The Writing Process – Author Blog Tour


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My friend Rachel Wilson, Rachauthor of the soon to be released YA novel Don’t Touch, invited me to participate in this blog tour about the writing process. Every author on the tour answers some questions about his or her own writing don't touchprocess, and then tags two other authors to answer next. Rachel asked me to participate. And she’s way too special to me to ever say no! Keep your eye out on her career. She’s going to kill it. You can read her responses here; mine are below!

What am I currently working on?

spankyAfter finishing my MG novel, SPANKY: A Soldier’s Son, I gave up my writer’s horse (yes, horse) to become a boat captain and navigator. However, since we’re docked for an extended time, I’m back in the saddle again.  At the risk of sounding Sybilesque, my moods decide the project on which I’ll work.  Whimsical playful moods can only be sated by picture book writing in rhyme—the most difficult writing there is if you want to do it well. I love the irony in that. I have at least six picture books in various states of revision.

miss amBut my go-to project is a MG novel set in 1968 at the time of the famous Miss America Pageant protest where women had intended to burn  their bras. I am completing it’s zillionth revision in preparation to market it traditionally some day soon.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Argh! I’ve written the answer to this question three times. Okay. Call it a philosophical-difference block. I’ll say that my work differs from others in my genre by voice, plot and character arcs; by how I kick off my stories, by my tone, my selection of setting and theme etc. etc.—all the choices that make every writer’s manuscript completely unique—even if they’re similar sounding stories.

But okay, I tend to write stories that echo my pre-teen years, surviving bullies, brothers, and coming of age wonders and difficulties, but that hardly differentiates me. I lived in my imagination for most of my childhood and adoles— okay, for my whole life and my MCs tend to as well. That is, until they figure out that to survive, you have to act (or become a MG writer!)

Why do I write what I write?

Without fail, I don’t find out what I’m writing about, why I’ve written it, or what epiphany I will come to through the process until I reach the end of the first draft. That’s when I realize what the story was really about. And I have to rewrite the whole thing. Like many MG writers, I’m stuck in that stage of my life, trying to make sense of it all. I guess you could say I’m unveiling early agnsts and rewriting how they turn out by adding what had been missing the first time–empowerment.

How does my individual writing process work?

Back to the Sybil and my moods . . .   Truly, my unusual life dictates my actual process. Living on a boat, some days, I am captaining, navigating, or doing crew work (provisioning, cleaning, cooking, repairing, or maintenance). In a way, it’s the same as living in a house and leading a normal life. No. Really, it’s not at all like a normal life. The urgency of attention, response, and action is heightened on a boat. And I am attention challenged–it’s impossible not to be distracted by changes in sounds and scenery. Finding my way into the fictive dream doesn’t work well for me when we’re moving. So when I’m “off duty,” I revise and edit.  After we’re docked, I can dig in and become a writer again.

sue_laneveAnd that’s my story! I’m tagging two more authors who’ll be sharing their
answers with you next week, so be sure to visit their blogs!


Next up on the blog tour:

I met Janeen Mason through Florida SCBWI, drawn by her talent, but more so by her generosity of spirit.Janeen Besides her Ocean Commotion series and MANY other picture books, check out Janeen’s accolades as an author/illustrator: Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award, the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, the Benjamin Franklin Award, the National Award for Excellence in Communities, the Moonbeam Children’s Book Award, the iParenting Media Award, and more. And that is only the whisper of a breath about a woman who inspires children, artists, and art collectors everywhere. On Monday, May 5th, she’ll be sharing her process at

Lisa Doan and I met while gorging ourselves on MFAs from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She was THE funniest person on campus. And she brings that amazing humor to her work. Lisa writes middle grade. (She will tell you herself that she will never be mature enough to write YA). Her series, The Berenson Schemes, launched 4/1/2014 with Jack the Castaway. It follows the quest for survival of sensible Jack as he is continually lost in a foreign wilderness by his insensible parents Richard and Claire. Lisa identifies with Richard and Claire, having spent a large amount of her adulthood roaming the planet, but this has led to the uncomfortable idea that she, like them, may have misplaced offspring somewhere. But she figures nearly everywhere has cell phone service these days, so she’ll just wait for a call. (Secret message she sends to lost offspring – First, it was an adventure. Second, Sorry ‘bout that – call me!)

