Books by Melissa Bowersock

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Joys of Journaling

Some people might think that writing is writing is writing. However, while writing fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter) gives voice to the creative spirit inside of us, journaling fulfills an entirely different function. Some might view journaling as simply diary-writing; jotting down the events of the day with a bit of interpretation and/or reaction thrown in for good measure. And for some, that might be useful enough. I use journaling more as a self-help psychotherapy.

I am probably pre-disposed to journaling, since I love to write anyway. What might have pushed me further along that path was the fact that I grew up an introvert in a family of introverts and had an older sister who tended to bully me. Like most situations of this kind of sibling dominance, if I told my parents that my sister had hit me, I got it worse the next time we were alone, so I learned early on that “telling” was not productive. Instead I turned my voice inward, writing on paper the things that I did not feel able to say out loud.

I now journal for several different reasons.

I journal when I do not want to forget about an incident or the way I’m feeling. Ten years ago when my parents died (both within a 2 week period), I journaled extensively about their process and mine. I knew time would fade the memories and I did not want to forget how their world shrank down smaller and smaller, how everything fell away except the here and now, feeling, seeing, hearing and smelling. I did not want to forget how the changes in their bodies and minds affected me and my life as I worked to respond to their changing needs. I did not want to forget the medical concessions we made and why, deciding to wait it out when my mother refused to go to the hospital, agreeing to honor her decision when she began refusing food. On paper I could express the dread that I felt when my father quit painting, since being creative was his reason for living. Depressing as this might sound, it was important to me to remember the entire process, watching them become less and less able, trying to keep them comfortable, coming to terms with the introduction of Hospice, accepting the inevitable. The process was at once heart-breaking, educational, insightful and liberating. I wanted to remember every bit of it, not only because I experienced so much and learned so much, but also as a reference for the day when I reach a similar point.

I journal when I have a conflict I can’t seem to resolve. I have found that often when I’m having a conflict with another person, if I keep it all inside my head, I end up on a hamster wheel just going round and round and getting nowhere. In order to tease out the points of contention, I write about it, detailing the evolution of the process from start to finish, and then I can begin to understand it and resolve it. At one time I was president of a small non-profit organization and one of the board members came to me with a complaint regarding other board members. Her complaint was valid and I agreed that I would support her in whatever way she chose to resolve it. What I didn’t count on was that the method she chose involved deceiving and manipulating the other board members. When she told me her plan, I realized there was no way I could condone it.

She was surprisingly upset. I had trouble understanding her anger, as her plan was so obviously dishonest, but I had promised her my support and now I was going back on my word. We were both locked into our positions and could not find a common ground. Each of us thought the other was out of line; each of us thought our own position trumped the other’s, and we could find no compromise.

I began to journal. I kept going over and over the fact that she was asking me to do something that was blatantly against my better judgment, and as president I needed to act with the utmost integrity. I could not fathom how she could possibly see this disrespectful entrapment as a viable, healthy solution. I seemed stuck on this point, but kept writing, kept looking at it from different angles, kept trying to find the key.

Then it struck me. I put myself in her position and I remembered someone else who had promised me unconditional support and then had not delivered on it. This was a relationship that had colored my life from very early on, but over the years I had finally come to terms with the fact that the other person simply did not have the strength of will to keep his promise. I realized that if I had been like the board member and had insisted on that support at all costs, I would have been asking him to act completely out of character and beyond his limits. I also realized that people who care about each other do not demand that others try to be what they are not.

Now it became clear to me. The problem was not that I could not support the devious method she had devised. The problem was that I had given her my unconditional support in the first place. I had no business giving her such a blanket approval as I had no idea what she would come up with. I had (incorrectly) believed that she would devise a plan that would be honest and honorable. It never occurred to me that she would not. But that was where I made my mistake. I gave her my unconditional support without knowing what she would plan.

We had already arranged to meet again to see if we could resolve the issue, and I went to the meeting with a surprisingly clear conscious and light heart. Although I still could not support her plan as I’m sure she would have liked, I had a clear sense of my own error and readily admitted my mistake. Just making amends for my part in the conflict and being totally honest about it seemed to clear the air. She may have been disappointed, but she did agree to rethink the plan. That was all I could ask for.

Writing about conflict like this can be difficult and cast a harsh light on unflattering behaviors, but can also be intensely liberating. Sometimes journaling reveals the other person’s mistaken ideas; sometimes it reveals my own. There are times when I may discover that the other person’s view and mine are both valid, yet at odds, and there is a form of resolution in agreeing to disagree. If I can tease out my part in the problem, correct my position if I’m wrong, validate my position if I’m right, then I can be at peace with the conflict, even if the other person sees it differently. Journaling does not mean that every conflict is resolved to the satisfaction of both people, but my own journaling can bring me to closure on my part of it, which is all I have any control over anyway.

