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Friday Five: When it rains it pours

Life's been throwing us some curveballs lately. I don't like curveballs. I like straight, slow-pitched tosses that are predictable and easy to manage. But here's what those maddening, irritating, $#%^& pesky curveballs have been getting me to think about:

1. Stay in the moment. Don't rush ahead. Don't let your worried brain spin out on possibilities that aren't happening right now.

2. Shifting directions may not be what you want to do in any given circumstance, but sometimes it leads you to a better path.

3. In writing, sometimes the author asks the question, "What's the worst thing that could happen to my character right now?" And then we make those things happen, which keeps the tension high and the reader reading. I'm noticing that when real life starts to feel like someone's up there asking that question, it pretty much sucks. But things could always be worse (knock wood they don't go any farther) and luckily, in real life, these rough patches usually pass. Gives me more empathy for my characters!

4. People always say to not take health for granted. And yet we do. Because we're so used to it. We think we can always count on it. Then when it slips away you realize how much of life is predicated on that assumption that health will be there. Feel grateful for it every day.

5. You know that saying, "when it rains it pours?" Yeah, maybe the southwestern states could send some of their drought our way. I could sure use a little sunshine <3
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What Holds You Back

I had an epiphany in my writing group last night. (Thank you to Susanne West.) It's the idea that what holds our characters back from becoming fully formed is probably the same thing that holds us back in our lives. I know it's true for me. The places I hold myself back in life are the same places I hold my characters back.
Writing becomes therapy. If I can push my characters, challenge them to risk what I'm afraid to risk in my own life, they become more fully fleshed. And when I see them taking those risks, they inspire me to do the same. And that gives me more confidence to push them further. It's a positive cycle. But the opposite can also be true. If I won't let them take risks, I'm even less likely to take them myself, and then both life and writing become stagnant.
What risks are you willing to take in your writing was the question my friend Susanne posed. Think about it - and see if it isn't the same as the risk you maybe need to take in your life.

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Connecting the Dots

As you've probably heard, Steve Jobs passed away this week. Lots of stories and clips about his life have been circulating on the Internet. My favorite is his Stanford University commencement speech. If you haven't seen it yet, it's worth watching. You can find it here. He has so many inspiring things to say in those fifteen minutes. I first saw it a couple of years ago and have watched it about five times in the last couple of days, and I still feel like there's more I could get from watching it again.
What is on my mind about it today is this quote: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.... Believing the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path.”
I've seen this time and again in my life. Walking forward it feels as though doors are closed to me, and I can't understand why. But once I get a little farther down the road, I see how those closed doors served as guideposts, how they led me down a different hallway to a door I didn't even know was there, a door that led me someplace wonderful.
And as I thought about Steve Jobs' words, I also thought about how that quote relates to writing a story, how much faith and trust is required. When I begin with a character, I may have a vague sense of where we're going, but I absolutely have to trust my gut/instinct/intuition every step along the way. When I do, some minor little detail that I didn't even know why I was including turns out to play a pivotal role. So in writing I learn to trust those niggling feelings, to trust that the next step on the character's journey will appear as the words flow out of my hands, even if I don't know what it will be until it happens.
And then the process of writing the story teaches me how to trust, so that I can do that in my own life, which is even harder. Makes me think of that M.C. Escher piece of the hand drawing the hand. My life creates the pieces of the story that I write which teaches me how to live my life, which creates new story. 
Steve Jobs' speech had many reminders for me about how to live my life. This one about connecting the dots is one I'm going to savor for a while. 

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The Writing-Reading Road

What is it you wish to say in your writing or your art? Is there a message or a feeling or an experience you hope to portray? And if so, why? What moves you the most in books that you read or art that you see? Is it the underlying message, an emotion you feel or recognize while reading, or an experience that seems familiar or foreign? What moves you? I suspect if you ask ten people that question, you'll get ten different answers. In fact, I'd probably give you a different answer at different times too. Sometimes I read to escape. Other times it's to see my own experiences mirrored on the page so I feel less alone with them. One day I might want to read about places I've never visited. Another day I might really need to read about a place or time that's familiar and comforting. The same is true of my writing.