You can learn about Lisa’s writing process next Monday, May 5th, at



Cruising Across the Page

Writing is a lot like driving.   Or should I say driving is a lot like writing?

IMG_3291Sometimes, it’s all stop and go, like driving in the city. Rarely, you’ll catch a synchronized string of green lights, speed up to the limit and cruise, only to be stopped by the next red. More often than not, you never quite reach that full speed. You go, then stop, then go, then stop. A red light. A stop sign. A yield. But at least you’re getting somewhere.

Sometimes, it’s downright Sunday-night, driving-back-into-the-city traffic.   It’s frustrating.   You’re sitting and waiting, and you’re getting absolutely nowhere. You know that at the end of your journey, something great awaits – home – but getting there takes times and patience. And sometimes, you have neither. photo 2

Sometimes, you break the speed limit and GO GO GO! only to be stopped by a cop hiding on the side of the road. You wait for what seems like forever while to ticket is written, and when you’re finally on your way again, the momentum is gone.

Sometimes, it’s driving in the mountains in an unreliable car. You may have traveled thousands of miles without a problem and climbed to the top. You’re feeling great when all of a sudden there is a horrible thumping photo 1sound, and you discover you will be stranded for five hours waiting for repairs. Or your fuel pump goes, and the uphill battles are only relieved by the slight downhill slopes, and you move 15mph on a 55mph road. Repairs also take hours, but once the work is done, you soar down those mountains without looking back.

photo 3And then sometimes, just sometimes – not all the time, and not when you need it to happen – the traffic clears, the car behaves, and the land levels. You slide into cruise control. You speed across the desert and the prairie, over the mountains, through the suburbs, across the bridge, through the tunnel, onto the highway, and suddenly, you are home. You’re not sure how you got there so quickly; you didn’t expect to make such good time, but you did.

You forget about the stop and go and the stalled highways. Your car has and always will be the best car ever. Getting home wasn’t as hard as you thought it would be.

If fact, that wasn’t bad at all.   Maybe you’ll take the car out for a spin again sometime soon.



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I recently had a great time speaking at the annual retreat in Writing Novels for Young People at VCFA, organized by Sarah Aronson and Cindy Faughnan. As part of my talk, I shared one of my favorite theater games that translates well to writing, the Essence Game.

I didn’t make it up and have no idea who did, but it’s basically a game of metaphors. One person leaves the room to act as the guesser, and everyone else chooses someone in the room to describe. When the guesser returns, she asks questions about the mystery person’s essence—such as, “if this person were an animal, what animal would she be?” “If he were a piece of furniture?” “A condiment?” 

My acting teacher in college gave our class assignments to write metaphors like these in our character journals. The characters in my debut novel, Don’t Touch, try it out on Hamlet and Ophelia. Peter asks Caddie:

“What’s Ophelia’s favorite ice cream flavor?”

“Did they have ice cream in Denmark back then?”

“Doesn’t matter. Hamlet’s taking Ophelia to the ice cream social. What does she order?”

“Um. How about lemon sorbet?

“Ooh, I like it. Simple, clean.”

“What about Hamlet?”

“I think Hamlet’s got to be a rocky road kind of guy.”

“So wait, is this supposed to be the kind of ice cream he would eat, or the kind of ice cream that he is?”

“It’s an essence thing,” he says. “Instinct.”

I suggest that you play a mini-version of this game with your characters. Come up with five highly modified metaphors. And these aren’t about association; they’re about essence.

What kind of weather is Harry Potter? You might be tempted to say lightning–I mean, there’s a lightning bolt on his face—but does Harry move through the world, interact with his friends, or approach his problems with the character of lightning? Not so much.

To me, Harry’s more like a sun ray cutting through clouds on a brisk and gloomy day. You might think of something wildly different, or you might think of multiple metaphors for different moments in a character’s story. That’s cool. This is just for you.

In acting class, our metaphors became the source material for physicality and vocal choices. When I chose a corkscrew as a metaphor for Marlene in Top Girls, that object’s shape, tension, and spiraling action fed into the way my Marlene sat at her desk, the way she held a pen, the way she pivoted on a single sharp high heel.

