The Importance of Reading Carefully

all the lightI goofed on Friday Fun when I didn’t read the question carefully, seeing only the headline, What One Book Would You Recommend? I didn’t see the fine print: it was supposed to be one book about writing.

I can heartily endorse Bird By Bird and If You Want To Write, recommended by my colleagues Diana and Jamie. I’m not familiar with Outwitting Writer’s Block and Other Problems of the Pen, Lisa’s recommendation, which I’ve added to my Must Read list.

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Diana’s recommendation

But I’m also going to stand by my recommendation, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s important for writers to read widely, and it’s especially important to read in the genre in which you write.

Reading others’ work helps you recognize what you like and don’t like, what you think works and what doesn’t.

outwitting

Lisa’s recommendation

Long ago, I heard a radio commentary I didn’t like. I thought, I can do better than that! So I tried. I’ve been a commentator for Vermont Public Radio ever since.

I’d like to think that people listen to what I have to say on the radio. While I hope that my commentaries initiate thoughtfulness about the issues I raise, I know that some listeners will not only disagree, but be inspired to write an even better commentary. Power to them!

Positive motivation is even better, which is why I’m inspired when I read a brilliant book.

Ueland cover

Jamie’s Recommendation

All The Light We Cannot See is such a book. I read it with awe and uninterrupted concentration in a single day. I remember being swept into the story by a riptide of language. (I’d give you an example if I had the book in front of me, but I returned it to the library.)

The story is set during the bombing of St. Malo in August of 1944. The details of the events are all so particular and so credible, I googled the event to see if it really happened. It did.

But the story also goes backward in time to the childhoods of the two main characters, one a German orphan destined to be a miner, and the other a blind French girl cared for by her loving father, a master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. The chapters alternate between the boy and the girl, and between the past and the days of the bombing.

There are two through lines as well: one is how the characters are connected by radio, and the other is how they are caught by a curse of a prized jewel.

Believe me, it all works.

As a writer of literary fiction, I found myself reading the book both for its story and to see exactly how Doerr ties these disparate lines together with such deft. It’s a book I’ll read again, just to study craft.

So in the end, I think my answer to Friday’s question is a good one: Any piece of writing that you loathe or love is worth inspecting and tearing apart to discover exactly what makes for exasperation or excellence.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning love story, Into the Wilderness.

Weekend Edition – Just Be Yourself. Yeah, Right. Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

The not-so-easy art of being yourself

pin who you wereBeing yourself is hard. Maybe you’re more evolved than I am, but I’m pretty sure that when it comes to who I am, I’m still figuring it out. I know I’m supposed to be a grown-up, but I still feel like an awkward kid half the time. I still have so many questions and doubts. I still feel like an unfinished story.

People say “just be yourself” as if it’s a simple matter. They mean well. They intend their words as reassurance or encouragement, but whenever I hear that bit of advice, it’s as if someone opened a trap door beneath my feet.  As I hurtle down into who-knows-what, my head echoes with the question, “But … who am I?”

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When I was in high school, I was what you might call a “floater.” I did not belong to any of the usual cliques. I wasn’t a jock or a brainiac, a drama geek or a teacher’s pet. I wasn’t a cheerleader or a goth chick, a troublemaker or a goody-goody. While part of me is grateful that I was able to avoid the noose of any particular label, another part of me recognizes the possibility that I just wasn’t willing to commit too heavily to being any one version of myself.

Even now, almost three decades later, I still feel a sense of fracture in my identity. This isn’t unusual. Most of us live multiple lives that are defined by the many different roles we play – child, parent, spouse, friend, lover, worker, boss, artist. The situation becomes exponentially more complex as we layer on other aspects of the self – nationality and ethnicity, political and religious leanings, financial and social standing, etc.

And then there’s the fact that we are always changing. New experiences and perspectives change how we perceive and feel about the world and ourselves. We learn and adapt and evolve. We try new things. We change our minds. We change our style. We change our lives. We change who we are.

I just listened to a passage in Buddhism for Busy People that explained how our bodies are constantly regenerating so that every seven years or so, we are – in essence – an entirely new person. Perhaps that idea is what inspired the concept of the “seven year itch.” It certainly inspired one inmate to petition the courts for release after serving only seven years of a much longer sentence on the grounds that he was, literally, no longer the person he was when he was incarcerated.

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I have always thought of myself as a kind of chameleon, subtly changing myself to match my environment. I admit, with some amount of self-reproach, that I am generally a people pleaser. It’s not that I present myself falsely. It’s more that I present myself in pieces, only showing the parts that are relevant and acceptable while keeping other bits to myself. While this approach to dealing with people is an excellent one for minimizing conflict, it’s not necessarily a great personality trait for a writer.

