Monday, August 31, 2009

It's pretty common to hit road blocks while taking on the Herculean task of drafting a novel. What I didn't expect was how simultaneously trying to market a finished book has sucked away much of my creative energy. During the recent weeks of ramping up new queries, every time I open my WIP, I feel stuck, stuck, stuck. And yet, the less I write, the more miserable I become. It's a vicious cycle and escaping it requires good tools.
First, I find that talking writing with other writers can be enough of an energy boost to get me going again. A writer's group that a friend and I started up this spring met this weekend and critiqued pieces of two of the members. The energy in the group is beginning to snowball in exciting ways. Only one of the group has done much publishing, but the rest of us are inching toward the goal of becoming published authors. Knowing these folks value my perspective and commitment (and won't let me wimp out and quit when the going gets tough) helps me hang in there.

Second, I hit the shelves. Sometimes it's reading a few pages of a favorite author like Susan Howatch that reminds me why I write. Other times, like this past week in particular, I need a sage mentor to address the stuckness head-on and offer strategies for getting unstuck.

I found just such a mentor in Barbara DeMarco-Barrett and her wonderful book Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman's Guide to Igniting the Writer Within. The title alone made me want to find this woman and hug her. She gets it. She's direct and so insightful about the torn guilt women writers feel. Our families and homes and jobs and spiritual disciplines and friends and volunteer commitments all vie for our time and attention, and yet the vast world within our imaginations begs to be brought to life. We want to be everything to everyone, and often it's writing that gets shelved, though doing so comes at the cost of amputating part of one's truest self.

I felt particularly encouraged by her notion of taking small, incremental steps. Because writers write. Everyone else just makes excuses. While some can hit a 500-1,000 words-a-day goal, the rest of us merely need to keep up the discipline of writing for 15 minutes each day--even rough notes or lists or journal entries. This "counts" as writing. The book is chock full of exercises to fill that 15 minutes when ideas just don't flow.
10:14 AM Laurel Garver
It's pretty common to hit road blocks while taking on the Herculean task of drafting a novel. What I didn't expect was how simultaneously trying to market a finished book has sucked away much of my creative energy. During the recent weeks of ramping up new queries, every time I open my WIP, I feel stuck, stuck, stuck. And yet, the less I write, the more miserable I become. It's a vicious cycle and escaping it requires good tools.
First, I find that talking writing with other writers can be enough of an energy boost to get me going again. A writer's group that a friend and I started up this spring met this weekend and critiqued pieces of two of the members. The energy in the group is beginning to snowball in exciting ways. Only one of the group has done much publishing, but the rest of us are inching toward the goal of becoming published authors. Knowing these folks value my perspective and commitment (and won't let me wimp out and quit when the going gets tough) helps me hang in there.

Second, I hit the shelves. Sometimes it's reading a few pages of a favorite author like Susan Howatch that reminds me why I write. Other times, like this past week in particular, I need a sage mentor to address the stuckness head-on and offer strategies for getting unstuck.

I found just such a mentor in Barbara DeMarco-Barrett and her wonderful book Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman's Guide to Igniting the Writer Within. The title alone made me want to find this woman and hug her. She gets it. She's direct and so insightful about the torn guilt women writers feel. Our families and homes and jobs and spiritual disciplines and friends and volunteer commitments all vie for our time and attention, and yet the vast world within our imaginations begs to be brought to life. We want to be everything to everyone, and often it's writing that gets shelved, though doing so comes at the cost of amputating part of one's truest self.

I felt particularly encouraged by her notion of taking small, incremental steps. Because writers write. Everyone else just makes excuses. While some can hit a 500-1,000 words-a-day goal, the rest of us merely need to keep up the discipline of writing for 15 minutes each day--even rough notes or lists or journal entries. This "counts" as writing. The book is chock full of exercises to fill that 15 minutes when ideas just don't flow.

Friday, August 21, 2009

For most characters, motivations are driven by family of origin issues. This includes far more than one's relationship with parents. Sibling relationships and one's place in the family pecking order can be strong influences on characters.

Dr. Kevin Lehman's The Birth Order Book looks at the particular pressures of being first born, middle, last born or only child. He goes on to discuss how the family dynamic tends to shape relational styles and personality development for each birth order position. He concludes that these early relationships shape not only the family dynamic but also how each individual relates to people outside the family. He observes that first borns and only children tend to be achievement oriented, natural leaders who desire affirmation from authority figures. Middle borns, he says, are laid back, excel at mediating and developing consensus and tend to be more open with friends than with family. He observes that last borns are creative, rebellious and often rely on humor and charm to get along in the world.

I'm not in any position to critique the science here, though more recent studies, like the ones reported in this Time article, do seem to back up his observations. I've simply found the book helpful in the character development process. When I think through the backstory of any character, birth order has a place and can subtly bring verisimilitude to the story. In Bring to Light, when I needed a likeable guy friend character who would respond with gentleness and humor to my protagonist's plight, I made him a last born with older sisters. My protagonist's workaholic mom is, of course, a first born. Her laid-back dad, the youngest of two.
12:24 PM Laurel Garver
For most characters, motivations are driven by family of origin issues. This includes far more than one's relationship with parents. Sibling relationships and one's place in the family pecking order can be strong influences on characters.

