#momlife, #writerslife

Humor me with a flashback: When I was thirteen I was positive I was going to be the next Emily Dickinson with the romantic idealism of wasting away in our farmhouse attic and writing poetry that would one day be famous.  The purpose of this flashback is to offer an anecdote to show I’ve been writing and have wanted to be a writer for a long time. I wrote my first story when I was eight, so writing is a formative experience on my timeline from then to the present. But this reflection isn’t so much about the past as it is about how it informs the present.

I was twenty-seven when I had my first child. A girl. Looking back, I’d only just slipped on my adult shoes: I’d been out of college for three years and just started my professional life as an educator. When she was born, remembering life before her was difficult because it felt like life had just begun.

My Baby Girl: she had attitude from the moment she was born.

My Baby Girl: she had attitude from the moment she was born.

I took a year off to be a stay-at-home mom. During that year, I got to know my daughter, and in between being exhausted and enamored, I wrote my first novel. It was a historical romance novel with an amnesia twist. (I know. I know. We all have to begin somewhere. It is in a drawer where it belongs). This milestone provided me the experience that I COULD be a mom, and I COULD write a book.

At twenty-seven, I was pretty sure I had it all together. I don’t remember thinking: I’m changed, but looking back, I see now I began to redefine myself. Maybe some mothers would say the redefinition begins during pregnancy, but in my experience, my shift toward motherhood was relegated to healthy choices and weight gain. I still felt like myself - only, slightly better. It was after Baby Girl was born motherhood began to reshape my identity. It shaved down my edges into a smoother more pliable version of myself. It challenged my perceptions and pushed me to learn and seek new understandings about previously held opinions. I began to understand what it means to be selfless.

As a writer, I am a self-centered person. Let me clarify: I don’t mean SELFISH. That’s different. I mean my focus is centered around whatever is happening in my head. I think most creatives and artists can relate. Becoming a parent insisted I reorient. My time was no longer my time alone.

My daughter took this of me - I was sitting at the computer attempting to write. This was about the fifth time she’d interrupted me.

My daughter took this of me - I was sitting at the computer attempting to write. This was about the fifth time she’d interrupted me.

I continued to write, but it was between things like breastfeeding, working, commuting to and from work, feeding the family, playtime, bath time, book time, and bedtime. And Baby Girl was a strong willed child, so nothing ever went as planned. Thank goodness there were two of us. There wasn’t much time left.

Baby number two arrived four years later. I had my Baby Boy. And I returned to being a Stay-at-Home mom with him. I got to know my little guy, who is so different than his big sister, the epitome of happy and content. I began to write again. This time I completed two romantic suspense novels set in Hawaii. Queried and was rejected.

He was only a week old when I took this picture. He hasn’t stopped smiling.

He was only a week old when I took this picture. He hasn’t stopped smiling.

Then I went back to work, but this time, I worked at the school where my now school-aged children began. My identity hovered around my children, my family, and my work. Writing took a back seat - as usual - but not because I couldn’t. It was because that was my choice. I still wrote, but sustaining any writing was difficult. So, in between new ideas that I’d list in a notebook, I spent ten years writing and rewriting a YA novel, a paranormal romance. Queried and rejected multiple times over and over. I put it away, sure I was never meant to be a writer.

Life twists and turns. I changed jobs and focused on my career as a teacher. It hosted my identity and made me feel validated because it is something at which I excel while my writing faced rejection after rejection. Writing - my writing - was given only the time I provided to my journaling students but somewhere in the mix, I rewrote that YA again, removing all of the paranormal elements. I don’t know why. An exercise perhaps.


Where does the time go? We blink and the distance between events expands.


Suddenly, I have a daughter moving away to college and a son starting high school. Time devoted to them and our family stretches out before me. I’ve heard many mother’s lament the loss of their babies. I feel it. I see pictures of my babies, my children as toddlers, each stage a beautiful dance all the way through. I feel joy and poignant loss. And then I see pictures of myself and think: I don’t recognize you. But I don’t feel lost. In a way, I feel reborn.

I took a leave of absence from teaching this year. As my I transition from a mom of independent children, I’ve had the opportunity to look more closely at myself. The mom duties have changed now, have reoriented from all my time to some of it. I’ve had the opportunity to help my son transition to high school, be available for college freshman woes, but the need for mom has waned significantly other than to be a nag about homework, a taxi and a hug.


And there it was - time. Stretched out like a ribbon wrapped around a gift. I could write again.


So I have. I’ve dug in. I rewrote that YA. It’s independently published. I wrote the second book in the series. It’s Independently published too. I’m revising the third book in the series, and it will be independently published later this year. I completed Nanowrimo this year with 70,000 on a new book and a host of ideas in that notebook. I still have time for my family, they just don’t need as much of it.


