“Happy are they whom the Muses love.” – Hesiod

February 15, 2010


Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler! 

(Let The Good Times Roll!) 


          Think about it. The incalculable hours you’ve invested in writing, day after day, month after month. The tedious revisions. The unmerciful deadlines. Time…there’s never enough of it.  

          While your characters enjoy life, love, and fulfillment, you, on the other hand, are set adrift in a world where perspectives, oft times, become blurred by conflicts of home, family, and the near-desperate pursuit of a gainful writing career. Let me just finish this project, you plead with hands pressed against the floodgates, holding back a tide that threatens to mire you in a writer’s slump.

          Stop! Back away from the computer. When was the last time you penciled in “quality of life” on your calendar? It’s time to get a grip. You need a break. Though you may not think you deserve the luxury of recreation, it’s an absolute requisite for your Muse.

And you do not want to anger your Muse!

          So many of us are of the assumption that time management applies only to the work part of life’s work-play equation. In reality, the same discipline is vitally important for managing both.

          Everyone needs to schedule their allotted time to decompress. Your Muse demands it.  So bare your chest, let the hair fly, shed the inhibitions, and…


          Seriously! The Muses do keep a busy schedule, but they cannot function without quality partying. In his Theogony, Hesiod often spotted them hanging out on Mount Helicon making fair, lovely dance with vigorous feet. And in those days, of course, they’d spent a great deal of time on Mount Olympus where it’s said their dad, Zeuse, delighted them with parties and feasts.

          Little has changed in the last two or three thousand years. When these Goddesses are not dancing to the heart-pounding beat of a Beyonce video, they’re jetting off to New Orleans to enjoy Carnival — a term fittingly derived from the Latin Carnivale – “farewell to flesh.” So liberate your soul, bare your chests, and take a lesson from your Muses. Lighten up. Have a little fun!

          Do you doubt that Mardi Gras is exactly where your muses are right now?! What? Do you think they’d sit, day after day, raking a hand through tangled hair, trying to plot an escape from that corner you’ve painted yourself into? Forget it! They’re down here, on the bayous, lapping up our own particular brand of creative juices while reigniting flames of new inspiration. Is there proof of this, you ask? Hmm… Does Cinderella pick pumpkin pulp from a spackled slipper after midnight?

          Not only is their proof, but as it turns out, your Muses have a Mardi Gras parade all their own. Naturally, it’s called – “The Krewe of Muses.” And like Cinderella, their sparkling hand-decorated shoes are their trademark. In addition to glittering high heels, these Greek Goddesses throw all sorts of goodies to their legions of fans, chief among them — writers, poets, artists, musicians and philosophers. While the Krewe of Muses is strictly composed of women, men (in the tradition of courtly love) are irresistibly drawn to this exceedingly popular celebration. Why? In the words of British Poet Robert Graves, “No Muse-poet grows conscious of the Muse except by experience of a woman in whom the Goddess is to some degree resident…”

[By the way, the Krewe of Muses is more than glitter and heels. In the spirit of their namesake, this wonderful group of selfless women have lent support and special recognition to the arts and artists of the community. As well, their organization has generously contributed countless hours and thousands of dollars in charitable work benefiting women and children.]

          But I see some of the excessive compulsive workaholics among you remain unconvinced. You believe the source of inspiration comes purely from within, and like the carnival, the Muses are but some romantic folly. Must I remind you…? Ancient Mesopotamian rule avers that the Muse Goddess is the wellspring of ALL prose. The Muses – daughters of Zeus, King of Gods – are the true speakers for whom an author is merely the mouthpiece.

          I warn you, do not tempt the Muses on this point. King Pierus, for example, once tried and failed.  This Macedon ruler named his nine daughters after the Muses believing their skills were superior. He foolishly challenged the Muses to a match, and as result, all nine of the King’s daughters were transformed into finches and magpies.

          Then there was Thamyris of Dorium. The minstrel who boasted mastery over the Muses in a contest and lost. He wagered if he should be vanquished by the Muses, then they may take from him whatever they wished. For his arrogance, he first lost his eyes, then his mind.

          And what of the Sirens who chose to compete with the Muses in song. After defeating them, the Muses plucked the Sirens’ feathers and now wear them in ornament as crowns upon their heads.

          Is it worth the risk of rebuffing a Muse’s decree for fun and celebration, thus finding yourself without a mind, blind, and featherless, dining for grubs on the forest floor ? Hey, I’m not making this stuff up here. It’s documented history.

          I love these mischievous little nymphs, these nine daughters of Zeus. Look at all they do for us and still, they find time to feast on life. But of course, there are still some among you who pay no homage to the ancient goddesses of literature. Instead, you offer deference to graven images, idols, or effigies. You perceive yourself a contemporary writer whose inspiration is derived from a Muse, self styled to fit your own personality. A vogue, cutesy ceramic clown or some fluffy stuffed doll. Hey! Okay! That’s fine. Actually, it doesn’t really matter who or what the manifestation. It’s your Muse.

          But may I offer a bit of caution… Every Muse needs time off. If you deny them their rightful time for pause – to enjoy life, and decompress – then you’ll find your inspired prose will become ruled by the muse on the right.

Happy Mardi Gras, everyone, and…

Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler!

