8 Books (And One Talk) That Gave Me A Writing Life

Recently a friend from high school sent me a message asking about my writing process and if I had any advice for him about writing. (And oh, if he has a book in him I really want to read it. He’s one of the most effortlessly creative people I’ve ever met.) 

I thought I would make the answer into a blog post, just in case some of you have the same question.

I have never attended college or university, not quite on purpose. Life decisions are funny that way. I began traveling at eighteen, met my Superstar Husband, got married and had three kids by the time I was twenty-five. My education on writing has come from reading hundreds of novels of all genres, and many books on writing, and I am endlessly thankful to the authors responsible for these books.

I started my whole fiction writing journey with this book, surely familiar to some of you. 

 

I read Bird By Bird when I was twenty-one and pregnant with Kai, my first born. Chinua was in Israel at the time, and the Passover Massacre had happened the day he arrived, leading to a suicide bombing in a public place nearly every day that he was in Israel. It was a terrifying time, I was staying in Marin County with a friend, and reading this funny, hopeful, down-to-earth book by a Marin writer carried me through. When I think of it I still remember the smell of eucalyptus and lavender, the rain, the hard-boiled eggs I popped like shots to feed my growing baby. 

Anne Lamott is a force that calms the soul by writing about taking the smallest chunks, soothing the writer’s anxiety, sitting down to work, turning off the horrid voices that threaten the writer. Reading her book, I thought that perhaps I could write fiction. 

From there I moved to On Writing by Stephen King. It is part Cinderella story about his own career, part hard-nosed advice, and very inspiring. 

Then there was Escaping into the Open, The Art of Writing True, by Elizabeth Berg, a book that focuses on full, ripe, delicious, sensory writing. 

When I read The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard, I felt I had met a kindred spirit. She’s just so delightfully deep and tortured, with humor to save the day. (That could be my bio line.) She insists that it takes forever to write a book, which I don’t think is true, but it is such a pleasure to read her advice on writing and life. 

 

The War of Art taught me about breaking through the initial resistance to get to my writing, or art, or meditation. It’s such a good book and I highly recommend it. 

And there was Walking on Water, which taught me about the sacred in art, confirming many things I already knew at the core of me. (If you want more delightful autobiography type writing, read Madeleine L’Engle’s Crosswicks series, especially A Circle of Quiet.)

These were my first books on writing. They taught me to focus on details, to sit down and try to get words out (Anne Lamott said 300 to 500 was okay, but Stephen King insisted on 2000), to immerse myself in sensory details, to dig into my characters. So that was the way I wrote. I started with an idea and explored through writing chapters. And then I tried to come up with a plot and rewrote 14 times. It took ages, as you know. 

Enter my next phase of writing.

I had always dreamed of writing fantasy. But it was elusive and far off. It seemed nearly impossible to simply, what—create a world out of my head? It was on my list of most-desired-things though, along with beginning to paint again (happening), sailing the world with Chinua once we’re empty nesters (to be determined), having lots of kids (done),  learning to cook (done), and having an outdoor kitchen. (Also done.) But I was frustrated by how hard writing was.

In dreaming about fantasy and writing more quickly, I knew that I needed to think about plotting my books. But how? I write in a dream-like state that falls on me, making me feel that the words are not even coming from me—I’m catching them and pulling them onto the page. I’m almost not there. I listened to a TED talk recently that confirmed this, recently, saying that in flowing creativity, the self correcting part of the brain turns off. This would explain the dream state. It’s an amazing place to be, more fun than anything I know. 

And then I listened to a talk by John Cleese that changed everything about the way I think about writing.

After watching this talk, I realized that I could bring the dreaming state into a different part of the process. I dream, I write down ideas and follow threads of thought. I play like crazy before I sit down to write.

He suggests taking 90 minute chunks where you do nothing but dream and play, and that you don’t allow criticism to interfere with any part of that time. So for six months, every time I got on the three hour bus ride to Chiang Mai, I listened to music, stared out the window, and dreamed a whole world. I used Evernote on my phone to write down every thought I had, and after those six months were over, I had come up with the premise and a large part of the plot of a fantasy series. When I was ready, I put my ideas into plot format, writing down scenes in order. I fixed plot holes and added characters when they popped into existence. I wrote down who they were and what they looked like, what bothered them about the world, what they were going to do about it. I did it all on the bus. (I was still working on A Traveler’s Guide to Belonging, but bus time was up for grabs.)

When I finally had everything together, I wrote the first draft in a month, forcing myself to complete it rather than start over halfway through like I had done with my other books.

Each day I looked at what scene I needed to write, then began writing, falling quickly into the dream state that I love, riding along the wave of words that came out of my keyboard. It was the most fun I had ever had writing a book, topped only by the fun I’m having while I write the second World Whisperer book. It's hard to imagine that at one point it was all a fuzzy idea. They're all so real to me now; Isika, Benayeem, Jabari. I practically live with them. I also find that it is not stilted in any way. I know what will happen, but I am always surprised by the way it does. I don't plan dialogue or exact moments, all of that happens as I write. 