For writing, your metaphors might become objects in your characters’ rooms, a part of the setting that surrounds them in an important scene, or a part of the language you use to describe them. They might even inform whether you focus on soft or hard sounds or the rhythm with which your characters speak.

Try coming up with metaphors to fit these categories, and then see if you can incorporate one of them into a scene. What if your character were . . .

A type of weather

A piece of furniture

A type of cuisine

A color

An animal

A utensil

A TV show

A game

A profession

A piece of art

A landscape

A tree

Something you can purchase at a 7-11

A literary genre

A person you knew in college . . .

You never know which metaphor might unlock a door in your brain, so feel free to make up your own. And remember, it’s a game, so have fun playing!


“I Love You Baby, Can I Have Some More?”


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Businesspersons at Water CoolerYou know me. I’m a regular at the social network water cooler, either scrolling for updates or  passing posts. We’ve met, right? No? Friend me!

But oh lordy, I’d really rather you didn’t. Thing is, there simply is no way I can keep up with what others think I should know! It’s like I’ve created my own FEED (ala M. T. Anderson’s dystrophic tale).

Sometimes I want to unplug forever. But, will you remember me if I do?


Remember passing notes in elementary school? My friends and I could speak multiple times during the day and night, yet there was nothing more tantalizing than finding a folded-up note secretly placed in a palm, or locker, or desk, scribbled full of rants, inspirations, worries, invitations, and dramas. Always the dramas.

Skip forward to the internet spreading its broadbands with Compuserve and Prodigy and AOL, oh my. I quickly learned to pass notes in cyberspace. Friends Reunited and Friendster courted me. Soon Friendster begot MySpace, Friends Reunited begot Classmates who begot Six Degrees, AOL Chat, Live Journal, and Linkedin. Been there, done them all.

Then that damn college kid at Harvard introduced THE FACEBOOK which insidiously came knocking at my cellar door I love you baby can I have some more. Ooh, ooh the damage (was) done. Officially hooked, I soon had to have more, gorging on Itunes, Podcasting, and blogs.  Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube added to my high.

Now the sound of the Social Network explosion is deafening with Tumblr, Google+, VK, Flickr, Tagged, AskFM, Meetup, Meetme, Reddit, Mashable, Foursquare, Stumbleupon, Path, GetGlue, Gowalla, Highlight, Creepy, Vine, Snapchat, KiK, Pheed,,
Oye vey.

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Signing on absorbs me when I let it, and like a magnet, I’m drawn to the exchange of political views. I seek truth and am teased into a false sense of security to speak openly, to reveal truths I may or may not be entirely ready to share. Did you “Like” my post?

Oh, whose counting. ;)

I am fascinated by the construction of personal “brands” via social networking. Amazing posts leading to brilliant conversations appear and suddenly disappear for fear of repercussion, for fear of the affect or effect a comment or opinion could have on one’s job, or family or sales.

Friends and peers who are clearly uncomfortable with the medium force themselves to network online or be seen as a marketing failure and left behind. Business perspicacity demands social networking = connections = influence = success. The medium has created careers. Lost your job? Get your Social Media Certificate! Become a search engine optimizer (SEO). Or a social media strategist or copywriter.

I get a kick out of those who announce their brief departures from the grid, as if signing off for a few minutes is the same as taking a trip to Mars, as if it needs to be announced, as if the world demands their immediate reaction and response and will be panicked without this knowledge of the minutia. I get a bigger kick out of those who get this, but do so for wit’s sake.

Still, loved ones who have signed off for weeks or permanently worry me and I want to know why. They probably won’t be reading this though.

Like a drug roller coaster, my spirits either lift, plummet, or drag when I reconnect with people I’ve missed dearly or with others I so wanted to forget.

My family shares photos and birthdays, births and deaths.
As do my friends.
As do my acquaintances.
As do people I really don’t know well enough to care about.

Sounds so harsh in this connected world.


The best part of this frenzy is when it’s like sitting in the wine pit with dear friends, hearing about their good news, book releases, and babies, and feeling the hugs and cheers over mine. The overwhelming part is having access to more information than I could read in a lifetime.