Love What You Write & Believe in Yourself…

December 29, 2009

Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write more entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page. -Eudora Welty



  • Interview with Author, Dee White

We’re pleased to have with us today, Dee White. She’s the author of Letters to Leonardo, a debut YA fiction best introduced by Aussie Reviews — one of at least a half-dozen wonderful reviews of her novel I’ve come across:    

Letters to Leonardo is a stunning debut novel from Victorian author Dee White. The blend of first person narrative with letters gives the reader a wonderful insight into Matt’s thought processes and emotions. Matt’s journey is full of action, emotion and twists and turns which keep the reader riveted from chapter to chapter…”    

JR     Great review, Dee. Welcome to Musetracks, but before we begin, I have to ask — is there a bit of an accent I detect? Tell us about yourself.    

DW     That could be an Australian accent, John. I was raised in regional Victoria, Australia, and that’s where I completed my high schooling. I went on to do a Diploma in Professional Writing & Editing at Victoria University.  I still live in regional Victoria in a house my husband and I built (mostly). I have two boys who read everything I write, and enough pets to almost fill an ark – including dog, cats, goats and rabbits – and that’s not counting the large number of kangaroos, echidnas and wedge-tailed eagles we share our property with. My special interests are reading, writing, golf, cricket, amateur theatre, collecting stray animals and traveling. I travelled around Australia in tents for almost two years with my husband and our two boys when they were 8 months old and 2 ½. One of my favorite parts was camel riding in the outback – and I dream of adding a camel to the menagerie one day.    

JR     Interesting background. I know one of our Musetrackers, Candi Wall (a softie when it comes to stray animals), would enjoy sharing stories with you about her love for these four-footed creatures. But, Australia… So many of us hold a fascination for the mystery and romance of that land down under. How did you first discover that you might pursue writing among all these other passions?

Leonardo da Vinci

DW     I started writing poetry when I was seven and that was the year I decided I would become an author. I have always written since then, but it wasn’t until I became and advertising copywriter and journalist that writing became a career. From that, I branched out into my real passion…writing books.   

 I was inspired to write Young Adult fiction by Australian author, John Marsden. I liked the ‘realness of his books’ – the fact that he didn’t talk down to young adults – that he didn’t try to shield them from reality. As I became a more serious about my craft, I had a very inspirational writing teacher, author Sherryl Clark. She gave me many tips on how to improve my writing. 

JR     Marsden’s work must have had its effect on you. And it’s apparent, from the reviews, that you’ve also established that all-important credibility with young adults on all levels — intellectually and emotionally.  Was Letters to Leonardo your first effort in the genre?    

DW     Letters to Leonardo was my first YA novel, but my third book. My earlier works were a non fiction book( A Duel of Words) and  a novel (Hope for Hanna); both for middle grade readers. I started out writing picture books when my boys were very small. As they have grown older, my books have got longer and the target readership has aged too. My oldest son is a now a teenager and I guess that’s how I ended up writing YA fiction. It was also one of my favorite subjects at university – and I think I’ve discovered that I’m really a fifteen-year-old boy at heart – this seems to be my writing voice.    

JR     What was your inspiration for the story?     

DW     The two main pieces of inspiration came from a true story I heard about a man who received a twenty-first birthday card from the mother he had been told was deceased, and the real life experiences of a friend growing up with a mother who suffered from a bipolar disorder. I was also really affected by a comment made by comedian Sir Spike Milligan about his own bipolar. He described the ‘lows’ as “1000 grim winters growing in my head.” Added to this was a long held fascination with Leonardo Da Vinci, which grew even more obsessive as I did my research for this book.   

From the minute the pieces of this story fell into place in my head, I knew it was a story I had to write.    

JR     In this coming-of-age story of love, life, triumph and tragedy, your main character, Matt, a fifteen year old boy, grows up believing his mother had died, then he receives a card from her and his world is turned inside out. Deceived by his father and with feelings of betrayal by a woman he’d never known, he tries to unravel the reasons why a mother would abandon her child. In the novel, meanings and messages left on canvas bring the powerful presence of a legend back to life. Can you tell us about the kinship you and your character have with this artist, Leonardo da Vinci – a man who was suspected by some as suffering from the same bipolar disorder as Matt’s mother? 

Benois Madonna

DW      What fascinates me about Leonardo, apart from his overwhelming genius and artistic talent, is that he was true to himself. I bought a little statuette of Leonardo and the Mona Lisa, and it sits on my desk watching over me. Leonardo da Vinci has become my muse.   

My favorite of his works is the Benois Madonna. Apart from the wonderful colors and detail, I love the relationship depicted between the mother and child. The mother’s expression is of overwhelming love, while the baby with typical youthful curiosity is totally oblivious to his mother’s emotion and is completely fixated on the flower in her hand.   

In Letters to Leonardo, Matt, and da Vinci lived over 500 years apart, so I wanted to bring them together in a realistic and original way. Art was a powerful connection between the two. Matt was an artist, and he later discovered that this was one of the strongest things that linked him to his mother. 

Mona Lisa

I’ve used some of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings to symbolize people and events in the story. The Mona Lisa, for example, is an enigma like Matt’s mother, but she is also a watching presence. In the letters he writes to Leonardo,Matt uses da Vinci’s paintings to talk about things that are happening in his own life. It’s what connects them to each other. Here’s an example: 

 Matt: “…that’s what I love about your Drapery Study, I never thought of clothes as having a life of their own – but they do. We all wear an outer layer to hide who we really are.”    

Matt’s anguish and feelings of betrayal when he discovers that his mother is not dead are symbolized in another of Leonardo’s paintings. Here again: 

Matt: “There’s this one painting, St Jerome. I can’t stop looking at it – at the torture in the saint’s eyes as he crouches among those craggy rocks, prostrate before that open-mouthed lion. It’s like that painting expresses everything that’s going on inside me.”  

