When my youngest kid was in middle school, he had knee problems. He couldn’t play football, but all that energy needed to go somewhere, so I signed him up for swim team. He went to one regional swim meet and I was impressed (confused? befuddled?) by the sheer number of kids who were rotating in and out of the water. His coaches reinforced the message that the kids weren’t racing each other as much as they were racing themselves. Winning gold was nice, but getting a personal best time was better.
That philosophy fits pretty well with an idea I’ve run across more than once in writing classes, often in terms of inspiration and motivation. We’re told that rather than waste time in jealousy or envy for another author’s success, each author needs to define success for themselves. For example, in a master class at last weekend’s Emerald City Writers’ Conference, Angela James started her presentation by asking each of us to describe what success looks like, and then leave a comment in the chat (we were on zoom) sharing some aspect of it.
People piped right up with comments like, “I’ve figured out what success looks like for three months, six months, and a year.” Which, okay then. LOL. I was happy for them – sincerely – yet there I was, still parsing the question.
See, if you ask me to list my goals for whatever time increment, I can do that, no problem. Weekly, monthly, one year, five year? I got this. (Well, five years might be a little vague.) And generally, I’m pretty good at accomplishing the goals I set for myself – or coming up with a damned good reason why I haven’t.
However, I’m not sure meeting goals and “success” are the same thing.
Clearly they’re related concepts. Checking things off a list feels good, whether it’s this week’s Trello to-do list or January’s goal to publish 4 books this year. And you know, according to the dictionary, that’s success.
So why am I balking? Why do I think success is bigger than just checking things off a list? Why don’t I feel like a success?
I think it’s because whenever I meet a goal, in the next breath I’m already planning the next one. Published 4 books this year? Good for me. What’s on deck for 2022? Pulled off a successful writing conference? Cool. When’s the next one?
I swear if I ever hit the New York Times bestseller list, I’ll immediately start figuring out how to raise the bar.
The thing about goals is they need to be concrete, measurable, and within my control. I’d argue that success is none of those things – unless it’s only about meeting goals. To me, it’s bigger than that. Success is satisfaction and happiness and pride, a complicated emotion that isn’t easily quantified.
I also think that defining success depends on where you focus your lens. The second bullet point in the dictionary definition is “the attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.”
And all of those values are relative.
Like, in my day(night) job, I’m a nurse practitioner in the NICU of a major university medical center with a national reputation. Does that make me famous? Probably not, although pretty much everyone in the world of neonatology has heard of my unit. (And if you google the name that’s on my ARNP license, you almost certainly won’t come up with hits about vampire romance. LOL)
Am I a success? Well, this gig is seriously my dream job, the reason I went back to school for a masters degree, and after working in a couple different places, I can honestly say its be the best utilization of the NNP role that I’ve found.
But it’s still a job, and I still have to pump myself up to go to work every night.
My husband and I have owned a house for over 20 years. To someone who’s worried about making rent every month, that might look like success. To me, it looks like unfinished projects and the garden needs work. I’m planning on taking early retirement at age 62, which might look like success, but it’ll only work if I write more books.
And….that might sound like a whole lot of bellyaching, like my cup’s half empty. It’s not. I’m very fortunate and very grateful. In thinking all this through, though, I have reached one conclusion.
If I’m not going to define writing success by meeting goals, there needs to be another way of looking at it. If I take away the goals – the yearly plan, the Trello to-do lists, the orange banners from Amazon – what’s left? The dictionary would say it’s wealth, and yeah, there’s the money, the number of books I sell minus what I spend on production and promotion.
But do I really write books to make money? Maybe a little, although I’m leery of picking a dollar amount to define success, because I can’t truly control how many books I sell. I can put together a good product and do my best to let buyers know it’s available, but I can’t make them buy.
So if I’m not successful because I meet my goals and it’s not about how much money I make, what’s left?
I think for me to be a successful author, it’s about the writing. It’s about being engaged in the process, the nitty-gritty draft and edit and read and learn and polish. It’s bringing characters to life and exploring the world through them, and it’s readers who tell me they love my work. It’s the alchemy of creativity and craft, organizing words into thoughts and recording them with care and attention so they’re telling the story’s truth.
I may not have an Olympic gold medal – or an NYT best seller – but I am writing. And by that measure, I’ve been a lot more successful than I realized.
Some of you know that I am big into manifestation – the idea that you can change things or create the life of your dreams by acting and thinking as though what you want has already happened. You have to work for it, of course–nothing is going to come to you if you just sit around and wait. This is the idea behind The Secret, the writings of Wayne Dyer and countless other life coaches and self help gurus. Your opinion may vary, but I really think there is something to it.
I’ve been practicing manifestation techniques for years–probably over a decade, I’m not sure. It started with a vision board, which I wasn’t too sure would work, but slowly, it did. One example: I had dreamed about Ireland one night (and drinking beer at a pub through chocolate straws with Jon Bon Jovi–don’t ask, I don’t know either) so I put photos of Dublin on my vision board; several months later I was invited to a spend a week there for my job (which is not international, so it was quite a shock). Then I started reading more and became more intentional in my thoughts. The first thing I was ever conscious of manifesting was my first Book of the Year award in early 2016. I visualized it until the cows came home and I was still shocked when I won.
