Just one page

IMG_0557Recently, I got an idea about achieving writing goals by listening to Gretchen Rubin’s podcast.  Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project and has just started a podcast with her sister who is a television writer in California.

When trying to write a novel, you’ve got to build a stack of 200-400 pages of story.  And it makes the temptation to skip a day or a writing session really easy, because what difference does it make to skip a few pages of writing time?  Rubin’s teaching story goes like this…

“If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.”

Writing sessions are like that one coin.  If you keep adding one session to the next, you will end up with a novel ( or at least a significant rough draft.)  Each session has value if you keep the heap of pages in mind.

If you say, one session a week is all I can do, isn’t it still better to slowly be adding to your stock pile of pages?  If you say, all I got was a paragraph today, well that is still better than nothing.  You are a writer by writing and tending to your work.

Rubin offers that a strategy of monitoring that can help counteract the temptation to put off your writing.

Sites like 750words are helpful for monitoring because you get the thrill watching the word count go up as you write.

Making an index card for each scene completed would help a writer see the scenes piling up. Pulling out a blank index card when I sit down, might allow me to be more “on-task” than “online.”    Or filling in a box on a calendar might work.  I probably need a sticky note on the computer too, reminding me to keep going.

Having a partner who is also writing can help greatly.  Emailing a check-in after every session of writing to report progress, is a great way to move forward in the book and keep me more honest about what I’m doing.

Meeting up with a friend over Skype, or FaceTime to announce a mutual writing session  could work.

Getting to know your Barista well enough that when you come in to order your coffee, they ask you about your progress, could make sneaking a peek at the internet less attractive, because you don’t want them to see you slacking.  You get a few pages down and you get to drink coffee too!

While no one strategy will work all the time, I like this little coin idea because it allows us to work at our own pace, or the pace life allows, and know that even our tiniest efforts have value.




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Dive into Lucy Knisley’s travelogues of genius, “An Age of License” and “Displacement”

show_image_in_imgtag.php Gush a lot.  That’s what I’m planning on doing when I go to Emerald City Comicon next month.  I’m hoping that I get to gush to Lucy Knisley, New York Times best-selling cartoonist about her graphic novels, “An Age of License,” and “Displacement,” put out by Seattle’s own Fantagraphics books.   I’m hoping to tell her how grateful I am that she has written a book that so perfectly captures the funny and tragic experience of being a caretaker for your parents or grandparents.

Yes, her other book, “An Age of License” is an awesome book too.  The age of license refers to a period in life, in this case her twenties, where you have a license to experiment, to mess up, to explore lots of options.  The memoir/travelogue contains all of the conflicts of that age, like who to love and what career to pursue written with the earnestness those topics deserve.  The visual treats come in the great pictures of a romantic picnic below the Eiffel Tower at midnight, of the Funicular in Bergen, Norway, of Lucy driving through leafy French vineyards, of the colorful little row houses in Stockholm, Sweden and then back home in New York City.  The way she is able to portray the stress and frantic joy of traveling makes me totally identify with her.   If you love travelogues to Europe, or are looking for a gift for someone experiencing the age of license, this book is a sweet buy.

show_image_in_imgtag-1.phpGushing, though, is reserved for “Displacement.”  This is a travelogue about the trip Lucy takes with her grandparents on a cruise ship for the elderly in 2012.  In her book, Lucy Knisley captures all the love for someone who is almost gone, like her grandmother to senile dementia, or for her grandfather who is doing his best while also starting to lose grasp on some important habits, while truthfully expressing the frustration, the terror, the embarrassment, and the struggle to remain patient, while putting out the effort to repeat things over and over again, to wash her grandpa’s pants when he didn’t end up finding a toilet to pee in, and to wash these pants every night of the cruise, and also to make sure her grandmother has her pills every day, to tie her grandfather’s shoes at the airport, to deal with mean people not willing to wait while her grandparents slowly walked toward the elevator or needed to sit down to rest and someone wouldn’t offer a chair, and to work hard to make them happy in spite of the work involved, and to do this completely by herself–I can’t really express how glad I am to see that she has shown what caregiving for the elderly is truly like.  I just have never seen it done before, or maybe I haven’t read enough memoirs, etc, but she nailed this experience completely and honestly.

