Category Archives: the writer’s craft

This blog is a Kitsap Sun reader blog. The Kitsap Sun neither edits nor previews reader blog posts. Their content is the sole creation and responsibility of the readers who produce them. Reader bloggers are asked to adhere to our reader blog agreement. If you have a concern or would like to start a reader blog of your own, please contact

Dreams and Fiction

Recently a member of my critique group (which I won’t name, because it’s an unwieldy size already), raised the topic of using dreams in writing.  “I’ve heard a great deal about using dreams in your story,” she wrote to me, “all negative. I don’t get it. I like dreams, and my dreams are not dull.  Do you know why that is, dreams not being a good choice?”

“I don’t know why the bad rap,” I replied.  “Might be because some people try to stick too closely to their dream stories instead of using them as jumping-off points.  Sticking exactly to a dream scenario would produce the same stilted hybrid you get when you use a real-life incident as the basis for a story and insist on clinging to the facts, grudgingly ‘fictionalizing’ a few token details, instead of envisioning the incident as happening to characters with lives and personalities of their own.  Some writers just don’t get what true-to-life means; they get hung up on “well, that’s the way it really happened” instead of writing genuine fiction that embodies truths about real life.”

Next I invited the group to weigh in on this topic.  “Some say using a dream as the basis for a piece of fiction is never a good idea.  Why not?”

The responses made me realize there were two questions:  using your own dreams as story fodder and writing your character’s dreams into a story.   The group’s moderator replied first.  “Using a dream as the basis for a story, or using elements of the dream in your story, is fine.  As long as the story has all the elements a good story possesses, it is a good story, whatever the inspiration.”  Fidelity to the details, he agreed, is a mistake.  “It is a bad idea to try and put your dream down on paper as is, generally, for the same reasons that just because something really happened doesn’t automatically make it a good story.  It’s the reason people’s eyes glaze over when you tell them your dream, or about this thing that happened to you while you were shopping and the lady said blah blah blah.  Unless you establish a character we care about, and some tension, or take us on a journey that creates interest in the reader as to what is going to happen next, etc. it is not entertaining as fiction, no matter how interesting you found it when you dreamed it, or how accurate it is to something that really happened.”

Moving on to the subject of putting a character’s dreams in a story, he added, “It is also a bad idea to start a story or novel with a dream, because you haven’t yet established for the reader what reality is, so they do not know what parts of the dream are real or not, and further, the reader is wanting to get to know the character and the world, etc. and here you are starting with something that isn’t real, and then they’ll just have to start all over at square one trying to figure out who the character is and the world, etc.”

This is excellent advice, excellently explained.  I’d seen writers make this mistake before, without understanding why it annoyed or confused me.

“If you write a good story,” he concluded, “it doesn’t matter what inspired it.”  Other responses poured in.   Here’s a sampling, edited for brevity:

“Ideas for stories can come from any venue. If the writing holds the reader captive, I don’t see how the idea source is a problem.”

“I find dreams useful when I already have the general plot for a story. Not every dream I have is useful to the story, but some provide the kernel of a thought about events [or] scenery… usually not about emotions, thoughts or dialogue.”

“In my experience it’s difficult to write from dreams because they are intensely personal and emotionally impactful. It takes great skill to convert that combination into a piece of writing … If you can put a three-dimensional character in a predicament like the dream with good stakes and relevant tension you’ll have a winning combination of unique and compelling.”

“I think the most useful thing you can take from a dream is its fanciful imagery or environment.  Dreams are great for unbridled imagination.  But be wary when you borrow from your own dreams, because dreams tend to attach [personal] emotional significance to scenes… While in your own mind that imagery may be loaded with emotion, it may be meaningless to the reader.”    

After a lively wide-ranging discussion, the original instigator thanked us all.  “I have been trying to sort this out because I often find inspiration from dreams. I never write a story based solely on a dream but have had characters that are already introduced having dreams that may or may not intersect with their reality. So it sounds like the opinion is that it’s the quality of the story, as always, that really determines. That makes sense.  Sometimes as a new writer I become confused by “the rules”—which I have always had trouble with anyway.”

Her and me both!  Guidelines for good writing I can live with.  But … rules?  The only rule I acknowledge is this:  If it doesn’t work, either scrap it or revise the blinking $?@# out of it.

Lovely Literary Links

 Well, I said I would post here every two weeks, and it’s been three.  Okay, so I lied.  Excuses:  family, arthritis, gardening, watching soccer (Allez Pumas!!!, and being involved in a vehicle collision. 

