Books can change the world, but not by preaching at people…

Why did Jesus teach in parables?

Why do we tell children fables and fairy tales?

Why do we use terms like cautionary tale, morality tale, allegory?

Because stories help us understand other people.

Stories help us remember things.

Stories open a window to understanding that preaching at people does not.

When you listen to people who either love or hate history, the main difference between them is usually a teacher’s approach. If they had a teacher who emphasized dates and events and IMPORTANT people, they probably don’t enjoy history.  If they had a teacher who told them stories about people that REALLY HAPPENED, they probably love it.

In library school, we read a ton of children’s and Young Adult literature and we were required to review it and write those reviews according to a standard of quality.  The kiss of death? Didactic writing (i.e. Preachiness)

When you are writing your book, let the story make readers feel emotions. let  the story give them empathy. Let the story show them what it is like to be a woman, a person of color, poor, marginalized, underestimated, overestimated, the underdog, the anti-hero, whomever you are writing about.

The lesson comes from understanding what your main character is up against, not through addressing the reader directly and telling them what you want them to think. 

Going on a Personal Writing Adventure, part 2

Last summer,  I decided I wanted to attend a writing retreat, and I had very specific goals in mind for this retreat.

  • To travel away from home, preferably outside the United States.  
  • There to be history and culture so that I could be inspired in my downtime. 
  • To work with a book coach– a good listener who understands the craft but who won’t try to change my story or my style. 
  • Structured enough to accomplish my goals but flexible enough to account for those unexpected periods of writer’s block that arrive at the most inopportune times.  

As luck would have it, my amazing book coach Robin Henry, announced in January that she was offering a personal writing adventure in Estonia. (see the previous post)  In this post, I wanted to share what my adventure entailed.  

  A month before my travel time,   Robin and I held a special Zoom meeting to discuss what we wanted to work on that week and decided that restructuring the timeline of one of my protagonists, Hattie was the best use of our time.    So, my prework consisted of reworking Hattie’s outline, which meant moving her story forward five years.    I submitted the new outline ahead of time for Robin’s comments.  

On my arrival day in Estonia, Robin picked me up at the airport and checked me into my historic hotel.  Then we made our way through Estonia’s landmark and wound up in a quaint little tea shop, where we had the first of my favorite type of sessions with Robin.  We didn’t talk about the outline, didn’t talk about the structure, or the mechanics of the book. Instead, we talked about my characters and their stories.   Robin listened as I told background story after story, as if I were talking about my nephews or dogs.  Why were these sessions my favorite?  Because I believe the more you talk about your characters and the lives you’ve built for them,  the more real they become, and then when you write it, it sounds more authentic.   

The next morning we met and talked about the goals for the week and walked through her comments on my outline. My main goal was to get Hattie through part one of the book.  With that in mind, we planned my writing time and submissions,  her comments back to me, our meetings to discuss those comments, and then our cultural activities ( and pancake time!) 

It was all very structured and planned, but then my jet lag kicked in.   Suddenly I was sleeping when I should be writing and writing when I should be sleeping.  And Hattie, being true to her rebellious nature, didn’t want to follow where I was trying to lead her.   This is where the flexibility of the program and the one-on-one time proved invaluable.   Robin was more than willing to adjust and even held a few writer/character counseling sessions to help get Hattie and me past our differences so we could move forward.  

As a result,  Hattie is now a much richer and more well-rounded character and has made her way through part one.   

I highly recommend this program.  The program is designed to help you meet your personal goals.  Estonia is fascinating and rich in culture, history, and beauty.  And whatever your objectives may be, Robin will help you get there.  

Book Review: The Maid by Nita Prose

This one had been on my TBR pile for a while, and I finally decided to get a subscription to Audible so I can listen while I run.  I usually listen to Nonfiction, but I am trying to branch out!  Anyway, I LOVED this book.  The reviews and accolades that have been showered on it are entirely deserved. 

The Maid is the story of Molly, a neurodivergent maid at a fancy NYC hotel who finds a dead body one morning as she is making her cleaning rounds.  She is, of course, railroaded by the cops, one in particular, and the reader knows she didn’t do it. How will she prove it?  Enter her gang of unlikely and wonderful friends who help her hatch a scheme to catch the real killer. 