He links Leonardo’s Lady with the Ermine to his own feelings of disappointment, and trying to come to terms with who his mother really is: 

Matt: “…I’m starting to think that Mum and I are like your Lady with the Ermine. I’m Mum’s pet. Maybe that’s all I was to her when I was a kid.”   

St Jerome

JR     Love the symbology here. You can just sense Matt’s longing for the ideal in Benois Madonna as contrasted with the despondence he bares in some of Leonardo’s other masterpieces. As an aspiring writer, was there ever a time along the path to publication when you felt you might not achieve your goal? Any lessons learned you’d like to share?   

DW     In 2002 (after researching and writing for more than four years) I was awarded a mentorship to work with a well-published author on my manuscript. Mentorships are a great experience for a new writer, but it’s important to find a partnership that suits you both – and that your mentor understands and loves your story too.   

My mentor didn’t like that Letters to Leonardo was in first person, she thought that my use of art was clichéd, and she felt that young adults wouldn’t know who Leonardo da Vinci was. I think this was really the only time throughout the whole journey that I experienced self-doubt.    

I was a very inexperienced writer and thought, “She knows what she’s talking about,” so I changed my story to meet all her recommendations. Instead of Letters to Leonardo, it became Space, a book about a boy who loved astronomy and wrote letters to astronaut, Buzz Aldrin.    

A publisher I submitted Space to thought it was well written, with well developed characters etc, but that it was missing something. That’s when I realized it was not my story anymore. I spent the next two years rewriting and editing – adding layers to the story, connecting up all the pieces and making sure that the manuscript was as tight as it could be.    

Lady with the Ermine

In 2008, I decided to have my manuscript assessed at the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Conference in Sydney.  Margaret Hamilton ,who assessed it, was very positive and in fact even went so far as to introduce me to publishers at the conference. A few months later, Letters to Leonardo was accepted for publication by Walker Books Australia.    

So I guess in terms of how many publishers I submitted it to, Letters to Leonardo had a reasonably easy road – but I did spend many years writing and rewriting – trying to get it right before I submitted it.    

I wanted to share my experience with other writers because for me, the biggest lesson was learning to ‘stick with my story’.  Sometimes, as writers we have to follow our instincts – and have faith in our own work (no matter how many rejections we have received).    

This experience also taught me that talent and a good story idea aren’t enough – you have to have determination – an unshakeable passion for what you do. You have to want to be a writer above all else and you have to have a story you love – then hopefully, others will love it too. I hope this inspires others to keep going with the stories they love – to keep writing – keep rewriting – and keep believing in yourself.    

JR     You’ve expressed so well what writers fear most – falling in love with an idea, a theme, or a character to whom we’ve given life, only to have the marrow of that inspiration stripped away someplace along the rugged road to publication. When you speak of determination and unshakeable passion, how does this translate for a writer who must next become a marketing manager?   

DW     I had a job in marketing in a past working life so I understand how important it is. I did a number of actual launches for Letters to Leonardo as well as a cyber launch and blog tour. The blog tour had over 1000 hits and there were more than 250 hits at the cyber launch. There’s more information about this on my blog http://deescribewriting.wordpress.com    

Aside from internet marketing, I have talked at conferences about my book, visited schools and done book shop signings. It’s important to get your work out there, and I must admit, I love talking to kids about books and writing.    

My sons and I made a book trailer for Letters to Leonardo on a zero budget. My eldest son was the voice of Matt Hudson and my youngest son selected and played the music. The link is http://www.blazingtrailers.com/show.php?title=504    

JR     I love how your family has become a part of both the struggle and success of your effort. Hmmm… this must be one of the upsides to writing YA.    

A great pleasure, Dee. We’ve enjoyed having you as our guest. Seems the world knows no boundaries in a collegial fellowship of authors and aspiring writers whose pleasure is to motivate and inspire. Thanks for sharing the experience, and we wish you much success with your novel.    

Letters to Leonardo is currently only available in Australia, but it can be purchased on line at Boomerang Books, Fishpond, or other online sellers.    

BUT… For one lucky commenter, Dee is offering an autographed copy of her debut novel!

Interview with Author, David Rocklin

December 18, 2009
  •  Strategies for getting and keeping a qualified Agent.

  •  “Taking the Long Way Home” with foreign publication.

Hello, everyone. Let’s welcome our guest today, David Rocklin, the author of “The Luminist.” His debut novel will be published overseas in Italy (Neri Pozza) and Israel (Kinnaret). It is to be submitted for publication in the UK, and is scheduled to make its first appearance here in the United States in 2011 (Hawthorne Books). It’s an elegant novel described by Mohrbooks as: “In the spirit of ‘The Piano Tuner,’ David’s first historical, ‘The Luminist,’ is a beautifully written, page-turner about politics, war, art, and family that will linger in your memory long after you raced towards the last page.”

Q: Welcome, David. Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born and raised in Chicago, and moved to Los Angeles in 1990 to pursue writing; I’d felt that I couldn’t write while living where I was originally from. I felt the need to see what I’d experienced up to that point from a greater distance. I have a degree in Literature (we with degrees like to capitalize the word) and went into law. I now mediate employment cases and write – not in that order, I’m happy to say.

Q: A successful attorney with a degree in Literature (notice the capitalization). I can’t imagine balancing time between two challenging careers. How do you manage? Was professional writing always your ultimate ambition?

