When an accomplishment addict like me retires, she has to find a way to impose deadlines, milestones, items to check off the to-do list. I sort of feel like I don’t exist if I’m not getting stuff done. Two years into retirement, I still crave those external markers of accomplishment. One such is National Novel Writing Month. Each November, thousands of writers pledge to churn out a 50,000-word novel by month’s end. That’s 1,667 words per day.

After two years of “winning” NANOWRIMO, I’m taking a break. This November will find me at my writing desk every day, of course, but I won’t be churning out a first draft of anything. As a matter of fact, I’m still refining and polishing the story I started back in NANO 2014. The also-promising mystery novel I started in NANO 2015 is marinating in a folder, patiently waiting until I get back to it. This year I’m focusing on Chuck Wendig’s valuable advice: “Finish your shit.”

Just in case you haven’t read this sharp, funny, poke-in-your-writerly-ass essay, here it is:

NANO has given me good habits, a sense of determination, and some fun writing contacts in my local area. But despite the sparkly appeal of new beginnings, it’s time to plod, chug, crunch, grunt and push my way through this latest revision and then launch another round of queries.

New beginnings are such fun, but it’s the steady plodding forward that gets stuff done.

An Experiment in Semi-Retirement


During my last walk through the halls of Bitburg American High School, I tried to predict what I’d miss the most about my job. I suspected it would be the feeling of belonging, of making an important contribution. Or would it be the abundant social contact? That seemed less likely; on the introversion scale, where one is a bubbly cheerleader and ten is a cave-dwelling curmudgeon, I’m about a seven. I enjoy spending time with children and teens, but being with them all day was exhausting. I truly miss laughing over lunch every day with my fellow teachers, and commiserating out in the hallway between classes. But what I miss the very most is…

My paycheck.

OK, go ahead and throw spit wads. We teachers are supposed to subsist on sunshine and kid’s smiles, unconcerned with pedestrian matters like financial compensation. But there you have it—the freedom of retirement comes at the price of having to pay more attention to my pennies.

And so I’ve been exploring options for making a little money on the side—that is, until my books hit the New York Times Bestseller List and I start raking in tall piles of money. (I’ll pause now, until all my writer friends stop laughing…Still waiting…Come on, guys…)

Last year’s foray into substitute teaching was lucrative, but not something I care to repeat. We all have our childhood memories of those poor subs, pelted with spitballs, epithets and disrespect. Actually, the worst thing about subbing was the boredom. There’s seldom any teaching going on, and that’s quite understandable.

If you’re, say, a chemistry teacher, do you really want some stranger with a degree in English mucking about with your expensive supplies? If you’re a P.E. teacher, do you want some former music teacher to be the only thing between forty rambunctious tweens and total mayhem? No way—you prepare a stack of handouts or an education film for those inevitable days when you’re felled by the flu.

Instead of hiring certified teachers as subs, the public schools should recruit moms and dads who’ve raised big broods. They have the skills most needed by subs: eyes on the back of their heads, and that stern mom/dad glare that forces kids to drop the spit wads, stop poking their classmates, and hush.

This year, I’ve stumbled into three different mini-jobs: I’m teaching French to little kids and adults, helping teens to prepare for the SAT/ACT, and editing a writing buddy’s manuscript. This is more or less the kind of patchwork arrangement I imagined when considering retirement: I bring in a few bucks from here, a few from there, trying out jobs that offer less remuneration but more fun. Although I could happily spend most of each day writing, it’s good for me to get out of the house and interact with non-imaginary people every day.

And so I’m working on finding my new rhythm, balancing the demands of these different mini-jobs with my not-yet-paying writing, as well as trips to the gym and time spent with my oh-so-patient spouse. And I’m back to writing lesson plans again. It’s funny, my writing is more consistent now that I must squeeze it in between work sessions. Who’da thunk it? I guess some of us just need more structure to our days.

ISWG October: Slogging through the Jungle

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

The first Wednesday of the month is Insecure Writers Support Group blog-hop day. According to their website, the purpose of ISWG is

To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Learn more about ISWG here:

This month’s question: When do you know your story is ready?

There's a story in here somewhere.

