Five Words That Will Change Your Writing Life

Aha moment Do the work

Hard hat

You have questions.

And the internet is a rabbit hole of answers.

When is the best time to write? How do you tackle revision? Should you write in the morning? Do you need a Mac or is Windows still ok? Word or Scrivener? Music or no music? What kind of music?

Suggestions are everywhere.

Truman Capote only wrote lying down. Philip Roth writes standing up. Writing in long hand boosts creativity. Your desk should face the window. Your desk should never face the window.

How do you know you’re doing it right?

On a snowy night in late March, I  sat with two other writers in an Irish pub discussing our works-in-progress (all first novels, two Women’s fiction, one hard Sci-Fi).

We all needed answers.

I had a new chapter to workshop. The Sci-Fi guy, a proud new dad and entrepreneurial mogul, was making progress but wanted to write more consistently. The other WF writer, an MBA and busy VP Marketing executive by day, had just finished her rough first draft and was “stymied” by revisions.

Creative Commons:

We tossed around suggestions over appetizers and a vodka tonic (don’t judge—the drive in from the suburbs was horrendous).

Seinfeld’s “don’t break the chain” method which I saw him describe in a TV interview, struck a chord with Sci-Fi guy. I’d brought along four books on revision to help MBA tackle her second draft. Sci-Fi guy produced a three-foot long stapled printout from Scrivener illustrating how he kept track of character arcs and timelines, because I’d lost count of the draft I was on.

This was good stuff. Stuff we could act on.

Aha moment Do the work

Creative Commons:

Still, we pondered. Were we doing it right? Maybe we should try that new book or class! Then Sci-Fi guy said something that we strained to hear over the music and revelry of the pub:

“Or, we could just do the f$#king work.”

My eyes locked on MBA’s, and together we turned to Sci-Fi guy, not sure we’d heard him correctly.

The look on his face was what I imagine Ben Franklin looked like when his uncredited minions helped him discover electricity. It was a literal “Aha” moment.

I resumed my book recommendations, pointing out a chapter MBA might like on setting. Sci-Fi guy grinned at us (I’d say maniacally but, you know, adverb) for a few seconds. Then he interrupted, louder this time:

“Or, we could just do the f$#king work.”

No problem hearing him this time.

MBA: “Wow, this meeting just took a turn.”

Jack Nicholson The Shining

We all laughed, until he said it again.

Sci-Fi guy: “I’m serious. We need to just do the f$#king work.”

Maybe a rowdy Irish pub wasn’t the best place for a critique group, now that we thought about it.

Fast forward two weeks to a snowy April night (that’s right, snow in April . . .my kind of town, Chicago is…), MBA and I sat in the same pub and shared an order of fries.  She provided specific, generous insight that helped me interpret feedback I’d received from a professional editor

Then MBA said she had a question for me.

MBA: “What notebooks do you use? Like, how many different ones and how do you organize them?”

I laughed out loud, repeated Sci-Fi guy’s memorable suggestion and then said, “No, seriously. I have like one for the novel, and another for interviews. . .”

So what’s the point? The point is you have questions. You need advice. You need to learn craft. And you will find endless answers. That’s what fantastic blogs like Writers Helping Writers and Womens Fiction Writers and Bang2Write and are for.

The point is no matter how far you are into your essay, or memoir, or novel, you may always feel you’re doing it wrong.

The point is no matter how many books you read, or how many lists you study, or how many podcasts you listen to, no one way works for every writer.

In an interview on Writers on Writing, Author Sari Wilson put it this way:

“The process has its own intelligence. Committing to the process through all the different obstacles that are presented has its own logic and its own power, and it will take you through the process. There will be an end.”

In other words, the doing of “it,” whatever “it” is, teaches you how to do “it.” You have to DO. You have to mess up.

All the “Habits of Great Writers” lists and viral posts in the world can’t change that.

Sometimes you’re just scared and stalling. How can you tell the difference? How do you get from stalling to writing?

Just Do The F$#king Work

Here’s the best of what’s worked for me:

Set a goal. Any goal.

What should yours be? Who cares? Time spent, words added up. It doesn’t matter. My first one was 500 words a day/5 days a week (flexibility was key).

Refer to a few trusted guides (don’t overload).

Go for tried and true, review recommendations. In the end, the voice that speaks to you matters. I like Wired for Story, Immediate Fiction, and Stein on Writing.

Stay in touch with your project as often as possible.

Don’t fall prey to the drift. I like Seinfeld’s approach. When I had the flu, it all went to pot. Touching it every day makes it easier to get back in. Staying in touch can mean reading a paragraph, or rewriting a whole chapter. You decide.

Practice. Reading about how others do it isn’t enough.

Find a suggestion that resonates? Put down the damn book and go try it. Then and there. Share what worked and what didn’t with your peers.

If you believe you don’t have time to write, keep a time/activity log.

I claimed to want a writing life as I munched on popcorn watching The Voice for the third time in a week. That’s not writing, that’s lying. Make your intentions match your actions.

Make contacts with writers you admire who will call you on your BS.

Go out on a limb. Take a class. Go to a conference. Be brave. Be bold. Have business cards or a pen and notepaper (you’re a writer, after all). Get contact information. Email people. Invite them for coffee. Bam!

Eventually, as Sci-Fi guy knew, we all just have to do the f$#king work. And that’s the only answer you need.

Are you ever guilty of avoiding the work? How do you get back to it? I’d love to hear your tips in the comments.




4 Thoughts on “Five Words That Will Change Your Writing Life

  1. How do I follow you on Word Press?

Foiled by Phlegm



Last Monday, I had edited and readied for publication two author interviews and a long-overdue book review. Filled with hubris at my productivity, I gave a little cough to clear my throat and proclaim my triumph over lesser mortals.

I could not stop coughing for the next seven days. Add chills, body aches, fever, lack of appetite and a general inclination to remain unbathed and you have the puny remains of my flu-ravaged self.

