How Much of Your Book is True?: THE MISSING SEASON

‘You can feel him.’ I’m still looking, spotting the fallen tree, the reeds broken and crushed into a hollow around it, where there could be anything, any hidden thing. ‘Go ahead, close ’em. He’s just standing there.’

I shut my eyes. Kincaid sounds hushed, close to my ear, words running together like they do when he’s excited. ‘You can make out his head right there, under those branches, and his shoulders . . . Jesus, he’s huge. It’s like he’s ready to charge us, but he’s not moving.’ A pause. ‘That long, scraggly stuff like moss, or willow leaves? That’s his hair. See it?'” -pg. 92

Recollecting THE MISSING SEASON is like opening a creaking closet door to a single bare bulb circled by moths . . . like straining to see a maybe-human shape through charcoal dusk . . . like remembering the surreal natural exhilaration of first lust, first touch, first time you catch a glimpse of something beyond childhood, some overwhelming sense of what’s to come.

My memories of writing THE MISSING SEASON are as hazy and distorted as an evening spent in the fictional Mumbler’s Marsh of the book. Looking back, I think I experienced a crash of sorts after the insane changes my family and I had gone through over the previous two years, including the incredibly good fortune of signing two book contracts with HarperCollins, moving house while pregnant and toting a two-year-old, the fear and numbing disbelief of having a baby–to whom the book is dedicated–with health problems immediately after birth (he’s a completely healthy, robust, hilarious four-year-old now, so not to worry), and finally buying our first home of our own while feeling that I had to get through it all without screwing up this chance I’d been given to earn us a better life than we’d known pre-publication. My terror of failure was all-encompassing.

Maybe you’ve been through something similar in your life. I would say living through this pandemic definitely qualifies. I think since we have no choice but to soldier through these times, especially when we have children and significant others and mortgages relying on us, the emotional impact can be delayed, pushed aside until the room is quiet and the word document is in front of you and you suddenly wonder if you can write this story you pitched months ago when your life felt so incredibly different than it does right now. At lot of the running down dark, wooded, mazelike paths and the inability to see clearly through half-light in this story is a direct result of my emotional state at the time I sat down to write the book in earnest.

If nothing else, I hope all this turmoil added to the strange, cockeyed humor I intended for the book; TMS is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, an homage to horror movie tropes and high school drudgery and the general near-hysterical sense of boredom one feels in their teen years, when your body is ready to explode with energy and hormones, yet your average day is so rigidly blocked with classes and hot lunch and sports practice that sometimes you truly feel on the brink of doing something desperate, maybe even shocking. Talk about the banality of evil.

Sometimes I wonder if we wouldn’t all be better off joining the Peace Corps or Greenpeace or something, harnessing that youthful energy to travel, broaden our horizons, make real change in the world and skip the whole high school experience entirely. I know there are teens out there who do buck convention, and my hat is off to them. I honestly think I would’ve been too scared to do much other than what I did–tow the line. Which is a large piece of what this book is about: finding the strange, the dangerous, the beautiful in our everyday, even if we have to invent it. It’s a salute to urban legends, to graffiti art, to allowing yourself to fall under the spell of a season where jack-o’-lanterns leer from doorsteps and the night holds the rare power to transform, to mystify, to make us daring if only for a brief time.

The release of this book also taught me some valuable lessons about the growth of a writing career. THE LIES THEY TELL was a big book for me–it still outsells all my other titles, and the entire experience left me feeling like I could only go up from there. But few writer’s careers actually have a purely vertical trajectory, gaining more accolades, more sales with each release. I now think of it more like the growth of a child: a baby and toddler’s development wanders all over the map, seeming so-o-o-o close to crawling one week, then drifting away from that to work on a new tooth we didn’t even know they were getting in the next. It can seem like a loss of focus, direction. Then, one day, our baby is five years old, with all major faculties in place, and you realize that they developed exactly how they needed to, and not all who wander are lost. The journey of both a book and a writer are like that. Sometimes keeping the faith that you’ll eventually end up where you need to be can be the toughest challenge of all.

I hope you’ll read on for few words on the true-life tidbits from the book (I feel like the writerly goals I set for myself while drafting are so entwined with the real stuff that a separate section isn’t really needed this time around. Plus I’m writing this while my older boys are wrestling each other off the couch and my baby is teething on the remote; time is so very short):


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Where It Came From:

High School Malaise: TMS is the most high school-centric of all my YA books–as I’ve mentioned in the past, I didn’t like school, so my teen stories have all taken place during summer vacation (except for the manuscript I finished in December, which involves a tiny, alternative schoolhouse) in order to avoid feeling like I was trapped back in that grind again myself–but since this tale was happening during the Halloween season, I needed to portray the protagonist, new kid in town Clara, slogging through her classes in order to burst out into the cool, crisp air of freedom at two-fifteen so she can run to the skate park with her friends and explore the reputedly cursed woods and salt marsh beyond.

I’m not blaming anyone else for the fact that school was not for me. I like learning. It’s pretty simple: I’m a person who enjoys making her own routine. I absolutely hate a repetitive schedule, and I always felt that’s what traditional public schooling is all about–learning how to follow the rules there day after day without getting yourself into trouble, whereas the rest of your life will bear very little resemblance to this model. Even a basic cashiering job requires some independence of thought and ability to roll with the punches (I’ve worked many of these jobs, so I feel qualified to make that statement). I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just want to bake chocolate chip cookies or look out the window at an interesting bird or maybe even go for a walk because it’s beautiful and life is short (this was before kids/mothering responsibilities, of course, which is a whole ‘nother ball of wax) without anyone reaming me for not waiting for a designated break time to do so. I’m self-disciplined for the most part, so setting myself deadlines and expectations to get things done isn’t really a problem. Being my own boss is ideal. Hence, school and I never mixed. No ill will meant towards anyone.

That said, there was a lot of death in our high school. A LOT. Like, completely disproportionate to the size of the school population, which was around two-hundred-and-fifty kids, middle school included. Everybody knew everybody to some extent. On average I’d say we lost one-to-two kids a year from my seventh grade year through graduation. Mostly car crashes, but also cancer and suicide. That changes you, even if you’re lucky enough for tragedy not to strike members of your own family, like I was. It casts long shadows over even the most purely fun time, teaches you to fear an unexpected phone call, a sudden homeroom teacher announcement. It just does.

In a way, having to revisit my school days was a good thing for TMS. I was forced to mine my own admittedly foggy memories of school (ahem, I’m old), remember the routines, the way patterned classroom floor tiles can hypnotize, how study hall feels when the heat is cranked, rain is pattering the windows, and you can barely keep your eyes open; the smell of pencil shavings and reams of paper and asbestos ceilings (again: old) in the small Maine school I graduated from. Rancid hot lunch and pointless cruelty and backbiting cliques aren’t so bad viewed through a warped lens, and the good, exhilarating times with friends and crushes look even better, so little distortions helped make the process more fun for me as a writer: giving teachers bizarre surnames, creating a cadaver-like Vincent Price-style principal, and following sidewinding sidewalks through the residential areas of a former mill town whispering with autumn leaves and the ghostly footsteps of generations of trick-or-treaters who walked them before.

I ended up mashing together the towns of Searsport and Winterport to get the general backdrop I was looking for, including the Winterport housing development I spent a lot of time in with friends, as well as the Frankfort salt marsh, but the overall appearance I wanted for my fictional town of Pender was a general area I’ve written about before, and also the town I most associate with trick-or-treating as a kid: Bucksport.

