Make Defeat Your Fuel

More than halfway through my latest novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I keep going. Writing is a business full of few favors, lucky breaks, or sudden hits.

One thing I’ve figured out after many years in this game is that defeat is my fuel.

Wins? They’re my booster rockets.

Whatever you’re striving for now, how have you transformed defeat?

Let me know how you get past quit. Share below!

It’s a Marathon? Yes and No

We’re all charmed by the debut novelist’s story, that bestseller so swift and effortless in its rise. It’s the Very American Dream of Young Thing Makes It Big. We’re most thrilled by the young and pretty ones who finish first, and we’re much less curious about the marathoners right behind them—sweaty ones who’ve been in this game a while.

I have a writer friend who “hate reads” work by celebrity authors under 30. She’s not yet 35. I laugh and tease her about it and yet I completely understand. The nature of this game inspires envy and competition. Hard work and all the countless hours logged while your skin wrinkles and your hair grays—that’s not a sexy story that our culture tends to celebrate. And if that’s where you’re living, in Hard Work World, it’s easy to believe no one really cares about what you’re up to.

The publishing race is a very narrow path, the tightest of pipelines, and so where the marathon metaphor breaks down is the assumption that the first to finish is always the best.

Actually, all those bringing up the rear might be bearing gems—it’s just they can’t get attention. Publishers tend to look backwards when gambling on a book—what’s hot now? What’s the trend? Let’s go with what worked before.

Most of us who make it go hard and get defeated for years. Not just two or three. Decades, friends. Decades of hearing no or not now.

Like one editor said about my novel, @NervesofSteel, that’s been on submission:

Both hazing and sexual abuse in its many insidious forms are issues that are important to me to talk about, and feel especially important with the public conversations happening right now. But I want to approach the topic with care, as much as I also want to support transparency…I don’t think I’m the right one to champion it—and I fully believe a project like this deserves to have a champion.

Now I could take this feedback and tell myself to shy away from tough topics like hazing and sexual abuse. They’re a hard sell, right?

But instead I say to myself: This is not defeat. This is a chance to find a way to write about these issues so that editors want to sell it. How do I do that?

Or maybe it’s my strong genes of Italian rage that makes me throw these gesticulating hands in the air and holler

Minerva, AKA @NervesofSteel, she deserves a home!

Trust she’ll get one, one day. Getting mad revs me up and sends me back into the fray.

Believe Your Art is Meant to Be

The trick is in believing your art is meant to be. Refuse to believe you’re cursed, that you’re destined for last, or that your work has no place in the world.

There are signs to quit, and there are signs to keep going.

Maybe I should have seen the 100-some rejections back in 2009-2010 from various agents as a sign that a) I’d never get an agent and b) just go ahead and accept defeat.

Instead I paid close attention to the personalized rejections, the request for partial reads, and the requests for full reads. I took notes, asked questions, and kept querying.

In 2010, I signed with my first agent.

But maybe I should have really seen the signs back in 2011 when she missed several emails and I had to re-send them. When she tended to speak in generalities when reading my work, saying, “Where’s the story?” instead of “Try this/fix this.” I started to question my novel. Maybe my writing wasn’t worth attention if she didn’t answer my emails or couldn’t tell me exactly what to edit. Maybe I needed to take the hint and stop? (The same book we were ripping up, it was a runner-up in the 2011 James Jones First Novel Fellowship contest.) Maybe I should have packed it all in right then.

Instead I did three rounds of revision with her and when there was no sign the book was going to get subbed out, I chose to part ways, amicably. I knew in my gut the latest revision was worth something, and that it was time to tie a bow on it and go indie.

So I applied for a Elizabeth George Foundation grant and received a large one.

I used those funds to build a professional website, to fund the publishing of three books—developmental editors, copy editors, cover designers, and book formatters—and to fund a book trailer.

How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought from Lyn Fairchild Hawks on Vimeo.

And that’s just the novelist part of my journey.

