3 Ways Writing is Like Swimming

My daughter likes to swim. She started swimming at age 3, was on her first swim team at 6. She has been on a swim team every summer for 4 years.

In order to compete in swimming, you need 3 skills: form, speed, and stamina.

Turns out, you need those same 3 skills if you want to compete in writing, too.


In swimming, getting your body to form the right patterns in the water is vital. If you perform the strokes correctly, if your body parts all work in perfect sync, you go faster with less effort.

Writing is similar. Our craft is our form, and the sooner we master the elements, the smoother our writing process becomes. As we get the myriad craft elements from structure to grammar to work in sync, the stories flow faster and with less effort.


Efficiency of form helps you cut through the water faster, so you increase your speed. You can’t win if you are slow. However, swimming is not just about beating the other people.  It’s also about personal bests, competing with yourself and trying to lower your times every time you compete.

Writing efficiency will help you compete in the publishing trenches, because you can put more work out more quickly. This does not mean you need to be a speed demon in writing. I am not, and other successful writers are not. Some are. But you can’t focus on other people’s speed. All you can do is hone your process so you can write efficiently without losing quality in your work. You are always looking for a personal best.


Competitive swimming requires endurance. When my daughter started swimming, her first races were more a matter if she would make it the full 25 meters without having to stop. Now, at age 10, the freestyle is 50 meters and the other strokes are still 25. But next year they all go up to 50 meters. That will require building stamina (and mastering how to turn).

A writing career is a long-haul career. Success usually does not come early or quickly. And if you write novel-length books, each project can be a marathon in itself. We need to cultivate creative and emotional stamina to get us through. There are many paths to success, so we need to master turning when one route is blocked. Sometimes our muscles hurt and we can barely catch our breath, but if we persevere we will eventually touch the wall.

Whether we write for fun or for profit, all writers share the joy and passion for writing. But for those who do want to publish, we also need to develop form, speed, and stamina.

Once we do, we can swim with the best of them.

The New Regimen: Checking In

When my daughter started full-time Kindergarten in September, I celebrated. I was full of plans for how to break out my days and how to balance home-work responsibilities.

So now we’re halfway through October. How’s the new regimen been working for me? Time to check in.

First, I was going to get a lot of writing done. So much writing. I have not gotten as much of that done as I had hoped. I do get my blog post done more quickly, and I have been able to get to other writing in spurts, but not in the focused manner I had envisioned. Part of the problem is that I have taken naps in the afternoon far more than I would like. I’m just not sleeping well at night lately, and if I don’t grab an hour in the afternoon, I am wrecked by the evening.

Second, I was going to get some of these non-writing projects under control and off my To-Do list. I have actually accomplished several of these projects, although, again, not as many as I had hoped. Still, it’s nice to see that To-Do list get smaller!

Third, I wanted to incorporate my exercise routine while my daughter was at school. This I have done fairly well. I generally complete all my walking before I get her from school. In fact, the walk to pick her up usually finishes my step goal for the day. I break up the walking into a few short walks during the day, which gets me out of my chair and gets the blood moving again. So it helps me with the work side of things, too.

Finally, I wanted to try and end the constant push-pull of having to “choose” between working and spending time with my daughter. Whenever I would work while she was home, I would feel guilty. Whenever I would play with her instead of work, I would feel the weight of everything I could be getting done. It was a no-win situation for me—part of my mind was always somewhere else.

In this, at least, I have been pretty successful so far. Because I am able to get the things I must get done finished before I pick my daughter up from school, I can relax into spending the afternoon/evening hours with her until she goes to bed. We can chat or play or go to her extra-curricular events without me feeling pressured by things yet to do. I spent 4 hours at a local farm this weekend going hayriding, pumpkin picking, having lunch, and watching her play, and not once did I stress over things left undone. We had a fun, beautiful day out together.

My relationship with my daughter was the most important part of this new regimen for me, so I feel as if I have made a very successful start. However, I need to address the other parts of the new regimen that are not working so well.

My main problem is focus. The concrete things I know I need to do, I always get done. But then I drift on all the nebulous things I need to do but don’t have to do just yet—with the result that none of them get done. I need to break those things into discreet, concrete pieces and assign them a day. If I can do that, I believe I will find my productivity rising to the level I want. Without a focused, concrete list, my laziness expands to fit my free time.

So overall, my new writing plan is succeeding in the most important parts, but needs some work and adjustment. As is the way of the world, I expect I will finally have my new regimen tweaked and humming along just in time for Christmas break, when it will all fall apart again!

How do you make sure you stick to schedules?

Writing While Traveling

Whew! I have been doing a lot of traveling the last few months. A trip at the end of August, one in September, one coming up soon, and of course Thanksgiving travel in November.

