This photo has become a touchstone for me. It never fails to make me smile, and it inspires me to keep working. The first time I saw it, it made me laugh—loudly. It also filled me with an incredible combination of relief and determination.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl. My first adult efforts were unsatisfactory. I wanted to get better. I wanted to write the kinds of stories that I want to read. I started looking around for guidance and, as it turned out, there was no shortage of it. There was, in fact, too much! I did manage to find a few bits of advice that made sense to me, but nothing I tried felt natural. I felt like I was doing writing wrong, and I couldn’t figure out how to do it right.
Finally, after a lot of fits and starts, I realized that I was just going to have to do it my way. I would have to be willing to fail. Willing to experiment. Willing to keep trying. And, ultimately, I found a way to write that works for me. Actually, “found” isn’t the best word. I built my process, a process that has helped me to write three novels in two years. And with each novel, I’m learning. I’m refining my process and, I think, becoming stronger in my work.
Nora Roberts is one of my heroes—not just because I love her books, but also because she has achieved incredible success on her own terms. And this photo reminds me that the only right way to be a writer is to write.
I keep a food-and-exercise diary. The Google calendar for my household is carefully color-coded. I had to design my own planner after searching the globe for the kind of granular detail I need to feel good about my day.
This isn’t so much because I loathe spontaneity as it is that I want to be ready when life surprises me—whether it’s with an unforeseeable obstacle or an unanticipated delight. I just find that I’m better able to cope with or luxuriate in the unexpected if I know that my world is organized enough to take care of itself for a little while.
Anyway, I mention this because, since I started writing my first novel, I have tried to bring order to the process of telling a tale. I create notecards and outlines and spreadsheets. I want a plan for my fiction that’s as carefully calibrated as an itinerary that I create before I travel.
But, you know what? Just like life happens, story happens. I have reached the stage with my third novel where it’s all kind of a mess—or, at least, that’s how it feels to me. But, because this is my third novel, I know enough to recognize this as a good sign. It means that the characters I thought I was creating have revealed their true selves. It means that the world I thought I could shape is now a real place running by its own rules. It means that there are notecards I’m going to have to toss, and that’s all right.
I am so close to finishing After Him. I can’t wait to share it with you.
“It was a very dreary wasted period of my life. I had given up all ambition, lived from hand to mouth, and thought the evil of each day sufficient.” – George Henry Lewes
For a long time, I did not write. Once I started writing, I didn’t share my work with anyone. If we think of adult life as starting around twenty-two or so, I didn’t write seriously for about a decade after that. It took about another decade for me to show anyone my writing.
What a stupid waste of time. I was such a mess.
And yet, I was not a mess. I built businesses, traveled the world, and had spectacular love affairs in all that non-writing-non-showing time.
I devoted myself to service through my church. I ate some amazing things, as pictures on my phone remind me. I raised children. I built a community of friends that sustains my soul even today. I served as
a mentor to so many young women just getting started in their own careers. By most measures, I was a success.
But I was not a success by my own standards. To the little girl inside of me, who decided to be an author in the third grade, I was a washed-up failure. Anyone on the outside would have called me a risk-taker, but my own soul knew different. My own soul knew that I was cropping out my greatest ambition and dream from the picture of my life.
And then something happened, which I still can’t understand, that allowed me to show my work to the world.
I don’t make the same money as I once did now. I also have to work a lot harder, go to bed earlier, and miss a lot of fun. I have to grind while others brunch. And when the writing is done, I have to do all the other stuff like exercise and help with homework and fold laundry.
But this new life is far better. The evil of each day is not sufficient.
Creating more challenge and fun for myself by building new stories, and finding new ways to share them with you, nourishes me. Thank you for that, by the way. (You realize I can’t do any of this without you?)
What are you cropping out of your picture? What did you want to be in the third grade? Is that little person proud of the you she sees in the mirror?
Monday I started the outlining for a book that has been on my mind for a long time. I met this character, Rachel Fielding, in 2014. When I tried to write her story in 2015, I would find myself sitting outside of my little writing cubby, on the floor, crying for no reason. I walked away from that book with a firm intention never to pick it up again.
However, Rachel never left me alone.
In considering what to write next, I realized that the time for Rachel’s story had come. Monday and Tuesday offered nothing but frustrating, confusing, angry mornings where I wrestled with her story like twisted sheets in the bed at night.
And then, this morning… breakthrough.
As it turns out, Rachel had been keeping a secret from me. A big one. Why do my characters think they can get away with that? If I sit in one place long enough, and just let them keep talking, eventually they tell me everything. Finally Rachel told me her secret. And now I know at last what part of her secret I am supposed to share with you.
Are you also a writer? What characters are keeping you awake?
Two summers ago, I lived in a small apartment on North Audley Street while on a consulting project. I was also trying to write. I couldn’t seem to make the writing happen, and I never missed the chance to feel ashamed and angry about it.
Instead, I worked on the other project, and wandered the city looking at trees. I made friends with the man who would become DCI Khan, and also the man who would become David. What I didn’t realize at the time was that, even though I wasn’t putting words on the page, I was writing. I was writing what would become In the Twisted Web.
Samuel Johnson famously said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” That phrase played around the edges of my imagination. I swatted it away like an insect. Tired of life is against my religion.
On my last morning in London, I walked down to Shepherd’s Market in the rain and had breakfast in a tired diner. I sat next to a lovely older couple, and their joy in one another made me feel all the more alone.
The driver of the car that took me to the airport had good taste in music, and he played Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisdande, Opus 5. As London’s green parks and tidy white facades rolled by and the music filled the car, I acknowledged, finally, that I was tired of life.
As I was reading the David Brook’s insightful writing about Samuel Johnson last night before bed, I came across that phrase again. It didn’t sting this time. Somewhere along the way I’ve stopped being tired of life.
I’m still rather bad at it, of course, and I’m often disappointed in myself. I don’t work hard enough or I don’t know when to stop working when I start.
But in the process of making those books, I somehow renewed my pleasure in living.
Where are you in this cycle? What is bringing you joy, or bringing you down? (And please remember, as I did in my one success, down is always temporary.)