Friday, August 26, 2016

There is No Magic Hour, Anymore

My secret desire is to live alone, not in desolation, just by myself. I have this idea that all the people around me and my obligations are one gigantic creativity buzzkill. This is a complicated fantasy for someone like me, a writer with a family. How is it possible to love people and also wish they would just disappear?

These are complicated emotions, and I often manage them badly. As hard as it is for me to find time to create in the middle of family life, I have to remember that it has to be just as hard on my family to live with someone who really likes to shut the door and make believe all by himself.

My particular struggle to find solitude doesn’t come from an imagined possible Eden. For me it comes from a real time that is now half a lifetime away. In my early twenties, I spent a winter working at a summer camp on Orcas Island in the Puget Sound. In exchange for writing a training manual for their environmental education staff I was given a small stipend and allowed to live rent-free in a small cabin one hundred yards from the high tide line. That arrangement gave me the security of a place to live, minimal responsibilities and an unparalleled natural environment. And it is where I began learning to be a writer.

Those five months were one the most deeply satisfying times in my life, but now I sort of wish it had never happened. It gave me a taste for solitude that has not been part of my life since.
That rich, monastic winter transitioned to spring, and my seclusion gave way to people: spring staff, school kids, then to summer staff and summer campers. After that I left the island and went off to graduate school where there were more people, classes, and students. I got a new job, friends, a television, a VCR, and cable. By the end of my PhD, I’d become a cancer survivor, met a woman, fell in love, and got married. I took a teaching job; we had a daughter, then a son. My wife launched her career as an art teacher. I published two books and earned tenure. We had a second son, and somewhere in the that hailstorm of abundance, I stopped writing.

I just quit, fizzled, ran out of gas.

This wasn’t because I hated writing or for lack of success. It happened because I was looking for the lost mine of peace and quiet, which I never found. I was also looking for an equally elusive “room of my own.” My old study had become a kid’s room years earlier. In addition to all of that, I was looking for a sliver of time when nobody was trying to tell me about Minecraft. I thought I might find that time in the darkness before dawn, but my boys are morning people and once someone is awake, so are they. I tried to find that alone time late at night, but my wife and daughter are night owls. So, somewhere in the midst of that quest, I threw in the towel, snuggled in with everyone on the couch, and watched television.


The years went by. When I finally came back to my writing, I realized that the stories I’d abandoned were so old, none of the characters had cell phones. The world had changed so much, I had to rewrite everything. I felt like I’d awakened from a slumber into a changed world, maybe like Rip Van Winkle or Captain America, but actually it was more like Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead waking up in a devastated hospital full of zombies.

Every writer I know who has chosen to be part of a family scrapes their writing time out of the couch like so much lost change. The anxiety people have about it is tremendous. If we could put all that energy into the grid, we could keep the lights on in a lot of houses. Getting the habit back was like every single training montage you’ve ever seen in a movie. I didn’t come back to writing with grace or flow. My return was coarse and halting.

I love my family dearly, but the sad truth of things is family life attacks creative work like white blood cells going after an infection. Writers need strategies to keep going. I did, for sure, but I don’t know that there is any one set of strategies that will help. But I’d like to offer a few things that helped me climb out of that ditch and learn how to write again.

Years ago I read an article about Wynton Marsalis. The interviewer was invited to the Marsalis’s apartment, which he found full of kids, the friends of kids, and extended family. Everyone was watching football, getting stuff out of the fridge, talking, and in the eye of that hurricane, Marsalis sat at the piano composing a song with unbroken concentration. When the interviewer asked him how he did it, Marsalis said he just had to, or he’d never get anything done.

That story was the beginning of my new habit. I am not as strong as Mr. Marsalis. My secret weapon isn’t willpower, it’s noise-cancelling headphones, and buying a new house with rooms in which everyone can do their thing.

Recently, I was giving a workshop and a reading at a high school writing conference in Colorado. The students asked me all the standard questions about how I write. I think everyone wonders if there’s not some trick. This is what I told those earnest, hopeful kids. I realize now how lame it must have sounded.