When life is feeling intense I might want to write those emotions into a story, or instead I might want to write about something lighthearted and silly. The purpose and methods may change. But what stays the same is the desire to write, to heal myself through writing.

Like many writers, I adore the process. For me, writing a first draft is thrilling and scary. It's an adventure like no other, a wild ride in the dark. And I adore it. Revising can seem more like a dental visit. But there are times when even the revising becomes a pleasure (especially when I have to add a new scene because then it feels like a first draft again ;) ).

I feel incredibly lucky to be fortunate enough to spend many of my days devoted to my art, my craft, the thing I love doing. And I hope that what comes through in the writing might provide readers with an experience that is new or familiar, an opportunity to escape or reflect, to feel or to grow or to think about something in a new way. I long for those experiences both when I read and when I write. The very best I hope for is to be moved by the writing experience, for that movement or growth to transfer to the page, and then for it to be shared with those who read the work. That's the part of the writing-reading journey I love best.

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Friday Five: Unwriting the Rules

A reader recently asked me what I think the key rules for writing a novel are. The main rule for me is remembering that there are no rules. Here's my Friday Five list of non-rules for helping you write a novel based on writing questions I've been asked.

1. How often should I write: Do what works for you. Try different things. If you find that writing every day means the writing flows for you, great, do that. If, on the other hand, writing every day causes you to feel drained and uninspired, take a break. Pay attention to what works for you, not for your friend or acquaintance or online writing partner, just you.

2. Should I write to market trends: Write about something that matters to you. Maybe it's the characters, maybe it's what they're going through. Just be sure you care. Cause if you don't, why would your readers?

3. Do I need to brand myself by sticking with one genre: Only if that one genre is the only one you are passionate about. Trust in the stories that want to be told.

4. What if I can't get the character's voice right: Be quiet. Stop writing. Get still. Listen. Give him/her time to show him/herself to you. If you rush ahead, you'll miss it.

5. One friend finished a draft in three months, another finished in three weeks, I've been working on mine much longer, is that bad: Not at all. Everyone works at their own pace. Give your story time to develop. Trust your own process, respect it, and it will serve you.

The only real rule I believe in about writing is this: Do it because you love it, because it matters to you, because it keeps you sane. Then, no matter what happens down the road, you know your time was well spent.

Happy writing :)

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Invitation for your news

Invitation for your news

Lately it has felt like there is a ton of bad news all around. Everywhere I look I find more of it. And it's been getting me down. Last night I was at my writing group, and somehow, through whatever I was writing, something shifted. And I just felt DONE with bad news, like I just wanted to say, "Back off, bad news. I'm over you." 
My friend Joy Preble emailed me to tell me her good news about the recent sale of her new series, which sounds totally amazing, and I can't wait to read it. And I was so happy she shared her good news with me. And I realized, in a way I never had before, how awesome it is to hear friends' good news. My joy for them lifts me up and buoys me and floats me away from all that other stuff. 
So this is a reminder and an invitation. If you have good news, share it! Don't be shy. Your good news is a gift not just to you but to everyone who cares about you, everyone who shares your life, and sometimes even to those peripheral online friends who might be inspired by what's happening for you. So the invitation is extended, I'm on a hunt for good news, no matter how great or small. Share yours and let us celebrate with you 

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Friday Five: Stress

I've been thinking about it a lot lately while experiencing it, trying to get a better handle on it. Do you ever get to that point where stress is so intense it's actually uncomfortable to be inside your skin? Then you start to see the whole world through the eyes of panic and emergency. I decided to look up some inspirational quotes about stress for today's friday five.

