Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Lessons Learned

 This post from 2019 seemed like a good fit for this week, as I work my way through revisions on my latest novel, and perhaps learn a few new lessons.

You might think that an author is in charge of her characters and, indeed, that's how it usually starts out. But eventually, they begin to take on lives of their own and can become bossy or withdrawn or...whatever they've been written to be.

And then some.

The nice thing about this phenomenon is that it becomes a sort of two-way street. I retain creative control, but sometimes they teach me a thing or two -- or remind me of things I already know -- in the process.

Here are five of those things.
  • Change is always possible. So is redemption. The best characters grow over the course of a novel. Some grow into their potential, some mature and some show only a glimmer of hope (Jim). And, while they might not change a lot from the beginning of the book to the end, a reader needs to be able to hold out hope that change is possible even after the story ends.
  • Everyone responds differently. In my novels, Jim seems to elicit a consistent negative reaction from readers, but each of the women in the book responds to him in a different way. Angel sees the good in him that Charli wants to see and Marita learns to tolerate him for her daughter's sake. As a result, Jim responds differently to each of these characters (and his mother and his sisters) as well. He is the character my readers love to hate.
  • Relationships matter. I'm not much of a plotter. I tend to be more of a fan of putting my characters in a room and letting them drive the story, but those two things don't happen automatically. Writing dialogue that's a real reflection of the relationships and events is what makes this happen. Readers need to care about not just the people but how they connect (or don't) to one another and what's at stake because of it.
  • People make the story matter. Often, the stuff that happens in novels is not that far-removed from everyday life. People fall in love, go to work, take their kids to school, make dinner and go to bed -- alone or together. If we don't care about the people who are doing these things, all we have is a mundane succession of events. The same is true of life. When our homes and work places are filled with people who keep things interesting, even the mundane can be fascinating. It's my job as a writer to elevate the day-to-day stuff into the stuff that makes you want to turn the page.
  • Decisions are reversible. Maybe we can't go home again -- at least not in quite the same way -- but characters can revisit situations and decisions and places over and over again in an effort to get it right. Ask any soap opera fan -- happy marriages don't always stay happy and broken relationships don't always stay broken. Friends become enemies and vice versa and what seemed like an impossible idea is sometimes the solution to a problem when all the stars align. Because this is far less traumatic on the page than in real life, readers can watch it all play out from the safety and security of their most comfy chairs. 
These aren't things I didn't know (obviously), but playing with them in fiction helps remind me of all of the possibilities real life holds as well. Sure, it's a lot scarier to take a chance in real life than it is to watch a fictional character do so but if our characters can be brave, maybe we can be, too. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Gift of Time

geralt via Pixabay

 Every once in a while, I have a semester where I teach only two classes instead of three, and this semester is one of those semesters. In addition to having one less class, one of my classes is much smaller than usual, cutting the number of students I typically have in a semester almost in half. 

While teaching one less class is not a boon to my bank account, it provides me with the gift of time. For about the first third of the semester, I sternly reminded myself not to get used to this, as I'd return to a full course load in the fall. Enjoy it while it lasts, I told myself, but don't depend on it.

Then one morning, I realized how silly I was being. Holding my breath and tiptoeing through a lighter course load without enjoying its benefits was rather like telling myself I shouldn't enjoy a week at the beach because next week, I'll be home again and back to reality.

From then on, I began treating my days off more like the gifts they are. While I rarely take non-teaching days off completely, I do limit the amount of schoolwork I do on those days. My guideline for those days is personal and flexible: I do enough to keep myself from stressing over the work that needs to be done. The line between not enough and just enough is blurry (mostly because it's a moving target), but it's working for me.

After my realization, I began to really appreciate the benefits this gift of time has provided. My house feels less out of control because I have more time to keep after the day-to-day tasks that slide when my teaching schedule is more demanding. I have space for my writing, and space to do the creative part of course planning that so often gets pushed aside. I've created new assignments and lecture materials, revamped things that were stale (I hate it when I bore myself because it's a sure sign I'm boring my students as well), and had the luxury of adapting some of my materials to be a better fit for the students who are actually sitting in front of me. I've had time to read, connect with friends, and relax in the middle of a weekday -- all guilt-free.