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Aerial view of Bucksport, Maine. Photo credit:
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Sunset Over a Salt Marsh with Cord Grass by Raymond Gehman. Photo credit: Imagine a string of sprinting, grab-assing goblin-like silhouettes marching through the above salt marsh at sunset pic, and you’ll have the general lingering image I want to leave the reader with after they finish THE MISSING SEASON.

Urban Legends and Graffiti: I’ve always loved spooky stories–I don’t even know how many times I reread the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series by Alvin Schwartz growing up–but I particularly enjoy a good urban or small town legend, told again and again and embellished from one generation to the next. I have a vivid memory from high school of going over to a friend’s house, along with a guy friend of ours who she had a crush on. After dark, the three of us went outside to jump from hay bale to hay bale in her field (in the moment, you never think you’ll look back at your teen years as simpler times, but in some ways. . .wow), then later told ghost stories in the ancient barn, which is where I heard the Jersey Devil stories for the first time. It fascinates me how urban legends like these are rites of passage, how they change over time yet manage to remain essentially the same.

Also, there are huge rocky embankments in Prospect, just down Rt. 1 from my parents’ house, which have been used as a canvas for young people’s graffiti since long before my time. Profanity, declarations of love 4EVA, initials, pot leaves. Whenever we’d drive past, I ‘d always look for new additions, and there often were–imagining the intrepid artist sneaking out under the cover of darkness, can of spray paint in hand, hiding from the headlights of passing cars. The ultimate guerilla art. Hence the rocks of Mumbler’s Marsh in the book. I love the idea of a timeless form of youthful expression, the same universal messages of love, lust, hate, or pure, simple absurdity. Basically, the teenage lifeforce.

Thank you for reading, friends. I hope you’re keeping well, trying to do those small, silly things which give us joy and are so vital to keeping our sanity. Some of mine are consuming caffeine and chocolate along with UK crime dramas or grainy soap operas from my childhood on YouTube. Make no apologies for yours; there are no guilty pleasures. Wishing you all the best.

Purchase links for the print and eBook versions of THE MISSING SEASON: BookshopIndieboundAmazonBarnes & Noble

As always, if you’ve read the book and liked it, I would so appreciate it if you left a review on Amazon or Goodreads! They really help a book find new readers; just a sentence or two means a lot.

And this is pretty much the perfect song to pair with the book:

How Much of Your Book is True?: THE LIES THEY TELL – Plus Bonus Chapter!

“Tristan’s fair skin bore the touch of late July sunshine, but he’d grown thin since winter, still leanly muscled from the racquetball court and hours on the treadmill. Pearl knew the raised veins on his forearms, the faint frown line between his brows that hadn’t smoothed even with the arrival of his wingmen. She studied him whenever he came into the dining room, gripped by the physical and emotional recoil she–and most everyone else–felt in his presence. Alone. He was so alone, even in a room full of people, and maybe in that they shared some kinship.” –pg. 10

Oh, how I love the world of THE LIES THEY TELL.

My favorite of the books I’ve written is actually the one I just finished in December, which I hope to be able to share with you all someday soon; I feel like I reached a new level with that one, and I’m proud of it. But as my published books go, THE LIES THEY TELL takes the cake.

Make that a five-tiered slice of elegance covered in ivory fondant, piping, and sugar flowers, with some deliciously dark filling which demands to be scraped off the plate with the edge of your fork after the final bite (okay, let’s all take a cake break right now and reconvene.) Because atmosphere, beauty, and a devilish peek at my imagined world of the wealthy was what this book was all about for me. And my favorite character EVER; him, too.

At the time, this story also felt like a leap forward for me as a writer. It was my strongest, most confident writing to date, the first book I’d written as a legit-feeling author with other books out in the world. Now I knew for certain that being a professional writer WAS all it was cracked up to be, and I definitely wanted to do this for the rest of my life. What I was contending with this time was the concern of somehow not meeting my deadline or not fulfilling publisher’s expectations in one way or another. GRIT’s sales were small, but its critical reception was a pleasant one, including an Edgar nod, which I will never stop thanking the MWA for, so I felt I had to come out strong and prove I could do marketability as well. But even during my darkest nights of the soul with this book, I always felt certain there was a nugget of something special, and now I think it was worth every second of time poured into it when not waddling around in the final trimester of pregnancy with my second son. I submitted the completed manuscript two weeks early, and the little guy was born one week later. It seemed like the biggest Pete Rose-style face-first flop-slide into home ever.

As it turns out, my idea of a fun, soapy YA page-turner differs from that of–well, many–but I gave it my best shot while simultaneously satisfying my need to stretch my creative muscles by trying a different tone from that of my last book. TLTT did reach father than any of my other books have so far; it had the tremendous luck to be chosen by Target stores as part of an EpicReads deal with the chain, which made it much more visible for a limited time. I also had the fun task of writing a bonus chapter to be included in that edition, a scene retold from the POV of one of the summer boys protagonist Pearl contends with (incidentally, SUMMER BOYS was also the working title of the book). Since the Target edition is now out of print, I’m including an early draft of the bonus material at the end of this post, if you’d like to read it! **There are some spoilers in the chapter, mostly background to a past event which happens off-camera in the book, so if you haven’t read TLTT yet, you may want to wait and come back to read the extra stuff later. I’ll leave this post up for the foreseeable future.

This is also the only book I’ve written which sold overseas; editions were published in Australia/New Zealand and, last year, Russia. You can see the beautiful–and very different–cover designs over in the TLTT section of my Books page.

I’d love it if you read on for the various inspirations for the story and writerly goals :


Where it came from: There were three major inspired-by-my-own-experiences aspects I was excited to explore in this story:

  1. Locals vs. People from Away/ Club Staff vs. Members: Living in Vacationland is a very different experience from most states. I wanted to tackle the dichotomy of the coastal Maine population: wealthy out-of-staters who own most of the oceanfront property and often are only here for a few weeks out of the year, and the locals, natives, townies, call us what you will, who stick out the long winters, have been poor for generations, and often work as housekeepers, caretakers, landscapers, or food service/retail workers for this seasonal or retired upper-class. I have feelings on this subject which I won’t blabber on about here at length; all you need know is that my family went through a hard time which had a lot to do with this imbalance in a certain summer community–there were good ol’ salt-of-the-earth Mainers involved, too, so believe me, I’m not demonizing any one group–and I used elements/emotions from that experience to build the foundation of Pearl and her dad’s difficult situation. In fact, some of the insensitive things people say to Pearl and Tristan in the book are direct quotes from the time following our family’s financial collapse/emotional crisis, which we only pulled out of when my first book deal went through. It really did completely change our lives for the better. So, to me, it seemed only appropriate to include those words of “wisdom”–making HUGE air quotes here–in a story largely about how cruel people can be to each other, as well as how empathy and understanding can be found in the most unexpected places.
  2. Beauty of Acadia: Mount Desert Island, Bar Harbor, and Acadia National Park truly are like no place on Earth; people come from all the planet to experience it every year. Growing up, my family used to take day trips to Bar Harbor and Sand Beach once or twice a year, and this book seemed like a great opportunity to use that stunning natural backdrop I’ve always loved to set the tone of the cinematic, wide-lens sort of novel I was envisioning. Here are a couple pics of areas which inspired scenes from the book:
Bear Island Lighthouse
View from inside Anemone Sea Cave, photo credit
Downtown Bar Harbor, photo credit

As for the fictional Tenney’s Harbor Country Club, I’ve never been inside one before, so I did a lot of researching on various swanky New England country club websites, allowing me to add some touches of realism while still tailoring the building itself and what it offered to my own needs as the storyteller.

