Posts about The Writing Life


Observing the World Like a Writer

After a month on the road it feels great to be home again.

Seattle is where my family and friends are, and along with missing them I’ve also been yearning for the ordinary comforts of home: our local coffee shops, my comfy writing chair, and my mechanical keyboard with Cherry Brown MX switches.

We had a fun time on our fall adventure. After Bouchercon, we scraped enough airline miles together to visit Amsterdam, Cambridge, and London at one week apiece. We were in tourist mode most of the time, visiting museums and taking walking tours. And the sights were often beautiful.

Tall narrow buildings in Amsterdam crammed together along a canal. A yellow canal boat in the foreground. A top-down view of British pub food, including a round steak and ale pie with mashed potato and gravy. A round white plate on a brown table The Sherlock Holmes Pub in central London. Gold leaf letters on the sign beneath a leafy canopy. Narrow punting boats along the edge of the River Cam on a sunny day in Cambridge UK

Observing the World Like a Writer

While this wasn’t a working vacation, and I had little time to write, I did practice my observational skills. That’s something I’m trying to get better at, because good fiction is often inspired by real life. At home I tell myself I’ll jot down my observations on my cell phone, but how often do I follow through?

Spoiler: not very often.

And even when I do remember to capture an interesting snippet of dialog, or a clever turn of phrase that I’ve heard, notes on my phone tend to disappear from my brain. So during this trip I tried something different: carrying a small notebook and pen.

A Field Notes notebook and pen next to a cup of coffee on a cafe table.

To my delight, a paper journal worked much better than my phone for observing the world. Whenever I noted something interesting, I wrote it in the journal. Paper beats pixels, at least in this case. A notebook can be flipped through in a way that digital files cannot, jogging the memory and inviting new connections. And handwritten thoughts seem to stick in my memory better. Besides, it simply feels more writerly to scribble in a journal.

What did I capture while we traveled? Here’s a partial list:

Notes from Bouchercon panels, including the names of authors I met, and interesting tidbits I heard about publishing and writing.

The following quote by Van Gogh, from the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

The painted portraits have a life of their own that comes from deep in the soul of the painter and where the machine can’t go.

A reminder to look up author MR James of Cambridge. We took a Ghost Stories tour in Cambridge, and his name came up a lot. He’s considered the father of English ghost stories.

Two scribbled pages of description about the large Orthodox Jewish family that sat near us on a train outside London.

The names of forty different types of clocks I saw inside the British Museum’s clock room. So many clocks! And so many sexy nouns. Here are just a few:

_Sectric Motor Clocks
_ _Musical Table Clock with Automata
_ _Orrery
_ Planispheric Astrolabic Clock (1560)

I also captured little snippets of overheard dialog. Public transport is excellent for eavesdropping. I caught some hilarious banter from people arguing about Jesus on a public bus.

I have no specific plans for any of these notes, they are enriching my mind. Together they form a kind of mulch from which a story can grow. And if I hadn’t written them down, they’d be gone by now.

Embracing The Ordinary

It’s October now, and my first little notebook is full. Time to switch to a fresh one, and apply those same habits of observation to my life here at home. Listening is something you can do anywhere, no plane ticket required. Although I still think a city bus is an ideal place to discover new characters.

Still, I’m grateful for a chance to fill my eyes and ears with novelty from time to time. And travel is a wonderful source of novelty.

But for now, if you’re in Seattle, and you say something interesting or weird on a Metro Bus, look around. I might be the woman scribbling in a brown paper notebook, listening for the weird and the wonderful, ready for that next spark of inspiration. 😉

A Writer's Development

If you write, you’re a writer.

There’s no secret handshake, and no gatekeeper. The only permission slip that matters is the one you give yourself. And while you might choose to get an MFA degree, or to take a class, or get an agent, exactly zero of those things are required.

