I’m very excited to be speaking at this year’s WOW Conference, a day of leaders and champions. Will you be in the area? Come join us at the Blue Ocean Music Center in Salisbury, Massachusetts on April 5 and learn how you can become an Olympian gold medalist, a world-class leader, a successful entrepreneur, and a spousal serial killer (I mean, fiction writer!).

That’s what I’ll be talking about, my path to writing fiction, and tips and words of encouragement for you to find your own path to killing your significant other (I mean, to becoming a fiction writer!).

Read all about the conference here. It’s presented by the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce, and I’m so grateful they asked me to join the fun. Who knew so many women are interested in killing their partners? (I mean, writing fiction!)

Hope to see you in the audience!

credit: morguefile

credit: morguefile


Tricky and Not So Tricky Tips to Encourage Reading & Writing, Especially Among Boys

Let’s keep this simple: 

It starts with storytelling: at the table, in the car, at bath time, at bedtime.

Turn off electronic games and television – no excuses.

BUT, don’t fight the digital revolution! Smartphones and tablets may give reading a cool factor.

Give kids a fun flashlight, and tell them it’s okay to read after “lights out.”

Get kids their own library card; go to the library on a regular basis.

Use visualization early on; help your child picture the story. Ask them what they see in their mind.

Read with your child; make it a participatory activity, not a solitary one.

Read what your child is reading, even if it’s Captain Underpants. Discuss it often.

Select a book that’s part of a series.

Ask kids to bring favorite scenes/passages to the dinner table. Do the same.

Help them write to a favorite author – social media makes this easier than ever.

Make journals together – with leather, bark, cloth.

Ask kids to write one more scene after the ending – type it for them.

Ask kids to draw a favorite character from their book – tape it to the fridge.

Read in a tent, fort, barn, tree with your kids. Setting matters.

For older kids, select from banned books—nothing cooler!

Your attention is the best reward.


Next post: Great books for boys ages 6-12

And there goes the cat

So, last week I attend a writer’s workshop at Boston’s premiere watering hole for authors. Before leaving the house, I shower, brush my teeth, and floss, per usual. I floss vigorously. I lose myself in flossing. It isn’t until my jaw lands in the sink that I realize I am more than a little nervous.

After walking up and down the Boston street, thinking I have the wrong address, I finally discover the entrance sandwiched between two buildings. Not having the correct Harry Potter spell to widen it, I squeeze through and proceed up the narrow, dingy stairwell last used by Irene Cara in Fame.

But the upstairs, thankfully and appropriately, is a clean, well-lighted place. I take a deep breath, remembering that the workshop is for all writing levels, and I, as a first-time novelist, will be right at home.

The room is buzzing with graduate-degree angst and SAT words. The writers share a camaraderie that can only come from having unprotected sex with each other in 1985. Intimidating, for sure.

No problem. I will picture everyone in their underwear.

I scan the room.

I try not to picture everyone in their underwear.

I ask where Irene Cara is filming her porn movie, because I think I’ll be more comfortable with her.

A young intern tells me I’m in the right place, and leads me to the kiddie table. She puts a handful of Cheerios in front of me. “Have fun with those. Don’t choke now,” she says.

The students settle into their seats and smile at each other with a warmth that can only come from having safe sex with each other in 1992. They pull out their works-in-progress, and update each other on the literary publications they’re soliciting. I ask the person next to me to pass me my sippy cup.

The instructor enters the room, and quickly acknowledges all the familiar faces. He knows this pool of talent well.

I picture my “Hang in there!” kitten poster from 1968.

We each take a turn reading (out loud) the first couple pages of our manuscripts. The 12 women in the room have written about pain, and the monumental journey they have taken to embrace it. The 12 men in the room have written about their penises; one, a Vampire penis.

It’s three hours into the workshop, and the kitten from my poster is losing its grip. I am the second to last person to read.

I finish, and the instructor says, “Wow!” The room is filled with a hush that can only come from everyone wondering what it would be like to sleep with me. I smile.