As writers, we depend on the courage of our convictions. Our beliefs and the identity they create are not only fuel for our work, they are also the source of our writer’s “voice.” As E.B. White said, “Writing is both mask and unveiling.” Even if we craft fictional stories, they still – if they are good stories – contain elements of truth, and those truths spring from our identity – from who we are.

This is why learning to “be yourself” is so important to a writer, to any artist. Knowing who you (really) are is the mandatory first step to developing your writer’s voice.

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Because we work so hard to develop our characters and are also trying to hone our writer’s voice, we writers usually have more angst than the average bear about personal and artistic identity. For many of us, writing is more than a profession or even a vocation. It is part of who we are and a large part of how we interface with the world. Having our work rejected cuts us as deeply as it does because, on some level, the work is an extension of who we are.

This connection between self and art creates a challenge in a marketplace that expects consistency and continuity. The public does not always want artists to “be themselves.” In fact, the public is often outraged if a writer who is known for one thing tries to be something else. Take the case of J.K. Rowling, for instance. Loved around the world for her Harry Potter series, she was initially widely ridiculed for her work under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. But, whether the books she’s written under that moniker are good or bad interests me less than the fact that she felt the need to publish any non-Potter writing under a pen name.

Why isn’t Rowling allowed to be a whole person, instead of *just* the author of the Harry Potter series?

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I think that many writers hold back for fear of being pigeon-holed. We sense the threat of permanence that hovers menacingly at the edges of success. Once we have become known for any one piece of work, we realize we will be expected to deliver more of the same. It comes back to that question of commitment – are you willing to commit wholly to any one kind of story, or even – as in Rowling’s case – one particular story?

The rub, of course, is that in saying “yes” to one thing – one self, one voice – you risk saying “no” to something else.

Most artists, writers included, are – once they have achieved some level of success – almost forced to work within constraints defined by their “public.” Though paparazzi and fans might fawn all over a celebrity, they do not really love her as a person. They love the idea of her and what she represents. If she steps outside the boundaries of their expectations, the fans can turn on her and feel justified in doing so because, to them, she has violated a trust … just by being herself.

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My personal concerns about how I define myself and develop my writer’s voice exist on a much smaller scale than those of a global celebrity, but they still exist. The conflicts in my world are not dramatic, but they still pose a challenge in terms of how I see myself and how I present myself and my work to the world. For instance, I make my living as a content marketer for business-to-business companies, but I am also an essayist here on the blog, a columnist for my local paper, and an aspiring fiction writer. Just the simple act of choosing which articles to post on Twitter (business & marketing vs. writing and art) can start my head spinning.

Sure, I could split my identity into its component parts and create separate personas to address each audience, but I don’t like the idea of perpetuating this division of self. Even when I am “being” a content marketer, I am still a lover of fantasy fiction. And when I am “being” a columnist or a blogger, I might be thoughtful one day and funny the next, gently exploring a topic in one piece and taking an adamant stand against some injustice in another. There are many facets to who I am as a person, and also to who I am as a writer. Though I understand that some facets will shine brighter than others in certain situations, I do not want to have to shroud the others.

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People often talk about “sacrificing for your art.” Usually, they are referring to an artist who gives up wealth, ease, peer acceptance, or a relationship. But, there is also a less recognized risk of inadvertently carving away pieces of yourself so that you can, ironically, live up to other people’s expectations about who you are – as an artist/writer and also as a human being.

Hanging on to your true identity is hard. First you have to discover who you are, and then you have to learn to inhabit that identity fully, wholly, and without inhibitions. Starting with first things first, look for clues about who you are by noticing what makes you laugh, what makes you cry, and what makes you furious.  Pay attention to who and what you make time for in your life – these are the people and things that matter to you most. Notice what spurs you to action, what compels you to get involved.

Be careful of labels. Try to rid your mind of all preconceived notions. Don’t get fooled into thinking that if you are one thing, you can’t be another. Go ahead and create your own crazy combinations. This is the art of being you. The rules were made to be broken. Know that the person you are today is different from the person were ten years ago, five years ago, yesterday. Don’t let that worry you. Change and growth are natural. Nothing stays the same for long, and you are no exception to that rule.

Maybe that’s the trick to “being yourself” with ease – simply letting go of any expectations and acknowledging that this question of identity is one that can never be definitively answered because the question is a moving target with an ever-changing set of variables. “Being yourself” becomes, then, not a destination, but a journey – an adventure with an unknown ending. I guess we are each of us, after all, an unfinished story. And that’s just as it should be.

