So, What’s Your Point?

Snowy Forest

My dreams are rarely guided by what we might call a plot. Nothing actually happens in them. They are scenes that flow nonsensically one into the next and go NOWHERE.

My husband can attest to this. The poor man is often subjected to partial recounts of my dreams–partial because at some point he simply walks away because he knows this is going nowhere and yet will not end. He even used my “method” of dreaming in a sermon to illustrate the difference between reading Scripture as a bunch of boring, unrelated stories (“and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened”) and reading it as God’s very well plotted and intentional story (which he generously compared to my more deliberate method of writing) in which we find purpose and meaning. In case this interests you, you can listen to it here. It also contains a fascinating tidbit on the real St. Nicholas, who was apparently a bit of a hothead and prone to decking heretics. True story.

Now, I’ve been busily working on February’s short story, The Door, which I have deliberately made a bit dreamlike. Last week I realized that this was becoming a problem. It was becoming much too much like one of my actual dreams–rambling and random and pointless.

So I stopped writing. And I started plotting. I thought about this story in the shower. I thought about it in bed. I thought about it in the car. I thought about it but did not write down anything I thought of. I just allowed myself to think it through, to think myself into a plot, a purpose, a point.

While turning back toward home on an ill-fated trip through white-out conditions to my office today (Lake Effect Snow = 1, Erin = 0), everything fell into place like fat snowflakes aiming directly for their spot on the ground (rather than swirling madly around my car). I got home safely, put a space heater at my feet, and got back to work with the lovely feeling in the back of my mind that I now know where this story is going.

Dreams are okay. Their very weirdness is interesting. But interesting is not really enough for a story. Writers, we owe our readers a bit more than a rambling but interesting story. We at least owe them a compelling plot or, as is often the case in shorter fiction, a point.

How can you take those intriguing but (admit it) pointless scenes and weave them into a larger tapestry to make them an essential part of your plot? How can you give your readers a clear (though pleasantly winding) path through your forest of very lovely, very interesting trees?

When Youthful Illusions Fade, You Can Really Get to Work

You. Are. Awesome.Creative people, when you were young did you imagine yourself being “discovered” at some point? Be honest. When you were a child singing slightly off-key in your room, wasn’t there some part of you that was sure that somehow in your dinky Midwestern town, as you were one day following your mother back out to the car with a cart full of groceries, singing quietly to yourself, that a random Nashville bigwig would overhear your angelic voice and sign you on the spot?

No? That was just me then?

Surely when the pencil drawing you made in seventh grade art class was selected to go on some foam board display in the hallway you imagined that during the next parent/teacher conferences a famous art critic would wander past the cafeteria and stumble upon your flawless execution of a winged horse, track you down in a mad rush of inquiry, and whisk you away to some fine art institution in New York where you would blossom into the absolute toast of the cutting edge art scene.

Am I getting closer?

How about this. Despite the keen awareness in college that you were perhaps not quite as remarkable as you were lead to believe in your small hometown, that you were surrounded by many talented people and could even enjoy being part of this community of young visionaries, there was still a place in your psyche that was reserved for illusions of grandeur, that believed that your creative writing teacher would read your complex and sophisticated short story about losing your best friend and immediately pass it on (with gracious apologies to you for not asking first) to her friend at The New Yorker and you would assume your natural and rightful position as the brightest young literary star to come from your town in…ever.

Admit it. That was you. Some small part of you, anyway.

If it was not you, it was certainly me at various times of my young life. Even in my twenties I felt sure (well, perhaps not quite as sure as I had been in my teens) that the promise that teachers and parents saw in me would simply materialize into worldly success on a grand scale with little effort on my part (and that it would be nothing less than I deserved).

Considering this, you may think turning thirty a few years ago would have sent me into a shame spiral at having not accomplished artistic feats that would last through the ages and get me interviewed on NPR. Actually it felt really, really good. Rather than be despondent that I would never be considered a young prodigy admired the world over for my natural talent and easy charisma, I felt a lightening of spirit as the pressure to live up to the expectations I had placed upon myself was lifted from my shoulders. It was not until the silly desire for admiration was gone that I began to write anything worth reading.

Why do I write today? To exercise my gifts, to enjoy the process of creation, and to share in the exchange of ideas that is one of the many things that distinguishes us from the rest of creation. I love to read and I think when you love to partake in an activity you naturally want to contribute. My experiment of writing and publishing a short story each month of this year is part of a determined effort to contribute.