And that’s the problem.

I imagine an evil pusherman discouraging my productivity, turning me into a sloth. Or that I’m living in a 1984ish worldTrapped by technology where my perspective is fed and manipulated, where I’ve been forced to surrender my actual time interacting with live flora and fauna and flotsum and friends. The evil ones laugh at my lack of fresh air and exercise, at the books I’ll never read and the quality time I won’t spend with people I love because of my addiction.

Woman snorting cocaine or amphetamines, internet addiction

There. I’ve said it. I am an addict.  “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done. A little part of it in everyone.” 

Then again, maybe, just maybe, I haven’t stopped being that elementary school kid, still wanting to pass notes, to share rants, inspirations, worries, invitations, and always the dramas.

I’m determined to avoid the water-cooler and more fully imbibe my amazing life.

But will you forget me if I do?

Embracing Failure


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My sister recently posted a link to an article in the New York Times by Laura Pappano about creativity as an academic discipline.

My sister has a master’s degree in Creativity, a teaching certificate, and training in improv comedy with both ComedySportz and Second City. She is a creative and comedic genius, and has predictably provided the laugh line running through my life.

When my sister posts links, I read them.

The article quotes Jack V. Matson who teaches a course at Penn State called “Failure 101.” His favorite course assignment is to have students make a resume of failures to see how those failures have shaped choices — and, I might add, how those failures have led to good things.

Failure is something writers deal with often, sometimes on a daily basis. We cut our teeth on rejection. The blinking cursor on the blank screen beats out a rhythm saying, “You can’t. You can’t. You can’t.” Rejection can be a slippery slope into a deep chasm of self-doubt and fear. As a matter of self-preservation, we’re advised not to dwell on our failures, our rejections, our bad reviews.

That’s good advice.

However, if you’re feeling up to pulling out your sword to battle your demons, I suggest engaging in a bit of introspection Matson-style to embrace your failures and see what good has come from them.

If I were to write a resume of failures, the top billing would be given to a failed application to a Ph.d program. I looked good on paper: I had good experience, my GRE scores were in the high 700’s, I had received one of two all-university fellowships in graduate school, and I had been accepted into a different Ph.d program years before, which, because of life circumstances, I couldn’t pursue then. My application sparkled.

The program I applied for only admitted one student that year.

And it wasn’t me.

The day I found out, I had plans to meet my dear friend Julie Berry. When I told her of my rejection, she suggested I apply to this program at Vermont College.

No, I said, I’m on the rebound. I need to wallow in my suffering.

So she told me to come to this conference (the New England SCBWI spring conference). “You can submit ten pages to an editor. Then if you like it, you can apply.”

Fine, I said.

Julie can be very persuasive.

I submitted ten pages, went to the conference, and met with an editor whose name is branded on my memory forever. During the critique, she gave me her email address and asked for the rest of the manuscript.

There was no rest of the manuscript. I had ten pages. That was all.

If I ever find an occasion when our paths cross again, if I ever find an occasion when giving this editor a huge hug wouldn’t seem like a stalker thing to do, I’m there. For her small kindness, I’ll be forever grateful.

I decided to apply to VCFA.

Doing so brought me home. No quantity of personality testing or career counseling could have directed me in so succinct a manner as that one failed Ph.d application.

I am now doing what makes me happy. I wear my life — my career — like a second skin. I’ll be the first to admit that it is not an easy skin to wear; I often wish I could shed it, sliding out of it snake-like, when it gets too uncomfortable. However, discomfort brings new failures — failures which lead me onward to new successes.

Polar Vortex Shmortex

I spent this past week at a house on Sea Island, GA.  The seventy degree weather and sunshine and sand were a much-needed break from the never-ending Northeast Winter of Doom.  I had started to have an overall feeling of malaise caused, I’m sure, by a deficiency in Vitamin D and a lack of physical activity, and a I had a cough I couldn’t kick.   In super-southern coastal Georgia, there were no polar vortexes, no mounds of filthy snow, and no coats or boots; there weren’t even any socks.