1. I kept coming across this one: "Stress is not what happens to us. It's our response TO what happens. And RESPONSE is something we can choose." Maureen Killoran

2. That quote seemed to me to be very annoying, because when you're stressed, it's really not easy to "choose" to not be stressed. But it really made me appreciate this one: "Stress is the confusion created when one's mind overrides the body's basic desire to choke the living daylights out of some jerk who desperately deserves it." Lol. Sorry, Maureen Killoran, that's how your quote made me feel.

3. But there were others that helped a little more. Like this one: "Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths" ~ Etty Hillesum. That's a good reminder. It's those little things that can make all the difference when life has you spinning out of your body.

4. I also like this one, even though it doesn't always apply to every stressful situation: "Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are." ~ Chinese Proverb. I think this one appeals to me because we spend so much time feeling like whatever we're doing isn't enough and that if we could work toward accepting that we're doing our best, we'd be able to calm down a lot more.

5. Then there's the famous Winston Churchill quote: "If you're going through hell, keep going." It's a good reminder that you're not just stuck in a difficult place, you're moving through it. Keep moving and you'll come out the other side.

And at the same time, keep this one in mind (a bonus quote :)) : "When it is dark enough, you can see the stars." ~ Charles Austin Beard. In other words, if you're in the dark place, try to look around a little, you might find that the shift in perspective allows you to see something remarkable you've been missing.

If you can, take the time to journal, even if it's just a few words here and there. Those few words just might be the breadcrumbs you need to lead you home.

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Scared Out Of My Skin - Climbing Back In: How Writing Heals

Sometimes life's unexpected twists and turns scare us right out of our skins. Often, we don't even realize it's happened. We just know that we don't feel right, don't feel good, maybe don't even remember what it feels like to feel good. Having a big something to worry over, like a loved one's health can make it hard to stay grounded in our bodies. Our spirits slip out of them and don't always know how to climb back in.

When I feel this way, many of my usual tricks for lesser stressors don't work. My first line of attack usually includes walking in nature, reading a book, eating chocolate -- activities that in normal circumstances feel good, help me sink back down into my body. But when life's surprises feel too big for these simple strategies, I find myself lost, not sure how to bring my spirit back down to earth.

The two things that work for me are 1) hanging out with a dear friend who really gets me and is willing to listen while I cry and vent all my fears and 2) writing. These are what heal me. At first, when I'm feeling lost, I can't yet find my way to writing. I'm empty of spirit and filled with fear. Talking to a friend allows me to pour out the overwhelming angst inside, which makes room for my frightened spirit to return. Writing is the lure that pulls my spirit back into my body. Once my spirit returns, those first line activities help again, reminding me of the joy of simple pleasures. But until I take those bigger steps, the ones that clear out all the muck and bring back my soul, the simple pleasures don't seem to register.

When my daughter was in the hospital this summer, I hardly ate. I took no walks. I read nothing. I wrote nothing. I was dry and empty of spirit, filled with fear and also with the need to focus on the immediate needs of our situation, staying on top of everything at the hospital, making sure the medical plans went as intended and that no mistakes were made (this is a rant for another day), being certain that both my kids' needs were met each day, etc.

It's been a month since then. Even a week at the beach, my usual favorite healing place, did not bring me back into my skin. I continued to find myself sad and fearful and itching in some internal way I can't describe other than to call it -- unsettled. But a long lunch with a friend, who allowed me to pour out my angst and voice every fear cleansed something inside me. And left me with a different itch - the itch to pick up a pen and put words on a page. With every word I wrote, I felt my soul slide back another bit into my body. And now chocolate tastes good again and walking renews me again and reading excites me again and writing -- writing heals.