Why do you write?

How to Enjoy Writing the Slow-Drip Story

Fence Droplets

Sometimes story comes in a torrent and your fingers have trouble keeping up. This was my experience with the last 20,000 words of my novel A Beautiful Fiction. Sometimes story comes in drips. This is my experience with February’s short story (which, it so happens, I started only a couple weeks in to January). This story is dripping from my brain in a slow but fairly methodical fashion, I manage a paragraph or two every few days. So I suppose it’s a good thing I started early.

What do you do when your story resists being told? Do you rush it, force it out? Do you hold to stringent word count goals and so daily fill up pages with stuff you know you will trash later? Or do you change your writing goals to fit the pace of your inspiration?

If you’re writing on a publisher’s deadline, you may not be able to take a leisurely approach to story creation. You take X number of days to write and fill each day with Y number of words in hopes that you will have Z by the time your work needs to be handed over to an editor. The benefit of this method of writing, of course, is that you are generally more productive, are probably better paid for your work, and you can more quickly move on to the next project/contract/royalty payment. You can get yourself out from under a story that was difficult. You can see the end of the struggle.

If you write as a hobby or are publishing your own work independently, you may allow yourself more leeway. You can let your story out slowly, savor the process a bit more, perhaps. You don’t have to worry so much about those times when the next step your character must take is unclear. You can simply wait for the next drip.

Since I have imposed my own arbitrary deadlines for short story creation this year, and since I’m ahead of the game at the moment, I’m not terribly worried at this point about the slow drip. And I know that once things reach a critical point the stream of words will begin to flow more easily as I come to the end. For the moment, anyway, each drip-drop of a sentence onto the page is satisfying to me. My bucket is about halfway full now–and I feel that the tipping point may be coming soon.

Hawk Island County Park

As part of my continuing Destination Lansing series, I bring you Hawk Island County Park. Once a gravel pit (many of the older members of our church remember swimming there back in the days before there was “public safety”) Hawk Island has been transformed into one of the best parks I’ve ever been to.

Indian Summer at Hawk Island

The pit was cleaned out, filled with water, and stocked with fish. There are pedal boats and picnic shelters to rent, a great playground, a beach and a splash pad, volleyball courts, horseshoes, picnic tables galore, a dog park nearby, and plenty of gently rolling, well-maintained lawns for relaxing on a blanket with a good book or getting a tan.

Playing at Hawk Island

The Lansing River Trail runs right through it, making it easily accessible by bike, foot, or rollerblades. CATA bus route 18 will get you there, as will your car. There is a fee to park, so I suggest getting the yearlong parking pass as it will save you lots of money and encourage you to get out there and use the parks our taxes maintain!

Father and Son at Hawk Island

On days when it’s above 40 degrees, we usually hop on the River Trail (I’ll post on this awesome Lansing feature in the future) near where it splits off to go to Michigan State University and ride roughly south through Potter Park and Scott Woods. Gorgeous ride at any time of year.

The Trail to Hawk Island

And as much as we love Hawk Island in the warm months, it is now equally awesome in the winter. When the picnic tables are all stacked and leaned against trees and the splash pad is covered with snow, Hawk Island’s new tubing and snowboarding hill takes center stage. Tow ropes take you up the hill of groomed snow (which they make, so no worries that the snow cover has been light this year) and then you head down, either sitting in one of their tubes on one side of the tow ropes or on your own snowboard or skis on the other. There are jumps and rails for the snowboarders, and it is loads of fun to watch them as you sit in your tube and get pulled up the hill.

Open in the evening on weekdays from 4pm until 9pm and from 10am to 9pm on weekends, Hawk Island Snow Park is, in my mind, the best new thing to come to Lansing. We enjoyed a gorgeous evening there a couple weeks ago with friends, the beautiful sun setting behind light clouds making everything glow. And a nice bonus was that all the people who were working on the hill that night were very nice (and in an age when good, cheerful service seems hard to come by, the employees of the Ingham County Parks System should be commended as they are invariably, in my experience, both competent and considerate).

I’m a big proponent of not letting weather keep you inside. If you have the right attitude and dress correctly for winter, you can thoroughly enjoy being outside in the fresh, invigorating air. Layer up your clothes, get some adult snowpants, wear good boots, get off your duff, and go have some fun!