I journal when life throws me for a loop. When something happens in my life that body-slams me, I write about it. I write to understand the event, where it came from and why I didn’t see it coming, why it hit me so hard, what it means to me. When I was called by a doctor’s office and told I had a lump in my breast and needed to have a lumpectomy and a biopsy, that was a major body-slam. Although my family had breast cancer in past generations, I had done all the “right” things to counteract it; I ate a healthy diet, I exercised, I did therapeutic work to value and nurture the feminine, and yet here I was faced with this dreaded thing anyway. I felt betrayed, cheated, and I journaled through a flurry of pages, ranting and raving and crying about the injustice of it all. When I had written myself out, vented out all my whining and crying and arguing, I was left with only one thing—I still had this procedure to go through. Yes, I had taken care of myself—and I still had this procedure to go through. I had done all the right things—and I still had this procedure to go through. I shouldn’t have to do this—and I still had this procedure to go through. I had vented everything I was thinking and feeling through my journaling and when all was said and done, I had come down to this final realization … and acceptance. It was as powerful a therapy session as I could have had with any facilitator.

Journaling is instructive; it’s fun (unless you hate to write); it’s insightful. It captures the moment; it distills the experience. It clarifies and untangles. It can tell us where we’ve been and where we’re going. While writing fiction is story-telling at its best, journaling is telling our story, uniquely personal and supremely satisfying. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


I love to write. I think most “normal” people hate to write. I remember back before e-mail when I would exchange letters with friends and relatives, and as soon as I got a letter from one of them I would love sitting down to write a reply. They would often complain that I wrote back too soon, thereby putting the ball back in their court so they were on the hook again for something that was obviously a dreaded chore. I can’t even count the number of people who, after learning that I’ve written several books, say they could never do that. I’ve even heard people say that staring at a blank sheet of paper intimidates the hell out of them. I love starting with a nice, clean blank sheet; the possibilities are endless.

But all that aside, that doesn’t mean that I write constantly. I do have to be motivated. In my earlier blogs about inspiration, I mention how some writers discipline themselves to sit down and write X number of hours (or pages) every day. I used to envy people who did that, because I just couldn’t do it and it seemed very ambitious and very professional. Over the years I have tried it and it just doesn’t work for me. Whatever I write when I am unmotivated (and/or uninspired) is just crap, and that to me is a waste of time. Why should I discipline myself to write if I’m only going to throw it all away at the end of the day? I see no purpose in that whatsoever. So if I’m not motivated, if I’m not inspired, I don’t write.

Most of the time that’s not a problem. If I don’t schedule my writing, there are no deadlines to keep, no quotas to meet. If I do, I do; if I don’t, I don’t. I’ve always had a “day job” and only sold completed manuscripts. I have never sold a book on spec, never had an editor or publisher standing over my shoulder waiting for pages. I’d have a lot of trouble with pressure like that. No, I work on a book until it feels done, then figure out the publishing aspect. Since I’ve turned to self-publishing, it’s all done on my time, at my pace, and on my very undisciplined schedule. The story is the thing that keeps me motivated and moving forward, not someone else’s sense of time.

But that also means I have dry spells. I have gone days, weeks, months, even years without writing a thing. Years ago when I was prioritizing and reorganizing my personal life, I had no energy left for writing. It was all going into my reinvention of myself. Most of the time that was fine as I had plenty of other things to think about, and I had already written 5 books and published 2. But when this particular dry spell stretched into years, I began to wonder if—and fear that—I would never write again. That was scary to contemplate.

Luckily not a problem. Somewhere along the line I had the dream that inspired Goddess Rising, and I was off to the races again. This was one of those stories that grabbed me by the throat and would not let go; I couldn’t not write it. It took two years to write, in between all the other stuff that I was doing, but eventually it got done. And I’ve never had a dry spell like that since.

Now, after having been through that spell and coming out of it, I don’t question my motivation or lack thereof. I know I will write. Maybe not today, but I will write. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not according to anyone else’s schedule, maybe not with any discipline or plan.

But I will write.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Writing combines two basic things: good story and good characters. Movies provide a great way to illustrate this point. We’ve all seen movies that had a terrific story, but the characters were flat, two-dimensional or totally unbelievable so the story labored and never quite got off the ground. Or, conversely, we’ve seen so-so stories that had brilliant characters; the movie itself may have been totally forgettable but the characters stayed with you. The same is true in writing (where, of course, all movies get their start). Any story-telling, whether visual or literary, needs a strong story and equally strong characters.

Another similarity between writing a good character and portraying one in film or on stage is being true to the character. If you’ve studied acting or even read lightly about the craft, you may have heard discussions about this. It’s all about finding out who the character is intrinsically, then speaking and acting in accord with that innermost essence. Can you imagine Rhett Butler worrying that his daffodils were wilting? Or Scarlett O’Hara bursting into tears because someone didn’t like her dress? Knowing what we know about those characters, neither of those actions would fit; they would not be “true” to the essence of the characters. In writing, as I’m shaping the character, I have to be constantly aware of that trueness; I have to hold every action and every line of dialog up to the standard for that character and make sure it’s authentic to them.