All of this to give you background for my newest project. I’ve been listening to podcasts by life coach Tonya Leigh for about a year or so now. She’s all about changing your life (elevating it) by changing your mindset–in essence, manifestation. A few weeks ago I got the chance to do a week-long online workshop with her called Think Like an Editor. The whole week was geared around pretending you are the editor of the magazine of your life. Without giving away her secrets (take the workshop if she ever offers it again; it is SO worth it), she guides you through coming up with a title, cover photo and headlines for your magazine that are based on your dreams.
I liked what we did so much that I mocked up my cover on Canva. We had such a wonderfully strong female community for the week on Facebook that I decided to try Tonya’s School of Self-Image for a month (I’m waiting for money to come in that will allow me to sign up for a year). While I was working on some other things last night, I got the idea to actually make the magazine. (Could also have been influenced by recently watching the Vogue documentary, The September Issue) By this I mean write the articles as though they’ve already happened, use stock photos, even put in ads for things I intend to buy someday. I may even break it into sections. Who knows. And it will grow as I do.
I’ll post the whole thing online somewhere when I’m done with it and tell you a little about what each thing means, etc. Right now it is a fun side project for when my job and two end-of-year book deadlines get to be too much. Plus it keeps me focused on my dreams, rather than my stress.
Here’s the story behind the cover: My headline was actually supposed to be “sexy confidence” based on the directions of the workshop, but I changed it. The reason That Girl is the headline is its the title of a song by a band I LOVED in my early 20s that encapsulates how I want to feel. And the image shows the wealth, success and elegance that goes with it. (That image is also on my current vision board. I’m pretending it is downtown Chicago, even though it is clearly NYC.)
I’ve shared garden pix before. You can check out The Garden in Spring from 2020 or Summer in the Garden posted in 2018 if you’re curious. The thing that’s interesting to me is how much changes from season to season but how little changes from year to year.
And I have a short attention span, so the season-to-season change works for me. (lol!)
There’s one notable difference in the garden compared with past years. We got rid of the grass in our front yard, replacing it with something slate-adjacent. (You’d have to ask my husband for the specific name.) I’ve always liked our front yard, but now it’s our favorite place to hang out at the end of the day. The trees that surround it make it shady and cool and private. Just lovely.
These three pix show our new stone walkway. The picture in the middle – the one with the dog – is from the front gate and shows the stone birdbath. The other two are taken of the veggie bed, where the pumpkins have taken over everything. There are also beets, carrots, and onions in there, along with a grandiflora rose Lagerfield, which is super happy not to have to share space with other shrubs.
There’s a close-up of the lavender that wants to take over the world. You can’t get to the front door without brushing against it, and while it’s been suggested that I cut it back, I kinda love the scent. Behind the lavender there’s an espaliered apple tree, and there are a couple of tomato plants and basil hiding between them. The other pic is our raised bed with strawberries and herbs. There are also some cranesbill geraniums that I stuck in there to so the guys who laid the stone walkway wouldn’t step on them, and will eventually transplant…somewhere.
And there’s OREGANO. Did I mention the OREGANO? It’s fairly happy to spread every damned place – lol – and I’m starting to treat it like a weed.
We haven’t sorted out the back yard yet. The house is built on the side of a hill, so there’s an elevation difference between one end of the yard to the other. We’d thought about bringing in a backhoe and leveling it, then inviting our friendly stone-layer dudes to come back and lay a large patio. The problem is, there’s a 40-foot hemlock at the high end and we’d damage the tree by digging up the roots to level the yard. And if we managed to level it without pulling up the roots, they would eventually push the stones up and ruin our patio. So.
While we’re pondering, on the left there’s a picture of the big oakleaf hydrangea and on the right is a spirea up against a shrub rose with a determined bamboo in between. Those white hydrangea blossoms need to hold it together for a couple more weeks, b/c they’re going to go in the centerpieces at a friend’s wedding reception! And if you look close in the upper left corner of the spirea picture, you can see the chandelier my husband hung last year. Unfortunately, he ripped up the patio underneath it after I put my foot through one of the boards a couple months ago, but hopefully by next year we’ll be able to spend evenings under the fairy lights.
And here are some close-ups. The top row shows a daylily, a scented geranium, and a Seafoam rose, and the two big pix on the bottom are a squash blossom (with a neighborhood bee!) and a purple poppy. Every damn year I fall in love with that purple color.
So there you have it! A little glimpse at what this author does when I’m not tapping away on my laptop. Which reminds me…I should probably go water or weed or something. Happy summer!!
….and as long as you’re here, I’ve got a couple special deals to tell you about!
Two weeks ago at the Historical Novel Society conference, I participated in a brief lecture from my dear friend Kris Waldherr on how writers can use the tarot to help plan their books. It not only re-invigorated me in my study of tarot and inspired me to create my own deck, it reminded me I wrote a series of two articles about it a while back for Novelists’ Inc. that I have never shared here.