What I would tell myself as a young mother now that I’ve lived her reality: Don’t worry about your time. You will get it back. Enjoy every moment of these children - even the difficult parts. It goes so very quickly.

Now, I look in the mirror and think: I know you. I knew you when you were thirteen and thought you’d be Emily Dickinson. I laugh at my reflection and think: There’s time. There’s time.

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Character and Conflict Part2: Motivation

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Having read - a lot - a definite way for me to want to throw a book at the wall is when the narrative either loses sight of the conflict or an author struggles to develop one. As a reader, a lack of or an unclear conflict can feel like sitting in a staff meeting without a purpose. Whether you’re a writer who wants to write a more cohesive story, or a reader who’s developing their critique technique, one thing to look for in respect to believable and developed conflict is the main character’s motivation.

Characters - if developed as a round, dynamic, fleshed out character - are motivated to act. Their movements don’t just spontaneously combust into forward movement for the sake of moving plot. If they do, there is a problem with author insertion and adding to a reader’s awareness of a plot feeling contrived. If you aren’t sure why a character makes a choice in the action or dialogue, or feel confused by it, chances are the character’s motivation isn’t clearly defined or the author is intruding.

With respect to characterization and conflict: do you ask your protagonist, antagonist these questions?

With respect to characterization and conflict: do you ask your protagonist, antagonist these questions?

Motivation for a character, just like in our own lives outside of the pages, can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is the internal means of propelling a character based on internal desires. Harry Potter, for example, in The Sorcerer and the Stone (J.K. Rowling) was motivated to understand who he was outside the Dursleys. He wanted to know more about his past which propelled him on a journey toward personal enlightenment. Intrinsic motivation. Frodo Baggins, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (JRR Tolkien), however, was motivated to get the one ring out of the Shire in order to keep his home safe from an external danger. Extrinsic motivation. While the stories begin with a specific sort of motivation - internal or external - this doesn’t mean the motivation won’t change. We see both Harry and Frodo undergo changes along the journey to change what motivates their choices, just as that occurs in our own lives.

I took a wonderful class many years ago that helped me as a creative writer. The class was called The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt. Character motivation was one idea which really stuck with me. A simple tool Mr. Watt presented which I have used over and over in my own writing is the following sentence:


If (Main Character) can (fill in the blank) then s/he can (fill in the blank).

Here’s an example from Star Wars: A New Hope:


If Luke Skywalker can get off Tatooine then he can be happy.


This is Luke’s reality in the opening of the movie. A clear motivation which propels his curiosity. The longer we follow his journey, however, his initial motivation shifts as the he moves forward in the hero’s journey. When his family is murdered, his motivation shifts. This is a mirror to reality; our motivation is constantly shifting based on attained goals, redefined wants, and personal desires.

So to mirror Luke’s shift in motivation:

If Luke Skywalker can help the rebellion he can avenge his family’s death.

It is important to follow the motivation to the root, however. As the above example shows there are still questions: Why does Luke want to avenge his family?

If Luke can avenge his family then he can clear his conscious for leaving them.

A round and dynamic character’s motivation will always modify and shift as the journey shapes her; that is what makes her more relatable to readers. These changes in motivation whether intrinsic or extrinsic are often rooted in the journey (which if you aren’t familiar with Chris Vogler’s work on the Joseph Campbell monomyth be sure to look it up). As the story moves forward, the motivation serves as a guide for interaction with other characters, propels the main character’s choices, and determines forward action which is believable rather than contrived.

Think about your favorite novel or your current work in progress. Can you create an If/can, then/can statement?

Up Next: Pacing your story . . .





Character and Conflict, part one: Types of Conflict

As a reader, a teacher of literature, and a writer, next to character, conflict is the most critical element of literature. Conflict, the problem which the main character must overcome, is what drives the story from beginning to end. The conflict is that which makes the audience cheer or jeer. It is what keep us opening the book and reading into the wee hours of the morning. Conflict is what builds tension and explores the very essence of our own psyche. Haven’t you ever thought: what would I do in that situation?

A good book has a clear, relatable and exciting conflict. It’s what keeps us reading.

A good book has a clear, relatable and exciting conflict. It’s what keeps us reading.

Without conflict, the plot line flattens out. In a previous blog, I explored the difference between a character-driven story and a plot-driven one, and would say that regardless of how the story is driven, conflict is still present and necessary. A plot line in either case is still essential to move narrative from beginning to end, and is only able to occur because conflict is present.

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The types of conflict we find in stories are categorized as follows:

  • Character (protagonist) versus Character (antagonist)

Character versus Character is the tried and true conflict of one person against another (or a few others). Think:  Harry versus Voldemort, Luke versus Darth Vader, Katniss Everdeen against President Snow.