But then again, sometimes the characters can surprise you!

Here are some common questions I get asked about characters.

Do you model your characters on people you know?

Rarely. I have begun the development of a character with a real person in mind, but very quickly the character evolves and develops far beyond that initial core, so even though some similarities remain, the two are vastly different. More often a character may be a composite, having a few qualities from one person, more from another. The major truth is, however, that characters really do take on a life of their own and stand apart from anyone I actually know.

Do you model your characters on yourself?

 Again, rarely. I could probably tease out a few qualities of my own from any of my protagonists, but what I would find would be those qualities that are pretty basic to all human beings.

Do you like your characters?

My emotional reactions to my different characters are as varied as the human population. Some of them I love, some I pretty much hate, some I like and some I barely notice.

Do all characters have flaws?

If you want them to be interesting (and human!), they do.  Remember Lancelot in Camelot? At the first he was agonizingly perfect (and humbly proud of it), proclaiming his invincibility to any arrows of love or war. It’s only after he falls in love with Guinevere that he gets really interesting and must grapple with his own flaws and the mess they make of his friendship with Arthur and his life. The flaw is what creates the conflict that must be overcome and also leaves room for growth. The flaw not only shows us that the character is human, but is also the opening for change, for introspection and for resolution. As Marion Woodman says, “God comes through the wound.”

Greer, the protagonist in Goddess Rising, is the prophesied savior of the world, yet she is fraught with flaws. She is by turns giving and selfish, thoughtful and thoughtless, charitable and merciless. She is touched by and guided by the Great Goddess, but never wanted this “gift,” and struggles almost constantly with doubt. You might think a savior, chosen by the Goddess, would be divinely immune to the shortcomings of the human race, but Greer is definitely human and definitely has her failings.

In the ghost story I’m currently writing, my protagonist is a very successful, very accomplished businessman who has the world by the tale. He’s handsome, intelligent, affluent, has a thriving business and a gorgeous girlfriend. But in listening to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s unorthodox version of the Christmas song What Child is This, I realized they had him pegged. A section of the song describes a man this way:

Holding on, holding off
Holding out, holding in

That’s my guy.

How do you choose the names for your characters?

Some of my favorite books are Baby Name books. I can sit and go through one of those for hours, highlighting possible names, jotting notes in the margins about potential characters. Same thing with the phone book. I know; most people would find the phone book to be stultifyingly boring, but I can get lost in it. Those are both great resources for names.

As to choosing names, it’s an intangible combination of the commonplace, the unusual, the sound and the number of syllables. I was going to say it is probably similar to the process any prospective parents go through, yet I am not restricted by family names or names of relatives as parents might be. For me, the possibilities are endless. I have, at times, chosen a name for a character and then later changed it or amended it, but that’s rare. Usually if I’m happy enough with a name to attach it to a character, it stays.

Who is your favorite character?

My two most favorite characters are Owen Meany (A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving) and Celeste Chalfonte (Six of One by Rita Mae Brown). Of my own books, my favorite characters are (in no particular order):

Walking Bear (Superstition Gold)
Graydon Cole (Remember Me)
Lucas Shay (Lightning Strikes)
Jory Donnelly (The Rare Breed)

Hmm; funny how they’re mostly male. And none of them are the main female protagonist. Some are wise (Walking Bear, Balat, Hannah), some are intense (Graydon, Lucas), some are funny (Igli, Jory, Franklin). The connecting factor is that they are all agents of change and play the foil to the main protagonist and challenge him/her to grow, whether directly and deliberately, subtly (with humor) or even accidentally. More to hmmm about.

No doubt I could write another column all about psychotherapy and what my characters say about me. But we’ll let that one slide.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Inspiration, Part II (Great books)

The one thing that always inspires me and spurs me to write is reading great books. I don’t mean great books as in the classics or the usual headliners of modern literature; I mean books that, to my mind, are very nearly flawless in their story-telling.

My vote for probably the best book on the planet has to go to A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Unfortunately John Irving can be streaky, so if you’ve read other books by him and have come away unimpressed, you owe it to yourself to give him one last chance with Owen Meany. This is undoubtedly the pinnacle of his work, head and shoulders above any of his other books. I honestly cannot imagine how he could ever top it. In this regard, it’s much like The Stand for Stephen King. Compared to The Stand, all King’s other books are pale shadows.

But back to Owen Meany. It’s a tough book to describe. It’s a coming-of-age story and a great American novel; it’s highly irreverent but intensely spiritual; it’s a tragedy but it’s laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a scathing indictment of America and the Viet Nam era and a heartfelt testament to friendship and family. I’m sure I’ve read it 20-30 times and it still makes me laugh and cry by turns.

What’s interesting to me is the manner in which John Irving writes. He tells the story in a loosely chronological order, yet while he’s doing that, he’s all over the map. His story-telling wanders from pillar to post, yet always impels the reader slowly and irrevocably forward. Whenever I re-read the book in an analytical mood, I try to dissect that amazing disorganized-but-not style, and yet every time I get so caught up in the story itself, I forget all about the technique. I’ve never seen anyone else do this as easily and masterfully as Irving does; matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else do it at all.

