The Awesome Power of Grammar and Punctuation, Part One

I have many reasons to be thankful for my writing partner, Emily. I’ve written about some of them before, and one day I’ll compose a post about our evolving partnership. Or I’ll simply provide a link to the post she writes. We make a good team, or as Emily told me last week, we’re part of the same Ka-Tet whose mission is to write great books. Along with some complementary differences, we share a number of attributes, including a wonderfully nerdish devotion to grammar and her sister, punctuation. During our bi-monthly writing lunches (and on many other occasions), we conduct passionate discussions about the importance of clear punctuation or sentence structure variation. I find these conversations exhilarating, though I imagine some people might not share our enthusiasm.

I understand why the topic could seem less than thrilling. For so many, the word grammar evokes memories of stern English teachers lecturing about the dangers of split infinitives, comma splices, and dangling modifiers. These infractions of grammar rules sound truly horrible—splitting, splicing, and dangling, oh my! It’s no wonder people cringe at the thought.

But our nerdy devotion allows Emily and me a different perspective on grammar and punctuation from that of the terrified high school student. We see those rules as tools for making meaning, both for the writer and the reader. A thorough grounding in grammar gives writers the freedom to make all kinds of choices for communicating their ideas and for telling their stories. And a keen understanding of grammar helps readers interpret what they read. Grammatical mistakes, however, cloud meaning, putting a barrier between the writer and the reader. For example, a misplaced comma can radically alter the sense of a sentence: “Let’s eat, Grandma!” vs. “Let’s eat Grandma!” One tiny mark changes that statement from an enthusiastic invitation to a cannibalistic exhortation. That is some awesome power on display.

Other tiny marks bear the same power. Consider a sentence such as, “I like Tuesday’s.” That apostrophe combined with an s signals ownership, so as a reader I’m left wondering what it is belonging to Tuesday you like. Take out the apostrophe and you get “I like Tuesdays.” Aha. So do I. I like Tuesdays, too. My friend Tiffany Aldrich MacBain has a fabulous post on her blog about just this issue.

Grammatical errors have the same result—confusion. Take the ominously named dangling modifier in this example:

Walking to the back of the room, heads slowly turn to watch me as they perform the traditional inspection of each person who enters.

In this case, “walking to the back of the room” modifies—clarifies, defines, describes—something in the full sentence that follows the comma. As you can see, there is an (amusing) error, and the italicized phrase modifies “heads.” But that doesn’t make any sense. The mistake takes the reader out of the narrative, forcing her to try to figure out what is going on. Sure, I can guess what the writer means, but, as I used to tell my writing students, what if I get it wrong?

The writer well versed in grammar, however, can choose to break rules to create specific effects. Take the passive voice; anyone who works in Word knows that it prefers active voice, alerting us to our “mistakes” in green. It has a point. The passive voice doesn’t provide a lot of information—we can’t identify the subject of a sentence structure in passive voice. There is no actor, in other words, as this famous example demonstrates: “Mistakes were made.” Sure, but by whom, Mr. President? Yet the passive voice can be valuable if, for instance, you’d like to use sentence structure to highlight a people’s plight: Native Americans were forced from their land and made to walk across the country. Here, using passive voice underlines the powerlessness of the Native Americans—they did not choose to leave their lands. Of course, if you wanted to spotlight the perpetrators, you would make them the subject of the sentence: The US Government forced Native Americans from their land and drove them across the country.

Like the passive voice, the well-placed sentence fragment can do a lot of work for a writer: Derek couldn’t sleep. His mind kept turning and turning. All damn night. Those three syllables, so abrupt and technically ungrammatical, emphasize Derek’s insomnia. They also create a rhythm for the passage, a short little burst of words next to a longer clause. (Isn’t this freakin’ cool?)

My final example for this post: the run-on sentence, while generally something worth avoiding, has its uses:

“Mom told me to go outside and play but I said it was too cold then she did that thing where she rubs her head and says oh Jeffrey and then told me to put on a coat so I did and I found the tree stump and came here—” He drew a breath.