Keep Submitting

Parallel to all this, I was writing literary short stories, study short stories in my own private, personalized MFA program, and querying various literary magazines. Maybe I should’ve seen the signs screaming STOP when I struck out on several magazines—sometimes waiting six months to a year to hear—or hearing nothing.

Instead I listened to the times I became a finalist in contests—like “The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future” winning first prize with AROHO and funding my first Macbook Air, which felt light as a feather and sticks with me to this day. That same story just made it last month to the quarter-finals of the Screencraft Cinematic Short Story contest.


I didn’t make it to the semifinals, but guess what? I’ve entered a few more contests. My short stories have won and placed before. Don’t stop believing.

Or there was a time I got a call from Stanford Magazine. That short story that didn’t win our creative writing contest, might there be a potential memoir piece buried there, one you’d be willing to try? the editor asked.

I’m in, I said. The editor saw the autobiography within. That led to “Gramma’s Day.”


Make Fail Your Fuel

Maybe all the stresses of the day job and step parenting—countless frustrations and fails on those landscapes—should have told me to ease up, relax, and chill on my weekends instead of scraping and scrapping after this writer’s dream.

Instead I held book signings and entered contests and applied for grants.

Maybe my indie publishing experience, which has taught me that no matter how great you think your books might be, you must have the time and resources to market and promote—maybe that realization should have shown me the door to this business. Hey, you! Woman with the day job, you don’t have time to write and hawk your wares. Try something else.

But instead of writing all my indie work off, I used it as part of my bio to query agents again with the latest novel. And after many a query, I landed my amazing agent, Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency.

Now I get not only timely critiques that made @NervesofSteel and my current project, No Small Thing, tons better, but I also get an answer to my email in under 48 hours—usually 24. Stunning. I watched her sub out a book we both believed in all last year—always its champion.

No Small Thing right now might be the next big thing. Gambling on it.

I’m still at this? Are you?

Let me know how you get past quit. Share below!


Or watch some athletes tell you how to make defeat your fuel. Michael Jordan and Serena Williams and Peyton Manning all get you to your feet in this video about how losing can be the biggest motivator.

What’s Behind Your Query Letter?

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

Remember that famous line from Professor Marvel while he scrambles in his hidden cubby to yank levers and work a mic that make the big and scary Wizard of Oz bellow?


In the world of Authors Ready to Query, Professor Marvel = author and his little cubby, the real deal of the novel. Bear with me here. You might not see it just yet.

The Scarecrow calls him a humbug. Dorothy informs him he’s a very bad man. Professor Marvel’s built a huge fantasy that’s terrorized and controlled a city for ages, never mind our four adventurers, and they’re more than mad.

But man, what a show it was, right? Dude, that took some doing! I who’s watched this film probably over 50 times has a different take: all the machinery Professor Marvel had to set up to fool so many was actually quite impressive. He took an idea and an opportunity and built a whole narrative. And all of Emerald City bought the story.

Find Your Man

When we shop out a novel to agents, we better have a man behind the curtain. I’m talking tons of levers and smoke machines and mics and amplifiers. The bones of the thing must be strong and all the buttons need to fire at just the right times.

When an agent starts reading beyond page 10, things better be more than spell checked. When someone yanks aside that curtain, there’d better be something there.

How do you know when your novel is ready to query? Share below!


It’s tempting to start querying before you’re done-done. By that I mean, on a third or fourth draft. Beta read and tested and reworked after that. Unless you’ve been cranking out books for years, you need to pace yourself and make sure all the wiring works and the nuts and bolts are tight. Developmental editors and beta readers are key to this endeavor, and they do cost. Either in cash or time—editors, professional ones, will need to be paid, and if you don’t offer your beta readers a token gift, you should definitely swap with your own beta reading time.

Before I signed with Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency, I worked with editor Angelle Pilkington. She saved my story from the muck and mire where it was frankly wallowing. I couldn’t see how to take it to the next level. Angelle helped me remove the first third and make the action urgent. By the time I queried Amy, I had a fourth draft of my novel truly ready for agent eyes. Now Amy gets all the fun of helping me wade and fortunately she’s got thigh-high boots for the gig.