Word count on the latest novel draft since that fateful Monday = 0

Published articles/blog posts since that fateful Monday = 0

Tomorrow is a new day. I’m climbing out of the menthol-vapor soaked depths of delirium. I managed to submit the two interviews, tomorrow will be the book review, and I’ll be up early to add words to the Work in Progress.

I read a beautiful novel while I was recuperating. It’s not new, my sister had been recommending it for months, and it was a big hit when it was first released. I will offer that it’s timeless, eloquent, and magical. I cried when it ended. It’s called Peace Like a River and I hope everyone reads it. I also watched Pride and Prejudice again for a gazillionth time. Comfort food.

Sometimes we have to take care of ourselves. Creativity does indeed sleep.



5 Thoughts on “Foiled by Phlegm

  1. Me too! I just got out of the creative dark side of illness. Welcome back!

  2. Sorry to hear you have been sick. I did notice your absence, but thought you were just busy!

    Hope the ‘break?’ has given you much-needed dreaming/thinking time, and turns out NOT to be a waste of time, after all! (Every cloud… )

    Love, Hedgey 😉 xx

REJECTED: Too Tired to Inspire

Tired kid
Tired kid

Creative Commons Image – Click on photo for source

For about a week, I’ve been contemplating an inspiring post about things that amaze me. But here’s the thing, I have a full time day job, and I’m committed to finishing this latest draft of my novel sooner rather than later. I’M TIRED PEOPLE.

Especially today. My husband and I dogsat last night for my daughter’s two dogs. We love these rent-a-pet opportunities. Throw a stick, scratch a belly, and then wave goodbye.

Thor and Ruger

Last night, her slightly neurotic boxer and fluffy mixed-breed slept over. Thor, the boxer, decided that 2:30 a.m. was a good time to slink over to my side of the bed and lick my hand. I was up Netflix-ing for the next four hours.

But writing this book is something I want to do, so instead of catching up on sleep, I brainstormed the rest of my outline.

All of this whining brings me to the topic of my post today. Sometimes writing things and flinging them out to the universe isn’t always gratifying. Sometimes we’re rejected by the very people who once accepted us and validated our writerly existence.

But I’m trusting all the legends out there,  all the novelists who tell us persistence is the key. So I’m persisting. And yawning. Which is why today, you’re getting a previously unpublished essay instead of my amazingly useful post on wonderous things that amaze me.

This essay was my second submission to Chicken Soup for the Soul. It was rejected. The essay made my sisters cry which is one of my litmus tests. It did not make me cry. Maybe it will make you cry. Maybe not.

Maybe you’ll instantly know why my first submission to the Soup people was accepted and why this one was rejected. Maybe not. Probably not.

I don’t have the energy or desire to resubmit or rewrite this particular piece. I got it out of me and—to paraphrase a lovely novelist I interviewed this week—made it an artifact. This time that was enough.

It’s a true story. Names changed, etc.. I hope it speaks to you.

Remember to just keep “making stuff.” (Yes, that’s from Big Magic by our friend Liz, and yes, I resisted reading it because everyone’s reading it, and yes, now I have bent over every other page because it speaks to me…damn you, Liz!)

Here’s my rejected piece:

Lessons Learned

Had I known that sunny September day would set a course for the next 17 years of my life, I might have thought twice about attending the Parent Volunteer meeting. My brown-eyed girl was starting Kindergarten and I was determined to get involved. I left her two-year-old brother with a neighbor and dressed in my best mom uniform, khaki capris and sandals.

The gymnasium was set with folding chairs and long tables littered with sign-up sheets. There were paper cups filled with lemonade and rows of sparkly sugar cookies and grownups having conversations! I’d escaped the confines of stay-at-home-mom, venturing into the land of Moms Who Help. It was a vast land with its own politics and customs. Our comfortable community in a desirable school district had the unusual problem of fielding too many volunteers. Assignments filled quickly.

Our leader for the afternoon ended her welcome speech by reminding us that there were always areas in need of more help such as the Read-A-Book program. We had a diverse student body many of whose parents did not speak English in the home and did not have access to reading materials. Those volunteers selected would choose books and read aloud weekly to children in need of special attention.

It seemed like the perfect fit. We’d read to our kids from an early age and my daughter would see me helping her classmates. I put my name at the top of the list and selected a few other events as well. I would help stock the Book Fair and come in once a month for Art Parent, whatever that was. I also filled out a lottery form for Room Parent, the most competitive category. Those lucky folks that planned all the classroom parties were chosen in an annual drawing clouded with rumors of fixed entries and other shenanigans.

Throughout the next 17 years, I read to many of my children’s classmates and served as room parent more often than not. I chaperoned field trips to museums and zoos, spotted climbers on the knotted rope in P.E. classes, filled water balloons for orchestra camps, fed referees at wrestling tournaments, grilled bratwurst at football games and demonstrated sculpture to third graders using Hershey Kisses and toothpicks.

The assignment that resonated the most was the reading. It seemed such a simple thing. Each reading day, I’d choose a book from a cabinet in the volunteer room. I’d pull the pocket folder belonging to my student and record the book title. After reading, I returned the folder noting any comments the child made about the book or any requests they had for the following week.

We sat wherever we could find a spot. We’d plop down on big bean bag pillows in a carpeted hallway, a corner of the library, or a special sunny nook with no lockers off the office corridor. Most of the children spoke English but didn’t read much at home either because their parents didn’t have the time or didn’t speak English.

Each year, every session started out tentatively as I got to know my students. They’d ask whose mom I was and slowly, over weeks, they’d relax, revealing their personalities. Some demanded the same book each week. Some wanted me to scour the library to find a special title. Then there was Jake.

Jake was in my daughter’s fourth grade glass and according to other classroom parents, was likely to end up in juvenile detention before making it to high school. He was always in trouble. He swore. He was high energy. He received poor grades. He was troubled by most every definition and was assigned to read with me as his parents didn’t speak English at home.