The typical conflict: one character versus another.

The typical conflict: one character versus another.

  • Character versus Society

Character versus society is the exploration of a character’s conflict with the ideals or constructs of the society in which their journey takes place.  For example, while Katniss Everdeen is pitted against the power struggle with President Snow (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins), the conflict also delves into what President Snow and District One represent (opulence and classism, abuse of power, etc). Or in Harry Potter’s journey in the The Order of The Phoenix, the character versus character is maintained with his conflict with Voldemort, but there is added complexity in the struggle against the Ministry of Magic which include fascism, racism, and abuse of power. A favorite example, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nick’s descent in the high society of 1920’s New York. These society constructs force the character to take a stand or change perspective which stretch the tension and develop the conflict.

  • Character versus Nature

Character versus nature is the survival story. This is the main character facing the destruction of a natural disaster,  hunger in a famine, or being lost in the woods and finding a way to survive the long winter. Think: Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet or The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin.

Elements of nature provide conflict.

Elements of nature provide conflict.

  • Character versus Self

Character versus self is the tried and true struggle to overcome personal attitudes and perceptions. In Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, for example, Junior must face his perceptions about himself as a Native American to determine his worth.

Though this isn’t strictly character versus self, I would argue that many novels don’t adhere to only one conflict which is a mirror to the reality of our own human experience. We struggle with ourselves, but simultaneously we struggle with our boss, or our spouse, or our parents, or our children, and at the same time with what we hear is happening on the news. Conflict in our lives doesn’t happen in isolation and often doesn’t for our characters either. In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Scout struggles with societal perceptions about race and gender (character versus society) while at the same time learning about her own understanding of those things (character versus self). In a recent story I read called I am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall, the main character faces her inner conflict coping with a new disability after an accident while trying to survive alone in the wild, AND eventually facing off with her father’s murderers. Three conflicts layered into the hero’s journey of this character (believe it or not, it worked!)

The internal struggle is the epitome of character versus self.

The internal struggle is the epitome of character versus self.

If you examine your current Work In Progress or the novel you’re currently reading, can you identify the conflict? I’m reading Cassandra Clare’s Queen of Air and Darkness and I’m not sure I can at 200 pages of 800 . . . there’s a lot going on (and I might want to throw the book at the wall) but more on that later..

Next up: I’ll explore the idea of character motivation and the tried and true magic statement I learned that has helped me stay on point.




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Point of View and Writing

In the act of writing, I don’t think I have ever made a conscious decision when beginning to write a new story about point of view.  What I mean by that is, I don’t think I sat down and planned in conscious manner I would be writing in first person or third person, omniscient. I wonder if any writer does? I’d love to hear from them.

In my process, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, new ideas, new characters, often come in snippets, so when I sit down to explore the snippet further, I just write and by write, I mean word-vomit whatever is going on in my mind. I don’t think about the point of view, I just go for it. To review: Point of view is the way a story is written. There are three points of view: first, second and third, but to complicate things third can broken up into two types: third person, limited and third person, omniscient.

First person is when the character writes in a way that places the reader in an intimate place within his thought process, as if reading the character’s journal. The first person perspective uses pronouns like I, me, we, us. Swimming Sideways and The Ugly Truth are written in first person point of view.

Second person is when the reader becomes the character. Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? Those were written in 2nd person and replied on the pronoun you to include the reader as the protagonist of the tale. This isn’t a frequently utilized point of view, however a great example is Freewill by Chris Lynch (A YA Mystery and a Printz Honor Award Winner published in 2001).

Finally, third person is the removal of the audience from the story by placing them outside of the action but providing them with a bird’s eye view. This is done by using pronouns like he, she, them, they. Not a part of the action but witness to it, the audience is afforded the opportunity to understand a character without being connected to them. First person, limited, is when the point of view (narration) never leaves the experience of a single character. We see this happen a lot in YA literature when an author identifies which character she is writing to explore various character’s experiences. Several examples of this third person, limited are Leigh Bardugo’s Crooked Kingdom or Veronica Roth’s Divergent, and an all-time favorite work of fiction - J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  Third person, omniscient, then, is when the narration of the story is god-like, and the impact of events and thoughts of characters can be explored at will. Examples include Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

Want more examples of different POV?  Click here.

Want more examples of different POV? Click here.

Writers, then, often grapple with which point of view do I choose? If you google it, the answer is often: whichever one suits your story best. Hah! Thanks for nothing.

If you remember the story of the creation of Swimming Sideways, it was initially a very different story. A paranormal teen romance with angels and demons, the first time I wrote it, it was in third person, limited. I switched back and forth between Abby’s perspective, Seth’s and Gabe’s. The style of the story which worked to keep the reader outside - looking in - and distant made third person a logical choice. When we think about stories that incorporate extensive world-building, this is often the case.  Swimming Sideways was revised to a very character-driven story which lost the paranormal elements altogether. When this happened, I made the decision to change the third person, limited view to a first person in order to make it more personal between the character and the reader. Successful? The jury is out.

