, and I’m discovering something I probably knew, on some level, but didn’t really, y’know… KNOW. Namely, that when life with a two teens, a tween, and an eight-year-old just entering serious activities smacks into writing, everything suffers.

(But writing suffers more than the kids. I’ll never apologize for putting them first.)

2019 has been an intense year–much of it the best possible tension–a cavalcade of good things raining down on me! And I am so very grateful for it.

But nonetheless… intense.

I’ve always been a burn-the-candle-at-both-ends person, but lately I’m really feeling how little is left at either end. I’m dropping balls all over the place. I forgot a piano lesson, people. And a doctor’s appointment that I scheduled on a day off school to make my life less complicated.

I’ve been struggling to get momentum going on a new novel. I’ve been working on that this week, as best I can, and I’m coming to some new insights. I’ve known for a long time that for me, starting a major fiction project is like getting a huge machine in motion. It’s agony at the start, and as I slowly grind into action, the motion itself clarifies things, which clarify more things, and so on, until I’m writing as fast as I can and making notes to myself for things that will happen a dozen scenes down the line.

But first, I have to invest the time to get that motion going. And it is an intense effort that really does require big blocks of uninterrupted time.

2019 has been a year of interruptions. Some were cause for celebration, others for tearing my hair out. There was a period of 3 weeks this fall, for instance, when 2/3 of the weekdays I had one half or the other of my kids home, because the public & parochial schools don’t overlap their teacher PD days. Ever. It’s like the school systems put their heads together and went out of their way to make PD days consecutive rather than concurrent.

I have been philosophical. Well aware that I only have 3 1/2 years left with my oldest, I am trying to be present in the moments of my life.

But that means ignoring not just writing, but also the Mount Everest of laundry in need of folding. Yes, yes, the kids should do it themselves, but they only get half of it and they mismatch and do it wrong and it’s harder to fix it than to do it myself in the first place!

Ahem. Back to the point at hand…

There’s a conventional wisdom among writers that you have to get the story down, no matter how bad it is–you have to turn off the internal editor and allow yourself to write a crap first draft. I’ve never bought into that. Crap drafts are harder to fix than good ones.

Unless, of course, you have no draft at all because you can’t get the momentum going. And then yes, maybe it’s time to exile the internal editor and get the story on the page.

I also realized that what makes a first draft is so terrifying to me is that literally everything is up for grabs. The major backstory event that kick starts my protagonist’s journey could be caused by something she did, or by something another character did. There are positives and negatives to both ideas, and which one I choose impacts how her present story unfolds. What time of year did event A happen? Because I have to count X number of months/years forward from that in order to figure out when Event B in the present will take place. What, precisely, did Character C do to cause my protagonist’s problem? I need to know, because her story is all about fixing it.

And every time I set out to answer one question, I discover a dozen more that need answering in order to settle the one I thought I was working on.

So for right now, my job is to decide on anything–this little thing, that little thing. Create some little anchors. Because the more anchors I put down, the more solid the framework becomes. And the more solid the framework, the clearer the picture. And the clearer the picture, the more possible it becomes to write.

(Who said there’s no world building in contemporary fiction?)


Enough - resize

My word for 2019 is “enough”: I am enough, I am doing enough, I am good enough, this moment is enough.

It’s a combination of learning to recognize the goodness in saying “no” and of living in the moment, being present in my own life instead of always feeling dissatisfied.

I’m working on it.
But I don’t often feel it. Which is why I want to mark this moment. I just finished revising a particularly difficult and climactic scene for my novel. It’s a scene that marks the culmination of a particularly sensitive plotline. It was good before, but it was a leee-ttle bit melodramatic. And now, after today’s work… it’s really good.

When I finished, I said, “Now I’ve done enough today.” And I meant it.

Bizarre Dreams

woman underwater wearing black one piece swimsuit
Photo by Engin Akyurt on

I had a bizarre series of dreams last night:

1: I couldn’t get apps to close on a smart device. (Anyone who knows me knows this is particularly bizarre because I don’t use a smart phone.)

