Down the Rabbit Hole

Down the Rabbit Hole

It’s a lovely Saturday and you take a second to look something up. Something like, say, frosting because you’re making a cake and you want the best butter cream recipe on the web. The cake is in the oven, you have a few minutes and you want your frosting nice and fluffy, ready to go when the cake is cool.

Only that’s not what happens. Instead, the recipe for the perfect butter cream is sitting on the printer, the cake is cold on the counter and you are reading the latest research on microscopic carnivorous frogs of the Amazonian rainforest.

How does this happen? Like Alice, you have fallen into a rabbit hole. But instead of a gaping space between the roots of a beautiful old tree where you just paused to rest a moment, yours is the twenty-first century version. It’s filled with characters just a wild, creepy, and dangerous as the ones conjured up by Lewis Carol.

I’m the queen of the rabbit hole. I am a walking encyclopedia of bizarre and generally useless information cataloged while disappearing into the twisted paths of the internet when I was supposed to be doing something useful. I would blame being up too late at night or too early in the morning, but it’s just as likely to happen on a Tuesday at noon when I’m supposed to be pulling research for a project at work. One slip of the mouse and I’m off on a new adventure!

On occasion, I wind my way through the useless and discover something incredible, like the value of art in warding off dementia and creating channels of communication in underserved, at-risk school populations. Other times, the only person who would EVER be interested in what I learned is my mother, because she loves me and will listen even though she’d rather be trimming her toenails.

Like Alice, I probably need a little nap. A break from the time spinning reality of my busy life. Unlike Alice, time to sit and read by a tree is limited and long walks in the woods relegated to a few days of vacation a year. I discovered recently that my virtual trips across the vast space of the universe via the internet have a benefit beyond expanding my knowledge of the strange and trivial. They often happen when I am wrestling with a challenge at work or trapped on the ledge of a vast plot hole in my latest novel.

These excursions into the dark mysteries of science, art, or popular cultural give my spinning brain a respite from my latest challenge and I often hit on something that breaks loose the very idea I need to move forward on a project. I trip and stumble, landing somewhere magical. Perhaps it’s a piece of research tied to the study of a tribe of indigenous peoples or the lovely green of a microscopic carnivorous frog.

A walk might be better, but I can’t get as far away or fall as deeply into a different world.



Self Starter—Will Work for Extra Hours in the Day

Time is an amazing thing. It slips past in massive chunks and freezes in the worst moments. You know the ones—those experiences you wish you could forget that seem to hang in the corners of your mind. The ones that rise up at two in the morning or when you’re driving to the dentist. They lay in shadow, just waiting for the right moment of peace or insecurity to push up like a midnight flower and bloom again.

I like to think of them as my own personal plot holes. I find myself dancing around them over and over wondering if there is a way to go back  and try a different way. It was during a period of my life when I was desperate to escape the constant circling of wanting to edit parts of my life that I was driven to write. Mostly to get the screaming woman out of my head. She was pushy and needed to be managed.

That is when I discovered my biggest issue with time. It turned out all those years ago, that writing was more than a passing fancy. My busy thoughts and creative need pushed me through my first novel and every day since has been filled with a driving need to write. Sadly, those same days have been full of the need to care for my family and maintain gainful employment.

I promise myself on a regular basis I will carve out writing time at a reasonable hour. By reasonable, I mean before midnight or after I’ve slept for six or seven hours. It just never seems to happen. Instead, I burn the midnight oil. Sometimes nearly falling asleep sitting up trying to churn out one more page, or finish a thought before I go to bed, fearful if I don’t write it down I won’t remember. (Everyone who writes has at least one story of the lost perfect idea. It is why so many wonderful novels had their start on a cocktail napkin. Like the one about a boy with a lightning scar…)

I have often said that I needed every day to be 48 hours. The first 24 for everyone in my life who needs something from me and the next just for me. As a writer in the throws of revisions or caught on the speeding downslope of a roller-coaster plot that just took off, it’s painful to push away from the keyboard. Painful, but often required.

One of the things I have discovered as I work to find mental space and actual time to write, is that some things are changing. I am less worried about home cooked meals, and far more comfortable ordering chinese food online. I don’t fret if I choose to write instead of do dishes or laundry. I have also discovered that I procrastinate less. If it HAS to be done, I do it now.