Helpful Books on Writing and Writers

I’m putting together a list of helpful, funny, and inspirational writing books as part of a workshop handout and I thought it might be helpful to the blogosphere at large to list and link to them here. You may want to bookmark this page refer back to it when you’re running dry.

I’ve grouped them very generally, because there is inspiration within books on the craft, and there is certainly instruction and advice to be had from the more narrative ones, so I encourage you to check them all out at some point. And if I’ve missed your favorite, add it to the comments.


The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

On Writing by Stephen King

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik

77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected by Mike Nappa

How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman



The Pocket Muse by Monica Wood

The Pocket Muse 2 by Monica Wood

Writing without the Muse by Beth Joselow

Write: 10 Days to Overcoming Writer’s Block. Period. by Karen E. Peterson


If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times

Writers on Writing, vol. 2: More Collected Essays from the New York Times

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott


So did I miss any big ones? Please share them with us!

New Release: Beneath the Winter Weeds Now Available!

It gives me great pleasure to announce that today is the day! You can now buy the first short story of 2013, Beneath the Winter Weeds, for your Kindle. It’s just $0.99 and you can download it here. I believe non-US Kindle users may have to wait a day or so more before it is available for purchase in other territories.

Beneath the Winter Weeds Final Cover

I would like to ask those of you who read it to post a review on Amazon. I’d appreciate it so very much. If you’re a non-US reader, I’d love it if you could let me know when it is available to you. And if you run into any formatting problems on Kindle, please let me know in the comments here so I can address them. Thanks, everyone!

To give you a flavor of the writing, here is a short excerpt…

Instinct drove her on from one end. Knowing what lay beyond the ravine, somewhere beneath the ground, drew her ever closer from the other. Like a drop of rain upon a long blade of wild grass, she was inching ever closer to the root of it all. And when she at last came to the ravine and began a careful descent on the frozen ground, she had a palpable sense of acceleration, of reaching the point of no return.

And what’s coming down the line in February? A story about a painter and one very curious painting…

Introducing Understory Press

I realized as I was formatting Beneath the Winter Weeds for Kindle that I really ought to have a publishing imprint of my own to put on the title page and the back cover of the whole collection at the end of the year (as well as my novel) because I plan on making those longer books available in paperback as well.

After a quite a bit of thought on Saturday morning, I decided to call it Understory Press.

Understory Press

The logo is my own concept and design (largely drawn at the mall bounce house on Saturday while my son ran wild with about 100 other children). Wondering about the name? Here’s my explanation…

Most of the trees that make up a forest are towering giants that form the canopy. But beneath those behemoths is the understory. Slender and subtle, these graceful trees use fewer resources, but they also put forth spectacular shows of spring blossoms and provide fruit for wildlife in the fall.

Understory Press is like one of those trees. We’re small in size, committed to subtle and compelling storytelling, and occasionally we may surprise you with something spectacular.

As I was developing the logo and the name, I was reminded that Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf were self-published authors. They both wrote, revised, and edited their work, then Leonard set the type and printed the pages with Virginia’s help (and later with the help of some employees) at their Hogarth Press. Virginia’s sister Vanessa designed Virginia’s book covers. And this was not strange to people at the time.

It got me thinking about how self-publishing used to be respectable, then it was derided as what people do when they aren’t talented enough for “real” publishing, and now it’s coming back around. I’m really excited to start down this self-publishing road and I hope you will enjoy my creative endeavors as well. Understory Press is strictly a vanity press at the moment, but who knows what the future may bring…

A Most Productive Day

Friends, there are so many things brewing over here in the middle of the Mitten. January’s short story, Beneath the Winter Weeds, is formatted for Kindle; the updated cover is final, a very little bit of marketing copy is written for it; and lo and behold I’ve come up with my own publishing imprint for it, designed the logo, registered the domain name, and even started a Twitter account for it.

I shall unveil all the details at a later date, but rest assured it has been a busy Saturday (yes, all this has taken place in about a 12 hour span, which also included a trip to the mall, giving my son a bath, and cleaning out a closet).

When creativity and optimism collide, I guess that is what you get.

Easy Come, Easy Go

You know that random writing opportunity that fell out of the sky last week? Well, as things often turn out in the freelance world, it kept falling right past me and the earth swallowed it up. A part of me is disappointed about the loss of potential experience and money. Another part of me is relieved at the sight of all those Saturdays that would have been spent traveling to interviews and all of those evenings that would have been spent writing someone else’s story going suddenly, gloriously blank.

Glad I used pencil.