Starting In Media Res & Using Backstory: The Bear

SPOILER ALERT: If you have not watched The Bear on Hulu and think you want to (and I would recommend it), then save this post for after you’ve binged it or don’t blame me if I give away any spoilers. You’ve been warned.

TRIGGER WARNING: suicide and drug addiction. If you or someone you know is considering suicide or is in crisis, dial 988 for the suicide and prevention hotline.

I recently binged The Bear on Hulu. It’s the story of a fine dining chef who has worked in some of the fanciest kitchens in the world returning to run his family’s working class Italian sandwich shop in Chicago after his brother’s death. It’s a story of grief, toxic workplaces, a fish out of water finding a new place in his old home, and rectifying the past with the future. It is expertly written and acted. The depiction of kitchen culture and chef life were so accurate many chefs couldn’t watch because it triggered their own toxic kitchen experiences. The details, like the wardrobe, completed the authentic feel.

What I appreciated the most about the show, however, was where the story started and the sparse use of backstory.

Writers are often advised to start their stories in media res, or in the middle of things. But what does that mean? Writers are often confused by this advice–if I start in the middle how will the reader know what’s happening? Do I start in the middle of the action or just the middle of some action? If I’m starting in the middle where do I go from there?

Finding where to start a story can be hard. Starting too far into the action of the story leaves the reader unconnected to the protagonist or worse, confused about what’s going on and why they should care. Starting too far back in time before the story action begins can kill the pacing leaving the reader wondering what the story is really about.

Let’s take a look The Bear as a case study.

How does the show open? It’s dark. It looks like we’re on a bridge. In the center is a giant cage. Our protagonist, Carmy, is luring whatever this thing growling in the cage is out. Suddenly, a bear lunges from the cage and Carmy startles awake in the restaurant (okay, typically it’s frowned upon to open a story waking up, but we’ll let this one pass since the bear is an ongoing metaphor in the show and Carmy’s family nickname). A delivery man is at the door with significantly less meat than Carmy ordered because the restaurant is behind on the bill. Carmy needs meat in order to open the restaurant that day. In order to get the meat he needs money.

Problem: Not enough meat for the day. Obstacle: He doesn’t have enough money to get more meat. Stakes: If he doesn’t find the money to buy the meat he can’t open the restaurant which means he’s deeper in the money hole–can’t make money if they’re closed.

And we’re off!

What’s working so far? We don’t know a ton of what’s going on but we already know that there are financial problems and that Carmy will do anything to open.

Now, let me back up a little. The premise of the show is that Carmy now owns this sandwich shop because his brother, Michael, who has died by suicide, has left it to him.

The story does not start with the suicide or at the funeral surrounded by the inevitable cast of characters or at a reading of the will where Carmy learns he’s inherited the restaurant. It doesn’t even begin with the decision to leave his fine dining job in another city and move home to save the restaurant.

Instead, it starts with a problem. A problem that establishes that this place is in real trouble and that Carmy cares enough (because he loved the restaurant or his brother or something else, we don’t know yet) to come back and try to fix it. That’s enough for the viewer to relate to him and root for him.

Carmy spends the rest of the first episode selling his own belongings to try and get the cash for more meat, arguing with the existing kitchen staff in order to save the service even if the day’s meat wasn’t prepared the way they normally would do it, and overcoming continuing obstacles to save the day’s service. We are also introduced to our key subplot story characters: Richie, Michael’s best friend who had worked with him at the restaurant and wants to keep things exactly as they were; and Sydney, a young sous chef eager to work with a chef of Carmy’s caliber and make a difference to the restaurant (as you can see, these two are definitely on the path to a confrontation…and it doesn’t disappoint).

The first episode shows the viewer everything they need to know about these characters with problems/action happening right now, in story present. We don’t really need to know a lot about how we got here to care about where we’re going. We’re invested because we see Carmy desperately trying to save just one day’s service, so we know he’ll fight just as hard to save the establishment itself. We are introduced to all our main characters and their own motivations and see how they conflict with one another.

Throughout the season, there are minimal flashbacks–a maniacal Joel McHale as a New York chef berating and belittling Carmy as he puts together a complex dish; a more relaxed Carmy cooking in a family kitchen with his sister and brother on what looks like a regular Sunday sometime in the undefined past. The viewer gets little insight into why Michael was an addict, how his life fell off the rails, and why he chose to take his own life. And while the show seems to be filled with perhaps unraveling that mystery, the final episode creates even more questions around this character. And yet that landed fine, because the real resolution to the season was Carmy’s coming to terms with his grief and his new role as a lead chef of this kitchen to this particular crew of chefs, their own needs to be seen and grow, and his brave choice to finally…(okay, I won’t spoil all of it, but I did love the ending!).

In other words, the backstory that was explored and any flashback scene that was included, moved Carmy’s story forward. The point of the show was Carmy’s emotional journey to healing–healing from the PTSD of his former work environments (and not passing those on to a new kitchen) and healing from his grief and guilt about being there, or not, for his troubled brother. All of the flashbacks or bits of backstory pertained to those two things. They didn’t spin off into the decision to leave New York or explaining Michael’s history. Those things didn’t serve the larger point for the story’s protagonist. After all, the questions Carmy had for Michael could never be answered now anyway–Michael was gone. Carmy would never know the full story himself, so the viewer doesn’t need to know it either. The resolution to the story would never have been answering the “what happened to Michael” question because that wasn’t the story question to begin with. The story question was “Will Carmy forgive himself in order to leave his past behind and move into a future of his own designing?”