  • You’ve got to be with someone who gets what you’re doing. Solitude is nice, but you can’t sustain it, so find someone who is cool with what you do. I am lucky on that account.
  • When it is time to write, breathe in and out seven times and begin. Don’t wait for the muses. Don’t wait for inspiration to come. If anything, tell the muses you’re starting and they better hustle if they want in.
  • When it’s time to stop writing, quit in the middle of a sentence, right at the moment it’s clear to you what should happen next. This will help you come back to a moment in your writing that will need your immediate attention. You’ll have a problem to solve, and it’ll suck you in. This is the best advice Ernest Hemingway ever gave.
  • Don’t fiddle around too much with technology but get a workflow that allows you to write anywhere with very little friction. I use an application called Ulysses. It’s a gift from the gods and so wonderful I’ll have write about it in another post.
  • To paraphrase Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, “Your time belongs to the tribe.” When your beloved people give you time to write, any of the precious minutes you get to create is time you’re taking away from them. You owe them your best efforts. Don’t squander the gift.

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Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University's project-based learning program. You can find him online at toddpetersen.org and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Commas and Clauses

Punctuating with commas is a tricky business, especially when so many style guides break the rules. I’m a traditionalist, however, down the Oxford comma, so for those classical grammarians, like me, here is the most frequent comma mistake I find in other people’s writing and how to correct it.

This mistake involves separating a "two-part sentence,” the two parts involving either independent or dependent clauses.


What's the difference between the two? On its own, an independent clause can be a complete sentence, whereas a dependent clause cannot.

So let's dissect the following sentence:

  • Mary had a little lamb and ate him for dinner. (Yes, I had a stroke of genius with this one.)
"Mary had a little lamb" is an independent clause because it has a subject and a verb, therefore making it a complete sentence in and of its own right.

"ate him for dinner" is a dependent clause because it can't stand alone as its own sentence.

When you have a sentence in "independent clause, dependent clause order," you DON'T NEED A COMMA to separate the clauses. So the example I have above is punctuated correctly: “Mary had a little lamb and ate him for dinner.”

The exception to this rule is when you have a contrast conjunction between the clauses. So if you’re using words like "but," "although," "except," and “despite,” then you'd use a comma to separate the clauses from one another. Example: “Mary had a little lamb, but never ate him for dinner.”

However, when you have TWO independent clauses in a sentence, they need separation by a comma. For example:

  • Mary had a little lamb, and she ate him for dinner.

The addition of "she" gave the second half of the sentence its subject, therefore making it an independent clause and justifying the dividing comma.

So now let's flop things around. What if we started a sentence with a dependent clause followed by an independent clause? In all cases, you'd need a comma to separate the clauses. Remember, dependent clauses depend upon the other part of the sentence for complete meaning and can't stand alone. Here are some examples:

  • Eating him for dinner, Mary had a little lamb.
  • If Mary had a little lamb, she would eat him for dinner.
  • When Mary had a little lamb, she ate him for dinner.
  • As Mary had a little lamb, she ate him for dinner. 
  • Because Mary had a little lamb, she ate him for dinner.
Hopefully this helps in your quest to conquer the confusing comma. May the grammar gods be with you!

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Kathryn Purdie’s love of storytelling began as a young girl when her dad told her about Boo Radley while they listened to the film score of To Kill a Mockingbird. Her own attempts at storytelling usually involved home video productions featuring her younger sister as a nerd or writing plays to perform with the neighborhood kids. In high school and college, she focused on acting, composing sappy poetry, singing folk ballads on her guitar, and completing at least ten pages in her journal every night. When she was in recovery from donating a kidney to her brother, inspiration for her first novel struck. She’s been writing darkly fantastical stories ever since. Kathryn is the author of BURNING GLASS, the first novel in a YA fantasy trilogy from Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Character Motivation in Mysteries

When I was eight, my grandma introduced me to the Nancy Drew series. I got a gift set. After I read the very first book, The Secret of the Old Clock, I couldn’t get enough. Nancy’s ambition and sheer excitement to solve a mystery, and her curious nature, had me at “Be careful, you’re in danger.” Did Nancy run from that sentiment? Nope. She answered with, “I’m ready and here to help. When do we start?”

