How to Retreat

Every year or so, I give myself a gift. I give myself a week (or two, if I can swing it) at an artist’s retreat. My favorite spot is the Penland School of Crafts. Sometimes I take classes there with amazing artists, and sometimes I give myself residency time—which is that wide-open, no-holds-barred “making time” that people like me dream about. I used to spend a much larger portion of my life as a printmaker, but there’s been a shift in the last few years, and there’s a lot less time to make art than there used to be.

But every once in a while, I do a retreat—a residency—that gives me time to focus on making new work, experimenting with new techniques, and rejuvenates me. The problem is, I start psyching myself out. Why do we do that to ourselves? Why do we doubt our abilities and our dreams?

Each time I sign up to take a retreat week, this cycle of thought occurs:

1. This is amazing. I can’t wait to go. (2 months until time to go)
2. OMG, what was I thinking? This costs too much. What will I make? (1 week before arrival)
3. I have no ideas. I have only one week here. This was a mistake. (Arrival day.)
4. This is wonderful. I have time to make art again. Look what happens when I do this… (Day 2)
5. I wish I had more time. Why don’t I treat myself better? (Day 4)
6. Best week ever. I made something that surprised me. When can I do this again? (Last day)

Why do we doubt ourselves so much? Why do we doubt our abilities and our dreams? This happens EVERY TIME I decide to give myself time at a place like Penland. I second-guess myself until it’s almost paralyzing—even though I know this pattern and know that I always end up making something interesting and meaningful. This time, I went to make prints for an upcoming show in Asheville. I’d psyched myself out so bad by the first day that I didn’t even touch the printing press. I called Andrew and he said, “Are you having trouble getting back on the horse?” I told him, “It’s like the horse sat on me. He’s huge and stubborn and refuses to move.”

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The next day, I just started printing, in full-on “Let’s see what happens when I do this” mode. And the results were pretty cool. I made some calendars, some posters, and learned a new technique that led me right to the prints I needed for the show. (Scroll through the gallery above to see a little bit of everything.  The calendars and posters are for sale in my Etsy shop.)

This story has a happy ending. I had a great week and printed the pieces I needed for the Guild show, and made some things just for fun. I played around with monoprinting, and learned some new techniques. But the question remains: even though I always have a great experience at a retreat like this, why do I still doubt myself before each one? Why do I try to sabotage myself by thinking that money could be better spent on things like gas and groceries?

It’s often hard to justify an expense like that, but sometimes those expenses—and those experiences—bring the most gratifying and meaningful moments in our lives. To retreat in this way is to turn inward, to our most intimate creative selves, and get back in touch with that deepest part of the heart. Retreating reminds me of something John Muir once said. He was talking about escaping to the wilderness, but sometimes the artist’s heart is its own wilderness—and we must have the courage to go. So thank you, Penland, for opening your doors, for harboring us artists when we need you the most, and for giving us space to make, and meet our fellow makers, and for being such a bright spot in the world.


Best No-Nonsense Novel Writing Tips, Part V: Momentum

Note to readers: An earlier version of this post was published over at Underground Book Reviews during NaNoWriMo, but hey—we need to work that momentum into our daily writing routines. So here’s how I do that. 


Happy New Year, Friends! Are you on your last revision of a work in progress? Gearing up to start something brand new with the new year? If you find yourself running out of steam, don’t fret. We’ve all been there. Sometimes you just need to take a step back and re-evaluate for a minute before you proceed towards the finish line. The thing I love about the annual NaNoWriMo is that you build momentum: and I’m trying hard to keep that NaNo spirit year-round. So if you’re at the point now where you could use a little boost in momentum, here are some tips to sustain your creative energy and keep your word count on the rise.

1. Don’t let the word count scare you. Break things down into manageable pieces. NaNoWriMo asks you to write 50,000 words in a month. That’s 1667 words per day, or about 7 pages—not a bad routine for your daily writer’s life. If you come up short some days, don’t worry. We all fall off the wagon sometimes, but the important thing is to keep going and create some daily writing habits that will continue to help you in the future. Set goals for yourself: 1000 words a day, 5000 words a week—whatever you think you can stick with. The idea here is to create a new habit and a manageable routine that will help you meet your goal. (Personally, I love the word-o-meter I can get with Scrivener. It’s incredibly satisfying to see my little bar move from red to green as I approach my word count.) You got this, Ace. 