If you’re new to the tarot, head on over to my main blog for an introduction to the cards, how they work and what they mean, then come back to learn how to use them in your writing.
Before you read, you might like to find a quiet place where you can be alone with your thoughts and really think about what each card is trying tell you. Have a notebook and pen, or your computer handy so you can jot down ideas as they come to you. Some people choose to lay out a special cloth (usually a solid color) on which to place the cards because it helps focus the mind. If you are religious, you might want to ask your guardian angel or the muses or whatever god(s) you believe in to guide your reading, but that is totally optional.
To begin, take a deep breath and close your eyes. Think about your question. If you are using your reading to build out your plot from the beginning, you might ask a question like “What is the framework of this book?” or “Show me how this plot should progress.” If you’re trying the work through a block, think about it as specifically as you can, something like “what happens to X character next?” or “How does X get out of [name the jam you put them in].” If you are building a character you could start with “Show me X’s progression throughout the book.” Keep repeating your question in your mind over and over as you shuffle the deck. You’ll know when to stop. Sometimes you will feel a card get hot or cold or your fingers will tingle. Other times, you just know to stop. Sometimes nothing at all happens and you just get tired of shuffling. Trust your instincts; there are no wrong answer. Once you feel ready, draw your first card from the top of the deck.
Because of their unique symbolism, you can always do readings using only the major or minor arcana cards if you want to. But I have found that using both major and minor arcana (which is the standard practice) gives you a more complete picture. There are three basic types of spreads, which I’ll explain from the easiest to the most complex.
One Card Spreads
This involves drawing a single card and is the fastest and easiest, It allows you to be very focused in your question and answer, but it also provides you with the least amount of information because you don’t have the influence of surrounding cards. But if you are in a hurry or just need a prompt to get you going, one is all you need. Potential uses:
Getting to know your characters – Draw a card for each major character in your plot. This will tell you a lot about them, since we each have a card that best symbolizes who we are. (Mine is Strength.) This is best determined over time through multiple readings when the same card keeps showing up over and over again, but can also be done with a single reading.
I recently did this for a book I was plotting. It is biographical historical fiction set in WWII Poland and the card I drew was the Knight of Wands . This card symbolizes someone clever, with a strong sense of humor who is good with words and has sound instincts and a gift for seeing things others may have missed. This describes my heroine (who was a real person) to a tee. Because of this card, I learned what key aspects of her personality to focus on when writing.
Get to know the overall “vibe” of your book. A single card can also tell you about the theme(s) of your book. As I was writing this article, I pulled a card for my latest project, another biographical historical, this one set the colonial United States. My card was The Five of Wands I was immediately struck by the image, which shows five people fighting with staves, because while my book written in a single first-person POV, there are multiple competing timelines and storylines to keep straight, so much so that I needed to make a chart.
The meaning of the card is competition and being obsessed with material things or as the book that came with the deck puts it “keeping up with the Joneses.” That is certainly relevant because there are many men competing for the affection of my heroine. She also a very well-to-do woman who was known historically for her lavish parties and spending that, combined with her husband’s gambling, eventually drove them deep into debt. The card can also mean a clash of ideas and principles and hurting others by giving mixed messages. My main character is in love with her sisters’ husband and both are tempted to have an affair. Much of their relationship takes place via letter and because of both, they often wonder what the other really feels.
(While I was writing this, I accidently knocked the next card off the top of the deck. It was The Lovers which is what I was expecting the main card for the book to be because it is essentially a story of forbidden love. Always pay attention when cards fall out of the deck as you shuffle or otherwise make themselves known—it happens for a reason.
Find the answer to a plot problem or writer’s block. All you have to do here is ask what the problem is. Pay close attention to what the card symbolizes. It may tell you where you’ve gone wrong in plotting in another part of the book, directly answer your question, or even tell you about something in yourself that is causing the block (such as being overworked and needing to take a break).
Three Card Spreads
There are many variations on three-card spreads, but the most common is past-present-future, which can be used for both plots and characters.
If you write to a three-act structure, you could use this spread to learn about the themes of each act.
You could take each of your major characters and do a past-present-future spread to learn about their backstory, where they are when the book begins, and how they change as the novel progresses.
For character arcs, think about one card as being where the character is now, the second as where they want to be, and the third how to get there.
If you are experiencing a writing problem, you can have one card symbolize the nature of the problem, one the cause, and one the solution. Similarly, you can have the cards stand for what the character wants/what will help them, what is standing in their way, and how to overcome it.
We’ve all heard about MRUs (motivation reaction units), right? One card can be your character’s thought/feeling, one their reaction, and the third, what he or she is going to say or do in response.
If you are mulling over the relationship between characters you could have one card stand for each character and the third for their relationship. Or you could use one for what brought them together, one for what pulls them apart, and the third for the resolution. (This one is particularly good for romance novels and romantic plotlines.)
You could seriously go on forever with these. There’s a long list of three-card spreads online here.