What’s Behind the Curtain

Here are elements of substance expected in the YA world. Your genre may have different features, but good writing cuts across forms. And let me assume that when you decide to query an agent you are looking to build a career with some commercial success—i.e., some revenue for all this effort—and therefore you care what the market will bear and what the purveyors of literature think.

  • A hook: an opening scene that presents a problem for your protagonist
  • A driving need for your protagonist
  • A back story that may be hidden but erupts at just the right times to explain certain moments—without sounding like you’re explaining. Author and coach Kristen Lamb talks about The Wound and she will help you see why is matters so much. Round out your character till you know what’s hurt them!
  • A heady, healthy pace rooted in A Problem to Solve. If you’re writing a novel that’s one suited to of the commercial genres, think of your story this way.
  • A plot with a satisfying arc—catalyst and rising action, crisis, falling action, and resolution (see above)
  • Characters who intrigue—worthy companions for the reader’s journey
  • Voice—the unique tone and lilt and volume and features of the storyteller’s angle on the world
  • Just-right descriptions—not too wordy, not present to impress but present to seal an image in the brain

In It to Win It?

A career is built on substantive work. In this age of people cranking out a book a month, know the truth: unless you’ve got elves, you need time and grit and devotion to build a book. From cornerstone to roof, the thing’s gotten stand for the ages. So if it’s daunting to consider all this work, ask yourself: am I in this for the long haul? Do I want to build books forever?

No one ever gives Toto any credit, but if he hadn’t yanked aside that green silk curtain, we’d never know, would we? Know that the agent is even more dogged than a cute Cairn terrier. She will find out whether the stuff behind the show you put on in your query is for real. And if you’ve done the work, the right work, trust you will be hearing from someone real soon.

How do you know when your novel is ready to query? Share below!


Query Right

Are you ready to take a novel to the next level, or ready to query now? On March 24 in Chapel Hill, NC, join me and Tara Lynne Groth, experienced freelancer and journalist, for our workshop that will help get your novel and your querying process in game shape.

Query Right Workshop with Lyn Fairchild Hawks and Tara Lynne Groth

If you’re wondering how to approach literary agents and magazines with words that get a positive response, we’ll help. Learn the dos and don’ts of querying—from the pitch to the synopsis to the bio. Review queries that worked and get started outlining your own query. You’ll get useful tips to use today and a current perspective on the business of pitching your work. Includes an individualized critique of your query letter.

Saturday March 24th, 10:30 AM – 1:30 PM

Chapel Hill Library, Meeting Room C, Chapel Hill NC

$59; advance registration required.

How a Query Can Help You Write Your Novel

When I headed to the Chicago Writing Workshop to pitch agents, you can bet I brought my best boots, a big smile, and a query letter–polished to a high shine. Better than that, I had a complete manuscript. The complete manuscript came courtesy of years of hard work and several drafts of that query.

Butterfly boots by Justin. Lyn Fairchild Hawks' favorite boots.

These boots are made for pitchin’–in all kinds of weather.

A query letter forces you to figure out just what your story means and why it deserves to have a place in the market. It’s a great exercise–and a great break from the writing process–when you feel mired in the muck that is your novel and feel like pitching it over a cliff.

What have you learned about your novel while writing your query? Share below!

Story in a Nutshell

Questions you solve when writing the query:

  • Does my story have an arc that satisfies the reader?
  • Does my story have stakes?
  • Does my hero transform?

When you’re crafting the query’s brief synopsis paragraph and when you’re crafting a logline (2 sentences, max), you definitely need these answers.

Questions like these make you go back and start an outline if you have none or revisit the one you have. Because “logline” is borrowed from the screenwriting industry, I highly recommend Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat for authors who aren’t sure there are stakes or arcs or transformation. The beats of a screenplay keep me sane when I am full of scenes, characters, and words. Beats are the bones I hang everything on.