3. Girl vs. Boys Club:

Growing up, and in my early 20’s, I had mostly male friends, only a couple close female friends. Being the sole girl–or one of a select few–trusted (allowed?) to hang out with all boys is a strange state of being, but one I found myself gravitating to again and again. I didn’t make one single female friend in college–none, which is bizarre and embarrassing to me now, but that’s how it played out. I felt like girls were judging me and inevitably wouldn’t like me, whereas I could be myself in a group of guys. My slobby, casual, dorky self. Perhaps I felt safer because I knew that I didn’t generally have the looks or personality most guys are searching for in a girlfriend or hookup, so I became something of an accepted appendage to the group, and I was okay with that. I thought their inclusion must mean that I wasn’t a weak, spleeny “girlie-girl”, which was very important to me at the time, part of my identity. Ironically, I did meet my husband this way; he became the new roommate of one of these college friends, and the rest is French family history.

It also gave me some insight into how most guy groups work, i.e. alpha, omega, the goat, etc. Now, let me say that all of these boys I was friends with were very nice, fun people, who went on to raise lovely families of their own. None of them were inherently evil or calculating or shredding people lives for kicks. NONE of them were inspirations for Tristan, Akil, or Bridges, the three wealthy boys which make up the group of friends protag Pearl needs to infiltrate in order to solve a multiple murder and clear her dad’s name. But it was a blast exploring the psychology of a wolfpack from a darker slant, to blend that dynamic of crossing gender lines with crossing class lines as well.

Writerly goals **SPOILERS AHEAD**:

I think all writers know the feeling: when your creative brain is SO ready to shake off the dust of your last book and go somewhere that feels fresh and different. That’s where I was when I started this book, but later, it gave me the worst writing hangover I’ve ever had, before or since. I could not let go of the characters; I wanted back into their world, their struggles, but it was over. The looking glass wouldn’t let me back through, and I had no choice but to move on.

Tone: I try to follow my gut when it comes to how to approach a POV and a tone, even if the choices aren’t popular in the YA world. TLTT felt like it had to be told in third person, past tense; I was looking for chilly detachment to contrast with moments of intense, magnetic passion and stunning, elegant scenery. I wanted the whole atmosphere to hum with low-level, constantly building dread. The aloof narrative voice was the main tool I used to try to build this, often describing scenery before launching into dialogue, ending chapters with what I hoped were disquieting final images.

Characters: Sigh. Tristan Garrison. How I miss him. He is my favorite character which I’ve ever had the enjoyable challenge to write, despicable as he is.

Tristan’s a sociopath, or at least one the verge of being a full-fledged one, yet he’s fascinated by the rest of us and our fragile emotions and fears. He enjoys picking us apart to see how our insides work, manipulating the people in his life like chess pieces, deliberately placing them in harms way simply to watch what happens. He’s twisted, but also strangely vulnerable, because of that tiny little part of him that’s also terrified of being alone. That’s why he’s driven to control cliques, constantly demanding his followers to prove their loyalty while forcing them to comprise their ethics until they’re as morally bankrupt as he is.

It was difficult to do this while still making him understandably appealing to Pearl, to build that mutual attraction. I wanted so badly to get his every word exactly right. Think of Robin Hood shooting an arrow in a tree, then trying to pierce it with another arrow? Like that. This required lots of editing while writing the first draft, something I would normally tell people to leave until the second or third draft, just get the bones down. But I couldn’t live with myself if what I wrote in the previous section didn’t feel true–if I glanced back and saw some Tristan dialogue which seemed too emo or gregarious. I whittled and shaped and scrutinized. Readers are free to judge how good a job I did, but I can say I tried my hardest to bring him to life.

Pearl, meanwhile is an earnest, devoted, determined person who nonetheless gets into codependent relationships with the men in her life, beginning with her bond with her alcoholic father. I was intrigued by the notion of writing a girl on such a path who finds herself sucked into a romantic entanglement with a dangerous sociopath and must face a choice: finally put her life and safety first, or risk losing everything. She and Tristan are also two halves of the same coin, light and dark–that’s why I gave her heterochromia–with Tristan subtly working to pull her down to his level, own her, and ultimately destroy her, because even though I think he does genuinely care for her on some level, it’s the only way he knows how to interact with anyone. For me, the results were intoxicating to write; how I hope it strikes most readers the same way.

This relationship struggle is the heart of the book, and the reason it’s not a whodunnit but a whydunnit. I’ve had people complain to me about the ending over the years, but I hope this breakdown of my goals and interests when telling the story helps explain why I made the decisions I did. It’s about the characters, not shark-jumping twists and turns.

Now, as promised, the bonus chapter! I thought pasting it below would be the easiest way to give everyone access to the text, so you can find it under the purchase links and recommended listening. I don’t think this is the final proofread version, but it was the only one I had saved on my cloud, so there may be typos/small differences from the original published chapter. Apologies!

Here’s hoping you’re all safe, warm, well-loved, and well-fed!

Purchase links to the print, eBook, and audiobook versions of THE LIES THEY TELL (it’s read by Caitlin Davies, the same actress who read the GRIT audiobook; she’s so incredibly skilled) : IndieboundBarnes & NobleAmazon

Read the book and enjoyed it? Please consider leaving an online review; they REALLY do make a difference, and I hugely appreciate it!

Some songs which I think fit well within the themes/overall feeling of TLTT:

View the autosave

THE LIES THEY TELL Bonus Chapter –

Bridges at the Centennial Ball

They were still dancing. As “Misty” faded into “My Funny Valentine,” Tristan’s hands were still on her, leading, owning, out on the floor where everybody could see. Tristan’s goddamn hands. One touch, it was his, didn’t matter what. A car. A trophy. A girl. Bridge’s girl.

“I brought her.” Bridges hadn’t planned on saying it aloud, but Akil glanced over, brows raised. Bridges cleared his throat and sat back, flicking away the swizzle stick he’d been toying with as he watched Pearl out there, looking smaller than usual so close to Tristan, who had a few inches on almost everybody, except maybe that beast Quinn was hanging off tonight.  “I mean, she came with me, right? I just think it’s bullshit.”

 “Hey, you don’t like it, get out there and do something.” Akil regarded him, waiting, neither of them surprised when Bridges stayed put. “You know how he is, man.” A beat. “You know.”

 Yeah. Bridges knew. That townie girl, Indigo, was here tonight, waiting tables, in case he tried to forget for two seconds. Bridges cursed, forcing a smile as he ran a hand through his hair. “Whatever. It’s just dancing.” Why’d Pearl have to wear that dress. Showing way more skin than she ever did, probably not wearing a bra. Tristan never even would’ve seen her if she didn’t look so damn pretty tonight.

Akil’s attention had drifted over to Hadley, who was sitting at Quinn’s table again, and Bridges said, lower, “You going to hit that tonight?”

 “How much you want to put down?”

 Bridges laughed. “Dick.” Akil kept looking. “Okay. Fifty.”

 “Don’t waste my time.”

“Hey. I’ve been there, remember? I’m not giving my money away.” Akil laughed, flipping him off. If Bridges said something like that to one of his friends back home, they’d probably knock him on his ass. Summer was different. These guys were different.

“Okay, asshole. C-note I can get her to do something she wouldn’t do for you.”

“Now you’re making it interesting.” Sick of himself, the whole thing, as they shook on it, pretty sure Akil felt the same way, despite his talk. Hadley looked about nine years old tonight, that flower in her hair. He didn’t get why she was hooking up with Akil, but he knew Akil’s angle. Same as his. Erasing Cassidy. Like they ever could.

Akil stood, straightening his jacket, the lapel still damp from Hadley’s attempt at stain removal, smoothed his thumb and forefinger across the brim of his hat. “No girl can resist all this.”