Dr. Kevin Lehman's The Birth Order Book looks at the particular pressures of being first born, middle, last born or only child. He goes on to discuss how the family dynamic tends to shape relational styles and personality development for each birth order position. He concludes that these early relationships shape not only the family dynamic but also how each individual relates to people outside the family. He observes that first borns and only children tend to be achievement oriented, natural leaders who desire affirmation from authority figures. Middle borns, he says, are laid back, excel at mediating and developing consensus and tend to be more open with friends than with family. He observes that last borns are creative, rebellious and often rely on humor and charm to get along in the world.

I'm not in any position to critique the science here, though more recent studies, like the ones reported in this Time article, do seem to back up his observations. I've simply found the book helpful in the character development process. When I think through the backstory of any character, birth order has a place and can subtly bring verisimilitude to the story. In Bring to Light, when I needed a likeable guy friend character who would respond with gentleness and humor to my protagonist's plight, I made him a last born with older sisters. My protagonist's workaholic mom is, of course, a first born. Her laid-back dad, the youngest of two.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It's no small task to create characters that live and breathe on the page, that don't hamstring your story by behaving in a way that seems implausible. You can spend weeks dreaming up the physical details of your characters, mentally filling her closet and his iPod playlist only to discover you don't really know your characters, especially what they want, and more importantly, why.

What motivates a person, makes him choose this action and not that one, makes her invest in a relationship in a particular way--this is the deep stuff of characterization. I've found that simply observing people going about their business of living is not enough to train me to understand character motivation. And because motivation is the building block of solid plotting, it's essential to get motivation right.

All this is to say that I highly recommend every writer spend some time reading in the social sciences, especially psychology, child development and sociology. My characterization in Bring to Light would not have gotten off the ground had I not read heavily and talked to experts about the grieving process and grief therapy.

In coming posts, I'll highlight some of the social science reading I've found particularly helpful.
1:32 PM Laurel Garver
It's no small task to create characters that live and breathe on the page, that don't hamstring your story by behaving in a way that seems implausible. You can spend weeks dreaming up the physical details of your characters, mentally filling her closet and his iPod playlist only to discover you don't really know your characters, especially what they want, and more importantly, why.

What motivates a person, makes him choose this action and not that one, makes her invest in a relationship in a particular way--this is the deep stuff of characterization. I've found that simply observing people going about their business of living is not enough to train me to understand character motivation. And because motivation is the building block of solid plotting, it's essential to get motivation right.

All this is to say that I highly recommend every writer spend some time reading in the social sciences, especially psychology, child development and sociology. My characterization in Bring to Light would not have gotten off the ground had I not read heavily and talked to experts about the grieving process and grief therapy.

In coming posts, I'll highlight some of the social science reading I've found particularly helpful.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Since attending a workshop on marketing, I decided there might be some benefit to getting back into blogging. Laurel's Leaves is the result. As the weeks go on, I've tried to add sidebar elements, especially expanding the list of blogs I hope to check with some regularity.

As I've gone out looking for other YA writers who blog, I've been a bit overwhelmed. How do these people manage to be so darned chipper? How do they find time to write pithy anecdotes for the blog AND read so many pre-published books AND market their own work AND hold contests AND keep up with chores AND keep spouse and kids even marginally happy AND actually write new material that's fresh and doesn't utterly suck? I suppose some of this wonderwoman facade can be chalked up to "brand." Women who write high-energy, humorous stories need to keep up a high-energy, humorous persona online. I imagine the YA fantasy writers keep blogs that are more serious and lyrical.

It can be hard not to look at the community that writes for teens and not have the sinking feeling that you have to contort yourself to somehow fit in, as if these folks sat at the "popular table" in the high school cafeteria. Fortunately, I don't think that's quite the case. I've noticed an encouraging trend on these blogs: YA writers support each other, cheer each other on. They read widely in the genre, and appreciate the best in each subcategory, whether it's humor, romance, suspense/thriller, fantasy, historical, or literary. There seems to be room for new voices and a delight in discovering them. So even if my work is on the strange and serious end of the spectrum, I suspect there really is room for me at the table. Time to pull up a chair and start learning names.
11:21 AM Laurel Garver
Since attending a workshop on marketing, I decided there might be some benefit to getting back into blogging. Laurel's Leaves is the result. As the weeks go on, I've tried to add sidebar elements, especially expanding the list of blogs I hope to check with some regularity.