2. Remember that recent post about making yourself a road map? The last time I wrote a novel in a month, I made myself a rough outline with some key events that needed to happen. I laid out some basic cause and effect and presto—the scaffolding was there. Then it was just a matter of filling in the details. Once I had a framework for the big picture, I was able to think of the novel in terms of scenes that needed to happen. And writing scene by scene was a lot less daunting than thinking in terms of chapters or acts. (For more about writing in terms of cause and effect, check out Building a Believable Chain of Events in Your Novel by Steven James.)

3. Remember your setting is a character, too—don’t skimp on the description. When I was doing research for my Bayou series I made a Pinterest board  to collect images for reference. I’d visited Louisiana a few times, but when I wanted to pull in specifics (kinds of trees, particular birds, details about Craftsman houses) I looked to the internet for photos to jog my memory. Sometimes, if I was just having a bad writing day, I let myself do some photo research to inspire me—and sometimes I did a little free writing exercise based on a photo to get myself warmed up. Now, as a bonus, the page is still up to let readers see what inspired me as I was writing. When you’re world-building, you need to be specific. Photos can help you see things in more detail.

4. Take the time to develop your characters. Write a profile of each one and take the time to give them unique eccentricities. In a recent blog post, I confessed that my characters ARE in fact based on real people, but not in the way you might think. Most are a composite of lots of people I’ve known, but every character I write draws from real experiences at some point or another. Let your memories guide you and give you specific details that will create memorable characters. It’s the specifics about characters that really make them interesting. Jane Friedman also has some great tips about writing from life experiences in her article What It Means to Be Fierce on the Page.

5. Create momentum. One of the things I love about NaNoWriMo is that it gives me a sense of urgency, which makes me create a writing schedule. It’s important to create a schedule you can actually stick to: whether it’s two hours a day or a ten-hour writing binge on the weekend. On days when you have short windows of time, try a setting or character exercise to get some words out on the page. I used to write short scenes during my lunch breaks, and would then flesh them out when I got home to my writing space. Just getting down some bare bones of scenes would help me move the story along in my head so I could keep building the plot and creating more conflicts.

6. Don’t let your inner editor hijack your writing. If you’re like me, your inner editor likes to rear its wily head in search of typos, plot holes, and generally second-guess you any time you start thinking a little too hard. Remember, this month is about moving ahead. Don’t let the editor slow you down. Remember Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird? That lovely chapter called “Shitty First Drafts”? Do yourself a favor and re-read it this month (You really should read the whole book, but this will get you started.) Distill it into a mantra that you can repeat each day to beat back the editing beast. This month, it’s all about pouring your story out, page by page. Let yourself go and let the editor take over later—that’s what the revision process is for.

7. Don’t let yourself get writer’s block. If you’re stuck at a point in your story and can’t seem to move forward, jump ahead to another scene you want to write and fill the the gaps later. If you know you want to write a scene where character A meets character X, skip ahead and write that—it just might help you fill in the other parts that have you stalled. For me, novel writing entails a lot pf problem solving, and sometimes that means temporarily leaving one problem to work on another. For more tips, check out Sage Cohen’s 2 Keys to Unlock Your Momentum.

Happy writing, Friends! See you next time. 

Best No-Nonsense Novel Writing Tips, Part IV: Masterful Plot

your novel's plot is like a painting. it has layers.


Plot: it’s what most writers I work with struggle with more than anything else. If you’re like a lot of them, your book idea might be built around one central intriguing event. So you’ve got a bold/clever/exciting event: now how do you build all of the scenes around it to create a whole novel? For me, it’s a little like a painting: there are a lot of layers and more complexity than you see at first glance.

1.Think in terms of decisions. Your character must take action: don’t simply create events that happen to her. She must make decisions that either alleviate trouble or create more of it. (And we all know that when you solve one problem you have to create a new one—otherwise you have a dull story. So don’t let your heroine get too comfortable.) It’s easy to fall into the pattern of describing events that happen to your character; instead, compose events that she creates based on her behaviors. For example: if your heroine’s dog is hit by a car, that’s sad, but boring. If her dog is run over by her neighbor because the neighbor suspects your heroine is having an affair with her husband, then that’s plot development. (See also: Creating Tension. Lucy Atkins has some great advice about how to create tension, even when you don’t have extreme drama happening.)