In addition to that, Irving’s characters are vibrant and vital, completely three dimensional and so forceful that they almost come off the page at you. Even the less intense personalities are completely alive as Irving offhandedly drops clues about their strengths, their foibles and fears. He develops characters and backdrop so easily, it’s hard to remember exactly when the story began playing as a movie in your mind. (I should note here that the first 1/3 of the book was made into a movie called Simon Birch. Apparently because the movie was such a truncated version of the story, the name was changed, which I think was a good thing. I’d love to see the whole story told in a mini-series, as it would have to be to do it right. The movie is all right as far as it goes, but the book is significantly better.)

My second favorite book in all the world is Six of One by Rita Mae Brown. Most will remember Brown’s breakout gay novel, Rubyfruit Jungle. As sensational as that was at the time, the story-telling can’t compare to Six of One. Like Owen Meany, it details the exploits of a close-knit group of characters, primarily two sisters growing up in a town divided by the Mason-Dixon Line where the Civil War still rages on obscure metaphorical battlegrounds. The characters are wonderful, each one a masterpiece—even the ones you love to hate. As with Owen Meany, Brown finds the perfect combination of laugh-out-loud humor and heartbreaking pathos, often juxtaposed at surprising times. I’m sure I have laughed and cried my way through this one 20-30 times as well, and will do so again.

Other favorite books just a few rungs below those two are The Mirror by Marlys Millhiser and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

What all these books have in common is that they are beautifully written and I find that reading quality stories makes me want to write quality stories. Nothing revs me up more than reading a description of a character that is so alive and so vibrant I feel like I’ve just shaken hands with them, or reading dialog that is so real it feels like the transcription of a conversation caught by hidden cameras. This sense of appreciation and inspiration washes over me so completely that it often puts me in a quandary: do I put the book aside and start writing, or do I keep reading? It can be a real tug-of-war. When the tide of inspiration floods me like that, it’s very much like a real flood: you never know how much you’re going to get or how long it’s going to last. Because of that mercurial, unpredictable nature of inspiration, it’s best to just jump in and swim while you can before it all dries up.

The “problem” with inspiration is that you can’t manufacture it. I have known writers who sit down and write for X number of hours a day, every day. I’m sure writers that do that have various motivations that I could only guess at, but to me, that’s a waste of time. If I’m not inspired, what’s the point? I’ve tried writing “commercial” novels that fit all the criteria of a publisher (pretty much like pulling teeth), but what results is just dull, flat and basically garbage and I throw it away. If it doesn’t come from my heart, if it isn’t screaming to be set down on paper, if it doesn’t have me in a strangle-hold, I don’t write it. But when it does rise up from that well within, it flows so effortlessly, there’s no stopping it. I wrote my second novel, Superstition Gold (aka Love’s Savage Embrace) in three months while working a full-time job and writing only on lunch hours, evenings and weekends.  That one was in a great hurry to be born and just poured out. It is still one of my favorites.

But even if we can’t manufacture inspiration, we can still encourage it. We can open the tap and do the things that just might prime the pump and start the flow going. We can honor it and hold it gently in cupped hands, relate to it on its own terms and revel in it when it appears. We can merge our talents with it and create something new, something wonderful, something bigger than we ever thought we could.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Inspiration, Part I (Dreams)

Inspiration can come from anywhere. I mean literally—anywhere. There have been times when I’ve been driving down the street and I see a young woman in a beater car with three small kids inside and she’s got her window open, one hand languishing outside with a cigarette in it. A sad, cautionary tale seems to fasten itself like flesh to the bare bones image that flashes across my view and then disappears. Or I see a young man hitchhiking, his face stoic behind a three-day beard as he displays without hope a hand-drawn cardboard sign that says, “Portland, Or.” Filling in the blanks—where they’ve been, where they’re going—seems to come naturally and a story just waits to be plucked from the street and set down on paper. Or not.

On one of the writer’s forums in which I participate, there’s been a new thread asking about books that have been inspired by dreams. When I first saw the forum heading, I immediately perked up as one of my books, Goddess Rising, was such an inspiration. I actually thought that was a fairly rare occurrence (I’ve published 9 novels but this is the only one that I dreamed), but surprisingly, there’s been quite a number of people with similar stories. There’s even been a book written about writers and dreaming, and several books written about mystical artists. Obviously it’s not as rare as I thought it was.

The dream I had that inspired Goddess Rising was a fairly simple one, just the premise of the story. I dreamed about a young girl named Grace who lived in a colony of mostly women in a future time when the world had been decimated by a geologic holocaust. Grace, about 15 years old, was perfectly capable of being a fully contributing member of the colony, but because she was the last and youngest child of the group, the elder women tended to think of her as rather simple and unable to perform more than the most basic tasks. What they didn’t realize was that she would become Greer, the female savior that prophecy promised would lead them back to greatness.