“Keep telling yourself that.” Bridges watched him go. Then back to Pearl and Tristan. Tristan was talking to her, an actual conversation. He hardly talked to anybody. Resentment was a single drop of acid, boring through him layer by layer, until Bridges couldn’t stand the sight of her hand caught inside Tristan’s, her face tilted up at him, until he had to get out.

He went through the patio doors into the balmy night, almost no change in temperature from inside to out, joining the other solitary types or couples in need of air. He leaned against the railing, squeezing his hands together, eyes shut. There was so much shit he could say, things he could tell her about Tristan—but almost all of it would lead back to him, Bridges, either being a part of it, or at least standing by, doing nothing. That party last summer, at the Garrison’s. How beautiful Cassidy had looked, drunk but not sloppy, spinning in the parlor, highball glass in her hand. They’d rolled up the big oriental rug because the girls wanted to dance. Princesses downstairs, trash upstairs, right. Right.

He’d been deliberately keeping his back to the glass doors with the view of the ballroom, but he made himself turn, now, seeking out Indigo, the girl with all the hair, who everybody said literally lived in a trailer, like the worst cliché. So hot, though, and so many guys had texted Bridges that day, making sure she’d gotten an invite. He’d watched her mop the kitchen floor at Gramps’s place before; he’d watched her do shots in Tristan’s parents’ bedroom that night, did a couple himself while Hadley thought he in the bathroom or making a call or whatever. Four other guys in there drinking, with Tristan overseeing the whole thing, watching her lose control. Somehow, Tristan had known she was the kind of girl who’d have to prove she could keep up with them, shot-for-shot, just like he’d calculated Xavier Langstrom’s response when she started leaning on him more than kissing, going under, graying out. Tristan knew Xav was the kind of guy who would still get her on the bed. Those other guys, too. Tristan knew.

Now, Bridges watched Indigo collecting empty champagne flutes from tables, hair sliding over her shoulder, then turned away, staring at the dark expanse of lawn. He’d left the room that night, as soon as things start getting weird, but later, downstairs, even in the craziness, he’d noticed Tristan, speaking close to certain guys’ ears. And some of them went upstairs after. Not all, but some. Then, around eleven or so, the video had popped up on Bridges’s phone. Sent by Tristan. No message, because it didn’t need to said: this was the price she paid for thinking she belonged here. That there was any other reason she’d be allowed through the door of the Garrison house.

“Hey.” A touch on his shoulder, bringing him back. Pearl stood behind him.

“Where’s Tristan?”

She shrugged slightly. “I don’t know. Inside somewhere.” She didn’t seem defensive, like somebody caught flirting—but she wasn’t acting quite normal, either, kind of distracted, and again Bridges wondered what the hell Tristan had found to say to her, why he would lower himself. Bridges liked that not everybody got what he saw in her—that she wasn’t beautiful, and her eyes were strange, what some people—Akil—called creepy. Made Pearl more . . . his, somehow. Like his project. Dating a girl people most guys would give their left nut for was all stress, worry. Especially when she was technically with somebody else. A flash of Cassidy, her face, the way she’d looked lying on the beach of Little Nicatou, hair spread out on the sand. I’ve liked you forever. Smiling up at him.      

“You okay?” Pearl said briskly, how she said almost everything. Obviously, she wasn’t going to make it up to him, kiss his ass after letting his buddy steal their dance.

“Yeah. Fine.”

“O-kay. Well . . . .” She glanced at the couple near them, heads close together, trying to steal a second of privacy. “Want to go back in?”

“Yeah.” And took her arm. That’s what he liked most about her. She didn’t make it easy to be him, if that made any sense. To do the routine. And that was a good thing.


How Much of Your Book is True?: THE DOOR TO JANUARY

Together again–and I’m so glad to see your shining face! Thanks for joining me for another exploration into where book ideas come from. And I can tell you, I’ve really been looking forward to this one.

Snuggle in, light a crackling fire or stream one on your device, because I’ve got some spooky personal anecdotes in store. However, when talking about my only published paranormal novel to date, THE DOOR TO JANUARY, I don’t so much enjoy recalling the writing process from page one to final draft because it was soul-crushingly lo-o-o-ng. So long. This one wins the prize for most frustrated tears shed, most lost sleep, most close calls with dumping the document into the laptop recycling bin, just hoping to banish it from my imagination forever. Because in a way, I was writing this story on and off for nearly two decades.

I wrote the rough draft when I was a sophomore in high school, the third completed book I’d produced at that point, and it was an embarrassing, amateur mess. The repeatedly revised fully-edited novel was published by Islandport Press when I was thirty-three. Talk about a marathon. I wrote lots of other books in between versions of TDTJ (working title WINTER PASSAGE), but I kept returning to the basic concept of a creepy abandoned farmhouse on a hill summoning a girl to help right past wrongs by way of ghostly intervention, convinced I could work out the kinks and finally write something grabby enough to get me an agent, a book deal, and a career. I suppose it says something about the spirit of the book that I couldn’t shake free from it; maybe it demanded to be written, and it needed to come from me. At least, that helps me come to terms with the time I invested, which seems crazy to me now, given that the rest of my books have taken around ten months to finish.

Part of the reason it took so long was because I simply wasn’t good enough yet to tell the tale effectively, and wouldn’t be for a long time. Some authors seem to burst into existence fully-formed, a “big bang”-style insta-novelist; they write two books and the second one gets published, viola. They’re in. The rest of us churn and churn, cringing against the maddening, helpless knowledge that we aren’t getting there–no matter how many chapters we rewrite, the captivating soul of the story we envisioned floats just out of our reach, like trying to pull down handfuls of fog. Growing pains, essentially. So we start a new idea. And each time we get a little closer.

TDTJ did receive the most partial and full manuscript requests from agents I’d ever gotten while querying, but in the end, none of them took me on. I started querying the few remaining publishers out there who still look at unsolicited manuscripts, and finally, thank goodness, Maine-based publisher Islandport Press made an offer. About three months later, the manuscript I’d spent the past nine months on caught the interest of my agent, and suddenly, it was happening. What I’d worked so long for. Two books coming out in one year! I spent the coming months afraid I would wake up from the dream, breathless; the whole thing felt that surreal and impossible. Now, compared to NYT-bestseller-anticipated debut authors whose publishers place billboards in Times Square advertising their upcoming book (this really happens, I was stunned to discover) I was small potatoes and still am, but trust me, nothing could’ve darkened those clouds I was walking on.

What followed was an insane but exciting period of five months or so where I was working with two editors simultaneously to edit two books as well as writing the second book to fulfill my two-book deal with HarperTeen, all while stumbling through the nauseated, surreal haze–though precious, so incredibly precious–of the first two trimesters of pregnancy with my middle son AND getting ready to move out of our tiny apartment to someplace which could accommodate our growing family, sooo you can understand why my memory of that time isn’t very clear. I made some stupid missteps, but did eventually reach the other side, a bit more knowledgeable, if not necessarily wiser.

In my experience, this is the nature of the debut year. Please go easy on first-time authors. It’s a strange, strange thing adjusting from being someone whose more recent jobs included stocking grocery store shelves and having customers yell at them when there’s nothing but oven-ready lasagna noodles left the day before Thanksgiving (wish I was making this up) to being reviewed by Kirkus and receiving invites to speak to high school English classes. Suddenly, people seem to respect you. They think you KNOW THINGS. You’re desperate to make everyone like you in a way you never have been before, and scared to death of letting anyone down. But you will. It’s the human side of your public face. The best I can promise is that new writers will eventually reach a more comfortable balance–usually after some negative reviews and failures in the publishing realm–where you realize the world will keep right on turning even if you’re late to a speaking event or take too long responding to someone’s DM. What really matters is family–I hope the pandemic has taught us this, too. Tangible things happening right now, like the silken feel of your kid’s hair beneath your hand when you pull them in for a kiss. That matters.

