writing advice

Skiing the trees (and book writing)

For awhile now, I’ve wanted to hone my tree-skiing skills. But it’s daunting.

Standing at the edge of a stand of the woods, it can feel impossible to find a way in. The trees seem to stack up against each other, no room for a route through.

But it’s pretty in there, among the smooth, slender aspens and wide bushy evergreens. Quiet and still, with pockets of powder that last much longer than on the groomed slopes.

snowy trees - skiing.jpg

So this year, I’ve started to point my skis into the woods and see where they take me.

And I’ve discovered something amazing. Often, as soon as I’m in the woods, the trees open up, spreading out. Letting me find my way through.

It reminds me of book writing.

From the outside - the moment before you’ve actually begun the work - the project can feel impossible. Too big, too unwieldy. A thick woods that you’ll never be able to traverse.

But then, after I spend hours and days, or sometimes weeks and months, whining and distracting myself and otherwise procrastinating (am I the only one who does this?), after the thought of putting the work off feels much worse than sitting down at the desk and staring at a blank page, I finally begin.

And just like slipping into the woods, a path opens up. The words may be halting at first, but eventually they begin to flow. Ideas build and grow. Paragraphs stack up, one after another, until there are pages, chapters… and eventually, a book.

Starting is always the hardest part. And yet, as any artist knows, creative work is full of starts. Over and over, we begin again. Anew. And pray that once we’re inside, we’ll find a way through.

Which somehow, amazingly, we do.

tree skiing.jpg

The bad haircut

I got a haircut for the first time in a while last week. And as soon as it was done, I regretted it.

I wasn’t the only one. “Why did you cut your hair?” my husband asked. “I thought you were letting it grow long.”

I spent that first day looking at it in the mirror from different directions, and admiring friends who had the patience to let their hair grow and grow… as though that would glue the chopped pieces of hair back on. I woke early the next morning and felt my stomach sink as I studied it again - had it turned orange? Why oh why was it so short?

Spoiler alert: the hair cut wasn’t terrible. It was what I asked for. And I realize there are WAY worse things that could happen. But I still regretted it.

Here’s where I went wrong… and how (of course) it applies to writing.

1) I asked for the stylist’s opinion… and valued it above my own. When I go in a salon, the hair dresser becomes the expert because, well, she is. Her hair and makeup are flawless. Her sense of fashion superb. And so I default to whatever she recommends.


I love getting opinions. And I take them all seriously. Which is sometimes good. And sometimes not so good. Because often, I know what I really want in my heart. I’m just afraid to trust it.

And this is so important when writing, especially in the very early phases of writing a book about a maybe-sort of idea. If I share too much, too soon, it is easily squashed. If I ask for too many opinions, my own ideas get smaller and smaller, and feel less and less compelling. This is one of the reasons I’ve learned to protect my work in its early stages and don’t share in writers’ groups right away.

2) I changed my decision at the last minute. I was impulsive. As soon as the hair stylist gave her opinion (at my request, I must add), I decided to go for it.


With writing, I have to be careful about being impulsive. When I finally type “The End” on a first draft, the last thing I need to do is start rewriting. I need space. Time to let the work settle in me. Time to freshen my perspective. Otherwise, I may dive into changes that take the story in the wrong direction or didn’t need to be made in the first place.

3) I focused on efficiency. Cut another inch or two off? Sure! That way, I won’t have to come right back. We’ve been frugalizing for the past few months, and this hair cut was definitely a splurge. The last thing I wanted was to have my new hairstyle look worn-down and unruly in a week or two. But efficiency doesn’t always get you where you want to be.

I love the messy first draft phase of writing because often, I can crank out thousands of words at a time. Until I can’t. If exhaustion sets in, or inspiration fades, those words don’t come easily. And most of the time, that means I need a break. A totally inefficient, unproductive break. A break that involves going for long drives or looking out the window or ducking into little shops downtown.

Efficiency is sometimes good. And sometimes not. And, when it comes to writing (and hairstyles), I just have to learn to trust when being efficient becomes inefficient.

4) I forgot that it’s not as bad as it seems. That first day with my new haircut, I was kind of mortified. I pulled my hair up, then loosed it back down, wondering what I had done.

But I had forgotten that sometimes, you need a few days or weeks to settle into a new haircut. When I finally washed my hair and dried it properly, I was surprised to see it wasn’t that terrible. It had some good points, really. And some room to grow. And it rather looked like me.