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What I’m {Learning About} Writing:

risk graffitiAlthough I have been a busy, little B2B content marketer lately, and my personal writing time down to a nub (I seriously need to take some of my own advice about how to make time for writing) I still have my bi-weekly column deadline to keep my creative writing muscles flexing. This past week, I published a fun piece about the evils of clutter. Like many of my columns, I tried to fuse a little storytelling with a little humor and a dash of introspection. I was pretty happy with it, until I read my fellow columnist’s piece.

My fellow columnist is more of a traditional, op-ed style columnist. He’s also a bold humorist. The piece he wrote this week was a brazen condemnation of a local developer and the planning board that allows his irresponsible building projects. It was funny. It was entertaining. And it also very effectively addressed a real problem. It reminded me of the work that Jon Stewart did on The Daily Show (an compliment I don’t toss around lightly … I adore Steward).

While my column was “nice,” it lacked the “punch” of the piece on the ill-reputed developer, and the contrast between the two got me thinking about whether and how I should take more risks in my writing. Risks require commitment. They demand that we are audacious – speaking our minds, being unapologetically ourselves.

I do not yet know how this line of thinking will develop, but I’m interested to find out.

Have you ever taken a risk in your writing? What made you do it? How did it turn out?

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What I’m Reading:

bk one only ivanLife has been a little extra hectic lately, and when life gets too crazy I tend to seek out a good children’s book for comfort. After finishing Alice Hoffman’s magical and romantic The Nightbird last week, I turned to Katherine Applegate’s story of friendship, art, and hope – The One and Only Ivan. As it turned out, this was one of those “children’s” books that holds a great deal for readers of any age.

Here’s the description from Applegate’s website:

Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.

Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line.

Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.

The story is told in the first person from Ivan’s point of view. The chapters are short and the style of Ivan’s delivery is very straightforward. As he explains early on, gorillas are all about brevity when it comes to how they use words.

On the surface, the story is about the plight of the animals at a roadside attraction, but just below that narrative there are deeper veins of meaning. Applegate deftly addresses the horrors of poaching (a topic that has been in the news a lot lately after the tragic murder of Cecil the lion), the mysteries of the creative process, the idea of freedom, the value of family, the weight of a promise, and so much more. Through the experience of her ape protagonist, she makes many astute observations about human nature.

This is a book that manages to expose some of life’s deepest tragedies and some of humanity’s ugliest tendencies, but still gives you a tangible sense of hope and joy. As a writer, it inspired me because of Applegate’s artistry, and also because of the messages in the story about the importance of art in our lives.

You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy this book, and I highly recommend it for an afternoon’s read.

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from the past couple of weeks:

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Finally, a quote for the week:

… because we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously …

pin be a unicorn

Here’s to knowing who you are and holding onto that even while you enjoy the journey to the next iteration of yourself. 
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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Risk Graffiti Photo Credit: greenhem via Compfight cc

DNF a Book

Vintage Books copyright Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon

© Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon

DNF

I remember the first time I saw the acronym in a Twitter conversation between an editor and an author. I politely intruded to ask what it meant.

Did. Not. Finish.

What? Read a book and not finish it? Back then, I had a hard time wrapping my brain around the concept. I was fairly new to the romance genre at the time and was thoroughly enjoying everything I was reading. Prior to that, my love of reading had taken a back seat to my life as a working mom and a visually impaired person who struggled to read small print. Then came the Kindle and my reading addiction kicked into high gear. Not finish a book? Perish the thought! These days I’m an avid reader and more than one book has moved to my DNF list. In the last six months, I’ve had two solid DNFs and a few books that I’ve set aside to come back to with a fresh perspective.

Making the decision not to finish a book does not come easily to me. As a writer, I know the author has poured their heart and soul into the creation of the story. I really want to respect their efforts, but if I’m halfway through a book and every time a main character appears on the page, I want to slap him or her, it’s probably better for me to put the book down.

I should clarify that I’ve completed books that have made me angry. It’s not a different perspective that makes me put a book down, it is usually characters that whine or plot lines that are clichéd or make no sense to me that make me want to throw my Kindle across the room.

When I looked at the titles I put down, there’s no rhyme or reason. There were books by traditionally published authors, and by indies, books by established authors and newbies alike. I haven’t finished books from authors that I’ve read before and authors that are new to me. As a writer this diversity interests me. I’ll admit, I’m much more likely to give an author I’ve read before a another chance after a DNF as opposed to a new-to-me author. I have to remind myself that you can’t please everyone all the time and the book I chose from a new-to-me author might just have been a blip on the backlist. I try hard to really give a book a fair shake. Before I put it down, I will usually come back to a book once or twice before I finally say enough is enough, I’m not finishing this one.

Most of my book recommendations come from trusted sources on Twitter. In general, when I buy books, I don’t look at reviews. I might look at how many stars a book has, but I typically read the description and if that appeals, I’ll download a sample. If I like the sample, I’ll buy the book. if I REALLY like the book, I’ll write a review.