The best part about putting an end to most of my procrastination is that I meet deadlines better than ever before. I am less likely to be meeting a deadline for work or one that I set for myself, by staying up all night to do it. That makes the writing time I eek out far more satisfying and less stressful. The worst part about it is things like taxes and bed time for my youngest. Knowing I have to deal, doesn’t make it any easier to actually deal.

If anyone out there has found a way to magically make time stand still so that they can write, please let me know. In the meantime, I’ll just keep doing what has to be done in a timely manner so that I can do what I want to do with the rest—even if that is five minutes at two o’clock in the morning.



Projects for the New Year

Happy 2016!

As 2015 came to a close, I spent some time reviewing my successes and challenges. There have been many of both, but fiction writing is the most important to me. It was a busy and challenging year.

One of the most challenging things about 2015, for me, has been the time between signing with LRA and publishing. I have done a lot of work since finishing Great Gray and that work is waiting. Instead of letting it collect dust in the hard drive, I have decided to share a little. I have posted the first chapters of both Great Gray and Rise Above the Flame here on my blog.

I am currently in the throes of revising Rise Above the Flame, having taken a couple of months away from the story to work on a new middle grade novel for NaNoWriMo. Knowing me, I will change the title twelve times as I go through, but for now, Rise it is.

It’s always interesting to revisit a story when you have been removed from it for a while. For one thing, it’s far less painful to kill my darlings. I’m finding places in the novel, many of them, where I wonder why I thought a sentence or a piece of dialog was so important on the first revision. There are also places where I have no idea what I was trying to say and had to add context to create a scene that makes sense.

That is the value of giving yourself time between revisions. The space brings the story and the characters into focus.

Along with revising, I am still working on my new middle grade novel.  Switching between revisions and a new novel is interesting. I have discovered that just as time and distance helped me to better edit Rise Above the Flame, time spent editing makes it easier to streamline the writing in my middle grade novel.

Early 2016 will be spent getting both novels in shape. I look forward to sharing more as the year progresses. I am also looking forward to starting work on another young adult project that has been banging around in my head.

At the same time I am planning out the year of writing, I am also making mental space for edits to Great Gray when it sells. I hope to be spending many frenzied nights balancing projects and creating new and wonderful stories to share.

Here’s to a new year, new projects, and great success for everyone!


What I learned from Na No Wri Mo

It is December 3d and I do not have a book submitted for National Novel Writing Month. I have a start—a solid one—of fifteen thousand words in a middle grade novel. I did not succeed in writing 1,500 words each day, but I did many other things.

This is what I learned:

  • I need more sleep than 2 or 3 hours a night.
  • Scrivener is an awesome tool.
  • I need more time to think when I am shifting genres than I thought.
  • There are awesome, supportive people in the writerverse.
  • I don’t have to finish  on someone else’s timeline to succeed.

I have known since college that I do better when I actually sleep for more than a few minutes. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m good about giving up the day and going to bed. I wasn’t when I was sixteen and I’m not now. There is so much I want to DO. How can I go to bed?

During the last thirty or so days I have found myself, red eyed and weepy, watching a dog video at 3 a.m. This is bad. Not only bad for me as a human, but terrible for me as an employed person with a job that requires I be able to string a few sentences together. It is also not so great for the mom me. She needs to be able to listen to what people have to say about where they are going and who they will be with. She also needs to provide sustenance. (She is single after all and there is no one else here to do it.)

Just in case you didn’t make note, I mentioned that I was watching dog videos at 3 a.m. Not pounding out the last sentence of a perfect chapter, dog videos. Sometimes cat, I’m not going to lie. I don’t discriminate when I’m procrastinating and avoiding. I realized on one of these long and wretched nights, it was bed I was avoiding, not writing.

Every day that passed without reaching the needed word count was a day I felt I lost. If I went to bed, the day was done.

When I was productive, I spent a lot of time with Scrivener. This is the second time I’ve used Scrivener to write a novel and the first time I used it well. I get it now. Every chapter has a cork board with notes. This tool is the BEST THING EVER when you have to go back and remind yourself of character names or leave a note to add something in chapter 3 so chapter 9 makes sense! (Note the exclamation point. I don’t use them, like, ever. Even when a character yells, “Fire.”)