For me, making the decision as to which sort of point of view to write a story is linked to character and goals. Is the story character-driven or plot-driven? What level of emotion am I building into the conflict (more on conflict in a later post)? The analysis of my goals will often answer the question for me. While, I haven’t found a tried and true methodology to identify which POV to write my stories, I would say that by reading (a lot), I have been given maps to understand POV and successful implementation of each.

Do you have a specific methodology for choosing POV? Comment and discuss below!

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Character: Conversations

When I tell people that my characters “talk” to me, I often get the look that indicates I might have a screw loose. Well, maybe I do. One of those tiny screws like on a pair of eyeglasses which needs one of those tiny special screwdrivers, because honestly, the rest of me is pretty factory settings.

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When I say a character “talks to me” it’s literal. There is a voice inside my head carrying on a conversation. Sometimes it’s a one-sided monologue as the character tells me about something. Other times it’s a dialogue between the character and me. I become a reporter asking pointed questions trying to get to know him or her better. It’s an intricate mental dance. Okay, maybe not intricate, but certainly a dance.

The thing is, and I think lots of writers would say this. A character steps into the mind's eye in pieces. Maybe a smile that makes me curious, or maybe a one liner to another character which shocks me. And then I’m off and mentally running after her to understand what I just learned. “Why did you say that?” I might ask. It’s the dialogue - the talking - which fleshes out the character into a living being in my imagination. I will ask: what’s your favorite pizza. Seth said: Pepperoni. Abby said: I don’t really like pizza; cheese disagrees with me. Oh dear! I responded because cheese is like my favorite food. Gabe said: all the meats, to which I grimaced because I prefer veggie pizza.

In the development of my characters from main characters to secondary characters, I work to get to know them. I’ve noticed both as a reader and a writer, it is these details which help a character jump from the page. Understanding a favorite color, or favorite band, or whether she cleans her room or not helps the character become three dimensional not only for the writer but for the reader. For example: Seth keeps his room neat. Why? What is the underlying reason for this teenage boy to be so orderly and particular about his room? After talking to him, I learned it was about control. The detail - random at first - took on more meaning when I understood why.

Seth’s story.

Seth’s story.

In my writer’s process, what might begin as a conversation in my head leads to a sketched out conversation in my writing journal. The dialogue becomes questions I have followed by the character’s answers. I have learned when I get stuck in a particular scene, or in the narrative of the larger story’s picture, if I take some time to talk, the dialogue often clears up the jam.

An example from one of my writing journals. The highlight is me as the author asking questions.

An example from one of my writing journals. The highlight is me as the author asking questions.

As a reader, consider your favorite literary characters. I have a theory that the authors took some time to really understand the characters to help them leap from the page. As a writer: if you haven’t tried this (and probably most of us have) take some time to “talk” with your character. It’s easy. Start small with a “favorites” list, but as you continue, get to know their “greatest secret” or ask “the biggest fear.” Understand the nuances of the character whether it makes it into the story or not, and the character might walk from the page.

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Swimming Sideways Play List

Music - for me - is a means of connection between my feet on the earth and my creative head in the clouds. It’s as though I’m plugging myself into an electrical outlet to run the current between my brain and my soul. It speaks to me in a way that allows me to plug into the protagonist and the narrative.  

Ear buds save my life in public places and in a living room where my boys watch TV.

Ear buds save my life in public places and in a living room where my boys watch TV.


One of my writing tools is to develop a playlist for whichever work is in progress (so Spotify is one of my favorite apps!). Whenever I’m working on the work-in-progress, that playlist is rolling. Though, the list doesn’t necessarily stay the same as the narrative changes (the playlist gets edited just like the work itself) eventually it gets to place in which the vibe is perfect to the story and the tone I imagine.

As I worked through the writing process for Swimming Sideways (Cantos Chronicles, Book One), the following songs became the playlist that I clung to like a life raft as I was swept up into the story. They are in no particular order.

  1. Oceans Away by A R I Z O N A, Mansionair Remix

  2. Nani Koolau by Keauhou

  3. Girl by SYML

  4. Waves by Hayden Calnin

  5. Ocean Eyes by Billie Eilish

  6. Tomorrow’s Song by Olafur Arnalds

  7. Brassy Sun by S. Carey

  8. Tomorrow’s Song by Olafur Arnalds

  9. Kewalu Uka by Keauhou

  10. Souvenirs by Kina Grannis

  11. Pteryla by Novo Amor and Ed Tullett

  12. Māpuana Kuʻu Aloha by Keauhou