The first day I called his name, he slapped a book off a classmate’s desk on his way out to join me in the hallway.

“Hi Jake,” I said.

“I hate reading.” He said.

“Good, you don’t have to read. You can just listen if you want.” I slid down the wall to the carpet wondering how I got so lucky to have him on my list.

“Maybe.” But he also sat down, three feet away from me as if he might bolt at any minute.

“I heard you like Goosebumps?”

“Whatever.” But he wasn’t punching anyone or trying to run away.

I opened the book and began to read. Occasionally, I’d sneak a peek at him. He had the spiky bangs in fashion with a lot of the boys. He had giant brown eyes and an 18-inch tail of hair down the middle of his back, the rest of his hair cut short to match his spiky bangs. The tail definitely stood out and I learned other students often teased him about it. The radical hairstyle contributed to his aura as the bad boy of the grade school set.

Our first meeting was deemed a success by his teacher. I could see a change as I called him each following week. He no longer acted out on his way to greet me. Instead, he practically ran and sat so close I could feel his warm skin and smell the baby shampoo his mom used on her special boy. He was always cheerful and seemed well-cared for. I didn’t understand the source of his behavior problems. I was just there to read.

One late spring day, we were finishing our last book of the year. I’d bought each of my students a book as a parting gift and I handed him a new Goosebumps paperback. He didn’t say much just twirled the long tail of hair. I took a risk and asked him about it.

“That must have taken a long time to grow, huh?”

“Yeah, my mom won’t let me cut it.” He didn’t let go of it and rubbed his other hand over the book cover.

“Really? How come?” I didn’t want to be nosey but I was intrigued.

“I was really sick as a baby and my mom told God if he let me live, she’d never cut my hair.”

I swallowed past the lump in my throat and finished reading. When I got to “The End” I closed the book and listened as the muffled sounds of a busy science lesson drifted through the closed classroom door. Other than that, our little alcove in the hallway was silent.

Then I heard Jake clear his throat, “Thanks for reading to me. Maybe I’ll get you next year.”

As my tears threatened to overflow, I risked possible rejection and hugged him. He hugged me right back.

My volunteer efforts on behalf of my two children and several school buildings have had splashier successes. In truth, I’m not even sure that my reading with Jake made any impact on his life other than those few hours we spent together in quiet enjoyment of a good book. What I am sure of is the valuable lessons Jake taught me.

Everyone you meet has a story and usually, you’ll never know what that story is. Secondly, any effort expended on behalf of another human being has the capacity to improve a life. In this case, that life was mine.

11 Thoughts on “REJECTED: Too Tired to Inspire

  1. Well, I liked it Suzanne! A valuable lesson to be reminded of. Who knows what the peeps at Chicken Soup were looking for, anyway? Doesn’t mean they didn’t like it, just that they liked something else better!

    A lovely story, though. <3 🙂 <3

  2. ksamudio on February 29, 2016 at 4:01 pm said:

    Yes, I love it; yes, I did get teary (even before the vow his Mom made to God – it hit me when he sat so close you could feel his warm skin/baby shampoo/Mom’s special boy); yes, I feel confident that you did have an impact on Jake – I’m betting he has never forgotten you, Suzanne the kind reading Mom!

  3. As we ride the life river we pass over stones we may never see again, unaware that our motion has changed their position forever.

  4. That’s a sweet story, Suzanne. I was still thinking about it the next day and the day after that. I think that’s the mark of a good story–one that stays with you! I bet you could find another outlet for it.

    I can also relate to your tiredness and your faith in the power of persistence… in spite of the tiredness and occasional disappointments. It’s all part of the process.

    P.S. I look forward to reading about things that amaze you some other time. 🙂

    • Thank you, Jennifer! I know we all have this limited time and energy quotient to spend on our activities, thoughts, pursuits. How we allocate it can affect what we finish, submit, etc. Pondering the “amazement” thoughts some more. Many thanks for chiming in, especially on the persistence and the process!

  5. Hi Suzanne! I’ve been getting many rejections lately as well! I have to remind myself how many times I have been lucky to get acceptances, which means someone else got the rejections! So I rejoice for those who are getting the “yes” this time around!

A Fine Mess: Writing and the Scientific Method

Writing is Scientific

I’m sitting in a middle school gymnasium wondering how I could have forgotten the deafening, high-pitched squeal produced by over one hundred 13-year-olds. My daughter, a research biologist, coaches a science Olympiad team on invasive species and my husband and I have come to cheer them on.

Bob the Bubble Man entertains the students waiting for their final scores and medals to be handed out. He repeats over and over that science is all about asking questions. If we want to make this bubble bounce on our hand, what’s the best way? Should we use a dry hand, a wet hand, or maybe a gloved hand?

Bob the Bubble Man

Writing fiction is all about asking questions. How would our protagonist react to this situation? What is the more dramatic choice in this scene? Would telling the story from a different point of view reveal more character?

My daughter’s team scores two big victories and over a celebratory dinner, I chat with the head coach, a Ph.D. entomologist, about projects she and my daughter are developing in their day jobs for the same scientific company, and I update her on the progress I’ve made on my novel. She’s a big reader and curious about the writing process.

I share the stops and starts, how detours down one path have led me to revelations about changing the point of view, even the tense I’m using to tell my chosen story. How I’ve narrowed down—finally and after three full drafts—what my story is actually about. How I feel like I have the tenuous grasp of a spine that I’m building on and how all the “mistakes” have gotten me to this point.

Writing is Scientific

She nods knowingly and shares how she must coax the junior scientists on her team into making mistakes on purpose. She encourages them to pursue unusual avenues in the hopes of uncovering something new.

Sometimes, she’s frustrated with the younger scientists who, having mastered one testing method, become comfortable and want to stick with it. She has to nudge and push them out of their comfort zone.

