Monthly Archives: March 2010

Secrets of Writing

Did that headline grab you?

I’m not promising these are earth-shattering secrets, but they’re certainly the snips of advice whispered to me in the courses and conversations and conferences I’ve participated in so far in my writing career.  I’m confident many of these suggestions apply to other genres, as well:

Start where the action is — don’t start off with too much back story.  The reader will make a decision very quickly if he/she wants to keep going with your book.  If you’re too delayed in establishing your action, you may lose your reader.  The “action” itself doesn’t have to be an insane car chase or a tornado carrying a house, but it has to put the reader right into your protagonist’s situation, not to mention establish that protagonist’s problem — right away.

Always keep your story moving forward.  There’s a temptation to fill in the blanks for the reader with exposition and detail, and while those are both important in the right places, it’s critical to keep your mind on moving the story ahead.  The big picture is important here.

Plot:  Everything’s contingent on your hero/heroine’s actions.  You can certainly have sub-plots, but the primary story thread needs to be driven by your main character, not by other characters in your story.  Which leads me to a critical secret:

ADULTS DON’T SAVE THE DAY!  In children’s writing, the children are the ones who need to drive the action, and they need to be your heroes, not the adults who offer to help.  Adults might help (or be used as indirect sources of forward motion in your plot), but your books hero/heroine is in control.  Try to remember back to when you were younger.  Most of the decisions in your life were made FOR you — what to eat, what to wear, when to bathe/go to school/get up, what chores were yours (not to mention what you were paid for them), etc.  Children want to hear about other kids who control situations!  When I was growing up, I couldn’t WAIT for the time I was old enough to do things like drive, turn on the stove BY MYSELF, go to bed when I felt like it…you get the picture.  If you shared that feeling, tap into it when you think about where your reader’s coming from.  It might inform your writing the way it informs mine.

Show, don’t tell.   What exactly does that mean?  I heard it so much when I first started writing, and I got incredibly frustrated.  But it’s a subtle secret that needs to echo in your ear as a writer for any genre.   When you start off by respecting your reader and his/her ability to fill in some blanks, that’s a huge first step.  For instance, instead of saying, “Mom was tired,” you can describe Mom’s actions and let the reader figure out she’s tired or stressed/anxious/concerned/nosy/disappointed/happy/etc.  Also, if you can add dialogue (rather than just descriptions) in scenes, that’s another step forward.

Don’t use adverbs.  I used to love adverbs.  Truly.  Madly.  Deeply.  But I’ve learned they can be lazy.  They can cheapen your work (poor adverbs), so try not to use them.  If it’s got an “ly” at the end, kiss it goodbye.

Fewer words make a bigger impact.  Enough said.

Build friendships with other writers.  Not only does it help you feel understood, it just helps you grow as a writer and as individual.  You’ll learn secrets from them (and as I’ve discovered, the writing community is stunning in its desire to share knowledge) and find out about events and writers you might not otherwise have known.  You’ll also open opportunities to share your own knowledge with others.

Stand when writing — and sit when editing.  One of my writing instructors, Sharon Fiffer, told me this.  She feels it’s very important to write your story as fast as you can while you’ve got it fresh in your head.  Get it all down — messy, imperfect, incomplete.  After it’s “out”, you can sit down in an easy chair and start the work of revising.  I’m still trying to execute this properly.  I’m what I call a creative/perfectionist.  I have so many ideas and such a strong desire to put them down on paper, but when I write, I want them to be perfect.  NOT POSSIBLE — and that’s okay.  I’ve always hated revising, even back to my high school writing courses, but another writing instructor of mine, Brenda Ferber, feels revising is the best part of the writing process.  I’m not Brenda, and I’m not Sharon, I’m Christine; but I’m learning from both of them that the process is one that takes an individual approach and it certainly takes time…which leads me to my next secret…

