A path lit by words

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Characters and Convertibles

First posted as a guest blogger for The Quotable Literary Magazine.


From time to time, a frustrated writer asks me where inspiration comes from.  I tell them anywhere and everywhere.  One of my favorite examples is a great character I discovered in an unlikely place—the Saturday “Wheels” section of The Island Packet, the local newspaper here on Hilton Head Island.

In a column by the Car Talk brothers, a 93-year-old woman sought advice about buying a convertible. She’s driven cross-country twice, and just last year she traveled 3,000 miles through the Southwest in her 2000 Subaru. The trip raised fond memories of her Dodge Dart convertible, stolen years ago from a Detroit service station where she had left it to have the top replaced. Now she wants “one more crack at a convertible.”

Her letter is wonderful because, in barely 100 words, I know who she is. She may not call herself a writer, but she follows the essential rule: She shows me. She doesn’t tell me. She doesn’t say, “I’m a feisty nonagenarian with a sense of adventure who refuses to let age get in the way.” She doesn’t boast that she’s healthy and that she watches her weight and her cholesterol. She doesn’t whine that owning a convertible is one of the few items left on her Bucket List and she’s running out of time. This woman is focused on living her life and to do that, she needs a car that’s “moderately priced, safe, serviceable, and FUN.”

I can’t stop myself from filling in the blanks to create her back-story—how she grew up in a small town in Ohio that she left at age eighteen to join a pre-World War II peace organization. She traveled through Europe and eventually made her home in San Francisco. She’s a retired educator, an administrator or a professor of languages who never married. Her name is Rita, her convertible is a yellow Mustang, and she’s driving home for the first time since her mother’s 1988 funeral, to mend fences with her younger brother.

Or her name is Josephine Hollister Rice and she’s the wealthy matriarch of a family from Boston’s Back Bay. She toed the line all her life, but lately she’s become a loose cannon. In fact, the Daughters of the American Revolution have banned her from meetings because she revealed a local Senator’s extramarital affairs. Only her first great-grandchild, born to her eldest granddaughter when she was just sixteen, thinks Grandmother—he calls her Jo—is the cat’s meow. They run away together in her brand-new red Porsche, in search of Jo’s first love, the black sheep she was forbidden to marry back in 1942.

Or she might be Clara, the wife of an Iowa farmer who died before he could fulfill his dream of driving a restored ’57 Chevy convertible east to see the ocean. Or … or…or…You see what I mean.

Where does inspiration come from? Anywhere and everywhere. All it takes is sharp eyes, an open mind, and the willingness to follow your imagination wherever it takes you.

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An “American” twist on “Show, don’t tell”

Every writer has heard the advice, “Show, don’t tell.” It usually means conveying a feature of your character or setting by “evocative description” rather than “simple exposition.” Science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer uses these terms in an old but still relevant article, and offers several good examples. I thought I got it—until I watched an episode of The Americans last week.

If you don’t follow the show, the central characters are a pair of married KBG spies—Phillip and Elizabeth—living in a Washington, D.C suburb during the Cold War. They routinely commit acts of treachery and violence that I’ve considered gratuitous, designed to keep the show moving and to ensure that viewers don’t forget that these sympathetic characters are, after all, enemy agents. It’s a lot like Tony Soprano, whose entourage—kids in trouble, a mother with Alzheimer’s and terminal bitterness, a long-suffering wife, and a psychiatrist to help him cope with his anxiety—almost make us forget he’s a mob boss until one of his crew of psychopathic intimidators and assassins blows a man’s brains out or crushes a defiant shop owner against his car.

Last week’s episode of The Americans, called “Baggage,” included a scene that grabbed me by the throat and showed me how much may be lurking behind violence. An American diplomat’s wife, recruited by Phillip, is strangled while seducing a Pakistani intelligence agent. Phillip hears it all from the hotel room next door and rushes in to do damage control. The naked dead woman is laid out on the floor when Elizabeth rolls an enormous suitcase into the room. You’ve seen it before, you think. The scene will end there, because you know what’s coming. Body. Suitcase. The suggestion is enough.

But it isn’t—not for this show. While the horror-struck killer looks on, Phillip and Elizabeth force the woman’s body into the suitcase. They don’t pretend she is made of rubber; while we watch—and listen—they systematically break her arms and legs at every joint, accompanied by crunching and popping sounds. The characters do not speak; they grunt, wince, and grimace with the effort. They are grim, but not squeamish, as thorough and efficient as if they are packing a moving box with kitchen items or fitting the family luggage in an overfull car trunk. At one point, Elizabeth yields her place to the killer—and snaps a photo of him with the dead woman’s leg in both hands. The look on her face is chilling. It says, better than words, “What? I’m just doing my job.”