The hero’s journey, which is Snyder’s essential inspiration, may not be your cup of tea. I understand. But in this age of story when many agents and publishers you’re pitching want to know how your novel can appeal to the widest swathe of readers, understanding this classic plot trajectory won’t hurt. In fact, knowing what tugs all human heartstrings is a huge advantage when revising your novel.

Appreciate that Audience

You’ve been spending all those hours alone, you and the pages. I start to feel a little odd, myself. By the third day of straight writing, conspiracy theories make a whole lot more sense to me. Because in our fevered writer brains, everything connects, right? Themes abound and machinations, webs, and intersections are constant. Our story makes all kinds of sense–in our heads. Audience? What audience?

Writing a pitch to the remote agent, the distant grail/prince/princess you desire, makes you a better storyteller. After hanging at their bird’s eye vantage point and attempting to explain the view, you see whether there’s a mountaintop (arc) and a crisis slide down the other side–fraught with rocks that rip up your protagonist’s derriere. Is there a Catalyst? An All is Lost moment? A Dark Night of the Soul?

Then when you get back to the page, you are writing for that agent, that publisher, that person who will fall so in love with your story she will sell it to many.

I write for myself, sure. I have burning urges of self to express. But I also really really REALLY want someone to listen.

Query Right

Are you ready to take a novel to the next level, or ready to query now? On March 24 in Chapel Hill, NC, join me and Tara Lynne Groth, experienced freelancer and journalist, for our workshop that will help get your novel and your querying process in game shape.

Query Right Workshop with Lyn Fairchild Hawks and Tara Lynne Groth

If you’re wondering how to approach literary agents and magazines with words that get a positive response, we’ll help. Learn the dos and don’ts of querying—from the pitch to the synopsis to the bio. Review queries that worked and get started outlining your own query. You’ll get useful tips to use today and a current perspective on the business of pitching your work. Includes an individualized critique of your query letter.

Saturday March 24th, 10:30 AM – 1:30 PM

Chapel Hill Library, Meeting Room C, Chapel Hill NC

$59; advance registration required.



All in a Hour’s Work


They say teachers make over 100 decisions an hour. Writers are right up there, too.

Global vs. Local Choices

We face the big plot questions, all those arcs and growth and struggle. There are the back stories of characters that need exploration but not to the point of slowing the pace. I could keep going about the bird’s eye view stuff you always have to keep in mind: the outlines, the maps, the intricate analyses and free writes and imaginings. I’ve got hundreds of pages of notes and far more of discarded ones. These are part of the global decisions, big trends that affect many pages, once decided, like dominos tipping. Right now, as I finish the first full draft, my biggest concerns are these elements.

Then there are the local choices, the line edits. Sometimes, not always, you can attack these quickly while trying to bolster the big patterns and trends. The other day I caught myself wondering about a few. I watched how I made some small choices–yet still important ones–and then moved on. I could wait till the first draft is done, but sometimes, digging into these choices now allows me some greater understanding of who my protagonist is and what my story’s about.

How do you navigate and balance global and local choices in your writing process? Share below!


Decisions on the Local Level

  • For example, should my character say, “The guys watch us” or “The guys are watching us”?
  • Or how about “the journalism life” or “The Journalism Life”?

For the first example, the choice is this: present tense or present continuous? I went with the present continuous because I want to convey suspense. I want to show a girl alone at a car wash with several guys there watching her talk to another guy. The action carries immediacy and continuity. I convey the ongoing menace and suspense of the girl’s experience. Check out this Grammarly post on present continuous for more info.

For the second example, capitalization conveys importance, precision, and voice. Wendy Redbird Dancing and Minerva Mae Christopoulos, my other gifted, weird, wise girls, they love capitalization and tend toward capital abuse. This is because for Wendy, drama and deep-seated anger must be outed. There’s a lot of low-grade shouting in her head, which capitalization conveys so well (she’s not an exclamation point kinda gal). For Minerva, she often thinks as a teen journalist in headlines, and she’s also socially awkward and extremely intense, so it makes sense for her to push the rules of language.