Interwoven with the cruise story-line, is her grandfather’s own writings, a memoir of sorts of his World War Two experience and his thoughts on war and survival.  Watching Lucy read this throughout the trip, shows her respect and love for her grandfather.  In the forward, she says of the memoir, “It turned out to be a close companion to me in the loneliness I felt at hiding my own terror and heartbreak at my grandparents’ decline in health.”

The trip isn’t completely without funny and special moments.   Lucy’s portrayal of the cruise dinner and comedy shows are smirk-worthy and the peaceful scenes with her grandparents in the pool are the high point of their trip together.  Still it is real relief that we feel when she finally gets the “grands” home safely and we see her settle in at her own home with her loving cat in her bed, reading the last pages of her grandfather’s memoir before falling deservedly asleep.

Join me in singing Lucy Knisley’s praises at Comicon in Seattle in March, or at a Comicon near you.

by Janis

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Stuck in Query Limbo

HandsOnComputerI just finished sending off my first batch of query letters for my second mystery novel. Querying, along with losing my-fall-into winter extra pounds was among the things I targeted for January. (I don’t call them resolutions.) Any writer who has ever spent time writing queries knows that this process is a kind of limbo – a stage after writing and revising and editing and before publishing. It’s when you’ve declared your manuscript actually finished and ready to go out into the world, but how will you get it there? Not without much time, frustration and rejection. Oh yes, rejection is a big part of it.  Querying is not for weaklings.

For me, it works like this: First, I do a full search on AgentQuery.com and find an agent who says she’s interested in mysteries. I’m always a little chagrined when, although the agent’s name comes up as someone who wants mysteries, further probing reveals that she is really into paranormal, dystopian, young adult or something else. So I move on to the next agent wondering why agents include their names under mystery when they don’t really want them.

Assuming I’ve found an agent who actually appears to want a mystery, then I do a Google AgentQuerysearch on the agent to see if there are any interviews of her on the internet, or, if not, I move on to the literary agency website. Sometimes I find that, again, although the agent has included mysteries on her list of interests, she either has no mystery authors mentioned on the website or mystery appears at the tail end of what this agent is actively seeking. Foiled again! And back to AgentQuery.com.

Sometimes, though, I get through the AgentQuery and Publisher’s Weekly, Google Search, agency website, and discover that this agent actually wants mysteries. And, too, she may represent one of my favorite mystery writers. Hooray! Now, I’m excited and I read everything I can find about this agent and begin crafting what I hope will be an awesome query letter convincing her that she wants my mystery novel. Of course, the description of the novel and my bio doesn’t change. But the first and last paragraphs do change because I can include something I’ve discovered which emphasizes why she is the perfect agent for me and I the author she needs to sign.

Then I go back to the agency website and make sure I know exactly what this agent wants from me. Is it just a query letter? Aargh. I hate that because the agent who gets only a letter won’t be able to sample my actual novel. Okay, okay, I spent a lot of time crafting that query letter, I tell myself. It’s fine. It’s a great query letter. If the agent wants, say, a query and the first three pages, or first ten pages, or first chapter, or first thirty pages, I paste that into the email and hope that some weird formatting problem doesn’t show up in Gmail that doesn’t show up in the Word document – because that has happened to me in the past. And it takes time to fix.

WomenComp-20Once I’ve written a personally targeted query letter, imbedded whatever number of pages into the body of the email and, sometimes, a full synopsis, I press the send button. And here’s the funny thing. By this time, I am totally psyched that this is the One True Agent. I have located the PERFECT agent to represent me for this particular novel and I feel extra enthusiastic. On those days, I click off my computer and go for a run or walk with my dog and then go to my day job. And the funny thing is that since I have done such a good job of convincing myself that I have made contact with my perfect agent, I can’t help checking my personal email from the office. Because, probably, that agent has read my email and has immediately written back to me asking for the full manuscript, right? Yes! But, of course, after that initial email check and once I get into the flow of work, my creative life and that just-sent query recedes to the back of my brain until tomorrow, when, like Sisyphus, I’ll do it all again.

