Category Archives: Writer School

Talking Myself Through This

There is a part to writing novels that never gets easier: the critique. On Sunday, I sat with a group of trusted friends and listened to their thoughts on the first draft of my latest novel, “Counting Coup.” For nearly two hours, they discussed the characters and plot, the things they liked, and a bunch of stuff they didn’t.

And then I received first draft edits from my publishing editor and he had a different list of all that he liked and didn’t.

This is where my brain is still very much stuck in 3rd grade. The internal conversation goes a bit like this:

37-year-old me: Of course they gave you feedback. YOU ASKED FOR FEEDBACK. WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?

9-year-old me: They don’t love me. No one loves me. I hate everything.

I know. I’m ridiculous.

It is at this junction that I stopped, for more than a year, with “Basket Baby.” I put the edits on a shelf for a year before I could summon the courage to sit down and admit the story needed work.

CC does need work. They saw what I couldn’t. They also told me all of this as kindly as they could. They voluntarily spent hours upon hours reading my work and providing thoughtful advice. And my gut response was, “NOPE.”

The ego is a funny, evil thing. It let’s us hide our own imperfections, calling them quirks. It strokes our need for importance, and massages our ugliest characteristics. And when it is wounded, it cries like a 9-year-old girl.

For the next few months, I’ll be working through these changes. I know the bones to this story are there, and that they are great. I want to get it right.



Getting Out of My Own Way

Still working on that fall pillow

An update on those novels:

Under the Same Moon keeps selling, which is fantastic. It is no longer available at local retailers, which is why I am listing the book giant Amazon. I have a master plan on how to have it available locally (and at Powell’s and the Tattered Cover) soon: finish the second book, go on a tiny self-funded book tour and bring copies of UTSM for sale too.

That should work, right?

Basket Baby is in the process of being edited. As in, I have 400 pages of copy with detailed comment and am trying to work on a chapter or two a week. At this rate, I should have it done by my 100th birthday. A new writing friend asked me the other day what my routine is and I was embarrassed to say that I’ve completely fallen off the writing wagon. I exercise daily. I try to do something creative daily — whether it is knitting, sewing or cooking a new recipe. But I have not made time for writing.

There are plenty of excuses; instead, let’s discuss the new plan to get BB done, and be able to return to novel 3, The Golden Rule. TGR is a fun story that I’ve been workshopping for the last few months. I’m eager to continue writing it. I’m (obviously) not looking forward to make more edits to BB. It is hard to go back again and again and again to the same story and try to make it something better when something bright and shiny has your eye.

But! If I have one regret in publishing to date, it is that UTSM wasn’t ready, but I pushed forward anyway. It has a few typos and areas that just need work. I got sick of that story by the time publishing became and option and I rushed. I don’t want to repeat this error.

As such, I’m telling you — blog world! Internets! Friends real and those I only know by email! I am going dig in and make a commitment to 4 chapters a week of BB until the editing is done and I can send it back to the publisher for further review.

Hold me to it, friends. I need your encouragement.



In Process

Holiday plotting

About six months ago, a friend and fellow blogger reached out to see if I’d be interested in sending a copy of my second novel to her publisher. Basket Baby was being edited by friends and I’d forgone any plan of marketing it in a traditional way. I’d spent three years with Under the Same Moon chasing my tail with agents and publishers and Oprah. Why bother this time around?

Still, I jumped at the chance. A real publisher who was willing to take a look at my book? Why not?

When I sent them my first chapter, they liked it and asked for more. I celebrated by moving sections of books around in the Ds at the local bookstore to make ample space. I even went to an event this publisher organized locally and (oh so foolishly) told the man behind the bookseller’s counter, “I think they are going to publish me too! Can you believe that!”

For what it is worth, I said it in a whisper, as if I couldn’t believe it either.

Fast forward to August 28th when the email arrived, along with their edits. They may or may not have used the word “cliche.” It may or may not have taken me three weeks to finally open their edits because my heart hurt so very much.

That’s the thing about writing and art. Everything you produce is personal and it is difficult to hand it off for critique. As someone who is regularly told “why are you taking XYZ so personally?!” I took the word “cliche” like a, to use a cliche, punch to the gut.