There’s a story in here somewhere.

I actually suffer from premature story ejaculation. It’s an embarrassing condition. The heady excitement of typing “the end,” the tickle of positive feedback, it all gets me so excited that shoot my story out into query-land, only to have it sent back with a polite “No, thanks.” Or maybe silence.

Like many novices, I’ve thought my work was ready before it was. After running my WIP through a few self-edits and then a trip through my face-to-face critique group (only 40 pages per month!), the “finished” story was a funny, episodic ramble through a pivotal month in Lola’s life. Whee! My group liked it, especially the ending. Out went the queries. Back they came: “No, thanks.”

Two of those queries stood out. Both said they found my story premise and writing appealing. One said the story needed to focus on the main conflict. The other said it suffered from too many subplots and characters.

They were right. It hurt a little to admin that, but hey—I never expected novel-writing to be an instant win. The more I meet other writers, the more that point is hammered home: the path to publication is a long slog. And hearing that from (finally) published writers helps a lot.

Three craft classes later, I’m whittling the story down to a central conflict—well, two: one inner and one outer, but they’re closely connected. Just yesterday I realized I could slice away yet another subplot. You know what helped? On my running synopsis, I color-coded each of the conflicts using the highlight feature of Microsoft Word, and I realized I was running out of colors.

My online critique group from the Women’s Fiction Writers Association has also helped me to see the weeds in my plot’s garden. This time it’s 50 pages per month, but it’s worth it to get the feedback I need. I suspect this story will be ready for another round of queries in six months or so—but if it takes longer, that’s OK.

How do I know when it’s done? I’ll let you know when I get there.





Writer Heaven with Margaritas: The Women’s Fiction Writers Association Retreat 2016

Two days after returning from the WFWA retreat, my inner music track is still playing the Partridge Family’s “Point Me in the Direction of Albuquerque.” Go ahead, children of the ’70s, give a listen.

Wasn’t David Cassidy dreamy?

Albuquerque is where the WFWA held its second annual Writers’ Retreat last week. What a lovely town! We stayed in the Hotel Albuquerque, two short blocks from the historic city center.

Here I am in front the San Felipe de Neri church, built in 1793, on the Old Town Plaza

Here I am in front the San Felipe de Neri church, built in 1793, on the Old Town Plaza. 1793!

Adobe shops in Albuquerque's Old Town

Adobe shops in Albuquerque’s Old Town

Albuquerque’s Old Town is charming, as is the Hotel Albuquerque. There was ample room on the patio where writers hung out, spun tales, and sipped margaritas. I didn’t spend much time on the patio, though; I came for the workshops and discussions. Orly Konig Lopez, author of The Memory of Hoofbeats, and the rest of the WFWA board and helpers created a brain-busting, notebook filling learn-a-palooza for writers of women’s fiction, and then scheduled three group dinners where we blew off steam—did I mention the margaritas?

This was the largest writers’ workshop I’ve attended, and easily the most welcoming. I didn’t know a soul before my arrival, and am at heart a quivering introvert who requires a lot of psychic energy to approach strangers. The eighty women and one guy could not have been more welcoming. Many of the writers in attendance had already published novels, some independently, some traditionally, but an atmosphere of “we’re all in this together” pervaded the 3 ½ day event.

Margie-fied pages

Margie-fied pages

A highlight was Margie Lawson’s workshop on her Deep Editing techniques. I’ve read dozens of books on the craft of writing, but nothing has provided as much immediate practical benefit as this workshop, where we turned our printed chapters into rainbows of highlights, circles, underlines and margin notes. I’ll definitely continue exploring her courses as I polish up this and future manuscripts. And Margie’s long list of rhetorical devices, from alliteration to zeugma, put a grin on the face of this former English teacher. Here’s where you can learn more about Margie’s courses:

Another highlight was connecting with so many writers who “get it,” IT being the joys and frustrations of the writer’s journey to publication. There were sessions on diversity in fiction, queries, log lines, reaching out to readers, modalities of publishing, social media, agents and how/whether to find them, along with editors and publicists, how to stage a coming-out party for your debut book, and navigating the social media jungle.

