Friday, July 27, 2012

On the Writing Process

I recently heard from Peter Schwartz, an old classmate/friend who's an avid and astute reader. His insightful, probing comments about my first book, Hunter Huntress (here he is, reading it somewhere in France, I believe), were unsparing and dead-on. A writer himself, he was curious about about my process, frustrated with his own, and had some real thought-provoking questions that forced me to think hard about my personal approach to my writing: how I get ideas for a book and how I massage those initial glimpses of plot into a final manuscript. Thought I'd take a break from my usual type of post to share what I sent him in response. Hope you find it interesting!  Feel free to send me your thoughts and/or questions via my website:

     Firstly, Pete, for me a story usually starts with a situation--something that happened in my own life or that of someone I know. Some writers cull newspapers for inspiration. I sit with my bit of an idea for a while, letting it resonate. Then I turn to this huge file of notes I have--things that have occurred over the years, bits of dialog I've overheard, things I decided not to use in another book for whatever reason, etc.--and cull through to see if any of it might fit to move that initial idea along.          
     Sometimes characters are part of that initial idea, sometimes not. I try not to force this early phase of things; based on your comments, I sense this might be where you're getting in trouble. And because I'm a visual person, once I have an idea for a character, I have to find a photo (LLBean catalogs, Time Magazine--they've both worked for me). That makes all kinds of things "come." You never know what will push things along. Sometimes coming up with a title helps. I'm currently editing Island Mystery #2, for instance, but also working on plot elements for #3 and have been stymied. Then my husband came up with the book's title and things began to fall into place. No idea why it works this way, but it does--at least for me.
     In the beginning I, too, had trouble being "mean" to my characters. An early reader of a draft of one of my first books complained that the people I was hurting/killing off weren't any that he cared about. Made me realize the only way to really engage the reader is to lure him emotionally, make him care about the very people you're gonna kill off. Trust me, as a writer you become inured to it after a while.
     Your questions about subplots and layers and believability had me digging deep. The mythology sub-plot in HH, for instance, only occurred to me when I was about a quarter way through an early draft and after I'd had a series of dreams much like the episodes in the book where Jamie's dreaming about the figure running through the woods. Again this part of the process has to do with patience. You have to embrace the fact that things will come in spurts, sometimes requiring you to rewrite everything to date. It takes me anywhere from two to eight years to finish a draft of a book. Probably not what you want to hear, but it is what it is.
    I think a lot of your writerly discomfort stems from the somewhat misguided belief that the writer is in control of the process. I find things go more smoothly if I simply trust my characters and get out of their way. Writing fiction is a very intuitive thing. Just wait and listen, and it will happen.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Lots of Writing and a Little Sailing Trip

We dropped the mooring last weekend and took an eight-hour sail up to Casco Bay, ME, trying to wash off some of the green growth and sea critters that had grown on the bottom thanks to our staying put for so long. I spent a few hours in my aft cabin/writing room organizing yet more of the Reese's Leap editing while the skipper remained at the helm plied with sandwiches, fruit and chocolate.

First stop was Yarmouth Island, the remote island where Reese's Leap takes place and a place I've gone for many retreats. Very cool to be there again, to wander the fragrant trails through 200 acres of deeply silent woods, reconnecting with the physical setting of the new book, due out next spring.
We spent that night just a few miles upriver in Quahog Bay, working out plot elements for the third and final book in the series. Have a lot of editing to do on number two, first. Planning to hunker down this weekend at the Isles of Shoals. Look for more photos to come!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Review of "You Can't Shatter Me" by Tahlia Newland

This week’s post is dedicated to the review of a YA novel I've just finished reading about the problem of bullying--a particularly timely story in today's crazy world. So sit back and have a read.
You Can’t Shatter Me by Tahlia Newland is a moving young adult novel that grapples with the universal problem of bullying. A blend of magical realism and philosophy, it is at heart a very spiritual story without being heavy-handed about it.

Sixteen-year-old Carly Simmons, a girl with “insipid grey eyes, mousy hair and thunder thighs,” daydreams about being a courageous, avenging superhero. Both she and the nerdy Dylan have both suffered at the hands of Justin, the school bully, and watched helplessly while he abused others.

Carly and Dylan share a love of art and a hatred of injustice—commonalities that nudge their friendship toward first love as they grapple with the problem of Justin. When Carly takes the initiative and stands up to him (a parallel to Dylan’s standing up to a father who bullies him about his choice of art over engineering as a future career), she becomes the focus of his abuse.

But Newland reaches well beyond the act of bullying itself and the often devastating effect on its victims, examining not merely the complex reasons many kids don’t report such incidents, but the reasons bullies choose to abuse others in this way.

With the help of her hippie grandparents, Carly learns how to rid herself of the fear that feeds the bully’s need for attention, instead using the spiritual light inside her to disarm him—offering friendship to one who has himself always been abused and afraid, in hopes of helping him relate to others in a more healthy way.

Newland’s characters are well drawn and realistic and the story emotionally satisfying, but for this reader the real joy of the novel is the author’s structural vision and creative use of metaphor. Throughout the book, which alternates between Carly’s and Dylan’s perspectives, the problems they face take on actual physicality, becoming outsized physical objects that have to be vanquished superhero-style with the right attitude or action. In addition, the storyline is peppered with metaphors to writing, to the scripting and crafting of one’s life being much like the creation of a story (which, of course, it is!)—sometimes even backing from the actual narrative so the characters can discuss the decisions involved in the scene they are trying to create.

With You Can’t Shatter Me, Newland has given the teen reader an accessible and engaging primer on ways to handle what, for many, is a devastating situation–one they often feel powerless to change. Parents should be advised that the story contains sexual innuendo and occasional rough language, so is perhaps not best suited to younger readers.

You Can’t Shatter Me is available at Amazon ( and Smashwords (

You can reach Tahlia at; her facebook page is, and her Twitter handle is 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Book Bash, Writing Underway and Blueberry Coffee Cake

This past weekend's planned writing binge and sailing adventure was briefly interrupted by Saturday morning's South Berwick Summer Book Bash, held in the town's stunning new library where I was scheduled to do a "read & sign." I finally reached "Skater (the boat) about 2:00, loaded down with groceries and Reese's Leap notes; and Captain Cleave and I blasted off for Cape Porpoise, Maine (near the Bush compound in Kennebunkport)a four- hour sail that allowed me to hunker down in writerly fashion while my erstwhile Captain ably handled all things nautical.

That night, the Captain plied me with wine and dinner in the cockpit under an incredible sunset. Sunday morning I reciprocated with the famous Skater Blueberry Coffee Cake (recipe follows), before we blasted off for the return sail to our Kittery mooring.

In addition to my editing work, I also managed some time to finish Gillian Flynn's new novel, Gone Girla delightfully twisted tale of an increasingly poisonous and volatile marriage. Kept me on the edge of my seat, or rather the edge of my bunk. Can't recommend it highly enough!

Next time I'll post a more detailed editing progress report, as well as a review of Tahlia Newland's new YA novel about bullying, You Can't Shatter Me.

The Skater Blueberry Coffee Cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

1 cup flour
¾ cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup softened butter/margarine
1 egg
½ cup milk
1 cup blueberries
Topping: ½ cup sugar mixed with 1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Mix flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter/margarine and mix well. Add the egg and milk and beat till smooth. Pour into a greased 9 X 9 pan. Cover with the blueberries and top the whole thing with the sugar/ cinnamon mixture. 

Bake for 35 - 40 minutes.