Doing the Hard Thing

I wrote recently about my favorite exercise for crafting character–100 Declarative Sentences. If I don’t say so myself, I was rather eloquent about the magic that happens when I’ve made 70 or 80 statements about a person. However, today I hang my head in shame and confess that the last two times I did this exercise I allowed myself to stop at 50 sentences. I felt I knew the characters well enough, and continuing to proclaim facts about them seemed too hard.

As in many life situations, the thing that seems hard is precisely the thing that needs doing. Not knowing what to write next was the reason to push myself to figure it out. If I had really known the characters well enough, I would have been able to complete the exercise.

And if I’d kept going, I might have discovered the difficult truth I’ve only just realized: that the wrong person was the main character. In fact, now that I reflect on my process, perhaps I saw that truth hovering at around #65 and turned away from it, convincing myself that 50 declarative sentences was enough.

I gave myself permission to stop short of the hard part of the exercise, and now I must do a much harder thing. Having finished the novel, having spent 10 days basking in a triumphant glow, I take a deep breath, ready my notebook, open a new document and start over.

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I spent the past week at the Wildacres Retreat in the mountains of western North Carolina enjoying the wonderful gift of a writing residency.

20150623_091145I had my own beautiful cabin where I spent hours every day writing on the screened porch. I walked in the woods and saw a doe, a turtle, a wild turkey, a scarlet tanager, and a blue-tailed skink, which sounds made up but isn’t. I enjoyed meals and conversation in the lodge with the Wildacres staff and two other “cabin-dwellers,” both writers like me.

I also enjoyed sounds of flute and saxophone that drifted down to my cabin from the Retreat above. During the week of my residency, Wildacres hosted flute and saxophone master classes, culminating in a concert Friday night, which I was lucky enough to attend. The whole concert was wonderful, but I was especially impressed by the New Century Saxophone Quartet which played “O Northern Star,” written by the Tenor Sax about Wildacres. You can see a video of them performing the song at Wildacres here.

A writing residency is a miraculous thing. It is time and space, both valuable commodities for any writer. It is also faith. Because residencies are competitive, being selected means a committee of smart people who care about art assessed my application and decided they believed in my work. This faith makes it possible to use the time and space well. One of my fellow cabin-dwellers said on arriving, “If I can’t write here, I can’t write anywhere.” But it’s not just the inspiring place and the gift of time that matters. It’s also the fact of having been chosen to be in this place.

20150628_115659So what did I do with my time? I worked on a middle grade novel called (for now) THE OATH STONE. It’s about facing fear and finding the stories in remnants from the past. While at Wildacres, I wrote the last third of this book, and then went back and revised the whole thing. It’s ready now for my critique partners and a first round of readers.

And I’m ready for my next project. Thank you Wildacres for time and space and faith. I hope I fulfilled your expectations. You absolutely exceeded mine.

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100 Sentences

Neil Gaiman converted me to the religion of the hand-written journal. For about a year-and-a-half, I’ve been carrying around a leather-bound book in which I write by hand. Writing in this way is slower than typing. Writing slowly gives my ideas more time to grow into themselves. I make notes and outlines, elaborate back stories, draw floor plans, brainstorm titles and names, write my way out of plot problems, and turn stick people into fully realized characters.

Developing characters involves a selection of exercises I’ve cobbled together from various sources. One of my favorites is Mary Kole’s 100 Declarative Sentences. The exercise is simple–write 100 sentences about a character. It’s easy at first because I’m really just listing things I already know:

  • Shelby’s full name is Michelle Aileen Steiner
  • Shelby is 16
  • Shelby is slim but not skinny

When I get into the teens, it gets harder. Yet, it’s when it gets hard that I start to learn things about the character that I hadn’t known before:

  • Shelby recently quit dance
  • Shelby doesn’t like to do things she can’t do well

By the time I reach the 60s, 70s, 80s, etc., it feels impossible to keep going, yet it’s not. Forcing the pen to stay on the page and requiring myself to keep writing sentences–Shelby sometimes cooks dinner, Shelby loves the sound of the cello, Shelby likes following a recipe–leads to a rich understanding of the character. Once I’ve written 100 sentences, I’ve gotten to know this person. She’s become real.