I got to spend time with some fascinating women from across the US and Canada, along with one adorable guy, Scott Wilbanks, winner of the WFWA Star Award for The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster. I met businesswomen, professors, attorneys, stay-at-home mothers, yoginis, teachers, journalists–all of them passionate about spinning stories. And you’ve never heard such raving about each other’s books! I have a long reading list of women’s fiction to warm the cold winter months.

And while you’re stocking your bookshelves, check out The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes, WFWA Star Award Winner for Outstanding Debut.



ISWG Question o’ the Month: How do you find time to write?

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

It’s ISWG time again. The Insecure Writers’ Support Group is a place where writers encourage each other, express their doubts, and offer help. According to their website, it’s “a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds.” They also offer oodles of writerly resources. Visit them here:

This month’s question: How do you find the time to write in your busy day?

Well, that hardly seems fair. I’m retired, y’all. I had the great good fortune to retire from teaching high school at age fifty-two, and I’ve been writing with the energy of a demon-possessed squirrel ever since—and the focus. Oh look, there’s a peanut!

I have my own little office in our new home, and here I sit, BICFOKTAM. (On the very small chance you haven’t seen that acronym, it means butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, typing away madly.) Right now I’m revising a manuscript, carving out great swaths of extraneous sub-plot, filing away unneeded secondary characters for future stories. It hurts a little, but mostly it’s an interesting challenge.

I’ve always functioned best with deadlines, and now I have to create or find them, such as the upcoming Women’s Fiction Writers Association conference, critique group meetings, and contests.

Still, there are temptations to stray. Like sexy sirens perched on the treacherous rocks, email, Facebook and Twitter constantly tempt me to put aside my writing “just for a moment.”

“Take a break,” they sing in their velvety, soothing voices. “Look at this interesting article, that blog post. They’re about writing, so it’s OK.” It seems the song of the sirens actually sounds like “Ping, buzz, ping, ping, buzz” as my laptop and phone tempt me to stray from the path of righteousness.

It’s hard to focus, especially when the words aren’t flowing easily. Coffee helps. So does keeping track of my daily word count, a good habit cultivated during NANOWRIMO.

After a lifetime of deadlines and schedules imposed from without, it’s challenging to handle all this writing time in a productive way. And it’s a very frustrating feeling to realize I’ve frittered away a day on social media, errands, chores and TV without writing much. I find I actually write with more focus on days when a chunk of my time is scheduled for other things—appointments, tutoring and the like. Then I know I must buckle down and produce something in, say, the next two hours.

But as for finding time to write, no prob’. For me, it’s a question of focus. See coffee, above.

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?


This much-used quote has been attributed to E.M. Forster, but actually he was making fun of what most writerly folk today call “pantsers,” writers who don’t do much outlining, but rather start with an idea and let it grow organically. Forster did not approve of this approach. Don’t believe me? Read this excellent blog post:

But never mind. I’m a pantser, as in writing by the seat of my pants. Though some of my blog posts might look that way, I assure you that I never actually sit on the keyboard.

“What’s your blog about?” That’s become an embarrassing question. Just for fun, I looked over all my blog entries so far: there are twenty-four different topics.

I started out in 2013 with the intention of blogging about being in my fifties. I was looking for inspiration on how to fully enjoy this new era in my life. And that is one of the topics I’ve written the most about, though not my most frequent topic. I continue to enjoy looking for role models my age and older, and am very interested in the anti-ageism movement. Most of the midlife female bloggers I’ve found so far   are writing about topics that interest me not at all: cosmetics, what not to wear, dating, empty nests, moaning over lost youth. Meh.

Then I lucked into early retirement in 2014, and resolved to write about that journey. I didn’t—at least, not much. I’ve actually written more book reviews than entries about retirement. Having lots of time to read is one of retirement’s greatest blessings.

I love reading about real food, cooking, and food’s effect on our health. I’m also interested in frugality, voluntary simplicity, avoiding the excesses of consumerism. Food blogs are so much fun to read, and I thought I might eventually become a food blogger or cookbook author with a focus on reducing food waste.  My blog entries under “The Leftover Project” have been a good way for me to keep track of my culinary experiments but, given lots of free time, I find I don’t think about that topic all that often. Oh well.