Same thing applies to a writing... especially when it comes to feedback on my writing. I have to take it in, give it some space and time, and then filter it through who I am and what I know to be true. Once I do that, I usually find the big changes that seemed impossible actually aren’t that hard.

So there you have it. Today is a new day, and I don’t mind my hair cut much at all. I suppose you could say it’s growing on me. After all, hair always does.


If you're an aspiring writer, don't read this post

Seriously. Just go along with your life and pretend you didn’t see this.

Still here? Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I’m in the throes of preparing for my first-ever book launch. Just last week, I had to approve final edits of the manuscript. That alone was worthy of one session with a therapist because this is it. This book, that has been in flux for years, is now finished.

And there are no take backs on this one.

The fact that it’s more or less approved, is a feat worthy of celebration. (Though it’s not printed yet, so I suppose I could still make an adjustment or two… and there are always second editions. Did I mention I have issues with commitment?)


There’s this next stage in the publication process called launching and marketing your book. And as I’m working through a phenomenal online class all about this stage, there’s one tidbit of information that I didn’t expect.

Writing your book is about half the work. Launching and promoting your book is the other half.

Say what?

See this guy? He’s telling me everything I need to do. And it’s a lot.

See this guy? He’s telling me everything I need to do. And it’s a lot.

I’ve always dreamed of being a published author. I didn’t always let myself admit that dream - it’s not terribly practical and there’s a lot left up to chance (will you find an agent? will that agent find a publisher?). But anyway, I expected all of the writing-type work. The early mornings with my steaming mug of hot chocolate, fingers flying along the keyboard. The pulling of hair and moping around the house as I figured out what the story really was. The revisions and edits and reworks and chopping of chapters. The final edits, looking for those last few slip-ups that are so hard to see.

But I didn’t expect this whole other half of work.

Maybe a tiny part of me did, but not to this extent. Figuring out my “brand.” (Too bad the Nike swoop is taken, that was a good one.) Creating a website. Optimizing said website so people can find me in the internet netherland. Prepping for interviews - in which you have to talk the whole time about yourself. Egads! Setting up an author page on Amazon, creating a launch calendar, and figuring out how to email newsletters… the list goes on and on and on.

Search engine optimization. If only it were this easy.

Search engine optimization. If only it were this easy.

I’m grateful to have a fantastic resource that’s helping me figure out this process. But it’s still work. A lot of it.

So to encourage myself, I’m creating this list of reminders:

1) This is part of the business of publishing a book. It’s a job and guess what - all jobs have aspects you don’t particularly love. So get over it. And do the work.

2) It’s okay to put some writing work to the side for right now. You can’t do everything, and it makes sense to choose this other work for the time being. But it won’t always be this way. You’ll get some of this figured out, and be back to that (mostly) happy place of writing.

3) The amount of things you could do is overwhelming. You won’t be able to do it all.

Take heart knowing that whatever little bits you do, it will have a positive impact and make a difference.

4) This is a learning process. And you LOVE learning. So embrace it. Pretend you’re back in college. Give yourself homework assignments and a nice big sticker chart that shows your progress. (No, I didn’t use sticker charts in college, but if I had, I probably would’ve been happier.) And make rewards for hitting milestones: a latte and crumble bar at that coffeeshop downtown; a night at the movies; a day off.

5) It will get easier. When you publish your next book, the writing will be just as hard - but this will be all setup. Yay! (And ignore the sinking feeling that there’s likely lots of work that will continue. Your future self will take care of it.)

6) Remember why you’re doing it.

Yes, you love to write, and it’s so neat to have written a book. But this isn’t about you. It’s about your readers. That high school girl who’s kind of smart and feels a bit awkward about the fact that she likes coding. Who wonders if there’s actually a guy out there for her. Who’s figuring out what she’s all about. Because all of this work is about getting this book into readers’ hands. Where it actually lives and breathes, becomes a part of their minds and hearts.

So. If you’re a writer who hopes to publish a book one day, maybe it isn’t terrible if you read all the way to the end of the post. I’m feeling a bit better about the whole thing myself. Might just be time to give myself a sticker and put on an episode of Gilmore Girls.

This is where I want to be. Thinking about the next book. Not marketing this one.

This is where I want to be. Thinking about the next book. Not marketing this one.