The gift of time is something to treasure. We can be practical with it, tackling something that's long overdue, or we can splurge, reveling in the opportunity to do something we don't normally have time to do. Or maybe a little of both.

But the one thing we can't do is save it. The gift of time arrives when it arrives and departs on its own schedule as well. We can't bank it, and perhaps that should be reason enough to give ourselves license to be impractical with it when we're lucky enough to be its beneficiary.

What would you do with the gift of time?

Friday, April 12, 2024

Style Friday: What's in Your Closet?

  It all started with Kate Spade, as it so often does for me. I splurged on a really pretty book that I savored and, from then on, I found myself drawn to more of the same, launching my current reading obsession: pretty, perusable books.

I jokingly told my daughter that I'm reading the equivalent of adult picture books: books about style and fashion and home decorating. 

And I'm loving them. 

One of my current reads is Classic Style by Kate Shelter. It's making me think about what my classics are, and I thought it might be fun to focus on them here. Today's focus?


I always tried to vary my wardrobe and avoid repeating outfits -- at least within a short span of time. Lately, though, I've begun to worry less about variety across the board, and think more about building on basics. Maybe it's because my wardrobe consists largely of black, white, brights, and prints. 

Here are a few of my wardrobe "classics" -- the ones that will remain in my closet, no matter the current trend.

  • black pants and black leggings
  • unstructured cardigans
  • soft blazers that bring a pop of color (new to the mix) 
  • baggy sweatshirts imprinted with the names of colleges and things that reflect my interests (e.g. my "Friends" sweatshirt that's older than my daughter and my "Luke's Diner" sweatshirt, an homage to Gilmore Girls)
  • flats, particularly those that bring a pop of color to an outfit - they'd all be Rothy's if my budget allowed for it
  • hoop earrings.
How about you? What are your classics?

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Still Here

 This July will mark 30 years since we've been in this house! Now that we're empty nesting, we're focusing on projects large and small, from the addition of our much-loved sunroom (and, this spring, a patio) down to repainting rooms that have been the same color for 30 years. 

Maybe that's why I'm on a style kick

It's hard to believe that this July will mark 21 years since we first walked into our house. I loved it immediately, despite the fact that there was a list, even back then, of projects we wanted to tackle. The dining room wallpaper that looked as though it had been selected when Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. The pumpkin kitchen (orange and green) that was a throwback to the 1970s. The heating system that did not include central air conditioning. But these were little things compared to finding a house we could afford that met the three criteria most prized in real estate: location, location, location.

When we first moved into the house, I tackled a new project (or two) every summer. I had the whole summer off and was only working on freelance magazine pieces, so giving up a week to repaint a room or strip wallpaper (even when it turned out that the Louisa May Alcott wallpaper was only the top layer of three, each uglier than the one that had replaced it) didn't seem like a big sacrifice.

Then my daughter was born, and finding the time for household renovations that could be done during nap time or without endangering a curious toddler became more challenging. We'd already replaced the heating system and repainted much of the house by then anyway. Replacing the roof, enclosing the side porch and gutting the kitchen were projects beyond our skill set, so those came next. When she was a little older, we re-did the downstairs bedroom (my former office/clutter catching room became her playroom) and eventually added on to the house and re-did the downstairs bathroom.
It's been a busy twenty years. And we are slowing down.

Along the way, we considered finding a bigger house -- one that came with all of those renovations already taken care of -- but after one disappointing foray into the housing market that resulted in my declaration that once we took that sign out of the front yard, we were never putting another one up again -- we settled in, and went back to chipping away at turning our little house into our dream home.

We still have house envy from time to time, especially since the days when I looked forward to summer home projects are behind me. These days, giving up summer writing and/or leisure time to paint and strip wallpaper seems less exciting, and, thanks to equal parts waning youth and waning enthusiasm, it takes much longer to complete the projects I used to knock out in a couple of days.

But lately, I've been feeling a resurgence of those old decorating pangs. It still requires more motivation than I can muster up to paint a room, but I'm having fun freshening things up in smaller ways. A closet makeover that makes switching out clothes from one season to another a bit easier. A re-envisioning of cluttered space that makes it less so. Re-lining drawers and reorganizing their contents.

It feels a lot like nesting.