As with all dreams, this one was clothed in feeling, and the sense of it went far beyond the mere description I have put down here. I knew when I got up the next morning that this was a story that needed to be told, and I jotted notes down as fast as I could before it evaporated. Unlike most dreams that fade over time, however, this one did not. Over the next several days, whole chunks of story would drop into my brain, major plot points or sections of dialog, and I was again scribbling notes as fast as I could to get it all down. Within days, I had the major thread, the major characters, unexpected plot twists and developments that seemed to arrive fully formed without any effort from my rational brain at all. I’ve never had a story “given” to me like this one was. Although I was familiar with channeling, I had never experienced it but I thought if I did, it would be something like this. There is a part of me still that feels that this is not my book at all, but was a gift from some other dimension.

I had this dream in 1987 and with it came a sense that I should get the story written and get it out into the world by the year 2000. Don’t ask me why; that part wasn’t revealed to me. I did what I could with it, but during the same time I was going through some major life events which kept claiming my attention and my energy. I found I was putting so much energy into re-inventing my life that I had none left for the story. It languished for quite a while; I think it took me about three years to finish it, but when I did, it felt like a major milestone.

I’m sure other writers get attached to their characters; for me the people in Goddess Rising were like the best and dearest friends with whom I loved spending time. You know that feeling you have sometimes when you’re reading a really good book and you can’t wait until you get to the end but at the same time you’re reluctant to finish it too quickly because it’s just too good? That’s how I felt writing this book. After years of working on it in fits and starts, I wanted very badly to finish it, but at the same time I felt a huge sadness in leaving these friends. As I closed in on the last page, the sense of leaving these people was almost painful. In the foreword I mention the fact that I cried when I finished it, and that’s true. I almost couldn’t stand the thought that I would never interact with these people in quite the same way again. It was saying goodbye forever to people who had become extremely important to me.

The good news was/is that I can go back and visit them any time I wish. True, reading the book is not the same as writing it, but it is a close second. When I miss Greer too much, miss Khassis and Hannah, I go back and read the book again. It still amazes me.

I missed the publication date it wanted, but not by much; it was published in 2001. At this writing, it has already worked through its first incarnation of publication, the publisher allowed the rights to revert back to me and I have self-published it through Create Space. It still holds a very special place in my heart and is different than any other book I have written. I guess it will stand alone until the next time a very special story demands to be set down on paper. And I have no idea if, or when, that might ever happen.

But I can dream, can’t I?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Editors and Editing

I’m guessing we’ve all seen movies about writers where they are best buddies with their editors and often sit down with a cup of coffee to go over the latest pages and discuss the progress of the book. I can’t imagine any process being as homey and nurturing and encouraging, and I think it’s complete hogwash. I can’t speak for mega-writers like Stephen King or Danielle Steel, but for the other 99.9% of us, that scenario is nothing but a fairy tale.

My first book was published in 1984 by a New York house. Their communications with me were probably as diametrically opposed to the above as they could be. Granted, the book was already complete when they optioned it, but they never suggested so much as a punctuation mark to me. The fact that they accepted the manuscript verbatim and had no editorial suggestions seemed like a silent nod of approval. I was rather quickly disabused of that notion, however, when I got a letter from them saying I needed to add 70 pages to get to the proper page count. The content of those pages―story line, plot points or character development―seemed to be of no concern whatsoever.

Being a newbie at this and wanting to do everything I could to make the book a success, I set about to add the 70 pages. Interestingly when I had originally written the book—a historical romance—I had gotten so sick of it by the time I neared the end that I had deliberately skipped over quite a bit of detail about living with the Cheyenne Indians. I still had the reference books and so proceeded to write the Indian section that I had originally planned, and since this was a couple years after the fact, it was fresh to me and not a laborious process.  When it was all said and done, I was grateful for the chance to round out the story in the way that I had originally envisioned.

The next communiqué was the “big reveal” of the name of the book. They had dubbed it Love’s Savage Destiny. Obviously my title, The Rare Breed, was much too tame, and obviously they did not care to have my input in the renaming as I was not even aware that process was going on. (After publication, my husband and I went to the nearest Waldenbooks to search for it. After much perusing of the romance section, he said, “There’s a lot of ‘savages’ here.” I think at that time, it was a prerequisite that all western romances have “savage” in the title.)

The final non-nurturing bit of communication came when I received a box of books … from my agent. I had no idea the book was done. I had received no notice of its publication or availability. They just shipped my free books to my agent and left it to him to send them to me. It seemed more like an afterthought: “Oh, and we need to send books to, um, what’s-her-name.” What’s-her-name, you mean the author? Yeah, that’s the one.

Meanwhile, my agent was shopping my next book around, but he was having no luck. He had thoughtfully sent me the rejection letters he had received, but when I realized he had not offered the book to the publisher of the first book, I went ahead and sent it to them. I’m not quite sure why this never occurred to him, but they jumped at it.