Though shaken  and overdosing on adrenalin, I emerged unhurt, but my car did not, and I was reminded yet again of how many people these days are unemployed, homeless and broke by the fact that the driver of the elderly, and heavy, Ford truck that smooshed my poor little Corolla was all three, and thus uninsured.  Luckily we have good insurance.)

My final, painful admission—I can’t call it an excuse—is that sometimes I just love reading more than I love writing.  Scottish novelist Kate Atkinson writes brilliant thrillers, rich in humanity, intelligence, wry comedy, general wackiness and unexpected twists.  I’ll review them one day.  Georgette Heyer’s romantic comedies comfort me when I need soothing—as I did after the crash; ditto for Agatha Christie’s mystery novels, especially those from the 1950s and 60s, when she was at the top of her game.

My sense of guilt is somewhat ameliorated the fact that I have recently finished a strong revision of my story Joy (I posted an early draft of the first part here a few months back) which in fact turned out to be a novelette.  At about 10,000 words, it’s substantially longer than most short stories but a bit underweight as a novella—in itself a rather difficult form to sell.

Sell it, however, I am trying to do, because I’m bloody proud of it!  The founder of my critique group, Randy Henderson ( was kind enough, though a speculative fiction writer himself, to send me a list of likely magazines and/or contests for mid-length literary fiction, and I’ve put some time into researching some of them.  Here are the results, not definitive, certainly, but giving some hint as to where they’re at:

Alaska Quarterly Review (under 50 pages) – read unsolicited mss (paper, no email) Aug 15 – May 15

 A Public Space – (online, very odd)

 Carpe Articulum Novella Contest (up to 150 pages) – ($25 fee)

 The Collagist – open submissions; also chapbook contest

 Drue Heinz Literature Prize (up to 130 pages) requires having had novel published (print)

Failbetter – regular submissions  (also novella contest, May 15 deadline)

 Gettysburg Review

 Glimmer Train (short story award for unpublished writers; submit in May  – I did.  Fiction Open, up to 20,000 words, submit by email in June)


 Miami University Press Novella Contest (18,000 – 40,000 words)

 Narrative – diff size MS, $22 fee, big money for winners

 Novella Project (25,000 – 35,000 words)

 Paris Review – rather prissy, paper subs only

 Quarterly West (not regular submissions — only for novella contest)

Quattro Books (Canadian, 15,000 – 42,000 words)

Seattle Review (40 – 90 pages)

Southern Humanities Review (up to 15,000 words) open email submissions – looks promising

Texas Review – paper only, submit Sept thru April


of Kindness and Cruelty

Confession:  I am a wimp when it comes to inflicting trouble and danger on the characters in my fiction.  I know well that I am far, far too gentle with them, and if my tales are to contain any tension, or any suspense—not to mention character arc—this really won’t do. 

 In spite of my fondness for a well-turned murder mystery, I usually avoid reading detailed accounts of acts of violence.  My visual imagination and, worse, my memory are too strong.  I got only a little way into Jeffrey Eugenides’ supposedly marvelous novel Middlesex before a graphic description of a family slaughtered by bayonet-wielding soldiers stopped me reading any further, and images from that passage still return, years later, to haunt me.  This is a testimony, perhaps, to the vividness of Eugenides’ writing, but I just can’t handle vivid writing on such topics. 

 Still, there’s a lot of territory between gruesome horrors and a tale so free of challenges to its protagonists that nothing whatsoever happens to them.  If I hope to attract any reader who prefers a seascape to a placid pond, this is a territory I must begin to explore, and to claim.

Somebody (possibly Theresa Meyers – once said in a presentation at a Peninsula Romance Writers meeting, “Think of the very worst thing that could happen to your heroine—and then make it three times worse!”  At the time I knew it was good advice, but I am still struggling to implement it.  I don’t want to be cruel to my characters; I’m too fond of them.

Luckily for me, my characters, like my children and grandchildren, seem to have strong wills of their own.  I might do my timid smother-mother best to keep them sheltered and safe, but wouldn’t you know, they still insist on wandering out into dangerous territory—of the heart as much as of the body—and they learn, and they grow, and they survive.

Write What You Know

There’s a famous old New Yorker cartoon of a writer surrounded by dogs eating, sleeping, scratching themselves, etc. while he types away in one corner.  In the doorway stands a woman—his wife? his slatternly muse?—saying forcefully, “Write about dogs!”

How does this apply to my current project, The Vanth?  Well, I know something about love and sex, about fantasy and yearning.  I know something about being a young woman (been there!), something about artists and professors.  I know a little about traveling in Italy, about buying and cooking the local food, about Tarquinia and its painted tombs …  About Etruscan warriors: not so much, but a little.