It’s a challenge, mostly to keep my head on what I’m doing while not writing. The writing seeps into just about every facet of me. I stay up late, a lot. We also have a toddler at home, so I’ve become a bit adept at multi-tasking mentally.

Q: On any scale, I don’t think there’s one of us who can’t appreciate those challenges you describe. Multi-tasking and time-sharing seem a way of life for writers. Tell us about “The Luminist” and what inspired the story?

The Luminist was initially inspired by an installation of Victorian-era photography at the Getty Museum in Southern California. The character of Catherine Colebrook is very loosely suggested by the life and work of  Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the first photographic pioneers. Her pictures of children were especially haunting, at once warmly immediate and bittersweet; those lives are, after all, lost to us now. After the exhibition and a bit of research, I discovered (among other things) that Ms. Cameron experienced the death of one her youngest children, as did so many in colonial Ceylon. It struck me that Ms. Cameron’s stated desire to “arrest beauty,” to select a moment from the thousands comprising her life and hold it apart from mere memory, might have arisen from that grievous loss as much as from scientific curiosity and the will of a strong woman to escape some of the limitations of Victorian life. What followed – research into colonial life in Ceylon, the traditions of Victorian photography, a plunge (inadequate, I’m certain) into the religions, cultures and customs of India – really began there, with photographic relics and writerly imaginings about the woman who made them.

Though the novel deals with matters of history (figures such as Sir John Holland, who is based very loosely on the great Victorian scientist Sir John Herschel, and of course Catherine and her husband and children, again, loosely modeled on Ms. Cameron’s family), as well as the origins of photography (including its genesis from sunprints to glass and beyond) and India herself during the period in question, I have taken broad liberties with each. My apologies for any tampering with these worlds in the interests of fiction.]

Q: I see that the Luminist will soon be hitting book stores in the United States in early 2011, with allowances for marketing and promotion. How did this novel come to be acquired first overseas?

My absolutely incomparable agents (Christy Fletcher and Melissa Chinchillo/Fletcher & Co.) took the novel to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2008, where the rights sold to Italy and Israel. At that point there hadn’t been a sale here in the States, and I’m told that foreign publishers do not as a rule acquire a title before English speaking rights are sold, both for copyright and marketing reasons. So I actually felt very good about those sales, as they represented two publishing houses who thought strongly enough about the novel to take that sort of chance on it. I will always remember that Italy and Israel came through before anyone else.

Q: It’s difficult enough for most writers to navigate the complexities of business here at home, but untangling foreign rules… It seems you’re destined to become literature’s Cinderella Man. The quote by Mohrbooks impressively describes your work as written in the spirit of “The Piano Tuner,” also a powerful historical and debut novel. With how far you’ve traveled on the path to publication, was there ever a reality check? How surprised were you to see your debut novel received so warmly?

I was thrilled and extremely gratified at how the novel was received. My agent  – to whom I had submitted via recommendation of a friend and mentor who in turn had read it and thought highly of it, thankfully – read it in a day, which is about as wonderful a thing as a writer can ever hope to hear. It did take a while for the novel to find a home in the states, having gone out to the US publishers right at the economic meltdown, which has and continues to have a disastrous impact on the publishing industry. But my agents felt so confident and were so irrepressibly bullish, that I frankly sat back, started working on a new one and let the novel find its way. I am very excited to be with Hawthorne. If your readers get a chance to visit their website (www.hawthornebooks.com), I think they’ll find a truly eclectic and praiseworthy body of literature.

I think we all have a way of tying our experiences, our hopes, our memories and emotions wanted and unwanted, to some sort of vessel in order to make sense of them – or to make them resonate even more deeply than they already do. A memory is enhanced, or even informed, by a song or a movie scene. The beginnings of a cherished relationship belong not just to us, but to the city, the apartment window, the favorite restaurant, that served as the paving stones we walked while feeling it grow.

For me, writing – my own, that of others – is and has been that vessel, that vehicle that allows me to see the world. If I can be that, for even one person, I will die happy.

Q: I think you describe, perfectly, the passion we all have for the craft. And your work is, indeed, in the company of impressive titles at Hawthorne. You describe yourself as, “Taking the long way home.” I think we understand the inference – the long journey of a dream about to become realized. Would you describe how your novel found a home with a U.S. publisher? For an author, how involved is the process of translation and editing?

It really came about because my agents simply would not give up. As a writer, you dream of finding agents and editors who feel the way you do, who also burn to get that writing out into people’s hands and hearts. The folks I’ve met thus far – Christy, Melissa, my editor/publisher at Hawthorne – are outstanding at what they do, and a joy to be able to work with. I’m lucky beyond belief.

The translation process should be interesting – right now, I’m in the editorial revision process, and we hope to have something in final form by late summer 2010, after which the process of marketing and promotion will truly begin. The final will also be sent to all foreign territories who have shown interest, and will be sent to the publishers who have acquired it. As I understand it, they will translate and will be in touch with me to go over passages, ideas or words that might not have an equivalent meaning, and we’ll work out the differences. Having spent a bit of time trying unsuccessfully to learn Mandarin, I know some things will literally be lost in translation.

The editorial process is quite involved. The more involved it is, the luckier the author – that means they have an editor who has done what the author did throughout the writing of their work. They’ve immersed themselves in the story, in the words, in the lilt of the language and the melody of the sentences as they run together. It’s a fantastic learning experience, and I know my next novel will be the better for it.

