Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Writing Through Trauma, and What Happens When You Don't by Jess Riley

One suggested prompt this posting cycle was “writing through trauma.” In my own life, I haven’t experienced nearly as much trauma as others, yet I still can point to several traumatic events—two of which I’ll publicly write about, the first being my divorce.  

The kick-off to my first marriage was a big, old-school Wisconsin wedding with full Catholic mass, hundreds of guests at dinner, and a blues band to go with the free beer at the reception. (The fact that I hired a blues band should have been a clue, but …) I thought I was golden. Set for life. Yet there I was months later, on what should have been my one-year anniversary, telling my sweet Grandma why I was getting my own apartment. Fail.

I spent the summer crying and reading self-help books with titles like Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self. (Blech.) I filled journals with melodramatic, self-indulgent drivel. (Which reminds me--I really need to find them and burn them in case I die in a car accident one of these days). But even at the tender age of 25, I knew two things: First, half of us get divorced. I was only getting mine out of the way sooner than most. Second, I was 25! You’re so resilient at 25; even if you fail at something, the odds of trying again and succeeding are enormous. 

Fast-forward to five months after my first novel was released. I was basking in a fourth printing, on top of the world. It was October 2008, and I was at the Wisconsin Book Festival with friends, awaiting a call from my agent with my editor’s offer to buy my second novel.  The economy was in free-fall around us, shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs daily, yet I was golden. Set for life. (Wait, where did I feel that before….) 

The call came while out to lunch with my author friend Danielle Younge-Ullman and her father, whom she gets to see a handful of times a year. I’d had second-hand information that led me to believe things were going well behind the scenes, but when the call came, it contained nothing but bad news. I remember how cold my heart got, how all the air felt sucked out of the restaurant, how jealous I felt of the other diners, just eating like everything was fine in the world. I spent the afternoon bawling in a spectacularly public flame-out.  (Poor Danielle tried to console me as best she could, but when you’re crushed, you’re crushed.) Now, I want to go back in time and slap the hell out of the entitled, cocky jerk I was back then. Who did I think I was, King Midas? Millions of people were being told to pack up their stuff and get out of their cubicles for reasons that had nothing to do with how well they did their jobs. And I was special? Immune to this kind of thing?

Still, I took it pretty hard. So hard that I immediately stopped reading and writing. I couldn’t stand watching others continue to do well while my own writing career was in a death spiral. I figured I just sucked (oh, fragile ego), so maybe I’d be a dentist now or something. You know, easy career change. Months passed, and I got busy at my day job, which came as a small relief. One night I began to feel a deep, pulling pain that I described to J as “a dump truck driving around my uterus.” The pain grew so intense that I begged him to take me to the Emergency Room. I was there half an hour when the pain got so bad I actually threw up, which felt like an awful kind of validation. (See, I told you it hurt like a mother!) They gave me morphine, which softened the edges, and an ultrasound that revealed … nothing. I was sent home with a prescription for Vicodin. Two days later, the pain subsided, and I went on with life.

A month later, at the funeral for one of my husband’s best friends, I felt the familiar, heavy ache begin again. Still, I tried to power through, because I had grants due. I figured it would go away on its own. By the next night, I could only find relief on my hands and knees, crying and sweating and writhing for hours as waves of pain ripped through me.  It took a lot of Vicodin to sleep.

The next day I could barely stand, and I was back at the ER. More morphine (Aaaaahhhhh…) More tests. I remember looking up through the fog of delicious painkillers to see my gynecologist’s friendly face.  Though I’d mostly just endured awkward conversation with her while she gave me a breast exam or had a finger in my butt, she had come to my book launch party and I’d seen her at Target once, so I felt like we were buds. “You’re going into emergency surgery right now,” she said.

“Hooray!” I said. “Get whatever it is that hurts the f*ck out of me NOW!”

Okay, I didn’t say that, but I remember thinking a weak, ‘Yay!’

Turns out one of my ovaries had a cyst so big it twisted over on itself, cutting off blood supply to the rest of the organ. It was getting ‘necrotic,’ which … just yuck. 

