Reviser’s Block

It has been my happy fate of late to have a lot of revisions to work on. This is good news—it means a book is on the way to publication and it means my editor has spotted places to gild the lily. I’m fortunate in that my editor—Deb Werksman at Sourcebooks, Inc.—will call me first and discuss the needed changes, then send me a follow up email summarizing our conversation.

The email is particularly helpful because ten seconds after we hang up, I am completely at a loss to know what we decided about that pesky adolescent secondary character (whose idea was she, anyway?), or the tweaks needed to make the finale just a trifle more resonant with the opening lines. I know we talked for twenty minutes, I know Deb had some good ideas, I know I have a deadline to make the changes, but other than that…. duh.

The precipitous drop in writing IQ and memory persists throughout the revision process. A new scene that should take an hour to write takes all day; some thread I was supposed to clarify in the dramatic arc becomes invisible to me. I drink more decaf tea, play more solitaire, check my email more frequently when I’m working on revisions than I ever do when I’m creating a rough draft. Revisions for me are daunting and painful. My only consolation is that the sense of rolling a boulder uphill befalls some other writers in the rough draft stage. Instead of having to spend a few days pushing through procrastination and brain fog, they have to suffer for 100,000 words at a time.

Still other writers must struggle interminably to come up with a plot, and most of us—I’m convinced—did not get the synopses-are easy gene. But my guess is that the revision process is largely responsible for improvements in my writing. I can’t view my own books with the objectivity of an editor, if for no other reason than after a 100,000 words, I’m tired of looking at the bleeping things. In the same vein, I think synopses are hard for me to write because I’m not an intuitive plotter. I have to work very, very hard to structure my stories so they fit into a tagline. Holy cow, do I honk at coming up with taglines.

There’s hope, though. I’m working on my sixth manuscript for contracted publication, and the synopsis is already germinating. I’m scanning my prospective secondary characters with a view toward their credibility; I’m watching for threads that go nowhere so I can pull them out before they get knit into my prose. I conclude the revision process is supposed to be a challenge for me because as I’m learning how to make one book better, scene by scene, I’m also learning how to make my writing better, and that will benefit however many books I’m lucky enough to write.

What about you? Is there an aspect of writing that once daunted you more than any other, but now shows signs of coming under control? What helped? What made it easier—or what might make it easier in a perfect world? Reprinted with the kind permission of

The next time you hear, “Whatever…”

The term, “Whatever…” is said to be among the most irritating comebacks in the language, lazily connoting complete indifference to every possible outcome  and eventuality on the planet.

It means something different to me. Christmas day the heavens gifted us with freezing rain for the duration. It came down for a good while, leaving accumulations of ice in its wake. For those of you who don’t have ice storms, consider yourselves blessed. Snow, you shovel. Ice, you wait for it to melt, hoping it doesn’t take down too many power lines first.

You can’t go anywhere in an ice storm, and if you must go outside (say to feed your horses every stinkin’  twelve hours no matter what), then you will be both frozen and soaked. But it’s good writing weather. The urge to cozy up to any heat source, including a lap top, is irresistible. A day like that brings to mind bleak moors, long lonely afternoons, mind-numbing boredom, cuddling-up-on-a-bleak-day sex, all kinds of scenes and weather driven plot twists. Hurray for freezing rainy days.

I keep a journal, and a few months ago, I got up to a fall-is-coming day. Low humidity, temperatures in the high seventies, glorious, perky weather that fills the body with joy. And that is good writing weather too, for the energy it imparts, the restless glee, the churning mental enthusiasm for life itself. Weather like that brings to mind outdoor sex, picnics, reading in tree houses, and the innocent joie de vivre of many a character at the beginning of many a romance.

A few months before that, I got up on a sultry, still, mid-summer morning. The mercury was headed past 100, it was so hot the bugs didn’t make a sound. The sky was white with humidity, and all I wanted to do was write about parched throats, summer light, and the ease of moving around at night in high summer. That was good writing weather too. In other words, it’s all good writing weather, good painting weather, good child rearing weather, good weather for whatever your creative process is.

