From Idea to Novel

Lighting a candleHow does an idea become a novel?

First, you throw away the match. Then you hold the idea in your hands like a flickering flame. You protect it and you breathe life into it: research, conversations, prayer.

You put flesh on it. That is, you create characters. You make them look like real people, broken and complicated, and you make them want things.

Then you look around and see where this idea is happening.  In space? In post-apocalyptic London? In a dollhouse? You open your fist and let your idea and your characters start to run around in this new terrarium. With any luck, they will make very bad decisions.

Then you write about it. Pen and paper, laptop, 1921 Woodstock typewriter, whatever you’ve got. Start putting the words down. They’ll be bad at first, but you’ll fix them later.

After 20 drafts or maybe 220, you take off your beret and put on your marketing hat and hammer out a query letter and find an agent. If the agent likes the 220th draft, he or she will probably ask you to write the 221st, and then they take it to some editors, where your manuscript bats its eyelashes and sucks in its tummy and tries to walk the runway without falling.

If an editor is sufficiently besotted by your story’s showing-off, then the editor will give you a contract, after which, you’ll write even more drafts. Those characters that seemed so fun and clever and charming, albeit broken and complicated and wanting, might start to get on your nerves, but there was no pre-nup, and you lose it all if you divorce them now, so you stay with them and learn to love them again.

Eventually, the story goes through copyedits and formatting, and it gets a cover and a release date, and by then, you’re all starry-eyed over your sweet little idea and characters and story terrarium that you start thinking about all the evil people who might not care about them the way that you do.

But it’s too late. You’ve written a novel, and it gets to go out into the world, and your job is to light another match, keep the flame safe, and make magic. Again.

Hogwarts Yule Ball Couture

Because I am the biggest nerd you know, I found the time to create Yule Ball outfits for the different houses at Hogwarts.  Which is your favorite– is it the house you were Sorted into?  I’m a Ravenclaw, and it’s my favorite outfit below– but that’s unfair, since I’m the curator!


gryffindor yule ball

dress, Vera Wang; clutch, Toriska; headband, BeadsBroochesBridal; lion ring, King Ice; shoes, Valentino


hufflepuff yule ball

necklace, Jane Stone; badger ring, Accessorize; parasol, stncrafts; dress, David’s Bridal


Slytherin Yule Ball

dress, Fox Gown; earrings, Jane Stone; snake cuff, avicraft; snake purse, TheStarzLounge; shoes, Badgley Mischka


Ravenclaw Yule Ball

headband, E. Kammeyer; eagle necklace, Punk Fashion; shoes, Karen Millen; peacock clutch, Paulownias; dress, LaFemme


No Shortcuts

When Jeff Bell, spokesperson for the International OCD Foundation, spoke for our OCD Twin Cities event, one of the things he said that really stood out to me was that there are no shortcuts in treating OCD.

Woman and maze

That’s true, or at least it was in my case. I wanted easy answers: for deep theological conversations to solve my problems, or for comfort and reassurance from friends to be enough, for an hour-long conversation with a therapist each week to take away the anxiety, for an easy prescription to fix everything.

I definitely did not want the hard answer: exposure and response prevention therapy.

My psychiatrist didn’t mince words in his description: “It will be hell.”

It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life, but one of the most necessary and most rewarding. For me, there was no shortcut to healing, and since I was already living in OCD hell, the best way out was to keep going.

So, believe me, friends: I get it. ERP therapy is hard, so hard. You might think you won’t survive it. You might think your loved ones won’t survive your going through it. You might think it’s sinful or disgusting, and your exposures are probably going to be loathsome and repellent to you.

If you need to, go ahead and look for shortcuts. I know I had to.

But in the end, there were none for me, and I’d only wasted time looking for them.

While experiencing it, ERP was hell. But on the other side? It was my rescue.


Recent Reads

janie face to faceJanie Face to Face by Caroline B. Cooney Do you remember The Face on the Milk Carton? It was published back in 1990 and was an important book in my childhood, about a girl who saw a picture of herself on a milk carton ad about an abducted child. This book is the last of the Janie books, and I think it was mostly nostalgia and the desire for a neat conclusion that drove me to read it. The sad truth is that I didn’t find it well-written, which confused me and made me wonder if maybe Milk Carton hadn’t been as good as I’d thought. So I went back to it, and no– it still held up. But Janie Face to Face just didn’t. It covered years much too quickly, and it made Janie and Reeve seem a bit ridiculous. It was a let-down, but at least now I know what happened to everyone!