I’m not trying to rub this lack of arctic chill in anyone’s face.  I have never gone away in February before; I’ve seen friends go to warmers places over the years, but I’ve never myself escaped.  For one whole week, I did not do any work  — actually, I did spend a few hours working on curriculum one day, but I’m not counting that.  The papers I brought to grade came back home with me untouched.  Instead, there were lazy breakfasts, multiple walks on the beach, bike rides, and Dairy Queen.  I collected shells, shot a gun for the first time (at clay targets), and read.

I felt renewed upon my return.  Sure, my cough is still lingering, but it doesn’t seem so bad.  Can I tackle the next five weeks of test prep with my students?  I think I can.  Will those papers ever get graded?  Sure.  Will I take another February vacation in the future?  Definitely.

Author vs. Writer Smackdown


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194 days, 5 hours, 50 minutes, 30 seconds.

As I type this, that’s how much time I have until Don’t Touch comes out. That’s a little more than six months, but it feels like September 2, 2014, is looming over me like one of those precarious Midwestern ice caves they keep showing on the news.

In the past few weeks, I’ve asked for blurbs, sent in my first pass pages changes, built a website, organized a cover reveal, and held a giveaway. I also received a big ol’ box of ARCs that I’m not sure what to do with . . .


I think mailing’s involved.

Over the next months, I need to figure that out, order SWAG, submit to festivals, plan launch parties in two states, plan a blog tour, schedule signings, make a trailer? I need to decide how much I can afford to travel and where and in what order makes the most sense.

These are author problems–i.e. not bad problems to have. I’m not complaining. And there’s a little-expressed business side of me–let’s call her my inner author–who enjoys all this stuff.

But the writer in me is getting grouchy. The writer in me wants to tackle the author and shut her in a dark room free of distractions till she passes out from lack of Twitter.

This morning, I spent about two hours reading over my notes for my many-times-abandoned novel-in-waiting. It’s languished for months at a time while I’ve revised Don’t Touch, and more recently, while I’ve worked on completely non-writing-related tasks of authordom. I want to work on it, but I want to do it my way. I want to do it first thing in the morning, when I don’t have the weight of a zillion other responsibilities hanging over me. And I’m not going to get that luxury.

So I’d better just write. And remind the author in me that without the writer, she’s just building a gorgeous ice cave in the hot, hot sun.

Who Loves a Garden Loves a Greenhouse Too: Quote from William Cowper


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Lara's giftWhat’s next is a question I’ve been asking myself since Greenhouse Literary Agency sold my first book, Lara’s Gift to Erin Clarke of Knopf in 2011. It’s also a question I thought I would have answered and moved forward on upon the release of Lara’s Gift in 2013.

So what’s the problem?

While I’ve got plenty of story ideas churning around in my head, I’ve actually enjoyed launching my first baby into the world and have allowed my schedule of school visits, book club events, fairs, and readings to balloon out of proportion at a cost to my writing time. In a market where publishers want writers to actively promote their books how do we writers—especially those of us with families and day jobs—balance book promotion and our writing time?


Photgraphy by Erin Summerill

For sure, I don’t have all the answers. I might even be the worst person to talk to about balance as my plate only seems to grow larger by the day, not smaller.

IMG_6666What I can encourage is this: give yourself permission to take time away from the routine demands of your life. Go on a retreat, alone or among other writers. There’s nothing better than a retreat to jumpstart the writing juices, nurture craft, and realign priorities. Make time for your writing because nobody else will. And that’s exactly what I did this past weekend in Orlando, Florida among fellow Greenhouse authors and the Greenhouse team: Sarah Davies, John Cusick, Polly Nolan, and Allison Hellegers.


Photography by Erin Summerill

One of the perks of being a Greenhouse author is the vision Sarah Davies had early on for the kind of literary agency she wanted to build. For starters she chose the name Greenhouse because it evokes a place of warmth and growth. And Greenhouse is indeed a place where each author is treated like a vital part of the garden and nurtured to bear the kind of fruit that could only come from each of our own unique voices and limbs. Hats off to Sarah for the vision and for picking a top notch team to help her execute that vision!