Time is on your side.  Certainly, there are writers who can knock out incredible work at lightning speed; I’ve come to learn that most of us are not like that.  Life gets in the way (and also influences our work in a dynamic way), and writing takes time.  Drafts are completed and then put away — reviewed weeks or months later with a fresh perspective and a deeper thread added.   Layers are added to our stories with the passing of time and thought and dreams and even hair pulling.    As simple as it sounds, I liken the process to making Jello.  You open the box and smell that lively, fruity promise of your end result…then you heat the water for the mix and think about how long this will actually take (and possibly wonder, “Do I really want to make Jello?  It’s going to take forever.  Maybe a cookie is a better dessert idea.”)…but then you add the boiling water to the mix and that bold, flavorful Jello scent just reminds you why you love Jello so much.  You mix it all up (it takes awhile to make sure everything’s dissolved) and then put it away in the fridge… for hours.  You can’t help but think about it… constantly.  You check on it over and over, wondering if it might be ready sooner than the box says.  You consider other dessert options; you’re tempted, and you might just cross over and have that cookie, but it doesn’t thrill you like you know the Jello will.   Now, if you pull the Jello out before it’s totally set, you know it, and you feel guilty.  It’s not as firm and confident as a fully-developed Jello is; it sort of slides around on your plate, not holding its shape.  You’re sorry you weren’t just a little more patient, a little more disciplined…but oh, you just couldn’t wait.  BUT, if you’re the one who DID wait for that Jello to firm up in your fridge, you pull it out and slice those squares and put them on your plate and — if you’re really a Jello lover — you add some whipped cream.  Yes, it’s just Jello, but it’s been an exercise it putting all the right ingredients in, letting them mix together properly, and giving them all enough time to combine into the desired effect.

Speaking of Jello, I think I’ll go get a snack.  Hope these little secrets help you.


I Have an “Office”

Please forgive me for gloating for a moment, but I’m so excited I can’t stand it.  I’m sitting in my new “office” and I’m about to cry (in a good way).

As a busy mom (why even add the word busy? Everyone’s busy these days), I’m trying to carve out uninterrupted, productive writing time.  I spent last Sunday holed up in the silent reading room at the Evanston Public Library, praying my laptop and notes and files would still be there after returning from a restroom break.  Those three and a half hours were so productive, but they were in the library, filled with college kids talking, middle school kids flirting, mom’s shushing their little ones (I could hear them through the “sound proof” glass), someone else’s discarded reference books stacked on the table I used (a table which was eyed enviously by several people — a four-person table I’d selfishly comandeered), and the “watch the clock” anxiety I felt, knowing the library closed at 6, no matter if I was done with a chapter or not.

Trying to write at home is frequently unproductive for me.  I’m so often distracted by countless distractions:

dog…phone…laundry…making beds…food…email…doorbell…contractors fixing the porch railings…kids’ closets needing clothes weeded out…photographs in boxes needing to be organized…digital photos on computer needing to be organized…dishes in the sink…grocery list on fridge…dirty clothes in dry cleaning bag needing to be taken in…front hall closet needing to be better organized so we don’t have the frenzy every morning of “where’s my other shoe?  I put it in here last night and now it’s GONE!”…you get the picture.

Last week, my friend Karen Callam asked if I’d heard of a place called The Writers Workspace in Chicago.

“Nope,” I said.

“Amy Davis runs it.  You know her.  She’s a former Cherry Preschool mom like you.  You’d definitely know her.”

The name sounded familiar but I couldn’t place the face.  And I can usually place a face.  How did we never cross paths?  She’s a writer and mom in Evanston, living a few blocks from me…and she opened a cooperative studio for people who crave quiet, productive space to settle in and get to work.  Brilliant!

I checked it out, completed the paperwork, asked two of my writing instructors if they’d serve as references, hoped for the best, got a tour, and, as of this morning, received my keycard and — sniffle — am now a member of this artists’ cooperative called The Writers Workspace.

The space is incredible.  The feeling is very clean and Zen and open.  There are writers all around, quietly working, very respectful of one another.  There’s a kitchen with coffee and a fridge to keep your stuff when you’re hungry…and most of all:  there’s peace, clean desktops and no distractions.  Beautiful, inspiring art graces the walls, wi-fi is strong, the colors are soothing, and all I can hear is the click of my keyboard.  I’m thrilled.

And now, I’m going to stop blogging about it and get back to work.  In my new office.

Getting to Know Your Characters

Some might call me crazy, but I’m beginning to inhabit my characters’ lives.