Writing by HandI do this exercise in my journal. Writing slowly allows each sentence to sink in. Seeing the list in my handwriting makes the statements feel true. Adding this exercise to all the other material in my journal preserves my process and reminds me how I got where I am and how my characters got there along with me.

The examples I quote are all from sentences I wrote when I was creating Shelby for The Rosemary Spell. The list in the picture is for a new character. His name is Max and I’m just getting to know him. It will be a long time before he’s ready to meet any readers. Yet, he’s slowly coming to life–Max was born on August 22, Max is often the peacemaker in the family, Max finds flightless birds heartbreaking.

Inside the leather binding of my journal, 100 declarative sentences tell me who Max and Shelby are. They are made out of paper and pen and time and imagination, and the sentences I write make them real. They will live full lives in books that will be out in the world. Readers who I will never meet will know my characters. And they were born inside the soft leather binding of my journal where I put ink to paper and wrote 100 sentences.


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The Day of the Book

In 1995, UNESCO organized a yearly celebration of reading, naming April 23rd World Book Day. The date is appropriate, in part, because it is the date of Shakespeare’s death, but it was also chosen because of the long-standing tradition of exchanging books on this day in Catalonia. In this northeast corner of Spain, people have given each other books on April 23rd since at least 1923. The national holiday of Catalonia, La Diada de Sant Jordi is a day when booksellers set up tables and booths all over the streets, and people celebrate books.

Photo from La Vanguardia 4/23/15

Photo from La Vanguardia 4/23/15

World Book Day gets some attention in the US, but most people don’t realize today is a day to celebrate books or to give books to friends and family. Of course, I might argue that everyday is a day to celebrate books and to give them to people, but what if books were at the heart of our national holiday? What if instead of fireworks, we ooh-ed and aah-ed over literary works?

I’ve written elsewhere on this site about how books can be the most wonderful of gifts, especially if given by Kindred Readers. We have all received books that have helped us through difficult times or introduced us to new interests or guided us as we become ourselves. We hold these books dear. We put them on special shelves. And the people who gave us these books are more dear and special to us for having known to give those particular gifts.

Because I have family in Catalonia, I have celebrated the Day of the Book for many years, and I now invite everyone to this party. Imagine who we might become, if we paused, just once a year, to browse through books artfully laid out on the streets, to carefully choose books for the people we love, and to receive, openly and eagerly, the books people choose for us. I don’t think it’s going too far to suggest we would be a wiser and more thoughtful people.

Just think: what if everyone gave each other books today? The world could be filled with people carefully selecting books they hope other people will love. It could be noisy with the shush-shush of turning pages. Spring’s green and blossom-pink could be speckled with Cambria and Garamond and Book Antiqua as fonts shape lines into letters and words and stories. These stories would come to us on this day, April 23rd, but they would stay with us all days.

Take time today to celebrate books. Give someone a book. Give yourself a book. Re-read a book you love. And, if you read this after April 23rd has past, don’t fret. Every day is a good day to celebrate reading and to give a book to a person you love. And when this day comes next year, do your part to make us a nation that defines itself through giving and loving books.

Feliç Sant Jordi!


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Suspending Disbelief

In an essay called “Children and Fairy Stories”, J. R. R. Tolkien writes about how important it is for authors to create secondary worlds that readers absolutely believe in. He says that if the reader has to “suspend disbelief,” then the secondary world is a failure. This is a subtle but important distinction: believing vs. grudgingly suspending disbelief.

When you check your closet to see if you might get to Narnia that way, you reveal that C. S. Lewis made you believe in the world he created. When you spend your 11th birthday looking out for an owl, you expose your belief in the world J. K. Rowling created. When you sob over the death of a character in a book, your tears are proof that you believed in that character, that he was so real, his loss causes real grief.