All these trips are relatively short—3 days to a week. But it still totally throws me off my writing game. I usually get no writing done, or just a little. The travel days themselves are usually write-offs. Anyone who has traveled with a small child understands this—there is no writing at rest stops or while eating. And the trip takes longer because of frequent bathroom breaks.

And of course once you reach the destination, the days usually fly by in a chaos of activities. Obviously we traveled to somewhere for a purpose (usually to visit relatives) so most of our time is taken up with visiting (which is great—I don’t get to see these relatives nearly enough!). And the whole sleeping, eating, visiting with a small child whose schedule has been totally disrupted can make my down time not so “down”. By the time I finally get time to myself to write, I’m usually exhausted!

I’ve long since decided that while traveling I can only do what I can and try not to beat myself up too much about it.

What are your writing while traveling secrets?

The Mystery of Learning to Read

How many of you remember learning to read? If you’re like me, you have no recollection of the moment you understood how to read. It just happened one day when you were very young.

My two year old is very interested in words right now. She’s known her letters forever, and now insists I spell things for her. Or if we are reading, she will ask me, “What does that spell?” and motion to the whole sentence. I have taped sight words all over the house, so she can see the words all the time.

She knows about a dozen words when I spell them out loud for her, and about half as many by sight. While she understands the basics of phonics (she knows what sound all the letters make), she doesn’t yet understand the concept of using those sounds to “sound out” a word she doesn’t know by sight.

I am amazed at all the knowledge she is compiling in her head, and I am very interested in watching how all these various ways of learning about words and letters and sounds coalesce into her actually reading. One day, something inside will snap all these components into place and she will read.

I have a feeling, though, that no matter how closely I watch, no matter how hard I pay attention for “the moment” when it all comes together, how someone learns to read will still be a mystery.

As mysterious as it is, learning to read does seem hardwired into us as a species. Virtually everyone does learn how to read. There are people with problems that learn later than most, but almost everyone gets there in the end—some in multiple languages. Why do we have such a natural affinity for the act of reading? Why are our brains so well adapted to interpreting symbols and creating meaning from them? Did we create writing because we already had this ability, or did we develop the ability in response to the need to write things down to preserve survival information? Another mystery we will likely never solve.

Reading has been a staple in my life for as long as I can remember. I hope my daughter also learns to love reading as much as her father and I do, whether it’s reading a real book or an e-book or some other kind of book that hasn’t been developed yet. For all the joy reading has brought to my life, I am profoundly grateful to those long-ago ancestors who invented writing.

Which brings me to one last mystery: If there was no writing, what would all of us writers be doing instead?

So how about it? In a world without the written word, what would you be doing?


Ever since my daughter was born, I haven’t watched much TV. The occasional football game, but as my favorite drama series went off the air, I didn’t replace them.

But there is one TV show that I have watched religiously since I was 16. For 25 years, my parents and I have watched this show together, growing up with the characters. This show is EastEnders.

EastEnders is a half-hour British soap opera following the families living in an East End square in London. Unlike American soap operas, the people are not rich, glamorous, or privileged. This is the story of working-class families struggling just to make ends meet. The plotlines are (for the most part) realistic and often gritty. As in real life, people come and go in the community—families move in, move out; children grow up, get married; people are born, people die. Unlike American soaps, the people that die tend to stay dead. Only 4 characters remain from the original cast 25 years ago.

So why have I watched for 25 years? Why does this show have such a loyal following in both the UK and the US?


The writing is superb, and the actors are incredible. While there are always difficult and sometimes gut-wrenching plotlines in each episode, some other character is often involved in a light, often slightly comedic, plotline to alleviate the tension. Often these two plotlines will collide in unexpected ways. The writers also don’t forget—a storyline that impacts the characters deeply often resurfaces much later. They remember anniversaries of deaths, marriages, births, and other important events, and are not afraid to tackle difficult topics like HIV, prejudice, rape, adoption, abortion, and discrimination.

Not only is the writing fantastic, but the actors carry it off with skill. They manage to capture nuance and contradiction, making their characters as real as anyone you’d meet on the street. My husband is not a huge fan of the show because he finds it loud—there is a lot of ambient noise in some scenes, and arguments do tend to have raised voices. But my very favorite episodes are the quiet ones.

Every once and a while, there will be an episode that consists entirely of two people talking. Sound boring? Well, it could be, if done incorrectly. But the actors combined with the writing make it riveting. (I also have to give kudos to the director, who shoots the episodes with varied camera angles to give the feel of movement even when there is none.) These episodes often follow some “big reveal”—they are the quiet after the explosion. They are intense. I cannot look away. My living room fades away as I am pulled into their world.