The sequence was both unbearable and riveting. I tried to look away, but I kept looking back because there was so much to see. Characters were developing right before my eyes, transforming in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The glances exchanged by Phillip and Elizabeth made it clear they would never again think of themselves—or each other—in the same way. The writing was brilliant and ruthless, a stunning example of “show, don’t tell.” Yes, it was TV, which by definition, shows, but there is much to be learned from it, even though we put words on the page, not images on screen.

The first thing I plan to do is watch that episode again, as many times as necessary to understand every nuance, so I can write it as if it was happening in a story or a book. And then I will scour my novel to discover where I’ve disadvantaged my characters and my story by masking a change—by being coy or squeamish, showing too little rather than too much.

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To blog is human


I’ve been writing a novel for a while now, which means that people keep asking, “Got that book published yet?” As if it’s easy. As if I could be published if I wasn’t so lazy, dumb, and distracted. With that kind of pressure, it’s hard to think about anything but what you can do to make your book better. To draw the attention of an agent. To get a contract and be published.

A few months ago, after a request for a full manuscript ended in disappointment, I put my book aside. I didn’t write anything, and with time on my hands, I started reading about the business of writing. Want to get published? You need a website, a Facebook presence, and a blog. Writers really need to blog.

Oh, man. Really? Bloggers are narcissists. They are relentless self-promoters. The world already has too many bloggers. And so on.

I’ll spare you the details of my conversion journey, but I rolled up my sleeves and built a website on WordPress. I’ve been blogging since November 2013 and I highly recommend it. Here’s why:

  • A blog demands a commitment. Unlike the essays, short stories, and books that languish in forgotten Word files, “in progress” doesn’t work for blog posts. They must be completed and posted, on a schedule—once a week, or ten days, or two weeks. Finishing a piece of writing feels good.  I’ve written on deadline—usually someone else’s—so setting my own deadlines and sticking to them was a discipline I needed to learn.
  • A blog teaches you to be concise. Like any writing, a blog is a story—in 500 words or less. Beginning, middle, end. Tell the story. Notice what you had to cut to reach the right length, and apply the same principles to your other writing. Try it on short-short stories.
  • A blog gives you objective feedback. When you’re writing a book, your only readers are people you know, people you ask—too often,  because they’re friendly and safe. With a blog, your fans (and your critics) self-select. They tell you what they think. Whether you like it or not.
  • A  blog makes you human. It shows who you are as a person. Imagine an agent reading your dozen or so posts and saying, “Hmm. How interesting. I’d like to get to know her.” The same is true for any business person. Blogging puts you out there and makes you approachable.
  • A blog connects you. Writing is lonely, even if you love it. Writers need isolation, but we also need companionship to feed our minds and our hearts. Following others’ blogs helps you make a different sort of friend, one who shares your interests—and often your concerns.

Blogging will make you a better writer. It will expand your confidence, and if you let it, your self-knowledge. Sometimes what you learn will make you cringe; other times it will make you smile. All of it will help you move through life—as a writer and as a person.

So yes, I admit it: I love blogging.

But I still hate Twitter!

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Waiting for tulips


I grew up in Pennsylvania, where spring bulbs not only thrive, but multiply, exploding each spring in waves of brilliant color. For twenty years, I’ve lived in the South, where daffodils and tulips have to be coaxed into half-hearted bloom and even then, they’re only good for one season. Despite mixed results, I keep planting them, but not without an argument. I stand over the bed, a spade in my hand, while a little voice whispers, “Remember Atlanta? You’re wasting your time.” Then a louder voice argues, “Give them a chance. Maybe they’ll grow.”

That voice is my mother. When I was a child, her kitchen garden spanned half an acre, with six-by-eight plots for my sister and me. Mom grew root crops and beans, lettuce and tomatoes, sweet corn and English peas. Her seasonal border charmed passing motorists, beginning with daffodils, tulips, and iris, and giving way, through the summer, to daylilies, gladiolus, and dahlias.

Her gardening impulse spilled over to the weird and wonderful hybrids advertised in the Sunday supplements and the back of Woman’s Day. Every few weeks, the mailman would beep and Mom would hurry outside, returning with a ventilated cardboard box from Gurney Brothers or Burpee. Inside would be a tomato plant that promised a three-bushel yield, a vine guaranteed to cover a twenty-foot fence in a single season, or a shrub that dared to flower half-pink and half-blue. Each one arrived as a humble three-inch stem with two leaves, its immature roots enclosed in a plastic bag of potting mix and straw. Mom nurtured them all, rejoicing when they thrived and shrugging—unconvincingly—when they didn’t. She played the game with vigor and she won more often than she lost.