I finally worked up my nerve to open the edits. Inside, tidily wrapped in a lengthy series of comments, was one of the nicest gifts I’ve ever received. This publisher, who may or may not ever make a penny from this book, took quite a long time to read this novel and to provide line by line thoughts on what worked and what doesn’t — including my love for both em dashes and exclamation points.

I couldn’t have afforded a better professional editor, and they did so as a kind courtesy. They did this to advance my skills, hold my hand and help me be a better writer. When I finally sucked it up enough to read their thoughts, I nearly cried again at my foolishness for having waited three whole weeks to simply open the document.

Yes, there is work to be done. And, surprisingly, yes — I am excited to make their changes. There are cliches, grammar mistakes and a few areas where, yes, I concede. I used way too many exclamation points. But there are also areas they loved, where my grasp for novel writing has strengthened in the last ten years.

Back to the editing I go. With any luck, this novel will be my best yet.


Writer School: Prompts

Pencil Case

Ever get stuck with your writing? How about a brief writing exercise?

Here are three prompts. Take one of them and run with it. Email me what you’ve accomplished. I’d love to read it! Hopefully this gets the creativity flowing:


1. A woman is standing in her kitchen. Suddenly she is startled. What just happened?

2. You are on a walk when you watch, with shock, as an object falls from the sky and lands nearby. What is it?

3. You are at the bank when its doors lock behind you. Now what?


And, go.

(Trust me, sometimes little assignments like these are just what the doctor ordered to get back to writing. Try it.)


Writer School: Character Development

Kelli Draper

How do you create characters who are interesting, fun, memorable and also human? It isn’t easy. There are plenty of examples of great characters in literature — those who are so unique you can’t help but remember the story because of the person.

A few examples from my favorite books:

Edgar Mint

Owen Meany


Laura Ingalls Wilder

Nancy Drew

Each of these personalities brings complexity to the story. For the most part (perhaps excluding Nancy Drew), the reader sees both the good and the bad in the person. If the person is all good, you are quite possibly writing a super hero story. But hey, even contemporary takes on Batman show us he isn’t entirely pure and good.

So, how do you create interesting characters? I cut ads out of magazines and answer a basic questionnaire for each of my major characters. I like having a visual, and I like to know what the character loves, hates, fears, is annoyed by, etc. I get into detail in the character interview that often isn’t included in the story, but is important to me to consider when I am writing. I organize these in a three ring binder and use it often when adding details about my characters long after I’ve started writing the story. It’s a memory cheat — did my character have blue or green eyes? Does she have siblings? Like dogs? Allergic to bees? It is important to your reader to keep the details consistent, at a minimum. And if you are writing a serial, I would guess those interview questions would grow exponentially as you get to know your characters more with time.

(Also: if you are writing a serial — it makes sense that your characters will change slightly with time. They will also have new faults.)

Who are your favorite literary characters? Do you have a difficult time with character development?



P.S. A few favorite tv characters: Don Draper and Peggy Olson from Mad Men. Tony and Carmela Soprano. Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation. Liz Lemon, 30 Rock.

Writer’s School: Story Arc

Phew. Thanks for hanging in there with me. I apologize for the delay in this post. The last few weeks have included: a rather annoying bought of the flu, a ton of work including this week’s National Suicide Prevention Day!, the storm to beat all storms and a corresponding leak in the kitchen ceiling, having very little energy because of that darn flu.

Also: my garden died because I paid zero attention to it for a week while in bed sick. And my dog is all of a sudden fat. Seriously. Nelson is packing on the pounds thanks to warm weather and his gentile inability to walk more than a few miles with all that adorable permed hair. Subtext: COME ON FALL.


Now, where were we? The story arc. A story, regardless of size, should have at least two conflicts. These should not intersect, and ideally, they should not wrap up the same characters in both. They should both give the reader more information about your main character.

An example: remember the book and movie, “The Devil Wears Prada?” The primary conflict concerns the main character and her desire to work in the fashion industry. She doesn’t’ think she is thin, fashionable, cool or clever enough to get in with her boss, an Anna Wintour type. The secondary conflict concerns the main character’s relationship with her boyfriend and how things fall apart because she is chasing the first conflict with everything she’s got. If I remember correctly, there is also a third conflict that involves the main character’s best friend and a drug problem.