If I do abandon a book THEN I will check out the reviews. Most of the time, others have encountered the same frustrations I have with a story. That always makes me feel better “Whew, it’s not just me.” Without fail a book that has driven me crazy, makes someone else deliriously happy. This phenomena actually makes me happy. I truly appreciate that there are different strokes for different folks. It gives me hope that when I finish my novel and when it gets published (power of positive thinking FTW), there will be people who hate my story, but hopefully there will be people who love it too.

I always feel crazy guilty when I don’t finish a book, (thus the multiple attempts), but I have to remind myself that just like life is too short to drink bad rum, it’s too short to waste time on books that frustrate me.

Sometimes I will FORCE myself to finish a book, but when I do that it is a conscious decision. I have a pad of paper beside me and I’m taking notes on what I think the author did wrong or the things about the story that were making me nuts. Thus making my torture an educational experience.

Do you finish all the books you start?

Do you finish most of what you start?


Lee Laughlin is a writer, wife, and mom, frequently all of those things at once. You can find her on Twitter @Fearless. She blogs at Livefearlesslee.com and she is a regular contributor to the Concord Monitor. Her words have also appeared in a broad range of publications from community newspapers to the Boston Globe. She is currently working on her first novel, a work of contemporary, romantic fiction.

Weekend Edition – Storyteller vs. Writer plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

Storyteller vs. Writer

“Storyteller” (Anker Grossvater, 1884)

“Storyteller” (Anker Grossvater, 1884)

I’m terrible at telling jokes.

I’m so bad at it, that I have pretty much sworn off even trying. The pressure makes my stomach turn. I’m always afraid that I’m going to fumble the set-up or flub the punchline, and there are few things more sad and pathetic than a joke-gone-wrong. I picture failed jokes as deflated balloons, rumpled and saggy, looking up at me from the pavement with sad, slightly reproachful eyes.

Perhaps in part because of this personal shortcoming, I’ve always especially admired people who can tell a joke or a story well. You know the people I mean – the people who can capture and hold the interest of an entire table full of diners or room full of houseguests, the people who seem able to turn the most mundane happening into a tale of epic hilarity or deep insight. Yeah, those people. Those people impress the hell out of me.

A recent encounter with such a person got me thinking about the secrets of great storytellers. Whether the material is a sixty-second joke or a fifteen-minute anecdote, great storytellers know how to craft and perform a story in a way that keeps people interested and entertained. They understand the dynamics of narrative, pacing, and tension. They know how to set up a reveal, how to pick the details that make a difference, and how to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. They understand that a story is a promise, and they know how to come through with the payoff.

Thinking about all this, I started to wonder whether there’s a difference between a “storyteller” and a “writer.”

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A quick scan of the “storyteller vs. writer” search results on Google made it clear that, by general consensus, there is definitely a difference. Sadly for the storytellers of the world, they seem to come up a little short by comparison with their more elite writer counterparts:

storyteller vs writer

According to the “experts” (aka anyone who decided to post about this apparent rivalry), storytellers are a vastly inferior breed compared to writers. Writers are portrayed as serious, erudite creatures capable of more cerebral pursuits, such as using the words erudite and cerebral. They make important contributions to the craft and elevate our minds out of the gutters of pop culture. Storytellers, on the other hand, are depicted as a garrulous bunch of untalented hacks, barely a step above monkeys with typewriters. They revel in the gutters of pop culture.

Writers are deemed responsible for the “classics,” anything your high school English teacher made you read, and anything Oprah recommended for her illustrious book club.  The authors behind blockbuster books like the Twilight series, Game of Thrones, and even The DaVinci Code are labeled “storytellers.” I have a feeling that, though none of the essays I read came right out and said it, almost any genre book – mystery, romance, fantasy, so-called chick lit, etc. – would be unceremoniously shuffled into the storyteller category.

This overwhelming prejudice against storytelling as an art form left me feeling conflicted. As a “writer” (though I hesitate to use the word, given the enormous weight of its apparent meaning), I strive to master the literary craft in all its varied nuance. From classic story structure to beautiful prose, from genius metaphors to deft characterization, I am fascinated and inspired by all things writerly. But, I also love a story that grabs me as a reader, a story that pulls me along so that I’m turning pages as fast as I can to find out what happens next. So, I have to wonder, which camp do I fall into, and – more importantly – which camp do I want to be in?