Thanks to my husband and his degrees in Classics, I know a bit about the art, culture and history of the Etruscans, the people who ruled much ofItalybefore the rise ofRome.  Unlike most of the audience I hope to find for this romance, I know what a Vanth is—but prior knowledge is not necessary, I hope, to enjoying the book.

Emotion recollected in tranquility

As a young woman I spent far too much of my life agonizing about whether I was loved; how much I was loved; how to make him (the “him” of the moment) love me, or love me more, or love me the way I wanted to be loved; and if or when I would ever be truly loved.  This is something I definitely know.  I know a lot about how people can make things difficult for themselves by compulsively second-guessing themselves and their lovers.  Luckily I am now very happily married, and so I can recollect all this seething emotion in the recommended tranquility.

Never mind the exotic locale, lovely as it may be; never mind time travel and all the paranormal elements; never mind even the sex scenes, both sweet and steamy:   in a romance, tension is what it’s all about.  Will the lovers find each other?  And then, having found each other, will they be able to get past all the static in their brains, all the fears and doubts, both real and manufactured, that keep them from trusting each other?  In a romance, no matter how steamy or dramatic, the answer is always finally YES.   Sometimes it happens that way in real life, too.

Of Word Processors Old and New

Two weeks ago I wrote here that my topics for upcoming posts would arise from my current project:  undertaking a major revision of my paranormal romance The Vanth.  This post has nothing to do with The Vanth itself (herself?) but much to do with the process of revision.  I doubt that I would have become a novelist without learning to use a computer, and thus acquiring the ability to move large blocks of text around without having to literally cut and paste and then retype it all. 

This is not to say that I don’t write by hand.  I do.  I filled a dozen or more blank books during my travel year, and I have stacks of labeled boxes of old journals in a funny little attic next to my office.  Some go back 50 years or more. 

Many writers, especially poets, prefer to write only by hand.   Some claim their creativity flows most directly that way to the paper, and this may be even more true of left-handed writers.  Lefties as a group may or may not be more creative or intuitive than the rest of us, but the left hand is linked to the non-linear, instinctive, not to say illogical right side of the brain.  Certainly some of the greatest poetry can be called illogical, and I think all poetry is, at some level, best processed in a non-linear way.  But I am not a poet.

Back in the days when people with cell phones were a minority, back when hardly anyone even took photos on their phones, let alone surfing the web, reading or even, by now, more than likely writing books on them, back when more and more people had personal computers while some still settled for modern technology in a simpler form, back in the 1980s, the poet Jesse Bernstein would sometimes ask guests, “Hey, wanna see my word processor?”  

When they said yes, he’d grin, dig into his pocket and produce a stub of pencil.  That was more joke than truth, though, because in fact Jesse did most of his work on typewriters.  He loved them with a passion that went far beyond his extraordinarily well-developed office supply fetish.  (I’ve never known anyone who owned more paper clips, more staples—or more staplers—than Jesse.)  Though he (unlike me) stopped short of naming his machines, they were individuals to him, with distinct personalities.

He generally had at least two, and often three typewriters, but his dearest possession was a sturdy pale green portable Hermes 3000.  That model, he used to say, was famed as a war correspondent’s typewriter—and Jesse did consider himself a war correspondent. 

Jesse also loved the narrow, spiral-bound notepads used by reporters—it was mostly on them that he wore his pencils down—and once persuaded Regina Hackett, arts reporter for the old Post-Intelligencer, to get him a stack of them imprinted with the P-I’s logo on the covers.

Why did Jesse call himself a war correspondent?  As a child and youth he had been forced to live in the filthy and dangerous underside of our society, its streets, its institutions.  The unimaginable abuse he suffered there had left a legacy of nightmares and PTSD that meant he never truly left that war zone; it was no wonder he identified withViet Nam vets and Holocaust survivors.  He often said it was his duty as a survivor to speak for those who had not survived or who had no voice.  So he spent hours in his office clacking away on his Hermes, sending out dispatches, in the form of poems, from the battlefront of despair and madness.

Me, I’ve never suffered that much.  I do entertainment, and sometimes a lighter form of journalism, telling small but true stories of writers I’ve known.


Letting it Wait

A year and a half ago, I began attending the monthly meetings of the Kitsap Peninsula chapter of the Romance Writers of America (  at the suggestion of Jennifer Conner, a romance novelist and an e-book publisher ( ).  She also runs an online column featuring more local writers.( ) 

 The group was congenial and supportive, the meetings stimulating, and I soon found myself trying my hand at a steamy paranormal romance.  The Vanth—a tale of a young American tattoo artist, an Etruscan warrior hurled forward in time, and a lovely but implacable female demon who pursues him—seemed to write itself, so quickly did it progress, and I had a complete first draft in less than two months!  That was last February.