One example showing the convergence of writing and acting is the character of Dot. She is an original character, and is likely about 70 now. Dot is deeply religious, often quoting scripture to make her point. She could be a sanctimoniously annoying character, but her zealotry is tempered by her own human foibles and true compassion. Her character is often used as light relief, comedic without being hurtful, and it would be easy to leave her character at this shallow level. But the writers don’t. Dot’s life has been harsh, and we understand that this is one reason she has retreated so deeply into her religion. Also, the writers create moments where Dot’s depth can shine through—moments where she reveals little pieces of her pain. The actress that plays Dot is superb. In just a few lines, she can transform from a comedic façade to an intense, soul-searching woman. In one of those “quiet” episodes I love so much, Dot was forced to make a horrific choice: help her terminally ill friend end her suffering or stick to her religious principles. This episode (just Dot and her friend Ethel) explored the issue of assisted suicide without ever once mentioning the word. One moment I was swayed by one point of view; the next moment the other side made an equally compelling argument. The emotional conflict was vivid and gut-wrenching and left the viewers to make up their own minds while showing clearly and believably the choice Dot eventually made.

I had fallen behind in watching them—I had 63 to watch. In a month and a half long marathon, I have caught up, and I remember why I love that show so much. It is addictive. Now that I’ve caught up, I am jonesing for the next episode. Here in the US, we are watching episodes that aired in 2004, so we are very far behind. As long as EastEnders is being filmed in the UK (where it airs 4 times a week), we will never catch up.

And that is fine with me.

Writing During the Holiday Madness

I don’t know about you, but from Thanksgiving on my life has been a runaway train going downhill. I haven’t stopped for over a month. I feel like I haven’t breathed in about as long. An exhausting combination of travel, family obligations, illnesses, classes, and the requirements of survival have drained me. My gas tank is well below “E.” And yet, I’m still going.

So did my writing fare in this whirlwind? Did I even manage to get a single word written? I am pleased to say that yes, I did.

I did more than just eke out words, too—I was quite productive. I attribute this productivity to the fact that I am in between books. I finished a draft of one middle grade book and got it out to beta readers before the insanity began (which I had planned). The rest of this month was taken up with back-and-forth between my co-authors and me on the major revision to The Egyptian Enigma.

Mostly this consisted of new suggested timelines/outlines. Jim Kempner and I started with two separate outlines and the subsequent discussions (via email) slowly merged them into one outline that we felt contained the best of both. It helped that we were not that far apart on most major issues.

I would say that coming to an agreement on a completely new outline for our revision (and all the writing of those outlines to get there) is pretty productive.

Today we met face-to-face to hash out the details of things we had not been able to resolve online. We ended the 3-hour meeting with a finalized new outline—one that will cut some 30,000 words from the book, streamline the plot, and sharpen the focus.

Now we just have to implement it. We’re thinking of trying something new in our process. We’ll see how that works out. Working with three of us is an ongoing experiment to find the most efficient way to get from start to finish.

How did your holiday writing go? Or did you simply decide to take the holidays off?

Thanksgiving 2011

Since it’s Thanksgiving, I’m going to be completely cliché and talk about what I’m thankful for.

I’m not particularly thankful for the big dinner, because I don’t eat turkey or most of the trimmings, but I am thankful for the fact I have food to eat all year round.

I am very thankful for my family and my husband’s family, who are all warm, loving people who are supportive and are great role models for what family should mean.

I am most thankful for my immediate family—my husband and my daughter. I spent many years being lonely before I found my husband, and he changed my life for the better in more ways than I can count. His greatest gift to me was our baby girl, who lights up my days even when I’m not feeling so great, and who reminds me that laughter really is the best medicine.

But I also wanted to look at what I am thankful for in my writing career. So often I think we authors get so caught up in reaching the next level, we forget to look at where we are and how much we have already achieved to get there.

I am thankful for having wonderful teachers—authors like Jonathan Maberry and Marie Lamba who give me and others the benefit of their time and expertise.

I am thankful for the community of writers that I have found—supportive and welcoming and very, very helpful to all who show up with a sincere desire to write and improve their writing.

I am thankful for my writing friends, especially my Author Chronicles partners, who are always there to share the ups and downs of the journey.

I am thankful for the passion that has kept me writing for so many years. I feel that few people are able to pursue their real passion in a meaningful way, and so I am thankful for this.

I am thankful that my years of hard work have not been in vain. My writing is miles better than it was just a few years ago, and I continue to learn and improve every day.

Even though I am not yet published, when I look at where I am in my career, I can honestly say that I am closer than I have ever been. It no longer seems so pie-in-the-sky, but like an objective that can be met someday.

I am thankful for Donna Hanson Woolman, who walked 18 years of this writing journey with me before going on ahead. Even now, she walks with me every day.

I am thankful for my life, the opportunities I have had, and most importantly those who have loved me along the way and love me still. I would be nothing and nowhere without each and every one of you, and I am thankful for that every day—not just on Thanksgiving.