One character is a twelve-year-old girl, living on a boat in Chicago, walking between Monroe Harbor, the AON Center (where the family’s P.O. box is), and Lake Point Tower (where she babysits).  Today, I spent the morning walking between these three locations.  I had a pedometer to measure how many steps it takes to get from one place to another, as well as a watch to time the journeys.  Some of my expectations were right on, but others surprised me.  Like how long it would take to get from one particular location to another.  I also noticed things like One Way signs, goose poop to avoid at all costs, and Chicago’s new River Walk — things that certainly wouldn’t have jumped to mind in the vacuum of my office. Getting out into the fresh air, imagining I was her, gave me a rejuvenated perspective on what she’s feeling, hearing, and seeing (or avoiding stepping in). With pen and notebook in hand, I imagined I was Maeve.   Some things I jotted down were:

The number of stories in an apartment building she stares at every day.

The price of a cheeseburger at the fancy grocery/deli she passes on her way to her babysitting job.

The way cars driving on Lake Shore Drive sound when heard from Lower Wacker Drive (like a heartbeat).

The number of people walking around with headphones for music or cellular phones.

The bright orange/red seats in the Pritzker Pavillion when it’s empty.

The fact that a mini putt putt golf course (which costs $$) is located directly across the street from Grant Park (which is free).  It gave me some ideas on how to frame my character’s attitudes about living with less materialism.

A Monkey Fist Knot

I also got into another character’s head this week when I taught myself how to tie a specific (and somewhat complicated) sailing knot*.  I equipped myself with a knot book, a long piece of rope, and the determination to learn this thing.  After all, if I can’t teach myself at 41-years-old, a pre-teen girl might not be able to, either.  I wanted to know how long it would take to learn, or how frustrating it might be.  I needed to know what goes in to tying this knot.  It took me two hours to master it…I’m not kidding.  What I didn’t realize was how badly my hands would ache after all that manipulation.  Or that my nails would be shredded from untying my frequent mistakes. I’ve come to understand that writing the line, “Rachel taught herself to tie the knot” has no place in my book.  I’ll now be able to relate a more true and vivid experience to my readers after inhabiting my character.

I highly recommend inhabiting  your characters, even in some small, everyday way.  If you’re stuck, it just might be the boost you need.I have to say, it felt like important, informative “work” diving into the psyche of my characters.  I feel like I know them more deeply.

Though we create our characters, there’s certainly a lot they can teach us, if we just let them.

* If you’re wondering what a Monkey Fist Knot is, and what it’s used for, click here:

What a Girl asks a Mayor — Questions Answered

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, Evanston's third sucessive female mayor, greets 3rd and 4th grade Junior Girl Scouts from Washington Elementary School for Women's History Month

The Junior Girl Scout Troop from Washington Elementary School invited Evanston’s Mayor, Elizabeth Tisdahl, to its March 4 meeting for an hour of questions and answers in honor of Women’s History Month.

The Mayor arrived at 3:35pm and greeted every girl with a handshake. Twenty of the third and fourth grade girls who make up Troop #41567 shared tea, sandwiches and cupcakes.   The girls then spent a solid hour discussing a broad range of issues that never once seemed to stump Mrs. Tisdahl.  Here is a recap of that Q & A:

Q:  What is your favorite animal?

A:  My dog, a golden lab.

Q: Do you have kids?

A: Yes, four.

Q:  Do you have grandchildren?

A: Yes.  I keep toys in my office at the Civic Center for when they come to visit.  You are all welcome to come visit my office anytime, and if I’m not there, feel free to play with the toys.

Q: Do you like popcorn?

A:  Yes, especially at the movies, and especially with butter, even though I know it’s not good for me.

Q: What’s your favorite food?

A: Ice cream.

Q: Do you like to go to museums?

A: Yes!  When I’m in Chicago, I love the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry.   When I’m traveling, I like to visit new museums, too.

Q:  Have you ever visted the Mitchell Museum in Evanston?

A:  Absolutely!  I serve an advisory position there.

Q:  What kinds of sports do you like?

A:  Biking, horseback riding, skiing, swimming and scuba-diving.

Q:  If you could choose between having no teeth or really long dreadlocks, which would you choose?

A:  Dreadlocks.

Q:  What’s your favorite color?

A:  Red.

Q:  What city would you want to visit that’s not in America?

A:  Belize – because it’s Evanston’s sister city.  I’ve never been, but I’d like to go.  I’d also like to visit Sydney and Hong Kong.

Q:  Do you like being Mayor?