wild awakeWild Awake by Hilary T. Smith | This book was fascinating and visceral, exciting and sad and overwhelming. It’s the story of Kiri, a piano prodigy whose parents leave her at home for a month while they travel the world, and about what happens while they’re gone (hint: a lot). It was an eye-opening look at bipolar disorder, and I’ve already added Smith’s next book to be TBR list, though it doesn’t come out till May.

undividedUndivided by Neal Shusterman | Wow, okay. So, you guys know that I have been dying for this final book in the Unwind Dystology, and it did not disappoint! In fact, I have a confession to make: at one point, I was so overwhelmed with the story that I had to peek at the ending. Isn’t that just awful? I try not to do that, but Shusterman is such an intense, keep-you-on-the-edge-of-your-seat, nothing-is-too-sacred-to-keep writer that I just had to. Anyway, I was very, very pleased with the book, and I’m going to write up a whole blog post about this series, since I’m such a big fan. I highly recommend this series but have to warn you: it contains some of the most intense scenes I’ve ever read. Actually, the first book– Unwind— has a scene that might haunt me till the day I die. Worth. It.

magnoliaMagnolia by Kristi Cook | This book was billed as a “backward Romeo and Juliet“– that is, the families want the kids together, but the kids are not interested. It wasn’t really my cup of tea (or sweet tea– it’s a Southern novel!) because I didn’t think the main characters had much chemistry. (Gosh, I hate bad-mouthing books because I know how much work goes into them! I’m sure lots of other people will like this book, but it wasn’t for me.)

blue lilyBlue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater | I’ve basically been frothing at the mouth for this book, and– as one would expect from Maggie Stiefvater– it was fantastic. Her characters just kill me. They are so deep and complicated and broken and beautiful. I hope that someday I can write such intense, complex characters as Stiefvater does. To be honest, I’d not be particularly interested in the premises of her books (which tend to be about things like mythical water horses and sleeping Welsh kings), but the characters make everything more than worth it. This is the third book in a four-book series, so I’ll return to my frothing-at-the-mouth for now.

shaking the treesShaking the Trees by Azra Tabassum | Another poet I found via Tumblr. I really liked this book, though I did think that the poems suffered a tiny bit from her young age. One thing that I really loved about this collection of poems was that there was a narrative arc to the poems. You actually follow a couple through the highs and lows of their relationship as you go through the pages, which was incredibly satisfying and something I’ll be looking for in future poetry books.

And for the little readers …

book with no picturesThe Book with No Pictures by BJ Novak | This book is so much fun! It doesn’t have pictures, but the words are so fun and goofy that kids will love it anyway. I love the way that Novak is able to display the power of words alone to young readers via this book. I bought several copies already.

poem that heals fishThis is a Poem that Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeon | My friend Kathy Ellen Davis, a fantastic children’s writer herself (check out her website here!), sent me this book, and it was fun and lovely and a super adorable search for the answer to What exactly is a poem? I loved it so much and can’t wait to read it to my favorite kiddos!

What have you been reading lately?

Brave or Crazy, Maybe Both

Last winter, I began a story about a girl with trust issues whose childhood nemesis returns to the island where she lives and stirs up her life. I quickly fell in love with these characters– Maggie, a headstrong tomboy, and Penn, a young man about to burst into flames– and there was no doubt in my mind that their story would be my second novel.

After I finished my final draft of Truest, I spent October diving into research for my story, even booking a trip out to Seattle and to Friday Harbor to do on-site exploration.

I also started to experience complete mental/emotional breakdowns. I had two in the course of about eight days, and then I started to buckle down and get serious. November arrived, and I promised to treat my writer-soul with kindness for the month and to write for an hour a day.

And then I woke up one Saturday morning, and I lay in my bed thinking, I’m not excited to spend time with these characters right now. I need to write a different story.

I got up, emailed my editor about it, a desperate cry of “I’m scared of my current WIP, but I’m scared of my other idea too. What do you think I should do?” and as soon as I clicked send, I thought, I hope she tells me to start over with my next idea.

Well, I thought. There’s your answer.

So, to shorten this already long story, I’ve started over. I’ve set Penn and Maggie, their island in the Puget Sound, and hours upon hours of research, and 65k words on the backburner, cancelled my trip to the Pacific Northwest, and have launched enthusiastically into a new story which takes place in northeast Minneapolis. I’d like to introduce you to Rowen and Asa, two Twin Cities natives looking for love, freedom, and themselves. They’re brilliant and fun and just as eager for spring as I am.

You can read a little more about my next novel here (and if you wanted to leave an encouraging comment, that would be especially useful to this tired and frazzled author).

Come on, it’s not hard to imagine that magic happens daily in a place like this:

Stone Arch Bridge, Minneapolis Minnesota