On Writing

On Writing: The Idea Cloud

Pick a thread from the Idea Cloud hanging over you. (Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon)

Every once in a while, two movies come out at the same time with same theme. Or multiple books suddenly have “thief” in the title. (There are 161 titles in Goodread’s Best Thief Book category!) Why does this happen? I blame it on the Idea Cloud.

Sometimes, the explanation is simple. Similar films released close together is a phenomenon with it’s own Wikipedia page. But what about novels? Novels are usually unique stories written in isolation. Normally, a story emerges from one brain before it reaches the gristmill of publishing. So why would a writer see her own unique concept crop up in somebody else’s book?

It has to do with how stories arise in the writer’s brain. That’s where the Idea Cloud comes in.

Idea Clouds spreading overhead. (Northwestern Minnesota)

Here’s how it works:

Let’s use the thief example. You’re listening to the news on your way home from work. The newscaster announces that a monkey is missing from the town zoo and evidence suggests someone stole it. Huh, you think. A monkey thief. Not a bad idea for a story. Then you remember the 161 thief books on Goodreads. You’re going to need more than thievery to make a fresh story.

Still driving, you recall a rash of missing dogs reported last year. Missing dogs, missing monkeys. Huh, again. Now the old story has a fresh twist. That’s promising. Your writerly brain turns the two ideas over like a Rubik’s Cube, seeing how the pieces might fit together.

Then you get home. You step out of your car, or off the train, or down from the bus and you listen. Do you hear the firing shot? All the other writers who heard the same news story as you are now sitting down to their laptops. The race is on. Are you going to join them?

This is the moment you begin to tug on the Idea Cloud, that fluffy cumulous-shaped mass of ideas floating over head. You reach up and pull down the missing monkey thread. Now the missing dog thread. The Idea Cloud’s positive charge will speedily lock onto any emotionally-charged memory you have about dogs, monkeys, and missing animals in general. All those memories hidden under the couch cushions of your amygdala will rise up, supercharged, and ZING! Lightning will strike.

Lightning must’ve been in this tropical Idea Cloud hanging over my car. (Boca Raton, Florida)

Suddenly, in rapid succession, you will remember: your favorite dog when you were ten years old; your little brother’s remorse over leaving the garden gate open; the neighborhood search for said dog; and the knock on the door from a motorist with bad news. You will feel the old sorrow of learning that your dog is dead, and wish you’d never listened to the news that day driving home.

But wait! You are now a superhero middle grade writer! You can rewrite history and transform your old sadness. You can finally give your dog the resting place he deserves in your heart. You can write a good story that kids will love.

You begin to ask What If questions. What if the monkey and dogs in your story are in cahoots? What if they have a good reason for disappearing? What if the lead dog has your old dog’s name? What if the dogs steal the monkey from the zoo to help them spring their canine friends from a kill shelter?

Eureka! You’re ready to draft your next middle grade story.

The sun breaks through the Idea Cloud. (Willamette Valley, Oregon)

Then, one of your critique group friends informs you that another middle grade writer just sold that story to HarperCollins in a five figure deal.

Whaaa…? You were just getting started!

But, hold on a sec. It’s not exactly the same. The author pulled the same two threads down from the Idea Cloud, asked the same What If questions and finished her version first but her monkey doesn’t pick locks and there’s no kill shelter. You swallow your pride. You change the location of your story from Cleveland to India, where you lived as a child. Now your story is not the same as hers, and, anyway, there’s room in a bookstore for two books on animals saving a corner of the world.

Has this ever happened to you? What did you do when you found out “your” story was already out there in the world?

If so, you may steal the dog/monkey story. I just made it up. Somebody else might’ve written it first, you never know. Google it and then write like heck to be first to finish it. Set it in India. Or Guam. There aren’t enough children’s books about Guam. Good luck!

P.S. This particular Idea Cloud idea is mine, however. But feel free to share this post with other writers like us.

Read This Book

Books I Recommend: Underland, by Robert Macfarlane

The cover of Underland is from the painting “Nether.” While it appears to be roots dangling over a cave entrance, it was meant by the painter to be the last thing you’d see after a nuclear explosion. (Stanley Donwood)

Okay, I cheated. 