It’s easy to get lost in the forest of self-doubt! For years, I threw roadblocks into my own path. I told myself that I needed to do X or Y before I could be a Real Writer. And I convinced myself that writing was self-indulgent, not very respectable, and not important enough to spend my time on.

Look, most of us go through a beginner-angst-bullshit stage. But if you’re persistent, the day will come when you get over it. You’ll begin respecting your writing goals, and by extension, yourself. And once that happens, you’ll begin thinking about questions like these:

How do I become a better writer?
And how do I get faster?
And how do I fit writing into my life?

I love these questions! And I expect I’ll be answering them for a long time. But I’ll tell you what I’ve figured out so far.

Becoming a Better Writer

When you learn something complicated, there’s an awkward stage where you’re no longer a beginner but you’re not yet competent. Unlike a true beginner, you can see your flaws clearly. This can be discouraging, because you’re wise enough to know you’ve got a long road ahead of you.

I’m working through that stage right now. When I write, I sometimes feel like an untrained swimmer trying to doggy paddle across the pool. There’s a lot of struggle and splash for each small amount of forward motion, and I tire quickly. I love the work, but I wish it wasn’t so difficult. And I’m often unsatisfied with my progress, even when I put in maximum effort.

I’ve got some goals for my writing in 2018:

  1. I want to improve my storytelling skills. (Pacing, suspense, dialog, character motivation, and language)
  2. I want to produce books more frequently. (My stretch-goal for 2018 is three novels, but two is probably achievable.)
  3. I want to have more fun along the way. (Writing is already fun, but it’s also more difficult than I want it to be.)
  4. I want to earn income from my work. (Yes, I have numbers, but I’m not posting them here.)

Those are my goals. Why not take a moment and write down yours? I’ll wait.

Reading Assignments

If you are reading this blog post because you want to write fiction, I’m going to suggest you pause here and order some books, either from a store or from your local library. These five books that will teach you much of what you need to know about authorship:

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
On Writing by Stephen King
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

There’s a wealth of information in these books, and I won’t reproduce their wisdom here. But I will offer a spot of advice for you rational types who pick up The Artist’s Way and think it’s too woo-woo. _Hey, I get it. It took me three tries to get through that incredible woo-woo book. _ Read it anyway. Do the exercises, anyway. Suck it up, left brains, and do the homework.

Think of those five books as your prerequisites for what I’ll outline below.

A Writer’s Development

Last year, I put together a model that I could follow to reach my writing goals. I was tired of flailing, and I wanted a roadmap like those I used to build for my clients, only focused on creative writing instead of leadership. What I came up with blends together what I’ve learned from experience, and what I’ve learned from books, and some tips I’ve gotten from other smart writers I know.

As you can see, there are four main elements.

Self-Care means that I’m getting eight hours of sleep each night, I’m eating healthy food, and my stress level is reasonably low. It means I have a positive attitude about my writing, and that I’m being compassionate towards myself. Also in this category, I include financial wellness. I agree with Liz Gilbert’s assessment that you shouldn’t be relying upon your creativity to pay the bills, especially at first. For most writers, that means having a “day job” that can pay the bills, and which doesn’t leave you creatively depleted at the end of the day. When self-care isn’t happening, writing becomes far more difficult than it needs to be.

I want to offer a big Thank You to Seattle writing coach Peg Cheng who got me thinking about the importance of self-care!

Daily Practice refers to my habits behind the scenes of my current project. Julia Cameron suggests three pages of longhand journaling every day, which is the kind of thing that sounds like a massive pain in the ass but turns out to be indispensable once you get going. Daily practice also includes setting aside dedicated time to write on your current project, practicing your observational skills, and collecting shiny objects (words, phrases, images) like a crow might collect baubles for her nest. You need to think like a writer, even when you’re not in front of a keyboard, and that takes practice. I encourage you to find what works for you, rather than adhering to arbitrary rules. As one example of this, I now do my morning pages in the evening before bed.