2: I couldn’t find the right pair of contacts.

3: We drove up Scotts Bluff (one of the settings in my road trip novel), but the drive was so steep, I was certain we were actually inverted and I a) couldn’t believe we weren’t falling off and b) couldn’t understand how my risk-averse husband was so blase about it.

But the last dream was about a magical realm set in the world of one of my previous novels. When I woke up, I thought, “That would make a great back story for a new novel.” And I couldn’t get back to sleep for excitement thinking through the possibilities.

Since finishing my big novel revision and sending out a bunch more queries last week, I’ve been feeling a big void in desire and interest in novel writing. Partly because I’m still waiting for those great outdoor days off I promised myself. (Kayaking. Today. Even if it’s only in the 50s. Because hey. It’s not raining, and there are only a couple weeks of school left!)

But I haven’t been freaking out about my lack of desire. I figured it’d come in its good time. And now I believe it has. Because now I have two novels to develop and choose between…plus the one I tried to write last winter that I still think is a good concept, but needs more development.

Which makes this week a win, I think.

Profanity, the “Real” World, and the Author’s Responsibility


Photo by mbgrigby, via Flickr

One of my online writing communities had an in-depth discussion a while back about profanity and its place (or lack thereof) in literature.

I got to thinking, as I read people’s perspectives, that there’s a pretty deep philosophical question contained in this conversation.

Whenever we talk about the line between too much sex/profanity/violence and an unrealistic picture of the world, the argument boils down to this: We’re writing the real world, and these things exist in the real world; therefore they belong in our stories.

I find that an overly simplistic argument, as I’ve written before. As story creators, we are constantly being counseled to push the envelope, because it’s the unusual and the sensational that sells books—first to agents and editors, and then to the public. But the more we push the envelope, the more desensitized the audience becomes, and the greater the shock value has to be.

The million dollar question is: Does any of this actually change people’s behaviors or thinking patterns?

Well, I know how much movies, TV, songs and books have influenced the way I interact with the world, and you cannot convince me that the same is not true for everyone else. At least to some extent, the real world goes in the direction it is pushed by its artists.

So really, as creators, we are simultaneously trying to do two things that are in conflict with each other:

1) reflect the real world; and

2) craft the unique angle that makes our story different from, more extreme (and thus heroic) than, the real world.

This, then, raises a question. Are we bound to reflect only reality, without imposing philosophical, ethical, or (dare I say) moral judgment upon what we see? The answer is no. Authors don’t write stories just for the sake of writing stories. If, through our storytelling, we explore themes–the plight of women in abusive relationships, or parents who refuse to accept their children for who they are, or mothers who need to learn to let go of absolute control, or the way we handle grief, or whatever it might be–we’re attempting to influence the world, because we see something in it that is broken. Dysfunctional. Not the way it should be.

I would argue then, that we as authors (or screenwriters, or songwriters) don’t have to portray the world the way so much of modern entertainment and literature does: potty-mouthed, hooking up as if sex is without consequences, and so on. First of all, not everybody is doing these things, and suggesting otherwise influences the next generation of humanity inaccurately. Secondly, as authors and other creators of art, we have the right–the duty, even–to hold a mirror up to the world and say, “Hey, this is really not okay. Think about it.”

The other thing that occurred to me in the middle of the conversation on profanity is this: if it’s not okay for children to hear, why is it okay for adults to hear?

There are things that kids can’t handle that adults can. Things they won’t understand at age six, that they’ll misunderstand at age eleven, and finally be ready to process appropriately when they’re sixteen. (I’m just pulling those numbers out of my head for the sake of illustration. Don’t read anything into them.) Some of those things, adults need in order to navigate the world.

Profanity is not one of those things.

Generally speaking, it seems to me that people use profanity either to express negative emotions, or to sound cooler than they do without it (at least in their own minds). I think there are also some who use profanity to shock or titillate, and others who use it to prove that they’re not stodgy and goody two shoes. (Hello, Kate, that finger is pointing at you.)