One October, after a long time away, I went home for a visit. The first thing I  noticed was the dooryard garden, weed-choked and dry. There were no fading marigolds, no pungent chrysanthemums filling in until snow. My indefatigable mom, who  hand-mowed a half acre into her sixties, was slowing down. Our relationship had had its bumps, but gardening always brought us together, so I changed into jeans, armed myself with Mom’s shovel, and prepared to attack the neglected bed.

Mom stood by, wringing her hands. “Be careful,” she said. “There might be some bulbs.”

Might be some bulbs? Each thrust of the shovel brought out a clump of five, or ten, or even twenty. There were hundreds of bulbs. There were more bulbs than soil, and pretty soon we were giggling. While I dug out the weeds and amended the soil with compost and bone meal, Mom separated the daffodils from the tulips and the crocus from the grape hyacinths. Many were shriveled; others were beginning to rot. I would have thrown them out and started over, but that wasn’t Mom’s way. We planted every one, the last of them by the light from the porch.

That winter was hard and by January, Mom had grown weary of the cold. “Spring’s coming,” I’d say, and she’d answer, “I know, and I’m waiting for tulips.” I had my doubts that those bulbs would bloom, but I didn’t let on, and it’s a good thing: Those old bulbs put on a show that truly amazed me. Mom was ecstatic and I learned my lesson.

Now when the dreary months get me down, I remind myself spring’s coming. And thanks to my mom, I’m waiting for tulips.

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Start at the beginning

the beginning

So it turns out that the editors at The Quotable nominated my story, “Dementia,” for the Pushcart Prize. I’d already “lost” by the time I found out, but I’m thrilled with the nomination and grateful for the reminder that, in addition to my carefully laid plans, there is action going on behind the scenes that I don’t control. Knowing that there are forces at work on my behalf, keeps me working on my behalf.

Lately I’ve turned to books about writing to help me improve my novel. I’ve focused on the beginning, based on the unassailable truth that you’re toast if you don’t get that right. Agents don’t keep reading your book until they get to the good part. They move on to the next one.

Of course, I’ve read tons of books since I started writing. In fact, I read so many that a frustrated friend begged me to stop reading and just write, for God’s sake. Back then, I was imagining the day my first novel would emerge, whole and perfect, just because I’d read Ron Tobias’s 20 Master Plots and Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Fascinating, illuminating, and invaluable; I go back to them–and the other twenty-five books on my writer’s shelf–from time to time.

But it’s a whole different ball game when you’ve completed a manuscript you think is pretty good, and you’re trying to figure out why agents don’t agree. Two books I’d recommend, thanks to my writer friend Martha, are Jeff Gerke’s The First 50 Pages and Les Edgerton’s Hooked. Next up is Bickham’s Scene & Structure. I’m reading my opening scene, checking for the ten core components. I’m pruning backstory best saved for later. I’m raising the stakes and I’m strengthening my villain.

Now I know that when my old friend, Bill, said, “Stop reading and write,” it was only one stage in the process. I did what he asked; I wrote. Now I’m reading again, to make my book better. I’m  “going to school” on my scenes, my structure, my words, and my characters, and it’s helped me learn in a deeper way than the excellent examples included in the books above. Not to mention the fact that when I get the next request for pages, I’ll be that much farther ahead!

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Friends and recipes

ImageChristmas, for me, means food, and food means new recipes. I’ve bought dozens of cookbooks, torn hundreds of pages from magazines, and exchanged favorites with friends—although lately, I’ve taken the easy way out, searching the treasure trove of online recipes. But the holidays are different and this season I was reminiscing about my mother’s Christmas treats. For the first time in years, I pulled down an old, wooden recipe box—and went on an unscheduled trip down memory lane.

My mom was an average cook, but she was a brilliant baker and confectioner and she loved Christmas. As soon as the Thanksgiving turkey disappeared into potpie and soup, out came the sugar, butter, chocolate and nuts that she transformed into divinity, peanut brittle, and two kinds of fudge. When the candy was finished, she moved on to baking: sweet roll dough shaped into wreaths, decorated with candied cherries and flattened gumdrops cut into holly leaves; pecan, mincemeat, and apple-cranberry pies with lattice tops; and dozens upon dozens of cookies. There were crisp sugar cookies, rolled thin and iced, peanut blossoms studded with Hershey’s kisses, and Snickerdoodles she flattened with the bottom of a sugar-dipped glass. She traded these with friends and shared them at church, arranged them on platters and wrapped them in waxed paper in Santa-themed tins. Only one kind was sacred, kept strictly for family in an old Charles Chips can—the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies that she dropped from a spoon.