There are so many things to love about this book.  Molly is completely charming as a twenty-something who thinks and talks like a little old English lady, because she was raised by her Gran. All the characters have color names, so CLUE immediately springs to mind. The way Molly forgives and overcomes the people who talk down to her and make assumptions (she uses one of my favorite expressions about how to assume makes an a** out of [yo]u and me), and the way the friends work together is truly heartwarming. 

Yes, there is pain in the book—Molly is grieving for her Gran, who has recently died, and she faces a mountain of financial difficulty, but her spirit remains unbroken and she is someone we would all like to have as a friend. The only thing I didn’t like about the novel is the final twist, but I will not give it away here. If you want to discuss, shoot me an email.

The Maid is a great example of using the story to get the message across.  There is plenty of social commentary about the way neurodivergent people are treated, the way the working poor are mistreated, and how society could do better, but she doesn’t preach to us, she lets the story make us feel.  Writers take note, this is how it is done.

I recommend this novel for readers who like Agatha Christie, Columbo, and closed room mysteries with a dash of heart.

Craft Book Review: Story by Robert McKee

Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee is a little older, but it was recommended by Jane Friedman, a publishing professional for whom I have a great deal of respect.  I am SO GLAD I read the book.  It is insightful about what makes a story work, helpful in explaining the details, and I loved the no nonsense voice of the author.  I tend to be a proponent of tough love, as my clients will tell you, so a straightforward approach lands well for me.

This post will not be a comprehensive dissection of the book here, as it is 468 pages packed with writing goodness.  The book is intended for screenwriters, but most of the lessons apply to novel writing as well.  Here’s the bottom line: Story Matters!  You can have great characters, an exciting plot, lots of action, but if you don’t have a message and a  story, it won’t work.  

Story has five non-negotiables: 

  1. The inciting incident
  2. Progressive Complications
  3. Crisis
  4. Climax 
  5. Resolution

These five elements exist in a big picture, overarching way, but they also exist within each act of a novel. 

I’ve written before about how all beat sheets, story structure outlines, etc are basically the same, and it is still true.  All of them include these five elements in some form or fashion.  It seems you just can’t write a book or watch a movie without them.  As writers, we would be wise to pay attention.

If you want more information about McKee, he was recently featured on the Thoughtful Bro podcast (I know…, but give it a listen) in which he riffs on the Hero’s Journey.  Keep listening if you fear he has forgotten the original question, he eventually gets back round to it.  I will respectfully disagree with his statement that there are no  female journeys.  See more about the Heroine’s Journey below. 

Outlining is a valuable tool at any point in the writing process: just getting started, revising your novel, or writing your summary to query.

Get your free copy of the Beats of the Heroine’s Journey with examples here.

If you wonder more about how all outlines are the same, check out the mini-course on Outlining.  It will help you figure out which one of the many variations on an outlining theme will work for you and your novel.

Get Robin’s Outlining Mini-course, which includes video lessons, a workbook, templates, and a deep dive into outlining once you have selected your beats.

Never be confused by outlining styles again.


Looking for Story Inspiration?

Are you looking for some inspiration for your next project? A lot of stuff gets posted during March for Women’s History Month, so I thought I would save a little inspiration for April!  Here are four women I came across in my content consumption that might give you a great idea for a story.