Writers know everything that is going on in every character’s mind and backstory. We hold a plethora of knowledge about our protagonist’s childhood or dating life or favorite foods. The line we walk as writers is understanding how much of that needs to be included versus how much simply informs how we put the character on the page.

Look at Carmy. I don’t know why he collects vintage denim, but I do see how important it is to him when he loads a bunch up in a garbage bag to sell in order to have money to buy that day’s meat. I also see that as important as that collection is, obviously the restaurant is more important for him to make the choice to get rid of it, even a special piece that his brother had give to him.

Just like every ingredient in a dish at a fine restaurant has a purpose, so does each scene and detail in your manuscript. The protein on the plate may be your plot, the sides are your subplots, the herbs and seasoning the sensory details that bring your story to life, and the sauce is the emotional thread that holds the dish together. Make sure that everything on your plate needs to be there. Sure, french fries are good, but they don’t belong next to a beautiful risotto, in the same way a foie gras may not be the right condiment to a hot dog and a beer at the baseball stadium. And just like a meal starts with the first course, we don’t need to see the grocery list the chef used to enjoy the food in front of us. Serve the reader only what’s necessary in the right order and at the end, your reader will be satisfied.

Take a look at your manuscript. Are you starting in the right place? Are you explaining too much to the reader to justify what your character is doing? Are you using flashbacks or backstory to info dump to your reader (double check your dialogue sections when characters are filling other characters in on something)? Does the reader need to know all of it? Instead, can you use context and your character’s decision making process to show glimpses of that backstory or that before life? After all, the story we are reading/viewing is the story that’s happening RIGHT NOW. We are watching Carmy save the restaurant. Does it matter how it got to the point it needed saving? Not really.

Like seasoning, a little backstory goes a long way.

Above: Featured Image Photo by Delightin Dee on Unsplash

The Days are Long but the Years are Short

Today my oldest turns 16.

At baby showers, at prenatal appointments, at the grocery store, friends and strangers alike would often warn: “Enjoy it. It goes by so fast.”

And I knew what they meant. Of course I did. Time flies. I was no stranger to the concept. After all, childhood, college, pregnancy, they all passed me by in a flash.

When he arrived, I savored his newborn smell. I relished the snuggles and his endless need for me. Even when it was hard and I was bleary-eyed and bone-weary and we bounced and swayed around the house trailing a path of spit up and dropped pacifiers on the hardwoods at 5:30 to The Chicks waiting for my husband to come home and help I knew it would be over before I was ready. Every day brought a new discovery. Every change meant the end of something else that once had been new.

I tried to be patient and present. He took his first steps and asserted his first opinions. I read endless books and played trains and swung on the swings at the park. I let him get dirty and explore. I rerolled the toilet paper when he unraveled a new roll he’d somehow smuggled into his room when he was supposed to be napping, which he conveniently gave up when I was pregnant with his little brother. So instead we had quiet time, laying on my bed with a woven blanket over our heads, tiny pin pricks of light shining through the weave and we gasped at all those little stars in our pretend night sky.

I watched as he confidently walked into preschool without a second glance and again when he hopped on the school bus with a smile, ready for the first day of kindergarten, no parent walk-in required. There was the summer he found a home repair book on the shelf and became obsessed with electricity. He learned to swim and ride a bike. He handled a move to a new state and a new school and made new friends. His fifth grade teacher lovingly dubbed him the official Grammar Police. He joined a rock climbing gym class and started middle school.

He survived a pandemic and braces and a giant growth spurt. He took up the drums. He started high school and joined the Marching Band.

He’s discovering himself and his place in the world and it is amazing to see. I couldn’t be more proud of who he is and who he is becoming.

And yet.

It is going by so fast.

The 30 hours of labor it took to bring him into the world are still so fresh in my mind. I can still picture the ill fitting sock I had on my foot that I didn’t replace for another because it was warm. I remember the anticipation and the long uneventful first night. My body remembers the pain of the early contractions that sucked my breath and twisted my abdomen and the warm gush of my water breaking as my parents arrived at the hospital. I can still place myself in the dark hours of the second night, my father keeping me company while everyone slept and my epidural kept me from feeling the worst of it but my soon to be first born remained cozily tucked in my body, not ready to make an appearance. I can taste the fear when the nurse midwife indicated we were inching up on time to consider a c-section and that I needed to dig deep and find a way to push through. And then. Somehow. Miraculously. There he was. A tiny scrape on his forehead from the internal fetal monitor he’d slid past. Ten long fingers and toes, a shock of brown hair on his head, his deep blue eyes hidden behind his scrunched up eyelids adjusting to the light of the outside world.

How can those memories be so fresh, so real and visceral, while he is so different? He’s changed a million times over since that first moment we met. And will change a million times over again in his life.

The days are long, but the years are short.

There were days trapped in a house during potty training or staying up late worried about a fever or waiting to pick him up near midnight after a faraway marching competition. Days that seemed to never end and yet they slid by remarkably fast in the aggregate.