I asked to go the library multiple times a week, to get every book available that I hadn’t read yet. Nancy Drew was my first glimpse into mystery and suspense that opened my eyes to a new found love for this genre. I searched out many other authors after that; Mary Higgins Clark, Agatha Christie, Stephen King and James Patterson to name a few. Each story heightened my emotions as I read along to solve the unanswered questions. My inner detective wanted to help find the clues, answer the impossible, search for understanding about the world, and try to examine the inner workings of the human mind. The protagonist’s motivation in each story kept me wondering if they’d get to the finish line, and in every case, I rooted that they would.

What kind of motivation would you see in a mystery or suspense, to keep the characters propelling to act?

Here are a few examples…

• Money - Loss of a job and the protagonist needs to find a way to keep their life afloat.  How will they do that? Will they turn to a loan shark for help, rob a bank, or get rid of everything they own to pay off their debt? How desperate are they? What are they using the money for?

• Dark past that they want to keep hidden - What happens when someone is black mailing your protagonist and threatening to expose one of their secrets? Motivation to keep that character quiet or to negotiate a deal with them, may be in order. Or what if your protagonist comes clean? What will they lose by doing this? At what cost?

• Search to find something or someone - What are they searching for? Why? Maybe they’re trying to find their biological parents or missing children? What if they’re trying to find themselves? Who are they? Will they like what they found, or will the outcome take a turn that wasn’t expected? Good turn or bad?

 Murder/kidnapping - Your protagonist may want retribution. Does your character take the matter in their own hands? How exactly do they handle the situation? Do they need clarity that they’re loved one is really gone? Maybe they need to search for answers and proof on their own. Or maybe the belief that there’s still hope, is what your protagonist holds onto that, even if no one else does.

• Power - What will they do to gain control or power? And why do they want it? What kind of power do they want? Will they use it for good, or take control and sacrifice other people’s lives for their own selfish gain? By having power, what will they need to sacrifice to be on top?

 Protection of loved ones - What would your protagonist do to protect those they loved? Keep secrets that harm others? Cover up an investigation? Take the fall for them? Send them to a secluded safety spot? Would your protagonist do anything for them? Give up everything?

• Mental state and wellbeing- Typically, this goes along with someone telling the protagonist that they’re not well, or they’re made to believe that something is wrong with them. We see a lot of this in psychological thrillers, but not all the time. The motivation is to prove that they’re not who they’re made out to be. The mystery’s in finding who they are, and what’s real and what’s not.

Think about what motivates you to act. What motivates those closest to you? What kind of emotions do you feel when there’s a mystery that needs to be solved in your life? Have fun sleuthing and figuring out the motivations of your protagonist, to create a mystery that readers won’t be able to put down.

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Lauri Schoenfeld’s first love is her little clan of three silly kidlets and her wonderful hubby, Andy. Writing is a close second. She began writing poems at the age of nine, and her love for literature and music developed into composing thirty songs.  In 2014 her short story, Christmas Treasure, was featured in an anthology called, Angels from their Realms of Story.  Her favorite genre to write is anything dark, psychological, and suspenseful, but she enjoys expanding her horizons and dipping her feet in other genres as well.  Lauri teaches summer writing classes for kids and mentors teens throughout the year. She’s a Child Abuse and Scoliosis Survivor. Lauri runs a group for teen girls with Scoliosis called, The S Squad. Their motto is Strength, Support and Self Confidence.  She’s been known to dance around the house with a spoon as her microphone and sneak toppings from the ice cream bar. Lauri’s taken online classes at the Institute of Children’s Literature and was the President of the League of Utah Writers, Oquirrh Chapter for two years.  She’s a member of Crime Writers and International Thriller Writers.

