A friend mentioned the 10 most dangerous cities in Iowa, and I’ve lived or worked in half of them. Iowa gets a bad rap sometimes, but there are good things here, too.

One of them is fireflies. There’s a great sense of wonder in so many kids where these are concerned, tiny glowing flying creatures that only come out part of the year. Why is that so wonderful?

When I was small, I thought they were myths. Fireflies- I don’t care how many Iowa natives try to correct me that they’re Lightning Bugs- are creatures of beauty and awe. My mother had never seen one until we moved to Iowa. And my cousin and I always wrote in letters (on paper- through the postal service) about me sending fireflies to her because she never had them in Montana, either.

These myths change our perceptions of the world, and when they’re true, you find a piece of the impossible in your everyday life. We drove home after a wedding, and I smiled to watch the fireflies out the car window. I remember catching them in a jar and then letting them go.

My kids live in a world with fireflies. My worlds are filled with dragons and other impossibilities when I write, so it’s nice to have at least one in the world around us.

Though the more I think about lightning bugs, the more I think they deserve a special place in some awesome steampunk story. We’ll see how that turns out.


From Another Angle

I have taken up my book and marked it up nearly every day since I came back from the weekend class at the Summer Writing Festival. I’m not even sure what exactly changed. My class received about eight hours of lectures about sentences.

It seems crazy, but it was awesome, fun, and enlightening.

Suddenly I feel like editing is fun. And the book i picked up needs a big rewrite. The thing has been sitting long enough it feels new again. Also having fun uncovering the placeholders like “Bob the Bossman” and “ZZ” that are peppered through the narrative.

I get the feeling I’ve allowed it to simmer long enough that I know how to fix it. At least through the first iteration. But somehow that big picture of the novel in my head wants to get bigger.

Doesn’t matter as long as I’m having fun, right?

Open Mic Night

Last weekend I went to the Summer Writing Festival, and there’s always an open mic night. After two sessions of talking about sentences, I enjoyed listening to others. But the problem with knowing I’m going to be up next– I had to mess with my phone to figure out where the thing was I would read. And I hate that, I can’t focus on anything else. But after I read, I could listen better. So many funny, witty writers stood up to share!

Here’s my story, a steampunk flash fiction piece that I had to edit after the workshop.

The New Machine

The gears whirred. Every step drew me closer to the machine. Aether powered the thing, though I couldn’t fathom the purpose. My fingers hovered over the moving parts.

“What do you think, Claire?” His fingers scraped the back of my neck. “It’s for you, you know.”

The entire thing shifted. No big sound changed the product, but suddenly it dumped tiny pieces of pearl rounds, each one drilled with a distinct hole pattern. “Buttons?”

“They’re not just buttons, my dear.” He waved his hands over the displays for his other machines. “They’re for all the new machines. Pearl is the best. It’s lovely and it feels luxurious.”

Willem always focused on decadence. I knew this about him, but I couldn’t look away from the pearl circles in my hands. He took three and placed them over the levers on his other new addition to his collection of machines. “And that one?”

He tipped his top hat at me, then dropped his fingers to the new pearl buttons across the front. “My time machine.”

My stomach floated within my body. I gulped it down, along with my heart. For once I felt glad of the corset restraining both from leaping out of me. “Such a thing must be impossible.”

Willem stood within the machine. “I’ll be back for you, my dear.” The levers shifted under his hands, he turned to take a last look at me, which toppled his hat to the floor, and he disappeared.

His hat rolled to a stop near me, and I cradled it close to me with buttons still clutched in my fingers. I sat, skirts piled around me on the steps, and I waited. He would come back. He said he would. The candle dripped lower in the sconce. Willem always kept his word. The only question was when.

I Printed the Draft But You Can’t Make Me Edit!

That might not be true. I can get myself to edit, but the rewrites make me fidget endlessly in my chair. It’s something I have to schedule and turn everything off, with the paper copy on one side and the screen where I translate the new words on the other.

I can’t get myself to edit appropriately without a paper copy, it seems. I mark up one copy, highlight in myriad places, and have separate notes in margins and a separate notebook to keep it all from escaping. It isn’t the short pieces that bog me down so much – it’s the mammoth manuscripts that would be novels.

Example: the one sitting on my right is about machines [read: robots] and weighs in for the rough draft at 135,000 words. Working title is The Machine Book, only because I have no idea what the title ought to be.

This year I’ve been doing something different. I’m scheduling time to sit down without interruptions and simply take notes on previous projects and learn how to make them shine. I know I’m the only one who can make myself get through the process of finishing the book.

I really wish a one-page-at-a-time idea worked, but the first edits are all about plot arcs and character growth. It’s about making sure each scene happens at the right time and the right place and moves the reader forward to the end.

Thank you to all the family and friends who occasionally ask me how my editing is going. You’re reminding me to keep chipping away at this until I finish, and it motivates me.