But I promised spookiness! And as much fun as remembering Lasagna Lady is, let’s move along to the spooky personal anecdote part of our program. Since TDTJ is a haunted house story, I thought I’d tell you guys about two memories which contributed to the finished book in subtle ways, mostly in creep factor, atmosphere building. I hope you’ll read on, my friends!


Where it Came From: So, in either late elementary school or early middle school (the mists of time have obscured some details of that particular day) my best friend at the time and I did a stupid thing: we explored a condemned house.

Now, as a parent, I think my head would probably explode if I found out one of my sons did something like this, but at the time, all that seemed to matter was that the house was right down the road from where she lived, and we were curious. It didn’t strike us as particularly foolhardy, and one of her older sisters came with us, so therefore it was no big deal, right? I don’t agree with the “kids/teens think they’re invincible” belief; I think you just don’t have the life experience to see how much you stand to lose by not surviving to, say, voting age, so you aren’t as naturally cautious. You’re just bobbing along, following whatever current your parents drop you into every day, waiting for life to really start.

Please understand that the road in question was a fateful one in my childhood. The little league field was on it, the skating pond, a big gravel pit which offered hours of fun sliding down the sides (and sometimes a dog corpse or two), and a couple notorious families with whom my friend’s parents were often having neighbor drama. Sheds were broken into, mailbox baseball was played (think Kiefer Sutherland in Stand By Me.) Some of the MEANEST older boys in our tiny rural school system lived on this road (seriously, looking back–um, budding psychopaths, by any chance? Holy . . . .) but for some reason my friends and I were so determined to prove we weren’t scared and couldn’t be pushed around just because we wore our hair in pigtails and rode bikes with plastic flowers stuck to the baskets. Also, a friend and classmate died in an accident on this road in fourth grade, a girl full of humor and vibrancy–one of those special people, you know?–who never should’ve been cheated out of the chance to grow up. This is what I mean when I say kids don’t think they’re invincible. We know death is real. The First Death teaches us that; as in, “After the first death, there is no other,” courtesy Dylan Thomas. The stunning impact felt the first time someone in your life dies who isn’t old, isn’t sick. Who had everything to live for. I still think of this particular friend all the time, more than anyone might guess. It would be a sin to forget.

Maybe this coming-of-age confrontation of mortality and a girl’s need to prove her fearlessness is why we went in the house. Maybe we were simply bored. It had sat abandoned for who knows how long, two-and-a-half stories, peeling white paint; I have no idea who once lived there or when they left. It was definitely officially condemned, the sign stuck right to the clapboards.

I remember shadows, stained walls, bits of dusty household detritus on every surface. There was a hole in the kitchen floor–we should’ve turned right around and left then, of course, but instead we merely stopped at the threshold of that particular room–the underside covered in chicken wire. I can’t imagine having a chicken run underneath your house, so perhaps the former owner put it there so no one would fall through? Anyway, the effect was cage-like and unsettling.

We went up the stairs, and here’s the most inexplicable thing I remember from exploring the house: the large, open attic was completely littered with purses, thrown all over the place. Heavy, fake leather, old lady purses like you can find by the dozen in secondhand stores, and these purses were all stuffed to the brim with some sort of ticket stubs. Blue and red ones. For life of me, I can’t remember what they said on them, other than there was handwriting with names and addresses; I was too young to know what they were, and as a result, still don’t. Why in the world would anyone have that in their attic? Some sort of small town scam? Hoarding? I just don’t know.

On our way down the stairs, my friend’s big sister blithely pointed to something over to our left–this is totally the kind of thing she would do, and also makes me think she must’ve been in the house before–and we looked over to see a rack of bones leaned up against the wall. It was a big buck’s spine and rib cage, stained brown with decay, most likely hidden by a poacher after they’d taken the parts they wanted, I suppose, since I can’t imagine scavenging animals dragging it inside a house, abandoned or otherwise. That was it–my friend and I both shrieked and bolted from the house, racing back down the road to her house, half laughing, half screaming, with that tireless wild energy of childhood.

Where it Came From – Part 2: I’ve only encountered a ghost once. I’m what you might call a hopeful skeptic; I’d like to believe, but I work pretty hard to find a rational explanation for things. There is one uncanny happening from my teen years which I can’t explain away, can’t rationalize, and even now, the memory holds a disturbing resonance, as if I could step back into it and find my place–paralyzed, listening–in that moment, as if crystallized in amber.

I was watching TV with my dad; it was night, and at that time my parents were using a room toward the back of their small 1700’s Cape as the living room, where there’s no view of the main entrances or kitchen.

We heard the distinct sound of the sunporch door–at the front of the house–opening. I knew it the way you know every creak and groan of a house you’ve lived in since you were two: the rattle of the old knob, the wheeze of the weather-stripping as the door glides inward. What followed were unmistakably a big man’s heavy booted footsteps walking through the kitchen into the downstairs room which had been converted into my brother’s bedroom. It took me a second to react, assuming it was my brother coming home from a friend’s house, a sound I was used to–until I remembered that he was away at college and had been for some time.

My dad and I exchanged a look; we had both heard the same thing, it wasn’t even necessary to speak. Dad went out to see who had let themselves into our house without so much as a knock, but there was no one. Not one single sign anyone had come through or that the door had even opened. And our dog, who generally leaped to her feet at the slightest sound of any visitor, was fast asleep and never stirred.

I tell you, it was SO odd. I can’t explain it, but I have complete conviction that we weren’t imagining things or simply hearing the house settle. And with a house as old as that one, where so many people have lived, birthed, and died right there over the generations . . . well, maybe a ghostly memory passing through now and then is to be expected.

Thanks for listening, guys. Wishing you the best.

A few purchase links – THE DOOR TO JANUARY is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook formats: Bookshop.orgIslandport Press BookshopAmazonBarnes & Noble

A cool, eerie song to enjoy:


How Much of Your Book is True?: GRIT

Friends! How are you? Are you weathering what I hope to be the last leg of our international health crisis with at least a scrap of sanity still intact? If so, you’ve done well. I’m thinking of you. I hope home is a safe and loving place which gives you true shelter. Brighter days are ahead.

In the meantime, talking books and stories is a great way to stay off a ledge, SO–today on the blog, sticking with the idea of answering oft-asked book talk questions (I’m homeschooling my kindergartener and preschooler while lugging my six-month-old through it all, so my Zoom talks are few and far between at the moment) I thought I’d tackle one of the guaranteed questions every author is asked when they release a story about people and the tangled webs we weave into the world: is this based on your own life? Which parts are true?

As a reader, these questions itch at me as well while I’m feverishly turning pages–this feels so realMs. Author MUST have been a dog surfing instructor IRL! Well, maybe. Possibly even often. But what I think drives our need to know the real stuff is a desire for some sense of kinship with the book and author through the power of story–i.e. the universal struggles we share are what bind us (you’ve heard me go off on this before.) Perhaps we’re looking to give credence to our own life experiences, to the notion that emotional memories have lasting value. I’ve noticed that the memoir writing workshops in the writer and publisher alliance I’m a member of seem to be consistently filled, often with waiting lists, which isn’t necessarily the case with classes of other ilk. I think as a species we’re searching for meaning and purpose, however subconsciously, and fascinated by the idea of funneling that into art.