“That was the most confusing opening I have ever heard,” the instructor says.

The kitten falls to the ground.

“I mean, did anyone else get any of that?” asks the instructor.

Vampire penis says, “No, not at all.” Others shake their head. My neighbor scoops up my Cheerios, because, clearly, I can’t handle them.

The tree slams to the ground, on top of the cat.

“You need to back away from this narrative, and rewrite it, so we know what the hell is going on,” the instructor adds.

The bus-size NASA satellite expected to plummet near Germany changes course and lands on the fallen tree.

He looks at me for a response.

“Hey, I flossed for you!” I say.

The penises wilt; the women consider writing about my pain, and the monumental journey I’ll need to take to embrace it.

I get up and search for Irene.

Meet My Fellowship

Although I’ve been a professional writer for over 25 years, novel writing is brand spanking new to me. Every day brings about a Lord of the Rings-sized challenge, with a finished novel about as likely as reaching the peaks of Mordor. Here’s one thing I’ve learned, however: don’t try to navigate the publishing landscape, filled with jagged rocks, harrowing crevasses, and even the occasional Orc, alone. Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, a very talented writer and professor, recruited me for a writer’s group, and I’m so grateful. They keep me going when I want to turn around and run home.

So with that, meet my fellowship, a talented, funny, and generous group of gals who have kept me from slipping under the spell of Sauron, a.k.a., really crappy writing. Here, each of them answers the following question:

Gift, chore, or hassle: what does the writer’s quest mean to you?

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, author of Thirstyand many published essays

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe @kbairokeeffe

In my most grueling writerly moments, I’ve been known to proclaim, “I should have been a dentist,” but I don’t mean it. Partly because I could never stick my fingers into people’s mouths on a daily basis or ask them—with any genuine interest—about their flossing habits, but mostly because I absolutely love that I see the world in stories. Bright, brilliant, textured stories that keep me coming back to the page.

And while I believe that writing is a great gift in my life, it’s also my work…my job…my masonry. And like anyone with a job, I have to show up ready to complete the task. I can’t get out of it by scribbling a note that says, “Please excuse Kristin today. Her muse is taking a staycation.” So if you see me huddled over my keyboard chanting “Writerhead! Writerhead!” give a wave…and know that I’m doing the job I’ve been called to do.

Julie Long, author of Baby, an Owner’s Manual& several other books

Julie Long @julielongwrites

The actual craft of writing always feels like a gift to me. Even when I’m struggling with a scene. Even (like today) when it took me two hours to write one paragraph. Even when I’m entering tedious edits (I think of those as grooming a beloved pet — I don’t love the act but I love that darn dog, so wiping goop out of her eyes is a way to honor her). A long time ago my mother cautioned me to make sure I enjoyed the process, the journey, not just the destination. I thoroughly enjoy the process of writing, editing and revising.

Now the other aspects of the writer’s life? That’s another story. The agent search, the self promotion, the social media, the staying abreast of an industry in constant change — for me these things range from necessary chore to is-it-worth-it hassle to complete bewilderment!

Meredith Mileti, author of Aftertaste (launching this week!!)

Meredith Mileti @winsomechef

At various times it’s been both a chore and a hassle, but overall it’s a wonderful gift.  I feel tremendously lucky to be able to live the writer’s life.  And not just because I get to work in my pajamas and fuel my muse with tea and my favorite biscuits every day (undeniably a HUGE perk).  I’m a self-confessed junkie for the printed word.  (Happily, there are far worse things to be addicted to.)  I love laboring over words and sentences just as much as I love discovering my characters and devising situations that will challenge them, madden them and hopefully help them grow.

I can’t imagine tiring of the quest to create something that will make someone laugh, or perhaps think about the world in a different way. That said, there are many aspects of the writer’s life that are challenging and, at times, frustrating. I think it’s a particularly difficult time to be a new writer trying to break into the industry.  Publishing is changing so drastically and so rapidly that developing a plan of attack can sometimes feel like charting a course through maelstrom!   But there is nothing else I’d rather be doing.