Organization aside, I love the way the chapters pile up in the files on the left side of the window. I also love the way I can set word count goals for the novel and for the session. When I got toward the end of November, my single session goals reached really crazy numbers, like 15,000. Even though that bar graph stayed red, I did appreciate that the overall word count, set at 50,000 for the occasion, had moved to pale orange, almost yellow by the 30th.

If you haven’t tried Scrivener, do. It takes a little getting used to and some practice, but it is an awesome tool.

Pondering is not something I have a lot of time for. Back when my life was calmer, I used to take long walks. I ran through characters and scenes as I walked, sometimes solving a complex set of issues over the course of 3 or 4 miles. Shifting genres and making the decision to write in third person instead of first, caused me to need  time to think and run through different scenes in my head, time I really don’t have right now.

There were many days when I intended to write that I found myself running through different scenes and character decisions instead. This is important work and I always got a lot accomplished on the days that followed this time I dedicated to thinking about the people and the story. It is a double edged sword though, for the obvious reason that if I am pondering, I am not writing and NaNoWriMo does not have a designation for thinking through 50,000 words, you have to actually write them down on virtual paper.

No National Novel Writing Month would be complete without the social component. Though I didn’t get to any events this year, I love reading the blog posts, Facebook posts, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, and every other social media platform where people congregate to encourage each other and share war stories.

Writing is a lonely gig. Having people to share it with who understand why you wake up in the middle of the night calling out the name of a character from your novel and rush around the house for pad and paper (the laptop is shut down, of course) to write your thoughts down before you forget, are a rare and beautiful thing. Our particular type of crazy needs to commiserate. We all do better when we know we aren’t alone.

The best part about the NaNoWriMo experience this year is that I didn’t come unglued because I didn’t finish. I have written a novel a year for the last 8 years. I have been prolific . The fact that I finished one in September and am already fifteen thousand words into another is commendable. Not only that, but I love this book. My success is in building a world my where my characters can thrive.

This new story moves me and drives me to spend hours researching so that the story rings with truth and reality. I look forward to sitting back down with these beautiful people and getting to know them better—after the holidays.

I didn’t finish 50,000 words, but I did create beautiful characters and a world I love. It is powerful enough that I know I will go back to it.

I want to know how it ends.



NaNoWriMo, Or Write, Right Now!

I have never participated in National Novel Writing Month. I have always been mid-manuscript when November the first rolled around and it is, after all, a busy month. This November is different. This November, I am writing a new novel.

I am a fairly prolific writer. I have discovered that if I am not working on projects of my own, I obsess over projects at work, driving myself and others up a wall with nit-picky edits and compulsive sentence restructuring. What, exactly, do you mean by small revision? This entire paragraph, the one that has worked perfectly for five years, has a fragment. I think we need to re-write the whole manual.

Did I mention I can be compulsive? That is another blog post all together.

When I launch a new project, I try to do something that is a stretch for me. This time, I am drawing from people I actually knew and I am writing in third person.

Because I generally write in a stream of consciousness, writing in first person works really well. (Yes, my friends, I am a “pantser.”) I have discovered that writing in third person is, actually, as challenging for me as I thought it might be.

At the end of every writing session I have to go back and search for places where I slipped into first person. This has proved interesting because it is often the places that flowed easily as I wrote—the times when I was most connected to the character.

Just to make it a really formidable task to finish a novel in thirty days, I also challenged myself to lower the age level of the audience and create a POV character that is male.

Here’s what I like: I love the fact that I can pull away. In first person, you are stuck in the head of your POV character. If she is sleeping, she is, well, sleeping. She has to find out what happened overnight from other people. I enjoy the fact that I can give a broader world view without using dialog to do it, and that there is a better opportunity to explore the lives of the characters who interact with my POV character.

Here’s what drives me a little crazy: The distance. One of the best things about first person is the ease of expressing feeling in a POV character. Third person is just a little bit more challenging, at least for me. I miss the intimacy of the first person narrative.

I have now avoided working on said NaNoWriMo novel for a couple of hours as I put this together and messed around on the internet. I am now heading back into my middle grade world.

Write on, NaNoWriMo people!