Sixteen.

On a recent trip to the Space Coast in Florida.

I’ve got three more school years before he’s off to college and our relationship changes again.

Which is how it should be. I know this.

Everyone warned me it would go by fast.

But no one warned me what that would feel like.

Bittersweet.

Excitement as each new phase begins. Despair as each phase ends. The feel of surrounding a newborn in my arms with my whole self to now being engulfed in bony hugs by a child suddenly taller than I am, who holds me as much as I hold him. Sadness that the little boy is gone, but joy in seeing that child’s essence still inside the person he is.

In these 16 years, I have been growing and changing next to him. Perhaps it isn’t as obvious in the same way it is when a thing that didn’t exist to the world before August 10th, 2006 takes up so much physical space on the couch in 2022, but I can feel it. He has changed me a million times over. I am not the woman I was in 2006. And thank goodness. He has made me a much better mother and person than I ever could have hoped to be on my own.

Sixteen.

Wow.

Happy Birthday, T.

Time Flies” featured photo above by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

Storytelling on the Field

I was a band kid. I played flute in concert band, but what I loved more than anything was marching band and performing on the color guard in high school through my four years at UNC Chapel Hill. There is nothing like standing in a sequin-adorned bolero jacket and cummerbund over a white mock turtleneck body suit and black stretch pants (it was the 90s) in the August heat or cold November rain and spinning a flag on the 50 yard line in front of tens of thousands of fans. But I loved it. I loved performing. I loved the music. I loved being part of a group of people all working together toward a common goal. The summer practices, the late nights, the bus rides, the bruises, the nerve damage in my hand after an errant rifle catch that if I hit it just right makes me index finger go numb still today, were all worth it for those moments on a field to entertain.

That’s me with the flag during our pre-game show…sorry for the blurry pic. Did I mention it was the mid-90s?

My son is a sophomore in high school and on the drum line (did I mention I married a band kid? He’s also a drummer, swoon). This past weekend, we went as a family (the younger kid is learning trumpet, we’re practically parade ready) to DCI Nightbeat in Winston-Salem. If you aren’t familiar, DCI describes itself as “Marching Music’s Major Leagues.” These are elite marching bands of college-aged kids who spend all summer sleeping on buses and gym floors learning then performing one complex and intricate marching show all around the country leading up to the championships in mid-August in Indianapolis. These corps are the best of the best. Even the “worst” of those groups were better than any group I ever performed with–it’s just another level. The choreography, the field design, the music, the props, the costumes, the drill, the execution. It’s all top notch, super ridiculously good.

I’ve watched DCI since I was a high schooler but never seen a show in person (PBS used to broadcast the finals each year). What struck me wasn’t the ear piercing trumpet solos, the snap of the drum solos, the gravity defying rifles tosses, or the marching precision. I expected those. But what really moved me were the shows that understood the story telling assignment from top to bottom.

Every show had a theme. And all the shows used that theme to unify their music and props. But the shows that resonated were the ones that told me a story with a narrative arc. Stories like: a hectic and random dream that taught the “narrator” something about his life, the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, finding Nirvana, a day on the Jersey Shore, moving across the country…

On the long ride home, I thought of all the different ways in which we can tell a story:

  • Poems
  • Short stories
  • Movies
  • Songs
  • Novels
  • Stage plays
  • A television show
  • Musicals
  • Painting
  • Sculpture
  • An album
  • A conversation
  • A marching band show…

We are designed to tell stories, to look for the narratives in our lives, and try to make sense of them.

So what made some stories from these shows resonate and have me searching the internet for more video and information on them and which were just really great, but not replaying in my head this week?

Again, these young adults and performances were all fantastic. It’s like comparing Tom Brady and Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan to determine who’s the GOAT (oh bad example, I’m a Tar Heel and MJ always wins that debate for me).

But the shows I’m still thinking about are the ones who had a clearly articulated point and everything on the field from the performer’s commitment to that story to the costumes to the props to the drill to the arrangement reflected that story point in each and every moment. This is what we must strive to do in our writing, too. Each scene, character, moment must reflect that story point. A general theme or even a strong voice might make a decent story on the surface, but it doesn’t make a memorable one. We need to dig deeper.

As we discussed our favorite shows on the way home, another thing that struck me. So while Paradise Lost from the Boston Crusaders has me all tingly today–and not just for that seriously fire duet rifle work–it wasn’t my son’s favorite. He had his own fave underdog show. And my husband loved another one, different from both my son and I. That’s the beauty of stories. There is one for everyone.

Each story speaks to its unique reader.

Just like each vessel–whether it’s a book or a movie or a marching band show–holds its own unique story.

But it’s that point that resonates, that speaks to us, that allows that story to land and find the person who needs it in that moment. Although it’s also important to remember that the point that we intend may not be the point the reader/viewer/listener takes away. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s beautiful. Art is an expression and a conversation.

And that conversation is happening around us all the time. We just have to be listening for it.

Take a moment this week to observe the graffiti you pass on your commute, the order of the songs on your favorite album, the layout of the local botanical garden you stroll through, the juxtaposition of old and new architecture on your main street, or even the high school halftime show, and see what new stories they may be trying to share.