Now, sliding my soapbox aside, here’s a quick rundown of the major inspirations and goals I set for myself while writing each of my published novels, chronologically, starting with GRIT. I’ll post the rest in the coming weeks. If you’re here, and still reading at this point, I can only assume you’re at least somewhat interested in my books, or a writer yourself, looking to see how others get the job done; either way, I hope this will satisfy some questions about the nature of truth and fiction in my stories:


Where It Came From: I’ve spoken a lot since 2017–a LOT–about GRIT. It’s the book I’ve been asked to talk about most, even after I’d released three more, and despite the fact that, sales-wise, the novel was barely a blip on the book world’s radar. I attribute all the speaking invites to the fact that I still live just outside Hancock County, Maine, the setting of GRIT, and readers–including myself–love to recognize locales and place names in a book; it creates a more personalized reading experience. Also, critics were incredibly kind, and I’ll always be grateful for the award noms/wins my debut received. Experience has taught me that there are two things which can clear a path through the publishing world: sales or big awards. It can be damn hard to gain any visibility for your book or career when you have neither, I can attest.

This business is tough. Not being a whiner here, merely speaking from the extreme ups and downs I’ve been through in the few short years since I was first published. Try to think of another common profession where your talents are up against not just those of professionals around your country of residence, but the WORLD, literally. Where promotion and sales are almost completely out of your hands, where your voice is just one of hundreds of thousands in one release season alone, screaming all at once to be heard, straining to pull down those few coveted literary awards, to get the attention of readers, booksellers, librarians, anyone who can help spread the world about your stories. Where sometimes quality of writing is the very last thing that matters when it comes to success, advance size, or job security. This seems to be the exclusive realm of artists. Musicians, graphic artists, actors–all have to fight this hard, sucking up crushing disappointment and frustration along with moments of dizzying excitement and highly emotional reward.

GRIT happens to be the first book I ever wrote about an area of rural Maine outside Bucksport across the river from where I grew up. It also happened to be the one which caught the interest of my amazing agent and an equally amazing editor at HarperCollins. Coincidence? I’d like to think not; I’d like to think being true to myself eventually paid off. Previously, I wrote mostly gothic romantic suspense or paranormal spooky novels for teens, only one of which ever saw publication. The story of a small-town, big-hearted, rough-around-the-edges Maine girl raking blueberries one August whose struggle to understand her identity as a “bad girl” comes to a head along with the reveal of her darkest secrets was a quick 9-month breeze to write, and ridiculously freeing. I followed two of the oldest writing rules out there: I wrote what I knew, and I wrote a book I saw a need for, a realistic portrayal of a fifth? six? generation Mainer like myself, not a transplant from another state or a vacationer with an idealized view of what it means to live in Vacationland year round.

That said, protagonist Darcy Prentiss is not me. Not even loosely based on me. I had the opposite of a bad girl reputation in my small high school, though I was far from Miss Congeniality or any teacher’s favorite. I never raked blueberries myself, though my brother did, and my mom worked in a blueberry packaging plant for a time. I’ve worked plenty of other short-lived, low-level jobs, so I used those experiences to inform the research I did. I hope the next section sheds light on why I set out to write the story the way I did, what I hoped to achieve as a writer.

Writerly Goals: For me, GRIT was about capturing a very specific first person narrative voice, and being true to a setting I know well. I could already hear seventeen-year-old Darcy’s good-natured, no bullshit, down-to-Earth tone in my head before I began, but putting it down into words is another matter, and plenty of times I needed to stop, go back, and bang some of the “formal” out of my prose in order to stay consistent. This book had a large, important family cast which forms the strong heart of the story, so I had to do a lot of shaping and refining so that each character was distinct and memorable. I miss Nell and Aunt Libby the most.

Writing the setting was more enjoyable than I’d ever expected. I’d set so many books in fictional towns in states I’ve never been to, places I wanted to go but couldn’t speak about with any real intelligence; this time, I went hog wild with description, sifting through my memories from childhood right up to present day in order to offer a lush, three-dimensional image of blueberry barrens at high noon in the dead heat of summer, full of humming insects, scent of dry grass, ripe berries, GREEN, an endless sky of thin-scraped blue.

The final two twin themes I wanted to portray through Darcy struggles are:

1) The idea of families casting certain members into roles set in concrete, which I think happens a lot. Being forever seen as the “smart” one or “hard” one, the rebel or angel, creates unfair pressure and resentment between siblings or parents, especially as we grow and become our own people, independent of the family unit. I thought it could be fun to write a character who was right on the verge of casting off a much-hated moniker as a troublemaker, revealing the truly pure spirit within her, who very few people had ever given her credit for, perhaps herself least of all.

2) I wanted to try to blast through the slut-shaming double standard applied to women viewed as promiscuous, which we’ve seen creates a dangerous, toxic environment for our young women and men coming of age; for everyone, really. This is part of what makes sexual violence possible, even permissible. Darcy is ultimately sex-positive, but she’s struggling with the reputation she’s been labeled with, and also the aggressive response some men have when you’re seen as easy.

I hope readers find these themes and elements effective and satisfying; it was certainly a fulfilling experience writing it. It allowed me to see the place I come from a bird’s eye view and gain a new appreciation for it. For me, GRIT will always mean vibrant summer, youthful energy, and fierce devotion. Thanks for listening.

Here are a few purchase links for print, eBook, and audiobook versions (it’s lovely; the reader is pitch-perfect): IndieboundAmazonBarnes & Noble

A link to a song I love which dovetails nicely with the book – Summerlong by Kathleen Edwards:


“I want to be a writer . . . but how do I get there?” Part 2: Craft Rules to Live By

Oooh. Talking craft is my favorite.

If you’re coming back for more writerly chat after my previous posts, welcome! If you’re popping in for the first time, please know that I’ll make every attempt not to be longwinded here–but, oh, man. Talking shop is my jam.

Molding descriptive passages from rough intellectual clay? Hand-picking the ripest, juiciest adjective to help illustrate exactly who your protagonist is and what they want? These challenges are the reason writers get out of bed in the morning. Offering readers a fully realized, nuanced, complex cast of characters, a setting one can almost step into, and posing questions about the universal human condition which will resonate long after the final page is turned? That’s our goal.

Granted, sometimes what you’re writing is more light and funny, a much-needed diversion from life’s harsh realities, not so much along the lines of GRAPES OF WRATH. (I mention Steinbeck, because he’s one of the first authors whose work inspired me to want to become much better–and drove home just how very far I have to go. Ditto Harper Lee. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zora Neale Hurston. And more. My list of literary heroes is long, and I hope yours is, too.) But art, whether comedy, tragedy, or something in between, is nothing if you don’t at some point hit your audience in the feels. That’s where the connection lies, what all storytellers are subconsciously searching for: emotional, intellectual connection with other human beings.