The trick for me is to take whatever comes my way—whatever—and smack it off my bat in a productive, meaningful direction. Weather, people, cases at work, flat tires, new dishes, long road trips, whatever life tosses at me, it’s all a gift for the purpose of inspiring my writing, or my legal strategies, or my ability to love my family and friends honorably. Life sucks sometimes, and there are experiences I haven’t found any inspiration from yet, at least that I know of. But determination counts for a lot too, and waking up each day expecting to be given some nuggets of inspiration by the weather, the shopping list, the telemarketer, means I am more likely to find inspiration. Which means I am more likely to look hard for it tomorrow.

This is not a skill I was born with, mind. It’s a product of maturation, not something I consciously set out to work on. There are other names for it besides determination, like ingenuity, optimism, cleverness, resourcefulness. I don’t know about all that, I just know that after years of watching the sky, I’ve learned that it’s all good writing weather if you give it the chance to be.

Sign the Book, Turn the Page

It was my happy privilege today to sign books at Turn the Page, the bookstore owned by Nora Roberts in Boonsboro, MD. Nora was there, and I can tell you, she’s as witty, honest, and gracious in person as you’d anticipate, given her print persona.

Stephanie Dray was there with her very creative novel, “Lily of the Nile,” based on the life of Cleopatra’s historically significant daughter. I also met Jeaniene Frost, Pamela Palmer, Mary Burton, and Mary Reed, who are all lovely women who’ve written fascinating books which I hope to enjoy reading someday soon. I haven’t ordered their books yet, though there is one book I came straight home and ordered.

I was lurking in the back room of the store with several of the other romance author guests when this tall, lanky, fella came by toting a box of books. He wore cowboy boots—which detail usually recommends a man to me—but he was quite focused on riding herd on his stock of books, until one of us interrupted him (well, actually it was me) and asked him to introduce himself. “I’m Vaughn Ripley.” He stuck out a big paw. “I’m one of the longest surviving people to be diagnosed with HIV in this country. I’ve had the disease for twenty-five years….”

This man does not look like any long-term AIDS patient I’ve met, and I’ve met a few. He’s trim, true, and his complexion is pale, but it’s a Celtic sort of pale, not a sickly pale. He has a magnetic smile, a great handshake, and the easy manners of a natural story teller. He is a hemophiliac who acquired both HIV and Hep C through blood transfusions before anyone realized the blood supply could pose those dangers, and yet, Vaughn exudes physical and mental energy.

At the age of eighteen, the doctors told him he had two years to live. He began to keep a journal so his family would have something of him when he died. A few years ago, Vaughn’s wife got a hold of this document, and informed him it wasn’t just a few musings to pass on to immediate family. Because Vaughn listened to his wife, we now have a terrific and very readable book.

I asked Vaughn to what he attributes the miracle of his longevity. We didn’t finish that discussion, but I intend to read the book and find the rest of the answer. What struck me like a cinder block dropped upon my foot from a great height, was that this guy started writing not to get away from the day job or the demands of child rearing, not for his entertainment or financial gain, but out of love for his family and the desire to leave a record when he died.

He wrote in part to snatch a particle of immortality from the jaws of impending death, and he wrote so his love and wisdom would not die with him. In the right hands, writing is THAT powerful. It cheats death, it defies the dictates of mortality, and I would not be a little surprised to find that when used appropriately, writing—storytelling—can also add meaning to a life imperiled by all sorts of medical and spiritual threats. “Survivor: One Man’s Battle with HIV, Hemophilia and Hepatitis C,” by Vaughn Ripley, is available from Turn the Page at the following link: or from Amazon at: I’m going to read it, and I’m going to leave a copy where I can see it when I sit down to do my own writing.

January is for Beginnings

Beginnings of romance novels are supposed to be easier—less difficult—to write than ends or (cue ominous music) middles. There is a great deal of business to transact at the beginning of the book. The dramatis personae must strut, mince, waltz, thunder or crawl onto the stage; hero and heroine must Meet and perhaps even enjoy or suffer through their First Kiss; external conflicts must be strongly hinted at if they don’t get center stage; secondary characters and subplots have to get some mention; the requirements of setting must be appeased.