Does Audrey, the character I’m forming now, need to work her capitals the same way? No. She’s more mainstream, and though she’s also a journalist, she’s more a hash tagger than a headliner. When referencing her mom, however, a very intense and controlling person, Audrey on occasion will label her mom’s actions in capitals. I can count these times on one hand, and hopefully the snark and sarcasm is stronger because for her its rare.

How Local Helps Global

Now I know two things about Audrey I didn’t know before:

  1. She’s facing danger, and that’s part of her gig as a teen journalist. This is not just the stuff of movies; in my interviews with journalists, they have faced some dicey situations. I need to make sure the job gets rendered right and that I add suspense for the reader.
  2. Audrey’s not dramatic like Wendy–she’s more practical and even keel–and unlike both Wendy and Minerva, much more mainstream. Audrey doesn’t fool with certain rules whereas my other characters question and mock them. Audrey’s intensity manifests with intrepid reporting and basketball fandom. And though she’ll eventually flout the rules, as she delves into the corruption of academic and athletic systems, we’ll first meet her playing much of the mainstream game. The grammar game is a nice symbol for this. There are rules there for a reason, and then there are rules (like some of the NCAA amateurism rules) that just make no damn sense.

So these moments of grammatical choice aren’t so little after all. These kinds of decisions can stop the presses if you’re not careful, distracting you, and they can tangle up the bigger process of pattern building, plot development, and character exploration. (Trust, I’m guilty of spending hours on nitpicking a manuscript rather than generating new scenes.) But the more we master language and style, the quicker we can dip in and dip out of the manuscript with these decisions and actually aid the big-picture process. A local choice can resonate up to the stratosphere of global choice.

Stop procrastinating, Lyn. Time to ascend the heights and write on the ladder of plot arc. Time to soar the upper realms of character. Eyes above, with the occasional glance down.


YA Wonders from This Year

I’ve read many amazing books this year! Find all the reviews at my Goodreads page.

  • A Time to Dance (YA, MG): About pursuing artistic passion (dance) and losing a limb. My review at Teachers Workshop is here.
  • A Wrinkle in Time (YA, MG): About love and hope and interstellar time travel. My review at Teachers Workshop is here.
  • Boost: (YA, MG): About tall girls, basketball, drugs, and sibling crazy
  • Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead (YA, MG): About friendship and first love
  • If You Could Be Mine: (YA) Love between two teen girls in Iran, where it’s forbidden.
  • I’ll Give You the Sun: (YA) Twins, first love, being artists, and coming out and speaking up.
  • Saints and Misfits (YA): About identity, defining your faith, first love, and assault
  • Second Impact (YA): About CTE, small-town football, and intrepid teen journalists.
  • The Hate U Give (YA): About losing a friend, police brutality, and interracial love
  • The Unraveling of Mercy Louis (YA): About basketball, small towns, sexual awakening, and getting out of Dodge
  • Trell by Dick Lehr (YA, MG): About finding the truth: a journalistic thriller led by a strong young woman who wants to free her incarcerated father.

Find even more at my guest post, “9 High Flavor Reads for Your Teen (and You)” at Jennifer Puryear’s Bacon on the Bookshelf blog.

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Filed Under: YA  

Why Didn’t She Say Something?

“Why didn’t she say something?” That’s what a reader asked me back in 2013, angered that Wendy suffered in silence after an assault. My YA novel grapples with a survivor’s dilemma: speak up and risk not being believed—or worse, being destroyed by the perp and the public.

When a woman speaks out shouldn’t be the point, but watch it become the subject. Trust that Wendy’s silence is complicated, as is her eventual speaking out.

The simple truth is what Jessica Goldstein said so well recently in McSweeney’s: “As young girls, we feel like maybe now is a good time to just throw something out there. See if it sticks. A PSA to all grown men on the face of the Earth: We do not want to have sex with you.”