Driving presents many challenges, and one of the newest problems is cell phones. But what happens when the problem isn’t really the phone itself, but that we don’t engage ourselves while driving?

My first vehicle was older than I was, with manual steering, brakes, and transmission. I had a portable radio stashed on the front seat, and it was always stuck on a local station because I couldn’t get anything else. I didn’t mind, and with all the things I had to do to drive that thing (on gravel most of the way) kept me busy.

If boredom is one of the problems, I can’t give good arguments against it. I’ve had my current car a year. It’s automatic everything, the first automatic transmission I’ve ever had. I don’t know what to do with my left foot or my right hand, and there are buttons everywhere to push and adjust things. There’s nothing to do when everything goes smoothly.

The problem with driving is not everything goes smoothly. At least, not all the time. And we’re not prepared for those moments when they arrive.

Enough for the driving, right? What about the books? Are we engaging our readers? Especially in online formats, writers are encouraged to write clearly, directly, and use short words and sentences. Many fiction novels are written on an eighth grade level, if that.

If we’re not engaging the readers, is that why we’re so worried about losing them? Because they can now be pulled away by movies or video games or any other shiny idea to promise escape.

What if we gave the readers something more to concentrate on?  Some books have sentences of one hundred words or more. Some books have layers of meaning that you don’t always puzzle through the first time. I’m sure not every book needs to be absorbing all the attention of the reader, but I wonder how many popular genre novels are brave enough to tackle these things. When was the last time you looked up a word you didn’t know from a story? Re-read a deeply layered story to enjoy the nuances? Have we allowed ourselves to lose the ability to engage completely in one task at a time?

Write What You Know?

Right. The answer to that is always research.

But there are so many things that even research can’t manage. How do we ever know what it is to ride a dragon or to travel through space on a generation ship?

It’s something about writing what I love. I love the impossible, the improbable, and the things I may never see in my lifetime. Those are the things I want to write. Those are the stories I see in my head and pester me until I put them down.

A man in my book club asked why writers write post-apocalyptic stories. The best answer from the other writer in the room gave was the idea that humans adapt and overcome the end.

I’m surprised he didn’t ask about dystopias, because I’ve been reading a ton of those lately. Those are also stories where people rise above their circumstances. It’s where the imagination takes us, and each story shows something that might happen – whether the society as we know it becomes problematic like a dystopia or collapses and needs to be rebuilt like a post-apocalyptic.

Sometimes I start to wonder about these not-real, not-true things, how we can be experts and write what we know about them. And yet, if we spend enough time in our imaginations, how can we not know them?

Dragons have been my favorite animal for nearly as long as I can remember. I don’t write them often, but I love to read a good dragon story. When my mother was tasked in her poetry class with creating a poem from a dragon’s POV, she called me. I’m thrilled to be the dragon expert in the family, and it didn’t take long until the dragons poured out in a story.

My next journey is among the stars. Sometimes my evil inner editor tells me we don’t see those stories lately, so they’re out of vogue. And yet- it’s what I love, so I must follow.

Does an Outline Prevent Discovery?

Plotters and pantsers make up the ends of the spectrum of writers about outlining. Some hate the word, while others live by the outline map. I happen to be someone who outlines. It wasn’t always this way, but I have come to find a way to outline that keeps me focused on the story ahead.

The biggest complaint I hear from pantsers (the ones who write by the seat of their pants) is that if they outline, they’ve already written the book. What’s the point?

Maybe we have too much thrown into the category of outline. I remember them from school with the Roman Numerals and the Arabic numbers underneath. Someone must still use that kind of outline, but not most of the writers I know.

What happens to me without an outline is that I wander far from the beaten path of the story. When I have my draft, I spend more time figuring out the threads and the pieces that don’t fit than anything else. Like, why did my protagonist wander off with her dragon here? That doesn’t fit the story! Did I really need to discover that for twenty pages? (Yes, I’m exaggerating here.)

But the key to a great outline is to allow enough to keep in mind the end while not tying hands too much to get through the story. And it isn’t like an outline is set in stone. If your characters mutiny against it, the writer had better understand what happened – and act accordingly. The choice is to change the characters so they’d choose to run through the outline, or change the outline so the characters want to travel that direction.

How much of an outline is enough? It’s what keeps the writer on track with the story. If it’s enough to have that vague image of an ending in your head through the writing – go for it. An outline can be as minimal as fifteen words or as detailed as a snowflake. It’s simply a tool to work for the writing.

So does any kind of information go against the discovery of the novel? Is it forbidden by the pantser to make character sketches or physical sketches of settings or to write out the history of the world before the story begins? Maybe because I write science fiction I struggle with this. I might have years to cover with changes to the characters, society, and technology to get to the point where I want to begin the story.