The box that I’ve stored on a high kitchen shelf for at least thirty years was a gift from Mom when I got married. It’s about four by six inches, engraved with the silhouettes of a rolling pin, an apple, and a bag of sugar. Inside are index cards, some food- and water-stained, others so old the ink has faded. Some are written in my once-neat cursive. Many more are printed, scrawled, and typed by relatives and long-forgotten friends.

Thumbing through those cards, I nearly forget what I’m looking for, because I finally understand what it means when someone says, “my life passed before my eyes.” Summarized here is my life history, in decades: Family recipes from my childhood and teen years, like the baked beans Aunt Peachie brought to every Bardo reunion and the sand tarts Great-Grandma Heilman made from a “pinch of this” and a “handful of that” in her “moderately hot” wood stove. There are recipes from the fifties and sixties, when food manufacturers like Kraft and Campbell’s gave us cream cheese and Jell-O salad (Nana’s go-to dessert for cookouts) and the Kool-Aid ice cream my mom made in the summer.

After college, when I moved out and married, my horizons expanded. I sort recipes by location—Pennsylvania, Toronto, and Atlanta—and subdivide by marriages and jobs. There are early experiments as I learned how to cook—pasta and stir-fries, meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, plus a tattered booklet from the crock-pot years. In the midst of these recipes, a few stand out, because the women who shared them were important to me, friends I lost track of when I “moved on,” for one reason or another.

  • Alice’s Kentucky spoon bread, the specialty of a wonderful woman lost to Alzheimer’s disease
  • Dolores’s chocolate chip cream cheese brownies, a recipe I’ve made for my brother, now fifty, on his birthday, for twenty-five years
  • Longie’s pina coladas and whiskey slushes—delicious in Pennsylvania and perfect for our South Carolina heat
  • Linda’s apple dumplings, sure to please my dessert-addict husband
  • Anne’s Margaree Valley French Toast, from her Nova Scotia bed and breakfast, in my friend Bob’s almost unreadable handwriting

I made it through the box without finding Mom’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookie recipe. Thankfully, I found so much more—a list of old friends I will look up this year, on Facebook or elsewhere, whatever it takes. Maybe one of them will have Mom’s recipe.

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The birth of a blog

path for blog

When “a path lit by words” popped into my mind, it sounded ungrammatical, but exactly right to describe this journey I’m on. Words, always words—learning to speak them, then read them, and finally, write them creatively—have fascinated me, inspired me, and given me purpose. They’ve been a constant, even when I’ve denied that this writer’s path is the right one for me.

My first fanciful image of “a path lit by words” featured lanterns, glowing warm and mellow on wrought iron posts, and soft amber path lights set among cobblestones. Lately, another image has claimed right of way–times when a colleague, family member, or trusted friend blurted words so true that they blinked like neon inside my head. Today’s word is one of those. It starred in a thoughtful rejection I received yesterday from a literary agent who had requested my full manuscript. She was “intrigued by the premise” but there were “way too many coincidences.” It was, in short, implausible.

I zombied through twenty-four hours, and this morning I forwarded the agent’s email to my writer friends. “See!” I said. “This is what candid feedback looks like.”

Somewhere between Martha’s never-say-die advice (So what? Try the small presses) and Stephanie’s encouragement (That agent said you’re a talented writer!), a light bulb went off: I held back on this book. I didn’t commit.

Shifting Sands grew from a spontaneous vision during my morning meditation. I awoke in a painting when the artist’s brush touched my shoulder. “That tickles,” I told him and we started to talk.  Implausible? Of course–as are the conversations between my protagonist, Jamie, and the young girl who appears on his canvas just when he needs her. When he’s most desperate, grieving the loss of his mentor and guardian, resentful of a decades-old slight, awash in doubt that his talent is real, and unable to paint, weeks away from a last chance show.

Do I believe that mystical forces would choose that moment to cause Jamie to paint a girl on a beach who unlocks his memory? Would they lead him to clues that help him resolve the secret that’s destroying his life? Absolutely. But I shied away from saying so because it might seem implausible. I soft-pedaled the woo-woo stuff. And now–Eureka!–I know what to do.

A single word can light our way–as a spark of imagination, a flash of brilliance, or, in this case, a ray of hope.