Monday, August 22, 2016

4 Questions to Help Develop Characters

Nearly two weeks ago, I had a conversation with my agent regarding what she thought after the latest round of edits. While there isn't anything that is totally overwhelming, there are still things that aren't as they could be, things I could improve before we send this manuscript on to the next phase of its life.

As I was talking and listening to the feedback, my mind jumped to the possibilities of plot: I could change this, I could enhance that, I could make everything FLY!

Thankfully, I'd just finished reading Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, and I had her ideas swimming around in my head along with the feedback I was getting. In particular, I remembered one specific part:
"What sets prose apart from plays, movies, and life itself is that it provides direct access to the most alluring and otherwise inaccessible realm imaginable: someone else's mind."
When I took a step back from what was being discussed in regards to the story and edits, I could see that what I still needed to strengthen was the way I depicted the inner workings of my characters. Here are a few ways to do that:.


1. What is the history of the group of characters? 

In our modern society, we don't have to look very far to find people who have rich histories and deep memories, who have been and are impacted by the way that people interact with them, with their relatives, with attempts at political correctness and total disregard for them as a member of humanity. I don't think there are very many groups out there who haven't had something happen historically that still resonates with us today. If that's the case, the resonance would obviously be with our characters as well, in some way. 

2. What is the history of the families of the characters? 

On one side of my family, we have several instances when use of force got things done, and when use of force ended lives before their time. My grandmother on the other side passed down her sweet pickle recipe with instructions like "add enough salt to float a small potato." Myself, my mom, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, and so forth, can't stand to eat several desserts without some kind of ice cream or whipped cream, a tradition passed down from our Danish heritage. Even if we don't know the stories, these kinds of events impacted our parents, impacted us, are impacting our children. Same with our characters. If we can hone in on what makes the family entity we are writing about unique, it will add further depth to that "otherwise inaccessible realm." 

3. What is the history of the familial relationship? 

This is slightly different from the previous point in that I'm talking about the immediate family. I'm sure we've all seen those articles that talk about birth order and personality types, we've all read archetypes of siblings and probably had at least one moment of agreement for the depiction we encountered. If there is more than one sibling there is probably a "golden child" and a "black sheep", contingent, of course, upon the values of the family. These kinds of identifications, even unspoken, have a resonating impact on the fabric of our character, and tend to reappear in diverse, and often unexpected, situations.  

4. What is the history of the characters' social relationships? 

Has a majority of their life been as a leader or an outcast? Has interacting with those outside of their family come easily to them, or been a skill that they tried to learn? Did they ignore attempts at social skills altogether? Are they using the people outside of their family to try and recapture a desired role within their family? Does their level of tolerance regarding difficult behavior in others align with their desire to belong, regardless of of the consequences? Have they adopted a persona when in the company of others to maintain the appearance of a desired role? 

While it is absolutely essential to factor in external plot points when crafting a story, failure to really hone in on the people who are involved in the external conflict will leave the story flat, meaningless, and unsatisfying. As Lisa Cron says, "Stories are about how we, rather than the world around us, change....Thus story...is an internal journey, not an external one." Showing a dedicated and concentrated effort to depicting the internal story is what will elevate the reader's experience. 

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women's Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Friday, August 19, 2016

What to Do When "Later" Arrives

Oh how I've talked over the years, wistfully, about all the things I will do, later, when I have more time during the day. I will start going to the gym regularly, I'll get back into sewing, I'll take a martial arts class (I've always wanted to take a martial arts class), and of course, I'll write. I'll write ALL the time. Just write, and write, and write, all day long. (How I expect to fit in all those other things if I'm writing all day long, I'm not sure, but those are minor details.) For the last nine and a half years, my writing time has either been at night when I'm sleepy or during that tiny space of time I used to have while one child or the other was down for his (sometimes non-existent) afternoon nap, then later, during half-day preschool. (Also excuse me, but how exactly does a meager two-and-a-half-hour time slot count as an entire half of a day? Half day preschool, my buttocks.) These writing breaks have occurred, always, when I'm tired and all I really want to do is veg out and rest my body and emotions.

