A path lit by words


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Scanning for Gators

If you asked me what makes Hilton Head an imperfect paradise, I’d have to say it’s the alligators. They lurk in our ponds and lagoons, and some of them are huge–as much as eight feet long, big enough that my Cocker Spaniel would make a nice snack. And Toby is sociable. He’d walk up and sniff one if I let him.

I’ve never seen an alligator run on dry land, but I hear they sprint like Usain Bolt. That makes me protective. I cross to the other side of the road, even if the gator is half a football field away. Call me over-cautious, but I don’t take chances with carnivorous animals. Shoot, I pick Toby up when a too-big dog barrels toward him full-tilt, on the beach. Two weeks ago, that happened with three dogs, each one harmless on its own, scary in a pack. Snarling and snapping ensued. No one was hurt, but I was angry and shaken, afraid we would have to give up our beach walks.

When I complained to a colleague who moonlights as a dog-whisperer, he wasn’t sympathetic. “You’re the problem,” he said. “You’re making your dog a weenie. You have to let him stand on his own or other dogs won’t like him, let alone respect him.”

Ding! went the bell in my head. His words took me back to a lesson I learned from a wise editor when I wrote my first book. She said I protected my heroine and she was right—I loved Ali St. John too much to put her in danger. I kept her leashed and in sight, so I could whisk her away when the going got tough–making her a weak character few readers would care about.

Ali was facing a home-grown terrorist, a man she thought was her friend, and not once did he hurt her or threaten her life. Whenever she faced the slightest risk, I swooped in and rescued her. In the end, she saved the day—a hollow victory because I never made my readers worry that Ali might fail, let alone die.

Here’s what I learned: You don’t have to torture your characters. You do have to test them and disappoint them and make them sweat. You have to let them be wrong and lose—more than once, even badly— so they and your fans can rejoice when they win. As the author, you can “scan for gators,” but you can’t kill them off or chase them away. That’s your protagonist’s job.

It’s still not easy to put my characters in jeopardy. I do it, though, and I trust them to pull through. Left on their own, they often surprise me with their wit and their resilience. My writing is richer and my characters are more engaging, now that they run free.

My dog not so much—weenie or not, he’ll be staying on his leash!


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Ready for change

beach sign

On Sunday we went for a walk on the beach. Because both Sea Pines beach clubs are undergoing renovation, we parked in a temporary lot—and used a different access  than we usually do. This path ends with a sign that outlines rules for beach goers. Similar signs appear at intervals on the beach. They’ve been there forever, so I was shocked to see the sign had changed.

Gone was the word “NO” in red capital letters, eight inches high. You could see it a hundred yards away, and what followed was a list of prohibitions: No glass or alcoholic beverages; no horseback riding, shark fishing, or littering; no nudity, disorderly conduct, or sleeping on the beach between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The sign’s final line always made me shiver: Caution! Extreme currents and shifting sands. Swim at your own risk.

That sign held special significance for me. Shifting Sands is the title of my as-yet unpublished novel, and the words on that sign were burned into my protagonist’s brain. He saw them as he came out of a faint, yards away from the peaceful beach where his father had just died in a bizarre accident. The words became a metaphor that ruled his entire fearful life.

Imagine my chagrin when, instead of high drama, the new beach sign proclaimed, “Welcome to our beach. Enjoy your visit and please follow our beach rules.” Welcome? There’s nothing ominous about that! What happened to the danger? This sign is muted and tactful. The third bullet under “For your information,” says, “Use caution—strong currents, jellyfish, stingrays, etc. may be present.”

May be! Huh. I’m not much of a swimmer, so the old beach sign suited me. Now the Town of Hilton Head is nudging me toward a new way of thinking—from panicky vigilance to awareness of my surroundings, approached with caution, not fear.

What intrigues me most is the timing of the change, or at least my noticing it. Like the beach signs, I’m due for a change, having spent a couple of years writing my book. I’ve had a great run: I’ve recharged, built creative muscle, improved my writing skills, and met a vibrant, generous community of writers who have helped me reconnect, re-prioritize, and put my goals in perspective.

For a while, writing has been my exclusive occupation, but it can’t always be like that. We writers have jobs and friends and well-rounded lives. We meet new people and experience new things, and that’s where our ideas come from.

I can’t say I’m unafraid, but I’m ‘raring to go,” eyes open, alert, and ready for change.


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This morning I scrubbed my driveway with an eight-inch brush. I’ve done this before—not the driveway, precisely, but I recognize the signs. Restlessness turns to full-blown nervous energy and the next thing I know, I’m digging a drainage ditch two feet deep and 100 feet long. Once I built a three-foot high, dry-stack stone wall around my patio with leftover flagstones and common sense. It turned out great.

People don’t get it. They think I’m insane. Back in Atlanta, where I washed my own car, a sympathetic neighbor explained that the Auto Spa down the street only charged twenty bucks. Somehow sitting on a plastic chair in a dusty reception area, reading about Brangelina in last year’s People magazine, doesn’t have the same effect as sudsing and rinsing my car until it shines.

I’m reseeding the fallow fields.

I don’t live in a cave. I know about pressure washers, both the mechanical and the human varieties, but it suits me to attack this monstrous, pock-marked driveway and its ground-in debris with a bucket of soap, a stiff brush, a hose, and what my mother would have called “elbow grease.” My approach is pure and it’s quiet—the same qualities that make me forsake the gas-powered leaf-blowers that landscapers use to blast a single leaf from one side of the yard to the other instead of stooping to pick the darn thing up. Call me old-fashioned, but I opt for a rake, a dustpan, and a wheelbarrow. It keeps me healthy, fit, and sane. By the time I’m done, I’ll know what comes next. Maybe not the outcome, but at least the next step.

Call it creative recharging. I’m a novelist seeking publication, and there is nothing more crazy-making than the post-novel process, as if it wasn’t hard enough just writing a book. First, there’s  the query letter, then the dreaded synopsis, then the conferences with their pitch sessions and manuscript critiques. Before an “agents and editors” conference last spring, two wonderful writer friends and I spent endless hours preparing the tools that would sell our books. Our weekly sessions, and the prep work before them, were agonizing, but so instructive. Let’s just say we wished we had known more about story goals and character arcs and plot points when we sat down to write our books. Never mind. Our next books will be easier. So that’s what we do while we wait—we work on the next book.

Still in the driveway, I caught myself thinking that a toothbrush would get the dirt out of the tiniest holes. Good grief! Would I really consider scrubbing my driveway with a toothbrush? Thank God I’m a writer and I know when to quit. It’s a skill I just learned with my novel.

My driveway—painted concrete at least thirty years old—isn’t flawless. Neither is my book, but it’s pretty damn good. And until an agent acquires it, I’ll consider it done.