I took this passage from a flash fiction piece I wrote a few months ago. Jeffrey is only six, and I wanted to communicate his enthusiasm—the kind associated with children telling stories as though they have to get all their words out on one breath. I left out punctuation to achieve that affect. Correct punctuation would actually have failed me:

Mom told me to go outside and play, but I said it was too cold. Then she did that thing where she rubs her head and says, “Oh Jeffrey” and told me to put on a coat. So I did, and I found the tree stump and came here.

There are too many pauses breaking up the stream of Jeffrey’s breathless recitation of events. It’s an adult’s voice, not a child’s.

I’ll be doing more of these posts in the weeks to come because I’m a grammar nerd and want to share my love with other writers. In the meanwhile, here are some of my favorite sources for answering grammar and punctuation questions:

The Elements of Style (William Strunk)
Style: the Basics of Clarity and Grace (Joseph M. Williams and Gregory G. Colomb)

Purdue Online Writing Lab: Grammar
Purdue Online Writing Lab: Punctuation
Grammar Girl

She’s done!

I started writing Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas last September. Yesterday my writing partner Emily Street and I spent the afternoon formatting the paperback and then publishing the Kindle version for Luminous Creatures Press. (Not only is Emily a wonderful writer, but she’s also a whiz with anything technological.) She wrote a lovely post about our day that you can find on her blog. In between the beginning and the end, I wrote the first draft, let Margaret simmer, wrote the second draft, gave it to Emily for notes, revised, let Margaret simmer, revised…you get the picture. And now she’s done.

Margaret-Dashwood-and-the-Enchanted-Atlas-800 Cover reveal and Promotional

This morning I cleaned all the random bits of paper with notes about Margaret off my desk.


Then I sat down and started working on another story.

Backwards and Out of Order: My Writing Process Blog Tour

Introduction: My Writing Process Blog Tour
Several months ago I saw this blog tour making the Twitter rounds. Several writers I follow posted marvelous accounts of their writing processes, and I secretly longed to be invited along. So when Karl A. Russell asked if he could tag me in his post, I was thrilled, not only because I get to join the tour, but also because it was Karl who invited me. I made Karl’s acquaintance through Twitter and the weekly flash fiction contest The Angry Hourglass hosted by Rebecca J. Allred. His stories consistently impressed me with their pure, cinematic style blended with poetic leaps. That a writer of his caliber had named me as someone whose writing he admired, well, let’s just say I’m still smiling. Thank you, Karl, for the invitation!

And so, here we go…

What am I working on?
I’ve got a few projects in the works right now, which seems to be my constant state. Book two of my Regency Magic series, Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas, is currently in the hands of three marvelous beta readers. I’ve got more work to do on Margaret, but I’m not thinking about her until September.

Meanwhile, I’ve been writing short stories. The daughter of a good friend is in the hospital, so I’ve undertaken a little project to entertain her. I sent the first story, “Vivian MacBain and the Case of the Itchy Feet” (she likes Encyclopedia Brown mysteries) about two weeks ago. I’m planning to write at least one more before the summer’s end. This week I started work on “Vivian MacBain and the Case of the Purloined Puppets.”

I just finished a second draft of a super creepy story called “Irina Voshnikaya,” affectionately nicknamed “Vampire Ballerina.” Emily Street, my writing partner (about whom you’ll learn more below), gave me the idea after I confessed that I prefer theatre to film when I’m acting because I like to “borrow” the energy from the live audience to feed my performance. Emily thought that would make a great story. I agreed. At first I envisioned it being a story about an actress playing Hedda Gabler—she would need all the energetic help she could get. But since that would involve re-reading Hedda Gabler, I revised the setting to a performance of Swan Lake, and “Irina Voshnikaya” was born.

Although I’ve been absent for a few weeks, I try to get a story in to The Angry Hourglass as frequently as possible. I love writing flash fiction, but I’ll talk more about that below.

Finally, I’ve started research for a new novel about (non-vampiric) ballet dancers called Anna’s Piece. I’m planning to start the first draft in October—provided Margaret Dashwood edits go smoothly. So far by research I mean watching documentaries about ballet dancers, contacting a friend who attended North Carolina School of the Arts for an interview, making a list of all the dance books available, and reading Dancer by Colum McCann (a lovely book). I have every intention of dragging this old body back to a ballet class or two just to remind myself what it feels like. (And I’m dragging Emily Street with me!)

