The Lily and the Beetle

File:Victoria amazonica edit 1.jpg

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons


Sometimes inspiration is so feather-light you don’t really know you’ve had a solid idea unless you catch it. It could come as a passing thought, or a what if that drifts into mind, or the intriguing sound of someone’s voice. Years ago, when I was teaching business writing, I was often asked about the role of brainstorming in writing. Most people seem to understand that brainstorming is a big part of the writing process, and they know it is somehow related to inspiration, they just don’t exactly know how the two connect and how one can stimulate the other.At the time, the focus of my teaching wasn’t on either one. I was trying to show people how to gain a different skill they frequently lacked — that of organizing and giving force to ideas. Writing structure was my favorite topic.

But of course there’s always a place for brainstorming, because before you can organize your thoughts, you have to have one or two of them to work with. So here’s what I wrote, back then, about brainstorming:

Twyla Tharp, the master choreographer, has a wonderful book on creativity called The Creative Habit. One of my favorite pieces of advice in it is her discussion of how to start anything – a dance, a book, or a piece of music. To begin, she says, you don’t have to start at the actual opening of the piece. Dive into a part that interests you, begin brainstorming there, and you can build the piece outward, in any direction. This is a good piece of advice for writers in the earliest part of the process, long before it’s time to structure a piece of writing, when you’re only just developing the idea of what to write about. If a topic interests you, begin brainstorming about what caught your attention. The initial idea should blossom from there – leading outward to other topics, into greater detail or out, into the broader context of your topic. Either direction works.

Say you’re interested in the topic of symbiosis in the rainforest. You read about a certain water lily – bright white – that attracts a very specific beetle. At night, it closes, trapping the beetle and covering it in pollen. In the morning, it frees the beetle to go pollinate other lilies, and changes color – to pink – to avoid attracting the same beetle over again. Interesting topic, right? How could you work from there? You could either choose to move more deeply into the topic – examining the beetle, the flower, and their mutual life cycles, or you could move outward – out into other symbiotic relationships in the rainforest, to the algae that grows on the sloth’s fur to get closer to the sunlight, for example. You could even move out to the rainforest itself and other topics relevant to it. Either way, the initial idea – the lily and the beetle – doesn’t have to be the beginning of the piece you eventually write. If it turns out to be a wonderful hook into the piece – great. But in the end, it may become merely a footnote. It doesn’t matter. The lily and the beetle worked, because they were the spark that started the brainstorming engine.

Brainstorming is obviously a big part of writing fiction, and that’s so because brainstorming is what gives some weight to that initial moment of inspiration. People often ask me now how I start a story, or how I started a particular story. The answer is pretty much back to the lily and the beetle, because work on a piece begins with whatever inspired me, and that’s a different thing each time. Sometimes it’s the voice that gets me. I hear something in my head, and I like the sound of it, and then I find a story to put it in. Sometimes I’m fascinated with an idea, and wonder how it would look in the world if it were to play out. What would a world without gender look like, for example? Or a world where people didn’t age? Or could record their dreams and then step in and live inside them?

So I play that inspired moment out on paper in a brainstorming session or two. That means asking myself question after question about the initial idea, building it into something that has some weight, some reality. When it does, I begin working on the pieces I’ve missed – if I’ve got character, that means plot, and setting. If I’ve got plot, that means character. And those questions keep getting asked at every stage: what kind of place is this, and what kind of culture does it produce? What kind of person is this and where would he or she get the ideas/way of speaking/difficulties he or she has?

When I think of this messy, unpredictable process, all of it flowing out of that initial, fleeting moment of inspiration, I think the lily and beetle metaphor becomes that much more apt. The moment of inspiration comes out of nowhere. But if you open up your hand (or petals) to catch it, a process begins. Coat the thing with pollen, hold it there, until you know it will help you grow. And then, when you do let it go, you’re changed. No more white lily, now it’s pink, and looking for the next thing it will need, to continue to be fertile. Inspiration is nothing without brainstorming to build on that initial, easy-come idea. But of course first you have to catch the beetle. 