Q: We should all be as fortunate to discover an agent or editor who loves our work and brings that kind of imaginative persistence to the business. So, here’s what every aspiring writer wants to know – How did you hook your literary agent? And please share with us the details and tactics you’ve discovered for getting and keeping a qualified agent?

For “The Luminist,” I was lucky to have a friend and mentor, Susan Taylor Chehak (an extraordinary author – please do pick up one of her several novels) read the book. She was very excited about it and suggested that she let a good friend of hers read it – my agent, as it turned out.

I’ve been down both roads (recommendation, query) in terms of locating and acquiring an agent, having queried a fair number in connection with an earlier novel I’d written that was submitted and not published (probably for the best). It’s a daunting process, but one that a writer can accomplish successfully with just a few tips. First, really try to establish for the agents why it is that you’re querying them, and not the agent next door to them. Show them you know their work, their clients, and that you belong in their stable. An easy bit of research will help – most authors thank their agents on the acknowledgement page of their novel (if they don’t, they really should). Think about writers/books that you believe your own work should be placed in the company of (be realistic, and yes, you do have to pigeonhole your novel a bit). Find the agents’ names, or names that aren’t identified as someone’s wife, boyfriend or mother. Cross reference them using one of the many guides to literary agents, or search them on the web. Now you have targeted an agent, and you know something about them – who and what they represent.

Next, don’t send your book out before it’s really ready to be seen. Have it read, preferably by a good workshop peopled with writers who are passionate, well-read and deeply involved in the writing life themselves. If you don’t have access to anything like that, have it read by at least three people who aren’t your wife or mother (and therefore don’t feel like giving you critical feedback is tantamount to rejecting you). Listen and revise. My grandmother used to say, “if someone calls you an ass, they’re rude. If two people call you an ass, you’re probably an ass.” If you hear similar feedback from more than one person, you may be looking at an issue that needs to be revised no matter how strongly you feel about it, as it’s impacting the reading/reception of your work.

A perfect close. Sage advice that should be stenciled on every computer screen — Grandmothers always seem to know how to reach the core with an impressive economy of words. We should have her here as a guest.

Thanks for coming, David. It’s fascinating to watch the genesis of a talented new author and discover the inspiration behind the writer and his story. There’s something here for everyone. Your transnational experience, your steep path to publication, and your advice for finding and keeping the perfect agent offer keen insight for both the established an aspiring author. We look forward to seeing your title in the bookstores.

David’s Website is currently under construction, but until then, you can follow his progress  on Facebook

David is happy to answer all comments or questions below. And if you need legal advice from lawer, David Rocklin… well, he may have left that hat at the office.

News Flash: Sorry I missed this. David is offering a free copy of “The Luminist” to the first TWENTY-FIVE commenters. Yikes — Happy Holidays from David!


The Written Word — Mining for Ideas

December 11, 2009



“It seems to me that those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page.” -Joan Baez




Most writers, no doubt, understand what Ms. Baez means when she describes words that so naturally crawl out onto the page. But seriously, these words don’t just appear from thin air. Neither for a songwriter nor any other kind of writer. It comes from an inspired — idea. The source of which might be anchored in our life’s experiences, our dreams, headline news, or from inspiration discovered in the folds of a novel.  

Life’s experiences are an excellent source of ideas, but how many of us are at once a doctor, lawyer, or scientist? How many have walked on the moon, flown fighters in combat, thrashed about in a hurricane, or explored an ocean floor for ancient treasure? How many have personally witnessed epic events in humanity’s past that have forever changed the course of history? Ooh… then there are those experiences of oppression, torture, and murder… Few of us will draw ideas from real-life experiences such as those. Least, I hope not.

But we HAVE experienced these things, haven’t we…? Vicariously, from a safe distance, by way of literature, theater, television, blissful dreams, or horrid nightmares? So experiences aren’t limited to REAL life for writers who are naturally blessed with hyperactive imaginations. Hmm, mining for story ideas is just another in a list of great reasons to sustain the discipline (or is it a voracious appetite) for reading … don’t you think?

With Joan Baez, I’m sure the words flow naturally for all the reasons above. She’s a woman who’s passionate about the environment, human rights, and nonviolence (both domestic and civic). She reads, she researches, she lives, she dreams. And from all these things she creates lyrical stories that seem for her, so naturally spun. So as aspiring writers, we have to appreciate that some preparation is needed on our part before we also experience the same kind of free-flowing creativity that Joan describes… 

For an aspiring writer, compelling stories should begin with a compelling idea, but where do we mine these things? 

  • Sharpen Your Awareness

Ideas may come from any of the sources described above. You might find inspiration in life changing events – yours and others. Scour the world around you for headlines that evoke passion, fear, adoration, or loathing. And don’t discount your dreams (waking or sleeping). But even great ideas for a novel are often fleeting so, as a new writer, start now. Get organized!

  • Write It Down

Most ideas happen spontaneously. Jot them down whenever and wherever you are. Write them immediately, not later. Keep a writing journal or a notepad handy for this purpose. If necessary use a cocktail napkin, a receipt, the palm of your hand … anything.

  •  Flesh out the details

As soon as possible, gather as many details as you can. How did the idea come to spark your imagination? What was the setting? The scene? Describe how the inspirational event came about, when, and why? Convert all these thoughts into words. Note the specifics – Day, night, city street, or desolate wilderness…

  • Develop the idea

Now’s the time to morph the idea into a story. Exercise your imagination. Ideas don’t often develop themselves, and as a new writer, you shouldn’t expect this seemingly simple phase of your story to happen quickly. It has to evolve. An idea has to be explored, researched, and nurtured to full potential.