Conflict 1: main character struggles to meet the demands of the job.

Conflict 2: main character and boyfriend struggle to keep relationship together.

Conflict 3: main character’s best friend gets involved with bad stuff.

Insights to the main character include her willingness to change for the job, including time her boyfriend and best friend were used to receiving. If such a story becomes a cheesy movie, as it is in this case, there is also often a moral hammer that is dropped. Will she fight for her sweet boyfriend? Will she fight for her friend? Or will she succumb to the greed and gloss and fancy of a stylish New York life?

You get the point. Something to consider as a writer when plotting out your story is that these conflicts shouldn’t all peak in the same moment. And they really should all have something to do with giving your reader more information about your main character. (In fact, all dialog should. Don’t bother your reader with information that doesn’t lead the story, or give the reader new information about the main character. If you do, the reader won’t have the time or ability to connect with the character’s dreams, fears, wishes, etc.)

Structure your writing however you’d like, but I think strong stories have at least one minor conflict arc before the major conflict can be resolved. Other smaller conflicts may be resolved after. Think about this like waves — the main point to your story should be the largest wave.

Make sense? Questions?

Friday, we talk character development. Who are some of your favorite literary characters?



Writer School: Structuring a Novel

Gardening in August


I’ve had plenty of people ask, “How did you write a book?” The curiosity varies from:

  1. How did you actually sit down and do this, vs., say, laundry. Work. Other normal priorities that often keep us from hobby time. To:
  2. How did you take an idea and wrap 300 pages around it.

The writing books will tell you authors are either character or plot driven. Both of my novels are plot driven – meaning I knew what I wanted to happen, in lieu of one person I wanted to write a story about.  (Also: my hobby time is far greater than many of my peers because my family time/responsibility is minimal. I hope this changes, but in the meantime — I’m writing like mad.)

Are you plot or character driven? You don’t have to pick one. Most authors will strengthen their muscles in one category or the other, but a great writer knows how to do both.

The basics of writing any story are identical to the instruction we received in primary school about writing an essay. Essential elements include: an intro, the meat and potatoes, a summary. That’s it. If you are writing a short story, a blog post, a novella or a series of novels – the format remains the same.

Doing this for a 300-page project can certainly be daunting. Take it one step at a time. We shall eat this elephant in bites.

Gardening in August

How you go about completing that format is where a writer’s personality shines. I often know what I want to happen at the beginning and how I want the story to end. I spend a good bit of time plotting out how to get from A to B. There are many ways to organize this information. You can take 15 sheets of blank white paper and label them by chapter. Hang them on a wall and carefully write out a few things you’d like to see happen in each chapter. By number 15, you should be wrapping up.

I use Scrivner. I create chapter folders. I start with notes. I also keep a cheap spiral notebook for each project. There is something great about keeping a working journal for each story. (This justifies my love of notebooks and school supplies.) I tab chapters and as ideas come to me, scribble them in the write spot until I can go back and work them into the project.

Your story may have more than 15 chapters, but you get the idea. This is how I work. I create the plot draft first and then go back and sprinkle in my details.

Then, I focus on character development. Who do I want to do these things? What do they look like? What do they love, hate, desire?

Next week, we’ll talk about the minor and major story arc and how these should be rolling through those 15 chapters at different paces.

So, are you character or plot driven? Have you ever plotted out a large writing project? What are your tricks of the trade?



PS: This week I stuck my foot it in. I asked a friend to design book covers for this new novel. I didn’t communicate well with her and ended up really hurting her feelings as a result. It is questionable if our friendship will survive. If you are working on a novel, you’ll likely ask friends and family for help at some point. Treat them with extra care. It is fairly amazing they care about YOUR work at all. Right?

Writer School: Prime Rib

Let’s talk about editing. I’d say selecting the right editor is more important than having some genetic, magical ability to put great stories on paper.


Yes — there is crap that sneaks through and becomes a cultural sensation without good editing, but it’s gross. Twilight is a Big Mac; Lahiri is prime rib.

We settle for the cheap and easy too often as readers. Fluff books are good “beach reads.”