Active Reading

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

For years I used to tutor high school students, teaching them how to recognize the elements of a good piece of writing and to duplicate it in their own work. Recently, a friend of mine, who now teaches third grade, asked me about strategies to help her much younger students do the same. Now, third grade is a different ball of wax than high school, where you expect that kids mostly have the basics down. But over the years, I’ve found that even in high school, not all kids do have the basics, and so it helps to understand how to develop writing skills from the ground up. There’s grammar and spelling, of course, but writing is more than mechanics, it’s also organization, a thinking skill that requires you to put ideas in an order that makes sense. And while I’ve often found that teachers excel at teaching mechanics, many struggle nearly as much as the rest of the world does with structure. It’s just so murky, isn’t it? What is it, anyway? The order of the sentences? Of the paragraphs? And does that really matter, after all? Isn’t it style that makes a good piece of writing? Or beautiful sentences?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because I’m the last person to think style doesn’t matter. And beautiful sentences make my day. But the truth is, without a sound structure, a piece of writing fails, no matter how beautiful its sentences. After all, you’re trying to tell a story, and stories do have a shape, in the end. So turns out structure isn’t really that murky, if you actually know what it is. Even young kids are great at spotting the elements of a good story if they have a bit of a lesson in how stories work. And the best way to show them that, I think, is to illustrate how stories work for them. So when my friend asked me for advice, the first thing I told her was to teach her students to be active readers.

You often hear people say that if you want to be a good writer, you’ve got to read a lot. That’s true, but it’s more than just reading. The best writing lessons come out of thinking about what the writer is doing, how the story works. My friend went back to class and told her students that stories make us ask questions we want to see answered; they make us curious, and give us a reason to keep reading, so that we can get our questions answered. The writer’s job is to make us ask the right questions. She then began reading the wonderful story Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, by William Steig, to her third grade. (Fun fact – this book was banned in some places because in its animal world, the pigs were the policemen.) Immediately, the kids began to be aware of their questions, and to articulate them. Sylvester is turned into a stone! What’s going to happen to him? How will his parents react? Will anyone find him? Will he be a big rock forever? Now, William Steig is doing what great writers always do — filling his readers with the urgent need to get the answers to questions they never thought of before they opened his book. I mean, really, how often do kids go around thinking about the fate of a donkey turned into a rock? And so they keep turning pages until they get a satisfactory answer to what’s going to happen to poor Sylvester.

What’s wonderful about this process is that though readers always do have questions about what’s happening next, a character’s motivations, and the like, they rarely articulate these, and so don’t get the benefit of realizing that questions are exactly what drive a reader to read. Understanding that, though, is the key to writing anything someone else will want to read.

A side benefit of this technique is that the entire third grade got excited and involved in the daily reading. Next step will be to see if they can start to produce questions of their own to explore in writing. I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

Writing in the rain


Photo courtesy of “Bad Weather” by Vlado.

It’s Monday again, and my window is filled with gray light and the too-soothing sounds of rainfall. This is the kind of day that is the enemy of productive thinking, and I’m sitting at my desk struggling to focus on pushing forward to reach the daily goal I set for myself of 1000 words (whether they be good, bad, or ugly.) The word-goal, which I took on after reading something one of my favorite authors, Patrick Ness, wrote about his schedule, has been a help to me since I started writing full time, and shows me see that even on days that are all white noise and white sky, I can still get something done.

It’s hard, though.

So in honor of that fact, and the rainfall, and the general, dreary Monday-ness of this day, I pulled out an old blog post from when I was blogging about business writing years ago. Apparently, I was in a cheerier frame of mind that day, or at least a more energetic one, and was capable of giving energetic advice. So here it is, and I’m just going to hope it helps me jump-start my week:

When the writing gets tough, the tough do laundry. Or wash the dishes. Or search for chocolate. Or talk on the phone. Or just get up and leave, and pretend there are errands to do. Okay, maybe all this is just me, but everyone has a technique for writing avoidance. So – with all those wonderful avenues for getting out of writing, how do you get into it when that blank page just looms?

A few ideas:

  • Write a letter. Letters often free you from the worry that you’ve got to say things in a specific way. Pretend you’re writing to a friend. Think about that bottom line – the overall point of what you wanted to say – and then just start a chatty letter. Eventually, you’ll get there. When you do, you can pull out the good parts, polish them to a high sheen, and have the beginning of a real document.

  • If you’re in the middle of a project, and it’s stalling, go and read from the beginning – out loud. Sometimes, hearing your own words out there in the air will trigger the next thought.

  • Make notes. Don’t worry about language or how the words sound. Think about the ideas. Sometimes one idea leads to the next, and those lead to the words.

  • Think geometry. A well-constructed piece of writing has a shape. It has a beginning, usually followed by a section that provides background, then a bloated middle section that provides the bulk of your information, then a shorter climax section, where you offer your reader that crucial piece of information that makes it all fall into place. Then you’ve got your ending. Imagine those pieces in a visual way, and try to fit your notes into the right chunk. Sometimes visual thinking triggers word-thought.

  • Do more research. Sometimes you can’t think what to say because you don’t have the information you need to say it. If you keep drawing a blank, go looking for something to fill it.