As before, they never uttered a word of editorial wisdom, just accepted the book as written. Oh, except for the fact that on this one I needed to cut 50 pages. The dreaded page count reared its ugly head again. No other suggestions of what areas might be cut, just get the page count down.

And as before, this had a silver lining to it. I discovered that the book was actually pretty tight, but I did go through and cut out whatever fluff I could find. I started cutting paragraphs; on the second go-round, I was cutting sentences. On the third go-round, I was cutting single words. I just barely made the page count, but I was happy with the result. And all this, of course, without any help from the editors at all.

When I received the letter announcing the book’s new name (with no input from me), I was not terribly surprised they had chosen Love’s Savage Embrace. My title, Superstition Gold, they said denoted “the occult,” and was obviously not appropriate. In the letter they actually said, “We hope you’ll be as thrilled with the name as we are.” I swore right then that at some point I would write a book and name it Love’s Savage Armpit.

By the time my third book was optioned in 2000, the entire publishing landscape had changed. The big New York houses were concentrating all their efforts on sure blockbusters and small presses were springing up everywhere to take up the slack. It was a novel and heartening experience to work with an editor of a small press. No, we didn’t sit down and have coffee as we pored over my book, but we did e-mail just about daily about everything from chapter headers to fonts to white space. Although, again, he did not offer a single suggestion about editing, the collaborative experience was about 1000% better than what I’d experienced before.

My next two books were also picked up by small presses. One was published with no changes to the text, no editing whatsoever. With the second one, to my great surprise, my editor actually made some suggestions—three if I recall. She suggested alternate text in two locations, both of which I declined to change, and then flagged some confusion over a name that I had not realized I had used twice in different circumstances. I quickly amended that and the book was good to go. It was nice (1) knowing she actually read the book and was thinking of ways to polish it and (2) having that give-and-take relationship where we could discuss the problem areas and agree on resolutions. Still no coffee, though.

Now I have moved into the realm of self-publishing, which means I supply my own coffee and my own editing advice. I do, of course, rely heavily on friends and family to read and give feedback, but on the whole this is not much different than what I’ve done all along. I suspect this is just the way it will be until I make my way up there to the top, right next to Stephen King.

Oh, and I choose my own titles, now, too. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Writing Family Stories

How many of us tell family stories around the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner table, at birthdays, reunions or out camping? Stories about great-great-grandfather coming to America from the “old country,” or of grandmother being born in a sod hut on the plains, or uncles and aunts that persevered through the dustbowl/depression era. I would guess most, if not all, families have such stories. What’s sad is that a high percentage of them get lost through time because they never get written down.

I had a vague interest in genealogy until 2002. That’s when both my parents died within a 2-week period. Suddenly I was trying to reach cousins I had never met and was sorting through documents and photos that I had never seen. Aside from the simple task of notifying everyone who deserved to know about the passing, I became intrigued by the faces I was seeing for the first time. And―like many others I’m sure―I realized that the very people who could answer my questions were gone.

Luckily some of the photos had writing on the back, at least a name, maybe a year. Some had nothing at all. Again, luckily, my aunt (the last of her generation) was still alive and was able to fill in some of the blanks. Unluckily, she was in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, so some of her information was suspect. When I asked her the names of three different forebears and she responded with “John” to each one, I knew I could not rely on her answers. But I had gleaned enough information to launch me on my search for more.

What proved to be the greatest treasure I could have imagined was my father’s autobiography. He had written his own story in several installments over the last 20 years of his life. He wrote it primarily for us kids, prefacing it with remarks about not knowing much about his own family origins and hoping to rectify that for us. While that concern was the genesis of the idea, I believe my father found that he enjoyed writing more than he had known (runs in the family), so even after he had told his story, he continued to write articles and essays about things that interested him. Some years ago I realized that this detailed account of life during the 20th century was something that needed to be accessible and should not simply lie forgotten in a drawer. I dragged it out, scanned it in (my father had had it typed up), added photos and published it through Create Space. While I never expected to sell very many copies, I just wanted it out there. I didn’t want those stories to be lost.

I have actually sold more copies than I expected, primarily of course to extended family, but the real gratification is the feedback I get. So many cousins had never seen the manuscript or had never heard the stories about their own parents or grandparents. And it’s an absolutely invaluable resource for family genealogy. Using the names, dates and places that my father wove into his story as a springboard, I have been able to follow several branches of the family back to the 1600’s, 1500’s and even 1400’s. An interesting aside is that my father’s family was poor and he often remarked about not having any connections to the Mayflower; in my research, I found out that we actually do have a connection!