Writers have comfort zones, too. We identify as pantsers or outliners. Like scientists, we can benefit from trying different methods or inventing new methods.

As a former die-hard pantser, I hesitated to use even a beat sheet, but in later drafts, outlines have helped me shape my character’s focus and purpose.

The doc reminds me of a development project she worked on and how the genesis of the idea came to her in the shower. She asked “what if” questions and hit on a unique solution that continues to pay off.

She leads a team of researchers and is responsible for encouraging them to move past their fear, to encourage them to look at what would they try “if they weren’t afraid of being wrong,” of wasting time or resources. She teaches them to expect dead ends and detours. It means they’re exploring possibilities.

Back to Bob the Bubble guy. He asks the kids to predict how best to bounce a bubble on their hands. He recruits three volunteers and they try all three options. Turns out the dry hand pops the bubble, the wet hand causes the bubble to stick and on the third try, on the gloved hand, the bubble bounces over and over, glistening under the gym lights.

Cool Scientists

Cool Scientists!

What would you try if you weren’t afraid of being wrong, of wasting time? What would you create?



4 Thoughts on “A Fine Mess: Writing and the Scientific Method

  1. great observation!

  2. Painting/drawing. I have it all in my mind, but it doesn’t ever come out that well in reality! Perhaps I am afraid of being crap at it! So I don’t try. Like a true hedgehog.

    Thanks for dragging me out from under the safety of the leaf pile!

    A xx

To Bend or Not to Bend: In Defense of Dog-Eared Books

Origami Bookmark Etsy

Origami Bookmark Etsy

Today, I came across this adorable idea for an origami book mark. It promised to prevent the age-old problem of lost bookmarks slipping out of pages, or the emergency need to dog-ear a corner.

But here’s the thing, I don’t use bookmarks. I crease the corners of, write in, and generally molest whatever book I’m reading.

Some readers are anti-crease and adamantly so, but I like my books to be lived in. For me, a book without bent corners is like a living room sofa with plastic slip covers or the fancy china that no one uses.

Crinkled corners do more than remind you where you left off the night before. You follow them to your favorite passages, like a well-worn path through a patch of woods.

Book blemishes leave an impression of those that read the same words as you and welcomed the tale into their hearts and minds.

They let you know what your friends thought of the book you adored and insisted they borrow. Bending the pages softens them in a way, helps release the essence of the book.

dog-eared book

Of course I respect the preferences of friends if I’m the one borrowing. But, yes, I do bend library book pages! I never mind checking out a book that has wrinkled pages or fingerprints. Reader residue adds dimension to the experience.

A turned-down corner won’t slip out and get lost under your bed, or fall into a mud puddle as you scramble off the train.

It’s not that I don’t have bookmarks; I have received dozens of them as gifts, and I love them all. When I receive one, I’m reminded that the giver understands how much books matter to me.

My daughter brought me a leather monogrammed bookmark during a high school tour of Italy and a metal one engraved with a thoughtful message at the rehearsal dinner the night before her wedding.


My son brought me a book of Abraham Lincoln quotes and matching bookmark from a middle school field trip to Springfield because he knew I loved books and Honest Abe.

Bookmarks are the ultimate book accessory. I save them, display them, or use them with art books, coffee table books, and collectibles.

But most books are to be consumed, devoured, and remembered. The wrinkled pages and stretched spines of a book tell us that something was well-loved and served a noble purpose, like frayed cuffs on an old pair of jeans or initials carved in a farm table.

origami bookmark






Our reading habits, like our book buying habits are personal. We prefer hardcover or e-Readers, ordering from Amazon or visiting independent bookstores. You may be a stickler for pristine pages, or are you a rebel like me?

Origami isn’t my thing, but I made the referenced bookmark in under a minute using a discarded calendar page. I’m pretty sure I won’t use it.

6 Thoughts on “To Bend or Not to Bend: In Defense of Dog-Eared Books

  1. Hmm, interesting! I’d never really thought of “book blemishes” this way. I tend to fall more in the “protect and preserve” camp. I might put post-it tabs on the edge of a page, but I’d never write in a book or fold the pages. Even when a book comes with blank lines meant to be filled… I’ll use a separate notebook instead! I’m not sure why that is. I think your way sounds more lovable and less stuffy. 🙂

    • I think this is my rationalization post 🙂 I may just be too haphazard and disorganized for “protect and preserve!” But it came from the heart. I also do the sticky thing – especially in a book I’m going to review, or if it’s from an author I’m interviewing. I have to highlight all the bits I loved. Funny how we all have an identifiable tendency, though. Thanks, as always, for taking the time to read!

  2. Ha ha! I have 5 bookmarks, which I manage to lose regularly, in various books I am currently trying to read simultaneously. 😉 So like you, I dog ear! It’s a sign of affection!! 😁

    Nice post Suzanne!

    Love from the little Swiss Hedgeworm. xx

  3. I’m a “new” book person, meaning I always want the crispest, most perfect version on the shelf. That said, I leave my mark on a book, bending, noting, highlighting, etc. On the occasion that my crazy need for a clean book is overridden by finding a book at the library or one loaned by a friend, I am always intrigued by what the previous reader found illuminating. The dog ears, underlines and cracked spines at a particular plot point make me think about what drew a person to that word or sentence. It is a book within the book.

    • Yes, Deb! I love the new, best, untarnished version from the bookstore. Leave the crinkling and wrinkling to me!!! Along the lines of your highlighting, I’m always intrigued when I go back to a treasured book (maybe on craft or on the writing life) and see that a section that speaks to me now so pointedly didn’t speak to me at the time. Almost like reading a whole new book!

Christmas of Sloth or You Won’t Find this Post Useful

Suzanne as Sloth

Suzanne as Sloth

Writing a blog means writing a blog even when you don’t feel like it. Scratching your head, coming up with topics that at least one person finds interesting or useful.