The last three of those are terrible reasons to use profanity, because they’re all related to making decisions and character traits based on what others think of us. Bad idea, on principle.

As for the first…There’s plenty of negativity in the world. The more we sputter and curse at it, the worse we feel. Anger feeds on itself, bitterness too, and frustration and irritation and everything else we are expressing when we use profanity. It makes no sense to encourage it. Life throws enough challenges at us without chasing after negative feelings.

I lay all this out there not to suggest that I’m a paragon of uprightness in this matter, because I’m not. I say some things out loud and more things in my head. And sure, the characters I create are going to be the same way, some of them more than others, based on their backgrounds and influences. The same is true of the way the characters I create treat others and interact with the world.

But as an author, my basic responsibility as a human being to try to make the world a better place takes on more importance. I have to write with that responsibility in mind.



White-ThePerfectSon-21053-CV-FT-v4jpgThis year I’ve been volunteering with the Women’s Fiction Writers Association as a host for the “women’s fiction cafe,” which is done on Facebook. Instead of asking everyone to read a book in advance and discuss it, this is a chance for authors to stop in and give people a taste of the book, its themes and locales and inspiration, which (we hope) will make people want to read it.

(By the way, if you’re interested in learning about new books through this format leave me a comment so I can be sure to invite you to the cafe weeks! Click here for next week’s!)

The first author I worked with was the lovely and ebullient Barbara Claypole White, whose enthusiasm endeared her to me, as did her flawed but lovable characters.

Barbara has a new book available now: THE PERFECT SON, and I’m pleased to say that it’s my favorite of her books so far. Here’s my Goodreads review:

Haunted by memory of his abusive father, Felix Fitzwilliam has always held himself at a distance from his teenage son, Harry, who, although brilliant, struggles with Tourette’s and other neurological challenges. But in the wake of his wife Ella’s heart attack, Felix has to take over as primary parent. Lyrical and filled with hope, THE PERFECT SON is the story of these two men learning to trust each other enough to admit their weaknesses and grow together as men.

It’s an unspoken assumption that “women’s fiction” must be about women. Barbara Claypole White expands that definition to encompass the story of two men loved by a woman. Felix and Harry are deeply and realistically flawed characters, and I spent every page holding my breath, hoping they would live up to their potential for good. Sometimes they didn’t. But their love and their commitment to their family and each other always brought them back. To watch them grow as human beings gave me hope for humanity. That is what this author does so well: writing stories of hope in situations where too often in reality we see only pain or hardship. This is her third book and my favorite so far.

Monday, Barbara will visit us for a Q&A. She’s such an interesting lady, and extremely personable, so I hope you’ll stop by!

Stillwater Rising, by Steena Holmes


Click on the image to go to Goodreads, where you’ll find an “open preview.”

The Women’s Fiction Cafe is open at Facebook again this week, this time with author Steena Holmes in the house to introduce readers to her book, STILLWATER RISING:

After losing her son in an elementary school shooting that devastates the tight-knit community of Stillwater Bay, Jennifer Crowne finds herself unable to settle back into her role of perfect stay-at-home mom and committee organizer. Meanwhile, her best friend, Mayor Charlotte Stone, struggles to keep the town together, and Charlotte’s husband, the school principal, may not be the hero everyone thinks him to be.

As they try to heal from this irrevocable trauma, Jenn and Charlotte find themselves at a crossroads—within the town and within their friendship. For Jenn, broken and grieving, there is no going back, and she demands that the school be closed so that she can bury the past. Yet Charlotte is equally desperate to hold the town together, fighting the school closure and helping the shooter’s mother regain her place in the community. Jenn and Charlotte’s relationship is put to the ultimate test as each weighs her own interests against the bonds of their friendship.

As always, all commenters will be entered for a giveaway of the book at the end of the week. Hope you’ll stop in!