Spurred by the familial success of this, I began to think about my aunt. My mother’s twin was an Army nurse during World War II and was captured on Corregidor in the Philippines and spent three years in a prisoner-of-war camp there. I knew that the Wisconsin Historical Society had two scrapbooks that were started by my grandmother when my aunt went into the service, but I had never studied them. Going to their website, I found I could download a pdf file of the scrapbooks, and that they were full of letters, newspaper clippings and photos. The scrapbooks told the story, not only of the war effort and the concern for the prisoners, but also of my grandmother’s efforts to find out information and get relief to her daughter. It included a letter from President Roosevelt himself congratulating the returning nurses on their bravery and service as well as the full transcript of a radio interview wherein my aunt described her time in the Japanese camp. As before with my father, this was a story that needed to be told.

Using the scrapbooks as my foundation, I told the two-sided story of my aunt in her retreat from—and eventual capture by—the Japanese, and of my grandmother’s unflagging efforts to understand what was going on so far away. The story spoke of the day-by-day courage and perseverance of both women battling on in their respective challenges and of course was a microcosm of the war that engulfed the entire planet. I knew this same story had unfolded for thousands of servicemen and women and thousands of family members still at home.

Although I understood that many people were interested in the war and such stories, I have been surprised at the interest my book has generated. I am basically a fiction writer and I was intimidated by the idea of writing non-fiction, even more so about detailing the private lives of many family members. I didn’t publish the book until I was certain I could hand it over to siblings and cousins without flinching, but at that point I went again to Create Space and the book has been doing quite well. As a matter of fact, I recently received an e-mail from a small museum in Wisconsin that now wants to sell the book in their gift shop; nice validation for a story that might never have been told.

Now I think it’s just about time to start writing down the stories in my husband’s family ….

So what about you? What family stories could you tell?

For more information:
The View from the Summit by Howard L. Munns, edited by Melissa Bowersock
Marcia Gates: Angel of Bataan by Melissa Bowersock

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Dynamism of Writing

There are a lot of things that writing is not. It’s not mechanical (or shouldn’t be—knowing the mechanics is just not enough). It’s not often governable because inspiration is not governable. (More on inspiration in a future blog.) It’s not a simple modular process. (Subject + verb + object = quality sentence.) It’s fluid, dynamic, protean, mutable, nebulous, and highly subjective.

I am guessing that some non-writers think it’s a simple process of jotting down all the right words in the right order, checking spelling and – voila! Instant book. Not so. It’s not like there’s an absolute amount of the “right” words, or an absolute “right” order. It’s more like herding cats.

I often equate writing to building a brick wall. I write linearly, from start to finish, and as I’m writing the first few paragraphs, the first few pages, I feel as if I am laying down a foundation for my wall. Each word is a brick, carefully chosen and carefully laid in. If I don’t have the exact brick/word that I want, I stop building the wall. It’s not unheard of for me to stop writing for minutes, hours, days, waiting for the perfect word that I want to manifest in my brain. I know some writers will go ahead and put in a close substitute in order to continue writing, then go back and edit later. I don’t do that. Just imagine building that wall and say I’ve got three or five or ten courses of bricks built up. Then I go back and find there’s a brick on the bottom row that doesn’t fit right or is the wrong color. Pulling that brick out and trying to fit another one in is going to weaken the entire wall. I would much rather build the wall as best as I possibly can from the start, and edit as I go. I hate to rewrite, so I do as little of that as possible.

I remember one time I was working with an editor on a book he was publishing for me and we got into a discussion of this very thing. When I told him how I worked, he said, “My God, I thought that was a myth! I have always heard of writers who work like that, but I didn’t really think they existed!” Yup, they do. At least I do. And it works for me.

So now I’m happily writing away, steering the story where I want it to go and suddenly … what the heck? That fluid dynamism raises its head again and I realize my story has been co-opted. This is often difficult for non-writers to understand, but it’s not uncommon for a story to take on a life of its own and suddenly veer off in a different direction. Going back to our wall, it’s as if I’ve laid one course of bricks just ever so slightly off center from the last course. This new layer is now 1/8” off to one side. Without noticing the difference, I keep building, and before I know it, the whole wall is leaning. When I realize that the wall is not going where I want it to go, I then have to demolish however many layers until I get back down to the solid and straight foundation, then start building again.

But how does that happen? I’ve been asked, “You’re writing the book. How can it go a different way than the way you want it to go?” I honestly don’t know. I just know that it does. Obviously I don’t have the entire book scripted in my head; it does not exist in some fully-formed way. It evolves as I write. New ideas present themselves; new aspects to characters reveal themselves. I’ve got options for new directions, little side trips. And sometimes I’ll pick a direction and it just evolves in a way I hadn’t intended or foreseen. The good news is that this taking on a life of its own is when I know the book is truly alive, that it’s not just me mechanically putting words on a piece of paper. It’s viable, it’s growing; it’s real. The bad news is it can transform into something that I’m not expecting.

I began writing a ghost story about a ghost that came over from England with the London Bridge when it was transported to Lake Havasu, Arizona. When I first conceived of the idea for the story, I had in mind that it would be a comedy, the ghost experiencing a light and fluffy culture shock between 17th century England and modern Arizona. Several chapters in, I realized that not only was it not going to be a comedy, it had a distinctly dark side to it. Surprised the heck out of me. And even though it’s not the story I had planned to write, I do like it and I’m letting it have its way. We’ll see how it turns out.