So if life drops an unwelcome surprise and you find yourself itchy and uncomfortable in a way you can't quite explain, seek that which helps your spirit find its way home. Find someone willing to contain your fears, to clear out space for your spirit to return -- maybe it's a friend, maybe it's a therapist or counselor. You may find that you need for it to be someone other than your spouse or bff, other than someone who has been a part of the whole scene, someone who's a step or two removed from the situation. But when you find that someone who's willing to hold it all for you, get it out. And then, once the emptying has happened, it's time to fill up in whatever way works for you, whatever way pulls your spirit back in, for me it's writing. For you it might be cooking or drawing or singing. Hopefully, you'll be feeling your self again in no time.

Happy healing <3

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Friday Five: What Makes For Good Writing

I've been thinking about this question a lot lately. With every book I read, I ask myself, why did I like that so much? What kept me turning the pages? Or alternatively, why didn't I like it? Where did I get bored?

1. I'm currently reading White Cat by Holly Black. It's one of the best books I've read lately.What do I like about it? The first thing that comes to mind is that the writing never gets in the way. I never think, "Oh the author was trying to do X here," or "the author was trying to be the artiste." The words aren't drawing attention to themselves, they're just telling the story.

2. The characters are believable. They act in ways that make sense for them. There isn't a moment where I say, "He wouldn't do that."Even when the situations are such that anything could happen, the characters act in ways that are consistent with who they're supposed to be.

3. It's surprising. She's surprised me several times already with plot twists, and I feel uncertain about what will happen next. I love surprises. There was one moment where things went so badly for the character that I actually closed the book for a day because it just felt too frustrating. But that's rare in this book. Mostly, I'm just cheering him on, wanting to know what he'll do next.

4. She builds a world that is inventive and engaging. There's the world of the curse workers and the world of the con artist, which are not one and the same but are related. And she comes across as an expert on both. I'm fascinated by the world of the con and the thought she put into conveying the world of a con artist. I love how the main character works his cons and can't wait to see what plan he'll put into action next. And I won't be entirely surprised if the reader is being conned on some level, too, which is exciting.

5. Finally, what I love about it is how it all hangs together. The world, the characters, the words -- they form their own little microcosm that feels like a whole. And that whole is fascinating and engaging and believable. Now that is good writing.

I'd say more, but -- I've got to get back to reading and find out what happens next!
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Healing at the Beach

The Carolina beaches have always held a special place in my heart, which you probably know if you've read my debut novel, Breathing. This week I've been at one of those Carolina beaches with my extended family. The one we chose this time is one of the widest beaches you'll ever see, the water as calm as a lake and as warm as a bath, the sun as hot as you can comfortably tolerate. It's been relaxing and healing to take a week to let nature piece us back together. Some of us are water babies -- no matter what kind of mood we're in, we dive into the salty sea and find ourselves feeling light and silly and whole. Others are sun babies -- just lying in the sun, the heat baking our skin, revives us, fills us with our own selves in a way we've been missing. And some of us are sand babies. It's the warm sand between our toes, the cradling of the earth around us that allows us to sink back into our skin out of the busyness of the world, helps us find our way home.

I've been reading this week and journaling. But I've been intentionally holding off on returning to writing. Nevertheless, as I lie on the beach, letting my mind wander, my characters sneak in and pull at me, which I love. During our week at the hospital, when the characters weren't around I missed them. I worried if they mattered at all. I worried if they'd ever come back. It isn't the first time in my life I've asked the question. When life gets intense, invisible friends can get scared away. When we're caught up in the left brain -- the part that's trying to figure out a way past life's difficulties, it can be hard to find our way back to our right mind -- that place where our characters live and breathe.

When hard times hit, remember this: The characters always come back. They do. And I love all the little ways they find to sneak into my consciousness and tease me to want to play with them. I might drift into left-brained thinking, trying to solve a problem, and they tug me right back to right-brained dreaming. And as I've found this week, lounging on the beach, letting my mind drift is the perfect way to fall back into that dreamland.

So if life has you feeling stuck, seek out those experiences that allow you to slip into your right mind. That's where you'll find your invisible friends, the characters whose story longs to be told. Happy hunting :)