Aren’t they wonderful? Yes. Yes they are.

So, find your brethren, lock arms, band together. It will save you, enlighten you, inspire you. And it will be spring in the Shire before you know it.

Click to watch Sam carry Frodo up Mordor. It’s awesome!


When a story idea comes knocking…

Don’t let it in, yet.

I know that sounds odd, but trust me on this one.

I was recently interviewed for the blog, “Writer with a Day Job,” because, well, I’m a writer, and, eh, I have a day job.


I was asked when I find the time to write, and I answered, ‘I don’t.’ At least, not for long periods of time. I write in my head until that magic tear in the time/space continuum happens, and I’m able to knock out a few thousand words on my computer.

Then I realized, ‘Hey! That’s not a problem, that’s a strategy.’ Like when Microsoft describes a bug as a feature!


I’ve realized as my life becomes busier with other responsibilities, the stories I yearn to write become more developed in my head. Conversely, if I jump into a story just because I have time to write it, with nary (love that word!) the time to develop it in my head first, it’s nigh (it must be ‘talk like a pirate day’) unrecognizable as a compelling narrative.

If you launch into a story too soon, it could become the “thing that wouldn’t leave” — a great vintage SNL sketch starring John Belushi. I couldn’t find the video, because, like, this was, like, pre-Internet. It was in 1975, and Belushi plays a character invited over for dinner, and he never leaves, only creating hilarity with every hour he stays, making long distance phone calls (pre-Skype) on their phone (pre-cell phones) to invite friends over (pre-facebook), and eating everything in their kitchen (pre-microwaves).

Your story idea, without proper planning, will run amuck on the page like John Belushi in your living room, bringing in uninvited flat characters, running off with ill-conceived subplots, and don’t even get me started on the wooden dialogue.

Let your story idea linger outside for a while. Study it from the window. Observe it in its natural habitat. Figure out how you’re going to handle it once you let it in.

Then, and only then, open the door.

Unless, of course, it’s a Land Shark…

What Ferris Bueller Taught Me about Plot

Ferris Bueller

Even though I am a huge John Hughes fan, it’s safe to say that most of his movies are pretty-in-pink predictable: boy meets girl, girl gives her underwear to a geek, boy and girl get Saturday detention with other boys and girls, Jake shows up in a red Porsche. (Yes, I know I went from the general to the specific, but it’s Jake!).

Predictable is safe, linear storytelling. But even John Hughes stepped away from formula when he wrote Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, his most creative, and one of my most favorite, films. While watching it recently with my kids (they loved it, by the way), it occurred to me that I needed more Danke Schoen in my WIP novel. What am I talking about?

For those who haven’t seen the film, or need a refresher, Ferris jumps onto a float during a Chicago parade and lip-synchs Wayne Newton’s Danke Schoen. Ferris does this because his best friend Cameron hasn’t ‘seen anything good’ during their day off from school.

So, think of your readers as your best friend Cameron who hasn’t seen anything good yet. Break away from a linear plot, even though it makes sense and follows the natural order of progression, because lip-synching to Danke Schoen is much more fun.

Take risks with your plot, don’t be afraid to drive off a bridge, employ a psychic, corrupt a nun, and even jump onto a float in Chicago.

And really, that’s the way life is, no? Take a good look at your day, let’s say, yesterday—was it predictable? I doubt it. You really didn’t expect the toilet to overflow or the new plants to wilt or the garbage to tip over. These little moments are all plot developments in the making. Rebecca looked at the strewn trash across her driveway: a Chicken Marsala take-out container, wet coffee grounds, a receipt to a Broadway show. How odd, thought Rebecca, she and David hadn’t been to New York in years. Bada-bing! Now your readers are starting to see something good!

In the words of the great Ferris, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Notice the tangents of your own life, and move your plot accordingly. It’s what Cameron wants.