Although I made a few tentative approaches to agents, the instant rejections neither surprised nor dismayed me.  I knew the novel was not truly ready to be read by an agent or editor.  It had major weaknesses and I couldn’t figure out what to do about them.  I’d heard some great presentations in the PENRWA meetings, I’d been to workshops, I’d read books on how to structure a successful novel, and it wasn’t hard to come up with ideas about how to fix my story’s problems.  But all those possible solutions felt too contrived, gimmick-y.  The characters by then had become real people to me, and I just couldn’t move them around like puppets to suit the demands of a formulaic plot.  Then new projects arose, and my life distracted me from a tight focus on my writing, as life will sometimes do, and I forgot about the book.

Last week I picked it up and saw instantly how I could ratchet up both the suspense and the sexual tension, in ways that grow naturally out of the story and the characters, and are not the least bit gimmick-y. 

How can this be so easy now when it was so hard a year ago?

One reason, of course, is that my writing keeps improving as long as I keep writing (almost every day – let’s be real here).  I have a better eye for structure and balance and tension in the plot than I used to have, and I’m still learning new plotting techniques, as opposed to gimmicks: not the same thing at all!

But another reason, probably the most important, is that I let it wait.  In those two months when the story erupted from my brain, I stayed up too late writing, night after night, and rushed back to the computer as soon as I woke up, 500 words before breakfast.  Even when I was not writing, I lived in the middle of the story:  I walked again in memory in the Italian hill town ofTarquinia, where the action takes place; I saw, smelled and tasted the wonderful food; I dreamed of the characters; I was a shadow third in their lovemaking.  Getting some distance on all that was like trying to see the thematic patterns in my own life as an historian might:  an overview was simply not possible. 

Now it is.  And now making changes, large and small, to the plot does not feel like interfering with the characters’ lives: it feels like correcting the mistakes I made in my understanding of their story, first time around.

 This is certainly not new advice, to let a book wait and come back to it with fresh insights.  I always thought it made perfect sense; it was advice I had just never happened to take.  This is only my third novel, after all.  I spent seven long years working and reworking the second, the “serious” novel; then I wrote this one; and since then I’ve been writing and editing short stories.  Now I know it’s more than just good advice:  it’s a rush!  It’s a thrill.  It’s fun.

 So now I am revising The Vanth, probably not at the same feverish pace as the first draft, but still as an absorbing occupation.  For the next several months I will be posting every other week on this blog, rather than every week, and my posts may largely concern specific challenges I meet in the course of revision:  whatever I can learn from others about the process, and what I learn for myself by doing it.

Adventures in Writing

Two days ago I finished the first draft of my story Joy, which makes me happy because now I get to know how it ends.  Believe me, I was wondering.  When I first started writing it, I had no idea.  As I went on working, I gradually had some idea, but as it turned out, there was something else, something more going on that I hadn’t seen—any more than Nadine herself saw it until it jumped up and stared her in the face.  “If it was a bear,” my mother would have said, “it would have bit you.”

Nadine used to be Theresa, or Teresa, by the way, as you may remember if you read the earlier very partial draft I posted here a few weeks back.

 This was and is the beginning of the story:

             Do what gives you joy.

            Some lady what called herself a motivational speaker said that, at this hippie-dippie spiritual workshop Marnie  dragged me to one Monday. It was all about how to find the right work for yourself, and I thought, what a load of crap, because, come on now, how many people do you know who find joy in their jobs? 

The first, most important thing about this story, to me as a writer, is that it came to me as a gift.  I never planned to write it, never plotted it out.  For a long time I didn’t know the name of the narrator-protagonist, let alone where her story was going; I just heard her ungrammatical but utterly sincere voice in my head, telling her story, demanding that I let her story come through me.

Now, from this beginning you would expect, as I myself expected, that the story would be about Nadine finding the kind of work that suits her, that does at some level bring her joy.  And she does find her right work, but it turned out that was nowhere near the whole story.  I wrote on Facebook, the day I finally got it:

“”I was writing this story about a woman trying to find the kind of work that suited her – or any work at all! and go figure, it just turned into a love story.  Not a romance (sorry, my PENRWA colleagues) but a love story. It’s funny how sometimes fiction, like life, laughs at what you think you’re doing and informs you that you’re doing something else entirely.”