The Celtic Cross Spread
This is the classic tarot spread, the one you’ve seen in every TV show and movie with a fortune teller and the one you will see if you go visit one in real life. This is because it is the most comprehensive. I’m going to explain it first, and then show you a few ways to use it.
The Celtic Cross spread involves 10 or 11 cards. Some people choose to designate one card that is set off to the side to symbolize the question or the person asking the question. If you choose to do this, you will draw that card first after you have finished shuffling the deck. Then draw the cards from the top of the deck and lay them out according to the pattern above.
Once you’ve done that. Take a look at the overall spread. Is your gut telling you anything? Does the spread feel inherently happy or sad, positive or negative? Does anything immediately jump out at you? It can take some time to develop the ability to get the “feel” for a spread, so don’t worry if you don’t come up with anything right away.
Next, take a look at each card individually. Write down your impressions of each one. I did a reading for my colonial American book while writing this using the question “show me what I need to know about X book” and I’ll give you my cards as well as an example.
My overall impression is that this is a positive reading with five major arcana cards (which is a lot) and no dominant suit (two swords and two pentacles, which neutralize each other’s negative and positive elements). It’s going to be an interesting reading.
Relationship to the Present Situation. Queen of Swords – An impressive, trailblazing woman of courage and intelligence who will not be held down by convention. This is my main character very clearly summed up.
Positive Forces in Your Favor. The Chariot – Triumph, balance, holding opposing views in equal tension. Enjoying life. This describes my character’s approach to life pretty well, though she’s more known for extravagance than balance.
Message from Your Higher Self – Queen of Pentacles – Female strength and success in business and with money. A caring woman concerned with the lives of those around her. Again, you have to trust me that this fits my character very well.
Subconscious/Underlying Themes/Emotional – The Priestess – Inspiration and advice from a woman who is wise and mature. Can also represent isolation. That last part is interesting to me because my heroine spends most of the book in another country than the rest of her family. Her best friend could easily be represented by the priestess and would provide calm to her boundless energy.
The Past – The Fool – Setting off on a journey unaware of an uncaring of the consequences; innocence and foolishness. My character married very young and regrets it almost immediately when her husband turns out not to be who she though he was (quite literally) and she falls in love with someone else, but can’t have him because she is already married.
Relationship with Others – The Two of Cups – The minor arcana card most like The Lovers. Represents relationships, attraction, engagement/marriage and emotional bonds. Perfect for describing the forbidden love she experiences for most of her life.
Psychological States/Forces That Can Affect the Outcome – The Six of Swords. Ugh, the swords. Movement, alignment of heart and mind, a declaration of love, focus and follow-through with unpredictable results. Funny that this one depicts a journey across water because my character travels back and forth between America and Europe a lot. Again, I see shades of the forbidden romance in this card, especially since it comes right between the Two of Cups and The Sun
Environment/Unseen Forces – The Sun – Triumph, bounty, enjoying life. It is interesting that the book that comes with this deck mentions “summer love” in connection to this card. If my two historical people ever actually consummated their affair, it would have been a particular summer while his wife was away.
Hopes and Fears – The Magician – A man of creativity, power and strong voice who is eloquent and charming. This could be my hero and describe what my heroine sees in him. This card can also mean someone who is manipulative and at times untrue, which applies to her fears about him just being a flirt and not really loving her since she is already married. (Which is something historians haven’t even figured out.)
Outcome – The King of Pentacles – A proud, self-assured young man of status and wealth, a supportive husband who recognizes the value of culture. This card could represent either her husband or her lover. Her husband is proud and wealthy, but he is not exactly supportive, while her lover is. I see this as the outcome she wants; her ideal man. Unfortunately, he does not exist and history does not bear out a happy ending for her or her lover. However, as a writer, I see this as an opportunity to really amp up the tragedy of the ending. Outcomes are even more powerful when the hero and heroine don’t get what they want because readers have been rooting for them the entire book and now will mourn with them as well.
Finally, look at the cards in groups of three or four. Do they affect each other or change the meaning of surrounding cards? Make notes of anything that notice. Again, it may take time to learn this part. In my example, as you can see from the explanations above, the first four cards agree with each other and strengthen one another in a description of my heroine. In the same way, cards six through nine all play on the same theme of forbidden love. Taken together, these influenced my interpretation of the Outcome card.
Of course, everything is subject to interpretation; I may read a spread totally differently than you do, which is why some people don’t put any stock in tarot readings. And that is fine. I’m only here to advise you on how you can use them as a tool in your writing; whether or not you believe they will work for you is a personal decision.
Once you get comfortable with your cards you can also make up your own spreads to fit your questions. They can be circular, triangle, any shape that works for what you need. You could even take the major archetypes and draw a card for each one or take your favorite plot arc or character arc tool (I’m a fan of Michael Hauge’s “Six Stage Plot Structure” and Larry Brooks’ Four Part Structure) and make up a spread to fit it. The sky is the limit.