As I healed, my sister gave me Christianne Northrup’s book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom (not quite another Woo-Woo book, but close), which had a section all about ovaries and base chakra and such. Turns out that our ovaries are connected to creating—life (babies), food, gardens, crafts … and art. 

So the irony of it all is that by NOT writing, it could be that I manifested my own trauma. And my extended tantrum could have short-circuited my ability to have kids.  All that stopped-up creativity, swirling and building, turning on me because I gave it no outlet.

I don’t know. It’s one theory. But when you’re a writer, writing feels as essential to you as breathing. You are compelled to do it. You sometimes wish you weren’t. And there I was, averting my eyes every time I walked by a bookshelf, by my desk, denying a very basic, crucial part of who I am. Not allowing myself to breathe because I was afraid to.

I am writing again, but I don’t have children, perhaps because I refused to write a few years ago. The silver lining is that our house will be paid for this fall and I’m going to Alaska next summer. You might think of me the next time your toddler punches you in the face at Target, or the next time your teenager tells you she hates you—and I will think of you when I don’t get to play Santa at Christmas and die alone with my cats when I’m ninety.

The bottom line is this: when writing is in your blood, keep writing. No matter if it hurts. No matter if you’re afraid to be rejected, if you feel like a failure. Take a tiny break if you must, but get back to it as soon as you can. Forgive yourself for not being perfect. Take rejection as a challenge to rise to the occasion. Channel your anger, your pain, your joy. Don’t. Take. Anything. Personally. Write down the walls. Burn it later in the sink maybe, but never stop.  Keep your girl (or boy) parts, y’all. Mind-body connection.  

*I’m co-writing a novel with Danielle this summer, which shows you how awesome she is.  I mean, I was truly a pathetic, freaked-out wreck that afternoon.
If you're still with me after this TMI Woo-Woo blog, feel free to visit my other blog at No more ovary posts, I promise!

(Jess Riley is the author of the novels Driving Sideways & All the Lonely People and the novella Closer Than They Appear; her third novel, Mandatory Release, is out this July. Stay tuned by following Jess on Facebook.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Paradise Guest House: A Writer Heads to Bali for Research

You’d think that it would be a writer’s dream to spend a month in Bali, doing research for a novel.  You’d imagine long stretches of white sand beaches, lush mountain jungles, charming villages. You’d wonder: how did she get this gig?
In 2005 my husband and I traveled to Bali for a vacation. A few weeks before our trip, terrorists attached Bali for the second time in three years. The 2002 bombing killed over 200 young people at two night clubs. The 2005 bombing was less horrific but did great damage to the psyche of the Balinese people and to the struggling tourist industry.
We didn’t cancel our trip. We got to see Bali without tourists, a fabulous experience. Because we had more time to talk to the Balinese, we learned about their culture, their religion, their remarkable warmth.  By the time that trip ended, I had an idea for a novel I wanted to write: the story of a young American woman who returns to Bali a year after she was injured in the 2002 terrorist bombings and her search for the man who saved her.
Yes, I had to return to Bali for a research trip as I wrote THE PARADISE GUEST HOUSE. I planned a month long solo journey, with stops in different cities. I knew much of what I needed to discover, and yet much of what happened there was pure serendipity – conversations with people and experiences that helped shape my knowledge of Bali and my ability to create the island on the page.
I chose to stay in guest houses so that I’d learn more about the Balinese people and their remarkable hospitality. I talked to everyone I could about their recollections of the bombing. I learned about ex-pat life and Balinese life.  I wandered the streets of Ubud and Sanur, absorbing the smells, sights, and sounds of those villages.
The tough part was really the best part of my trip. I spent two long days interviewing survivors of the bombing and families of some of the victims. I traveled by car, with an interpreter, to remote villages and to modest one-room homes in the center of the city where I sat on the floor with my hosts and listened to horrific stories. In one case, a woman tried to tell me the story of that fateful night when her husband did not return from work. She broke down and her teenage daughter finished her story by saying, “And so I have decided to become a doctor so I can help save my people.”
My memory of that month in Bali is filled with some of the images we all conjure up when we think of that gorgeous island. But a few other images are seared in my mind: a woman whose burns still cover most of her body and yet she played with her new baby as she told me her story. The memorial of the bombing in the center of Kuta – a carving that includes all the names of the victims. The lovely host at one of my guest houses who told me each morning that Bali is healing with each new day.