As soon as I bought this 488-page book, I flipped to Chapter Five: Invisible Cities. The “cities” referred to Paris and its underground counterpart, 200 miles of quarry voids and catacombs, where cataphiles– lovers of the catacombs – secretly and illegally wander, travel and party.

I needed Robert MacFarlane’s first-hand account of his foray for a story I am drafting. Then, at the end of Chapter Five, I turned back to page one and devoured the rest of this gorgeous book. 

In Underland: A Deep Time Journey, MacFarlane provides a perspective on the world beneath our feet by traveling to eleven places on the planet where the Earth yields, shelters or hides something. In nearly all instances, he is accompanied by a friend, an expert or a guide, his own mythological Charon ferrying him to the underworld. 

The narrative is rich with references from mythology, history, literature, geology, and the world of nature. (Macfarlane also cowrote an award-winning children’s book called Lost Words, with descriptions of terms used in nature.) Throughout Underland, he explores the significance of each location while simultaneously describing his real life adventure in it . Often, his exploits contain moments of gripping fear, amazement, sadness, or ecstatic discovery. At one point under Paris, he turns his skull sideways to squeeze through an impossibly narrow passage when a Metro train roars overhead. On a remote northern archipelago in Norway, he backpacks through hail, sleet, rain, hail again, and up five sharp peaks to a sea cave high on a cliff where dwellers 2000-3000 years ago left their mark on the walls, and mysterious red dancers have been sighted.

Reading Underland was a feast on so many levels: for its exacting botanical and geological description framed in a generous, tender and literary point of view; for its eyewitness account of places with historical and planetary significance; for its radical inquiry into “deep time,” a time before history and a time when we, my friends, will be long, long gone. I will likely never experience the chilling reality of the last place he visited but I’m glad I had a Charon like Macfarlane to ferry me there – and back again.

Extra bits:

  • If I were going to read this book with a glass of wine by my side, I’d suggest this one: ShoneTal Cellars Meredith Mitchell Vineyard 2016 Pinot Noir. I know this is a really weird suggestion, but here me out: like the “deep time” theme of this book, this is one of few wines that are “own-rooted” meaning they aren’t grafted onto rootstock, like most grapevines in the US and Europe. Plus, the vineyard is located on ancient volcano soil in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. That’s what I call “deep time” wine.

On Writing

On Writing: Finding the Silver Lining in Querying

It’s tough but not impossible to find a bright spot in the submissions process. (Yosemite National Park, CA)

When I queried literary agents about my manuscript, the results were mixed but rejection came with a silver lining. It led to a choice that, in the end, will make my story stronger.

My young adult (or YA) story had followed a tortuous path: written, workshopped, revised, reimagined and rewritten all over again. Feedback from my critique group, beta readers, and a bestselling mentor strengthened character arcs and plot points. (Mentor: what happens in Act III? Me: She realizes she had it all wrong, and starts over. Mentor: No, I mean, what actually happens-happens?)

When I judged the manuscript to be submission-ready, I wrote a pitch and multiple drafts of a query letter to arrive at a boilerplate that could be personalized for each agent. 

Then came submersion in Agent Land. Goal: to create a curated list of agents seeking YA stories with my story elements. I read a few months of #MSWL on Twitter and online to discover what agents were currently seeking. Then skimmed conference notes for all the agents I’d already met and heard speak so I could mention it if I queried them. In the Bay Area, a group of YA writers get together for breakfast every other month. As we went around the circle, I asked each one about their agents, past and present. Finally, I compiled lists on Agent Query and Query Tracker online.

The list grew to 34 names. (This is shortish. I just read a tweet from an author who was rejected 40 times before signing with an agent.) I picked eight to start, rechecked their status on their agency website, noted submission instructions for each, and read their recent tweets. Then hit Send. 

Whenever I #amsubmitting, I’m jettisoned back to first grade, jostling in line with other squirmy kids, hoping Teacher notices how smart and well-behaved I am, while feeling a little out of my depth with playground etiquette and spending all my time on the swings. I mean, nobody wants a tether ball in the face.

The results of my first round of submissions were mixed: two no-responses, two form rejections, three personal responses. At this point, I had been submitting for months, distracted by life events and travel. Summer turned to fall to winter. We flew to France for the holidays. I submitted another agent from my sister-in-law’s dining room table sprinkled with tiny gold stars.