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
This question stumps me a little as I am not consistently faithful to any one genre. My two Regency Magic books, Margaret and Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven, straddle at least two genres: Jane Austenesque fiction and fantasy (of the Harry Potter variety). From the first genre, my work differs because it includes magic and from the second, because it’s set in Jane Austen’s England and borrows Jane Austen’s characters. I invent many of the characters, too, and they tend to resemble ones you’d find in Harry Potter. Both books feature young heroines rather than young heroes–so that’s another point of overlap and difference.

As for my other work—I’ve written a few horror stories for Ungodly Hungers, the first collection of short stories (actually the first book) that Emily and I published as Luminous Creatures Press. Having read only some horror—Dean R. Koontz years and years ago and Stephen King, also years and years ago—I can’t say how my stories differ, except that women populate them in higher numbers than men. However, I love Edgar Allen Poe, and I’d say that my story “Lucine’s Gaze” has Poe-ish qualities.

Our section story collection, The Painted Dog and Other Stories, fits more squarely in the fantasy category. I’m not sure how these stories differ from others in their genre. I aspired to a Neil Gaimen-esqueness in the real world settings I’ve chosen, but I don’t think I really succeeded.

After I finish Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas, I’m taking some time off from Regency Magic to write a couple of novels that I think will fit more squarely under the heading “general fiction.” While Anna’s Piece got its start in a fantasy / magical realism short story, I’m going to explore keeping everything rooted in this world—specifically in San Francisco and the San Francisco Ballet. I’ve also got plans to write a historical fiction novel about a woman who grew up during the Depression. It’s based on a piece I wrote for The Angry Hourglass months ago. I have no idea whether or not these books will differ from others of the same genre in any significant ways, but I think that’s okay.

Why do I write what I write?
Regency Magic got its start in a tiny story in which Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice finds a magic book and becomes a sorceress. I had played Mary in a stage production of P & P and felt she deserved a little adventure of her own, which led me to think the same for minor characters in the rest of Jane Austen’s books. Plus I really like inventing magic spells. I intend to write five more books in the Regency Magic series: one each for Jane Austen’s published works and a final book currently called “The Avengers” because all the Regency Magic heroines will work together.

While the Regency Magic books adhere to an Austenesque style, I’m still discovering my own voice and style. I aspire to clarity, precision, and elegance in my writing, which is why I was so happy to discover flash fiction. It has taught me to write with more economy, lending more power to my writing. I’m also learning what I can leave out, allowing the reader more play for interpretation. That learning process has been revolutionary for this ex-academic who was trained to take readers by the hand and guide them through an argument rather than trusting them to supply the missing bits for themselves. Other writers posting to the Angry Hourglass have taught me so much, too: Karl Russell with his cinematic clarity, Kristen Falso-Capaldi with her ability to reach in and tug out my heart with the simplest words and images. The flash fiction community is filled with lovely writers who support each other’s work, which is an added benefit to joining it.

As for genre and that sticky question of fidelity, when Emily and I first started working together, I was certain that I would write fantasy fiction. We had bonded over reading George R. R. Martin, Mary Stewart, and J.K. Rowling. (We also bonded over our shared past as ballerinas and many other things). Emily writes marvelous fantasy with beautifully drawn worlds, which is why she often gives me notes like “how does this magic system work?” and “who made that law about magic?” But aside from the authors listed above, I don’t read much fantasy. My favorite authors are John Irving and Kate Atkinson. I’m keeping my eye on Anthony Doer, too. (If you haven’t read All the Light We Cannot See, go get it.) Lev Grossman has an interesting piece in the NY Times about moving from literary fiction to fantasy. For my next few books I’m moving in the opposite direction.

How does my writing process work?
When I started thinking about this blog post, I jotted down a few notes. The first one for this section reads, “Backwards and out of order,” which sums up my basic process. I started writing my dissertation by working on the final chapter. Then I wrote chapter four. Next came the chapter that ended up second, followed the chapter that leads the whole thing off. I wrote the third chapter fifth. Then I re-wrote the last chapter because I had finally figured out what the dissertation was about between writing chapters two and one. That’s when I realized I didn’t need the fourth chapter, so I cut it. Finally, I wrote the introduction. Naturally the finished product bears no resemblance to the dissertation prospectus I had written for my oral exams. (That’s a whole other story about how I don’t outline.) I’m planning to begin the first draft of Anna’s Piece right in the middle.