Fellow author Marcus Smith ( responded:  “I get this all the time when I write. There are aspects to the main character in the piece I am writing that I didn’t plan or expect…”

One thing that excites me about the story—I’m talking now about the work of fiction I’ve written, which is not quite the same thing as Nadine’s personal history—is that I was true to her voice and I used my craft, the techniques I’ve been learning.  In fact using my craft helped me be true to my character’s voice.  I said as much as needed to be said about the backstory, and I fed it in a little bit at a time, as it naturally came up.  I even managed to wind up knowing more of it than I needed to put into the story, and for me that is a huge victory.

Another exciting thing is that I wrote it because it wanted to be written, not because I saw a way to sell it.  I still don’t see a way to sell it, and I still like it a lot.

Now don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that I despise salable art.  I made my living for many years selling “wearable art” which is a fancy way of saying I made one-of-a-kind patchwork purses and occasionally vests or tunics.

My purses were useful and well-constructed, and every piece of the patchwork was unique.  At the same time, while I never mass-produced, it’s fair to say that some pieces were less strikingly original than others.  I’d put together a satisfying combination of fabrics, different colors and prints and textures complementing each other, and one or two pieces of patchwork out of that combination might have something extra that made them art.  I kept working steadily, and I made a living, and sometimes I got the special pieces.

Now that’s what I’m trying to do as a writer.  If I’m going to start bringing in money, I have to keep working steadily at my craft, and I have to find the format for my work that makes it salable:  the shapes of story, the right genres.  But what keeps me going is the special pieces, the ones I never could have planned, the adventures, the gifts.  That’s why I write.


As a member of PENRWA (, the Kitsap Peninsula chapter of the Romance Writers of America, I participate in an email group.  This morning Susan Lyons  ( shared a link to a helpful article called Talking Back to Your Brain. (

 After a short lecture on the structure of the human brain, the authors pointed out that we often sabotage ourselves by asking our brains the wrong sort of questions, such as a question which is framed so as to generate depressing answers, or a question so vague that the answers are meaningless, or a question so big that the very volume of answers tends to immobilize us or create  despair.  This sort of thing is far from helpful to a writer—or indeed anyone—who is already feeling stuck.  Instead, the authors recommended, ask yourself very specific questions, with a sharp and limited focus.  They then gave examples of such questions, and one leapt out at me:

“How can I put more tension in this scene?”

The reason that one grabbed me, I think, is that it’s a question of craft.  Sufficient tension to carry the story along—and the readers with it—does  not just happen, it seems, except perhaps to the most gifted writers, and so it has to be put in, like adding seasoning to a sauce.

Writers talk, and some of them talk quite a lot, about the craft of writing.  For most of my life, until I began working seriously on my writing, I was idealistic, not to say naïve.  With an absolute belief in the power of Sincerity and the holiness of Art, I disdained the use of tricks.   I just wanted to tell a true story—a story that, although it might be fiction, conveyed some truth about life as I knew it.  Of course I believed in developing skills and honing them by practice, but I was not sure exactly what was meant by “craft.”  The concept aroused mixed feelings in me, as mixed as the meanings of the word:  craft as skill; craft as technique; craft as trickery.

Craft as skill:  Nothing is sweeter than those times when the work is going right, when honest workmanship and joyous play become one.  That sense of ease comes partly by serendipity but more importantly from  a well-practiced set of skills, like having a set of clean and shining tools lying ready to hand.

 Craft as technique:  It’s still about skill, but now it’s skill employed in shaping tried and true patterns, which may or may not have much heart in them.  Technique may be a display of skill for its own sake, or just for the sake of making a buck.  There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily; it can still be honest workmanship.  Many popular authors owe their success to their mastery of technique combined with timeliness:  a clear sense of what kind of story the public want at the moment.

Craft as trickery:  When technique becomes a substitute for story, when formulas replace characters, I as a reader feel cheated.  As a voracious and omnivorous reader, I have often been beguiled into entering a book by trickery, manipulated while it lasted into thinking it was an exciting story peopled with intriguing characters, but in the end left unsatisfied, even slightly queasy, as though I’d just eaten something pretending to be a good meal but in truth consisting entirely of air, genetically modified soy solids, hydrogenated fat and artificial flavors.  That’s not the kind of story I want to read, and it’s not the kind I want to write. 

So, back to that hypothetical scene without enough tension in it.  It needs something.  But if the characters are to remain true at heart, however wildly exotic the fiction they inhabit, then to my mind,  the tension cannot legitimately be ratcheted up  by merely employing clever plot devices.  The writer must first understand that more tension must be shown—and that is a matter of the best sort of craft, that understanding—and then find genuine sources of tension in the characters and their situation as they already exist in their author’s mind. 

Even if a book is a lightweight piece of genre fiction, it can still be made of honest ingredients.