Have I mentioned how long this process takes? Well, I haven’t kept track of exactly how many hours I’ve put into the querying process this month but I know this: it has taken mesisyphus completely away from my creative writing. Which is terrible and makes me feel sucked dry and empty. But here’s the good news: It’s February and I’m done with querying until I hear back from each and every one of those perfect agents. Or, fingers crossed, maybe my One Perfect Agent is reading some part of my novel right now and is about to request the full manuscript. And then, for a brief instant, I’ll be released from purgatory and sent straight to author heaven. Keep the faith.


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Six things to do when your writing goes cold

 Image from the Chihuly exhibit at the Seattle Center grounds.

This is a very “on fire” sculpture from the Chihuly exhibit at the Seattle Center grounds.

“It used to be so juicy.”  “I was on fire.”  “3,000 words in one day.”  Sure, that was before the holidays, the birthday, the vacation, the big test.  Now the trail is cold, your grasp on your characters seems frail, and you are sure you need to start all over.  Before you start up a new novel entirely, here are six things I’ve been doing since I’ve begun the return to regular life.

#1  Crowd your brain with how-to-write inspiration.  Read before bed and in the morning before you get up.  Read before you start to write.  I found a new writing guide, David Farland, and have been working my way through his books; Million Dollar Outlines and Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing.  Reading examples about how other authors have built their books gives me the courage to re-connect to my story.

#2  Don’t be hard on yourself.  Take a little time to back up and immerse yourself rather than forcing yourself to trudge on without feeling it.  Re-read your book from the beginning.  Get a running start at that blank spot where the next scene needs to be created.

IMG_2106#3 Write a short blurb about your book.  Even if you have written one before, this exercise helps to zero in on what you love about your story. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder has a great walk-through on writing a blurb. Go to Amazon or Goodreads, or Publisher’s Weekly and see how they describe a book you have never read.  What draws you in?  What turns you off?

#4 Write a scene out of order.  I decided to jump forward to a place I know has to happen but isn’t the most important scene ever.  It wasn’t too far ahead, but just enough to get me out of the place I was stuck in.  Writing it helped me get closer to a character I hadn’t fleshed out much yet and prove to myself there was forward motion just ahead.  After getting it down on paper, I was more willing to go back to the muddle because I knew where I was going to end up.

#5 Think about the reader.  Who are they?  What is their age? Spy on those Goodreads readers, those book bloggers.   If you are writing for a wide age range, think about adding characters that share the ages with your readers.  Think about the music they like, the books they have read, the movies they have seen.  I’m always searching on the internet for people who might look like they are friends of my character.  Spending a little time with these imaginary readers helps me make my characters more alive in my mind.


Wear a white blouse to write in courtesy of Uniqlo and Ines de la Fressange:)

#6  Spruce up your writing space (or at least shove the piles over a bit) and yourself.   On days I want to be really efficient, I put on a white blouse.  With my doin’ shirt on I make sure to get to my writing first.  If I do it before anything else, then there is still time for everything else.

It feels great to nurture your writing until it is alive in your mind rather than stuffed behind the grocery shopping list and the car’s oil change schedule.  Just keep at it when you can, so when the opportunity comes, you are ready to pile up the words, maybe even up to 3,000 words a day.