At the beginning of a book, the issue of what to write about is subsumed under all that busyness, and yet sometimes, even the beginning of a book eludes us. The first line won’t present itself. The first scene keeps developing a limp. The Meet has no chemistry. The hero and heroine have too much chemistry and all of it is bad. The secondary characters are too charming, witty, or intriguing to serve in their intended roles. And sometimes, we get into those dark, miserable corners where no words come at all.

We are beginning-less, and then we become very prone to endings. When the beginnings won’t come, we fret that they’ll never come and our writing career is over. We polish and buff and read over old material until we’re no longer polishing, we’re sanding it down to something dull and boring. We consider our own big black moment—quitting.

I attended a panel discussion at a Georgia Romance Writer’s conference on the topic of “When the Words Won’t Come.” Four published authors all discussed very frankly what it’s like to be without any beginnings at all. The room was nowhere near full, almost as if mention of the topic itself had the power to shut down our creativity. In the course of the discussion though, one panelist lead us through the creation of a first sentence, one word at a time. It took better than an hour, while we listened to each writer explain what had robbed them of their beginnings, and how they recovered the gift of starting a book.

Beginnings are fragile, it turns out. They are not easy at all. They take hope and courage and the ability to withstand significant anxiety about middles, ends, and more beginnings. Beginnings can require that we have physical and mental health or financial stability firmly in place. They can demand that we see the end even before we start. They can seize our joie de vivre and creativity and throttle them within an inch of their existence.

I developed a new respect for beginnings at that panel discussion. So the next time a single sentence pops into your head worth exploring, rejoice. The next time a scene occurs to you while folding the laundry, give thanks. The next time your secondary characters have the decency to politely hint they might enjoy having their own book, be grateful. If nothing else has come clear for me, it’s that a beginning–of a book, a relationship, a project, a life– must not be taken for granted, and is a terrible thing to waste.   reprinted with the kind permission of the Sourcebooks Casablanca Author blog

Mazlo’s Geometry

Abraham Mazlo was a smart dude (who spent a lot of time around books and libraries growing up). He posited the idea that we have a hierarchy of needs, with physiological needs—breathing, food, water, sex—coming before security needs like physical safety, job security and consistency in morality, family and property rules. After those came the needs associated with love and belonging: sexual intimacy, friendship and family. Then come the needs fulfilled by esteem—of and by others, of self. Confidence goes on this tier as well.

At the top of his hierarchy are the self-actualization needs: problem-solving, creativity, individual morality, and lack of prejudice, among others. Maybe this is the arrangement of needs best suited to individuals whose priority is perpetuating their genes rather than their ideas, or maybe Mazlo didn’t study too many of the kind of people I meet. In my legal work, I come across people who are so fixed on the need for sexual intimacy or approval, or some other “higher order” craving, that they jeopardize their very lives.

Unless and until they get their emotional needs met, they can’t fashion a life where physiological needs are met. Some of these people are attorneys whom we would call “successful” in the traditional sense, some are convicted felons, and some are the victims of those felons.

In my literary travels, I came across a book called, “Kabluna.” This is a work of nonfiction written by a European who was sojourning among First Nations peoples of the Canadian far north between the World Wars. They referred to him as “kabluna.” The author of this tome met up with a missionary serving in the Artic north, a man who lived more or less in an ice cave eating little besides raw fish. On a calories in/calories out basis, the fellow should not have been able to sustain life, much like many distance runners. The author posited that the missionary was so beloved by the locals, so thoroughly sustained by the meaningfulness of the role he fulfilled in the community, that earthly nutrition was secondary to the spiritual banquet he consumed daily.

I am not now nor have I ever aspired to be any kind of missionary, but I am a writer. My hierarchy of needs dictates that even when food, water, and sex (for God’s sake, Mazlo was a smart guy, but still a guy) are in short supply, I have a need to notice my surroundings. I watch people, I watch animals, I watch myself. I watch the sky and the land, I watch traffic. I watch my thoughts. When my livelihood has been jeopardized or my health threatened, I’ve watched that too.