Craft is skill development, and for writers this begins with getting quality “intake” into our verbal diets. Stephen King famously said, “read a lot and write a lot” but I’ll expand that to all storytelling mediums, including movies, TV, poetry, and the visual arts. Craft also requires that we develop writing-specific skills, such as description, how to break a story into scenes, and how to create multi-dimensional characters that speak and act in interesting ways. Pacing, dialog, story structure— there’s so much to learn here!

Shout out to Jami Gold and Rachel Aaron who have been generous in sharing their knowledge with other writers.

Delivery is about getting your books to the people who will enjoy them. This element is about putting your work out into the world and convincing people to give your work a try. It also includes marketing skills like cover design, metadata, and how to build a mailing list. Ideally these activities will become an ordinary part of your work, and your week, but it will take some time to discover what works and what matters.

Writer, Teach Thyself

What I love about this model is that it’s non-sequential, meaning I can pick and choose activities from all four quadrants, based upon what seems relevant. Here’s what I’ve been up to the last couple months:

Fiercely guarding my writing time, even when it means turning down fun activities.
Honing my editorial skills, trying out a variety of editing software tools, and spending quality time with the Chicago Manual of Style.
Reading books and watching movies. (This hardly feels like work, but I have to ration my TV time carefully. Too much screen time means I’m not reading enough.)
Learning about story structure; and applying those lessons to my current project.
Learning about marketing elements like covers, blurbs, and metadata, and applying those to my finished projects.
Jotting down details of what I see, hear, and notice when I go someplace new, to hone my descriptive skills.

How It’s Going So Far

These practices have already changed my my writing quality, output, and attitude in positive ways.

My first surprise was this: most of this “work”; occurs when I’m not writing my novel. Sleep occurs at night, obviously. My morning pages take about thirty minutes upon rising. I read books and watch movies at night, like I always have, only now I do so with a sense of purpose because I’m studying instead of being passively entertained. Observational skills can be practiced anywhere, even in line at the grocery store. And the craft-work occurs as I need it. When I’m getting ready to tackle a piece of description, for example, I’ll do some reading on descriptive techniques before I start.

Right away, my writing process changed. I used to sit down at the computer and feel like I was climbing a tall mountain with my teeth. Now I sit down at my computer with a short list of things I want to accomplish, and I do those things.

Old me: I GOTTA WRITE 1500 WORDS TODAY OR I SUCK AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M GONNA SAY AAAAARRRGGGGHHH…

New me: Okay. Yesterday I sketched out the setting for this murder mystery, including the floor plan of the lodge. Today I’m going to put that information into a scene where my heroine arrives at the retreat. I have two goals for this scene. I want to describe the setting where the story will take place, and introduce CHARACTER as he welcomes the party to the lodge. This scene is part of the setup, meaning it should be descriptive but not too long.

Most importantly, I see a direct connection between my development activities and the quality of my writing time. When I sit down at the keyboard these days, I’m well rested. By the time I wrote that scene, I’d been thinking about it for a few days. When I saw some relevant detail I could use, as I went about my daily life, I jotted it down. All those little things add up, and they’ve made my writing time more productive and more enjoyable.

So far, so good! My word count per hour slowed down for a while, as I worked on my consistency and quality, but it’s starting to rise again. And I love knowing that I’m moving my story forward in concrete ways each time I work on it.

So far, so good! ☺️

What Kat Voyzey Taught Me

a manuscript rests on a table with a pen

Writing fiction is a strange and delightful process.

For me, a story begins when a character wanders into my head and demands my attention. Kat Voyzey arrived one winter while I was writing my masters thesis and stressing out about my decision to start a consulting business. I was way too busy to write a novel, but she wasn’t interested in my excuses. Kat told me that she was an HR Director, that a woman had been shot in the hospital where she worked, and that she got involved because the victim was being unfairly blamed for her own death. She was persistent and weird and she swore a lot. And even though I was too busy to give her much attention, she hung around for the decade it took for me to tell her story.

Kat was more than a protagonist. She was also one of my teachers.