Begin by expanding on it. Write your own personal perceptions of the people and place that inspired it – what makes the event unique. Envision primary characters that might fit the story idea. This is important. Whether your story is character driven or plot driven, you’ll want to have a good visual of your major players — distinctive features, flaws, or attributes. What are these characters fighting for, what stands in their way, what would you imagine is their ultimate goal, and the final resolution? Project yourself into the story. How does it affect you? You have your own capacity to feel, to experience, and to sense the emotion. It’s what makes your voice and style different from every other author. 

  • Research the idea

You’ve probably heard the adage – Write What You Know. Good advice, but how many interpret this in the wrong way? No… It doesn’t mean you should only write about the things you’ve experienced. It means you should write about things that intrigue – ideas that compel you to get into the books or scour the internet. If you do the research, then you ARE writing about “What You Know.” And during your research, don’t forget to jot down new emerging ideas (no matter how minor). These ideas woven into the plot might readily become a chapter, a scene or an interesting plot twist.

One point about research – readers demand accuracy, even in fiction. As many elements of realism as you can find in your research will help anchor your reader and insure that they are pulled deeper into your imaginary world. If you want a good head start as a new writer, you shouldn’t hesitate to write in the genre that you most enjoy reading. 

  • Condense the idea into a Theme 

Form the evolving idea developed above, write its theme – one line describing the underlying meaning of the story. When you’ve found it, write it on a paste-it note and stick it to the computer.

Example: The innocence of youth rarely surrenders to reason.

  • Now Expand the idea into a short summary

Turn the idea of your story into an imaginative vision of what it might become. It might look like the short narrative on the rear cover of a book, or the blurb describing an upcoming blockbuster movie. Use your own voice and style, present the characters, and briefly tell their story.  If you can, try to blend all the elements of story building you’ve brainstormed above (Character, Goal, Motivation, Conflict, Journey, Climax, and Resolution).

Example (is there something familiar here):  

With the economy in the dumps, mortgages in default, and jobs moving overseas, Jack and Diane realize this is their last hope to stay together. Fame and fortune for this — the first couple to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon — is their only chance to avoid separate transfers to opposite ends of the continent. 

No time for regrets now…  A dizzying exhilaration stirs their stomachs with the accelerated rise of the ship as they release the tethers holding the helium-filled saucer to the earth. Layered with  pliable solar cells, the skin of the high-tech craft shimmers in the fading light before it vanishes into a thick layer of clouds. Though the untested craft they’ve commandeered might be considered stolen property, that’s not exactly the problem. The problem is that Jack and Diane are only ten, and the raging tropical storm approaching Corpus Christi is driving them further out to sea.

But with Jack’s arm secure around her shoulder, Diane isn’t afraid. The boy, a child prodigy and son of a brilliant engineer, has played all the flight telemetry simulations on his father’s computers and has never once been defeated by wind, weather, or treacherous mountain ranges.

And of course, there’s Jack’s first crush, the girl next door. Diane, the gifted gymnast and her impressive logistic internet connections around the world with hundreds of athletes their age. A tightly spun international web of secrecy they’ll rely on as their global support team.

Together they’ll cross continents and oceans, outmaneuver storms, navigate through dangerous mountain passes, and sail upon a hundred mile-an-hour wind, then hover over villages and fields to collect baskets of food. They’ll hide among the clouds and trick military radar in a global trek across borders that will confound presidents and dictators who thrive on suspicion and fear. But, for seven days, a world will unite, holding its breath for the safe return of a missing ship filled with the hopes and dreams of innocence.   

  • Save your work

Save your work in a folder on your computer and/or in a desk drawer. You might have gathered several ideas before beginning work on your first manuscript, but it doesn’t mean you’re done with the hunt for compelling ideas. Keep an eye on the market place — what’s hot and what’s not. Stay vigilant. Always look for new ideas. If you don’t write the story you’ve stumbled across, then eventually … someone else will.


A Labor of Love…

September 4, 2009


Anything I’ve done up till May 27th 1999 was kind of an illusion, existing without living. My daughter, the birth of my daughter, gave me life. –Johnny Depp



Huff – huff – huff – Blow!

Huff – huff – huff – Blow!

Huff – huff – huff – Blow!

Okay… relax.

Ah, the fond memories of my first outing as head coach for the home team.  Well … actually a labor coach in a hospital’s maternity ward, but a coach nonetheless.

7CAJN46SACABLGKTLCAFQ3DDQCAJ9XKMPCA4I5HH5CAH0196MCAYO1XB7CA3T0GUGCADLVQ80CAN3CEYVCA38GU3BCAQH9B56CA0NS56TCAWZOB0MCAB3BK2VCAZBTMW8CA3TLDYGCAENQI1ZCAWZVQ1VSure it was a small team, my wife the only player. But, hey, it was thrilling. An NFL-like experience – studying film, analyzing charts, working strategy. There were pep-talks, conditioning, two-a-day practices, and of course, the whistle. I really liked the whistle…until my wife insisted I blow it out my @$$–  But we were ready for the big game, and what a game it was — physical, sweaty, and cursing. Lots of cursing.  