It means putting ideas down on the screen with an ice storm pelting your windows and the Christmas tree desiccating in the corner.

I was going to write about goals achieved: Five bylines for the local newspaper, a book signing for charity, my first author panel at a big city bookstore.

Then I was going to choose favorite posts of the year, but the ones I think were my best aren’t the ones most people cared about.

So instead, I’m going to talk about what I got for Christmas. And by “got,” I mean unwrapped – not family love, peace, and harmony, blah blah blah, though fortunately I received that as well.

Christmas 2015 was the Christmas of Sloth.

By request, I received 4 or 5 bubble bath/body scrub products.

I received two magazine subscription renewals: Entertainment Weekly  (lots of book reviews), Writers Digest. And a few others including Flow, which is a magazine for paper lovers, weird, I know. And Poets & Writers.

Books! I got books! I’m almost done reading Descent by Tim Johnston which was a request of mine. I have The Virgins by Pamela Erens waiting in the wings. This novel was a recommendation from a writing teacher.

Using some gift certificates, I’ve ordered three other books that should arrive by tomorrow: Eats, Shoots and Leaves (yes, it’s a book about punctuation), the latest Stephen Hawking, and a book on the law of attraction.

Candy, candles, football tickets, a 2016 Sister calendar, new bras in my stocking from Victoria Secret (an annual tradition). So many other cool things but for now, I’m focused on the relaxation of it all. Ooooh, a pedicure gift certificate.

Almost forgot. My sister just sent me a new karaoke machine. I have one in the kitchen but the microphone is going. This new microphone is pristine, and now, if I feel like it, I can have a friend join me for a duet.

Basically, I’ll be laying in a hot tub of soapy water reading for the next six weeks. When (if) I emerge, I will put on new stretchy clothes, and sing to my heart’s content.

I’m filling up the well, reading Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, reading great novels, and allowing myself to write what I want. Notebook is next to the bed for ideas visiting at night, laptop is charged.

Soon enough, my sloth stage will pass. A new correspondence course on Story as a State of Mind awaits when I’m ready. And my novel. My novel is calling.

What were your favorite gifts of 2015?

2 Thoughts on “Christmas of Sloth or You Won’t Find this Post Useful

  1. That sounds like a lovely Christmas, Suzanne. My favorite gifts are the “pampering” kind of gifts too–self-care, relaxation, sloth… it’s all good. 🙂 And now I want to check out all those books you mentioned!

    By the way, I can relate to that “head-scratching” feeling of trying to come up with a blog post every week. You’re doing a great job!

    • Hope you got some pampering, Jennifer! I’m in the middle of doing some writing exercises so the blog posts get challenging when you feel like all your good ideas get used up 🙂 Refilling the well helps, doesn’t it? Thanks again for reading and Happy, Healthy New Year!

It’s That Time of Year When . . .

sense of urgency creative commons

sense of urgency creative commons

December. The last of your 12 tries to get everything right. You think snowmen and hot cocoa, or maybe pina coladas and a week in Boca Raton. Either way, you’re also thinking about recapping your year and maybe looking ahead to 2016.

Evaluating  accomplishments and visioning for the future are worthwhile practices even for artists and us creative writing types. Ideally, this shouldn’t happen in a haphazard fashion. Nor should it happen while in a depressed reverie over a wilted noisemaker with confetti hair and a champagne hangover.

You deserve an hour. Your writing, or quilting project or [insert life goal here] that you wanted to accomplish this year is too important for you to ignore.

Likewise, it’s best to start out 2016 with an idea or two or ten of what you’d like to accomplish.

Here are some things I’ve found useful, inspirational or irreplaceable. Think of them as a place to start as opposed to an exhaustive list.

Treat yourself to a new notebook and pen or a new flavored tea or coffee as a reward for your commitment to yourself. Settle into a coffee shop or under a favorite afghan at home and consider the following:

Reflect on the Past

  • What did you see through to completion in 2015?
  • What was unsuccessful and nags at you?
  • What was successful but ended up not mattering as much as you thought it would?

10 minutes should do the trick. Leave a trail of bread crumbs so you don’t get stuck reliving the year.

Envision the Future

A lovely writing friend with a successful coaching practice helped me with this today. You can do it on your own, but somehow, the energy of a partner/friend seemed to add something. These aren’t dreams or wishes. A vision is the mental map guiding your choices and endeavors for the year.

You can use these questions, or search online under visioning exercises. As an alternative, check out Playing Big by Tara Mohr. She offers a great introduction to the process. Likewise, Author and Coach Sara Connell offers a free visioning workshop (online and in person) and these questions are ones she suggested.

  • What is the highest vision for your 2016 year?
  • What are you called to do?
  • What do you need to release to be able to realize the vision?
  • What support do you require to realize the vision?

Sit still, close your eyes, breathe and listen to what’s most important to you.

Track Your Results

I had a goal to submit at least one thing each week this year. That’s 52 submissions. I won’t hit the target, but unlike most experts that recommend setting attainable goals, I’ve found that setting them really high allows me to achieve more than I thought I could.

  • Pick one or two things that really resonate from your visioning exercise and consider focusing on them first.
  • Apply a tracking method of your choice and record everything.
  • Think of the 40% rule and NEVER beat yourself up for not hitting the mark.

Spreadsheet Suzanne Brazil

Above is an example of the spreadsheet I used to track my submissions this year. If you email me or leave a note in the comments, I’m happy to send the actual Excel file.

Two Magic Words

So, how do you implement change and make it stick? I can only say what’s worked for me. Putting aside my fears and getting off my butt have been the result of a chain reaction. I’ve paid attention and like a research scientist, have duplicated the methods to see if I get the same result. So far, so good.

The first tool I used is the result of a renowned Stanford psychology professor, the second the result of a former heroin addict; both of them authors.

Carolyn Dweck is the pioneering doctor behind the concept of growth vs. fixed mindset. Her book is short, fascinating, readable, filled with entertaining anecdotes, pictures and virtually zero jargon.