Let’s try this again: Why didn’t she say something?

Because what happened is too horrible to put into words.

Because reliving it might make you faint or vomit. Or kill yourself.

Because he’s older.

Because Mom is overwhelmed by her life and always upset about something.

Because he’s Mom’s boyfriend.

Because he knows a ton of people in this town.

Because you won’t be believed.

Because everyone will talk about you.

Because now you’ll be That Girl.

Because everyone else is living a simpler, happier life and your trauma will interrupt theirs.

Because you’ll be asked why–about the outfit, about the time, about the situation. About the relationship.

Because you must have done something to encourage him.

Because smart girls should know better.

Because the candy store at the mall uses girl bodies to sell sugar.

Because someone near you just made a joke about sluts.

Because you’re busy looking over your shoulder in the parking lot.

Because close to 50% of Alabama electorate just voted for a pedophile.




Why Do You Assume You’re the Smartest in the Room?

Ever give someone feedback–nicely said, constructively given, solicited, in the appropriate context–and someone still gets mad? Mad because they didn’t think of it themselves? Cold and resentful because they suddenly aren’t the smartest person in the room?

Ever ask for feedback and proceed to get skewered by someone who makes the critique sharp, cold, and personal?

Fortunately, my writers’ group is the absolute opposite of that. And they just gave me a huge and timely piece of advice.

That scene on page 170? Move it to page 70, girl. ‘Cuz there’s your Catalyst. 

Oh my sweet Lord, they are so right.

I am grateful. This is how it gets done. You write, they read, you listen. You ruminate. Then you move in for the kill and rip those pages. Because nothing there is sacred.

I’m not the smartest person in the room. Some of my best ideas have come from my agent and my editors and my writers’ groups.

I get it: the What Ifs that suddenly open up when someone tells you to make a change–those are scary. When someone throws you a new What If, you better be Jedi Ready–not against them, but against the beast that is your bloated, mediocre manuscript (speaking for myself here). But to get mad? When our stock and trade is brainstorming and re-visioning?

I’m not really sure how you’ll survive as an author if you have to always be the first to think of things.

On the days where I’m feeling super-sensitive, and when the writing does not flow, and my goals seem light years away, I may be tempted to argue with the critic who presents a totally different view of my work. And sometimes, yes, that critic could be self-serving, or competitive, or just plain mean–but usually, there’s a grain of truth worth diving for.

“It’s soooooo looooooong,” complained an editor once, to whom I’d agreed to pay a lot of money for feedback. From the moment I eagerly sat down with her, she seemed strangely angry. Mad, even, that she had to read the manuscript. Then she proceeded to say some mean-spirited things. She even questioned the reality I was portraying (a story about teachers, as if I’d never been one and didn’t know who they were or how they acted.) She showed no curiosity as to what I’d experienced that perhaps I needed to describe better. I finally had to ask: is there anything worth salvaging? She sighed, shrugged, and said something nonspecific.

It was a memorable and yet unmemorable critique.

What was unsaid, but clearly there in the cold, reptilian gleam in her eye, was a resentment that I and my manuscript even existed. She was an editor who didn’t take joy from editing–in and of itself, a huge problem–but I also sensed then a competition, since she too was an author, regarding Who Would Make It. Everything in her body language said, I hope it’s never you. 

Get over yourselves, Those Who Need to Win. You wear me out with your tense and stingy lips, your nervous ears. I know your bad behavior is rooted in a deep insecurity, and a desire to be perfect. I get it; I have those same dark thoughts and urges, too.

Never mind me. You can block me out, because I won’t be chilling at the feedback table with you any longer. Pretend I didn’t write, and pretend I didn’t say anything about your writing. Good luck going it alone.

Meanwhile, the truth is still there: my manuscripts tend to be way too long. After licking my wounds post various takedowns in my life, I’ve realized that I needed to be a bit smarter. Write tighter. Plot better. And vet that editor before you agree to pay her.