All of us have found fictional worlds that we believe in, and we have also recognized the kinds of unsuccessful worlds that Tolkien describes–worlds that strain credulity by their very nature, or that feature events or characters or rules that boot us out of the story. I get particularly frustrated when an author introduces a new rule midway through a story in order to explain something that would otherwise be nonsensical. For example, a character needs to get to the 21st floor very quickly, so all of a sudden that character can fly. Tricks like this twist belief into disbelief, and if the book still has merit, I may be willing to suspend that disbelief, but, more likely, I will abandon the book, because, as I see it (and I think Tolkien would agree), the book has already abandoned me.

It is easy to ask readers to suspend disbelief. It is easy to say, “Oh, and by the way, So-and-so can fly. I didn’t mention that before? Silly me.” This is lazy. It is insufficient.

Tolkien writes about fantasy in particular, but all writers of fiction create secondary worlds. All writers ask us to believe their worlds are real. The best writers craft not only rich worlds populated with complex characters; they craft belief. I aspire to be one of these writers, and I promise here that I will never settle for suspended disbelief.


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Time to Read

I always like to read what other writers have to say about writing. It is comforting to discover that I use the same strategies or struggle with the same problems as people I admire, and I often get ideas for new ways to structure my time or my ideas or my words. Today, I read celebrated author Zadie Smith’s 10 rules for writing, and the first rule really resonated with me. It made that younger Virginia inside me sit up. (If that sounds impossibly weird, check out my last post.)

Smith’s first rule is this:

1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

The thing is that Smith writes for adults, and I expect that most of the people who are interested in her rules for writing are also adults. Some adults may respond with relief–thank goodness I read a lot when I was a child. I followed the rule. But others may respond with sinking panic–I didn’t know. I didn’t read enough. It’s too late.

Thankfully, I am in the first group. When still a child, I read a lot of books. I spent more time doing this than anything else. I read all the time. I read everything. From cereal boxes to encyclopedias to Little Women. I also re-read. A lot. And I think this is almost as important as reading in the first place. As an adult, I am aware everyday of what a difference all that reading made to me. In fact, all that reading actually made me. The books I read and the intellectual and emotional business of reading them gave me a bottomless bag of tools (think Hermione’s charmed handbag) to use as I build my life and navigate the world.

For my child readers (and any children who happen upon Smith’s advice), rule #1 is straightforward. It is a command. Go forth, children, and read! Read everything! Read all the time! Play outside and make forts out of blankets and experiment in the kitchen–do other wonderful, active things, too, but take a book with you. When Capture the Flag is over, lean against a friendly tree and read. When the blanket fort is stable, crawl inside with a flashlight and read. When you’ve concocted a delicious new drink, take it to the couch and sip it while you read. Read. Everything. All the time. You will carry what you read with you for the rest of your life, and the more you read, the richer you will be.

But what about the adults who didn’t know about Smith’s first rule? The ones who didn’t read all the time. What are these inadvertent rule-breakers to do? When I read the rule with it’s strange present tense–just right for children but too late for adults–I felt sadness for those who didn’t know. Who didn’t read. But then the sadness wandered off because I don’t think it’s too late.

The adult who was not a reading child is not doomed to a life without books. That adult has some catching up to do, certainly, but she can start now. Right now. Read this blog. Cruise around and read the rest of the site. Follow the links and read other sites. Pick up a book, any book, whichever one is closest. Read it. Read the next closest one. Go to the library and check out a stack of books. Surround yourself with them so they are all close at hand and read them all. Read the acknowledgements and the appendices and the blurbs and the copyright page. Read the next book. And the next. Read them all again. And again. Read everything. Read all the time.

Even if you come to reading late, books will still sink into your sense of self. They will still guide you as you move through life. They will still make you a better writer and a better person. They will still make you.

So I respectfully offer this important revision to Smith’s rule #1:

1. Whether you are a child or an adult, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.


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To All of Us, When We Were Children

In a recent post about Kindred Readers, I wrote about how profoundly important some books are to our senses of self, to our ability to know and make our worlds. I described characters or images or well-chosen words that “thrum the soul.” Last week I heard someone talk about a variation on this theme—the shudder we sometimes feels when we recognize the singular brilliance of a metaphor or a turn of phrase. I think the shudder is a physical manifestation of the thrum. For some readers, this feels like sharpened vision or a quickened heartbeat or tingling fingertips. For me, it’s the feeling that something inside me is suddenly sitting up.