to learn more about Ellen and her new novel, THE PARADISE GUEST HOUSE, check out her website:

Monday, May 27, 2013

Make a Scene!

by Saralee Rosenberg

I have the great fortune of being both a writer and a writing teacher at Hofstra University's School of Continuing Education. Pictured above are some of my master class students at a recent appearance where THEY got to share scenes from their works-in-progress. It was a joy and an honor to be in the audience.

What was so rewarding for me was to witness how the lessons they learned over the years of listening to me babble actually came to fruition in their fabulous scenes.

For emerging writers, and maybe even experienced ones, here is my number one lesson on deconstructing a scene. May it help you further your own fiction projects!

There is no winning formula for writing a powerful scene. No industry standard word count or page count. No set ratio of dialog to action. What is vital is making sure that each scene, or parts of each scene, give readers new meaning and insight. You always want to move the story forward.

But how to know whether a scene is accomplishing this?

Deconstruct it so that you can look at it objectively rather than viewing it through an emotional lens. And by emotional lens I mean that you, the writer, get so caught up in the beauty of your prose or the honesty and drama of the dialogue that you can’t imagine cutting it. 

Remember: Words don’t have feelings. They can be cut. No one will die.

The key to deconstructing a scene is looking for a balance of three elements:
1.     Action
2.     Information
3.     Emotion

This doesn’t mean that each and every scene is a recipe that gets cut into equal thirds. Instead aim for a logical flow and synergy without over emphasizing one particular element.

In other words, if in re-reading a scene you notice that there is a very long span of dialogue, it may serve you well in terms of building tension, revealing new facts and moving the story along. But if there is little soul searching from the main character, then it raises the question. Could this exchange be more impactful if there was a better balance between the emotion and the information?

That doesn’t mean you should interrupt the flow and say INSERT EMOTION HERE. The inner-reflecting should be shared in a logical, organic way so that rather than seeming like an afterthought by the writer, or an oops I forgot to stir up the emotion, it is threaded through the narrative.

Or, let’s say that your scene is filled with soul searching- really digs deep into the psyche of the main character and reveals a fear or conflict. Might it not be even more compelling if this ah ha moment occurred during an action scene?

Remember: Creating this balance of action and emotion helps you nail the pacing. 

We have all read scenes that felt like a Saturday Night Live skit. We got the point right away but the skit went on and on and we lost interest. Or we’ve walked out of a movie thinking it would have been so much better if they cut the last twenty minutes.

Same with writing a scene. The key is to get in and get out before it feels bloated and/or slowed down by extraneous information/details/action/emotion that are either repetitive, boring, or not vital to the story telling.

But how can you tell the differences between action, information and emotion? 
To help you better understand their distinctions and the roles they play, here are the definitions:

Action: Either through narrative or dialogue, the story is unfolding with new information, conflicts, ideas and questions. There is no backstory or long, flowing descriptions of the setting. Simply a story that is moving forward and compelling the reader to stay tuned because the action is just heating up.

Now obviously a chase scene is the most literal form of action. But it can also be a love scene, a fight scene, a scene that introduces a new character, a scene that brings two known characters together for the first time, a scene that puts the character in a set of new circumstances, etc. The emphasis is on new tension/challenges and along with new, possible outcomes.

Even better is when an action scene emerges in your head unexpectedly and you ditch your outline. This is a sign that your characters are three-dimensional and are having a say in their own outcomes.

Remember: If there are no surprises for the writer, there are none for the reader!

Information:  Any facts, details, backstory, descriptions of characters and/or setting fall into the information category. These are vital to explaining the story so the reader is not lost, but they should not be at the expense of creating an information dump. This is where you literally stop the story to fill in the reader.
Some writers think they are disguising the info dump in dialogue but take my word- it’s very transparent. The key to sharing information is to get in/get out.  