That was my long-ago advice. Hope it helps you as much as it did me. Now I’m going to make some notes, despite the rain.

World Building


“Painting Globe” by MR LIGHTMAN. Photo courtesy of

Today my job is to turn away from a finished draft, a fully realized world and the music of its language still singing in my head, and turn to a new book, the nub of an idea with a world yet to be built. And I’m like a little kid again, reluctant to do my work. Because it’s hard. And yet I do want to do it, and so I have to remind myself that it’s time to think about a different place, a different time, not the one I just wrote about, that I’m still in love with and want to turn back to, where I know what the forest smells like, for example, and how the people talk, and . . . now stop that, I have to remind myself. Time to think about this dull, grey, unformed place, that isn’t yet. This egg of a world. So how to start? By giving it a little color. Lay down some streets, and a map of the city, maybe. What’s it like in there? And then some history. What story do the people tell themselves about the past, about their lives? And then the people. Who’s there? And what will happen to them? What troubles them, what troubles the whole place, and what can they do about it? That’s the beginning of it, maybe. Or tomorrow I might have a different answer.

The Thoughtful Story


Photo courtesy of, by Evgeni Dinev

Dara Horn, author of the beautiful novel The World to Come, wrote a fascinating article in the New York Times Sunday Book Review last week about Jewish fiction writers, and why there seem to be so many of them. Though I don’t write fiction about Jewish topics or for specifically Jewish audiences, I did find her essay intriguing, because in it she talked about Jewish culture’s fascination with memory, with reliving the past through ritual, and the Jewish tendency to live life soaked in the past, keenly aware of history. As this fascination with preserving memory and freezing life is also the novelist’s task, there tend to be quite a few Jewish fiction writers.

As Horn says:

“Writers and believers live their lives haunted by the same question: What happens to our days once they disappear? The objective fact is that each day that passes is lost forever, as forbidden to us as the dead. But prayer and fiction offer a different answer. Those lost days still live among us, written in each person’s hand, turned into stories.”

I was thinking along the same lines last week, when I wrote about Ursula LeGuin’s carrier-bag theory of storytelling. She describes the Hero of traditional stories as a look-at-me-as-I-kill-and-vanquish protagonist. He’s the one who always made her feel defective as a human being, unbent on murder. And yet thinking about what she said, it occurred to me that while that killer-hero story is very prominent in the classics – clearly the Greek myths come to mind – I have another heritage, that of the Jewish history story. Jewish history has its share of conquering heroes. But it also features a different kind of hero, especially post-exile, when the Jewish people found themselves in the Diaspora. This is the rabbi, the thinker, the teacher as hero. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, makes this point in some of his writing. Jewish history has a wide range of heroic figures – warriors, martyrs, thinkers, prophets, mystics, judges, even particularly tender or self-sacrificing parents and children, who people legends of survival amid persecution. These varied characters fit well into LeGuin’s carrier-bag, and maybe that’s why I like the theory so much. I like stories about thinkers, perhaps because my cultural story – the story of Jewish history – told me that thinkers are heroes as much as anyone. And they didn’t have to kill something to earn the title, either.

 To read Horn’s full essay:

Spears and Bags

women of vision cover

Recently I reread a favorite essay, Ursula LeGuin’s The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction. I have a copy of it in a compilation of essays by women science fiction writers, Women of Vision (1988, St. Martin’s Press, edited by Denise Dupont). In it, LeGuin argues that too many story writers labor under the impression that the story has one kind of “right” structure – a very male structure that resembles a spear. It’s the story of the Hero, his hunt, his quest, his adventure, and it zooms forward from conflict to climax and then it’s over. That story, and the human being it puts at its center, the male conqueror, for a long time made her feel like a very peripheral part of the human race, as she puts it, “extremely defective as a human being or not human at all.” Stories, after all, create the norm, and if we see ourselves as comfortable in the dominant story, we’re normal, and if we don’t, we’re not. Thinking about this, she proposed a different kind of story, in which story structure becomes, not a spear, but a carrier-bag, a basket where ideas and relationships and events get stored, and brought home, and searched for meaning:

A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.

A novel, then, can have conflict, but it will have it along with plenty of other things, including, she notes, harmony.

