Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Going Back

Last week I was back in New Jersey. In the house I lived in for over 10 years. Taking care of my adult son with Down Syndrome while my ex was out of town. It was a strange sensation. I am light years from being the person who lived there just a few short years ago.

It was good to see my son and help to get his behavior at least a little back on track. And to see my daughter who flew in for Easter. I was happy to see a few dear friends.

But it was also hard to be in that house and see it changing, to see the garden disappearing, to wonder why I ever stayed so long—in the marriage, I mean.

We make choices based on our best guesses about what’s right for us—and sometimes those around us as well. Sometimes we choose well. Sometimes it takes us a while to realize we’ve made a mistake. Sometimes things change.

I wouldn’t go back if I could. At the same time, I recognize the good things that did come out of that marriage. I wish it had all been different. I married believing in happily ever after. It didn’t work out that way. So it was very strange being back in that house with all the memories.

It was hard, too, seeing my son. Realizing that much as I wish I could make his life easier, he must choose to make the changes in his behavior that could let that happen. I look at him and see all the years I gave everything I had to try to help him and know I couldn’t have done more. In the ways that really matter, his life is in his hands. Down syndrome or not, he must make certain choices that will determine the quality of his life. There is a limit to what his father or I can do for him. But that truth still hurts.

It was both a good trip back and a difficult one. I am so much happier than I was despite the challenges of being on my own. I discovered, though, that I am not yet completely done grieving for the loss of all the hopes and dreams I had when I married my ex and when I embarked on the adventure of motherhood.

But if we felt no emotions, we could not be writers.


Sunday, April 09, 2006

Back to Life

Okay, back to writing about life. Sort of. As I often say, I don’t think writing and life can be separated if you’re a writer and today’s post is no exception.

No doubt you’re surprised to see two posts so close together from me but things are about to get a bit hectic. In part, that’s because I’m going to deal with some...challenging people in my life. Affection, love, and exasperation sometimes come all mixed together. We can love someone dearly and yet know we can’t be with them—for everyone’s sake involved. Or we want to see people we care about but circumstances don’t allow us to do so and sometimes it’s tempting to tell ourselves we don’t want to so that we don’t miss them so much. Today’s post is about seeing people—really seeing them.

All of us see life through the filter of past experiences AND the things people we trusted have said over the years. In addition, it’s human nature to want things to be clear cut. That means that we tend to see people as good or bad. If someone has hurt us, we may be reluctant to acknowledge that they may have been good to us, at times, as well. And if they are sometimes wonderful to us, we may be reluctant and it may take us a long time to acknowledge that sometimes they are horribly destructive as well.

What I’d like to suggest today is that it’s powerful—both in real life and as writers—to step back and really try to see people we know as they are, setting aside all our past filters, all our past experiences, all our past perceptions about a given person.

I believe that within every person is good. I believe that all harm comes out of a given person’s fears and self-doubts. That’s been true in my life even when the harm has been the most extreme. If we allow ourselves to see that, it can be transformative and help us move past those hurts to create a new and healthier relationship with that person—especially in situations where we cannot entirely or do not want to entirely cut that person out of our lives. And even if we do need to walk away entirely, it can keep us from holding onto anger that would otherwise be destructive to US.

It’s very powerful to look past the obvious to see what we may never have noticed or understood or let ourselves see before. It’s powerful to look at characters we are creating and ask ourselves what we don’t know about them as well. If we do, our characters will be more multi-dimensional and interesting to readers. A villain who is all evil is boring. So is a hero who is all good. Showing the other side of each—hero and villain—makes for a much more compelling story.

As many of you know, I have a son with Down Syndrome. He also has behavioral problems. As I deal with him soon, I will be trying to look at him with new eyes to see if there is a new way to reach him. I will be trying to put myself in his place and understand why he does what he does. I don’t know if I will be able to have an impact on those behavior issues, especially because I’ll be on his home turf, rather than mine, but I will try and at the very least, perhaps the impact of this visit will be different for ME, regardless of the impact on him.

So whether you are dealing with challenging people in your life or a writer wanting to create compelling characters, try asking yourself: What don’t I know about this person? What other way to see or interpret this person’s words and actions could there be? How can I connect to whatever is the greatest good within this person?

If you are working on creating a character, ask yourself: What is this character’s greatest flaw? What are this character’s self-doubts and fears and how does he or she react when someone triggers any of these? What is the good within this character? How does he or she perceive him or herself? How does that image vary from what others see? Do the character’s words match his or her actions? If not, why not? Who does the character WANT to be?