With all this backwards and out-of-order-ness, I go through a lot of drafts, leaving plenty of time in between for things to simmer on my mind’s back burner. I give myself permission to write pure shit for at least two of those drafts. No one sees the first one. Ever. Not even Emily, who reads all of my work. I find the first and second drafts painful, especially when I try to write things in order. On the other hand, I love revision. I love finding exactly the right word, making my sentences as crisp and clean as possible, and clearing out anything unnecessary—I have no trouble killing my darlings. Well, okay, I don’t so much kill them as move them into an outtakes file, but you get the point.

I tend to think best in writing, so I’ve always kept a journal for working through whatever is going on in my life. Now I keep a freewriting journal for each project to help me make sense of my stories, figure out sticky plot points, and generate ideas. Entries might be small notes like “start Anna’s Piece in the middle!” Or they might be long explorations of events in a book—how to get Mary Bennet back to Hertfordshire from London (with the Folding Spell, of course!). I’d be lost without these files.

And now it’s time to introduce three writers whose work I admire:

Callie Armstrong


A Southern writer transplanted to America’s Midwest, Callie writes haunting stories that linger with me long after I’ve finished reading them. She develops rich characters in beautifully drawn settings. I love the brutal honesty of her writing. She’s also one of my favorite tweeps.

You can find many of her stories and her musings about writing on her website.

Kristen Falso Capaldi


Kristen is a high school teacher, a singer / songwriter, and a writer of fiction and award-winning screenplays. She writes with clarity and complexity, even in stories of as few as 150 words. Somehow Kristen manages to create stories that grab me and leave me breathless without any trace of sentimentality. Like Callie, Kristen is another favorite Twitter friend.

You can find Kristen at her new blog.

Emily June Street


Co-owner of both Luminous Creatures Press and Flow Pilates Studio in Fairfax, California, Emily is a reader, a writer, a cyclist, an archer, a trapeze swinger, and a Pilates instructor. She is also the mother of two adorable canine dragons. Emily packs her richly imagined stories with excitement and gorgeous imagery. I count myself very lucky to have her as a writing partner and a friend.

You can find Emily at Luminous Creatures Press and her new blog.

Assume the Worst

Last Tuesday at midnight, I woke up in the middle of a hot flash as Dave was getting up to go to the bathroom. Ralphie, ever alert to our movements, hopped from the bed to investigate the sudden change in status. He followed Dave to the bedroom door where he hovered, presumably because he had to know where The Man One went. After Dave returned and crawled back into bed, Ralphie needed a little coaxing to resume his spot. Instead of curling up and going back to sleep, however, he climbed up to the head of the bed. On hot nights he tends to avoid the top of the bed, but there he was, sniffing, next to my pillow. I hoped he’d cuddle, but he leapt off the bed and rushed to the other window, still sniffing. For the next several minutes, Ralphie chased something around the bedroom–head lifted toward the ceiling and shifting on a dime. It was pretty impressive, but whatever he was trying to catch had some mad flying skills.

“It’s probably the beetle I saw earlier,” I said, so confident. “Ralph, get back in bed; you’re not going to catch him.”

Ralphie ignored me. I sat up and watched as he continued to spin around the room. Then something black swooped over me–it was a little bigger than a Monarch butterfly. “That’s not a beetle!” I shrieked and pulled the covers over my head. “Make it go away!”

Dave, like the good husband he is, got out of bed and looked around.

I peeked from under my covers. “Turn the light on,” I suggested. He did. As I dove back under the covers, again shrieking, Dave said, “I think it’s a bird.”

“It’s not a bird.”

He took a beat.

“No, it’s not a bird.”

Underneath the blankets I shivered, so creeped out by the bat flying around our bedroom.

Meanwhile, Dave and Ralphie watched as it banked again and again around the room. “Wow!” Dave said. “It can really fly!”