What Kat Voyzey Taught Me

Completing my third novel feels like a graduation day of sorts, and in the absence of a hat to throw into the air I’ll settle for feeling giddy. In a way I feel like Kat and I have been walking the same road, figuring things out together. Kat went from being an incompetent sleuth to a becoming talented investigator. And I went from a clueless wannabe novelist to an author of three wonderful books.

Here are some things I learned along the way:

Write Your Own Story

When I wrote Involuntary Turnover, I was told by several early readers that Kat wasn’t relatable because she was childfree, non-religious, and she liked to swear. Feeling unsure of myself, I took that advice hard and tamped my character down. As a beginner writer, I lacked confidence, and I was really worried about screwing up.

I’ve revised that novel, now that I’ve got a bit more experience, and I’m happier with the results. One thing I’ve learned is that I don’t need a novel to appeal to all people. Some people will love a cussing, upbeat, irreverent protagonist. Others won’t, and that’s fine!

Twist the Tropes (But Don’t Reject Them)

I love a good puzzle, but many cozy mysteries are too cozy for my tastes. I don’t want cupcake recipes, or endless girl-talk, or the inevitable requirement that my sleuth fall in love with some sexy sheriff or FBI agent. Therefore I was determined to avoid writing those kinds of things into my stories.  My mysteries would stick to the crime, thank you very much.

But I was being naïve! Characters are people, and if you want them to be real they need to exist in an emotional world. Kat got her romantic subplot, and she was happier for it, despite my earliest intentions. In fact, if she were here, she’d be rolling her eyes and telling me she’s entitled to personal relationships, just like anyone else. But we managed to avoid the cliché aspects of the romantic subplot. Her guy wasn’t a member of law enforcement, he didn’t show up at the crime scenes, and he didn’t do that I’m the big strong manly man; thing that drives me batshit when I read it in other novels.

Use a Light Touch

I spent the month of December revising Involuntary Turnover to remove my of my beginner mistakes. And I laughed several times during that process because I made the murderer so freakin'; obvious! I mean, I practically walked over to the clues and wink-winked at the audience, out of fear I wasn’t being clear enough. I was such a noob.

There’s a balance between revealing too much and too little in a mystery novel. If the clues are entirely hidden, the reader may feel cheated because they never had a shot at figuring it out. And if the clues are too obvious, readers may get bored. And where’s the fun in that?  Over time, I’ve learned to trust my readers. I don’t need a flashing light stationed above every clue.

Throw More Rocks

Vladimir Nabokov once said: “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.” My first three novels are short, similar in length to a Hercule Poirot mystery, because I enjoy a murder-mystery you can finish in one sitting. Partly this was by design, but it’s also true that I wasn’t throwing enough rocks at my heroine.

While Death by Team Building is still a quick read, I did a better job at throwing rocks at Kat. And in future works, my pile of rocks will be bigger.  I’m ready to try some longer and more complex stories, having gotten a handle on the shorter ones.

There’s Magic Here!

I saved my favorite lesson for last. I’ve learned that creative writing is a strange process, full of the unexpected.

Characters walk into my head and tell me stories. I hear snippets of dialog when I walk down the street. And there are times when I’m writing a well-plotted scene and it goes an entirely different way than I had anticipated. That feeling of delight when you’re surprised in a story? It happens to writers during the process, and it’s the coolest and weirdest thing.

Here’s an example: At the end of book three, Kat makes a small discovery. And while that moment fit perfectly in the context of the series, it was as if I’d planned for it all along, I had no idea it was happening until it did. Imagine creating a story, then at the very end you discover something tiny and perfect, only you didn’t make it. It’s waiting for you, like a gift. Where do those things come from?

Magic, my friends.

Thanks for everything, Kat! I hope we get to adventure again, and soon.  And if you’re interested in a fun series of corporate murder-mysteries, check out Involuntary Turnover. It’s the first in the Kat Voyzey series and a great place to start.