IMG_6659Sarah kicked off the retreat with a motivating talk to inspire us in 2014. There were a number of great takeaways. One of my favorites: go to the compost of your imagination, let it decompose, and then recompose it into new stories with a fresh slant. Sarah encouraged all of us to tap into the emotions of our childhood, to mine the memories, and pull out the most emotionally charged ones. More importantly, she reminded us to be brave in tackling the truth behind these emotions.

Photography by Erin Summerill

Photography by Erin Summerill

Another takeaway I took from Sarah’s talk came from her reading of All the Truth That’s in Me, written by fellow VCFA alum and friend, Julie Berry. She turned the theme of Julie’s book around and asked each of us: “What’s the truth in you? Find it and write it.”

With truth and finding it the core message of her talk, Sarah left us with a quote from Picasso: “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”

ErinSummerillPhotography-8-SPolly Nolan (UK Rights) and Allison Kellegers (International Rights) shared their thoughts about their respective markets. The big takeaways: gone are the days of big advances and quick sales. It can take years before a deal is made so rather than foster frustration at what might not be happening; celebrate the success of the moment like getting published in the first place. Focus on the positives, remind yourself of how hard it is to get published, and live in the moment of these successes. Don’t worry about what’s coming or not coming. You’ll be pleasantly surprised when a deal does close.

Photography by Erin Summerill

Photography by Erin Summerill

The biggest overseas markets are Germany, followed by Brazil, and then France.

John Cusick talked about the power of personal recommendation and word-of-mouth, the secret grease of publishing. He shared his thoughts on networking and made us believe—in the style of Disney—that it isn’t a bad word. He urged us to find the community within our stories to connect with potential readers. He shared another seed of wisdom, in today’s world when our attention is a commodity, know what to ignore, know what needs to get done. Sign up for Freedom to block social media. Give yourself small goals each day. They’ll add up to something fruitful.

Photography by Erin Summerill

Photography by Erin Summerill

We had a lovely dinner hosted by Greenhouse on Saturday evening Cuban style followed by a Talent “Situation” where John Cusick sang and played the piano to everyone’s delight; stylish songwriter and author, Tommy Wallach shared one of the songs he wrote that inspired/was inspired by his story [be on the lookout for the album that will come out with his debut book];

Photography by Erin Summerill

Photography by Erin Summerill

Sue Cowing read one of her poems, “Teacher’s Pet,” from My Dog Has Flies; Dawn Metcalf showed us why nobody would want to mess with her after a few black belt moves; Tami Lewis Brown, Catherine Linka, and Sarah Aronson hosted a trivia contest around children’s literature.

ErinSummerillPhotography-72-SThe highlight of the evening was Sarah Davies’ performance singing a rewrite of “These are a Few of My Favorite Things” and playing a very small guitar-like instrument. What a voice!

kZqXWEZQRZjZPR8yy5zfLfQ7Byz7msdzuzqd4FtsockThe weekend was well represented by Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA alums: Sarah Aronson, Tami Lewis Brown, Caroline Carlson, Winifred Conkling, Sue Cowing, Catherine Linka, Annemarie O’Brien, and Shawn Stout. Page Cathren joined us for some lively discussion before the retreat started and hosted me with Miss Lee the night prior.

ZD5yKke5RY4wbu9pYhRGpwavsPASiYowV2pGr2OREzAA warm hug to Erin Sommerill for offering her charm, talents, and keen photographic eye in capturing candid shots, as well as author photos.

A BIG shout out to Jan Gangsei, fellow author and event planner, for managing all of the details of the retreat weekend to lovely perfection.

IMG_6324A huge thanks to Hillcrest Elementary School, Sherri Spicer, librarian extraordinaire; Natalie Storch, one of the most welcoming parent chauffeurs I’ve ever met; and the children in second, third, fourth, and fifth grades for letting me come to their school prior to the retreat to share Lara’s Gift. They were an enthusiastic group of kids with lots of good questions and a passion for reading.

IMG_6671And a very special thanks to the little Hillcrest girl who said she was “vibrating with happiness all morning to meet the author.” Comments like this make my time away from writing well worth it.

And sometimes it’s just healthy to get away for the warm welcome home!

The Landscape of Your Story: Lesson From the Masters

My work in progress takes place in an agrarian village hidden beyond some strange mountains. The villagers are odd, with long-lived superstitions and the wrong idea about many things. There’s a village circle, and some farms, and the family cottage of my main character, Finnegan.