My greatest focus has been twofold: entries on writing, and entries on happiness. The former makes sense, since I spend so much time writing fiction. I enjoy being part of the conversation among writers, but there are so many of us, so many good blogs on that topic. I get more juice from the direct conversations I have with other writers, whether face-to-face or online, in genre-specific discussion forums.

The rest of my musings turn out to be about my efforts to achieve happiness, and what I’ve read/learned from others about that topic. Who ‘da thunk it? I’m a practical philosopher. It turns out I’m most inspired by questions about the meaning of life and how to enjoy this gift of time and good fortune. And things that I thought would matter, such as wardrobe, diet, and travel, don’t really take up all that much space on my mental bookshelf.

So there you go: this seems to be a blog about a middle-aged writer’s search for the good life. We all have our personal recipes for the good life, and this is my test kitchen. Bon appétit!


Summer Visits and Visitors

San Francisco

One of the main reasons D. and I chose to retire when we did was to spend more time with family, and this summer was rich with visits and travel, though we haven’t gone far from home. We’ve lived in Tacoma, Washington, for over two years now, and I’ve barely begun to explore the interesting places this area offers. Having guests helps. Have you noticed how often we neglect the tourist attractions in our own home territory until there’s a visitor to share them with?

Our summer actually began in late May, when I popped over to the Bay Area to visit with my mom and daughter. The three of us spent lots of time walking about, and found a path behind the ruins of Sutro Baths that led us to the view above. There’s something soothing about walks in Golden Gate Park, especially when the afternoon fog rolls in a patters my face with tiny kisses. The smell of the pines and eucalyptus trees sings to my heart of home.

Next we gathered with the G. clan near Phoenix for D’s son’s graduation from medical school. We were able to rent a house big enough for the lot of us, and there are a lot of us. The heat was fierce, but spirits were high as we celebrated a new beginning in the lives of M. and his marvelous girlfriend.

View of Lake Chelan from a hiking trail on the south shore.

View of Lake Chelan from a hiking trail on the south shore.

Back in Washington, D. and I celebrated our second anniversary at Lake Chelan in central Washington. It was bloody hot, but the views are gorgeous. We’d hoped to rent a canoe or small boat and putter about on the lake, but all we found were Jet Skis and speed boats–not at all conducive to leisurely rides. (There were kayaks too, but I’m allergic to any craft that’s hard to exit in an emergency. The point of a boat is to stay on top of the water, right?) To soothe our disappointment, we visited wineries. Nice.

USS Turner Joy

Back at home, D. and I visited Bremerton and toured the USS Turner Joy, a destroyer-class ship that played an important role in the Vietnam War. We had the great good fortune to meet John F. Keift, author of The Saltiest Ship in the Fleet, who gave us an extensive tour. Keift showed us the control room where the men who controlled the big guns watched radar blips that represented heavily armed Vietnamese fishing vessels zooming toward the ship. He spoke with gravity about pushing the buttons that erased those blips from the radar screen, knowing that each blip represented many lives.

In July, my mother came to Tacoma, where she and I explored every quilt shop we could find. We weren’t allowed to take photos of the art quilt exhibit in the Washington State History Museum, alas. I was expecting quaint bedspreads; instead, we were amazed by the depth, detail, and texture of the artwork on display. There was even a 3-D forest scene sculpted from cloth and fibers.

We also braved the hellish traffic to visit Seattle’s Museum of Asian Art in Volunteer Park. Lovely spot, and Capitol Hill is a lovely neighborhood, with beautifully restored historic homes and mature trees. In fact, a huge branch crashed to the street just outside the Volunteer Cafe, where Mom and I were eating lunch. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but what a shock to come home and find that a third of your tree has fallen into the street, blocking traffic. Anyway, the exhibit was entitled Mood Indigo and featured textiles and clothing from around the world colored with this precious blue.

Modern clothing is so boring compared to this.

Modern clothing is so boring compared to this.

Shorty after Mom left, my daughter came with her boyfriend. Nerds to the core, they enjoyed the Pokemon hunt at the fairgrounds in Puyallup. The state fair doesn’t open until Labor Day weekend, but the grounds were crawling with people intently staring at their phones–very funny to watch.