From the moment I read it, years ago, this essay struck me as a brilliant reimagining of not only story structure, but our cultural story as well. I’m a big fan of both kinds of stories – both the spear structure (who doesn’t like a good adventure?) and the carrier-bag structure. My favorite kinds of writing merge the two, because I like to see something happen in a book, some obstacle overcome, but I’m not a huge fan of the traditional hero, too uncomplicated, too single-focus to be real. I like thoughtful characters, who think their way through life. The best people I know do that in reality, why shouldn’t books mirror that kind of person? Action stars don’t much interest me, I’m always second guessing them in my head (would they really do that and not be considered psychotic in real life?) or wondering about their families, the people left at home. Or thinking, after the spectacular explosion that ends everything, about the people who were just walking by and got caught up in it, and what happened to their husband or wife, waiting at home for them to joke over supper, or take a walk in the park? And what happened to them all, not just tomorrow, when the medals get passed out, but ten years from now, when other things have claimed people’s attention. What’s life like, in other words, beyond the moment we see? Maybe this is why LeGuin’s essay resonated with me so, and still does.

Old and New 2

QuillWriting-GentlemanHere’s another one of my favorites from my old blog:


I once read a great science fiction story (don’t remember where, sorry), about a man fascinated with Shakespeare. He’d read once that Shakespeare wrote only one draft of his plays – they simply came out perfect on the first try. Somehow, this Shakespeare fan stumbled on a time machine, and, volume of plays tucked under his arm, went to visit Shakespeare and see this amazing feat up close. He arrived to find a disheveled guy in Elizabethan garb hunched over an ink-stained page with line after line crossed out and rewritten, clearly tearing his hair out over the whole inspiring process. The visitor, sorely disappointed, explained to Shakespeare who he was and how he’d gotten there. He showed him the book of plays, and expressed regret that Shakespeare wasn’t as automatically inspired as he’d been led to believe.

Shakespeare, no dummy, listened to all this, then promptly killed the visitor with a letter opener, or some such thing. He then took that hefty book of plays from the dead man’s hand and proceeded to copy it out onto a new, clean sheet of paper – not one ink blot or crossed out line spotting the page.

So much for the idea that anyone’s perfect on the first draft. This comes up often when I’m asked about brainstorming as part of the writing process. No matter what tools you bring to the table, you’re going to need to brainstorm, because you can never write without thinking. And that’s what brainstorming is – thinking, letting your mind make connections.

I like that one, you probably guessed, because of that Shakespeare story. I wish I could remember now who wrote it, but it was one of those that really stuck with me. It’s the quintessential writer’s story, because if others are anything like me, they’re always struggling with the ideal of perfection. Someone asked me the other day if I fall in love with my story when I write it, or if I see all the flaws in it. Both. Both! I do fall in love, because I think you need to love it to stick with it long enough to give it life. But then I’m away from it, and I start to see all the flaws – I guess I fall out of love, you could say, and become that nit-picky relative no one wants to have around. This is where my amazing editor comes in. She has that second pair of eyes that helps me see it a little more clearly. And now that I’ve seen how she works, and how much better she made Zebra Forest, I’ve learned to trust her ear even more. And so while I never give up that “I wish it were perfect the first time I write anything down” dream, I have to admit I’d probably not even believe in it, and proceed to take it apart, piece by piece, just to make sure. Thank goodness for good editors, is all I can say about that!

Old and New


From my business-writing book: The Writer’s Road Map at Work, available at Amazon

As I’ve mentioned before, a few years ago when I had my first book come out, a how-to on writing at work, I did a blog for a while on the process of business writing. That blog’s now defunct, but lately I’ve been thinking of the connection between my earlier writing career (freelancing, teaching business writing, that book) and my new life as a novelist. (I never get tired of saying that out loud.)  I’m fascinated by the differences and the similarities between those two kinds of writing, so one of the things I’d like to do on this blog is occasionally examine them side by side. Here’s an excerpt from one of my early entries in the business writing blog:


Nothing is as hard as making yourself start to write, because the blank page telegraphs a message to your subconscious: nothing’s here and nothing ever will be here. But this is simply a lie. Listen to it and you’ll delay forever. Make those first marks on the page, and you’re on your way. To do this, you’ve got to begin brainstorming by asking yourself questions – on paper. Thoughts disappear; notes stay. The power of writing down those initial thoughts, no matter how silly they sound, is that you then have something concrete to work with.

I’ve found this to be 100 percent true of fiction writing. Sometimes you get a quick launch with a wonderful phrase that comes into your head, or an exciting idea that comes to you while driving. But even if you’ve gotten that gift, there will come a day when enthusiasm peters out, and you ask yourself that awful question – “What exactly was I thinking when I started this thing?” The only answer for that is to keep at it on the page.