Gratuitous photo of Jake


An Interview with Aine Greaney, Irish Novelist and Writer with a Day Job

Aine Greaney

I’m thrilled to have Aine Greaney visit today. Aine is an accomplished Irish writer who has been stateside for about 25 years now. She is the author of the beautiful and haunting novel Dance Lessons, and the recently released Writer With a Day Job, published by Writers Digest Books.  Her awards include The Flume Press Short Fiction Chapbook Contest `05, The Frank O’Connor Short Fiction Award, the Irish News Short Story Awards, The Steinbeck Award, and The Hennessy Award for New Irish Writing.

Aine has recently launched a companion blog to Writer with a Day Job, which you can find here. The blog is an online salon for writers with day jobs to gather (not during working hours of course!) and support each other with helpful tips and advice, or at least to discuss how much laundry is building up in their homes. I asked Aine if she could stop by for a little chat. Here’s what went down…

First of all, welcome to the blogosphere. I love your concept of a salon blog for writers. Who’s invited and what should we expect to happen when we get there? Will there be Absinthe?

Thank you Jennifer.  No, no Absinthe, I’m afraid (sigh).  Kool Aid? Yes? You can have grape flavor.  Seriously, I see the blog as a continuation of the conversations started in the book, “Writer with a Day Job.”  As writers who do double-time as parents, employees, caretakers, and community volunteers, it’s often hard to find a balance between making art and paying the rent. In America, creative writing has long been aligned with academia. As in, college teaching is the default career for many creative writers. But the college life doesn’t work for all of us. So I wanted to create a place where we non-academic writers could hang out, pass the Kool Aid and chat about what works and doesn’t—the graft and the craft.

As a teacher, what most inhibits your writing students from coming out with their story? Time? Confidence? Creativity? Twitter?

I think the most inhibiting thing for a lot of students is simply believing that writing is something that they can do. I’m not sure if it’s Hollywood or the MFA programs that have fostered this notion that writers are erudite, scatter-brain creatures who smoke Galoises and dress in thrift store (black of course) clothes. But this belief is out there. And for many of my students who are nurses, accountants, cops or working parents, it somehow becomes their own personal naysayer.  As in, “Oh, but that’s not me.” Making time for writing is also an issue. But for those who believe, there is always time.

According to your latest book, Writer with a Day Job, it is possible to walk the tightrope between creative writing and paying the bills. What do you find to be the #1 requirement for walking that rope, besides a reliable net?

You ask the tough questions, Jen Karin!  You’re correct. A reliable net is really necessary—and this is more true today than it was before.  I think the #1 requirement is to find the way that you can get writing done, and then do it. It may not be everyone else’s approach. It may not be at a beautiful hand-carved wooden desk. It may be a rather scattered process of notebooks stuffed under the passenger seat of your car—just waiting for when you have a few free minutes or your son is late getting out of soccer practice.  But look at other areas of your life (work, home, grocery shopping). What is your own unique process for getting things done? Now, borrow from that process or style for your writing. For example, I’m a block, manic-ey kind of worker. I like to have a deadline and get a good long run at my tasks (you should see me barrel through the grocery shop).  What’s your process?  Value and respect it.

Finally, what’s next for you creatively? Don’t you just hate that question? But, your fans want to know!

Once I hit some major deadlines at work, I want to get back to a third novel I’ve been dabbling with. And I’ve also started a non-fiction work on the dual identities and sensibilities of long-term, settled immigrants in the U.S.  For obvious reasons, this fascinates me. While the issue of long-term immigrants is not as imminent or as important as the issue of new arrivals and immigration reform, I think us oldies who have put down roots here have something to say. Truthfully, I’m not sure which project will win my time and heart first. Nowadays, I think most of us writers are peering into the tea leaves for signs of where publishing and creative writing are actually headed.  I’ve never been a market-watcher, but I think things are changing so profoundly right now.  And, of course, there’s my beloved personal journal. That’s a mainstay.