Later. I will do ALL the things I've been saying I will do, later. When I have time. A few years down the road. When the kids are older. When they're both in full-time school.

Well guess what. Soon, very soon, that time will have arrived. In a little over two weeks I will have a third grader and a full time kindergartner, and I will have absolutely no more excuses.


I imagine the transition will feel a little like that first week at college -- away from the watchful eyes of parents, stuffed in a building with a bunch of other young adults in the same boat. In other words, it will feel like freedom. Like party time, even. I know I'll be tempted the first week or so to sit on the couch and watch all the grown-up shows and movies on Netflix that I've previously had to save for the evenings after the kids have gone to bed (because that's my idea of party time, shut up). I'll want to nap, I'm pretty sure. I'll especially enjoy getting some reading done in peace and quiet (which will probably lead to the aforementioned urge to nap because, no matter how enjoyable a book is, I tend to get sleepy when I read for too long in a comfortable position).

BUT . . . I'm not going to do that. (Okay, maybe I'll do a little of that). I am a WRITER. I do not consider it a hobby. I consider it a job. A job that I very much enjoy, but I don't get paid for yet -- but if I WANT to ever get paid for it, ie: publish a book, I need to work my rear off beforehand. So as enticing as it will be to relax while the kids are in school, I'm going to have to crack the whip (on myself . . . somehow . . . which, if you think about it, is pretty easy to do if you try to crack a whip when you've never actually cracked a whip before. Remember Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? That's right. That's how Harrison Ford, I mean Indie, got that ruggedly smexy scar on his chin. What? Shut up.)

So I've been doing a lot of thinking about how best to go about spending my time while the kids are in school in a productive, writerly manner, while still being able to bask in the glory of peace and quiet. I'm going to put myself on a schedule. First: the gym, right after dropping off the kids. (But wait, Megan, that's not writing. No, it's not, but it's important. It's healthy. AND, there have been studies—which I'm too lazy to go look for right now, but I know I've read about on the internet somewhere—that say your brain works better when you exercise regularly. Probably has something to do with all that oxygen getting moved around.)

After exercising, I'll come home, shower and all that, and write. Then lunch. Then write. Then chores or errands. Then a relaxing activity before it's time to pick up the kids. Sounds like it should work, right? And of course, I can't forget to allow time for the occasional outing with a friend. Because remembering that other people exist is important too. And besides, how else is a writer supposed to get material for their characters? I mean, um, if you're a friend reading this, pretend I didn't say that. I WANT TO SPEND TIME WITH YOU FOR THE SAKE OF SPENDING TIME WITH YOU, NOT TO COLLECT CHARACTER FODDER, I SWEAR. Ahem.

Anyway, that's my plan. My very loose, subject-to-change plan. I'm curious though, for those of you who have gone through this life change already, or have been in a similar situation, how did you plan your day to make sure you were as productive as possible with your writing while still keeping some kind of work/life/creativity balance? I'd love to read your advice in the comments below.
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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.



Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Where's My Writing Mojo?

Do you have those moments (days, weeks, months...) where the words seem to have stopped flowing and all your ideas are hiding in some corner far away from you, your computer, and, obviously, any deadlines you may have?

For writers, losing your writing mojo can be a very scary circumstance, and this stress only exacerbates the problem.

Oddly, this made me think of a Christmas song. Everyone's favorite jolly fellow, Santa Claus, has a pretty distinct deadline that comes every year, but what happens if Santa loses his mojo? Well, there's a song about it with a catchy chorus by Jeremy Lister, "Santa's Lost His Mojo": "Ho ho ho ho on no; Santa's lost his mojo."