I am lucky to live a life surrounded by books, and I frequently discover or rediscover passages that pluck at some raw and essential part of me, that thrum my soul, that make that something inside me shudder and sit up. Yesterday, it was the description in Middlemarch of “the roar on the other side of silence.” Today, it was the dedication to The Little Prince, which I quote here:

little princeTo Leon Werth

I ask the indulgence of the children who may read this book for dedicating it to a grown-up. I have a serious reason: he is the best friend I have in the world. I have another reason: this grown-up understands everything, even books about children. I have a third reason: he lives in France where he is hungry and cold. He needs cheering up. If all these reasons are not enough, I will dedicate the book to the child from whom this grown-up grew. All grown-ups were once children—although few of them remember it. And so I correct my dedication:

To Leon Werth, When he was a little boy.

I don’t know who Leon Werth is, and his need to be cheered up is ancient history. So, why do these words thrum my soul? There are two reasons. The first is that Antoine De Sainte Exupery describes a fundamental fact of the human condition: every adult was once a child. I like to remind myself of this when faced with a particularly and unpleasantly adult grown-up: the math teacher who made me feel slow, the cigar-smoking grumbler who shared my elevator, the surgeon adept at fixing joints but clumsy with conversation—all of these adults were children once. And knowing this, holding on to this truth makes these people more human, more sympathetic. It forges a bond.

The second reason is that the children adults once were are, in some ways, still on the scene. Sainte Exupery was able to dedicate his book to the little boy his friend used to be because the time “when he was a little boy” is a part of Leon Werth long years after he’s aged out of boyhood. The past isn’t left behind, this dedication claims. Instead, it remains with us always. The past is a part of us, like the layers of rock that are the surface of the earth. Someone said, “The past is a foreign country,” but I disagree. The past is our home. It is our bedrock.

The little girl I used to be isn’t gone. She persists in my mind and heart. Virginia when she was a little girl is with me in all that I do. She thinks with me and writes with me. She reads with me, too, and sometimes, I think she is the something inside me that sits up when a book thrums my soul.

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Time to Simmer

I am in the midst of a writing retreat at my university—four days in a quiet, comfortable place, working alongside other people who are thinking and creating and writing. It is a luxury. A gift of space and time (and food).

Time is one of a writer’s most precious resources. We all have busy lives that are filled with commitments that take us away from our writing. Even if we find time every day to write, we only have an hour, or two, because the dog needs to be walked, and the dishwasher needs to be emptied, and there’s a party and a movie and a soccer game.

Many of the things that take me away from writing are wonderful things that I enjoy—playing a game with my family, lingering over lunch with friends, re-reading the brilliant but very long novel I put on my syllabus for the spring semester. So, retreats like this one that offer dedicated writing time are important, if only to give me permission to turn away from valued pastimes.

Yet, time to write is not the only kind of time that matters. Yes, writers need time to sit down and put words on the page and then to labor over whether they chose the right words. But books need time, too. Like a stew, a book needs to simmer until its ingredients blend together. It needs to sit on the stove, literally on a back burner, while the writer takes care of other tasks. It needs to bubble slowly into being.

I had hoped to use this retreat to churn out pages, but instead I chopped potatoes and onions. I minced garlic. I peeled tomatoes. When I took a taste, I found something was missing, so I wandered in the pantry of my mind and added an image here, an image there. A dash of voice. A pinch of point of view.

I don’t know yet if my book is missing something or if I over-seasoned it in some way. It needs to simmer awhile before I taste it again. So, while the book cooks, I’ll turn to something else, though I’ll keep an eye on the stove. In a few hours or days or months, the book will have had its time, and it will be my turn again.