I wasn’t interested in its prowess. “Open the door!” It wasn’t a suggestion. (We have to keep our bedroom door closed at night or Ralphie will go charging down the stairs–barking–at regular intervals.)

I heard the door open and a moment later close.

“Is it gone?” I pulled the covers off my head.

“I think so,” Dave said. “It flew around the hall for a minute, but I think it found its way out the door.” He turned off the light and climbed back into bed. Ralphie stood by the bedroom door for another minute before he, too, jumped on the bed, curled up, and went to sleep. Dave started to slip back to sleep.

I, on the other hand, was WIDE awake. A bat had just flown around my bedroom. That by itself isn’t such a big deal. It’s just a (creepy) little winged creature–most likely more afraid of me–that simply wanted to catch some bugs. I  was kept awake by something I remembered hearing while in graduate school: the fiancé of a friend telling a story about a bat flying around in a restaurant–how that had been considered dangerous because of the potential for rabies infection from a fly-by. He was a med student and spoke with authority. Wikipedia didn’t yet exist and instead of questioning him or looking it up in the library, I merely stored this terrifying little nugget of (mis)information in that vault in my mind where such things lurk and moved along.

Until Tuesday. I spent the early hours of that morning convinced that the bat had sprayed rabies ALL OVER my room. I know, rationally, that such a thing isn’t possible.* I’m not an idiot. But at 12:30 on Tuesday morning I wasn’t operating from rational thought. I was operating from fear and a super-charged imagination.

What’s the worst thing someone can do in such a situation? Yep, consult the Internet, whose slogan should be “Assume the Worst!” The next morning I looked stuff up on the Center for Disease Control website. According to the CDC, if you wake up to find a bat in your room, you have to assume the worst. That’s not how they phrase it, but that’s what they mean. I sat in my office wondering how long the bat had been in the room–had we been asleep? Had it entered not through the upstairs deck door as I thought, but through the window over the bed? Had it crawled through that window and hung over me while I slept? Had it landed on me? Had it bitten me or Dave or Ralphie? Stories began to spin themselves–fueled by a catastrophic imagination, an episode of House, and an episode of Scrubs. (Who knew such different tv shows could make use of a rabies death?) To stop the stories from spinning out of my control, I made several phone calls, starting with the Advice Nurse. The one for my doctor’s office had to call back later, so I tried the Anthem Blue Cross Advice Nurse. She was a lovely lady, based in Atlanta, I think, who had had to get a bat out of her house recently. Unfortunately, she couldn’t tell me much–she was searching the CDC website for information. She suggested that I call the CDC and helpfully gave me the number.

So I called the CDC. The sweet lady on the other end read me what was on their website. While I was answering a brief survey about customer service, my other line buzzed. The Advice Nurse from One Medical had returned my call. Another nice woman spoke to me–this one in San Francisco. She didn’t have very much experience with bats. We began to bandy about the terms “post exposure prophylaxis,” which I had learned from the CDC website. Apparently rabies shots have gotten less daunting than they were when we were kids. Now it’s just a series of four shots to the upper arm, not the gazillion shots to the belly we whispered about as children, wide-eyed and thrilled by the horror.

But as nice as she was, she couldn’t give me any advice beyond considering the shots or contacting the Marin Department of Public Health. I asked her what she would do, and she replied, “That’s a good question. It’s kind of a tough call in this case, because you don’t want to take any unnecessary medication, but rabies is fatal.” Yes, well. I took down the number of the public health department and thanked her. She wished me luck.

By now I had to get going–I had a Pilates private session to teach. Plus I was all phoned out. I asked Dave to call the health department while I was gone. As anyone who knows Dave can imagine, he was completely blithe about the whole thing. Maybe not completely, but he wasn’t really worried. He agreed to call them and to stop by the vet’s office. (I made the mistake of looking things up like cases of rabies in dogs with up-to-date vaccines. It can happen.)

Luckily my client that morning was the daughter of another client–a marvelous man and retired surgeon who knows about my health concerns. He happened to drop her off for her session, and naturally I told him–mocking myself as I do to hide my fear. He waved it off, laughing, and said I shouldn’t worry about it, which mollified me for an hour.