The Big News


Friday morning when I came home from Jazzercise, speech therapy, and a Wal Mart run, this is what greeted me:

Rising Star announcement 10-10-14

Today I’m focusing on a final whirlwind run through my manuscript to make sure it’s clean so I can send it out. See you Wednesday!


Fiction: Snow Day

Adapted (cropped) from an original photo by Giselle Vestergaard, via Flickr (license

Adapted (cropped) from an original photo by Giselle Vestergaard, via Flickr (license


The bells of St. Brigit’s are calling tonight, winging over the snow and alighting on my windowsill. All day I have been imprisoned by twenty inches of snow. Something inside me quivers for escape. Something bright, warm, effervescent–and utterly impossible. But real. When I woke this morning I was half an inch above my bed. All day I’ve tried to recapture the feel of that moment without success. The quivering had almost vanished. But the bells are a clarion call; I can feel it surging again. I stand utterly still and close my eyes, focusing inward. The bells reverberate in my head. And I rise, into freedom.

Written for Write On Edge

Fiction: A Legend Is Born


Tenements, via Unsplash

The facts? The facts are these: I am wholly ordinary. Black hair, caramel skin, no extraordinary features, no super powers, although I’ve gotten pretty good at karate lately. Self-defense, you know. I am a city girl, after all, born and raised in the shadow of the tenements.

I make my living dyeing and designing special order fabrics for customers far more interesting than I am. I drink Folgers coffee and I don’t eat meat. My favorite channel is TCM, and I would consider my life complete if I could shake Gregory Peck’s hand. Considering he’s been dead over a decade, I’ve had to make peace with incompletion.

These are the facts. But sometimes reality is bigger than facts. Sometimes reality births a legend. And if the legend makes the world a better place, I’m all for that, too.

It began in the alley, where I found myself one muggy afternoon being used as a human shield by a punk who’d gotten himself cornered by the police. His foul-mouthed screams deposited spatters of saliva on one cheek while his revolver–sometimes the barrel and sometimes the muzzle–crushed my opposite temple.

Put the gun down, the officers kept yelling, but I was Punky’s only chance, and he wasn’t about to blow it. Unless, of course,  he managed to blow my head off with his twitchy trigger finger.

Best I could tell, the conflict seemed to be over some piece of property Punky swore was his, but the officers believed belonged to a jeweler on Second Avenue. Not even a diamond. A pocketwatch, or something. It seemed a damn fool thing to die for. Even worse if it was me doing the dying. The only thing I could do was stand as still as possible, so I didn’t accidentally set him off. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.

I tried to distract myself by looking for variations in the rigid columns of windows and tenement faces that boxed us in. I’d never seen–or perhaps I’d just never noticed–how some fire escapes spiraled at the end of each flight. A sound pierced the clamor of the city and the shouting near at hand: Someone had hung wind chimes from the balcony.

Outside my little bubble, things were escalating. I could see the police officers had twitchy trigger fingers now, too. Nobody was going to save me except me. I might get my head blown off, but there was no point in standing there waiting for it to happen.

I closed my eyes, got my bearings in space, and when the muzzle of the gun waved away for a split second, I seized my chance.

I ducked and ground my heel into Punky’s toe. He flailed wildly, and I shoved and twisted and ran. Gunshots ricocheted off the brick. I hit the ground. The screaming stopped.

Footsteps approached. “Miss?” A police officer took my hand and helped me up. “Are you all right?”

I pulled out a handkerchief and wiped my cheek clean. Are you freaking kidding me? What kind of question is that? That’s what I wanted to say. What I said instead was: “I’m fine, thank you.”

And inside, I added:

I will never be a victim again.

A few weeks ago Alex asked me what story I was writing. I told him I was plotting a new story based partly on a true story that had always made me cry. I told him that story and then told him what I was thinking of doing with it to make it fiction. Like a typical third-grade, superhero-obsessed boy, he said, “Why don’t you ever write adventure stories?”

Alex, this one’s for you. A superhero is born. 🙂

Concrits always welcome!