I hope this series of articles has given you a new tool in your writing toolbox. If you are familiar with other systems of divination like runes, wisdom sticks, or even astrology or dowsing with a pendulum, you can employ those as well. They all tap into your subconscious mind in a similar manner. Best of luck!
The other night I took part in an author panel for the ConTinual: the Con that Never Ends Facebook page and the topic was beach reads. Since it seems like we’ll actually be able to go to the beach this summer – even those who don’t live near one because travel is opening back up – I thought it would be fun to share ideas about what makes a good beach read and maybe suggest one or two.
When I say “beach read”, what kind of book do you think of?
Tbh, my own definition is fairly broad: books that have words strung together in sentences. (That’d be all books, lol.) Maybe it comes from having attended the University of Hawaii, where it’s possible I lugged nursing textbooks onto the sand to “study”, but I’ll read just about anything on the beach.
Having done this panel, though, I know some of you have higher standards. The general theme of our discussion was that beach reads should be both low angst and escapist. Fluffy, if you will. Or if not fluffy, at least not so demanding that you can’t put it aside when it’s time to take a dip or to order another one of those little umbrella drinks.
Based on the (highly unscientific) panel, I can confidently say that the best Beach Reads fall into a handful of categories. Ymmv, but here’s what I learned, along with a suggestion or two for each one…
My first suggestion in the Romance category is Totally Folked by Penny Reid. She’s a fantastic writer and a very cool person, and while I haven’t read all of her books, this one looks like fun. I’m always here for intelligent characters acting naughty and falling in love. (lol!) Totally Forked doesn’t come out until July 20th, which’ll be great timing for a late summer getaway!
For those of you who like historical romances, I can absolutely recommend The Labours of Lord Perry Cavendish by Joanna Chambers. It’s actually the 4th book in her Winterbourne series, but it’s the first featuring a pair of side characters from the earlier books, so it reads like a stand-alone. If you’re intrigued by the idea of a Regency cinnamon roll hero falling for a fussy artist, this is your book!
Urban fantasy series make good beach reads because they definitely take you to an altered version of reality and they’re spooky but not too scary. Tbh I haven’t stumbled on a new UF series in a while, so I’m going to recommend a classic of the genre. The Hollows series by Kim Harrison features the witch Rachel Morgan and a whole host of other paranormal creatures. The worldbuilding for the series is complex and interesting, and I’m still angry about a certain death which tells you how real these characters are to me. Highly recommend!
And while we’re at it, my fellow Scribe Shauna Granger writes urban fantasy-adjacent stories. Check out her Elemental books or her Matilda Kavanaugh series, because girlfriend knows her way around the paranormal and her books are a whole lot of fun!
Are you into podcasts? One of my favorites is Shedunnit, by Caroline Crampton. She’s a huge fan of Golden Age mysteries, books that were written between WW1 and WW2. (Think Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers and other authors of their era, and you’ll be right on.) The podcast slices and dices all angles of those Golden Age books, and I generally end up hitting Amazon or Powells Books after each episode. (lol!)
Somehow I managed to get to a fairly advanced age before reading my first Lord Peter Wimsey book, and I regret not having started before now! Whose Body is thoroughly entertaining, and an excellent introduction to both the character and to the Golden Age sub-genre. I also really liked Patricia Wentworth’s The Black Cabinet, because her language is so good and the characters are so vibrant. Spend your vacation getting busy with the classics!!
Okay, so, is there a better time to read a Stephen King novel about a beach then when you’re actually on a beach? I don’t think so. (lol!) I’m too much of a wimp to read Stephen King any time, anywhere, but for those of you who are braver, Duma Key is an excellent choice…especially if you happen to be on a beach in Florida.
(And fwiw, my fear of SKing stems from having read The Shining while living in a big old house with lots of shadows and creaking floors and whatnot, during November when the sun sets before 5pm. This was in 1980. I promised myself I’d never do that again, and I’ve kept that promise!)
So there you have it! Books I’ve read, books I’m going to read, and books I’m terrified of reading. (lol!) I hope you have plans for a vacation this summer, and even if it’s not on the beach, that you’ll have some time for a relaxing read!
Leave me a comment with your favorite beach read. I’m always up for suggestion!!
And fyi, click HERE to check out the ConTinualFacebook page. There are all kinds of panels and discussions about books & reading, and while our beach reads panel isn’t up yet, there are lots of others worth watching.
Real Talk: as the mom of a six month old, I haven’t yet found any kind of rhythm when it comes to writing. I promise myself that the second she goes down for a nap, I’m going to jump right on my laptop and pound out a few hundred words. But realistically, there are so many things I feel like I have to do around the house or for basic self-care that writing often falls all the way to the bottom of the priority pile. What I do have time for–between marathon feeding sessions and contact naps–is reading. My Kindle has been getting a real work out lately. But as someone with a back-log of story ideas, it can be frustrating to exclusively read other peoples’ stories when I kind of wish I had time to work on my own.