by Janis






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Targeting 2015

Mula Eshet / Robert Harding World Imagery / Corbis

Mula Eshet / Robert Harding World Imagery / Corbis

I always feel a bit like a sheep during the first week of January. You know how it is. Everywhere people are talking about resolutions and I can’t help following along. I have resolutions too. The problem is I don’t like to call them that because the one thing we know about resolutions is that some huge number of them, certainly the majority, are broken within the first weeks of their declaration. Even calling them resolutions sets them up for failure somehow. What about goals instead?  Well, goals seem pretty soft, something off in the distance. If you squint and it’s a clear day, you may be able to see it. It’s not certain you can get there. How about targets? I like targets! Targets conjure up in my head bows and arrows shot through the air with determination. Something about a target feels more about the shooting part, the setting up with a keen eye, always keeping the mark in sight, reaching back for as much strength as possible and then letting it fly. Hitting the bull’s eye may be the goal, but there’s more beauty in the action of the arrow flying towards it. Now that I’ve cleared up the semantics of resolutions v. goals v. targets in my own mind, I might be able to move on to the more concrete targets I’m shooting for this year except that some of those targets seem elusive.

For example, I want to write better and with more joy in 2015. Better and joy are OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAamorphous terms I know, but I also know that I can shoot for these targets by taking specific steps. The first is simply routine – funny how I said “simply” because no routine is simple when you’re just starting out. Common wisdom is that it takes twenty-one days to develop a habit. After writing that last sentence, I decided to Google it to find out where that common wisdom came from. Turns out, it’s originally from the findings of a plastic surgeon, who observed the behavior of his patients after they had a nose job or got an artificial limb. No. I am not making this up. But according to an article in the Huffington Post, new research shows that the amount of time it takes to develop a habit is fluid – from two weeks to over ten months, depending on the person and the circumstances. Well, that sounds about right. Read more about this topic here (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-clear/forming-new-habits_b_5104807.html) Just like my target suggestion, it’s the getting there, the journey, which makes achieving the habit worthwhile.

MorningWritingI’ve been getting up in the dark early mornings and descending to my writing room for just a few days now after the chaos of holiday activities. It seems that sometime at the end of this month or in some month to come, this will be a habit again. Presumably, I’ll be writing better because I’ll be getting more practice. And there’s the joy I experience in the solitude of my office, with the SAD light and the candle and the faux sheepskin throw I snuggle up in while facing the computer screen in the deep, dark, quiet mornings. This is Seattle in winter. And this is the way I make it enjoyable.

Which reminds me of the more concrete writing opportunities we have in Seattle coming up, targets to shoot for in expanding our writing lives. Here’s a list of events and opportunities I’m looking forward to in the next couple of months:

And now I’m going to raise my bow and shoot at my personal and concrete targets

Rick Bolin Archery Wold Cup

Rick Bolin Archery Wold Cup

for 2015, which include: writing every morning for two hours; sending out five queries a week in January for second mystery novel; writing a blog post once a week; promoting Leap of Faith, especially on Goodreads and Bookbub; attend Write Here Write Now on Feb. 7; meet with my blogging partner weekly; meet with my writing group monthly and finish the first draft of third Ann Dexter mystery. I know I can do it!



Good luck with your own personal writing resolutions, goals and targets for 2015!

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Winter pleasures in Seattle


Looking toward the Space Needle from Volunteer Park on a snowy still day

Although I find my time for reading and writing has decreased before winter break, once we are headed toward New Year’s, I expect to dip into many exciting new books and re-visit some old friends too.

On my list for reading and reviewing is Northwest genius Tom Robbins, Tibetan Peach Pie.  Jitterbug Perfume is one of my favorite books, and Tibetan Peach Pie is supposed to be a kind of memoir.


IMG_4834I hear that Stephanie Barron has a new Jane Austen mystery called Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas that I’m so eager to read.  I’ve got Paris Street Style, a Guide to Effortless Chic and How to Speak Brit on my wish list, as well as nearly any book in the Bas Bleu catalog.

I just picked up a copy of Charles Finch’s The Laws of Murder from the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, where I attended a signing for Rachel Bukey’s Leap of Faith and Waverly Curtis’ The Chihuahua Always Sniffs Twice.  I also picked up a copy of Rat City by Curt Colbert for a fictional trip into Seattle’s Noir past.  If you are an anglophile, Charles Finch’s Facebook page is a source of ever-flowing posts of beautiful images of England and reading suggestions.