Meanwhile, Dave had called the public health department. He told me when I called him from the Good Earth parking lot that they suggested we take the prophylaxis. So he’d called the closest urgent care center that had the shots, and they said to come in as soon as possible. Cue freak-out. I kept myself pulled together to grocery shop, but visions of horrible things accompanied me home. No matter how much I pushed them aside, they kept storming back. Lunch was a tense affair–Dave insisted we eat because who knew how long we’d be at Urgent Care? But we finally made it out of the house and up to Terra Linda.

Dave and I have a lot of experience of emergency rooms together. We had only been dating a few months when I had an acute case of appendicitis that led to a morning at the UC Davis Student Healthcare Center and then the afternoon and night at Sutter Davis Hospital. We’ve also been to Sutter Davis for a couple of serious asthma attacks (mine). I find trips to the ER with Dave very entertaining. Something about medical facilities inspires his already great sense of humor and timing. So it was only fitting that we spent part of our thirteenth anniversary at Urgent Care.

By this point in the day we had come to a clearer sense of the timeline–determining that we were awake when the bat entered the premises–and we were also pretty sure that we hadn’t been bitten. But those damn websites I consulted made it sound as though a bat could swoop in, bite its victim, and swoop away completely undetected. And that it would leave the tiniest of marks, easy to overlook. (Who the fuck writes these websites anyway?). Since rabies is fatal, I was not taking any chances.

Urgent Care was not busy, so we were seen pretty quickly, starting with Dave. Just before my turn, I heard the doctor in the hallway saying, “He’s fine with not getting the shots.” Then he came into the room and calm descended. He told me about Dave’s decision but added that I don’t have to do the same thing. Then he said that he didn’t think I needed the shots, but it was up to me. Naturally I was torn. He inspected me for bites, found none, and reassured me that if it were he, he would not bother with them. I debated–thinking that I might spend the next ten days seeing rabies in a headache or a sore muscle. Finally, my nascent rationality, something I’ve been working on, took over. “Let’s skip it,” I said.

“I think that’s the right decision,” he replied. Then he got up to do my paperwork, sending me down the hall to sit with Dave. When the nurse came in to give us our paperwork, she said, “The nurses all think you made the right choice.” That statement provided the most comfort all day. We thanked the staff for their wonderful treatment and headed home to Ralphie, who had forgotten the whole incident and just wanted to play fetch.

That night over dinner, Dave and I talked about death and fear and life and love. We toasted our thirteen years of marriage, made plans for the future, and reminded each other how lucky we are. We imagined the best.


*I have a theory about the bat spraying rabies: rabies is transmitted through saliva. A rabid bat can drip saliva from above, unlike a land-bound creature that has to bite to spread the disease. In the infinitesimal chance that a bit of infected bat saliva lands on a freshly opened wound or in your eye, you might contract rabies from a bat flying overhead. But that’s just my theory.

Another Flash Fiction Win

My story “Flight” won Flash Frenzy Round 16 at The Angry Hourglass.

I really am planning a post about writing flash fiction. I’ve just been busy, well, writing flash fiction. And finishing the second draft of Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas. And writing more short stories. So my blog has suffered some inattention lately. But there are posts taking shape in my head. One of these days I’ll put them here.

Confessions or #IheartTwitter

Dear Twitter,

I feel like I owe you a big apology. You see, when I first heard of you I thought you were the stupidest thing ever invented–and that’s saying a lot since there are all those really dumb inventions that you can find on late night infomercials to compare you to. I remember hearing about Tweeting and thinking, “Seriously? We already have Facebook. What more do we need?”

Then I started writing again for real. And Emily and I started Luminous Creatures Press.  Like a good self-publisher, I read all the stuff about how to get word of your books out to the world. Twitter suddenly seemed a very important part of being a writer. I thought, “Oh, great. I fucking hate Twitter and now I have to join it? Ugh. All right.” Actually, it came down to either Emily or me joining Twitter. Since I am inherently more social, I volunteered. But I didn’t like it, and I did precisely what I wasn’t supposed to do: I tweeted pretty much only about our books.