Hunting Pokemon at the Fairgrounds

A highlight of their visit was Seattle’s Experience Music Project Museum, where we saw sacred relics at the Star Trek exhibit,

Model used in filming the original Star Trek TV series

Model used in filming the original Star Trek TV series

wearable art,

Wearable art at EMP

and a tower of guitars that plays music for visitors.

Tower of Guitars at EMP

You haven’t really experienced Michael Jackson’s Thriller until you see it on the EMP’s ginormous screen. Why was I the only person dancing? The horror movie display is also not to be missed–delightfully creepy.

Closer to home, we finally visited Tacoma’s Union Station, now converted to a courthouse, which houses several works of Dale Chihuly’s blown-glass art. He’s a Tacoma native, and has richly decorated his home town.

Tacoma's Union Station

Summer’s winding down, despite our current heat wave, and I’m getting ready for a few mini-jobs in the local schools, plus the writing I’ve put on the back burner during all these visits.

I hope you’ve spent a restful summer with your nearest and dearest. What was your highlight?



Blood-Red Ink

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

It’s ISWG Wednesday again. The first Wednesday of each month, members of the Insecure Writers’ Support Group answer a question about writing and then hop about the blogosphere, checking out each other’s answers.

From the ISWG website: “The Insecure Writer’s Support Group is a home for writers in all stages; from unpublished to bestsellers. Our goal is to offer assistance and guidance. We want to help writers overcome their insecurities, and by offering encouragement we are creating a community of support.”

ISWG offers an impressive number of resources for writers. And this month’s question is: What was your very first piece of writing as an aspiring writer? Where is it now? Collecting dust or has it been published?

In Writing Fiction from Point Zero, June 6, 2016, I wrote about my first act of murder on paper, a story inspired by a crazy student during my early teaching years. I never finished that piece. Further literary murders followed as my then-marriage descended into nastiness. Just last week I found two short stories from that era than involve the demise of a scornful, demeaning husband. So therapeutic! I had no intention of publishing back then; I was just flexing my muscles, enjoying the creative process.

The first piece I wrote for publication was a cozy mystery entitled Murder on Principal. It’s the tale of a high school teacher who finds her principal dead in his office. Of course, she falls under suspicion, and when a second staff member is found dead, she tries to find the killer’s identity before s/he can strike again. You can read a sample in this year’s Guide to Literary Agents, in the section where a panel of agents critique first pages. Their comments were mixed; it’s a first novel, after all.

While my goal is traditional publication, I had a pretty realistic idea of my chances for getting this first novel published—that is, slim. Whisper-thin. Like, one cell thick. I used the revision and submission process as my training ground for future, more salable novels. I’m still entertaining notions about self-publishing it, though. There must be teachers like me who would enjoy reading about the demise of a sadistic principal. For now, my first novel is waiting patiently on the shelf for further attention.

Meanwhile, the blood-red ink continues to drip from my computer, as well as from my revision notes. I’m happily remarried and retired from teaching, and yet I can’t control my murderous impulses. I guess once you’ve tasted blood, there’s no turning back.

54 Marvelous Things

Fragrant mystery bush

Today's Ethnic Fest in Tacoma's Wright Park

Today’s Ethnic Fest in Tacoma’s Wright Park

I love the concept of a birthday week, because birthdays often fall on a day when it’s inconvenient or even impossible to celebrate properly, and a birthday always merits celebration. I’m a firm believer in celebrating milestones, big and small, and I know in my heart that birthday cake provides a shot of good juju.

This year my birthday fell on a Monday, and I had to drive my mother to the airport that day, so we celebrated on Sunday. I’ve been searching my brain for a 54-themed blog topic to celebrate my 54th birthday, and scribbled the flowing list yesterday at a meeting while someone was repeating, yet again, stories and recommendations that I’ve heard oh so many times. (May the gods save me from ever becoming such a person.)

To celebrate the end of my birthday week, here’s a list of fifty-four marvelous things that bring me joy. I’d love it if you’d add to the list, in case I’ve overlooked a potential source of joy. Since it’s summer, many of these are seasonal joys.