This is where the adage about showing not telling applies. The more information you tell rather than show, the more you risk boring the reader.

Remember: If you must stop the story then pull over. Just don’t get stuck in a ditch.

Emotion: Sharing a main character’s emotions can certainly come through dialogue, but the more impactful way is to inform us through their inner thoughts. What are they thinking, feeling and worrying about? What are they hoping for? What are they wondering and wishing? What is making them feel doubtful and insecure? What would they love to say aloud but know they can’t? The trick is not to express the emotion in the form of clichés and physical manifestations. She thought she would die if he didn’t call… His stomach was tied in knots...
Emotion is honest, pure and intimate. It should get readers to nod with compassion and understanding. But if the emotions seem inauthentic and/or disconnected from what we already know about the character, readers will resent the fakery.  

Emotion, or inner monologue, is the best tool in the shed to keep readers connected to your story and to make them feel invested in the main character’s outcome. The more we understand where their head is at, the more we will gladly follow their journey.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to separate paragraphs by action/information/emotion. These elements are not like dance steps or painting by number. 1-2-3, 1-2-3 etc. The idea is to weave them all together like a concerto. Loud, soft, fast, slow, dramatic, lighthearted, etc. Or to mix it up like a starting pitcher- fast ball, curve ball, slider, etc.

The more you mix it up, the more you keep the reader guessing… all the way to the last page!

Saralee Rosenberg is the author of four novels from Avon/HarperCollins, including her latest, DEAR NEIGHBOR, DROP DEAD. Visit her website

Thursday, May 23, 2013

My Heart Goes Walking

            Today my daughter is graduating from college. I can barely type without tearing up. Not only because I am so proud of my first born, but also because I owe my writing career to her.
            There I was, cruising from project to project in Hollywood, eight months pregnant while producing a pizza commercial in Rancho Cucamonga, when she kicked me so hard I went home. As it became obvious that I had to turn down my dream job on a big film in an exotic locale, I began ranting. The rants became essays and the essays became my first book – which took longer than having the baby. Welcome to Club Mom originally had the subtitle The End of Life as You Know It, but the publisher felt that was too bitchy. So I changed it to The Adventure Begins. And it did.
            I followed up with another baby, then a novel about a young mom who suspects her husband of cheating, a romantic thriller screenplay about a young woman having an identity crisis, a grandma book, an essay about being a work-at-home mom in Mommy Wars, a coffee table book on Nesting, a novel called Wife Goes On about a woman who was inspired by her daughter to break free of a bad marriage, an essay about fear of parenting in Arianna Huffington’s On Becoming Fearless, and finally, my new novel, the literary thriller What A Mother Knows. 
            How could I protect her from the big bad world, I wondered, as I lay in bed and listened to her sob in her room down the hall. But now she will not be in the room down the hall. True, she moved out a few years ago for college, but she came home on holidays. When friends stole her away, I knew she would be back. This is different.
            What will I write about now?
            I know nothing about what she will do or where she will go or who she will become. But I know a few things. I will always recognize her laugh in a noisy room. I always will see her smile in the darkness. And I will feel her in my arms despite the miles between us. She is the heart outside of my body.
            There she goes now, walking across the stage to get her diploma. I wave a sign so that she knows I am here. But she knows. 
I am here. I wasn’t writing about her, I was writing about love. 
And I can keep doing that.
Leslie Lehr's new novel, WHAT A MOTHER KNOWS, is at bookstores, on the Recommended Read shelf at Target, and available for download on your favorite device.

Visit for book club guides, her lemon bar recipe & more.
Email for a Skype Book Club Visit at
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Say hi on twitter@leslielehr1

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Writing Critique: Survival Tips for Taking the Hits

by Cindy Jones

On the first day of my first writing class 16 people sat around a big table.  The second day there were 8.  By the end of the semester, four people occupied a much smaller table, and the next fall I returned to a completely new group of writers.  Writers who were not scared away by the first actual writing assignment were eliminated in the feedback sessions.  Lord Byron said,   
"In this world of bustle and broil, and especially in the career of writing, a man should calculate upon his powers of resistance before he goes into the arena."     
Even if your critique partners are sensitive and well intentioned, negative feedback can defeat a new writer. Here are a few survival tips to help you weather harsh criticism in the arena:

  1. Be a good listener.  Take notes and ask questions for clarification; don't argue or defend your work.  Delivering criticism is a delicate operation and if you become defensive your critique partner may shut down before delivering all the goods.  Getting a good reading is a gift, so listen to every word. 
  2. Be aware that some feedback will be obvious (why didn't I see that?), some will be helpful (I'll think about that), and some will be difficult (I never thought about it that way).  Sift through comments and be willing to consider things from a new perspective.    
  3. If the feedback is too overwhelming to process, put it on a back burner and let it sit for a while.  Everything looks different from a distance. 
  4. Consider the source.  Criticism sometimes says more about the criticizer than the manuscript.  
  5. Don't take it personally--even if it comes across personally.
  6. If you are afraid to make suggested revisions, save your old document and make revisions on a fresh copy.  Or paste your cuts to a new document so you can visit them whenever you like.  Change doesn't have to be permanent and good material can be recycled elsewhere.  
  7. Don't ignore criticism that you think is unjustified.  The fact that your reader missed the point may be a red flag that your work is not communicating as you intended.  Determine what they aren't getting and fix the disconnect in your own way.  
  8. Writers are complex individuals and groups have dynamics so if you leave each session feeling defeated, don't give up on writing.  Find a new group.  

The goal is to write the best book you can, and sifting through feedback to use the advice that gets you there is important.  Ignore insecurities that gravitate towards failure and keep your mind on the goal.  A writer submits to bruising critique sessions because writing is about communicating.  And critique partners allow us to test the waters before sending our precious work into the world.  The good news is that if you learn to handle the heat in writing group, your powers of resistance may be sufficiently conditioned to move onto the published authors' far nastier arena:  reader reviews.

Cindy Jones is the author of My Jane Austen Summer, the story of a young woman who thinks she may have realized her dream of living in a novel when she is invited to participate in a Jane Austen Literary Festival.  Her problems follow her to England where she must change her ways or face the fate of so many of Jane Austen’s secondary characters, destined to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Right Words at the Write Time

by Christa Allan

I'm not sure when or how I discovered Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. I'm just grateful that I did. His words leave me breathless. Really. I don't know how much of what I read in English has been lost in translation from his having written in Spanish, but perhaps that's for the best. I might not be able to stand after reading his original work.

Some of his poems are politically charged, but those that aren't are infused with sensual imagery and raw vulnerability, all simply and profoundly composed.

So, when I read that the theme is "the right words at the right time" and what those words mean to me as an author, I remembered having copied this snippet below to share with my students. I wanted to share it today because it reminds me, in my writer life, to not walk away hungry when invited to the banquet of words.

The second link is to a brief video, one I also shared in class, about the power of words.

Enjoy the feast.

from "Everything Exists in the Word" by Pablo Neruda (Memoirs)

“You can say anything you want, yes sir, but it’s the words that sing, they soar and they descend ….. I bow to them . . . I cling to them, I run them down, I bite into them . . I love words so much … The ones I wait for greedily … they glitter like colored stones, they leap like silver fish… They are foam, thread, metal, dew … I stalk certain words… They are so beautiful that I want to fit them all into my poem… I catch them in mid-flight, as they buzz past, I trap them, clean them, peel them, I set myself in front of the dish, they have a crystalline texture to me, vibrant, ivory, vegetable, oily, like fruit, like algae, like agates, like olives… And I stir them, I shake them, I drink them, I gulp them down, I mash them, I garnish them …. I leave them in my poem like stalactites, like slivers of polished wood, like coals, like pickings from a shipwreck, gifts from the waves … 

ChangeYour Words, Change Your World

Christa Allan is the author of  Threads of HopeWalking on Broken GlassThe Edge of Grace, and Love Finds You in New Orleans. You can find her at www.christaallan.comFacebook, and Twitter. When she's not obsessing over words, she's weeding her garden in hopes of generating ideas. Christa, a recently retired teacher, and her husband live in New Orleans with their three neurotic cats.