Becoming a more effective writer is generally a long process, an act of sheer stubbornness bolstered by examples of the craft which inspire us, spurring us on to figure out how another author managed to move us in such a remarkable, unexpected way. There are also zillions of books, tutorials, master classes, websites, and–oh, crap–blog posts out there about how to do it all better, faster, easier. In the interest of expedience, I’ve distilled my advice today into four hard-and-fast craft rules to help demand more of your WIP–and yourself. I’ve learned these from listening to other authors, absorbing their advice, and tailoring it to fit my own style. And I have to remind myself of these EVERY time I write:

  1. Mindfulness: Make your plotting, characterization, and descriptive decisions as CONSCIOUS as possible. This means a reason for everything you present to the reader, right down to the make and model of your characters’ cars to the reason why Jane Doe chooses curly fries when she finally goes out to lunch with her love interest. You don’t need to include your reasons for everything in the book, of course; that would be superfluous to the story and bog your reader down with unnecessarily detail. But you must know it. The idea is that by making your decisions mindfully, you will come to know your protagonist and supporting cast better than anyone on the planet, and this should help to form a cohesive, consistent tale about people who feel real. Jane Doe chooses curly fries because it fits her character exactly; she’s not a straight-cut kind of person, from her hairdo right down to her shoes, and the breadcrumbs for this belief should be easily identifiable throughout the novel. You need to be able to justify your decisions, even if nobody ever ends up questioning them. “I don’t know,” or, “I just kind of threw that in there,” are no more acceptable explanations than they were in high school algebra. If you’re writing for publication, be prepared to defend your work.
  2. Write what you can’t let go of: I’ve read this phrased other ways, but the essence is this: go ahead and tackle that big, weird, seemingly impossible theme or idea that won’t leave you alone. The one that scares you; the one you don’t think you can write, don’t believe you’re good enough to do justice, or are embarrassed to have your grandmother read. Chances are, that idea holds a kernel of emotional truth which is not only compelling to you, but will resonate with others as well. Give it time to germinate; brainstorm it, if that’s your thing. I sometimes dash out every thought or possibility I have for a book into a blank document, no punctuation or caps, stream-of-consciousness style, and see where it takes me. Generally there’s still more weeks of mulling in store, but putting my overwhelming, intimidating idea down in words can make it somehow seem more concrete, more doable. Try talking it out with a trusted friend or loved one, another method which can shrink scary/exciting book ideas to a manageable size. Your sounding board person may have some suggestions on how you can tackle this thing. Don’t have a person like that in your life? Seek out online writer communities–there are MANY–where others like yourself are in search of critique partners or members to join a critique group.
  3. Kill Your Darlings: You’ve gotta do it. A turn of phrase which delighted you on Wednesday and seemed to tie all of Chapter 7 together? Rather ridiculous in the cold light of Thursday, if you give it a second look. You must try to be your own harshest editor before you send that book out into the world, and often that means cutting a lovely turn of phrase or witticism or exciting scene that doesn’t move the plot forward or doesn’t ring true to the characters. Generally your gut will speak up when you’ve done something like this, and your gut gets better at its job the more you write. Reward it with mint chocolate chip ice cream, then create a document where you can copy and paste any sections or phrases that you love too much to delete, but are too canny to leave in your book. You might be able recycle them in another book–or create an entire new book around one of your “darlings” someday.
  4. Writing a novel is not like digging a ditch: Yes, daily work is vital to completing a rough draft–butt in seat–but it’s not your work ethic you’re contending with to get this book done. You’re dealing with your IMAGINATION, the most sparkly and untamable of all rainbow unicorns. The human mind is a changeable thing, literally in a slightly different state throughout the course of every day (buy a mood ring–undeniable proof!) So many things affect our mood: sleep quality, emotional struggles, work and money stress, general fear caused by the state of our country and the world these days. Mood changes how we see our writing. Sometimes, your work will leave you feeling frustrated, resentful of your foggy perception and sloth like production, ready to dump your .doc in the recycling bin and savor that little crunching sound as you click “empty.” On rare days, it will leave you pumped like nothing else can, convinced of your status as a literary genius, and totally blind to all those “darlings” hidden like landmines in the seven pages you just whipped through. More often than not, you’ll be left feeling warily hopeful yet cautiously humble, just praying that you’ll have something you can work with when the whole emotional marathon of this draft is finally done. In short–your human fallibility will stand in the way of your writing. Every author who ever penned a sentence has had to overcome this. And it will be hard. Which is, as we’ve all learned, precisely what makes it worth doing.

“I want to be a writer . . . but how do I get there?” Part 1: Finding Your Path

This is the next writerly question I thought I’d tackle, and people, it’s a multi-part, tentacle-flailing beast. I’m going to break it down into several posts, starting with this one, focusing on choices one can make to help angle their life’s trajectory toward traditional publication. Notice my careful choice of wording here.

Writing isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of gig. I think this can be hard for even established authors to accept. There’s no well-lit, groomed path to success, no clear series of steps to follow, no set-in-concrete age by which certain milestones must be reached or the entire endeavor given up for lost. In a way, that’s a good thing. That means it’s never too late to achieve your dream of seeing your story printed, bound, and sitting on a bookstore shelf, waiting to embrace a new reader, introduce them to your much-loved characters, and show them around the world you created.

Maybe the struggle is necessary because stories are made of dreams, chance, and hope–maddening, intangible things which refuse to behave themselves. Our task as storytellers is to grab those diaphanous threads, wrestle them down, and force them into something recognizable to a reader, forming a path for others even as we ourselves can barely find the way.

There’s more writing advice available online than anyone could–or should–ever read: “How to Write a NYT Bestseller this NaNoWriMo!”, etc. It’s my feeling that improving your fiction to a level where agents and publishers will take you seriously comes from years of writing/living and reading everything you can get your hands on. What I offer in this post are what life choices I have seen to be beneficial to those who want to be novelists by trade. These are not choices I’ve necessarily made myself. Believe me, if I could hop into a DeLorean, blast back to the 90’s, grab my little child self by the shoulders and terrify her all wild-eyed-Doc-Brown-style into making these decisions, I probably would:


Okay, you’re young, energized, and hopeful; at this time, those are your biggest assets, because you can’t really argue the whole “life experience” thing. My best advice is to seize the day NOW and take this writing thing seriously. Of course you can do it; of course you’re good enough, and can become better with proper schooling. The world needs writers just like it needs skilled people in every other professional field. My sincere wish is that you spare yourself years of toiling in crappy jobs while despairing that you’ll never be published. Yes, some toiling will be necessary to eat/pay bills for a few years, but if you get yourself to into an institution of higher learning, you’ll give yourself a much better chance of improving your craft faster and making vital connections:


I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t matter all that much where you get your undergrad degree, as long as it’s from an institution which ACTUALLY OFFERS A MAJOR IN CREATIVE WRITING. In my infinite wisdom, I went somewhere that did not offer it as a major; hard to justify my decision now* (but I’ll get back to why it was still beneficial.)

Go get one of those bright, shiny Creative Writing degrees! If writing fiction is the thing which stirs your soul like nothing else, OWN THAT. Be that, no apologies! The kid who loves to write. And shall make their living at it eventually.

Will it qualify you to make a fantastic living as a defense attorney or civil engineer while you submit your manuscripts to agents? Well . . . no. It will qualify you to write creative fiction. Which other people may or may not like or want to publish. As I said, there will be toiling. Possibly the wearing of paper hats or hairnets. Many nametags. If temporary financial insecurity really scares you/turns you off, writing may be more of a sideline for you than a calling, and you are now free to find the profession which really lights your fire.

But believe me, college creative writing courses are a blast; you get to mingle with your writerly peers, critique each other’s work, have lively discussions about characterization and plot, and meet badass professors who actually have !real publications! under their belts. For the record, I didn’t really want to go to college. I always hated school, the whole structure of it. Why zombie my way through lecture after dry lecture when I could be home doing the actual work of writing books followed by running through fields of wildflowers? But I’m glad I went now, even for the broader English degree I earned instead of a pinpointed CW major, purely because of those few, incredibly valuable creative writing classes I took, and because of a fantastic author I had as a teacher named Elaine Ford.

Elaine has quite a few literary novels and short story collections out in the world and I was STARSTRUCK by her. She was a real author, which are not in abundance in rural Maine (seek out her books, guys; my personal favorites are MONKEY BAY and THE PLAYHOUSE). She encouraged me in this earthy, no-nonsense manner, full of humor and relatability. I still remember her advice and the comments she wrote in the margins of my fiction assignments. She taught me skills I use every. time. I. write. She, a Real Author, took me seriously, and because she did, I was able to believe in myself that much more. Sadly, Elaine passed away a few years back, but I will always treasure the time I spent as her student, and forever appreciate her generosity of spirit. She made me a better writer; of that I have no doubt.