Okay, so I’ve built my wall, I’ve told my story and it’s done, ready to publish. Hold on, not so fast. How do you know when it’s done? In proof-reading my stories, whether it’s my own early copy or a final galley proof, I’ve found that “doneness” still evades definition. I might read a paragraph that was perfectly satisfying to me when I wrote it, but now suddenly it lacks something or it feels clunky and contrived. I rewrite it, sharpen it up, cut it down. Two days later I re-read the same paragraph and decide that the way I had it to begin with worked better, so I change it back. What I’ve realized is that any story, any book, is what it is only on any given day. Any other day, depending on my mood or frame of mind, it might need to be something completely different. I could look at a book every day for a year and probably have 365 different opinions about it. Even when I re-read my already published books, I can still see places that—at that moment in time—I would change slightly. So pronouncing a book “finished” is a very elusive process; it can change day by day and it’s never an absolute. Only by chipping away the less than perfect parts, grinding it down by finer and finer edits until I’m finally down to moving commas do I get to the point of completion. Today.

Tomorrow all bets are off.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


With apologies to the pure-minded, want to know what really burns my ass (besides a flame about 3 feet tall)? -- Typos. Typos, whether in my book or someone else's, drive me up the wall. Nothing will pop me out of a story faster than my brain getting hung up on a misspelled word or the wrong word, because then I have to stop and figure out what I or the other author was trying to say. And what's really bothersome is the fact that my body conspires against me in this.

Let me explain. My body is really very helpful. It tries very hard to guess what I'm doing, and it goes out of its way to do that for me. (Kinda like Microsoft and their constant "improvements" to guess what we want the auto functions in their software to do.) I've been touch typing since I was about 12, so that's a few years. My fingers know exactly where the keys are. Only problem is, the paths of muscle memory are strongest for the most common words: the, and, for, etc. Very often when I'm typing, my brain knows exactly what word I want but my fingers, in their oh so willing helpfulness, type something else. I will get heat instead of head; going instead of doing, one instead of on. Because I think I have correctly sent the proper word down the path of my nervous system to the muscles in the fingers, I think I've typed the right word. Only later do I realize that my fingers have made their own decision on that, and they've guessed wrong.

Next the brain steps in. This is the same brain with which I thought up the frickin' word in the first place. It does not guess incorrectly, it knows what word I want. Only problem is, when I'm reading over my work, it very badly wants to do the right thing, so if my fingers have inadvertantly typed the wrong word, my brain convinces me that I'm seeing the correct word! I might read the same passage over and over, and it'll still look just ducky to me. Obviously this is a huge argument against proofing your own work.

And spell-checker doesn't help. Oh, sure, if I misspell a word, it does, and that's fine. But my problem 90% of the time is that I don't misspell the word, I type a different (very good) word than the one I want. I think I'm typing, "the top of his head," but my fingers guessed I really wanted to say, "the top of his heat." Spell-checker says, "Yup, that's a good word. Thumbs up." Wrong. You can see I'm going against the tide here.

So over the weekend, I re-read my book Queen's Gold for probably the 30th or 40th time. If you count all the times I read it over while working on it, all the times I read it over while editing it, all the times I read it over after all that was done and all the times I've read it since it was published (did I mention I like this book?), that's a lot. Is it enough to catch all the typos? Noooooooo. I found another one. Hard to believe, but it just popped right out at me. Why couldn't it have done that back when I was proofing the galleys? Grrr.

Luckily, since I self-published this book through Create Space, it's a small matter to correct it. That's one of the huge benefits of self-publishing over traditional publishing. I can simply correct my Word doc, create a new pdf and upload it. It takes a couple days for the process to complete, but then the book is fixed and available for order. I'm happy, the readers are happy and the book is one step closer to being perfect.

Until next time.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


I love words. I love the infinite nuances that can describe an action by varying paper-thin degrees. I love the fact that a person can walk across a room, but that same person can also amble, meander, stride, toddle, creep, trot, charge, weave, mosey, gallop, sneak, stalk, lunge, scramble, tip-toe, leap and stroll.

I love the sound of words. I love complex sounds, complex rhythms. I love the staccato sound of serendipity. I love alliteration and patterns and feminine rhyme. One of my favorite poems is The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe:

Hear the sledges with the bells -
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells -
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

I love the fact that words can paint a picture in our minds, can evoke emotion from our hearts, can take us to any place we can imagine. They can inspire, instruct, hide or reveal, tempt or satiate. There are truly no limits to what words can do. And all we have to do is string them together.

I am constantly writing. I can't not write. If I am not working on a new book, I'm writing letters or writing in my journal. If I'm not doing any of those things, I'm writing in my mind--revising dialog, reworking descriptions, narrating. I narrate throughout the day, imagining how I might describe an event, something I see, a feeling I have. I don't know if all writers do this, but it's a constant activity for me. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

I really do love words.