The elves and reindeer try everything they can to bring Santa back, but he's off drinking on vacation. No mojo. He's done.

What can we do to get our missing writing mojo back?

1. Take a break. For real. Maybe you need a few days or maybe a month or two off from writing. Clean your house, organize, learn a new skill, or whatever you want that doesn't necessarily involve writing. Sometimes a break from writing can act as a reboot to the system so you can function better, refreshed, renewed, rejuvenated, and ready to write.

2. Read books. This is obvious, right? My mojo died this summer. I had nothing to give, didn't know where to go next with my writing. Instead, I read and read and read. I beta read for friends. I devoured published books. Some were contemporary romance, middle grade, young adult, fantasy--basically a broad range of literature. I paid attention to structure, characters, plot, and setting. This helped me get the juices flowing.

3. Get together with fellow writers. I'm not sure why this helps exactly, but being around like-minded people seems to work mojo wonders. A lot. Does some of their mojo rub off? Is it a synergy thing? I don't know, but somehow, it just helps. Maybe it's all that writing chatter that brings it all back into focus. Don't discount the value of great writer friends.

4. Find a new writing project. If you've been working on a project for a long time and you've run out of steam, maybe work on an old or new project for awhile. Or write something random that you know you will never try to publish (but, hey, you never know. It could turn out awesome and publishable!).

5. Explore other parts of your story. Write from a different point of view. Write a random scene from the past or future. Do character sketches. Outline possible scenes. See what new things you can learn about your characters or the setting.

Don't stress too much about your mojo taking a vacation without you. It'll come back. It's okay to take breaks and do other things in the meantime. Your brain and creativity sometimes need time to recharge. It's OKAY!! Do something kind for yourself like lunch or dinner with friends, special treats, extra sleep, and some really necessary splurges on new books. You've got this. Don't fret.

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Wendy Jessen is the author of more than 450 articles—family-oriented articles on familyshare.com and book reviews. She recently started a website for something she is passionate about--helping victims of sexual abuse find hope and healing. Wendy is the mother of 6 spirited children ranging in age from 5 to 15. In the throes of writing a few books (fiction and nonfiction), she finds ways to procrastinate which usually involves scrolling through social media. Wendy often stays up way past her bedtime reading, loves kid-free date night with her husband, family vacations, and kids’ bedtime, aka, the human version of whack-a-mole.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A Glimpse at Bullet Journals and Writing

I love to plan. I’ve been a planner since I can remember. I used to fall asleep as a child planning my future.

My first planner? A cordovan Franklin Covey A5 binder. Zip. (You planner nerds will be able to translate.)

Now, I use a Moleskine grid notebook, and I do a loose version of bullet journaling.

What is Bullet Journaling?

A man named Ryder Carroll turned this into a thing. You can read more about the system here.

The thing is, I don’t use all those different symbols. I’m more of a list-maker, but then I organize those lists.

And better yet? I can even organize my stories.

How Do I Use a Bullet Journal for Organizing a Story?

Granted, I’ve only organized a short story of about 6,000 words so far, from start to finish, in a journal. But it was nice to have the story in my bullet journal as I toted it around town. I could flip to it and brainstorm whenever I wanted to.

I also typed and pasted revision notes into the bullet journal. Again, it was nice to tote around in a journal I was already carrying.

The biggest take-away point? You want to have immediate access to your story. I’ve tried Evernote, but I’m not much of a digital girl when it comes to revision and massaging a story. I need to write and highlight and doodle.

And that’s how my bullet journal fits in.

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Sydney Strand is a fiction writer who has published two young adult books through New York and another six books via self-publishing. Over the last two years, she has focused on writing fun romances, but not of the Red Room of Pain variety. More like the Dan and Roseanne/Sam and Diane variety--humor is sexy, dontcha know. You can follow Sydney on Instagram (1st Favorite), Twitter (2nd Favorite), and Facebook (Not a Favorite). She's also at www.sydneystrand.com. (Her favoritest of favorites.)