Then, the idea struck me: what if I peppered some craft books into the mix? Then I would at least feel like I was preparing or honing my skills for when I finally had the time to write. The only question was, which craft books? I’ve already read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, On Writing by Stephen King, and Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes. Fortunately, the answer was dropped into my lap when an author I follow on Instagram mentioned the method she uses to outline–Anatomy of Story, by John Truby.
Now, I usually approach these craft books with a hefty grain of salt. First of all, I’ve been writing for long enough to know that every author’s process is different and what works for someone else is not necessarily going to work for me. No point in trying to fit my square peg into someone else’s round hole. Second of all, a lot of the “beat sheet” methods strike me as underwhelming and a bit unspecific–I struggle with the idea that all stories “must” follow these precise structures to be successful. I want a craft book that will guide me, inspire me, and deepen my process, not boil it down to a generic three acts, seven plot points, and three pinch points.
So far, Truby’s book is that and more. I feel like I’ve been highlighting every other passage on my Kindle! But one line in particular shook me to my core, and I want to share it with you all in case it helps you as much as it helps me.
Step 1: Write Something That May Change Your Life. This is a very high standard, but it may be the most valuable piece of advice you’ll ever get as a writer. I’ve never seen a writer go wrong following it. Why? Because if a story is that important to you, it may be that important to a lot of people in the audience. And when you’re done writing the story, no matter what else happens, you’ve changed your life.
Anatomy of Story, by John Truby
Superficially, this isn’t the most novel advice in the world. It’s a variation of “Write the book you want to read.” But for me, that last line gave me chills. Because it shifts all of the focus from the external outcome to the internal outcome, which is something I’ve struggled with since the very first query letter I sent out into the world. From the moment I decided to “become an author,” I’ve grappled with what success could and would look like to me. Getting an agent? Getting a book deal? Hitting a best-seller list? Selling a million copies? I found that I could never define what success would look like, and whenever I did manage to hit a milestone, I found my own goal-posts had already moved.
In the past few years I’ve tried to shift that focus back to the internal, but it’s harder than it sounds. Even when I tell myself that I’m just writing something for me, or just writing the book I want to read, or just writing for fun, the fact of the matter is that writing books will never just be a hobby for me again. I’ve sunk years and tears and too much love into this career to never try to publish another novel. So how do I balance those external expectations with those internal motivations?
I think that’s why this advice from Truby resonated with me so much. He’s not telling you to simply write for fun, or for yourself. He’s not even telling you to write the book you want to read. He’s encouraging you to do so much more than that–he’s encouraging you to write the book that may change your life. He’s asking you to dig so deep, work so hard, and aim so high that the end result will literally transform you.
I find this idea daunting, but so inspiring. No one–not a craft book, not a friend, not a mentor, not even myself–has ever asked so much of me. So I’m going to try to follow his advice. The story I write may not sell a million copies. It may not hit any bestseller lists. It may not even get published.
But what does any of that even matter if I’ve changed my own life?
Retirement: that far-off event that’ll change my whole life...
Let’s poke at that subtitle a little.
The change my whole life part is accurate – I mean, I’ll go from spending some 30 hours per week in a NICU to…not. No more NICU. Weird.
Still, it’s the far-off bit where I really need to adjust my thinking. Because honestly, I’m looking at three years before I can reasonably retire.
I’ll only be 62, but I started my first retirement account thirty-four years ago, when I was twenty-five. I’ve literally been preparing myself for this most of my life.
Preparing for what, you might ask.
Well, it’s the “what” part that makes me nervous. I’ve always been a fairly goal-directed person. I mean, yeah it took me five years to earn an associates degree (lol!) but it was the ’80s. And I was in Honolulu. There were a lot (!) of distractions.
And I subsequently went on to earn a bachelors and then a masters, so things worked out okay.
Still, I’ve always sorta wondered what people do when they’re retired. I mean, shuffleboard’s not my bag, ya know? I guess I vaguely thought I’d travel some, and work in my garden, and just sorta go from one day to the next.
But golly that sounds pretty aimless. And kinda boring, if I’m honest.
On the other hand, after thirty-four years in the NICU, I’m ready for something new. Don’t get me wrong, I love working with babies and I take great pride in my work. It’s taken me a long time to get to the point where I can start an IV in just about anyone, any time, anywhere, and for me n’ my superpowered grey hair to be able to calm down a fractious family situation just by showing up.
Last spring my employer merged with another hospital and my group of Neonatal Nurse Practitioners found ourselves responsible for covering another unit. (Which is an extreme simplification, but it gets to the gist.) I ended up working a lot. Like 120 hours in a two-week pay period kind of A LOT. Those hours went on all through the summer and into the fall, so the point where I started joking that I was going to need a whole month off to recover.
And also to bring down my vacation hours so I wouldn’t lose any because I was over the limit.
Apparently I made the Month Off joke often enough that our lead and our scheduler gave me the green light. I’ve been on vacation since 4/2/21 and I don’t work again until the first weekend in May. (Okay, I covered 8 hours last weekend for a no-show but that won’t be repeated.)
Once I saw the official schedule with me officially not on it, I started calling April my Dress Rehearsal for Retirement Month. If I can’t handle a whole month off, what the hell am I going to do with the rest of my damn life?