As you can imagine, I didn’t get much out of you, Twitter, by just tweeting about our books, my disdain for the whole enterprise leaking into my tweets. But I didn’t believe all those blog posts that said that Twitter is a great place for finding a community of writers. All I saw were other writers like me selling their books and telling me to like their Facebook pages. And posting links to five-star reviews of their books. For such a crowded and noisy place, Twitter seemed so desolate.

Then you told me to follow Jessica Grey, which led me to discover Indie Jane. And a strange thing happened. I started having conversations with people. At first awkward and tentative, but conversations nonetheless. From there Jessica reviewed my book, and I read hers (which I liked a lot.) Around this time I also learned that the Jane Austen community is enormous. Who knew? Well, Twitter did.

I started taking more of your advice about whom to follow and that’s how I ended up following Kristen, Allie, Cedrix, Jason, and Clive. (And Willow and Tess and Charlotte…) That’s how I learned about Friday Phrases, which is an awesome game that provides a real feeling of writerly community, and about flash fiction contests on The Angry Hourglass and Flash! Friday. I even met Diane who lives around the corner from me.

When I finally embraced Twitter, I discovered my people, a community of writers and readers whose interest and support I can feel even though we are scattered around the world. Last spring even Emily joined Twitter.

So, what I’m getting at here is that I’m sorry I called you stupid, Twitter, and I’m sorry I hated you. Actually, it turns out that I love you.

Sincerely yours,


p.s. I also love that I can follow the entire cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Watching them interact warms my geeky little heart.

The First Draft Blues

As of today I’m declaring myself about half way done with writing the first draft of Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas: Regency Magic Book Two. I’ve made this declaration based on word count rather than plot because I have only a vague idea of the story at this point. A few things have started coming into focus: I sort of know how it will end, I know who the good guy is and who the bad, and I’ve got some cool spells worked out. Plus there’s the enchanted atlas, which is slowly revealing its secrets. Otherwise, every day when I sit down to write, I’m winging it, coaxing the story out from wherever it’s hidden in my mind, figuring out what the hell I’m writing.

But for a few weeks now, I have had the sinking feeling that my story is a great steaming pile of poo. Probably because it is. How could it be anything else? It’s a first draft! Yet as often as I have started new projects, I cannot seem to get beyond my desire for everything to come out perfectly formed from the moment I sit down at the computer until the moment I type “The end.” You know, like that scene in Shakespeare in Love when Shakespeare sat writing Romeo and Juliet in a fury of productive genius, inspired by his love for Viola de Lesseps. If only it were that easy, right?

It’s funny that I should torture myself with such ludicrous expectations. Before I left my fabulous acting career for my glamorous life of Pilates instruction and writing, I taught writing (and a few literature courses) at  UC Davis. With unbridled enthusiasm I used to encourage my students to write really crappy first drafts so that they could get the damn things done and then begin to revise them. Met with their blank, sometimes fearful, stares–I don’t think they had ever been given permission to do really crappy work and they didn’t know how to react–I would repeat myself. “Seriously, guys, just get it written. You can fix it later. That’s what the revision workshops are for,” I would say, doing my best to reassure them. “Tell your editor brain to take a few days off and just write!”

And yet, like a hypocrite, every day when I sit down to write, I find myself sinking into that self-judgy pit of despair that comes with allowing my editor mind to weasel her way into the drafting process. So I’ve decided to bring in a little help. Since I know that I am not alone in suffering these first draft blues, I’ve turned to other writers, compiling a list of quotations about first drafts that I find reassuring. I hope you do, too.

“The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” Anne Lamott

This is one of many helpful and reassuring nuggets from Bird by Bird. I read it a few weeks ago because of this Margaret Dashwood anxiety.

“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build sandcastles.” Shannon Hale

I found this one on Twitter in another writer’s pictures. And I like it a lot.

“There is no great writing. Only great rewriting.” Justice Brandeis

My husband reminded me of this one the other day, which I thought was nice of him. He’s very comforting.

“Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. It’s perfect in its existence. The only way it could be imperfect would be to NOT exist.” Jane Smiley

What more reassurance could I need?

Except maybe this one:

“The first draft of anything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway

Right to the point.

If anyone else has a favorite quotation about shitty first drafts, I’d love to hear it!