Then it happened: the agent asked for a full. Clouds parted. She wanted to see the whole manuscript. Gulp.

I uploaded the document. She followed me on Twitter. Christmas came. We drank mulled wine at the Marche de Noel and shopped for boudin blanc.  Another email: she loved the voice, but couldn’t use the story. What else did I have? I had a middle grade story that had been optioned for television but never published. It wasn’t really her genre, but I sent it.

A couple days went by. At this point, we were winding up our trip with visits to cousins.  We ate, drank, walked by the sea, visited a 17thcentury fort. Skies were grey. It rained. We played a hilarious version of French Trivial Pursuit. Became addicted to a card game called Belote. The sun finally came out. Fluffy clouds sailed across the sky. And the agent wrote again.

This time, she explained in a long letter what she liked about my writing, what elements in the story worked for her and what didn’t. She encouraged me to keep going. “You’re so close to your breakout novel!” But no, she wasn’t offering representation at this time.

Editorial letters like this are a generous gesture on the part of a professional. As Mary Kole, of https://kidlit.com, suggests in Manuscript Submission Blueprint, writers should pay attention to advice from professionals. Unless they ask for a revision, you only get one chance to interest them in a project.

Now I had a quandary: I could ignore her advice and keep submitting. Or consider it and revise. Or self-publish. Or drop the project and work on something else. Putting it aside felt like giving up, and, man, those two words are pure motivation for me to charge forward. (More on that another time.) The agent agreed to see it again after I revised. I decided to pay a professional editor to read my manuscript and recommend ways to improve the story. Even at $2.50 a page for 337 pages, the cost was 75-80% of attending a big writing conference and the results would be help me finish this project.

In the end, the process provided me with a few epiphanies, and the knowledge and connections I needed to move forward. It doesn’t take the sting out of rejection, but that’s part of the process. You’ve got to move through it to get what you want. What I want is to tell and sell a really good story.

A couple side notes: 

  • Mary Kole’s online tool Manuscript Submission Blueprintincludes Feedback Aggregator and Checklist for Regrouping worksheets. 
  • Did you know kids naturally gravitate to either swings, slide, monkey bars or sandbox, according to their nature. I picked swings. What’d you pick? Why?
On Writing

On Writing: When Company Comes to Call

When getting your work done means hiding away for an hour an day. (Oregon Gardens, 2019)

As I anticipate a full house this week, I’m wondering how to squirrel away an hour a day to write. How do I break the habit of taking care of everyone who crosses my threshold and putting my own needs on hold while they’re here? Instead of blocking out time to write, I’m usually cooking, rifling through recipes to feed a crowd, pouring coffee, picking up the house, and, wait, did I mention cooking? No wonder my grocery list includes items like GIN! and LIMES! 

Old habits die hard – and that includes the need to write. When I worked fulltime and revised a YA, I rose at 5 am to write. When we took a family vacation, I slipped out while everyone slept and used the business room in the hotel lobby. I found cafes, local libraries, kitchen tables, and front porches in the quiet of morning. I had to jump on the chance to get a character out of a tough spot, to advance a plot, to read a critique – even when there was no paycheck involved and the story may never meet an actual editor. 

Why? Likely, my company will wonder. Why does it matter? Why do I still need to be alone when company comes to call?

1 – Because it’s work, even when I don’t get paid for it.

2 – Because of “flow,” as it is called by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.  Flow is the experience, to paraphrase Csíkszentmihályi, of being so involved in creating something new in the world that you forget time, forget to eat, and sometimes (as my youngest just reminded me) even forget to pick up your child at school. I call it the Deep Space Nine of my work, allowing myself to shut out the world and go deeply into my own imagination to create something new.

3 – Because if I do not make incremental, “Deep Space Nine” progress on my chapter/plot/poem/painting, my efforts to restart everything after one week off will be like starting a freight train. My writing mentor, Veronica Rossi, called it trying to get a 747 off the ground. She is right. 

4 – And because I need to get my writing project DONE. If I want to submit to agents by November, I will want to finish the first draft of your book in time to have beta-readers read a copy, then do the inevitable changes, then write a query and a synopsis, research agents who like the kind of story I wrote, and submit it. In other words, I need to be done with my current writing project tomorrow.