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Kindred Readers

During this season of giving, I have been doing my very favorite kind of matchmaking—matching readers to books I hope they will love. Sometimes people ask me to recommend books for people I don’t know, and this can be a fun game. I get hints about what sort of reader the person is—she’s thirteen and loves horses; he’s ten and into historical fiction; she’s twelve and wants books with strong female protagonists—and I do my best to suggest titles the reader may enjoy. But I don’t get the satisfaction of knowing if the choice was the right one, and even if I hear later, “Oh, he loved the book you recommended,” I don’t get to see how the book impacts the reader because I never knew him (or her) in the first place.

What I enjoy most is choosing books for people I know. If I know the reader well, and I know the book well, I can (sometimes) make a perfect match. And few things are as satisfying as giving a person a book that becomes one of her favorites, not just because it’s nice to be right or because it’s nice to make someone happy, but mostly because it’s a privilege and a delight to offer a person the words, stories, characters and places that become part of their world view or part of the architecture of who they are. I can think of no higher praise than, “She always knew what I should read.”

Sometimes I know what someone should read because we always like the same books. If I like it, she will like it. If I lie awake at night thinking about a character, so will she. If I incorporate the language of the book into my own lexicon, she will, too. And this is not just a matter of taste. It is a matter of identity. Of what thrums the soul. These people who live in and for and around the same books that shape my life are “kindred readers.” It is a wonderful thing to give a person a book. It is a higher order of wonderful to discover that a person is a kindred reader.

I hope each of you will receive books this season. And I hope you will give yourself the gift of re-reading books you love. I hope that you will give books, too, carefully chosen to ignite a reader’s passions, whether you share those passions or not. But most of all, I hope this holiday brings each of you the gift that will broaden and enrich and embolden you everyday—the discovery of kindred readers in your life.

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Gathering Stones

Delphi Athena 3I am very fortunate to be on a two-week trip to England and Greece for the purpose of gathering ideas. I’ve spent time in the British Library, which is a massive institution that houses 170 million books, and I’ve spent time at Delphi and the Parthenon, both well-curated ancient sites. These have been rich experiences that have led me to new ideas and deeper understandings of old ideas. Many of the ideas feature stones, such as the fallen stones of ancient temples in Delphi.

Galixides duskI have also wandered… through the streets of Athens and the narrow roads of Galixidi, a 19th-century shipping town on the Gulf of Corinth… through the brick and stone arches of a Byzantine monastery in the Parnassus mountains… through the pastures and woods of West Sussex… and through the galleries of the British Museum, crowded with antiquities, some of which came originally from Athens, many of which are carved from stone.

The wandering has been just as fruitful as the deliberate researching. In both ways, and in all these places, I have been gathering ideas. From the odds and ends of archaeological debris scattered around the Acropolis to the amazing hodgepodge of junk in a shop near the Plaka, from the sign reading “Father Christmas has gone for a cup of tea” to the deer pelting down the path through the rain, I’ve collected a host of images and ideas, many of which will find their ways into novels that I’ll write in the coming years. Elsewhere on this website, I have said that writing is like the story “Stone Soup”: the stone is an image or an experience tossed into a delicious mix of things borrowed from life and brewed with made-up ingredients.

Along with the many stones I’ve gathered on this trip, which I hope to toss into the soup pots of novels-yet-to-be, I have also rediscovered one stone that I gathered years ago and tossed into a pot and forgot all about. Outside my friends’ kitchen window in West Sussex, growing in defiance of the damp, chilly English November, is a large and hardy rosemary bush. The rosemary that grows on the island in The Rosemary Spell originates, in part, with this unexCuckfield Rosemarypected rosemary bush, which grows in the town of Cuckfield (pronounced Cookfield) whose name I borrowed for the fictional town in my novel. Like an archaeologist digging in Athens, I’ve unearthed one of the stones that formed the base of my soup.

It is appropriate that I have put the finishing touches on The Rosemary Spell in Cuckfield, drinking tea and watching the wind and rain batter the rosemary bush outside the window. This stone, this image has done its work. I can hardly wait to see what soup comes from the stones I’ve gathered on this trip. I’ve already set them to simmer.


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