(This is where the goal-directed piece comes in.)
I didn’t just walk out of the hospital on April 2nd without a plan. I committed to writing the first draft of the sequel to Soulmates, my m/m/m paranormal romance. My word count goal for the month is 80,000, and I’m at about 35k now with a couple thousand more in me today. Not exactly where I meant to be, but not bad, either.
I’ve also had time to sort through a particularly cluttered area of our basement and work in the garden and do yoga and walk the dogs and read for fun. It’s been pretty effing fantastic, to be honest. If this is what the rest of my life’s going to look like, sign me up.
I’ve reached this stage in life through a combination of luck, priviledge, talent, and hard work, and I don’t take one minute for granted. When it’s time for me to leave the NICU for good, I’ll do so with a lifetime of memories and a heart full of gratitude. Babies made me grow up and turned me into the person I am today.
Still, going forward, there’ll be books to write and veggies to grow and dogs to walk.
When The Spellbound Scribes went on hiatus late last year, we all had our reasons. Mine was small, had huge eyes, and was vaguely human shaped.
No, I didn’t get abducted by aliens. I had a baby!
As a first time mom, trying to navigate the ins and outs of raising an infant has been a truly novel experience. As expected, it’s been incredibly challenging at times–sleepless nights, tears, diaper blow-outs, you name it. But it’s also been just plain incredible–the snuggles, the smiles, the milestone moments. Sometimes when I look at my daughter, it feels like my heart has grown three sizes and I’m full of more love than I ever could have imagined.
But now that she’s almost four months old, I’ve been setting about trying to get back into writing. Although I don’t have any books being published in the near future, or even any on deadline, I do have a completed novel my agent and I hope to send to editors soon, as well as two projects that stand at about 20k words, and about a hundred ideas that need fleshing out. The only thing standing in my way is…time.
Here’s something I didn’t anticipate–you can’t type while holding a baby. It’s just not possible. If they’re chilling out in a baby carrier on your person, you might be able to. But otherwise, the basic rule is: if the baby’s awake, you’re probably not writing. And if your baby is anything like mine, and loathes daytime naps with a fiery passion, that means you’re probably not writing most of the day. And when they finally do fall asleep, either for naps or bedtime, writing has to compete with a thousand other things you need to get done, like cooking and laundry and cleaning and playing with your dog and spending time with your spouse.
But funnily enough, in those random small moments when the laundry’s in the dryer and my dog is sleeping and my husband is working and it’s just me and my laptop, I’ve discovered that I’m actually really happy to write. For the first time in a long time, writing feels more like the refuge it did when I first started out. When I open up my Scrivener app and start typing, it doesn’t feel like work–it feels a little like an escape from the day, a quiet moment between my thoughts and I, a space to create. And as much as I love my new job of being a mom, it’s so nice to have something just for me. Even if I’m only able to write half a chapter, or a paragraph, or a sentence before the baby wakes up again, in those moments I’m a writer again.
When I was pregnant, I worried a lot about losing my identity to motherhood. But it turns out that you don’t lose any of your identities, you simply gain a new one. And yes–recently, that new identity has taken over my life. Mom has overshadowed baker of cakes and sweeper of floors and yes, even writer of books. But it won’t be that way forever.
Nora Roberts was once asked how she managed to be a mom and a writer and a businesswoman and a wife all at once. She replied that she liked to think of life as a juggling act. All her responsibilities–kids, book deadlines, interviews, anniversaries–were balls flying above her, and she was the juggler desperately trying to keep them in the air. Except, she said, some balls were plastic and some balls were made of glass. A plastic ball, if it got dropped, bounced. No harm done. But a glass ball shattered. As the juggler, she was eventually going to drop a few balls. She just tried to remember which balls were made of plastic and which were made of glass.
We’re all jugglers in our lives. I know I can’t do everything all at once. But I can do the important things one at a time, in stolen moments if I have to. Because life is short and long and messy and beautiful and full of many wonderful things. And for now, I’m happy to juggle as many of those things as I can, and hopefully I’ll only ever drop plastic balls.
I’ve been watching a ridiculous amount of tennis. Might be a strange opening line for a writing-related blog, but hang with me for a minute. It’s Australian Open season, which is a great tournament for someone who works night shift because ESPN and the Tennis Channel broadcast the matches live. Given the 17-ish hour time difference between Seattle and Melbourne, I’ve watched some fantastic tennis at three am.
In part, I consider it research, because some day I’m going to write a tennis romance. If for no other reason than because I find Stefano Tsitsipas (above) to be so very inspiring.
Following an entire tournament if fun, too, because of all the different storylines. Early on there are so many players and so many matches. I can root for favorites, see who’s playing well and who’s fighting injury and who’s mental game has gone to Mars. Over the two weeks of the Open, the numbers drop, the tennis gets better, and the matches more intense.
Are there any young players on the men’s tour who can beat one of the Big Three (Federer, Nadal, & Djokovic)? Will Serena win her 24th major? Four of the final 16 women in the Aussie Open are American. How did we end up with so many fantastic players?