There are some excellent plot books that have helped me in my new way of writing. The best book on writing quickly is Rachel Aaron’s 2000 to 10000. (Reading this book led me to her own fantasy, and Kai, Kenya and I are now big fans of hers.) She also has excellent advice on plotting in the second half of the book. 

And the spicily named Take off your Pants! (Referencing the two worlds of plotting and pantsing, as they are known) is another excellent book on plot. I have adopted Libbie Hawker's character charts and they are very helpful. 

We're on countdown! I'm hidden away editing like crazy in my own town and cannot WAIT to share World Whisperer with you. 

I hope this little post helped with any questions about resources for writing well. If you have more questions for me, don't hesitate to ask!

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The clearest things.

We’re well into fire season in Northern Thailand. The smoke is thick, now, like a filter over the whole world. My throat hurts in the morning. Everything is muted into grays, browns, and washed out greens and yellows. I feel filtered too, missing my husband and waiting for someone to come and invite me into a world of plenty. But there are so many beautiful things, even in this smoky season. The doves in the mornings and all the birds that call while we meditate at the garden. My jasmine tree is blooming. When I sit on the stairs in the evening I can breathe jasmine, think jasmine. I go to bed dreaming of it. It makes me think of my friend Leaf, the way she bought us jasmine on our retreat. It reminds me of my first, difficult moments in Goa, when I was pregnant with Solo, the longing I had for home, and the jasmine my husband bought me, wrapped in a banana leaf. It made me feel like perhaps I could stay.

Yesterday I drove to the pool with the kids. We still fit in the chariot, but just barely, and sometimes I can’t believe we are still driving everywhere in it. We passed dried, burned forests, the earth black at the feet of teak trees that have lost all their leaves. The hills were hidden behind the smoke. Tiny lizards sat in the road with heads and tails up and I prayed they would scurry away every time. They did. Our little motorbike with its sidecar bravely navigated the hills in first gear, rattling all the way. 

The morning had gone well, with school and books and tea all around. I have successfully stopped adding sugar to my coffee and I don’t know if you can ever know just how huge an accomplishment it is for me, but I feel amazing. The heat grew and grew until it was nearly 40 degrees and time to drive to the pool.

We met for homeschool co-op and talked about the eclipse, which we missed by seven minutes, because the moon was still hiding behind the hills. Isaac taught himself to swim, wriggling back and forth between Kenya and I. When he swims he holds his hands to his sides and bobs up and down like a dolphin. He is slippery and cool in the water, a delight on a hot day. In the hotspring pool, I talked with an older French woman. “Your husband?” she asked, after we talked about all my children. “He’s away right now, in Hungary?” Her face changed. “He’s hangry with you?” She asked, horrified. “No, no!” I said. “The opposite. He’s very, very pleased with us. He’s in Hun-gah-ry.” 

Sometimes people here ask me if I’m not afraid to have my husband far from me, that he will have another girlfriend. (Yes, people ask this and yes people talk about absolutely everything in Thailand. No subject is too difficult, except, perhaps, the royals.) And then I think of our trust, and the fact that marriage and the promises we have made make us more free than anything could. We can fly around the world, apart for a short while, knowing that we will always come back together, a true home to one another. Trust is the water, the life, the clearing away of smoke until everything shines like diamonds; the love Chinua holds for me, no matter where he is, the truth of it, the stark, effervescent joy. He is not angry. He is very pleased to think of us, his wife and children. We are his home. He comes back to us singing. 

We drove home in the dark, rattling along in the thick air. The full moon shone red through the smoke and everyone watched it except for me, because I was watching the road, slowing down for the broken places, making sure the lizards got out of the way, admiring the way that life conquers even the driest places.

 

The Gift: A New Poem

Yesterday, the sky was a worn old thing
piece of paper, crumpled and dusty
cast off. Uninvited.
Terrified of the smoke,
cringing away from the world
The trees punctured it with sharp ends
It cried for color

Today: Cup of coffee, scratching in the dark
Birds attempt to lift the heavy dawn
Morning doesn’t want to come
I sit on the floor and tape things together
Bits of bright yellow, a line that hasn’t been torn
a ray of nothing, an angle
Looking in my pockets, searching for whole things
A pebble, a hug, a pure strand of blue
A bird with bright feathers.
Tie them together with string
dab some glue in the corners
A sheet, a picture put together
from the little I have
Lift it up in this dark predawn.
“Here, sky, here.”

 

PS: Chinua is in Hungary and I'm struggling to find time to write, but poems come in the dark of morning, and the second installment of World Whisperer is up on Wattpad. Enjoy!  And if you don't love reading things in serial format, not to worry, the book launch is on April 15.