You have to embrace feedback, and sometimes turn the other cheek while it hurts. First and foremost, seek those who give and take feedback openly, who come with an open, joyful energy to the process. Where the attitude is flex, and the love of the work, paramount. Where there’s not power struggle or oneupmanship. Where ego is on the shelf.

The badge I seek at the end of this life is, She told a damn good story. I hope everyone is there with me at the finish line. I see us there, laughing and feasting, all very smart together, with plenty of room at the banquet table.

This is Not a Fail

Image by Leunert

Editors look at my book and say nice things. They say lukewarm things, too. And they say no.

The subbing process can be full of no’s or versions thereof, found in forwards from your agent where it was “so close” or “Ugh!”

When you spend years on a book, you might start to think a pile of no’s during the sub process equals failure.

No. This is a not a fail.

A fail is envy.

That person with publishing success? On his own path, on her own journey. They don’t write what you write, they don’t do what you do, even if the genre is identical and even if their age seems particularly close. Or unfair. Yes, those people who get on the path early and seem (operative word, seem) to have the way cracked wide open for them…that may seem wrong but who made you judge? Jealousy, the kind you nurture unabashedly: that’s a fail.

A fail is using your mean words on social media.

Do better, authors. We ought to know how words are weaponized.

A fail is expecting the world to hand you success and fame and fortune.

No one owes us anything.

A fail is defining your art by revenue alone.

A fail is giving it away for free all the time.

A fail is believing your work will never, ever get better.

A fail is blaming others for being in your way.

A fail is focusing on the moment and what’s not right and then sitting back, paralyzed.

When you feel that bad, grabbing your dragging heart off the floor and pinning it back on is all you can do.

Or in Hamilton terms:

Rise up!
When you’re living on your knees, you rise up
Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up
Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up

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Setting for a Reason


I believe everything happens for a reason. So I like to keep my eyes and ears open for signs that help my novel, especially when that novel feels “meant to be.” Everyday life gives me so many gifts of inspiration.



Example: a conversation at work this week about whether the location for a problem-based learning scenario (PBL) could be changed, in an educational program for gifted kids: that inspired me to better set the stage in my novel.


I’m lucky enough to work in a place where we get to have discussions about best practices in education, one of which is using the power of narrative to reinforce and explore concepts. Our debate was whether we could make the setting of the problem in a small town that would get quite hyped by a minor incident. You know, the way small towns do.


Setting is its own character. I’ve said this to myself a whole bunch, but I don’t always practice this in my writing.


Setting breathes and pounds like a beating heart around and within characters of your novel.


Setting is a vehicle to carry larger truths.



You can be explicit in descriptions, symbolic and weighty as I was with Wendy Redbird Dancing in my novel How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought. Burdened by trauma, walking her neighborhood, here’s what she thinks:


When I disembark from the EZ Rider bus, the air is thick as water and I part it with my body, heaving against it. I pass a dull procession of dying trees lining Oak Street from downtown Millboro toward the Passive Solar, hung with a green, bright, and curly killer, kudzu that suffocates the pine, birch, and oak beneath. Lumpy, monster trees trapped by cancerous masses. Wouldn’t it be nice if a big net of suffocating vines would o’ertake me and let me sleep awhile.


Kudzu’s always freaked me out a little, especially as a teen when I moved here from California. I’d seen ivy but never enough that it appeared to be taking over a small country. Driving by kudzu on the way to work, I saw it as something Wendy would definitely notice as she navigates a very painful existence, one where she feels trapped like a mummy in a perpetrator’s web.


Some writers don’t want that deep a connection, and worry, rightfully so, about pathetic fallacy. My description doesn’t tread there but it’s symbol writ large.



Or you can just set up the facts of the location with plans for those rich details to matter later. (Hopefully, the reader will make those connections, not us.) The conversation at work had me thinking about the four-week span of a story for our program’s PBL scenarios, and how breaking news featured each week is a pacing strategy we use to engage student interest. In the same way, a setting as its own person can not only keep my readers with me but also set things up for later drama.