  • Berta Fanta—On my visit to Prague, of course I visited the Kafka Museum.  In one of the exhibit cases, there was a collection of items related to Berta Fanta who ran an intellectual salon for intellectuals in Prague at the turn of the 20th century.  The guests included heavy hitters, even Albert Einstein who taught in Prague for a time.  For more information, see here.
  • Chicago Poisoning Epidemic—from the book, Lady Killers by Tori Telfer, which is all about female serial killers.  There is plenty to be curious about here, but in particular the chapter on the poisoning epidemic in Chicago during the 1920s and Tille Klimek. Her cousin Nellie became involved in poisoning unwanted husbands and other people, too.  The book on the whole is extremely chilling, but the main thesis is that women were not considered serial murderers, and even if they were, they were “excused” or trivialized because of their gender.  The author contends that both men and women can be equally culpable and heinous in their criminal acts.
  • Women of Early Hollywood—before World War I, women had clout in Hollywood.  Women like Florence Lois Weber.  But then, kind of like in the literary world, as soon as it became clear there was money and influence on the table, men started changing the rules to keep people out.  Listen to this podcast for a walk back in time to a different era of Hollywood.  
  • Zoe Anderson Norris—a Gilded Age journalist who fought poverty with her pen.  Maybe you’ve heard about Nellie Bly, but not Norris?  Is it time to learn more about other female journalists who fought for everyday people?  Listen to the Gilded Gentleman episode to find out more. I can’t wait until the biography comes out.

I can’t wait to see what stories you come up with!

Outlining is a valuable tool at any point in the writing process: just getting started, revising your novel, or writing your summary to query.

Get your free copy of the Beats of the Heroine’s Journey with examples here.

Book Review: Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka

WARNING:  there are spoilers…and there is a Howler 🙁

This book is classified as literary suspense for those of you keeping score. It is Kukafka’s second novel and now I will probably have to go read the first one. (!) The question she is asking here is all about power.  Why do we insist on trying to understand violent men and ignore the lives of the women they kill? What is the nature of choice in our lives and when is it too late to make different choices?  What about all the alternate choices we could have made?  

Interestingly, she manages to humanize a serial killer, but part of how she does it is by making the story about other people, specifically the women in his life, rather than making it about him. Ultimately, he is insignificant and the reader is left wishing for the lives the women could have had, the roads not taken, as it were. Justice is impossible.  Even though it is a “down” ending, the reader is also left with hope, because Saffy, an investigator with the NY state police is working a new case and trying to save a young woman.  She chooses to make meaning from the events of the novel by choosing to make things better, to attempt to restore some sense of balance in the way the world views serial killers.

This is a multiple POV, non-linear telling that maintains the tension by revealing different parts of the story only when necessary.  If you are looking for a good example of how and when to reveal backstory, this will work.  

I just have one tiny complaint…there’s a Howler.  On page 144, she references the giant statue of Sam Houston on the highway in Huntsville, Texas (home of the state penitentiary and where Texas’s death row is).  She says it is marble.  “…that the Sam Houston Monument is rising in the distance, towering over the border of Huntsville…As the van speeds closer, the statue reveals itself, gigantic in sculpted marble.”  It is not made of marble.  The statue is 67 feet tall—too big to be marble.  It is concrete and reinforced steel, which would have taken all of about 30 seconds to find out with a little research here.  I loved the novel, but I have to admit that getting this wrong, when it would have been pretty easy to get it right, made me question what else she got wrong.  

Just a note for all you writers.  Readers do pay attention and research matters.  This Howler threw me out of the story and made it hard for me to get back into the story world for a while.  Don’t let this happen to your readers—check your facts, even the little ones. 

But still, I would recommend this book, because it is a beautiful read!

What is a Personal Writing Retreat and Why Should You go on One?

Dear Readers, this is a guest blog post from a client who recently attended a personal writing retreat here in Estonia with me. If you are curious about what you might get done on such an adventure, read on!

        “ I’m offering a personal writing adventure to all my existing clients.  Let me know if you’re interested.” That was  the email I received from my fabulous book coach Robin Henry fifteen minutes before our bi-monthly zoom session. At the end of our session, I asked her what that was about.  As she explained, all I heard was 1) cool trip, 2) seven full days of writing and 3) intense  one- on-one time with Robin.  Without even reading the email, I shouted “Count me in!”  And now, as I’m on the final  leg of my journey home from my lovely adventure, I am so happy that I did.

         So, I’m sure your asking, what is this adventure and how is it different from my normal coaching sessions with Robin?  The adventure is a seven day writing retreat in Tallinn Estonia and is the perfect combination of writing, coaching /learning and experiencing a lovely city full of culture, good food ( the pancakes are to die for) and history. 