I might be able to do that off the cuff, but I might get left with questions like I did from reading books like Divergent: How do you get the factionless to work in factories or drive trains or do anything when they’re homeless and don’t have food? What did Voldemort do in the thirty or so years from when he left Hogwarts to when Harry’s curse zapped him away? Thirty years feels like a long time to be gathering the supporters, if only to try to take down the Ministry of Magic the moment Voldemort gets his body back. If he gathered power to terrorize people for thirty years, wouldn’t he be a little more patient? (And I know the Harry Potter novels were outlined.)

But then again, perhaps I just overthink these things. Maybe you have your own examples of those books that have those little questions that keep you awake at night. It isn’t really possible to answer every single question about a world, but the writer ought to know. Some of that is always discovered for me while writing, no matter how tight my outline becomes.

Some resources for outlines:

Minimalist- 15 to 20 words by Les Edgerton 

Seven Point Story Structure
Choosing an Outline Style by Writer’s Digest
Rowling’s Method (There has to be a name for this somewhere, but I haven’t come across it)
If you have a way to outline other than these, please share!

Day 501

I write every day. At least, I have for the last 501 days.

Yesterday was Day 500. It’s the last badge from 750words that is advertised on the ‘about badges’ page. So today, when I looked, there it was, that beautiful spacebird badge I’ve been working toward for longer than 500 days. I reminded myself I couldn’t quit when I was so close.

[Note: I have no idea why all of them are birdlike, but it begins with an egg at zero days, a turkey after 3, and we moved through a Pegasus and Phoenix to get there.]

Today is Day 501. It’s not time to quit today, either. I’ve practiced many forms of meditation with yoga, tai chi, and being seated with a quiet mind. Yet writing is one of the things that calms me and keeps me going, which makes it a form of meditation. It’s not how everyone uses writing, but it’s one reason I pursue it so doggedly.

New goals are ahead, and I’ve also been working editing into a daily schedule this month. I’m struggling with it for several reasons, but I’m slowly improving.

Another lesson from yoga applied to writing: The parts we resist the most also teach us the most. I know I read that type of article the first time and it spoke about the poses. A friend of mine hated chair pose so she taught it in class every week. When I started, my least favorite pose was plank. It’s hard to believe how long ago that was.

When I edit, I’m looking at my words again, changing them, tweaking them, sometimes ripping out entire pages of fluff where I wonder what I was thinking or how I could have possibly thought it would fit in the book. I’m also starting to see how it’s improving, the book is turning into something better, prettier, maybe good enough to share with a few trusted friends. Soon. After the rewrite.

What are you struggling with? How do you go about solving the problem and creating goals that you’re excited to reach for? I’m going to pick another number: 555? 600? Those numbers seem more possible now.

The End of the Poetry [Challenge]

I spent the last 30 days writing a poem every day. Most of them were free verse, a few of them needed to have some sort of form, and all of them had requirements about what to say.

What can I really say about it? I love a challenge. I love trying to do something that’s tough just to see if I can. [That might be part of the reason I like NaNoWriMo, too.]

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from using a different form to express yourself. Poetry that says you have to use a word like carbonated and forbids you to use a word like the. No, those aren’t things we use when writing something to publish, but to start looking at words differently? Mission accomplished.

A couple of the poems I really like. I didn’t expect that, because sometimes a prompt will make you hold to the boundaries so rigidly it wouldn’t fit anything else. I also had fun sharing my work with some of the other challenge-attempters. I would look at the words they poured out, and look at mine, and wonder if we truly did use the same beginning. Then you find the bolded words we had to use, none of the words we couldn’t use, and a minimum or maximum of lines. I’m still amazed.

Today it’s over, though I’m sure several of us held our breath around noon, ready to go look for another prompt. I hear it only takes about three weeks for a habit, and this challenge lasted 30 days. Then my friend who organized it said she might do it again in September. My history has only been to do any sort of poetry challenge about once every three years or so… September might be too soon.

Plus I have a novel to rewrite. More than one, even. Time to dig into that. 

Poetry Challenge

One thing I love about poetry is the way you look at words differently. I won’t call myself a poet. I don’t spend nearly enough time on it for that. I know little about forms. Meter and rhyme mostly serve to frustrate me.

But I read this op-ed, and I was thinking. I know some poets. They have beautiful words to share. One thing about those writer groups where you go and take something to read out loud – poetry is perfect for that medium. It’s also easy to print out 20 copies of a poem to share so they can find typos or anything else.

A friend of mine is running a poetry challenge this month, and every day we’re writing a poem. The challenge comes in finding something to say about the prompt – yesterday was Celestial Musings – and not using any of the forbidden words while using all of the required words and it was the first day we had the option of finding a form (any form).

I find it very intimidating to go find a form and just use it. I like it when someone tells me to try a pantoum or a tanka or a jozzonet. There are so many forms out there I’ve never heard of and I’m not sure where to go find them.

When the month is over and I have 30 new poems – because I’m not the kind of person who backs away from a challenge – I’m going back to my novel edits. I’m doing it to look at the words differently. To change how I see them in my head. To alter how they come out while I’m describing things. Wish me luck. I have 17 down and 13 to go.

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