Featured image by Joshua Hanson on Unsplash

The Importance of Planning in Writing

As I launched my coaching business, there was a lot more to it than just putting out a shingle and saying “Hey, I’m a coach!”

I mean, to be honest, that was a big part of it. And nearly as scary as when I started calling myself a writer!

But, unlike when I took the leap to call myself a writer because I was, you know, already writing, announcing myself as a book coach was just the start since I wasn’t already coaching. To launch a coaching business, I had to start building some things. And fast. Contracts and packages and scheduling and payment systems and so many more logistics.

Every time I crossed something off my to-do list, I added five more. There were endless things to plan for and it all seemed a bit overwhelming.

Just like when writing a book. You write one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one scene, one chapter at a time. And then. After a few weeks/months/years, you have a rough draft that you can go back and tear apart and rewrite and revise and polish until a few weeks/months/years later you have a finished novel.

But before you can start with your first word or sentence or paragraph, there needs to be some planning.

I already hear you fellow pantsers objecting at the mere mention of the word “planning.” Let me stop you right there. Even pantsers do some planning before writing whether they acknowledge it or not. There’s the idea that’s perhaps been noodling in your brain, sentences or scenes appearing in the shower or during your commute. Maybe a news story piqued your interest or a conversation over coffee with a friend sent you down a research rabbit hole. Not to mention the fact that you live in and experience the world on a daily basis. Before you put fingers to keys or pen to paper, you have an idea of what you want to say. Even if it’s just something to say about the way the sun reflected off the water at sunset on your vacation.

Before I could tackle contracts and packages and payment systems I had to plan. Specifically, I needed to ask myself some key questions. Who did I want to serve? How could my skills best help them? What do I want my days to look like? How can I protect some writing time? What terms match my values? I needed to answer some fundamental questions about how I was going to do business before I could actually do business.

Similarly as writers, we need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about our work before we start it. If I had jumped into client work without addressing the bigger picture issues of why I am doing this work and how I want to feel and how I want my clients to feel, then we’d both leave the experience unfulfilled. If I jump into writing a book before knowing what genre I’m writing or what I’m trying to say, the reader will leave the experience unfulfilled, not to mention it may take me years to write my way to the answers.

Before you freak out about what this level of planning entails, take a deep breath. I am not suggesting you need to do a firm and fast thirty-page outline with entire life stories for each of your characters. (I mean, if that’s your process, go for it. That would personally destroy all happiness in me, but that’s me!)

But you do need to ask yourself a few questions*.

  • Who is your ideal reader (and no, it’s not “everyone!”)—be specific. Who is the person reading your book? What do they do for fun? What is their favorite movie? Where are they reading your book? Whatever gets you to describe that one perfect reader you hope to find who loves your book and shares it with all their like-minded friends.
  • What is your point? What’s are you trying to say? What do you hope the reader thinks/feels/does when they finish your book?
  • Why are you writing this book? What unique perspective do you bring to this material/topic/genre/world?

Take a stab at answering these questions whether you are sketching out an idea, stuck in the murky middle of a first draft, or about to embark on your revision. Then come back to them whenever you feel a little lost in your manuscript. Have the answers changed? Did you want them to? The answers might lead you down a new, exciting path or might show you where you’ve gone astray from a path you wanted to stay on. Either way, it should help you figure out your next step.

But, I also acknowledge in both business and starting a novel project, there is the danger of procrasti-planning and you may just need to jump in. Personally, I’m jumping in to my business and while I have a bunch of the logistics crossed off my to-do, I am working on the rest as I go. I feel confident I can do that BECAUSE the key questions are answered and I only have to look back at those responses to keep me on track with the rest of my list. If you’ve answered the basic questions, jump in with your writing, too, and when you get stuck, come back to your responses. Remember who you’re writing for and why. Then keep putting those words on pages into sentences and paragraphs and scenes and chapters.

A little planning can go a long way. Perhaps all the way to The End.

*These questions are part of the Blueprint for a Book and are designed to help any fiction writer create a firm foundation before and during the writing process. If you’re interested in digging deeper into these pre-planning questions, check out the #AmWriting podcast summer series on the Blueprint.

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Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

Announcement: I’m an Author Accelerator Certified Book Coach!

I believe the muse to be a fickle being whispering oftentimes in the night that brilliant idea you scribble down in the dark that resembles something like a magnetic poetry ransom note the next morning that makes zero sense if it’s even legible.

But sometimes? Sometimes the muse has the subtlety of a toddler’s temper tantrum when you cut the grilled cheese into the triangles he asked for but really he meant rectangles and now the sandwich is useless and no he doesn’t want a new one, he wants THAT grilled cheese miraculously uncut and recut into rectangles and don’t worry, rectangles isn’t what he’s thinking about either it’s really that he wants his grilled cheese to resemble the Eiffel Tower even though he has no concept of that that looks like. Oh, never mind, he really just wanted buttered noodles.

Throughout 2019 and 2020, Jennie Nash, founder of Author Accelerator, was everywhere I went. Listening to a podcast at the gym? She was the guest. Watching a webinar for a writing organization I belong to? Jennie was the speaker. A blog post that made a lot of sense on writing process? You guessed it, Jennie wrote it.