Writing and life are inextricably intertwined for writers. What we learn from one can help us with the other. How will you see the people in your life and the characters you create differently this week?


Saturday, April 08, 2006


If you’re a writer, you know what I’m talking about and odds are you don’t much like writing them. Recently, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about synopses so I thought I’d share here my philosophy about them.

First, it’s important to understand how synopses are used so that you can write an effective one.

Editors use synopses to:

1) Decide if the story meets the expectations of the genre.
2) The author can write a complete story with no huge, gaping holes.
3) Has compelling characters and situations.
4) Help sell a manuscript he or she wants to buy to the editorial team (who will not have had a chance to read the entire manuscript).
5) Create cover art and back cover blurbs.
6) Help the sales and marketing teams know what your book is about.

Writers can use the synopsis to:
1) Make sure the story has no gaping holes.
2) Judge if the manuscript has all the essential elements for the target genre.
3) Gauge if this is a compelling story. (i.e. Would YOU buy this book?)

What do I mean by all of this? Well, let me begin by using the example of a synopsis for a romance novel.

Readers (and editors and agents) will look for a story with:
1) A satisfying romance.
2) A hero the reader wants to take home with her (and keep in bed for a month).
3) A heroine who deserves the hero.
4) Characters who grow and change in some way.
5) A plot that makes sense.

Readers—including editors and agents—care about these things in that order of priority. This means that when you write your synopsis, if it’s a romance novel, you want to make sure the focus is on the romance and how that plays out. You want to make clear how and why your hero is compelling and how the heroine deserves him. You want to show how your characters grow and change. And finally you want a plot that makes sense BUT the plot elements will be discussed primarily in terms of how the events move forward the romance and/or the character growth and/or reveal information about the hero or heroine. If you do this, then you are making it easy for an editor or agent to see that your story will be appealing to readers.

If you were writing a mystery, the order of priorities would be more like the following:
1) Satisfying mystery with no gaping holes.
2) Compelling characters—though it might be the villain who is most compelling.
3) An interesting setting or context within which the story plays out.

Every type of book has reader expectations that must be met and that’s what you want to highlight in your synopsis.

Synopses are not fun to write but they can be an extremely useful tool—both for yourself as the author and for your publisher once you sell.


Sunday, April 02, 2006

Real Writer

That’s a very insidious phrase—real writer. Often it’s used as in: You’re not a REAL writer unless you... OR You’re not a REAL writer if you don’t....

And if we don’t fit whatever that is, we may start to doubt ourselves. We think that getting published will make us REAL writers. Except that published authors start thinking, I’ll be a REAL writer if I make the best seller list or make X dollars for my next book.

Bottom line? You are a writer if you write. You cannot control the outcome but you are a writer if you write.

If we do not take ourselves seriously as writers, no one else will. Heaven knows it can be tough enough even if we do! I know published authors (and I was one) whose writing was treated by family as not real, not important, not a career. I had friends who didn’t respect what I did. And heaven help me, most of the time, if a stranger found out that what I wrote was romance!

We are writers if we write. What we write matters. (I have an essay on my website that I wrote shortly after 9/11 about the importance of what we do.) Each of us will choose to write what it is we are supposed to write. Each of us has our unique perspective and gifts to bring to telling a story or sharing information.

Respect what you write. It doesn’t have to be perfect to deserve respect, just as human beings don’t have to be perfect to deserve respect. Respect yourself as a writer. You are doing what many people dream about but never actually get around to doing. Respect that writers need time to daydream. Writers need time to play. How else can we stay in touch with that part of us most uniquely suited to imagine new stories? As children we had no trouble playing make believe! It’s only as adults that we worry if our make believe will be “good enough.” We need time to stay in touch or get back in touch with that child we were—the one who knew how to be fearless in playing make believe and in imagining how the world could be.

When we write, we help others see the world and people in a new way. We may share wisdom and understanding that is sometimes badly needed. Each of us will do it in our own way and each way matters because just as we are all different as writers, readers are all different and for each of us there are readers out there who may be touched to the core by what we write.

What if we are never published? I have never yet known a writer who regretted writing something that came from the heart. I have never yet known a writer who regretted searching for ways to connect with others mind to mind and heart to heart. I have known writers who tried to write what they thought they were supposed to write or what might be respected or well paid who regretted the time spent—but that was often true whether or not they ended up getting published.

If you write, you are a REAL writer.