Looking toward the Olympic Mountains, down at Lake Union boats and houseboats, across at Queen Anne Hill, and the water passage toward the Ballard neighborhood and Puget Sound.

More for the anglophile includes Love Nina, a nanny writes home by Nina Stibbe, for its lovely peek into a wonderful bookish family and writerly London neighborhood told by the young and funny, fresh from the country, nanny-narrator.  This is a book well suited for any English major, for its humor about the books Nina is struggling through while she gets her English degree.  I feel like I probably missed out on some of the funniness, because I am a communications major and haven’t slogged through some of the tomes she had to.   I am very thrilled to hear that Nick Hornby is working on a movie script for this book.




For living the good life, I whole-heartedly recommend, Jennifer L. Scott’s, Madame Chic at Home.  Her ideas can help you see the way to transform your daily life into one that feels like you are rewarding yourself throughout the day.  By setting out your coffee cup the night before so that your morning begins with a thoughtful gesture toward yourself, to playing music during the day.  There are many tips to making you feel that you aren’t just living life, you are creating a life well-lived.  I’m sure the ideas will be especially potent during winter break for me, as I have less time to write, (writing being the thing that makes me feel instantly fulfilled), so I will make a conscious effort to elevate the things I am able to do.  This book is also a wonderful gift to yourself for inspiration on how to start the New Year off well.  Her excellent website is here.


From Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill looking toward downtown Seattle

Speaking of writing, I have been listening to YouTube videos on my phone by Joanna Penn.  She has interviewed many interesting people from writers to book publishers and is pleasant and professional to listen to.  You can visit her page here.  Listening to podcasts/YouTubes are a way to get my writing fix in while doing dishes or driving through traffic.  They are a great way to stay connected to the writing energy inside of you.  One book I got after listening to Penn’s podcast, was Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland, a well-thought out book on what techniques or approaches in plot and character make the biggest impact on readers and entertainment consumers.  This is one for commercial writers who like to plan things out.

On Boxing Day, our writing group is planning to meet and exchange gifts.  I hope to hear an excerpt from Waverly Fitzgerald and Curt Colbert’s joint project, Waverly Curtis’ holiday e-book, A Chihuahua in Every Stocking set in Seattle and a Northwest town in the mountains.


The walking path at Volunteer Park, Capitol Hill, Seattle

I remember getting this ornament below as a gift a few writer’s gift exchanges ago and love it hanging on my tree.  But the real gift of being connected in groups, blogs! and online is having writers as friends to cheer us along this challenging but rewarding path of the writing life.


One kid who saw this ornament wondered if it was a calculator, but I let him know it was a typewriter!

One kid who saw this ornament wondered if it was a calculator, but I let him know it was a typewriter!




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The Joy of Reading

Read-DPI’ve been thinking about the pleasure I get from reading. I read all the time. I can’t help myself. I should probably get out more. That said, I especially love reading fiction — not just for the refuge it offers from the chaos of life, or the access to virtual adventure, but mostly for the variety of voices and moods and sensibilities of the authors and characters I meet. I’m interested in the way that a particular book may strike me as dull or depressing or silly or something just off when I first pick it up, and then months or years later the same book fascinates me and becomes one of my favorite books of all time. This reminds me of my Montessori teaching days. Maria Montessori posited that children have “receptive periods” for learning particular skills and if you try to push them into learning that skill before they are ready, it will not happen. So it is with novels.

Over the last few weeks, my reading has been eclectic. I read Richard Ford’s latest Frank FrankBBascombe book, Let Me Be Frank With You (great title!) which I expected to love at first sight, and did love from the first sentence. When I heard the author on Fresh Air recently talking about this book (three interconnected stories, not a novel), I found that Richard Ford in person, as on the page, made me laugh out loud with all his self-deprecating comments and dry wit. In response to one of Terri Gross’s well-crafted questions about something she perceived as a metaphor in one of the stories, he said, “Well, Terri, I try not to put any metaphors in my writing, I just write stuff down.” Ha, ha! Of course, I think Richard Ford is brilliant and metaphors may simply come naturally to him.