And what about Aslan Karatsev, the 27-year-old Russian qualifier who’s the first man in the Open era to reach the semi-finals of a Grand Slam tournament in his debut? Wouldn’t it be cool if he made the finals?!
The thing that fascinates me – and the element I find most intimidating when it comes to setting a story in the world of pro tennis – is the amount of focus and self-discipline it takes to reach that level. I can play tennis; well, I know which end of the racket to grab anyway, but I don’t think I’ve ever dedicated myself to anything so completely.
When I was a kid, I was on swim team, and I dreamt of making the US Olympic team. I worked my butt off in practice, but somewhere along the way (ahem, high school) I got distracted. Never made the Olympics, but I did do the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, which was a 2.8 mile race off Waikiki Beach. Finished in the top fifty women, too, so some of my discipline paid off.
Later, once I found my feet as an adult, I decided I wanted to sing. I studied voice and sang in choirs and with bands, everything from the blues and rock to Mozart and Gregorian chant. When I brought my oldest kid to the pediatrician for the first time, I asked about bringing a baby to band practice. I did, too, both kids, protecting their ears with wax earplugs held in place by headbands. I’ve also known the unique pleasure of stepping onto the church altar to sing a little Renaissance Christmas ditty with a trio, only to see my then-three-year-old engage in some experimental dance between the altar and the first row of church pews.
I might never have made the finals of American Idol, but over the years I learned a lot about myself, and a lot about music.
And for my next trick...
I always knew I wanted to be an author, and about ten years ago I decided I better get my act together or it was never gonna happen. You might have heard this story already, so I won’t go into too much detail. I started writing, studying how to write, going to conferences, taking classes, and connecting with other authors. I published my first book just about nine years ago and my next release – a novella I co-wrote with Irene Preston – will be number eighteen.
I might not have the level of dedication required to play tennis on an international stage, but making the New York Times bestseller list isn’t completely out of reach. Honestly, though, I seem to have put together a pretty decent life without actually getting what I think I want.
There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere...
This is my first blog post since August, and I’m SO happy to be back with the Scribes!! I’ve had two recent releases and Irene and I have a new one coming in early March, so I thought I’d share the pretty covers. Well, two pretty covers and a teaser.
It’s been years since I’ve had a vision board. I used to use them regularly, and then I took the one I had down because it didn’t go with my decor. I had actually forgotten about them until two things happened: 1) I was cleaning out my basement and found my last one, and 2) I saw this Lily Singh video on how and why to make one.
When I looked at my old one, I realized how many things on it had come true: travel, awards, opportunities, etc. (And this was from before I started taking my writing seriously.) I also realized that right now is the perfect time to begin a new one. I mean, we can use all the hope and positivity we can get during quarantine, right?
Plus, now that I am working from home (until at least August 15 – I hope they make it permanent), I have an office and a place to put it where I will it every day and it won’t mess up the rest of my interior design style.
So here’s a little peek at what I think I’m going to include:
Pulitzer Prize – I am determined to win one for my biography of Virginia and Francis Minor. No one really knows what they look for in the winners and finalists, but I’ve read several of both and can see some common characteristics. I’m still hoping to get a traditional contact for it, but if I don’t, how cool would it be to become the first-ever self published author to win a Pulitzer?
#1 New York Times Bestseller List – Of course I want to hit this. I’m going to Photoshop an actual list with the title of the current historical fiction I’m working on in the top fiction spot and my biography in the top non-fiction spot.
Poster for film/TV version of two of my books – I don’t have time to do this today, but I’m going to Photoshop this. Given that one of my books was already optioned and another is doing well in a contest to get this very kind of deal, this might actually happen.
Winning the 2020 Launchpad Manuscript Contest– As mentioned above, Daughter of Destiny is already in the Top 75 of this contest and I am manifesting a win for it, along with a major publishing deal and successfully produced movie or TV series.
$100,000 check – This amount is enough to pay off my debt and enable me to move (once COVID is over). I feel like it is enough without being greedy.
Book contract – Since I’m hoping to get a traditional contract, why not draw one up with the names of my dream agent and publisher? And fill in the advance amount I want?
Oxford – I really, really want to go back. This is the Old Parsonage Hotel, where I want to stay again. It is so nice and the food is fabulous. Plus, I want to research in the Bodleian Library.
Chicago – I want to move there (post-COVID). It’s been my dream for more than a decade now. Time to make it happen! (I had a photo for this one, but it wouldn’t align correctly, so out it went!)
Celebrities I really want to meet/work with: Lin Manual Miranda, Angelina Jolie and whoever else I think of. Angelina has been on my vision boards since my very first one. I really admire her humanitarian work and acting. And Lin Manuel is just a genius!
Beyond this, I’m not really sure. I’m considering a few broader things like healing for the earth and something to do with an end to COVID, but those aren’t really in my control, so I don’t know if they count. I may end up adding more over time as it comes to me.
What would you include on your vision board? Have you ever made one?