Maybe it will lead to a renewed desire to put the finishing touches on those painting projects begun over previous summers. But maybe it won't.  For now, it's breathing a little bit of life back into the house that, over two decades, has become our home.

Messy and imperfect. But home.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Paving a Pretty (Reading) Pathway

SashaSan via Pixabay

 Some trips to the library send me back to my car loaded down with books. Other trips are less fruitful, leaving me struggling to find a novel that begs me to take it home. 

When I found myself in the latter position a few years ago, I determined to write the book I wanted to read, resulting in the novel I'm currently revising (more on that in future posts). Though it wouldn't be the first time I set out to write the story I wished for, it was the first time I intentionally crafted a protagonist who would get that story started.

Clearly, I can't write a book every time I can't find one that suits my current tastes so, when I'm struggling to find that fictional perfect match, I sometimes end up in the non-fiction section. Quite a few years back, such a foray introduced me to The Happiness Project, which ended up shaping one of the courses I teach and leading me to develop another as well. 

During my last no-novel trip, I plucked a Property Brothers book off the shelf. Later, I reserved Classic Style and Whiskey in a Teacup, then borrowed the e-book of The Curated Closet, extending my "grown-up picture book" phase (launched by It's So You), a phase I'm thoroughly enjoying.

While I know it's not unusual for readers to gravitate toward the same kinds of books and the same authors, all of this feels as though it's leading somewhere. I'm not entirely sure where yet but, if you stop back on Friday, you'll see one brick in the path it's paving.

For now, at least.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Building Each Other Up and Catching Each Other When we Lose Our Footing

 This look-back made me smile. Meeting with my accountability partner again this Saturday. It's a truly fantastic partnership.

Last Saturday, my writing accountability partner and I met for the first time in more than six months. We met over Zoom (of course), after briefly debating the merits of Zoom over FaceTime, and it was wonderful! We did no actual writing this time -- just lots of catching up and sharing of goals -- much as my critique group did the first time we met (via Zoom) after our COVID-driven hiatus.

You'd think that writing would be a lonely and competitive profession and I suppose it can be, but my experience has been very different. More than two decades ago, my writing mentor invited me to a critique group meeting. I resisted at first but, once I started going...well, I've been going ever since. From there, I discovered Pennwriters and now, of course, there's social media. If we choose whom we follow carefully, we can end up extending our network of colleagues in a very positive and supportive way. 

And my writing accountability partner? Once upon a time, we had the same agent...and we live in the same geographical area. In the end, it was a Starbucks connection that fostered the writing accountability partnership. We started meeting to talk writing, then to actual do writing and nudge each other forward in our projects. A shared love for writing, despite its ups and downs, has grown into a cherished friendship.

It's really easy to find negativity but one thing the writing community has taught me is that, if you look for it, it's easy to find support, too.

And that's definitely something we all can use right now.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024


 When I retired, I got into the habit of creating monthly goals. It was something I really enjoyed doing, and it kept me motivated and on-track. Not perfectly, of course, but taking the time to plan and decide where I want to focus my energy plants seeds that quite often take root over the course of the month. 

Now, ten years into my encore career, I'm still doing my monthly goal sessions. In fact, I look forward to them. At the end of last year, I went to quite a lot of trouble to find a "just right" notebook to use. I ended up with an undated calendar from Target -- one with a pretty cover, lots of room inside, and a layout that works with the way I think -- and that only adds to the pleasure I get from this simple process. 

As close as possible to the first of the month, I review my progress on the previous month's goals. Then, I set personal goals, writing goals, health goals, and work goals, trying to stay realistic and not go overboard in any area (or all of them). Today was one of those days when I had to stop myself, recognizing that if I kept going, I'd be more frustrated by what I'd left undone than pleased with what I'd accomplished. 

No one else sees my goals book, nor does anyone know what's in it unless I choose to share, which I sometimes do. I've told a lot of people that my writing goal is to buckle down and revise my latest novel ASAP so I can submit to 24 agents and/or editors in 2024. Though I'm not-so-secretly hoping someone wants it before I hit that goal, telling everyone that I plan to do this keeps me honest.

Which is why I'm telling you right now.

What goals do you have for yourself? And which ones are you willing to go public with? Whether you keep them to yourself or share them with the world, I wish you the best of luck.