Broken Things

Until today, I had an old minivan. It died in April and had been holding court in my garage ever since. In the six months since it came to rest, I had struggled with the notion of fixing it (I really didn’t want a car payment) or donating it to charity. I have two teenagers and until April, three cars so that each of us could get to the places we had to be without A. being late, or B. killing each other. We limped along with two cars through all those months while I drug my feet making a decision.

When school started, my time was up. With new school and work schedules for three people, we really couldn’t make it work with two cars any more. We live in Southern California and public transportation is not something we have, unless you are traveling a distance. Local transportation is near impossible.

Facing the knowledge that I was out of time, I sat down and had a long conversation with myself about the van. I could fix it, replace the engine I had been babying for three years that had finally given up, but what next? The car had a pentient for  shifting into low gear on its own when it got a little warm outside, or when it was annoyed because I was asking it to do too much—like wait in the drop off line at my son’s school. It needed tires and the radiator leaked.

I was kidding myself. I could practically have a new car for what that van could cost me over the next twelve months. In the end, I made the only reasonable choice  and bought a brand-new, highly-reliable car. Phew. Decision made… but not really, because the minivan still lingered in the garage.

A week went by, two, then it was three, and finally a month, but the van still sat there. It was full of legos and weird, forgotten sunglasses. There were straw wrappers on the floor from the fast food stop the last time it had been driven to my mother’s house. There was the spot in the third row seat where I used to strap my son into his car seat and the slightest echo of the voices of my children when they were small, laughing and arguing as we drove to school or swim lessons. The resonance of the snappy, high pitched tones of those teenagers who used to complain that they couldn’t wait to be big enough to sit in the front seat. The memory of my daughters deciding that the car needed a name and that the appropriate name was Peggy, the Pegster, or just Peg.

There were other echoes too, scarier ones. The sound of my silence as my ex-husband drove and I knew I couldn’t stay married to him. The electric fear that still lingered in the upholstery on the driver’s seat from when I left the marriage, my children in the back, flying forward on raw faith, grit, and  the adrenaline created from finally being free.

On the night I finally rolled it out of the garage to the front for the tow truck that was coming in the morning, I sat in the driver’s seat and listened to all the voices that lingered inside. The sound of lullabies sung to three children over ten years. The tears I shed when I drove it for the first time after a judge told my ex-husband he couldn’t have it, that I had to have a car (he owned two others). It was mine. The first thing I had that legally belonged to me and only me in almost twenty years.

I realized, as I thought of all those voices, that ridiculous minivan I had clung to for so long represented my freedom. It cradled the hope I had in providing my children with a peaceful, stable life after years of living with the upheaval created by a deteriorating marriage to a person who could only ever see his own needs and wants. It was my means of escape, and proof that I existed on my own, away from the title of wife and mother.

My heart is still heavy over the image of that minivan rounding the corner away from my house for the last time. I understand it is not the car. It is the newborn baby and his two young sisters. It is the proof that no matter how much I wish it wasn’t so, time pushes on and nothing can stop its progress. The knowledge that sometimes broken things cannot be fixed and that letting go is the only option.

I hope the money raised in the sale of the parts of that car helps the charity I selected. I also hope that some other family benefits from the rims or the battery. That some other mother flies free and feels safe and protected because of some part of that minivan.

Bring good to the world, Peg. I will always miss the time we had together.


Where the heck did September go? It has been a reckless month in the Stanley household. School started, as it always does, and within thirty-five seconds (exactly thirty-five) half the house was sick—me among them. I don’t have little kids any more. How can we possibly succumb to every virus that crosses the threshold of a classroom? I don’t know, but we do.

September also brought a crazy upsurge at work. Like a lot of businesses, the nonprofit I work for seems to come alive when school starts. Everyone is back from vacation and they all need a meeting.

Oh, yeah, and I finished the novel that was driving me crazy.

I am currently on hiatus from those eighty-thousand words, satisfying myself by filling the space with ideas for a new novel and gnashing to get through the six weeks I promised myself I would take to let story congeal before I tore into it again. God, I hope it’s good.

I hope when I open it again I run across at least a few pages, maybe even chapters, where I think, “Wow, that actually works.”