The basic concept is we all have the ability to improve.

But you have to do these simple, basic things to get there. In other words, there’s no such thing as “I’m not a math person.” This short video can give you an introduction, but the book is magic.

You may be more familiar with the second author I mentioned, Cheryl Strayed. But the book I’m talking about isn’t her memoir, it’s a collection of advice columns she wrote for Salon under the pseudonym Dear Sugar. In language that will make you swallow your gum, she gives visceral examples of how expecting life to serve you isn’t serving you. Suck it up, Buttercup.

Moving into action and changing your mindset can be scary, hard, and at first, fruitless. Unless, you know these two magic words: Source and Support. I kept attributing my mysterious successes in reaching my goals to “setting things in place.” Author Connell gave me these words today.

Source and support whatever it is you’re trying to achieve; just like you would if your curly-headed six-year-old came to you today and told you she wanted to be a ballerina.

You’d drop everything and pick the right school, the sturdiest shoes, the prettiest leotard and enlist the most compassionate teacher. Next, you’d make sure family and friends turned up for each recital which you would then document on Facebook until everyone unfriended you.

Do the same for yourself. Set up classes, search for a mentor, buy treats when you hit a mark, treat yourself to something even when you miss a goal. Basically, source and support your vision. Celebrate everything.

As Janet Jackson famously sang, you’ve got one life to live, what have you done for YOU lately?

What rituals do you use to mark the ending of one year and the start of the next? What do you want in 2016? I’d love to hear from you in the comment section or via email.

2 Thoughts on “It’s That Time of Year When . . .

  1. Wow, Suzanne, you’ve given me so much to think about and try! What a wealth of inspiration here. I like to reflect and plan around this time of the year too. For the past few years I’ve been using Christine Kane’s Word-of-the-Year tool. (I like it so much I have an affiliate link! LOL

    Congratulations on all your efforts and successes in 2015! Looks to me like you’re already on track for an awesome 2016.

    • That sounds like something any writer would find useful! Thanks so much for sharing. Congratulations to you as well and 2016 promises to be even more exciting for you and your book launch!! Appreciate the read!! (I used to be self-conscious about the exclamations but now, I just let them flow….feels right)

New Stuff to Read!


Excited to be featured on Lucy V Hay’s Bang2Write site offering writing craft tips for screenwriters and novelists.  Please share if you like the post!

Also, my review for Eighth Wonder: The Thomas Bethune Story can be found on Blogcritics this week! Stay tuned for a cool interview with the author, Anita M. Cal.

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Interview: Mila Kunis to Produce ‘Black Stiletto’ by Author Raymond Benson

Mila Kunis Black Stiletto

Mila Kunis Black Stiletto    Raymond Benson Black Stiletto

Question: What do Mila Kunis and James Bond have in common?

Answer: Chicago area Author Raymond Benson

Black Stiletto

The actress turned producer best known for The Black Swan and  That ’70’s Show with Ashton Kutcher, has signed on to produce a new television series for ABC based on Benson’s suspense novel series, The Black Stiletto.

Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis

Raymond Benson is best known as the author of the official James Bond novels from 1996 to 2002.  I had the pleasure of interviewing Benson this summer for Blogcritics, and he was hopeful about the television project.   You can read our interview below and read about the new series here.

He was kind enough to answer a few questions about the TV series news this morning via email:


When did you first learn that the project was a go?

Negotiations have been going on for about a month… was surprised by the announcement, I didn’t know when it was going to happen!


Is this your first time having a film/TV adaptation of an original work?



When/how did you learn Mila Kunis was attached to produce?

I found out in August that she was interested.  Producer Tony Eldridge had the original option, he teamed up with producer Nancy Moonves, and they were able to get the material to Mila.


What will your involvement be with scripts, casting, etc.?

Unknown at this time.


As a film historian/instructor, did you have any special concerns, hopes or insight on the adaptation process?

I’m realistic about how Hollywood works… an author shouldn’t have expectations that anything adapted will be entirely faithful, but I’m confident that Javier Grillo-Marxuach (writer/showrunner) will do a great job.


What are the next steps of the process in getting Black Stiletto to the small screen?

They have to get a script done that ABC Studios and the producers like, then get a cast and director, and hopefully get the green light to make a pilot.  Lots of hurdles still jump over.  One step at a time!


Most surprising part of the experience?

The experience is in its baby steps.  I was surprised by the announcement being made so quickly, but I’m glad it was!


The following interview appeared in its entirety on

New York Times bestselling author Raymond Benson has won numerous awards as a short story writer, novelist and game designer. He is perhaps best known for his work as the official James Bond continuation author from 1996 to 2002, publishing six original 007 novels, three film novelizations, and three short stories. He received the Lovey Award for Best Suspense Novel of 2014 with The Black Stiletto: Secrets and Lies. He continues to write and teach in the Chicago area.

Would you please tell us about your series The Black Stiletto and how you got the inspiration for the story?

Library Journal nailed it when they called it a “mashup of the work of Gloria Steinem, Ian Fleming, and Mario Puzo, all under the editorship of Stan Lee.” It’s about a feminist before that word was in our vernacular; she’s a young woman who goes to New York in the 1950s and becomes a vigilante fighting crime and social injustice. She’s active for 5 years and then mysteriously disappears. Cut to the present—a grown man is taking care of his mother, who has Alzheimer’s, and he discovers that she was the Black Stiletto! So it’s two parallel stories—one in the present, which deals with family, Alzheimer’s, and threats from the past; and one in the past, told in first person by the Stiletto herself, about her exploits.

I had been toying with an idea about a grown man who discovers some dark secret about his dying mother with Alzheimer’s, but I didn’t know what that secret was. Then, I had lunch with my agent and he suggested that I write something women would like. I facetiously offered, “How about a female superhero?” We laughed and then he got serious and said, “You know, that’s not a bad idea.” So I went home and thought about it—and I put the two ideas together, and voila!