In my novel in progress, NO SMALL THING, I’m working to develop a setting of extreme fandom and loyalty to the boys’ high school basketball team. Here’s a first draft (first!) of a setting nugget I inserted in a dialogue between Audrey, aspiring sportscaster, and her mother, not a basketball fan. Mom is lecturing her about choosing education as a career instead.


She sighs. “We’ve talked about this. Entertainment is nice, but—”

She’s interrupted by blaring horns and hollers as a huge caravan of pickup trucks pass us on the main drag, festooned with black and yellow streamers. Kids are standing, shaking posters while horns blare, and people on sidewalks salute with brown bags since everyone started drinking early tonight—the kind of pregaming the whole town does when the season starts. THREEPEAT and ALL THE WAY TO STATES pass us by, and then GOT RABIES? with the Farrington Wolverines mascot, and CALL ANIMAL CONTROL RABID WOLVERINES.

Mom shakes her head. “So not safe. Who’s driving?”


This type of fandom will not just be an annoyance to Mom later—it’ll be a real threat to Audrey.


Or there’s the fact that it’s October in North Carolina, 37 degrees one moment, and 77 the other. This is not the norm. Audrey’s mom uses it as a part of her pitch to Audrey (propaganda, really) to become a teacher:


We get in the car before we turn to icicles. A big mosquito buzzes around the dash and bangs against the windshield, half-hearted and sad.

“Lovely,” Mom says. “Thirty-seven degrees tonight and mosquitos are bopping around. See, another reason to get into the classroom and teach these kids science.”


This writing strategy is true for creative nonfiction as well. Writers exploring their memoirs are often faced with the question of whether to recall certain setting elements (and also the moral dilemma of did I really smell that rose and was I really tasting peanut butter so fully when I was four?).


I celebrate that kind of sensory exploration as we dive into setting our life stages in memoir because these are necessary vehicles to grounding our readers in our reality. Whether I really tasted PB & J just that way back in 1970-something isn’t so much the issue as a) I did get PB & J sandwiches for lunch and b) I was a kid of age four who probably fixated on how PB does stick to the roof of your mouth and I would probably talk to my mom about it. And the kitchen was probably yellow and brown in that seventies goodness way of decor. That truth of setting is worth sharing.



All this to say that I wouldn’t have had this epiphany if I didn’t have the day job I have, the conversations we have there. Sometimes, I let negative thinking distract me from my true writer’s purpose. I somehow think I should be working faster, writing better, and doing this whole thing PERFECT.


Crazy talk. Everything is perfect in its time when it comes to artistic process. Things must flower and unfurl…and yes, maybe they’d unfurl faster if I were listening a little harder.


That’s my plan for next week. Listen, ask, discuss. And keep jotting down those fleeting ideas with strings attached


(Note: right now, I’m in an AWESOME writing zone but back in the spring, I felt exactly the opposite than this post. So if you’re having a crappy time with getting pages together, I feel your pain. Sometimes it’s hard to listen to the world around us when we feel our well’s run dry or we can’t generate anything better than the basics.)


How about you? Are things happening for a reason in your writing process? Is real life triggering your story elements?




Filed Under: Uncategorized  

A Writer’s Time…


…is precious. Watch it get stolen daily. Three questions to help you keep it safe:

  • What’s your freshest hour–or hours–of the day? Find them, use them, guard them. For me, it’s before 11 AM.
  • What device and which space will let you hunker down? I have to turn off Messages, Chrome, and Mail in order to write. My office is the best place, and I need wordless music or music that gets me in a trance. Oh how I adore the Hamilton soundtrack but the rich language distracts me.
  • What guilt do you need to shelve? Name the people, places, and things: For me: my cat, my messy house, and dishes/laundry/daily grind.

How do you protect your time?


Filed Under: Uncategorized, writing process