As I've gone out looking for other YA writers who blog, I've been a bit overwhelmed. How do these people manage to be so darned chipper? How do they find time to write pithy anecdotes for the blog AND read so many pre-published books AND market their own work AND hold contests AND keep up with chores AND keep spouse and kids even marginally happy AND actually write new material that's fresh and doesn't utterly suck? I suppose some of this wonderwoman facade can be chalked up to "brand." Women who write high-energy, humorous stories need to keep up a high-energy, humorous persona online. I imagine the YA fantasy writers keep blogs that are more serious and lyrical.

It can be hard not to look at the community that writes for teens and not have the sinking feeling that you have to contort yourself to somehow fit in, as if these folks sat at the "popular table" in the high school cafeteria. Fortunately, I don't think that's quite the case. I've noticed an encouraging trend on these blogs: YA writers support each other, cheer each other on. They read widely in the genre, and appreciate the best in each subcategory, whether it's humor, romance, suspense/thriller, fantasy, historical, or literary. There seems to be room for new voices and a delight in discovering them. So even if my work is on the strange and serious end of the spectrum, I suspect there really is room for me at the table. Time to pull up a chair and start learning names.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

I had a harrowing night last night when our third floor toilet's water line broke. The problem went unnoticed for about 20 minutes, until the water started raining into the second floor, first floor and basement. The next few hours were eaten up with bailing, mopping, tamping down towels, laundering towels, running fans. Today as I slump around, fatigued and worried a ceiling might still collapse, I can't help but remember what my mother always says about these sorts of disasters: "it will make a good story later."

I think Mom's philosophy on life as narrative has shaped me in ways I'm only beginning to understand. If my life is a story, then it's the messes, mishaps and failures that actually make it interesting. Not that I seek these things out, but when disaster does occur, it carries with it the promise of bringing something ultimately transformative, maybe even redemptive. "It will make a good story later" makes me notice things I otherwise wouldn't, from the shape of stains on the ceiling to the way my husband's shoulders slump as he contemplates them.

Watching Mom over the years ferret away details in the midst of turmoil then transform them into captivating comic stories has been quite an education. Not only have I learned to see the humor potential in all things (and to never take myself too seriously), I've also gained a habit of attentiveness when life goes awry--a valuable skill in any writer's toolbox.
3:18 PM Laurel Garver
I had a harrowing night last night when our third floor toilet's water line broke. The problem went unnoticed for about 20 minutes, until the water started raining into the second floor, first floor and basement. The next few hours were eaten up with bailing, mopping, tamping down towels, laundering towels, running fans. Today as I slump around, fatigued and worried a ceiling might still collapse, I can't help but remember what my mother always says about these sorts of disasters: "it will make a good story later."

I think Mom's philosophy on life as narrative has shaped me in ways I'm only beginning to understand. If my life is a story, then it's the messes, mishaps and failures that actually make it interesting. Not that I seek these things out, but when disaster does occur, it carries with it the promise of bringing something ultimately transformative, maybe even redemptive. "It will make a good story later" makes me notice things I otherwise wouldn't, from the shape of stains on the ceiling to the way my husband's shoulders slump as he contemplates them.

Watching Mom over the years ferret away details in the midst of turmoil then transform them into captivating comic stories has been quite an education. Not only have I learned to see the humor potential in all things (and to never take myself too seriously), I've also gained a habit of attentiveness when life goes awry--a valuable skill in any writer's toolbox.

Saturday, August 01, 2009


Lara M. Zeises's very readable story about teen grief that strikes a lot of the right notes. Bridget is entirely believable as the girl who, after her childhood friend's death, must come to terms with their complicated relationship.


Issues of identity development were done well, I think. Bridget's reaction to her upbringing--two rejecting parents--makes sense of her tendency to be a pleaser and glam onto Benji and his nice family. Benji's itchiness to flee the East coast was harder to understand, as his family life seems pretty stable and good. I only wish the author had givien us a clearer picture of the underlying problems in Benji's household.


The ambiguity Zeises creates did make for intriguing reading. As a reader, you wonder if to what degree is Bridget's "great" relationship with Benji wrapped in layers of fantasy. That, in turn, raises deeper questions--how well do we really know those we believe we're closest to? How much can emotional need cause one to project perfection onto a beloved? What would healing look like when the illusion is broken at last?

9:42 AM Laurel Garver

Lara M. Zeises's very readable story about teen grief that strikes a lot of the right notes. Bridget is entirely believable as the girl who, after her childhood friend's death, must come to terms with their complicated relationship.


Issues of identity development were done well, I think. Bridget's reaction to her upbringing--two rejecting parents--makes sense of her tendency to be a pleaser and glam onto Benji and his nice family. Benji's itchiness to flee the East coast was harder to understand, as his family life seems pretty stable and good. I only wish the author had givien us a clearer picture of the underlying problems in Benji's household.


The ambiguity Zeises creates did make for intriguing reading. As a reader, you wonder if to what degree is Bridget's "great" relationship with Benji wrapped in layers of fantasy. That, in turn, raises deeper questions--how well do we really know those we believe we're closest to? How much can emotional need cause one to project perfection onto a beloved? What would healing look like when the illusion is broken at last?