  1. Drinking my morning coffee outdoors while writing in my journal and listening to birdsong.
  2. Nature’s perfume. I don’t know what this flowering shrub is (above); it was planted by some previous owner of our house, and its scent is intoxicating.
  3. Kombucha! My sister-in-law turned me on to this stuff, and it’s so tangy and refreshing. It helps calm my belly, too.
  4. New friends. It’s funny how one new connection leads to another, and another, and another.
  5. Outdoor concerts. The little park in Old Town Tacoma offers a free concert every Wednesday—how marvelous! Gig Harbor offers free concerts on Tuesday, and Puyallup on Thursdays.
  6. Little children dancing at the above concerts. Wee ones are so utterly un-self-conscious, responding as the music moves them.
  7. Recipes on the internet. I love the ease of comparison, the helpful comment strings. It’s so easy now to come up with a tasty dish made of whatever odd ingredients I have on hand.
  8. Podcasts! I’m a late bloomer when it comes to tech. Lately I’m enjoying Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast, along with the Dead Robots’ Society, a fun program by and for writers. Listening to these lively conversations while walking or cleaning makes the time merrily, swiftly by.
  9. NPR while driving.
  10. Zumba!
  11. Cool, freshly-washed sheets.
  12. Our favorite walking path along Commencement Bay.
  13. Summer festivals: music fests, ethnic fests, food fests, beer fests…
  14. Thank you to the city leaders and philanthropists who set aside this land for our pleasure.
  15. A cucumber-mint mojito on the deck of Duke’s, overlooking Puget Sound.
  16. Trader Joe’s, especially their pot stickers.
  17. Sincere smiles
  18. The water-playground up the street. Children + water = fun.
  19. Happy dogs.
  20. The public library
  21. Taking time for a really good stretch after a workout.
  22. The fragrance of peaches, nectarines, berries—it nearly knocks me down when I enter the grocery store.
  23. Really fresh sweet corn.
  24. Sweet, mild onions in a salad.
  25. Growing tomatoes in my back yard.
  26. Laughing at my daughter’s jokes. Whether on Facebook, on the phone or in person, she has the most delightful talent for silliness.
  27. Nature shows on TV. Nothing holds my attention like that amazing photography, those soaring vistas, those startling close-ups, those life and death chase scenes.
  28. Blasting Latin music while cooking or cleaning. Sabor!
  29. Birthday greetings. I never get too old to be tickled by these.
  30. A new pen.
  31. A starry, starry night, especially when it’s warm enough to sit outside and enjoy the view.
  32. Iced coffee in the afternoon.
  33. Those little moments of shared humanity with a stranger, fleeting conversations and connections that remind us we’re all in this together.
  34. Watching the bees in the flowers.
  35. Watching the ducks do their bottoms-up dance in the pond. That’s always funny.
  36. A cold beer after a hot walk.
  37. A boat ride. I’m looking forward to riding the ferry to Seattle.
  38. A visit to an art museum or gallery.
  39. Reading outdoors.
  40. The feel of a summer breeze lifting my skirt.
  41. That wonderful scent of dry, warm pine needles as I walk through the forest.
  42. Grill time! There’s something so satisfying to our primitive nature when we cook food outdoors over fire.
  43. Playing guitars (uke, for me) around a fire pit.
  44. Late light evenings, when I can take a walk after dinner. Again and again, throughout the summer, I look outside and exclaim, “Look, it’s still light out!”
  45. A hot dog with all the fixings at the ball park.
  46. An afternoon nap outdoors, stretched out on a lounge chair.
  47. Surprise visits by hummingbirds.
  48. Gleaming, jewel-colored dragonflies. Everyone has their totem animal; these are mine.
  49. Huge, puffy clouds drifting by. Summer clouds have the most interesting architecture.
  50. A summer storm that makes the trees dance.
  51. Sitting out on the front stoop, watching the neighborhood roll/stroll by.
  52. Everyone looks cooler in a big straw hat.
  53. The scent of wild roses and linden trees.
  54. Only in summer and at Christmastime to we see so much of our friends and relatives. It’s good to catch up and laugh together.

Happy birthday to all you summer babies!