The Drama of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

Breathtaking Mount St. Helens, smothered in clouds
Elle’s gorgeous close-up of vibrant Indian Paintbrush.

When friends Mark and Elle passed through McMinnville on their way to Washington, I jumped at the chance to drive north with them. I was eager to see Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument again. The 8,366-foot volcano had erupted in 1980 at the end of my first year in college and the consequences of that explosion – and others that followed – dominated the news all that summer. I’d been there on a family trip but it was too hot to hike. There was a vertiginous ridge top hike still etched in my memory and I wanted another chance to walk it.

The volcanic blast snapped trees at their base and flattened forests.

We started at Johnston Ridge Observatory and wound up the hill opposite the volcano, past telltale tree stumps, alder shrubs and steep banks of wildflowers, then struck out on the ridge line with a sheer drop to the valley floor hundreds of feet below and a yawning space between us and the quiet volcano. Elle snapped pix of indian paintbrush flowers while Mark and I watched clouds roil, gather, and thin out in places, allowing bursts of sunlight that l brightened the valley’s green pastures and darkened its crevices.

That giant’s terrifying power made itself known on May 18, 1980. Pressure had collected inside the mountain until it bulged out the side. A 5.1 earthquake nudged the bulge until it gave way, creating the biggest landslide in US history. This in turn upset volatile gasses that exploded with molten lava and rock, obliterating everything in an eight mile radius, with a power of about 24 megatons. No volcanic explosion like it had ever happened in recorded history in this country.

Surveying the scoured valley, changed forever by the explosion. We were so high above the valley that the resident elk looked like tiny dots.

Fifty-seven people were killed, including the volcanologist David A. Johnston for whom the ridge and observatory are named. Their names are carved in stone on the trail. Inside the Johnston Observatory, panels tell the stories of harrowing escapes, near death, and lost companions and loved ones. Two movies explain what happened leading up to the explosion and show footage captured by one of the intrepid survivors.

Learning about the geology of the Northwest and places like Mount St. Helens helps me understand my new surroundings better, from the mundane – like, why my backyard is full of clay, argh! – to the spectacular, like the snow-covered mountains visible from the Willamette Valley. Revisiting Mount St. Helens deepened my appreciation of the powerful forces working underfoot every moment of every day.

When was the last time you visited a National Monument? Check out this map of all the National Monuments and start planning your trip today.

On Writing, Oregon, Poetry

On Writing: Invite Your Friends Into Your Journal

I offered a pen to my friend Tommy. “I’ll draw you, you draw me. It’ll take five minutes, tops. Maybe less.”

“Okay,” he said, shaking his head. “But all I can draw is stick figures.” 

Doodling with Tommy in Amherst, MA led to discussions about music and life.
Friends had different responses to drawing. Debbie drew this intricate drawing in minutes while eating a sandwich, talking about writing and Georgia O’Keefe at the New York Botanic Garden.

For a week, I’d been driving around New England visiting old friends. It was mid-October. The curtain of green maples along the Merritt Parkway showed tinges of orange and yellow. Sometimes the sky was the inert, steely gray from my childhood. Sometimes the humidity dulled the edges of things. Everywhere the sound of crickets rose and fell.

I had traveled home to see childhood friends and places to reorient me in a way before I started a new life in Oregon. Along the way, I kept a record of these moments by drawing my friends into my journal – literally – and asking them to draw me, too.

The idea came from a lull during a birthday dinner with friends before I left on my trip. We were new to the area and the restaurant, and I suddenly missed my old life acutely. I picked up a pen and doodled on the white paper covering the tablecloth, trying to draw a likeness of the people at my table. The mental shift was immediate. You can’t feel sorry for yourself and pay attention to the shape of somebody’s nose or curve of their smile at the same time. The fresh energy put me right back into the moment and all the promise that moment held. If doodling could make one dinner so much more fun, what could it do for three and a half weeks of dinners and coffees with old friends?