As writers, let’s not settle.

I’m writing this post as a pep talk. I am working on the first edits for Basket Baby from my friend Sagar. He is one of those who is so smart, it is fairly remarkable he can have a conversation and make eye contact. If you’ve read it, he’s read it. And the author’s other book. And the British review of the book. And he has thoughts about said author.

(Unless it is The Alchemist. This is the book that shall not be spoken of. His Voldemort of sorts.)

PB Party

He also has little to no ability to speak gently. He is direct, blunt and critical.

Our friendship was fairly new when he read my first novel. That lunch resulted with me crying into my burger at Four Peaks, and him awkwardly staring at his beer. To speak gently for him: it wasn’t his favorite.

This novel is different. I have another five years of writing practice, including multiple courses at Lighthouse, and have done a good bit of reading.

Thankfully this time Sagar can work with the story. (He still isn’t saying he loves it, but I am okay. I love it.)

He’s returned edits that are sharp, pointing out both major and minor changes I couldn’t see. He has effectively communicated how and why I should make these changes. This is the work of an excellent editor.

It is paralyzing to hand someone a project you’ve worked on for years that you think (foolishly and perhaps blindly) is perfect upon delivery, and have it returned with hundreds of suggested improvements. I imagine this is a bit like sending a beloved child to kindergarten only to have her return with a note from the teacher on all the behaviors you must work on as a parent to make her a great adult. (This is why they typically do not hire men like Sagar to be kindergarten teachers. God only knows what my notes would have looked like. “Make her shut up!” “She laughs at her own jokes. Too much.” “She sits down and reads during PE.”)

Becoming a great writer includes the rare skill of loving something so much, you are willing to let it go to make it better.

Lazy novels do not stand the test of time. As such, while I’d pretty much rather be doing anything other than editing the same pages again, I am digging in.

Let’s all agree not to settle.

Happy writing, friends!


Writing School: Tools of the Trade

Oh, hi there. How did your goals go this week? Did you sit down to write? Did you read?

My week was a draw. I did read. I’m thoroughly enjoying Wildwood. It is young adult, fun, easy and was perfect on the beach. I read about 300 pages, passing my goal.

I also received edits back on the first 80 pages of my novel, and am slowly making them. This isn’t writing, but is essential for this book to see the light of publishing day. (Also chanting my mantra: Thick skin makes for a better author. Thick skin. You can do this. Ohm…)

I’m calling it a win.

On writing: Workshop

Today’s topic: resource tools of the trade

What books have you read that have helped make you a better reader? Granted, all books help. As do magazines, blogs and cereal boxes. I am leery of writers who claim “not to have time to read.” Chances are, I’m not going to have time to read what they’ve written. As we’ve discussed, language is a fluid, beautiful stream of current thought. You’ve got to read to understand how our language has changed from “Romeo, oh Romeo — where art thou Romeo?” to “Kanye: hit me back, yo.”

A few of my favorite books and other reads critical to improving writing:

1. On Writing by Stephen King. The best writing memoir I’ve read, and I’ve got a dozen or so under my belt. Second would be Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott. Also incredibly well done and encouraging. I like King’s because he talks about routine and setting up your daily writing practice. I like Lamott’s because it feels like writing saved her. And any writer can tell you, it is a lonely endeavor and if your work doesn’t help pull you along — why bother?

2. Grammar Girl. Her stuff is fun and a good reminder of how to write well. Also, her podcast is great if you want something nerdy to listen to on the way to work.

3. A Word A Day by Anu Garg. Easy enough to understand why this is important. The weekend summaries from those who write in about their experiences with the week’s words are worth subscribing. Folks from around the world discuss their memories and experiences with the words of the week, which is extra nerdy and often hilarious.

4. The Elements of Style. Because proper word use is essential to success in nearly every profession. I keep a copy on my desk because for the life of me I still cannot remember the correct tenses of lay vs. lie or hung vs. hanged.

4. Go Fug Yourself. Sure, it is fashion gossip. It is also really well written, and in a contemporary voice. Thanks to these ladies, I know what “throwing shade” means.

(Oy, I’m feeling old.)

What are some of your favorite writing resource tools?