A:  I love it.  I didn’t know if I’d love it when I ran for Mayor, but I really do.  It involves being fair, solving people’s problems, and making things better for people.

Q:  How many people voted for you?

A:  I don’t recall the exact number now, but I do remember that I received 62% of the vote, and there were four of us running.  That’s the number I remember.

Q:  What are your favorite, “funnest”, and hardest parts of your job as Mayor?

A:  My favorite part is that there are so many interesting people and cultures to be with in Evanston.  Did you know there are 35 nationalities represented at Evanston Township High School?

Let me tell you a story about my “funnest” day.  First, did you know there are many, many people losing their homes in Evanston?  Because of that, I asked the government in Washington for help for affordable housing.  Do you know how much we got?  Take a guess.  We got $18,150,000.00 for affordable housing.  That does two great things for Evanston.  First, it makes a lot of homes affordable in Evanston.  It also helps foreclosed homes go away, so it’s a safer place to live.  I got a lot of help getting that money from Congresswoman Schakowsky and Senators Durbin and Burris.  My “funnest” day was finding out we got that money for Evanston.

The hardest part of my job (well, being a mom is the hardest job I’ve ever had, but as far as being Mayor) is cutting jobs.

Q:  Are you sure about closing the branch libraries?

A:  Well, let me ask you all here:  how many of you go to the branch libraries?  How many of you go to the main library?  Now, let’s talk about being fair.  Our town has a main library, two branch libraries, and a library in every school.  If we can’t afford to keep everything open, should we cut branch libraries or other things, like the children’s dental services?  And, are there other things we can do to make books available, like having a bookmobile?

Q:  Can you cut down school?

A:  I’m afraid I can’t, but even if I could, I wouldn’t.  I used to be on the school board.  Did you know that the State of Illinois has fewer school days that almost any state in our country?  I’d ask for more school.

Q:  What is it like being Mayor?

A:  It’s fun!  I get to do things like talk with you.  I get to do helpful things, like get eighteen million dollars for affordable housing.  And I get to help Evanston.  Like when the new president of Northwestern University and I met.   I called his office and said I was baking cookies with my grandchildren, and that I’d like to bring them over to welcome him and his family.  We met, and do you know what he did for Evanston?  He gave Evanston a $550,000 fire engine.

Q:  Where were you born?

A:  Chicago.

Q:  What’s your favorite TV show?

A:  I like Law & Order.  I like Grey’s Anatomy.  The Good Wife.  Chicago Tonight.

Q:  Do you like the Simpsons?

A:  No.  I don’t like the Simpsons.

Q:  How old are your kids?

A:  They range in age from 32 to 48.

Q:  Wow, that’s older than my mom!

A:  (no comment)

Q:  There’s an empty space on the roof of our school.  My teacher and I wonder if we can have a garden there.

A:  I’d be fine with that.  I think it’s a great idea.  However, you’ll need to ask Dr. Murphy and the School Board.  They run the schools.

Q:  What happens if we have a disaster here in Evanston?

A:  If we don’t have enough help, we ask other communities to help.  I have an iPhone to stay in touch with everyone in case of an emergency.

Q:  What’s your favorite letter?

A:  I think it would have to be “E” for Evanston.

Q:  Did you think about how bookmobiles would increase pollution in Evanston?

A:  You know, you’re absolutely right.  I think you might grow up to be an environmentalist.

Q:  What made you decide to be Mayor?

A:  Well, I didn’t decide on my own.  Our former Mayor, Lorraine Morton, asked me.

Q:  Who’s your best friend?

A:  Mitzy Walchek.  She’s my neighbor.

Q:  Do you go to parties?

A:  Yes.

Q:  Do you get your boogie on?

A:  Not as well as you do, I’m sure.  But, I’ve been to a luncheon at the White House
[the most excitement of the afternoon was displayed here].

Q:  Have you met the President?

A:  Yes.  Several times.  I met him at that luncheon at the White House, but I also met him long before he ran for President.

Q:  What’s your favorite hairstyle?

A:  Short.

Q:  Do people stop you in the grocery store?  Do you feel weird in the grocery store?

A:  People in Evanston stop me a lot and tell me how they feel.  I don’t mind at all if I have the time to stop.

Q:  I think you should give everyone in Evanston $10,000.