Contour drawing by Deana and a picture and haiku about her, at her beautiful tree-filled bed-and-breakfast in New Hampshire

Back in Amherst with Tommy, he drew his stick figure of me and I drew his square glasses, van dyke beard and mustache, and noticed how the edge of his hat sat above worry wrinkles in his brow. Meanwhile our conversation moved from kids and baseball to his music students and his all-time favorite records and his concern about the changing music scene. Would we have gotten there without the drawings? Maybe. But it was fun to fill the journal page with notes on Kate Bush and Jethro Tull.

A few times, friends and I wrote haikus to go with our pictures, like poet John Paul Lederach who composes haikus while he walks, tapping out the 5-7-5 syllable lines on his leg. He called it haiku-tagging. His talk on On Being gave words to what I was trying to do with my drawing: “[Be] awake enough that you can hear when your haiku compass needle has stopped, and you notice where you are, who you are with, and the meaning of the moment. This will have something to do with your journey.”

My journey with drawing is far from over. A good friend is staying with us now whose picture is long overdue. I wonder where our conversation will go as we draw. Or perhaps we’ll stay quiet. No matter what, we will be stopping the compass needle, as the poet says, and grounding the moment by seeing each other a little better.

Below are more examples. Who will you draw?

After being my dogwalking/Scrabble-playing/knitting/good listener friend and neighbor for many years in California, Rochelle does all that and climbs granite mountains in New England now.
Irene and I found Maine’s best lobster roll food truck on tiny Vinylhaven Island. We ate our way through Rockland and Portland, enjoying Maine’s foodie scene, until I couldn’t taste another thing, not even the spudnut I hankered for. The above was drawn on the ferry back to Rockland.
My brother Chris and I drew each other at his kitchen table in Wisconsin. The squiggles around his eyes and nose fit with the zillion things we talked about before poring over family history on Ancestry.com.


Adventuring on the Oregon Coast

Cannon Beach seen from Ecola State Park

My friend Carol inspired me to go adventuring. For Carol, that meant trundling her husband and their lab Happy into her car, throwing sleeping bags in the trunk and taking off for – wherever! Whatever!  In this manner, she found a deserted island on a Montana lake that became a sanctuary for many weekends. This was around the same time she bought and sold a few houses, knitbombed a lamppost in Bozeman for fun, guerrilla-gardened the empty lot next door, and started a business selling Irish clothes-drying racks.  Because Carol strikes out into new territory in the spirit of adventure, she treasures what she finds – and finds some treasures that are real and metaphorical. 

Now this sounds very confidence-building, but, me, I tend to overthink things and P doesn’t love surprises, and we both need lunch at lunchtime otherwise WATCH OUT! Food is not only the domain of the French, I can assure you. 

So, in our own semi-adventurous way, we threw camping gear in the back of the car, filled six (okay, seven) water bottles, dug out the Oregon gazateer and picked a semi-specific direction [*cough* Ecola State Park, precisely], packed a decent lunch, packed snacks for the dog, and THEN took off. Woohoo! 8:59 am and we were out of the house on our adventure.

The treasures for me on that Saturday were taking a gravel cut-thru past rolling back country of acres of red clover, vineyards and tidy farms. All of this exists a few miles north of our house and I loved taking the road not traveled. A bigger find was fabulous Ecola State Park with its post-card perfect coast scenes and pristine coastal forest. The nap on a sloping field facing aforementioned awesome views was also appreciated. We hiked through the woods and studied Sitka spruce up close. Another sweet sight was two bald eagles sitting side by side on a snag over Highway 101 and the beautiful drive home along the coast.

Major takeaways: 

  • Ecola State Park is national-park gorgeous. A perfect curve of beach backed by lush green hills brushed by low clouds. Several enormous rocks on the beach looked like something out of a Japanese anime movie. They are otherworldly, looming straight up from the beach shiny with the receding tide.
  • Cannon Beach: When people told me Cannon Beach was “nice!” they meant a wide beach like SoCal, a main street like swanky Carmel, and grey shingled houses reminiscent of Nantucket and Maine, a winning combination of classy and relaxed.
  • When offered a “Viewpoint” on Hwy 101 on the Oregon Coast, pull over! They are NOT kidding about the view.
Lovely wide beach at low-tide, Cannon Beach, OR

One of the biggest treasures that day was that we didn’t need to go far. All the beauty of our day existed within a two-hour drive of home. That gives this semi-adventurous writer a lot more confidence to return.