At first, I figured the muse meant I needed a coach (and yeah, I probably do and you probably do, too…more on that later), until I clicked a link that lead me to a workshop starting the next week on how to decide if you should be a book coach. Bingo. Or rather, buttered noodles!

So in the spring of 2021, after some hemming and hawing, I took the leap and signed up for the course.

This was a big leap for me. Spending money on anything having to do with my writing and goals is hard for me. But it felt more like an investment. An investment that would allow me to contribute financially while still pursuing the creative writing life I love. I committed myself to the self-paced class and entered the coaches-in-training community and fell in love. After a year of coursework and three practicums with fantastic volunteer writers who let me hone my skills on them, I am pleased to announce I am officially an Author Accelerator Certified Fiction Book Coach!

But what the heck does a book coach do, anyway?

A book coach is part cheerleader, part teacher, part accountability partner. My goal as a coach is to help writers who are stuck–stuck in a draft, stuck in a revision, stuck on how to begin–and get them unstuck. I’ve been stuck. Shoot, I’m stuck right now in my revision. All writers get stuck sometimes and need a helping hand. Remember all that quick sand in every cartoon and adventure movie of the 80s? The more you struggled on your own, the deeper you went, the darker it seemed, the harder it was to escape? What you needed was a friend with a stick or a horse with a rope could pull you to safety.

A book coach is a friend with a stick.

Writing can be a solitary and isolating endeavor. As writers we scribble in journals or pluck away on a keyboard and can spend weeks, months, years sinking into our drafts. At some point, we need help. A book coach can be the guide you need to shorten that time, help you create stronger drafts, and keep you on the path to completion by navigating you around those quicksand pits.

And I couldn’t be more excited to get started!

I have done beta reading professionally in the past and while I loved it in theory (reading stories, helping writers, yay!), I hated that I was stymied by the type of feedback I could give and I never knew how it was received or what happened to the story or its writer. I am thrilled to find an opportunity that allows me to work with the endlessly wonderful writers in this world, help them find their voices, and share their stories. More stories in the world! What could be better?

Maybe the fact that I can do this work and still write my own stories.

So thanks to my muse for not giving up and pointing me to this new path. I have to admit, she’s been banging the drum about another new idea lately, but I have to finish my current revision before I can make heads or tails of it. If only the muse were more direct in all of her communications.

If you’re interested in learning more about coaching, visit my website. If you just want to keep up with what’s going on in my coaching world, get a few reading/viewing recommendations, as well as some writing tips, sign up for my monthly newsletter.

And if you think you might want to try out coaching, know someone else who might benefit, or want to talk about becoming a book coach yourself, feel free to contact me. I’d be happy to chat about it.

In the meantime, be on the lookout for your own muse. Is there a topic or theme that keeps hitting you over the head lately? Maybe take a second to look at it more closely to see what it’s trying to tell you. You never know where that new idea may lead.

How Drafting and Revising Feel Different: The Clean House Edition

As I type this, we are having our house power washed. It feels like I’m inside a car wash while sitting at my desk. I don’t hate it.

Power washing a home must be an inordinately satisfying job. You arrive and the walkway is darkened with years of baked in dirt. The fascia is dull. The gutters grimy. As you work, you can see the dirt fall away. When you leave there is a definite difference from what it looked like when you began.

Early in our marriage, my husband and I used to argue about the delineation of chores. Once we finally realized he wasn’t ignoring certain tasks, he just doesn’t always see the dust or know when we need to vacuum, it made a big difference. Since I don’t particularly care for cleaning a bathroom (especially with three boys in the house), he became our bathroom cleaner and I typically handle the dusting and vacuuming. But I sometimes find myself irritated that the bathroom job is his. Not because he doesn’t do a good job or because I love scrubbing toilets (um, nope), but when you finish, there is clear evidence of a job done. And while dusting and vacuuming clearly make a difference, there isn’t that same spic and span feeling.

Writing is like cleaning the bathroom. After you sit down to write, there are words on the page where once there weren’t. It’s satisfying and clear. It’s easy to track. The progress is obvious.

Revising, on the other hand, is like dusting and vacuuming. No one else notices the difference sometimes but you. But I can guarantee if it didn’t get done, it would eventually be a huge mess that everyone would notice.

I’m currently stuck in a big revising mess pulling apart my manuscript and Frankensteining it back together. It feels like I’m pulling a vacuum from chapter to chapter but just as I clean up one area, I realize that makes another scene even messier and I have to follow the trail of clutter to the next room, pick it up so I can dust and vacuum, then go back and inspect them both to make sure some errant character didn’t come in while I wasn’t looking with muddy shoes and a leaking box of glittered confetti.

In other words, I sometimes miss the rough draft writing days when the progress was obvious. (Someone remind me of this when I start my next story and profess to hate that part of the process, too).

While revising may not be as immediately gratifying as the initial drafting process, in the end, it is undeniably worth it. There is something amazing about filling in a plot hole or realizing that random bit ties the whole manuscript together if you just tug on it a bit. In the end, after all the dusting and tidying and rearranging of furniture, there will be a clean and polished manuscript. One that I created. One that sparkles and shines and finds itself onto a bookshelf where once there was nothing.

A bookshelf I will inevitably have to dust.

But I suppose dusting a book with my name on the spine will hold its own special kind of satisfaction.