2. Decisions must lead to consequences, which lead to more decisions and more consequences. This is how you create escalating drama and build tension. When crafting a story, you are creating a chain of events—they aren’t all necessarily related on the surface, but they are connected because of your character’s fears, values, and desires. For example: the neighbor runs over your heroine’s dog. Your heroine confronts the neighbor lady (because she’s hot tempered) and they get into an altercation. The neighbor calls the heroine’s husband and tells him his wife is cheating on him. He drinks himself into a stupor, confronts his wife, then storms out and crashes his car into a tree. Your heroine is wracked with guilt because this all happened as a result of her confronting the neighbor, because of her tendency to act before thinking. Create chain reactions based on your character’s flaws and your story almost writes itself.

3. Look to your friend the playwright. You hear this one all the time: raise the stakes. Novels, like plays, can often be broken down into three acts. If you’re a structure person, this idea can help you build plot. Remember Euripides? In Act One, you put your character up a tree. In Act Two, throw rocks at him and see what he’s made of. In Act Three, get him down from the tree. When I was in graduate school, I took a playwriting class as an elective. It helped me tremendously in terms of writing scenes with real action, creating structure, and upping the ante to keep momentum in the story. Your novel is a series of scenes: each scene needs to reveal something about the character or move the story forward. I still look to The Playwright’s Guidebook to this day (and you should do yourself a favor and get a copy), but for some quick tips on writing revealing scenes, check out Jane Friedman’s website. She has helpful exercises to get you started. Holly Lisle defines scenes based on change, and has some great tips on writing with that pattern in mind.

4. Create an overarching plot based on your Big Important Question, and then create subplots. Your Big Important Question is the key question you set up in the very beginning of your novel. This is the question that keeps the reader turning the page; this is the question you must resolve at the end of your book. In Bayou My Love, I set up the BIQ in the first chapter: Will Enza flip this house she inherited and prove herself to her father? But we lead complicated lives. You need more than one burning question. So: subplots! I knew from the beginning that Bayou My Love was a love story. (Can Jack win Enza over? Will she fall in love with him? Will Enza sell the house or stay in the bayou?) I also wanted it to have suspenseful elements. (Who is setting fires all over town and putting Enza in danger? Who is taunting her and Jack with voodoo? Will this person be found? Will Enza find her estranged mother?) Each question creates a subplot, but they are all connected based on Enza’s fears, desires, strengths, and flaws. Complexity leaves you, the writer, more room for decisions and consequences, and that creates more action and drama. This setup easily allows you to tackle one problem and then create another one, leaving your character up a tree for a long enough time that readers see what he’s made of. Then you earn your ending.

5. And speaking of endings, how do you know when you get there? At a reading recently, someone asked me this very question. The answer? Easy. You’ve arrived at the end when your character either gets what she wants or loses it. You’re there when you’ve answered the Big Important Question. Naturally, there are quiet endings and loud endings, but the best ones are memorable because they touch something that resonates within us. Nancy Kress discusses a variety of styles of endings, but points out that we should always avoid the anticlimactic. The best endings are a little surprising, but always inevitable. After all, your character has a certain trajectory based on the fears and desires you’ve given them. They make choices that expose their weaknesses and build their strengths, so the outcome should reflect their growth or decay. There’s a fine line between predictable and inevitable, but the thing that separates them is finesse. The qualities that make your character unique can be your way into a surprising yet inevitable ending. I’m thinking of Jojo Moyes, Tana French, Mary Gaitskill, and Janet Fitch. If you create multi-faceted characters and build plots with high emotional stakes, you’ve set yourself up for a masterful ending—one that will meet the Two Big Criteria of being (1) unavoidable and (2) unpredictable.

Crafting an engaging plot might not be easy, but it’s totally do-able. It’s a matter of finesse. You got this.


This post was previously published on in 2017. Look for the fifth and final part of this quick-fix series next week. Happy writing, Friends!