And here we go again… We [Candi, Marie-Claude, and me — John] wanted to announce how pumped and proud we are with the anticipated arrival of a new member to our MuseTracks family. If you haven’t heard, our talented writing partner and special friend, Jennifer Bray-Webber and her real-life hero, Mark, are soon-to-be parents for the second time ‘round. A new and highly anticipated chapter about to be written after a prefatorial, nine-month prologue. Exciting, isn’t it? Can’t wait for the big day…err, no pun intended. And like a typical dad, myself, I can still remember game day, holding the trophy and counting its fingers and toes. But…

Is it weird for a guy to gush over the little booger’s arrival? From the quote above, perhaps Jonny Depp and I have shared a common past — a living illusion.

Maybe it’s a guy thing. I’ve got no reservation now, but once upon a time, after the wife and I slipped on the ‘burning rings 6CA7X43FWCAVJA7YTCAFDGRJ0CA7C2DV3CAF5OTCTCA038O2OCA00JSKOCATS9JP8CALGWGJVCATTBLFCCAOOUDYUCA1MP341CADNKGXYCAW2ZOE9CAI42H8JCAMII8K9CA1ITEO3CA8VY1R5CALP7O9Nof fire,’ I was a little timid about family building and the baby thing. Sure, for friends and relatives, I’d come to the hospital, followed protocol, and armed myself with a stuffed bunny for THEIR new addition. And of course, I’d efforted a glance at the little critter while trying something perfunctory like, “Hey, cool! What kind is it?”

The game plan here, I instinctively knew, was maintain a safe distance and come prepared with a quick exit strategy should the mother get that telltale glint in her eye just before she asks – Hey, you wanna hold it?2CA78HJR7CAHOV3E4CACUVE0DCAR6K986CARF0NJMCA15AFXICAJDRRPRCAMUPWZJCAPVHYKDCA07X8ZMCAKFNFB9CA7VM67HCA9XFX28CA8D7SQ5CA4YGJM7CA1YUTL0CA75JLJ7CAM1ZGJ5CAHY3KKZ

Have you ever seen our kind? The ones with that dazed look in our eyes when a child is thrust into our arms.

Panic-stricken, I realize I’ve got to take the handoff lest I be penalized for delay of game. But, my God, how do you hold those things? By an arm? A leg? How will I know if my grip is too tight?   

I tried my best to seem delighted with this little alien, held at arm’s length, while I wondered. Is this a trick? Some kind of test? Really, what lessons are to be learned? 

Then it hits me. This is how they infect you. Ah-ha! My suspicions confirmed as I look around the hospital room, and the knowing glances and crafty smiles shared between my wife and the other women. Jeez! How fair is that…they communicate telepathically.34474454_thw

Spores. It’s got to be the spores. Invasions always begin with spores. I’d read it in a book –  Dean Koontz, I think. But how do these little aliens release them. And with that thought, a smile spreads across the cherub’s lips, its eyes pinch, and a quaggy flutter rips its diaper. That smell, my God! It’s begun. The invasion. To late. Can’t breath…

And infected, I’d become. But suddenly it all became clear when a child, one of my own, was beamed into my world. Gone was the awkwardness when they placed her in my arms. I held her — cradled her — sheltered her, this new and wondrous creation. Without forethought or fear, I pulled her close to my heart.

1I looked at my wife and in that one moment as a new father, I’d become all kinds of philosophical. An expanding sphere of understanding, an epiphany of life, love, and all things beautiful. I stood at the window and held my child in the glow of a new day.

It seemed all my perceptions had changed: the distant song of a bird, the gentle sway of treetops, the happy buzz of a bee that danced among flowers, lured by the sweet scent of nectar drifting on the breeze.

Life abounds. And I realize that this child I hold in my arms is a much larger part of some greater design. She’d come so far. Traveled billions of years across an evolving universe, and gathered to herself the elements of life. Then, one day, she crosses the threshold into our world – the first spark of mortality, spirit, and then self-awareness. And as she grows within the miracle of her mother’s womb, she listens to the tales of her ancient ancestors whose names have long become forgotten, but who are here with her in the shape of her mouth, the color of her eyes, and the sound of her voice. How had this child found us…how are we worthy.

Of all the people in the world, Bristol has chosen you, Jenn — someone mother-and-child-detail-from-the-three-ages-of-woman-c-1905-gustave-klimt1who’s as much a miracle as you are. What a lucky child. We’re so excited and happy for you and your family. And, hey…Labor Day is Monday, but you do know  that you don’t have to take it literally, right? And if Mark needs it, I think I can dig out my coach’s whistle around here someplace.

Plot like your life depends on it:

January 20, 2009


I’d like to raise a salute to the crew of USAirways Flight 1549 (Miracle on the Hudson). Here are the names of these five brave men and women: Captain Sully Sullenberger, First Officer Jeff Skiles, Flight Attendants Sheila Dail, Doreen Welsh and Donna Dent. All of them performed amazingly under the most stressful of circumstances. And of course, a salute to all those passengers on board the aircraft who selflessly put other lives before their own, and the ordinary citizens and river pilots who came to their rescue, and naturally, the quick call to duty of New York’s outstanding emergency response teams. No lives were lost that day because of the heroic actions of all these people who played their part.

But I can’t help but feel a strong personal connection to the flight crew. I’ve flown with First Officer Skiles, an outstanding aviator, and enjoyed the camaraderie and professionalism of all these flight attendants as members of my own crew at one time or another. I’d only exchanged pleasantries in passing with Captain Sullenberger. Though, like most who watched the videos of his Hudson touchdown, I have an immense respect for his exceptional skills. I can almost sense the thoughts that went through his mind as he plotted this happy ending to an impossible story. He and I have enjoyed many common experiences in aviation. We were both instructors in the military, both of us flew Phantom F-4 fighters, and both are currently employed as Captains with USAirways. But we all must wonder. What must it feel like — to plot as if your life depended on it.