And if this whole writing gig doesn’t work out, I may look into power washing. It seems like a seriously satisfying job.

Featured image: Photo by No Revisions on Unsplash; Powerwash before and after photos by Monica Cox

Hadestown and the Holderness Family: Love Stories and Anxiety

It has been a long two years.

Full stop.

But Sunday, life felt a little sweeter again. My husband and I finally went back to the theater for a live show. I was so excited I even put on lipstick despite the fact that no one would see it behind my required mask.

The show was Hadestown and I didn’t know much about it beyond seeing the cast performance at the 2019 Tony Awards and being gobsmacked. Something in it spoke to me, deeply. But the world was busy back in 2019 and I moved on to the next thing. My mother, meanwhile, has season tickets to the Broadway series at her local theater. Each year, members have the option of opting out of a show, if they prefer. When she read through what was supposed to be the 2020-21 line-up, she mentioned she might opt out of Hadestown. Remembering my reaction to the Tony’s, I immediately begged her not to, that I would love to see it. She was generous enough to let us have the tickets.

Then the world shut down. And it took a long time for shows to return. But eventually, they did.

And finally, this past weekend, it was our turn.

Hadestown is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, which if you don’t remember your Greek mythology, is not a story with a happy ending. But it is a love story. Young Orpheus literally follows his lover to hell to try to save her from the Underworld. Hades agrees to let her go under one condition: They can not look back. Upon finally reaching the top and seeing the sun for the first time in ages, Orpheus is so excited he turns back to show Eurydice who was a step still in the Underworld and she disappears.

Despite knowing this tragic ending, I became so enthralled in Anais Mitchell’s songs and the brilliant performances and the gorgeous staging that I kept hoping that maybe, just maybe the ending wasn’t what I remembered. But it was. And I cried because the heartbreak is unbearable and they were so close and how unbearable have the last two years been and how close have we been to beating it only to be saying no to things again with each new variant outbreak?

But holy cow is this a beautiful show that despite its heartbreak is full of hope about creating the worlds we can imagine despite the reality of the world that is. If there is something we all need right now in this current environment of pandemic fatigue and geopolitical conflict, it’s a little imagination as to what could be.

What struck me, however, the most, was the song Wait for Me when Orpheus discovers Eurydice has been gone below and sets out to find her.

I suffer from anxiety. It’s been a part of my life forever but only had a name and diagnosis in the last three years when I landed in a therapist’s office after a series of panic attacks and anxiety spirals had left me unable to function three months after my father died. Through it all, I have had the loving support and grace of my husband. And thank goodness because if you have walked the road of mental illness you know how necessary it is to have someone, just one person, who gets it and gets you and understands the difference between you and your illness because oftentimes the sufferer can’t differentiate between them anymore.

As Eurydice makes the decision to trade her empty stomach and worries of having a warm place to land for the security Hades offers, I understood. Sometimes, you make a choice because you want the discomfort to end. Sometimes that means stuffing down emotions or ignoring your body’s warning signs, and sometimes that means more (please reach out here if you need help). I have never been that far down the road, but the impulse, the desperate need to just make the anxiety stop is real and relatable.

Seeing Orpheus realize what has happened and set off for her immediately, begging her to wait, he’s coming, too, was about so much more than their love story in that moment for me. It was my love story, too. It was every time my husband has reached out to me when I’m spiraling to remind me that I am okay, I am worthy, I am loved. It was every time he didn’t tell me to snap out of it or remind me I shouldn’t worry because look at all the good in my life (yes-there’s a lot of good here, no-mental illness doesn’t care) or tell me to leave him out of it and save it for my therapist. Instead, he follows me down the rabbit hole every time and sits with me in it until I am ready to step back out. Luckily, the same rules of Hadestown don’t apply and I don’t disappear if he looks back for me from the warmth of the sun, instead, he waits until I’m ready to step into the light myself.

This week I was also touched by Kim and Penn Holderness winning The Amazing Race. The Holderness Family first made their break onto the national consciousness when their Christmas Jammies video went viral and they rode their Internet fame into a verified content creator position. Their videos and song parodies focus on the same suburban life with kids we are living. And they happen to live in the same geographic area as we do. To top it off, Penn went to our high school. He certainly didn’t know me, I was a few years behind him, but I knew him by reputation from his turns in the school play and over the top performances with the show choir. My husband (yes, we went to the same high school) was a few years older than me and he and Penn ran in some of the same circles and had some overlap, so it’s also been fun to watch the journey of these people we sort of knew once upon a time.

Kim has been honest about her struggles with anxiety and The Amazing Race editors didn’t ignore it. They often featured it as part of the couple’s main story line, as I am sure it was part of Kim’s every second on the race whether it looked like it or not. I can’t imagine how much harder each moment was for her knowing she was also away from her kids. My kids are the things that usually root me back into the present when I start to spiral. Not being able to see or speak to them for a month must have been extremely challenging in an already challenging situation.

Throughout the race, however, Kim was open when she struggled and Penn just as openly supported her. He walked that walk with her each and every time. And to see that support lead to success was inspiring as a fellow sufferer. I was equally moved to see a well deserved celebration of the spouses who follow us down the road to hell reminding us that they will be here to help guide us back to the sun.