      Now, before I go on, I want to  address the elephant in the room.  Doesn’t Estonia border Russia? Is it safe?  Obviously those were the questions my family had and,  even though I’m an experienced traveler, I wondered myself.  The first thing I did was look it up on the map.  (I confess, I didn’t know where it was).  Estonia is near Finland, and yes it does share a border with Russia but Tallinn is in the northern corner and far far away from the current conflict.  Next, I went to the US State Department site looking for travel alerts. What I found was that Estonia has green level travel status.  It has very little crime, no terrorist threat alerts and is a member of NATO and the EU.  In fact, according to the site, it’s currently safer to travel  there than to France, Italy or  Germany, (my favorite places to travel) who are all sporting a yellow travel status.   Everyone speaks English and signs, menus and information are in both Estonian and English.  That was enough for me and I am happy to report that not once did I ever feel uncomfortable or have any trouble communicating.  

     So, was it worth it? Did I accomplish anything? As far as my writing is concerned, the only thing that trumps this experience in terms of moving my book forward was signing up with Robin in the first place.  We choose to focus my time on Hattie’s—one of my two protagonists—story line.  And at the end of my adventure, I had accomplished the following:

1) Completely reworked the outline for Hattie’s story. 

2) With Robin acting as counselor and coach, I resolved a knock down drag out fight I was having with Hattie who refused to cooperate with where I wanted to take her. (You know how those pesky characters can be.)

3) Wrote over 10,000 words in seven days. (My normal is 7500 a month) and,

4) Got Hattie all the way through part one of my book.  Mission accomplished and then some.

      So how did it work and how did I accomplish so much in such a short time? Ah, you’ll have to wait for the next post for that.  After all, what kind of writer would I be if I gave you too much too soon. 😀 I learned that and so much more from Robin @readerly.

Sometimes you just have to keep going, or how I finished the Prague Half Marathon

Most of you know by now that I am a runner.  I do not claim to be fast or particularly good, but I find it a useful time for reflection, it gets me outside in all weather, and weight-bearing exercise is good for your bones!

Earlier this month, I ran the Prague Half Marathon.  It was an adventure from the beginning.  Due to a scheduling conflict, I arrived just before start time, and the staff/volunteers were super helpful in getting me a number and to the start line. 

Things were going well and I was having a good race.  I was on pace to finish in about 3 hours (I told you I’m slow…).  All was well.  I approached the halfway mark with joy only to be met by a volunteer who told me I had to stop running.  “Why?” I asked, confused because in all the half marathons I have run, this has never happened. “The time limit.” she replied.

Now, this confused me, and if I am honest made me a little bit angry.  First of all, I knew the time limit was three hours and by my watch, I was going to be close.  She should not be stopping me based on a split time! Second, I have never not finished a race I signed up for, even that time I had to sprint, and I use the term loosely, at the end to avoid being last.  Third, they were calculating the three hours based on the official start time, and anyone who has ever run in a race with over 12,000 people, as this one was, knows that the people at the end of the starting line cross the line at least ten to fifteen minutes later than the official start time. Nope, I was not getting on the bus like a meek mouse.  I would finish.  I saw several other people also determined and followed them to stay on the course.  

Long story short (or is it too late?), all of us in the little cadre finished the race.  In spite of the fact that they were literally picking up the course markers in front of us and several volunteers tried to convince us to stop. When we reached the end, an older Czech gentleman who had finished just before us, made sure we got our medals and a bottle of water. Our little band helped each other stay on the course and encouraged each other to finish.  I had some glucose tablets that I shared with a woman I was running beside when she looked a little shaky. She told me she wasn’t sure if she would have made it without me—it was her first half marathon. We were so happy to have crossed that line! And truthfully, none of us might have made it if not for the others.  At different points, we spotted the course markers and the turns.  Found water, walked together, ran together.  Chatted to take our minds off the pain. Together we accomplished something that we might not have been able to do on our own.  

Sometimes, when you’re writing a novel, it seems like you are alone.  But you don’t have to be. Find your cadre, and if you want to finish—don’t stop, even when they try to make you get on the bus.

You can do it.

There are three ways to work with Robin…