Best No-Nonsense Novel Writing Tips, Part III: Dynamic Dialogue


Writing dialogue is tricky. It needs to sound realistic, but it can’t be too realistic. We all want our characters to sound like real people, but when people talk, there are a lot of unnecessary words tossed around. As writers, we have to carefully craft what our characters say so that the words seems effortless, but yet serve a purpose (like all of our other words, right? Right.).

So how do you create killer dialogue that seems effortless and does its job? Read on.

1.Let dialogue propel your story. Too often we fall into the mire of backstory and lose the reader. Break up those huge passages of exposition and let your active scene reveal the same information through character interaction. For example: instead of writing pages and pages about your heroine’s recollection of a pivotal event in her childhood, have her argue about that event with her sister, revealing what happened through their dialogue. Bonus: you’ll also reveal something about the sister.

2. Train your ears with TV shows, movies, and plays. The best thing I ever did for my fiction writing was to take a scriptwriting class. Stuart Spencer’s The Playwright’s Guidebook will change your life. This will teach you to make every word count, and to use dialogue the same way you use exposition: to reveal character, create drama, and keep moving the story forward. Some TV shows I love for their dialogue: Gilmore Girls, the Newsroom, Justified, and yeah, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s super easy to get copies of plays, like Closer and How I Learned to Drive, for less than $5. Check out contemporary award-winning plays as a starting point.

3. Pay attention to the way people talk. I mean really pay attention. Listen for little idiosyncrasies that make a person’s speech unique. Do they speak in clipped, short sentences? Do they ramble and use ten-dollar words? Do they answer you with questions? One of the hardest things to overcome is the tendency to make all of your characters talk the way you do. You may be sharp and sarcastic, but if ALL of your characters speak that way, then your writing becomes unrealistic and boring. You need variety, and for that you need to develop an ear for differences in people’s speech.

4. Remember that people rarely speak in well-crafted sentences. You can always have a character that is super-eloquent and that’s part of their speech and personality, but for most of us, our dialogue is clipped and messy. In real life, people talk over each other, they interrupt, and they shorten phrases. “Doing ok today?” “Yeah, you?” As you revise, cut the unnecessary words from your dialogue to keep the story moving.

5. Use dialect and slang spelling sparingly. While it may seem accurate to you, the writer, it can be jarring to readers. I’ve tossed a lot of books aside simply because there was too much dialect forced on me—too much “lotsa,” “somethin’,” and “nuttin.” Instead of having your southern character drop the ‘g’ in every single word, write a line of exposition that describes his Carolina lilt and limit his shortened words to only “darlin’.” Nail that regionalism in one good line of description, and that’s all your readers need to hear him the way that you intend. Trust your reader not to need words spelled out phonetically to comprehend what an accent sounds like. Saying something like, “When she said my name, it sounded like Crease,” is enough to get your point across.

6. Read your dialogue aloud. Better yet, get a couple of your friends to read the dialogue in your scene as if it were a scene in a play. Have them only read speech, with no narrative. Listen for #1-5 above. Do your characters sound different from one another? Do they have distinct voices? Eccentricities? Does it sound like a real conversation, or does it sound over-written? If you struggle with dialogue, it makes a world of difference to hear it spoken rather than simply read it over and over as you revise.

7. What’s not being said in a scene is equally important to what is being said. Subtext is a valuable tool in your writerly arsenal. What is omitted in a conversation can be extremely important to character and plot, and a good writer of dialogue knows what needs to be said and what does not in order to create tension and suspense.

As an exercise, go back to one of your favorite books and turn to a scene that is heavy with dialogue. Look at it in terms of the list above. How does the author make the characters’ voices distinct? How is the dialogue used to move the story forward? Is the dialogue conveying information that might have been told in exposition? One of the best ways to learn to write good dialogue is to read good dialogue—so get out there and start picking those scenes apart. The more you study, the easier it will be to see what works and what doesn’t. The surest way to write dynamic dialogue is to practice until you hear the characters talking in your head—that’s when you know you’ve leveled up. 


This article was originally published by underground Books Reviews in 2017. Come back for Part IV of my five-part series next week. Happy New Year, Friends!