I am not sure how to wrap up these random thoughts from my week other than to say congratulations to Kim and Penn for winning The Amazing Race, go see Hadestown if you can, or listen to the cast album or take it back to the beginning with the genius concept album by Anais Mitchell and friends that eventually became this fascinating show. Then, if you are an anxiety sufferer, take a minute to do the thing today that brings you a little calm (a walk, a cup of tea, a chat with a friend, a bath, a book, meditation, all of the above if you’re me except I won’t call you if we’re friends because that stresses me out a lot but maybe I’ll text you a fun gif) and hug that person in your life who calls after you to wait up when you head into the darkness. Because that person is your love-in-the-moment story whether it’s a parent or a friend or a spouse or a child or just the random stranger who wrote a musical about an ancient love story that spoke to you one day.

And don’t we all need a little more love stories in our lives these days?

Photo by Jackson David on Unsplash

Setting the Mood: Writer Walk-Up Songs

Creativity is a muscle. One that requires practice and even discipline. My husband, in an effort to comfort me on a hard day of writing (or rather non-writing), tried to let me off the hook recently by telling me not to worry about a stuck day.

“You can’t force inspiration.”

Maybe. BUT…

I have kids and volunteer commitments and other work to attend to. Waiting to be inspired is a luxury I can’t afford if I ever want to finish a sentence let alone a 90,000 word manuscript. If I have an hour at the climbing gym while a kid takes a weekly class, then that’s when I have to work. Regardless of my muse’s availability.

Now, that does not mean I can just sit down on the cracked leather sofas of the gym sitting area, ignore the pervasive smell of feet and chalk dust, and just open a creative vein. If only. But, I have learned a few tricks that allow me to drop into the work faster.

One of my favorites is the walk-up song.

If you aren’t familiar, baseball players typically have a walk-up song at their home stadiums that plays as they approach the batter’s box. The ideas is that their song choice pumps them up. Puts them in the zone. Focuses them mentally at the seemingly impossible task of tracking a ball hurtling through space so fast that by the time the batter’s brain registers it leaving the pitcher’s hand it is already in front of the plate then swinging a bat around fast enough to not only make contact with this speeding projectile but to put that ball into play with specific purpose.

Writers have the similarly impossible task of pounding out 80,000 words into a cohesive narrative arc with a well-paced plot, fully-developed characters, tension, sensory details, and snappy dialogue. It might not happen as quickly as the batter at the plate (again, if only), but it’s probably got the same number of moving parts.

So I often use a walk-up song to pump me up, focus my efforts, remind my body of the muscles it needs to swing for the narrative fences. For a long time, I used Wrote My Way Out from the Hamilton Mixtape. It energized me. Reminded me that the only way out of whatever conundrum I’d gotten my characters or timeline into could only be solved by writing my way out. It also works when I just need to remind myself I love doing this thing (let’s face it: some days we need the reminder).

At other times, I have used a mood song more specific to the work at hand that drops me into the emotions of the characters, the tone of the story, or even the setting. For a manuscript set during the Vietnam War, I would listen to lots of music from the time period. But the song that dropped me into the mood of the story fastest was Ray LaMontagne’s God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise. The song drips longing and that desperate feeling of wanting to get the hard job done to return home as soon as possible to left behind loves. It helped me find the emotional heartbeat of my story every time. For my current manuscript, it’s exile by Taylor Swift featuring Bon Iver. Might seem a little dark for the ultimate story I’m writing that includes lots of fun and games, but it gets me into the complexities of the relationship that is at the heart of the book. I will often listen to it on repeat depending on the scene I’m working on.

Listening to these songs center me whether I am at my desk or sitting at a picnic table during a kid’s soccer practice. These audio cues trigger the part of my brain that is focused on that story. It allows me a short cut back into the work without having to reread an entire chapter or section to get my bearings when time is tight. It also serves as a wake-up call to the muse to let her know it’s time to work and it would be nice if she shows up.

But even if she doesn’t, I’ve got work that needs to get done before the oldest’s drum line practice ends…Batter up!

What song gets you in the zone for writing? Is it specific to your manuscript or more of a generic pump up song? Or, on the flip side, is it a relaxing piece that calms your nerves and steadies your fingers on the keys? `

New Year, New Goals

Happy New Year!

Despite proclaiming to not set resolutions I will most certainly fail at for the new year, I do still do a fair bit of planning. I like to have goals to work towards, even if they change throughout the year.

Last year, however, coming out of 2020, I wanted to be gentle with myself. My goals weren’t so well articulated. My focus words were Grace and Flexibility. Two things I wanted to remind myself of when things weren’t going well. The problem? Because I never set concrete goals, I didn’t really have anything to measure against. The result? I did some stuff, but a bit all over the place, and my focus words ended up making me feel like I had a hall pass for procrastination instead of a direction. Not exactly what I had intended for them. But it was really easy to justify watching another episode of The Queen’s Gambit instead of writing when it all just felt too hard last winter.

While grace and flexibility are things I should still allow myself as we continue to navigate work and parenting and life in a pandemic (just maybe not as excuses for binge watching Netflix), I decided I needed a more firm hand this year. I have big things I want to accomplish in 2022. I want to set myself up for success, not arrive in December with the same wishy-washy “eh, I guess I did some stuff” results I had this year. (And don’t get me wrong. I did do some stuff. I just didn’t finish much.)