This is not a dissociative tendency, this is not denial, this is having the mind of a writer. I watch, and I ponder. When I’m driving to work, when I’m falling asleep, when I’m supposed to be dwelling on my gratitudes, my little brain goes off on one frolic and detour after another. This is not Attention Deficit Disorder, or lingering post traumatic stress symptoms. This is having the imagination of a writer. If somehow, somebody got into my mind and prohibited me from watching and pondering, my identity would be jeopardized.

When I’ve watched and pondered for a while, I must synthesize what I observe with my experience and beliefs, and I call that writing. Maybe these are just manifestations of something Mazlo had different names for. They are activities I must pursue to be who I am, and they go on whether I’m fed, loved, housed, befriended or not. And because I do them and others are apparently drawn to do them as well—observe, ponder, synthesize and express—we have what Mazlo placed under only individual morality in his hierarchy of needs: creativity.

I call it culture, somebody else might term it wisdom. Someday, I will reflect on why Mazlo’s pyramid seems to be the inverse of what some Asian philosophies say is the path to spiritual enlightenment, but it seems to me there’s more than one pyramid. So my pyramid might be upside down compared to old Abe’s. Perhaps yours is as well, or inside out, or both. The point is to understand what the levels are on your pyramid, and set about meeting those needs that define you. Maybe you’ll call that writing too.

Plotting Along

The most difficult aspect for me of writing commercial fiction is coming up with the story itself, more specifically, coming up with the external conflict. I have characters galore in my head, swilling brandy, flirting, waltzing, thundering across the countryside on their noble steeds.

I have settings, Regency, Victorian, and contemporary settings that I can see, hear, taste, touch and smell (in my head). I can come up with relationship troubles by the long ton, but current wisdom (with which I will take umbrage some other day) is that a romance novel must have an external conflict, a force keeping the lovers apart even when—somewhere west of page 350 and a whole lot of hanky panky—they realize they are fated to be together.

So after years of wrestling with this deficiency of mine, I’ve come up with two different forms of plotting yoga. (We used to call it brainstorming, but the term has acquired an odor of corporate-speak frowned upon in creative circles.) The first practice involves donning loose fitting, comfortable clothes, sturdy shoes and thick socks. Prior to the session, it’s advisable to stop by the potty, but I try not to read more than one scene while I’m in there because the general premise is that if I move the body, the mind might flex a few ideas too. More than one scene, and well… maybe that’s for another day too.

I go out of doors, I breathe in the fresh country air and hope none of the dairy farmers upwind have cleaned out a loafing shed recently, and I place all my weight on my right foot. Some adepts prefer to start with the left—it’s a personal decision. When I’m confident my weight is securely balanced, I lift my left foot and place it ahead of my right. Calling upon eons of evolutionary engineering, I shift my weight onto the left foot until I am balanced thereupon. Next—and this is crucial—I lift my right foot, and place it ahead of the left. It can be confusing until you get the pattern: left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot, lift, shift, lift shift (say it three times fast).

I continue in one direction for about a mile or until I get an Idea, then I execute one 180 degree turn—this takes practice—and repeat the sequence until I’m back in my own yard. I thought up this very blog in the midst of such a session, proof positive that it works. Or proof of nothing in particular. The second form of plotting yoga, which I truly do enjoy, requires a call to the Beloved Aged P’s on the West Coast to transmit a warning that there will be a Grace Sighting in about four days. I gas up Beloved (paid off) Toyota Tundra, lux some undies, say my grandmother’s prayer for everybody’s safety, and Head West.

I do not listen to the radio, nor to CDs, nor even books on tape (unless they’re by Malcolm Gladwell, of the wise, sexy voice). Long about Oklahoma, I’m fairly confident of having a plot. I once dreamed up a whole trilogy on the road, but this required a sortie through West Texas, about which, the less said the better, except it wasn’t a very good trilogy. To write novels, I need to apply the fundament to the chair for long, long hours, but for my process, for my stories, I also have to find the white spaces in my life that generate new ideas, and if I don’t have white spaces, I have to create those too.

Or I could just go for a walk, or maybe go see the folks.

reposted with the kind permission of What are the dull, boring necessary aspects of your process that constitute your personal “writing yoga?”