With such a diverse background, scripts, games, etc., do you have a favorite or how do you decide what to work on next?

Writing novels is my favorite thing, it’s what I’ve been doing solidly for nearly 20 years. I still perform music, it’s a big part of my life.  And I still have a connection to the video game world in that I’ve written several tie-in novelizations for popular video games. I’m also a film historian; I teach college-level Film History and write for Cinema Retro Magazine.

Can you describe your process? How do your ideas come to you and what are your first steps to getting the story out on paper?

There are six distinct phases. The first is the Concept Phase, where it looks like I’m not doing anything. Next comes Preliminary Research, in which I look into some of the ideas I’m thinking about. Third—the Outline Phase. The hardest one, the phase in which I tear my hair out and have sleepless nights and am grumpy for a month or two (see my answer on outlining below). Fourth—Nitty Gritty Research. With all my Bond novels, I traveled to the locations, walked in Bond’s footsteps, stayed in his hotels, ate the food, drank the drinks, but I didn’t jump out of airplanes without a parachute. Fifth—the Writing Phase. I try to write a scene a day. It may be a full chapter, maybe not. I don’t look back at what I’ve written. The next day I plow ahead with the next scene. I do that until there’s a finished first draft. This establishes pace. THEN I go to the sixth phase—Revising. I go back to the beginning and revise, edit, add, delete, whatever I need to do. I do that at least twice. Then I have my trusted beta readers take a look. Maybe there’s another revision after I get their notes, maybe not.

How did you become involved with the James Bond books and what did it feel like to get that call?

My first published book (in 1984) was a non-fiction, encyclopedic coffee-table book on the history of Bond (The James Bond Bedside Companion). During the process I went to England for research; there I met members of Ian Fleming’s family, his business people, his friends, most importantly, the folks at his company (then called Glidrose Publications) who control the literary side of Bond. At the time, John Gardnerwas writing the books (Glidrose periodically hires authors to continue the novels).  Cut to 11 years later—I receive a call from Glidrose. They tell me Gardner wants to stop writing the books, and would I be interested in giving it a shot?  OMG.  After I picked myself up off the floor, I said, “Sure.”  I had to first write an outline on spec, and it had to be approved by not only Glidrose, but also the British and American publishers. When that was okayed, I had to write the first four chapters on spec with the same approval process. Then I got the contract.

Did you receive only acclaim or were some fans unhappy with anyone other than Ian Fleming working on the great character?

Ha, are you kidding? No one gets only acclaim! Being the first American Bond author, there were a few British Bond fans who wanted to kill me. You can’t please everyone. But I did receive much praise and garnered a lot of fans all over the world. It was a roller-coaster of a gig.

Outliner or Pantser? Did you always work this way?

Outliner. I don’t understand how thriller authors do it without an outline. My outlines are really prose treatments broken into block paragraphs (each paragraph represents a chapter). I spend a lot of time on the outline, working out the plot, twists, and turns. I want to know how it ends. Once the outline is done and I’ve completed all my research, then writing the book is easy. But I know exactly what I’m going to write every day when I sit down to do it by following the “map” I created.

What is the greatest difference between writing a short story and a novel (other than the obvious length)?

I find it much more difficult to write a short story. They’re very self-contained and need to have a single, powerful point to it. A good analogy is that you tell the story of a novel on a huge canvas and have a lot of room. With a short story, you’re telling it on a sketch pad.

What is your next or current project?

I’ve just begun a science fiction novel, my first one. I’ve done some sci fi short stories, and some of my tie-in novelization work was in the science fiction arena, but this will be my first original SF novel.

Do you have a favorite author/book from childhood? Any books you read over and over?

I read the Ian Fleming Bonds again every once in a while. I first read them when I was 9-10 years old, so I suppose you can say they’re from my childhood! My favorite author is the late Ruth Rendell, and I re-read her stuff all the time—with over 60 titles, they’re always fresh. One favorite book that I do re-read a lot isReplay by Ken Grimwood.

What do you read most of now and what have you read recently that you wish you’d written?

I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries because that’s what I write. What do I wish I’d written?—hard to say.  Maybe Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. What a beautiful novel.

If you were mentoring new writers, and only had time for one lesson, what would you share to give them the greatest chance of success?

Read a lot. If you don’t read a lot and especially the types of books you want to write, you won’t be a good writer.

What should new writers be looking for when reading in order to help them with their own writing?

How an author constructs a story. How an author reveals character, or exposition, or plot surprises.

Do you have a dream project you’ve yet to see finished?

I’d like to see The Black Stiletto become a television series. It’s currently being developed as one. Fingers crossed.  Other than that, I’d like to write a Star Wars novel, I’d like to re-mount some musicals I wrote back in my theater days, I’d like to record an album, I’d like to . . . this could take all day so I’ll stop there.

Readers can check out Raymond Benson’s website for more information on his books, short stories, and upcoming projects.

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Top 10 Tips for a Do-It-Yourself Retreat


Sawyer Writing Collective - Warren Dunes, MI

Google “Retreats” and you’ll find price tags ranging from $499 for a budget plan to the $3,000 range for deluxe accommodations. Excluding travel costs. If you need to get away on a budget and aren’t looking for a guru or instructor, try a DIY Retreat.

A weekend away with acquaintances who share a common goal can be more regenerative and productive than a best girlfriend getaway. Whether you’re in need of a yoga/fitness intensive, a relaxing spa experience, or a creative workshop weekend, you can save a ton of cash by planning your own.

Last month, I spent a perfect weekend with two fellow writers I met in a novel workshop. Elaine, Puja, and I shared a rented cottage on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan for 2 ½ days and spent an average of $106 each (excluding food).

Suzanne Brazil DIY Retreat

By the time we packed up for the late Sunday drive home, we’d already decided on a name for our group and plans to squeeze in another retreat before year-end.