You know, plotting in aviation is not unlike writing. Both use this same instrument to lay a course through a series of events leading to a successful conclusion. But, wow! Have you ever had a sixty second deadline to present a believable plot that must end happy-ever-after, and… It must be a guaranteed blockbusting bestseller.


Do you remember the Stephen King novel, “Misery?” After an accident on a remote country road, bestselling author, Paul Sheldon is nursed back to health, then held prisoner and forced to plot a story for his deranged captor, Annie Wilkes, as if his life depended on it. Let’s try an experiment. Enter a Stephen King-like nightmare with me and let’s test your piloting, err… plotting skills. What do you say we keep Misery’s Annie Wilkes and throw in a little of King’s Christine for good measure. Here we go.

You’re the driver of an automobile enroute to conference, an exciting road-trip you’ve looked forward to for months. Your four passengers are all writing partners. Together, you make an excellent team. While you’re a bestselling author, your passengers are a mixed group — some published, some not.

Good company and pleasant conversation. The day couldn’t be more perfect. But then the nightmare begins. The background music cuts out, replaced by gritty static. It won’t be silenced. Dividing your attention from the road, you dial through the radio frequencies, lower the volume, turn off the power, but it won’t go away. A shrill screech resonates through the car sending a quadraphonic chill down your spine.

What the hell? A sudden clarity of silence, then the car’s speakers reawaken with a frightening tremor. Something dark and forbidding reaches out, brushes your flesh with a glacial chill, and rakes your mind with its taloned whisper. “I will hear your story, now.”

The car crests a hill, accelerates downward. Stunned into silence, you share a nervous glance with the others, wondering if you’ve lost your mind. You see your own fear in their eyes. What’s happening to us? This can’t be real.

“You have five minutes,” the phantom shrieks its warning. “Amuse me. The plot. I’ll have it now or none among you shall survive.”

How’s this for a plot, you bastard. You grit your teeth and crush the brakes but the pedal uselessly thumps to the floor with little resistance. The car accelerates. You struggle through the first turn while your writing partners mobilize like the awesome team they are.

One whips out a cellphone, punches 911. Another tries the door locks, no avail. Windows refuse to roll down. Your partner in the right seat hammers the radio with the blunt end of her retracted, stubby umbrella, rewarded with a shower of sparks and acrid smoke that now chokes the ventless confines of the car. Brilliantly, she jabs her finger into the overhead emergency button.

“This is OnStar, how may I help you?” comes the mocking voice.

Crap! The park-brake. You slam it to the floor. Nothing. Everyone braces while you careen through the turns. You slam the gear shift into park, reverse, anything to halt the acceleration. But the car’s frozen in overdrive. Finally, grim reality clutches at your heart – you might not make it.

No, I’m not giving up. Keep your mind clear. Think, damn you. Think.

“You have angered me and for this you must be punished,” the evil entity speaks with sorrowful regret, frightening in its stark contrast to its menace. “The rules have changed. You now have sixty seconds. I’ll have your pitch. A story like none other. A bestseller. A blockbuster. Anything less and I will know. And mind you… all shall perish if you fail me.

You call upon your skills, countless years of experience, and the thousands of hours spent honing your craft. Finally, with the world streaking by in a blur, you…


Okay, enough of this. I know all of you brilliant writers have plotted a wildly successful bestseller with a profound HEA conclusion… just like Miracle on the Hudson. You plotted like your life depended on it. You remained calm, focused, ignored the voices from the radio, the stench in the air, the shuddering of the car, the speedometer edging higher, the distractions of your passengers – questioning, prodding, urging. After exploring every alternative to buy time, you’ve realized the only option is to work the threat. Dividing your time between driving and plotting you dismiss several possibilities, settle on one, complete with goal, motivation, and conflict. Then, all within sixty seconds, you’ve pitched your bestseller with a happy-ever-after ending. Piece of cake.

As it relates to a catastrophic airborne emergency, it’s tough to illustrate, in the complex jargon of pilot speak, the woven complexities of goal, motivation and conflict that must be plotted and concluded with a bestselling, happy-ever-after ending. But I thought, if anyone could comprehend the lifelong 140021endeavor of discipline, experience, and unyielding determination, it would be you. Only…try to imagine using all these tools of your trade, all your skills, all your experience, and all your knowledge to plot a bestseller in less than sixty seconds.

For the moment, I’m not allowed to discuss what I know, or even speculate about the details of the event, but I can tell you as a writer, that Captain Sully Sullenburger plotted a half dozen storylines in much less than sixty seconds before settling on this wildly successful conclusion. But writing such a story doesn’t come natural. I don’t believe any lofty achievement comes natural. What comes natural is the passion to achieve an ideal, whether it’s writing or flying. And in the end, it is the fruit of your passion that makes what you do appear so effortless and easy.

Do you believe it’s possible that some stories can only be told by one of the chosen among us? I think so. I think each of you have, within you, such a story that only you are capable of telling with your own unique voice. And here, on the Hudson, was one such example. Sully’s was the only hand on the controls when he’d chosen the course he’d plotted. And his was the hand that guided his airship to a safe images11ditching – something that had never been successfully accomplished before.

Though, I can’t help but believe… someplace high above the ghosts of those twin towers overlooking the Hudson, twenty-seven hundred angels with great spans of opaline wings, may have swept down to help hold this airship aloft, keep her course true, and cushion her safe return home.

–Just Tilting at Windmills—