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Would J.K. Rowling be called a writer or a storyteller? I’d put my money on storyteller any day of the week, and I wouldn’t mean it as a put down. Though Rowling may not have ascended to any peaks of literary greatness, she told a great story that captured the imagination of an entire generation (and then some!). Her books touched millions and millions of lives, inspiring and encouraging kids (and, yes, adults, too) all around the world, teaching them about friendship, courage, and loyalty. She may not have earned the accolades of elite literary critics, but does that really matter? I think not.

And that is the central flaw in the storyteller vs. writer debate. Storytellers and writers care about very different things. They have very different goals, and should not, therefore, be judged by the same criteria. As far as I can tell, writers are more focused on creating art while storytellers are more focused on connecting with their audience. Writers worry more about style and about pushing the boundaries of the craft. Storytellers are more interested in evoking a response from the audience.

I intentionally use the word “audience” instead of “readers” in relation to storytellers. While writers may claim a venerable heritage that reaches back to Shakespeare, Homer, and other legendary poets and authors, storytellers have their own impressive lineage. The ancient Greeks were renowned storytellers in the oral tradition, as were many other indigenous races around the world from the tribes of Africa to the peasants of early European settlements to the Native Americans who carried their stories with them across the Great Plains, generation after generation.

Today, many wonderful storytellers have put a contemporary twist on the oral tradition. Slam poets are intense and visceral storytellers. The people who share their stories via The Moth stage and the TED series bring their experiences to life in ways that connect deeply with their audience and listeners of the related podcasts. Come to that, comedians are skilled storytellers, regaling us with funny stories that may seem, at first glance, to be unrelated, but which are often all pieces of a beautifully organized system that revolves around a central theme. Take Mike Birbiglia’s touching and laugh-out-loud funny show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. I watched this on a whim one night, and came away wanting to immediately watch it again so I could pull it apart and see how he did what he did – wrapping up a sweet story about love and redemption in a series of silly stories (silly, but well told). Seriously impressive. More impressive, in my humble opinion, than many of the much-lauded literary works I’ve read.

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I suppose it’s only human nature that even after my ever-so-brief exploration of the storyteller vs. writer question that my mind would leap to, “Why can’t I be both?”

Why not?

I haven’t found an official Board of Storyteller/Writer Judgment to confer with on this matter, but I did come across a 2014 “World’s Greatest Storytellers” survey by Raconteur which ranks authors from Homer to Rowling. Interestingly, the six authors that survey respondents voted as the top six storytellers of all time included a fairly even mix of people who would be on opposite sides of the storyteller/writer line. I think there are probably quite a few authors out there who have already achieved the feat of combining great writing with great storytelling. Neil Gaiman is one name that comes to mind. Salman Rushdie is another. Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, and Margaret Atwood also seem to fit the bill. Though some may disagree, I also think that Ursula Le Guin deserves respect from fans of both story and literature.

I suppose the question to ask yourself (if you’re concerned about which camp you fall into) is, “What are my goals?” Where do your interests fall on the spectrum from pure entertainment to highbrow literature? What do you like to read, and what does that say about where your loyalties really lie? If you think you want to be the next Charles Dickens, but you mostly enjoy reading pulp fiction thrillers, your goals may not be aligned with your true passion.

And maybe you don’t even have to choose, at least not consciously. Maybe your path, whether towards being a storyteller or a writer, will emerge naturally based your on spontaneous tendencies as a creator. And maybe you’ll be able to find your own way of combining excellent craft with strong story in a way that sweeps your reader audience off their feet. Yeah. That sounds good. Let’s go with that.

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What I’m [Not] Writing – The Missing Pages in My Morning Journal:

morning pgsLife and a slew of deadlines have kept me from doing much writing outside of my client work and my bi-weekly column for the local paper. In fact, I just scanned my Google Calendar, and it’s been ten long weeks since I’ve regularly done my usual morning pages journaling. I had no idea it had been so long. I’m kind of bummed out now.

On the bright side, discovering this gap in my practice explains a lot. As I’ve alluded to in recent weekend edition posts, life has been a little extra stressful lately. Though good things are happening, for a while there I was feeling a bit unmoored, overwhelmed, and scattered. Those feelings make a lot more sense now that I realize I haven’t been taking those precious twenty minutes at the start of my day to indulge in writing three free-form pages. Simple as it sounds, Julia Cameron’s foundational writing practice makes a huge and important difference for me, not only creatively, but also in terms of my mindset, outlook, and general sense of well being.

Starting Monday, I’m getting back up on that horse.

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What I’m Reading: Buddhism for Busy People by David Michie

bk buddhism busy peopleBusy as I’ve been, I haven’t had much time for leisure reading, but I have been enjoying the audio book version of David Michie’s Buddhism for Busy People. I’m a little more than halfway through the listen, and am really enjoying Michie’s down-to-earth approach as narrated by Nicholas Bell, a voice artist whose British accent brings a certain oh-that’s-all-right-then quality to the text.