World Whisperer on Wattpad

Hi lovely ones! 

I'm trying an experiment (I love experiments) where I'll be publishing World Whisperer in one chapter segments on Wattpad, a free fiction platform. I'll still be doing my regular launch on April 15, with paperback and ebooks available simultaneously. Wattpad is big with younger readers, and finding those readers is part of my plan to take over the world with this six book series. That or just have lots of people read it.

The prologue is up today, and I'll be posting twice a week, so if you like to read things in serial format, hop on over to read on Wattpad. While you're there, be sure to vote it up if you like it. And yes! Please share with your kids and teens! I think it will appeal to both. It has passed the Kai, Kenya, and Leafy test of approval. 

Announcing World Whisperer: Young Adult Fantasy coming out in April.

The first real literary love I had was Anne of Green Gables. The second was C.S. Lewis. Later, Tolkien. I think I read The Lord of the Rings four times through before I graduated from high school. I was one of those people who felt betrayed that there was no Tom Bombadil or Goldberry in the movies. (Still. What? Why?) The things we spend our time on as children shape us. Experts say that reading stories improves empathy. Reading so much Anne of Green Gables formed how I saw the natural world, that trees could be friends. Those books gave voice to the fact that beauty fed my soul. I still consider them a kind of home.

And fantasy formed me. Fantasy was was huge part of how I saw the world, how I formed my thoughts about God and the inner beauty and majesty of people. Some things are invisible in the real world. There are emotions and realities that go deeper than we can know in our everyday lives, there is meaning that can be expressed so well in fantasy. You cannot read these things in the bills, the dishes, or reality TV. (Heavens no.) 

When I was older I discovered more and more fantasy. I became one of the biggest Harry Potter fans ever. I loved all of Robin McKinley's books. I was delighted, later, when my children became avid fantasy addicts as well. And yet I was disappointed. Because something I hadn’t noticed when I was growing up (I hadn’t needed to) was that all the protagonists I loved looked a little bit like me. They were white. And it was noticeable with my kids because none of the protagonists looked like them. We couldn’t find a lot of fantasy about black protagonists. (I mean protagonists, main characters, not the supporting characters-- and I do know about the Kane Chronicles.)

Though my kids can identify with anyone—they are empathetic creatures, as all kids are, and can put themselves in the shoes of anyone with blood and a heart (even old men and dragons)—it was still disappointing because we are over fifteen years into this millennium. I got online and looked around and I saw a lot of stuff about marketability and the fact that publishers change even the way black characters look, making them white on covers, because a black person on a cover doesn’t sell. What. The. hell. 

Okay, so I know nothing about big giant rhino marketing, really. And maybe adults with all their years of ingrained philosophy and separateness are like that. (I hope not, and I don't really think they are.) 

But kids are a lot smarter than that. This I know. They’ll connect with anyone, especially another human boy or girl who has darker skin or lighter skin than they do. (Or is a fairy! This is fantasy!) And I think everyone should have heroes that look like them. 

So. Combine a love affair with young adult fantasy and a frustration at marketing trends. What did I do? I started emailing publishers... just kidding.

I'm a writer. I started a series of books, a series that's been rolling around in my brain for years. And I’m self-publishing this series, starting this year, because I don’t want anyone with marketing on the brain to mess with my words or my covers. Because reading kids are of all races. And they’re very, very smart. Smarter than we take them for. And adults who love fantasy of all kinds, or even just books of all kinds, are also smart. I hired a friend who is an illustrator to create the art for my cover. Meet Isika.

This will be the cover art (done by my talented friend Tom Li) for World Whisperer, which is set to be launched on April 15. (You can reward yourself for filing your taxes.) Here's a blurb:

Years ago, after Isika, her mother, her brother and two sisters came wandering out of the desert, the priest of the Worker village had pity on them and took them into his home as his family. For half her life, fourteen-year-old Isika has tried to fit in as a Worker, to live up to her role as the Worker priest’s daughter. Though something inside her has always longed for freedom from the strict, unmerciful ways of the Workers, she has been powerless to get out from under them. She was helpless when her sister was Sent out, killed in the village custom of sacrificing children to the rough waves. She couldn’t stop her mother from dying of grief two weeks later, leaving Isika’s little newborn brother, Kital behind. And the four years since, Isika has done her best to cause no problems, to watch her step, and to care for Kital, who she loves more than anything.

But now Isika’s stepfather has chosen the next child to be Sent Out. It is Kital and this time, Isika will not be helpless. She resolves to save her brother, no matter what it will cost her. Together, Isika and her two remaining siblings make a heroic attempt to rescue their little brother, launching themselves into a journey outside of the walls of the Worker village, where none of them know what to expect.

So tell me. Is this exciting to you? Do you read fantasy? Do you have kids who do? Did you know that 55% of people who read Young Adult fiction are adults? (Hint, it's because it's amazing.)