First, I will finish edits on my work in progress. My nebulous goal for 2021 was to be pitching my manuscript by the end of the year and I was nearly ready to do so in October until a trusted reader mentioned some possible problems that kept me from hitting the send button. The more I thought about her questions and concerns, the more I realized I need to make some changes. Do I think I could pitch it out right now and get requests? Honestly, yes. The pitch is strong and the overall story works. Do I think I could make the book stronger? Definitely. So why not wait and get it that much better? (Okay, I can think of lots of reasons but most of them boil down to fear that I can’t actually make it better which is bullshit). As much as I’d love to say my 2022 goal is to finally nail down an agent, that particular outcome is out of my control. What I can do is make the book the best it can be and query my little heart out until someone loves this story as much as I do. That is what I will do this year.

Second, I have been studying to be an Author Accelerator accredited book coach and I will start my business this year. I have done beta reading the last few years but felt stymied by the format as well as the lack of follow-up with the writers. I love working with writers and am so excited to be able to take what I’m learning and help others draft and complete the books of their hearts. I am in the middle of working on my submission packet and hope to have that sent off in the next couple of months so I can hit the ground running by spring.

Those are two BIG goals already, but I’m adding a third. By the end of the year I want to have a rough draft of a new book. I have been working on the current book for a while and am ready to rekindle my creativity with something new. I have no idea what that might be yet, but the thought of exploring new things until I find it is extremely intoxicating and I am very much looking forward to that creative process.

Yikes! Even looking at all that on the page together is enough to make me break out into a sweat. But, based on my planning, I think it’s all doable. And if it’s not, that’s what my mid-year check-ins are for. Just because I set it as a goal today doesn’t mean it’s a failure if I don’t accomplish it. Our failures are our teachers after all, so I’m going to aim high in the hopes that I learn a lot this year!

To focus on my goals, I have selected START as my word. Start that edit. Start a business. Start a new book. Just start. I can’t finish what I don’t start. I’m going to focus on taking those first steps and seeing where they lead.

What about you? What are your goals for the year? Do you select a word to help you focus? Maybe a vision board (I did one of those this year, too, for the first time)? Or something else? Let me know and let’s work towards those goals together!

Here’s to a successful 2022!

Let’s get started!

Make Every Moment Count In Your Novel

When writing an essay or a short story or flash fiction, it’s imperative that every word count. The limited space requires every character, description, and word to carry weight. When writing a novel, it can be easy to allow all that empty space to lure you into indulging that secondary character’s wood working hobby or the mother-in-law’s invitation to Sunday brunch. But, it is just as important that every scene, every character, every moment in your novel move the story forward with the same weight that they carry in a shorter work.

Why? Because it all matters. If it doesn’t matter it distracts the reader.

It may distract them into thinking a sub plot is important when it’s not or from assuming that wacky neighbor has something to do with the plot’s mystery or, heaven forbid, distract them from caring about your protagonist’s journey. Either way, at the end of the story, something won’t sit right with the reader and they will be left unsatisfied.

I saw a version of this over the weekend in a fluffy holiday movie. A Castle for Christmas on Netflix was just the predictable fun I was in need of while recovering from my COVID booster shot. Brooke Shields plays Sophie, a recently divorced best-selling author who has a meltdown on national television when her fans protest her killing off a favorite character from her popular series. To avoid the backlash and focus on her next project, she escapes to the town in Scotland her father lived in as a boy wanting to see the castle he always told stories about.

The castle, headed for bankruptcy, is owned by Myles, a duke played by Cary Elwes. Sophie buys the castle and is determined to write her next novel in the beautiful library while the Duke figures he can scare her off by putting her in the worst room and making her life miserable. I think we can all see where this is headed (I mean, there is tartan and kilts and a cute pup named Hamish, if it doesn’t end up where we think it will why are we even watching?).

The majority of the characters (even the pub’s knitting club and the Duke’s best friend/castle tour guide) and action do drive the story forward. Each decision or misunderstanding leads to the next decision or misunderstanding. Everything is moving along at a fine clip UNTIL…somewhere in the montage scenes of planning for the upcoming Christmas Eve party at the castle, an eccentric looking couple checks into the village inn. The innkeeper, who must leave the action of the main plot to tend to her guests, tells them only the Romance Package is left. “Oh, that’s fine,” the woman coos. On to the next scene.

But wait. Who are they? Are they important? Is it Sophie’s ex-husband and new fiancé we hear about from Sophie’s daughter? Is it a banker who could throw a wrench into the various plans afoot? A childhood friend of Sophie’s father? An old flame of the Duke’s?

We never find out. We never see the pair in the movie again. And here it is, days later since I watched it, and I’m still wondering why they were important enough for a scene. With speaking lines! And a romance package!

Distracting.

My brain automatically totaled up a number of possible reasons they were there the moment they came on screen and when nothing closed that loop, I was left still wondering.

It has me thinking about all the scenes in my novel as I consider another major revision. Does it matter? Does it advance the plot or the protagonist’s journey? Does it serve a purpose? Or is it just a wayward traveler looking for a room?

The fact of the matter is in your novel, there can be no room in the inn for characters or scenes that don’t serve that purpose.

Make sure your guests are all invited.