Though I have never formally studied Buddhism, I do have a few other books in my collection, including my beloved and much thumbed through Pocket Pema Chodron. Michie’s book is written very much for the curious and uninitiated. It provides an overview of Buddhist teachings in the context of the author’s real-life experience as he embarked on his own journey of discovery and study.

Whether you are interested in Buddhism, or just looking for a respite from the overwhelm and chaos of life in the twenty-first century, this book has much to offer in the way of comfort, sanity, and humor.

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And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

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Finally, a quote for the week:

Technically this is a quote of Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in the movie Saving Mr. Banks.

Technically this is a quote of Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in the movie Saving Mr. Banks.

As always, thanks for being here and sharing a little piece of your weekend with me. Here’s to the storytellers and the writers – we need them both, each and every one of them. 
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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Overlapping Timelines – An Interview with Lauren Dane

New York Times Best Selling Author Lauren DaneI’m a huge fan of author Lauren Dane’s books. She creates characters that are strong, but flawed and she never shies away from a challenge. In her latest series for Harlequin, Dane writes about the Hurley brothers, members of the super successful alt rock band Sweet Hollow Ranch. We met Damien Hurley in Lush, as Dane was working on that story, Damien’s brothers showed up. She fell in love with them and knew they needed their own stories. Paddy, Ezra and Vaughn all get their due in The Hurley Boys series. In the first book, Best Kind of Trouble, Paddy meets his one and only, Natalie. Ezra and Tuesday’s story is told in Broken Open and Vaughn and Kelly get their second happily ever after in Back to You.

The books can be read as stand alone stories, but readers of the series get an added benefit. The second and third books have overlapping timelines. As a reader, I found the hints of Kelly and Vaughn’s story in Tuesday and Ezra’s story were enough to make it interesting and whet my appetite, but not so much as to be distracting. When I finally got to read Kelly & Vaughn’s book. It was fun to view events in the story from a different perspective and it never felt repetitive.

As a writer, I read these stories and marveled and all that it took to effectively pull off overlapping timelines. I reached out to Lauren Dane and asked if she’d talk to me about the process of writing these books and their overlapping timelines and she was gracious enough to oblige.

The Cover of Broken Open by Lauren DaneI asked her how the overlapping timelines came about. “Here’s the thing. I did not plan to do that at first. As I was writing [Broken Open] I realized I had totally backed myself into a corner.” Towards the end of Tuesday and Ezra’s story, there is a family medical emergency that perfectly sets up the beginning of Kelly and Vaughn’s second chance. “It’s kind of a pain, but I like how out it turned out in the end. It wasn’t something I planned on. It was just something that happened when I was writing Broken Open and I thought ‘Ok, well, I’m in’. ”

Challenges of writing overlapping timelines

Dane talked with me about two of the challenges she encountered while writing the last two books of the Hurley Boys Series.

The first challenge was staying true to the characters of both the stories without giving away too much of the final story. “The main challenge when you are writing romance is you want to focus on what is happening between your main characters. So the main couple is going through this stuff and normally, given the dynamic between these brothers, they would talk with one another and the reader would know because Vaughn [younger brother] would have gone to Ezra [oldest brother]. I had to figure out how I could keep that communication between the brothers open which was a natural thing and who these characters were, but not give the reader all this information that would render the third book unnecessary.”

The second challenge was maintaining a sense of suspense for the second story. “I mean it’s romance so you know there’s going to be a happily-ever-after but [the reader has] to be unsure of how that’s going to happen. [The reader has] to be going along with those characters and really believing their metamorphosis as a character over the arc of the book.”

What to think about when writing overlapping timelines

The cover of Lauren Dane's Back to YouIt’s worth noting, that the overlapping timelines impacted more than just the brothers’ stories, two of the heroines decided they wanted to be friends, so she had to carefully manage their interactions too! To manage the flow of information to the reader, Dane kept lots of notes of information that had to be shared. “I had a whole lot of notes about things that I couldn’t leave out. Trying to managing all that stuff, I thought ‘ugh I’ve just given myself a huge problem’ but I think it all worked out.” She has developed a special fondness for sticky notes.

The other thing she did was carefully manage the point of view from which a scene was told. She really had to analyze for which character the scene was most important. “I thought, oh she would have said more, but then I thought, well, Kelly can’t say more because she needs to have this conversation in the next book because it is important in her point of view.” Sometimes she’d be going along and realize “This bit of information that we glean here isn’t really necessary until later.” Out would come another sticky note.