Here are our Top 10 Tips for a Perfect DIY Retreat:

Once you’ve agreed on a date, schedule a meeting to decide the following and then confirm one way to communicate, email, text, Facebook, etc.

#1 Communicate vision or goals: Each attendee should be up front about what they want out of the time away. For example:  I want to walk outside and would love company; I want to hole up in my room and not come out unless I’m hungry; I’d love to share ideas.

As writers, we all craved uninterrupted writing time for our current works in progress. We originally decided on a group sharing for our second night. As Saturday approached, we were all making progress and wanted to stay focused on writing, so we cancelled the reading.

Lake Michigan Dunes, Sawyer, Michigan

#2 Decide on a budget: Be honest! The idea is to save money by arranging a DIY retreat, don’t lose sight of your spending limits. Your budget will likely determine the distance you’re willing to travel and preferred locations.

We chose the Harbor Country area near the Indiana/Michigan border. We divided the original cost of an available house by five people (the original number interested in going). We ended up with three writers and stayed within our budget, we just downsized the house.

Sawyer Writing Collective Writers' Retreat

#3 Book your lodging: One person arranges, collects the money, acts as liaison for booking, etc. For their trouble, they get first choice of room or the master. Alternatively, agree on sharing the researching duties and draw straws for the top spot.

Elaine emailed us with a few choices from the Airbnb website. We voted, Elaine booked, and we paid her via PayPal or personal check.

#4 Confirm meal arrangements: Plan on at least one communal meal. Depending on your location, you may decide to venture into town for one or more meals. As for groceries, everyone bring what they want but be willing to share. Label if it makes it easier, confirm what’s off limits and what’s open season.

We originally agreed on grilling Friday night and dining in town on Saturday. We brought our own entrees, shared salads and enjoyed a great meal. The next night, only two of us went out because the other writer was on a roll with her project. It worked!

#5 Discuss sleep schedules: Is one of you a late riser who needs morning quiet? Are you a confirmed snorer? Bring ear plugs and respect everyone’s preferences.

I was up early, Elaine had to have 8 hours, and Puja was at the mercy of her dog’s schedule.  First one up agreed to get the coffee brewing.

Warren Dunes, Lake Michigan

#6 Discuss bathroom arrangements: Know the quirks of your home for the weekend. Agree on a schedule if necessary.

As first one up, I showered while the others slept which gave the hot water tank time to refill (per our hosts’ instructions).

#7 Discuss house rules: Do you have smokers in your group? Pets? What about TV and Music? If you aim to be as courteous as possible, the others will reciprocate. Aim for inclusion, consideration, and respect for privacy.

We all traveled with earbuds and our laptops, went TV-free, and kept conversation to a minimum unless we were all on a break together. Elaine and I accompanied Puja when she had to walk her dog late at night. Puja knew I was skittish around dogs so made sure to sleep with the door closed and the puppy safe inside.

#8 Mark the opening and closing of your retreat: Don’t run off to unpack in your rooms the minute you arrive. Take a moment to toast the time you’ve carved out of your overstuffed lives and maybe even write down what your goals were when you booked. Post this somewhere in the common area so you’re all reminded why you’re there.

Elaine wanted to reach 10,000 words on her rough draft. Puja wanted to incorporate the various pieces of her project into one coherent document, and I wanted to revise chapters 1-5. We wrote this on a piece of paper and kept it out on the dining room table.

Sawyer Writing Collective - Goals

#9 Exchange something: Going away with others offers something a solo retreat does not, the opportunity to learn, interact, and share energy for a common interest. Think of one thing each of you can contribute: i.e., a new pose, a healthy recipe, an inspiring quote, a book recommendation, or a playlist geared toward your activity.

One of the benefits of having a hive mind is the serendipitous ideas and tips that arise. Be open to bumping into someone in the hallway and trying out an idea. Consider sharing a trinket of some kind to mark the occasion, it adds a little something. I had a variety pack of three notebooks with fun sayings on the cover. Cost? Less than $4

Writing Retreat, Sawyer, Michigan

#10 Evaluate Post-Retreat: Agree on follow-up questions ahead of time. Would you return to the same location or prefer someplace new? How did the meals work out? Did your group share great chemistry? Would you want to add or subtract attendees next time?

We each reached our goals and gave our retreat 5 Stars!

The Sawyer Writing Collective’s second retreat is scheduled for next month and I can’t wait. Our cost this time is only $86. T-Shirts are in the works, and we’re considering new members.

Books on Sawyer Writing Collective Writing Retreat

We came away with new books to read, interesting angles on our stories, and a deeper camaraderie around our passion: writing.

Have you been itching to get away? What would you like to accomplish or focus on in the last quarter of 2015 or the start of 2016? Why not find a yoga partner, classmate or acquaintance with similar interests and suggest a DIY retreat? If you follow the steps above, you’ll have a blast, and return to your regular lives refreshed, energized, and with cash to spare. Don’t you deserve it?

You can read more about my first retreat experience here.

Elaine Richards has an MBA, and a degree in journalism from USC. She is at work on her first novel. Connect with her on Twitter @Elaine_yr

Puja Mojindra is a graduate of the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.)’s MFA Acting program and is currently at work adapting her one-woman play, A Great Dive, into a novel. Follow her on Twitter @PujaMohindra







6 Thoughts on “Top 10 Tips for a Do-It-Yourself Retreat

  1. colleen on October 14, 2015 at 12:38 pm said:

    Great post, Suzanne! So glad you got to get away. So important to do. :O)

  2. My friends do this often just for getaways – I don’t know why I never thought of doing this for writing!

  3. Hello Suzanne, I’m revisiting this piece in advance of a retreat coming up in April. I’ve read several build-your-own retreat articles and your’s is still one of the best. Simple, thoughtful and obviously written by a writer who’s been there. Thanks again.