A:  You know, the Federal Government is the only place that prints money.  But, I noticed there’s an empty space in the basement of the Civic Center.  I suggested putting a money printing machine there, but it didn’t get approved.

After posing for photos with Mayor Tisdahl, the girls created their own newspapers (dated March 4, 2040).  The project helped inspire the girls to think about ways they’d like to see themselves change history.

Ah, Date Night

So last night, Friday night, I’d arranged an impromptu date night with my husband.

We hadn’t had a date in quite a while.  Kids, in-laws, and household projects all seem to take priority lately.  But last night, I saw a little window for us to get out for dinner, just to catch up and gaze lovingly at one another.

The sitter arrived.  Mike checked some local restaurants online and picked a quaint little French cafe called Jacky’s on Prairie here in Evanston.  I wore a pretty scarf he’d given me for Christmas.  He even wore a sport coat.

We valet parked, making the evening feel exceptionally special, and toasted the arrival of spring, which definitely felt “in the air.” .

Our dinner was delicious.  Our waiter was friendly, attentive, funny.  Even after we declined dessert, he brought us a tiny sample of the restaurant’s signature profiteroles.

During those delightful little bites, though, I asked some dumb questions — which I often do — about finances.  Are you, Dear Reader, feeling your skin crawl yet?  Or asking WHY I’d mar a perfectly good date night with such a “flash point” topic?  Well, even if you’re not wondering, Mike was.

“Let’s save this conversation for another time, okay?”

But I was insistent on hearing my husband’s opinions on everything from refinancing our home as well as a renovation project we’re considering.  In my mind, we finally had peace and quiet and a distraction-free space to talk face-to-face about these matters.  In his mind, this was not “date night” conversation.  But as I often do, I kept going, and going.  The more I pushed on talking about these topics, the more cornered he felt.  The more he shut down, the more insistent I became.  We sat at this lovely table with our napkins on our laps, keeping our voices low but our hearts racing, trying to navigate our very strong opinions in a civil way.  I tried to change the topic by asking which car he’d take tomorrow for our son’s ski club carpool.  Oooo….another bad choice.

“I’ll need to take the minivan,” he said.  Not only does he dread the fact we have a minivan (what man doesn’t?), but now he had to DRIVE it since his car couldn’t hold five kids and their ski gear.

“Oh,” I said.  “I wish I would have known that.”  In my mind, my statement meant, Had I known you’d be driving the van, I would have cleaned the car out for you and filled it up with gas, since it’s on empty.  Mike’s ears heard, You louse, once again you didn’t communicate effectively and messed everything up yet again.

The waiters and busboys circled like nervous pigeons, ducking in to pour more water or clear our dessert plates.  Our thank you’s to them, which had earlier been effusive, had now become short and void of eye contact.  The beautiful relationship we’d shared with our waiter now felt like a summer-before-college “fling” that just needed to end.

My husband and I, both headstrong first-born children, watched our perfect date night implode before our eyes.  He’s a rational, intelligent attorney, a highly capable professional in the areas of debate and semantics.  I bring creative, emotional balance (ha) to the relationship, sometimes almost always tipping the scale too far.  We’ve been married almost 19 years, every one of them filled with the joys and challenges married couples face.  I feel blessed to be his wife…but I sure didn’t act like it last night.

We left the restaurant and waited together, out in the cold, for the valet to bring our car.  Our ride home was silent.  I’d ruined date night.  I’d pushed too hard, and whether I wanted to admit it or not, we both knew it.  We went to sleep disappointed that the night hadn’t ended as perfectly as it started.

Then, for some reason, I woke up this morning at 6:00 a.m. — unusually early for me on a Saturday.  I reached my foot over to Mike’s side of the bed, assuming I’d find nothing, since he’d have left already to drive the ski-trip carpool.  All I felt were empty covers, so I snuggled back down and thought more about last night.  When he gets home, I’ve got to apologize for ruining date night, I thought.   I pushed too hard.

But then, I heard heavy breathing.

Please oh please let that be the dog and not Mike, I thought.

I reached my foot over further toward Mike’s side of the bed, and felt a leg.  It was hairy, but not canine hairy.

“MIKE!” I bolted up.  “It’s 6:01!”