“Would you do it again? I asked. “If I did do it again, it would be more purposeful from the beginning. I always say that but I’m kind of a pantser so a lot of the meat of my stories and who these characters are doesn’t come to me until I’m writing and so this is why I get into these situations, so then I think well, it has to be this way.” She thinks it’s possible that if she had thought through the overlapping timelines at the beginning, she might have psyched herself out and written it differently.

Thanks to Lauren Dane for taking time between deadlines and prepping for the Romance Writer’s of America National Conference to talk with me and answer my questions. The Hurley Boys series is available in print and ebook and on sale at all major retailers. To learn more about Lauren Dane and her books visit her website www.laurendane.com, follow her on Twitter @LaurenDane or visit www.facebook.com/authorLaurenDane.

As a reader how do you feel about overlapping timelines? As a writer have you ever written overlapping timelines? Would you?


Lee Laughlin is a writer, wife, and mom, frequently all of those things at once. You can find her on Twitter @Fearless. She blogs at Livefearlesslee.com and she is a regular contributor to the Concord Monitor. Her words have also appeared in a broad range of publications from community newspapers to the Boston Globe. She is currently working on her first novel, a work of contemporary, romantic fiction.

Weekend Edition – An Infinity of Stories

Our Bodies May Be Made of Stardust, But Our Souls Are Made of Stories

made of starsWhen you look into the space between the stars it may at first appear empty, just a void of darkness between bright points of light. But you keep staring, and you realize that the space is actually filled with a subtle, cosmic light that vibrates and shivers at the edge of perception. And then, staring down the barrel of infinity, you catch a moment of clarity that allows you to see – if only for a fraction of a second – that this pale luminescence is actually made up of innumerable, individual pin pricks of light.

Life is kind of like that.

It’s easy to see the stars. Whether they are twinkling joyously, or flaring across the sky in the death spiral of a meteor or comet, they are clear markers in the vast possibility of the universe – bold as day, in plain sight. They form the constellations of our lives – the shapes that tell our stories. These are the parts of our personal universe that are easy to identify and name. There is Virgo and Ursa Major and Artemis/Diana. You are a woman and a mother and a writer.

But what about the spaces between these visible aspects of your life? What about the countless moments, experiences, and thoughts that span the gaps between the stars? Perhaps it is here, in these gently glowing shadows, that you will find the stories only you can tell.

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Writing helps us feel our way into the undefined place where there are no recognizable signposts to illuminate our way. At first, we may leap from star to star, as if they were stepping stones across the sky. “Safe” above the depths, our words and stories only skim the surface of the sparkling darkness that lies beneath us. And then, one day – either intentionally, or because we lose our balance – we dip our toes into the unknown, and it changes us.

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Although, on close examination, the celestial landscape appears to be a continuous expanse of wall-to-wall stars, there are actually vast expanses of space between even the most intimate of cosmic neighbors. Proxima Centauri, the star nearest to us, is 4.22 light years (39,900,000,000,000 km) away. Distances can be deceiving.

As it is with the stars, so it is with us. Though we exist side-by-side physically, emotional and intellectual distances lie between us that are as real and immense as the interstellar spaces between stars. But, in the same way that light travels across the darkness to connect one star to another, so stories travel through emotional space and across time to connect one human being to another.

··• )o( •··

Darkness is scary. The uncertain and unfamiliar are scary. But we have the steadfast stars to guide us, friendly points of light that shine out, an invitation to connect with someone else’s world. Stars and stories both serve to remind us that we are not alone in the Universe. We see the light, and we make contact. Eventually, we might find the courage to hold hands and jump together into the seemingly blank spaces, only to discover that we emerge covered in stardust, glittering in the night.

That is the magic of stories. They are beacons in space and time, in hearts and minds, reaching out across indefinable distances to create unique worlds that bring us together in moments of connection and recognition. I am here. I see you. We are alike. We are different. This is my light. This is my darkness. This is my experience. Tell me yours.

··• )o( •··

Look up into the heavens. Marvel at the beauty and majesty of the ancient lights that dwell there, some only memories – long gone, still burning in the night sky. Look harder. Look closer. Look between and beyond and see how much more there is to witness. Sense the infinity of stars and the infinity of stories. Be humbled before the vastness of the distance between the cosmic once upon a time and this moment. Feel small and vulnerable and insignificant. And then remember that you are made of stars and stories. You are made of magic.

universe stories

∞ ♥ ∞

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To my regular weekend edition readers, I apologize that I’m posting so late and that I’m not sharing anything about what I’m reading, writing, or discovering on the web this week. This past month has been particularly busy for me (for which I’m grateful), and then last night I was confronted with an unfortunate bit of drama in my personal life. We are all fine, but I find that today this is all I have in me.  Real writers. Real life. That’s what this blog is about. Sending hugs out to each of you – from my star to yours. Thank you for always being such caring, creative, and fun people. You make all that we do here so worthwhile.
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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Friday Fun – Summer Reading List (What’s on Yours?)