It is a weird time when I revisit a completed manuscript. There is a part of me that is desperately hopeful that I will feel like it’s perfect, but a far more prominent part that can’t wait to shred some darlings and tighten the plot. Are the challenges too challenge-y or not challenge-y enough? When I begin to shred some of those over-the-top descriptions I was lamenting a few months back, will there be enough story underneath to hold it up? And finally, that parental freak out that causes POV to come unwound to facilitate the climax, is it really supported early in the novel or does it come so out of nowhere that it isn’t believable?

So many questions, questions, questions and how lucky am I that I get to answer them.

Love, Friendship, and Grief

Today a dear friend called to tell me he lost his husband. I hadn’t spoken to him in a few years, though we emailed on occasion and I followed his career.  I was shocked and saddened to hear about his loss and I feel privileged beyond describing to have been on the receiving end of that call.

He is one of those people who defined who I am. He was a part of shaping my worldview and my understanding of myself. Our lives intersected in college and we wound up wrapped around each other in a way that ran so deep we never quite separated. He is on my short list—when something amazing happens—when the shit hits the fan.

I don’t call him for the small stuff, like, getting married or having a baby. It’s the big things that make me reach for the phone or the keyboard to find him. When I realized my marriage had to end or it would cost me my soul. When one of my children went through a devastating time and wound up in the hospital. Those are the times I reached out for George.

I called him when I finished my first novel and he read it. He’s a talented director with some amazing films under his belt. He knows a good story. He read my first effort and didn’t throw it away or laugh out loud. He told me to find a group that could help me. He supported me in continuing to work on the craft of writing and shared with me his opinion of the parts of the novel he found engaging and worth reading. In other words, he was one of the kindest, best friends I had.

Not until several years later when I was on my fourth novel, did I send him another story. The novel I sent for his opinion and his advice had been ripped to shreds by two critique groups and an editor. When I sent it, I apologized for the first.  It wasn’t until I learned what was good that I understood how devastating bad the first novel was and how gracious he had been in supporting my budding writing career. It was a gift, his acceptance of me and my work.

That most amazing gift, many years after we first met, solidified his honored place in my life. Today he gave me another poignant gift. He asked me, not to come running, he had people for that, but to reach out to him in a month, in two months when the flowers had died and the meals lovingly prepared for George and his son were long since enjoyed. He asked me to come and find him then, to make sure he is still afloat. To check that he is okay and that he has what he needs.

He asked me to help him understand what to do for his son who is close to the same age my younger sister was when our father passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Today reminds me of that day in May many years ago when my world came crashing down with a phone call at dawn.

I didn’t call George that day. I didn’t tell him what had happened. It wasn’t until two weeks later when I had returned to school to finish spring quarter of my junior year in college that he found me. We were walking in opposite directions down a long underground passage in the administration building at our university. He was probably fifty yards away, but I knew his walk, his form, his heart. I needed him, and he appeared. He stopped what he was doing and we got a coffee. I couldn’t taste it, I couldn’t taste anything the shock of the loss was so intense, but he was there. Present when I needed him.

It is my hope that I can return the favor now, though it breaks my heart I need to. I would love to tell him that it will be okay, that time will heal, but I won’t lie. Time will separate George and his son from the most intense pain, but it will never go away. Their grief will rise and scream at odd, unexpected times, like when the light hits a tree in a certain way, or when the sounds of the city remind them of the time Before. It will reach through them when they expect it too, on holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries.

Their grief will become a golden thread weaving through their lives from this day forward, touching everything and making it more beautiful. When George loves again, he will lean on the strength and joy of the love he lost. As his son grows and becomes a man, George will find his husband in their son and both father and son will be glad he is there—A father, a husband, a friend.

I am honored and privileged to be invited on this most precious and precarious journey with my friend. I will walk a pace behind because it is his path to forge, but I will be close by to make a bridge when the path is too hard or too lonely. It is the least I can do for someone I love.


I have been embroiled with my current novel for a few months now. For some reason, I keep hitting areas of writing that feel like trudging uphill through mud. I discovered in my last re-read of chapters one through eight that when I hit these lovely areas of molten sludge, I tend to add details.

Details like, oh, I don’t know… “the red carpet fiber wrapped itself sinuously around the blue one next to it” and “her fingers gripped the pink and purple toothbrush with enough force to break it in two.” Unless the carpet fibers are also drenched in blood (they aren’t) or the toothbrush is about to be used as a highly unlikely murder weapon (it isn’t) these fanciful tidbits of word-smithery are bold examples of how lost I had become trying to find the thread of this story.