These stories are darkly humorous in places and just plain dark in others. The final story, in which Frank goes to visit an acquaintance of his who is literally on his death bed is grim, and I couldn’t find much to laugh about there. But the first story had me laughing uproariously at silly things (flatulence in the aging human, as one example) and insisting on reading paragraphs aloud to my spouse, who somehow never thought they were as funny or remarkable as I did. It’s probably just not the right time for him to read these stories. But for me, I now want to re-read the whole Frank Bascombe trilogy – The Sportswriter, Independence Day and, my favorite of the three, The Lay of the Land. It would be fun to re-read them in order and see what happens. As a side note, Richard Ford is in Seattle today and reading from Let Me Be Frank with You tonight at the Central Library.

StoriedLifeOver the Thanksgiving weekend, in between multiple dinners with various extended families coming together, I read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin. We (one of my book groups) decided to read this novel because it is relatively short (273 pages) and appeared from the reviews to be uplifting and well-written – it is a Goodreads nominee for best fiction or something like that. This is the story of a young man, A. J. Fikry, the owner of a bookshop on an imaginary Island in the Northeastern U.S. who, as the novel opens, is a wreck. He’s spending another night eating a frozen entrée alone in his apartment above the shop. Disgusted with himself and his life, he throws the food against the wall and gets drunk. And it gets worse. We learn that A.J. is a recent widow, his wife having been killed in a car accident, he has a drinking problem, and his business is failing. But A.J. is a book lover and this night he gets out his most valuable book – a first edition of an early work of Edgar Allen Poe – and sets it in the chair opposite him as a stand-in for his wife before he passes out. When he awakens the next day, the Poe is missing and we’re off. As in any good novel, things continue to get worse for A.J. before they get better. Getting better in this case is having a toddler deposited in the children’s section of the shop while he’s out for a morning run (the aforementioned binge having been his wake-up call which kick-starts him into taking control of his life.) It’s sentimental and predictable, of course, that this toddler, Maya, will change his life. And she does. A.J. becomes quickly attached to Maya, cannot give her up, and soon is her adoptive father.

The story moves quickly through the years and the ups and downs of A.J.’s life as new father and bookstore owner. He and the secondary characters in the book – his dead wife’s sister, her author husband, the island’s police chief, and a publisher’s rep who comes to present her employer’s winter list of new books at the beginning of the novel – all play a part in the underlying drama of A.J. and Maya’s lives in the bookshop. As the years pass and the story unfolds, we get the added benefit of brief reviews of A.J.’s favorite books which he sprinkles throughout the book as reading suggestions for Maya when she grows up. This is the quintessential novel for old-school book lovers. Not only do we get the story on the page, but we get these recommended gems (many classics, but some I was not familiar with) directly from another book lover. And the story itself surprises me. Just when I’d pretty much forgotten about the unlikely event that brought Maya into A.J.’s life (willing suspension and all that) the author drops a clue about that, and then another, and then another, until we as readers get the whole story. But A.J. and Maya do not, which is just as well.

Sad things happen in The Storied Life, as sad things happen in all lives. If I’m picky, I’d say there are too many convenient deadly car wrecks killing off characters and one case of a rare and deadly cancer. Is this really necessary? But this too happens in real life, right? And who cares? This book has entertained me for a couple of days and given me suggestions for future reading at the same time. Lovely.

So now I’m off to South Carolina. The other night I picked up Pat Conroy’s The Prince of TidesPrinceOfTides to re-read. And what a timely read for someone living in the cold and dark Pacific Northwest. Ah, to be transported to the hot, briney, shrimpy-smelling tidal lowlands of South Carolina seems just about perfect to me right now.

I hope that during the crazy frenetic rush of the holidays you find time to sit down with the perfect book that transports you, or validates you, or challenges you, or makes you think, or simply entertains you.  And don’t immediately discard that novel you get as a gift. You know, the one you that bores you or makes you want to throw it across the room. Just put it on the shelf for a while. Its time may come.

Happy reading,


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