I have done a lot of thinking and drawing to get the setting right, making maps of the direction Finn would go to school, and the position of the barn and where the stream comes down to his pa’s field. I’ve listed the various small shops he’d see if he walked down the village road. I know the names and faces of some of the villagers that most impact his life.

I thought I had a good take on the setting for this novel. Then I went to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with the jaw dropping, enormous oil landscapes from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Think light, infinite sky, and hilly land so vast you could walk for a month and not reach the castle that rises out of the blue mist on the horizon.

Think mountains so big they seem to hold up another level of sky, one filled with potent, boiling clouds spilling over endless rivers, dotted with boats and winding through city after city.

One enormous painting, The Campo di SS, Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, by Bernardo Bellotto (1743/47), featured an urban landscape so captivating I couldn’t walk away. I stared. I took photos. I stared some more. The museum docent started eyeing me. I walked away, but returned when he ambled to another room. I stared again.


The painting features a real Venetian square and basilica, Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, bordered by the waterway Fondamenta Mendicanti. One of the geniuses of this painting is the extent to which the canal pulls your eye back toward the horizon, taking in the boats, apartments, bridges and the promenade. The other genius, and what compelled me even more than the structure of the canal and the finely wrought architecture, was the people.

This landscape was not just populated, it was activated by the people. They were boating,

boaters from painting

watching the boats, looking out over the canal,Image hanging up a canvas, Imagearguing, pointing. This was a real place, with living people in it. The more I looked, the more living I noticed in this snapshot of a world.

Elizabeth George talks about the idea of landscape in her book on writing, Write Away:

“On the surface, it would appear that landscape and setting are the same creatures, identical twins given different names just to confuse the beginning writer. This, however, would not be the truth since setting is where a story takes place–including where each scene takes place–while landscape is much broader than that…Landscape in writing implies much the same as that which is implied by the word when it’s used to refer to a location in a country: It is the broad vista into which the writer actually places the individual settings of the novel, sort of like the canvas or other medium onto which a painter has decided to daub color.

“You need to think about the landscape of your book because if you’re able to make the landscape of place real, you can make the land itself real, which gives you a leg up on making the entire novel real for the reader.” 

When I work on my novel, I want to think this way about my landscape, not only what it looks like, but what’s happening in it. Who’s there? Who are they talking to? What sounds are rising up in the background? What smells? What’s in the distance?

Thinking like a painter of a huge canvas will make my story come alive, just as this painting did for me.

Deep Freeze


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I’ve been working on a novel that begins with a deep freeze.


(This pic happens to be from Chicago’s awful storm of 2011 and not from the Polar Vortex, but you get the idea. Burial in ice and snow.)

I write outlines, synopses, pages of notes; I write drafts full of characters that have since been discarded. My latest Scrivener file contains 13,000 words. An earlier one: 271,000. Still another: 233,000. Much of that is repeated. Some of it isn’t. Sometimes, I think it’s YA. Other times, it feels more middle grade. Sometimes I think it’s a series, and then my brain starts to shiver.

As I wander through this story, I feel lost as my girl in the snow, fighting her way through wind tunnels of ice chips that bite at her cheeks. And the weather outside matches my fictional wasteland.

Chicago’s experiencing record lows–for the second time this year, a polar vortex is giving me a Monday off with wind chills of 40 below.

My ceiling is gone because my neighbor’s pipes burst during the last low. I’m going to have to move out while cute Russian men replace my floor.

I was making so much progress over the holidays. I felt so close to having a synopsis to share before sickness made my brain fuzz, before the polar vortex squeezed its fist, before my ceiling sogged. The past few weeks have felt like a gauntlet of challenges. I haven’t written much or often, and that’s okay. None of this is normal.

Though it does remind me of Doris Lessing’s wisdom:

If there’s something you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.

And here’s the thing … When I do write, I thaw. I feel limber and agile and sharp. I have hope for my story, that I and it will find our way out of this mess that we’re in.

And in Saturday’s mail I received a package with my first designed pages for Don’t Touch, and that felt like a blast of summer.



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