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: Each year around this time, as the longer days of summer beckon with the promise of afternoons on the beach or in the hammock immersed in a good book, we start to compile our list of summer reads. Which books are on your list this year, and – for bonus points – what are the attributes of a perfect summer read?

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson: I don’t have any particular books in mind to read (yet), but my idea of summer reads are those that I can devour in a couple of hours and move on to the next book. Historical romance falls into that character, or quirky fun books like Janet Evanovich’s. Now having said that, I’m on vacation this week and plan to finish Idyll Threats by Stephanie Gayle and Death Troupe by Vincent H. O’Neil!

hennrikus-web2Julie Hennrikus: My summer reading list is also New England Crime Bake homework. I am going to be interviewing Elizabeth George, and need to reread her books. I am also planning on catching up on friends’ mysteries. I’d love a good “can’t put it down” book for vacation, and am more thank open to suggestions!

SuddenlyJamie AvatarJamie Wallace: Oh, summer! You tease me with visions of long afternoons stretched out on the beach or the deck, book in hand, mind miles away in the throes of a good tale. Lately, I’ve found my summers to be just as chaotic (perhaps more so) than the rest of the year, so these lovely expectations do not often come to fruition. However, a girl can dream, right? Of course! SO, with that in mind, here are a few books that are on my radar for the summer:

bk viciousBecause I recently read (and loved!) her most recent novel, A Darker Shade of Magic, I am really looking forward to reading Victoria Schwab’s earlier work, Vicious. Hoping it’ll hold me over until the second book in the Darker Shade of Magic series comes out next February. Here’s the blurb for Vicious from Goodreads:

Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong. Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?

bk grace keepers illusI am also excited about a book called The Grace Keepers by Kirsty Logan. I heard about this book from the lovely Jen Campbell, whose blog, This is Not the Six Word Novel, is a fabulous resource for good reads of all kinds. This sounds to me like the kind of book that will take you away to another world, but one that seems to real you end up lbelieving you could really go there. We’ll see. Here’s the blurb for The Grace Keepers from Goodreads:

As a Gracekeeper, Callanish administers shoreside burials, laying the dead to their final resting place deep in the depths of the ocean. Alone on her island, she has exiled herself to a life of tending watery graves as penance for a long-ago mistake that still haunts her. Meanwhile, North works as a circus performer with the Excalibur, a floating troupe of acrobats, clowns, dancers, and trainers who sail from one archipelago to the next, entertaining in exchange for sustenance.

In a world divided between those inhabiting the mainland (“landlockers”) and those who float on the sea (“damplings”), loneliness has become a way of life for North and Callanish, until a sudden storm offshore brings change to both their lives–offering them a new understanding of the world they live in and the consequences of the past, while restoring hope in an unexpected future.

Inspired in part by Scottish myths and fairytales, The Gracekeepers tells a modern story of an irreparably changed world: one that harbors the same isolation and sadness, but also joys and marvels of our own age.

And, while I’m at it, Logan’s collection of fairytales, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales, also sounds fabulous.

bk wave in the mindFinally, on the nonfiction side, I’m a huge fan of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels, short stories, and essays, so I know I’m going to enjoy her collection, The Wave in the Mind: Talks & Essays on the Writer, the Reader & the Imagination. Once again, the blurb from Goodreads:

Join Ursula K. Le Guin as she explores a broad array of subjects, ranging from Tolstoy, Twain, and Tolkien to women’s shoes, beauty, and family life. With her customary wit, intelligence, and literary craftsmanmship, she offers a diverse and highly engaging set of readings. The Wave in the Mindincludes some of Le Guin’s finest literary criticism, rare autobiographical writings, performance art pieces, and, most centrally, her reflections on the arts of writing and reading.

I do hope this summer holds time enough to read more than three books, but these three are definitely at the top of my list. Looking forward to hearing what everyone else is reading this summer!

Diane MacKinnon: I don’t have a summer reading list but I do have a stack of books in my office waiting to be read. I was lucky enough to meet Robin Cook a couple of years ago at Crime Bake, and I bought his newest book, called Nano. When I caught sight of it the other day, I immediately added it to my pile of things to take camping with me this weekend.

photo by M. Shafer

photo by M. Shafer

MindfulCarnivore

Deborah Lee Luskin: One of the fun things about a summer is the freedom to not know what I’ll read next. That said, for work I’m reading Northern Woodlands magazine,  The Mindful Carnivore and Girl Hunter. I’d welcome any suggestions for great narratives about fishing,  hunting, and living in the landscape – particularly in the northeast.