Even for an unschooling advocate like me, thanks to Elaine, college was indeed well worth it.


Okay, so, keep in mind, this is coming from someone who does not hold a Master’s degree in anything and probably never will as, at this point, I’ve basically gotten to where I want to be professionally–BUT, if I had it to do over again, immediately after graduating from a college which offered an undergrad degree in Creative Writing, I would enroll my still-youthful and reasonably unattached self at the Vermont College of Fine Arts to earn a Master’s Degree in Writing.

Full disclosure: I applied there about nine years ago and was accepted. I ended up declining, because at that point I was nearly thirty and afraid that if I started on another path of study, I would never have the kids I knew I wanted. I’d been beating my head against the door of the publishing world since I was a fourteen, thinking I would start a family after I established myself and could provide for them; low and behold, it hadn’t happened yet, so I decided not to go for a Master’s and set about having babies and writing anyway. No regrets–it all worked out eventually (see: GRIT, begun when my oldest was about six mos. old, finished when he was a little over 1 yr.)–but it just goes to show that a writer’s path can have many, many twists and turns and seemingly dead ends. For me, having kids was the right choice, and I believe they’ve made me a better writer and person.

But for those in the market for an advanced degree–VCFA! Follow the link. The place is beautiful, it’s in Ver-frickin’-mont of the rolling green hills, they offer a summer residency in England, and I cannot tell you how many author bios I’ve read that mention they earned a graduate degree from this school. It strikes me as a place where you dig deep, produce some of your most mature works to date with the guidance of published authors as your professors, and also make some all-important connections with people who are already in the biz. I also get the impression that many authors’ debut novels were written as their senior projects at VCFA, polished up with professional advice, then submitted to agents and, with luck, accepted. Can anyone guarantee this will happened to you? Of course not. But it could be one potential way to bypass some of that toiling we talked about. (Seriously. No one’s going to mail me a box of free VCFA T-shirts or anything after I post this.) Know of another amazing school of fine arts? Leave it in the comments! Let’s drop some names so fellow burgeoning writers at least have a place to start looking. This calling is challenging enough without having to sift through the ad-laden minefield of the internet, trying to figure who is legit.

So. I hope maybe this post helped a little, or at least got you thinking about various avenues you might want to explore on your path to publication. Future blog posts will touch on craft: how to strengthen and build what skills you already have in order to become the writer you want to be. See you on the flip side, my talented friend.

A few words on art and publication…

I decided to resurrect my blog today. After one of the hardest years in our lifetimes, I thought it might be useful if I shared a bit about how I got here, and why you–yes, YOU, my talented and very worthy friend–can, too. I rarely do appearances these days, as I’ve got three precious, high-energy little boys to take care of (kiddos and writing come first), but in the past, the question, “How long did it take you to get published?” was something which always came up during any author talk. I think lots of people are looking for permission to believe in their own dreams, a reason to feel it’s okay to continue–or to begin, for the first time in their lives–reaching for what truly brings them happiness. Now that I’ve got a few books out there for readers to discover, it actually gives me pleasure to say that my road to publication was SEVENTEEN YEARS LONG.

Yep. I want that massive number–nearly two decades of my life!–to smash through any phony-ass, Instagram-pretty, overnight-success-story illusion you have been bombarded with by our frenemy the internet. YOU ARE NOT A FAILURE OR A FOOL IF YOU AREN’T EARNING MONEY FROM YOUR ART RIGHT NOW. OR IF YOU NEVER HAVE. If you’re driven to create in any medium at all, you have a incredible gift inside you which you absolutely deserve to share and earn a living by doing so, but it often takes a lot of hard work and frustration to reach what is regarded as a professional level in any artistic field. It’s my opinion that authors are pressured to become glib, snarky, “pretty” versions of themselves on social media in order to sell a few more books (“Oh, that National Book Award? No big. I’m just that good.”) To act like a celebrity and pretend everything is effortless. God knows I’ve caved and done some stupid stuff online and off for the sake of convincing my publisher that I was really working it. Not proud. I do visit my social media accounts once a day because it’s the best way to interact with readers and run giveaways, but I have no talent for viral posts and my relatively low number of followers speaks to that.

You know what’s unpretty? The years spent in the trenches. Double-digits worth of manuscripts–truly, my blood, sweat, and tears–sitting in a plastic file box. They never found a publisher or won me an agent, and all the while I worked one low-level, zero benefit job after another to pay the bills, taking me from being a teen with big aspirations to a self-proclaimed loser pushing thirty with only a few writing contest wins and minor short story publications under my belt. Sometimes I COULDN’T pay the bills–gasp!–and had to borrow money from my parents. How embarrassing, right? (But thank you, Mom and Dad; you guys have always been there for me.) Literally everyone has gone through hard times financially and has needed to seek help. Anyone who tries to shame you for doing so is being dishonest about their own experience in order to preserve a false image of themselves and should be ignored. Also unpretty: hundreds of impersonal form rejections, eventually adding up to thousands. Having an editor ask me to make a long list of changes to a manuscript so they could accept it, then having them reject it anyway based on reasons completely out of my hands. Most unpretty of all: depression, frustration, self-doubt, two a.m. insomnia sparked by the terror that I was never, ever going to get my books out into the world no matter how hard I worked, that I could never get past the gatekeepers to the publishing world, and that everyone who ever criticized or doubted me in my life was right to do so.

My advice to you–and I hope you’re still interested at this point–is to LET GO. You can’t control the art world. You can’t control malicious people who want to tear you down and make you feel ashamed of who you are. All you can control is how much of yourself you put into your creative work. Baby, give it ALL. Spill your guts on the page/canvas/software/whatever, because truth resonates. Art is about sharing your truth. Everybody, whether they show it on Twitter or not, has experienced pain, failure, utter joy, crushing loss, and they’ll recognize themselves in your work if you’re willing to expose those unlovely truths. The very best thing you can do RIGHT NOW to improve your art is let go of your fear and defensiveness and frustration for a few hours a week–though I’d suggest working for at least an hour every day–and just let the freefall happen. Roll around in it. MAKE A FREAKING MESS. Even if you only have time to work on weekends or at night after the kids are sleeping, own that time. Be your unpretty self. Then polish, polish, polish your work’s uniquely imperfect face to a shine.

Surround yourself with people who are kind and supportive. This does NOT mean you need a huge social circle; I’m a true introvert and have a hard time making friends (ooh! Another unpretty truth!) But artists need to keep their eyes on the horizon to survive. They need people who help kindle their enthusiasm, not discourage them or damn with faint praise. If 2020 has taught us anything, it should be that life is too short to waste time around people who disrespect us. Hold close those special few who are always there for you, and share your art with them first; they’ll always give the best, most honest advice, and back you up when the rejections are too many and the road ahead just looks too damn long.

You do have what it takes to go after your dreams. Every artist has something worth saying, regardless of race, gender, age, creed, or orientation. Don’t be silenced. Don’t stop trying. Make connections with the people who share your interests and keep slamming your shoulder into that gate until the keepers HAVE to open it for you. Too many times I’ve overheard people actively discourage young artists from trying to make a living at their medium, citing the arts as too difficult, too impractical. Promise me you’ll ignore those people. They’ve given up on their own aspirations and now their only grim satisfaction seems to come from inflicting that same fate on others. I’ve had people say those same things to me. Go for it anyway. Trust me. You’ll never regret not giving up, no matter how long it takes. Don’t let them keep you from the moment where you get to share your story, your image, your creation, with the world.

Don’t let them.

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