Accomplishment No. 1: Not Giving Up

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to hear author Ron Rash speak. With his easy Southern drawl and self-effacing humor, he described how he came to be a writer. I don't remember all the details, just this idea of him sitting in his house - maybe even the bathroom? - and writing and writing away, one story after another, all of it junk, none of it good. Here he was, trying to make a career out of something he, in his own words, couldn't even do well. And yet for the life of him, he couldn't quit.

Obviously, Rash, who has since written the New York Times bestselling novel Serena, along with other award winning novels and collections of stories and poems, stuck with it.  Kept going. And slowly, slowly, his writing became something better than good - it became something great.

It was exactly what I needed to hear. My own writing felt cumbersome and sloppy, unlikely to get me anywhere, and yet impossible to stop. But it was all too easy to entertain the idea of quitting. Who was I to chain myself to this thing that might never produce anything of worth, anything even good?

Every time I hear another author's story, it helps me remember that we all start somewhere, with the hint of an idea and a laptop or pad of paper, trying to scribble down a story, no idea of whether we'll actually succeed.

That idea is driven home in Rash's answer to the question of what was his proudest achievement to date in an interview with Tinge Magazine

"That I didn't give up, that I had enough faith in myself to keep writing when I was getting rejection slip after rejection slip. That's part of the deal. Too many writers who are good give up too quickly."

See that tree? A bristlecone pine. The oldest living single organism known. And a good image of persistence.

See that tree? A bristlecone pine. The oldest living single organism known. And a good image of persistence.

And for those of us who have been working away for years, still no luck finding an agent or publishing a book or selling a story, his reminder in that same interview that immediate success isn't always ideal might be just as helpful:

And see this path? This is what writing often feels like to me. A curvy trail through thick woods. Uncertainty at every step. And yet, you keep moving forward.

And see this path? This is what writing often feels like to me. A curvy trail through thick woods. Uncertainty at every step. And yet, you keep moving forward.

"I feel very lucky that what attention has come to me has come after thirty years of writing. It's often unhealthy for young writers to get a lot of attention. Too many distractions, and they may become too easily satisfied with the level of their work."

And finally, my favorite might just be his advice to writers: 

"Learn your craft, be patient, and - I believe this, although there are a few exceptions - if your work is good, somebody's going to notice. It may take a while. This is easy for me to say since, obviously, I have a New York publisher and my work is getting attention now, but often young writers worry too much about that. It's only human to want to break in and get the acclaim, but the main energy has to go into becoming a better writer."

Ahhh. Good words from a wise, writerly soul. Thanks, Ron Rash, for sharing your encouraging advice. And for sticking with writing yourself.



Bristlecone pine photo: www.loc.gov

All quotes from Ron Rash, Tinge Magazine, Spring 2012

Killing the Butterfly

I love reading about how other authors write. How they start with the hint of an idea, and slowly, sometimes tortuously, shape it into a book. Often, it seems, there's magic involved. And yet the biggest part is always the sitting down and doing it.

Below, are thoughts on writing from novelist Ann Patchett, just a snippet from an incredible article. All quotes are from Patchett’s “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.”

Novelist Ann Patchett describes the process of thinking up a novel as the happiest time in her writing life. This yet-to-be-written book, though not a word has been set down on paper, is beautiful and piercing, the best novel yet.

And then, when she can no longer put off the actual writing, she sits down to write. And that's where it all falls apart.


“… I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it.

It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done, I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing – all the color, the light and movement – is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled and poorly reassembled. Dead. That is my book.”

This idea resonates with me completely. And, it’s been helpful. Because for awhile, when I experienced my inability to take a fluttering idea and portray it well on the page, I thought I had utterly failed. And I questioned whether I should forge on.

Maybe my idea wasn’t so great to begin with. Maybe my book wasn't the one I really wanted to write. Maybe I was never meant to write in the first place.

Patchett goes on to say that this feeling of failure can be a stopping point for many of writers. But it shouldn’t be. She herself still hasn’t figured out how to put that imagined idea down on paper without feeling as though it died in the process. But here’s what she has learned:

"I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing."

Because, she goes on to say, there is something just she has to say. And because through the process, she can “touch the hem of the gown that is art itself.”

Phew. Exactly the sort of encouragement I need to hear when I set out on a new project, and feel that my poor excuse at writing merely kills off ideas, instead of giving life to them. And yet, as the “death” of a caterpillar results in the “birth” of a butterfly, it's our job to travel through all of these stages.