In Gettysburg, one very smart girl asked me whether I just let the story unfold as it will, or whether I know in advance what’s going to happen. That’s a hard question, because whatever you think you know, stories do unfold at will. They’re wily, strong-headed things. And yet I don’t get very far before I start talking to myself in notes about the plot. I don’t like to fly blind, just wandering with language, unless I’m doing that to explore a character or an idea – to see what it is I’m actually thinking about. And so if I do wander, it’s in discrete lumps and for a specific reason. More often I sit down and ask myself questions – What’s this character like? What’s going to happen next? What needs to happen next? And then I write notes, telling myself the story, until one day those notes wake the language part of my brain up, and the voice comes. And even when that happens, there’s the long, hard middle of a story to contend with, where you keep having to circle back to that notes-to-voice process, until you reach the end.

So I guess I come to the conclusion that at on a macro level – the need for a bottom line of some sort, and the need (at least for me) to lay some scaffolding down before I fully immerse myself in language —  even an accounting memo and a novel have much in common.



“Bamboo Basket” by chokphoto, credit: Free Digital

When I used to teach writing to businesses, I would focus a lot on the “bottom line” – and, though I was teaching accountants, I didn’t mean the budgetary one. I meant the bottom line thought, the overall big thing they were trying to get across to the audience for their work. It’s remarkable how simple and yet important this concept is, because although life is made of the details, we can’t store them that way. So we group things, and the things we like to group best are ideas. When you read, you tend to unconsciously look for ways to put details in baskets. To teach this concept, I liked to play a game with my students, whether they were high schoolers or consultants. Here’s how it goes:

Sink, refrigerator, table, oven . . . what’s the bigger idea? Kitchen. Easy to see when you do it with concrete items. Now how about this one: beauty, truth, wisdom, altruism . . . what’s the bigger idea? It’s a little harder here, since these are ideas, rather than things. The bigger idea, though, is ideals. Getting the hang of it?

Young kids tend to start out learning this by its opposite. Anyone who’s seen Sesame Street is probably familiar with the “one of these things is not like the other” game. (I can hear the song in my head right now.) In that game, kids see four items in a group, and one is different. Big Bird, for example, has three small bowls of bird seed, and one huge one. Cookie Monster has four plates of cookies, but one has more than the others. Some studies have shown that even in infancy, kids can spot these differences. It’s not a huge leap from there to group the things that are the same – and that, I think, is the beginning of abstract thinking.

This works well when you’re writing for work or school, but the interesting thing to me lately is how this basket-bottom-line idea is turned on its head when you’re writing a novel. There, while you may be aware of the larger idea, call it the theme, you don’t generally build from it. Instead, you start with a voice, a character, a detail, and let it grow. And still, it grows to something bigger, something that ultimately will be a bottom line, at least symbolically. So I guess the novelist is more like the person going out and picking berries, one after the other. In the end, it makes a pie, or jam. But you don’t get there without picking each juicy piece off the bush and putting it into the basket.




File:AWizardOfEarthsea(1stEd).jpgSachar - Holes Coverart.png

(image source: Wikipedia)

Last week I talked about voice in writing, and how important it is to “touch the mind” of your character. Now, admittedly, voice is a slippery term. If you look it up in M.H. Abrams’ famous A Glossary of Literary Terms, you might find yourself confused, because voice there is strictly about the author behind the work. He says: “We have the sense of a pervasive presence, a determinate intelligence and moral sensibility, which has selected, ordered, rendered, and expressed these literary materials in just this way.”

Well, yes. But for me, the word voice encompasses a lot more than just that. I use it to mean tone, too, and the atmosphere of the book. So, if you’ll allow me my less than rigorous definition, let’s explore why voice makes such a difference in a book.

Working with high school students a while back, I used to like to pull out great examples of narrative voice so they could hear how differently sentences can hit the ear, and how much that rhythm can establish the emotional feel of the book. Here’s an example:

From A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursual LeGuin:

“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea.”

Compare that one to this:

From Holes, by Louis Sachar:

“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.”

Both of these examples open up books in which there’s some kind of magic going on. But LeGuin’s rolling, slow sentences reflect the waves of the island world she’s made, somewhere far away and filled with legend. She’s writing myth. Sachar’s staccato sentences and simple vocabulary tell us we’re going to be very much in the here-and-now, in a world where you’d better be a little bit cynical if you want to survive. His magic is going to come as a surprise.

So voice builds the world as much as it builds the characters and their points of view. That’s why it’s so wonderful, and why books, in my mind, will always be the best form in which to tell stories. Movies are wonderful, big, and full of things to enjoy, but movies are mostly about what you see. Books are all about what you hear. And since the dawn of time, stories have been taken in, first, through the ear. Next time I’m planning to explore a little more of why that might be.