“WHAT?” he said.  I knew Mike was planning to be at the first carpool pickup at 6:10, and the second house at 6:15.  The bus stop for the ski trip was in Highland Park, about 30 minutes away, and was scheduled to leave promptly at 7:00.

This is all my fault, I thought.  We went to bed frustrated with each other, and neither one of us remembered to set our alarms.

“My alarm didn’t go off!” he said, throwing clothes on, trying to gain his bearings.

Yup, definitely my fault.  I should have checked to make sure the alarms were set.  Kids are waiting in front of their houses in the cold right now, and they’ll be picked up late, all because I insisted on talking about fixed rate mortgages and laundry chutes.

The flurry that ensued was epic.  I shocked Henry into consciousness then ran downstairs to Google the exact location of the bus stop Mike had to drive to in Highland Park.  The ski club’s website was down (of course!) so I had no idea where to tell Mike to drop off his crew of excited skiers for their last trip of the season.  I didn’t have time to make a lunch for Henry, so I rummaged through my purse for cash to throw at him.  Nothing.

“Mike, do you have cash?” I asked.

He gave me the look he always gives me when I ask that question, the look that says, Well now, you KNOW I don’t have cash because I never carry cash.  “We’ll just have to stop for cash.”

“But, Dad,” Henry said, clenching his unbrushed teeth, “we don’t have TIME!”

Mike and Henry ran around, gathering coats and snowboard equipment and bus tickets (which, naturally, did not include the bus stop address).  I made a haphazard egg and cheese sandwich for Henry, wrapped it in tinfoil, and shoved it in his backpack.  Then I remembered my van needed to be emptied out for our passengers.

“Mike, I’ll go out and unload my car,” I said, reaching for my coat to throw over my pajamas. The van was was filled with boxes from the Girl Scout meeting I ran the day before, plus all the other accumulated detritus from a week’s worth of carpooling and errands.  I’m creative, emotional, and, oh yes, quite messy.

I’ll get the stuff out of the car,” Mike huffed, throwing a hat on his head and stomping outside.  What his body language said to me was, For God’s sake, WHY do you always have so much CRAP in your car?

Somehow, miraculously, the boys took off only 10 minutes later than scheduled, and raced to two kids’ houses for pickups en route to the bus stop.  I called the friend living furthest away and let her dad know the carpool, though running late, was definitely on its way.  “Oh, Brian,” I said to the girl’s father, trying to sound nonchalant, “by chance, do you recall where the bus stop is in Highland Park?”

“Uh, no…?”  Brian said, his voice trailing off.  My mind filled in the rest of his sentence:  …but I’ve gotta say, Christine, I’m sending my daughter at six in the morning with you guys and I’d hoped you’d at least know where to take her since YOU’RE driving the carpool…

“No to worry,” I insisted.  “We’ll figure it out.”  Then, with my toes curling as the words came out of my mouth, I said the unthinkable., “Oh, and Brian, um, is there any chance you could, uh, just — gulp — lend Henry some lunch money today?”

“Will twenty be okay?” Brian said without missing a beat.

“Oh thank you thank you thank you, I just didn’t have any cash and we woke up late and I didn’t have time to make him a lunch and –”

“Not a problem.”

[Later, Brian tells me that when my husband pulled up to his house, disheveled and bleary, he was ready for Mike’s questions:  “Hey, Brian, do you happen to know where –”  “Yup, Mike, we’re working on it.  The website’s down, but we’ll call you with the info.” “Oh, and do you think Henry can — ” “Already covered…Hannah’s got a $20 in her backpack for Henry.”]

Once Mike had all the kids gathered in the van, he stopped just long enough to add four gallons of gas to my empty tank.  By then, I’d successfully accessed the ski club website and gotten directions to where the busses were waiting.  I called Mike and gave him the information.

They made it to the bus just in time.   Mike waited in the parking lot until the kids pulled away for a carefree day of skiing and snowboarding.

Thirty minutes later, I heard the front door open as Mike walked back into the house.  I stood up and met him in the kitchen.

We looked at each other and laughed out loud. And hugged.  And apologized.

“I’m sorry I pushed so hard last night,” I said.  I meant it.

“And I’ll try to communicate more,” he said.  I can tell he meant it, too.

We both shook our heads, laughed at the insanity of the morning, and poured our coffee.

Now I remember why I never schedule date nights…