Having recently read Stephen King’s book, On Writing*, I found myself cursing the fossil I was trying to excavate from concrete. In order to solve this problem, I took a piece of advice from Mr. King and committed myself to writing a thousand words a day.

At first I found I was writing page after page of moons glinting on pine boughs (silvery, moulton light poured through the uppermost branches of the tree… oh no) but as I wrote, something else seemed to be happening too. My point of view character began to whisper to me. I’m here, she said. Listen to me. One night, while writing about the shifting shades of brown on the pebbles at the beach, something else appeared.  Her footprints, leading me through a completely different story than the one I thought I was going to tell.

I followed her, and she began to run. That night I found I had to force myself to stop writing and go to bed. The old familiar pull toward the keyboard started again the following day, along with the scribbled paper notes filling my purse and appearing on yellow pads at work as I heard her whispers. She spoke to me and the words flowed through my fingers.

As the words flowed, the details softened, leaving passages that I found myself revising by adding stronger, more meaningful details. Passages filled with sunlight and shadow were supporting a story arch that had a lot more meaning. They were often necessary and beautiful words that expressed the time of day or the subtle shifting of the clock as something more important occurred.

I love detail. I love description. When I read a book or see a movie, there is beauty in the way a writer and a director use the subtle clues of setting, lighting, and costume to tell a deeper story than the dialog can tell. I understand now from my experience with this novel, details are also capable of killing everything else on the page. I understand that for me, at least, it is an effective crutch, useful when avoiding truths about the stories I am telling.

The best details vanish into the arch of the characters or the twisting turns of a tight plot. They are there to be relished later, when the story is complete, as a part of a strong supporting cast. Telling stories is a joy and a pleasure. It is also challenging and demanding and time consuming. Writers face so many walls. I am aware after this experience that I need to watch for the rough-hewn stone ones covered in creeping olive-green moss that run along a crystal clear river filled with thriving orange fish…

*Stephen King: On Writing A memoir of the Craft  (Scribner 2000)

Blogs and Tweets and Novels…Oh My

What is so hard about adding your voice to the internet? For some that  question doesn’t even make sense. “Nothing!” they say. “It’s easy, who cares? ” they shrug. But for the sworn social neurotic who grew up with whispers of “What will the neighbors think?” as an undercurrent to every conversation, the answer is—everything!

What if someone reads it?

What if no one reads it?

What if I someone doesn’t like what I have to say and tells me so in a scathing comment?

The questions are endless and each is more horrifying than the last. So when a lovely coworker asked me if I had a blog, I told her I did and then I had to tell her that no one on the planet knew about it but my mother. I have a Twitter account too—where I never post anything.

I. Am. A. Writer. I even get paid to do it by a fabulous nonprofit. I go to work every day and throw down pros about everything from public speaking to writing a blog—a plethora of  powerful educational content I would have no problem defending through a world war. I have thrown open my files and my brain to executives and Ph.Ds, but that is education. I have a degree and a half worth of expertise, plus years of experience in education. Fiction is different.

Fiction is personal. It is drawn from me. From the very darkest inner workings of my mind and soul. Blog posts also dwell there and have the added trauma of lacking a character I created to hide behind. It takes courage to write fiction, and post blogs, and tweets. Courage I am working to build.

One of my favorite writers is Carrie Jones. Carrie writes beautiful stories about amazing things and woven through them are powerful truths about growth, and loss, and finding power when you feel powerless. She does it all with a charmingly quirky sense of humor. Carrie Jones has a big heart and a lot of insecurities. She also has a blog that she posts to with the the erratic consistency of rain in the desert ( There have been times when she posted every week (I loved those times). But usually I visit, only to find something I read three months ago.

I can relate to that part of Carrie Jones. She is a best selling author, but she also seems to worry a lot about what people think of her. I certainly aspire to the title of best selling author, but I want to be confident in any format. I long to regularly post witty commentary in a hundred and forty characters. I would like to have the prolific career of Stephen King and the supercharged media presence of Katy Perry. Is that too much to ask?


In the time being  I am taking the advice of Lady Macbeth and screwing my courage to the sticking place, or at least throwing up a few Tweets to see if they stick.