Tapping into the Reader’s Inner Ear

Books are a print media. So it makes sense that writing should be a visual art. And in fact, we do think about how the words look on the page. We consider how much white space there is, how the varied paragraph lengths look on the page, and try hard to eliminate those one-word “orphan” lines (they drive me crazy).

Some take it deeper than that, considering how the words themselves look. Short sentences and short words in an action scene promote tension, for example. But even more than that, the particular letters that make up a word can convey a visual sense of the word. Consider “faint” and “swoon.” They mean pretty much the same thing, but just looking at them gives a different sense of the action. The upright, skinny letters in faint give it a quick, hard look. The rounded, wide letters of swoon stretch out the action.

Clearly, however, writing is not considered a visual art. We don’t say to one another, “That sentence doesn’t look right.” We say it doesn’t sound right. And not just about dialogue, although that is especially important. There’s a reason we are told to read our novel aloud when editing: We need to know how it SOUNDS.

Writing is an aural art. We describe rhythm and pace, the cadence of the sentences. We talk about alliteration and assonance and onomatopoeia. We say words resonate, or a work speaks to us. We discuss a writer’s voice and tone. In short, we rely on the reader’s inner ear.

Which makes me wonder what the reading experience is like for people who are deaf.

I have, for a variety of reasons, become interested in American Sign Language (ASL). Because of that, I took an ASL course. Our teacher was deaf. She explained to us that she spoke ASL, and although she read in English, English was her second language. I had never thought about that before.

So now I wonder how people who have been deaf from birth or who have no memory of spoken language experience reading. The cadence of the sentences is missing for them. The suggestive sound of the words does not exist. Whereas they have one sign that can mean various things based on context, we have many words that all mean the same thing. And although we writers agonize over getting the dialogue to sound natural, it will never read as natural for ASL speakers, because ASL has a very different grammatical structure than English does.

Is reading dull for them? Do they feel that they are missing one level of the meaning? I know when people write about smells or taste, I (who have no sense of smell) often feel disconnected from the passage or the meaning they are trying to convey. But a writer’s reliance on the inner ear (his own and the reader’s) is more than just a stray passage here and there—it goes to the core of writing. It is in every word.

My writing is usually devoid of any reference to smell or taste, as they are not factors in the way I experience everyday life. Similarly, a deaf person’s perception of the world is fundamentally different that someone who can hear. I wonder, then, if a deaf person’s style of writing would be intrinsically different than a hearing person’s?

Does anyone know of any fiction writers who are deaf?

A New Paradigm (Again)

I have talked often of finding a balance between my writing and my life. I have told of new ideas, new routines I’ve made to find that balance, only to share the frustration that comes with life’s interference with those plans.

But I have a new plan.


I’ve been doing the catch-as-catch-can thing for about 2 years now. Coincidentally, that is about how old my daughter is. And I am here to tell you that putting out fires for 2 years is exhausting and spiritually unfulfilling. Certainly I have enjoyed much of what has gone on in the past two years, but the harried, never-get-to-quite-focus mentality has left me feeling both incompetent and fractured. So I sat down to reassess everything.

I found that the greatest issue fueling my frustration was not being able to move all facets of my life forward at once.

I consider that I have 4 major facets in my life: Baby, Husband, Household, and Writing. Baby moves on her own rocket trajectory and moves ahead at warp speed. I try to stuff the other three facets into whatever time and energy I have left over. I found that one always outweighed the other two. When I focused on Writing, the Household and Husband suffered neglect. When I caught up on Household, Writing and Husband stagnated. When I actually pay attention to my long-suffering Husband, very little Writing or Household gets accomplished.

So I always ended up playing catch-up with 2 facets, frustrated that they had slipped in the first place, and then returning to the putting-out-fires method of living. This is not conducive to writing, at least not for me. I need at least an hour to really write. Editing I can do in smaller chunks, but for writing I need time.

My new plan? Move everything forward at once. Set tiny daily goals in each area and meet or exceed them. If I feel like I nothing is stagnating, perhaps I won’t feel the intense pressure of everything I’m NOT doing while I am trying to concentrate on what I AM doing.

It helps that I can now do more things when baby girl is awake. She’s old enough now to want to help or to entertain herself for a while. I can actually do housework, make (short) phone calls, and do email and social media when she is awake. That helps immensely. If I can move most of the Household and some of the Writing into the daytime hours, that will leave her nap and the nighttime for me to have some concentrated Writing time (and time with Husband, too, when he is not working crazy night shift hours!).

Circumstances keep changing, especially as my baby girl keeps changing. So it is smart to sit back once and a while and see what’s holding me back and how I can adjust things to overcome that. I’m hoping that by pinpointing my largest frustration, I can now make a plan that will be successful.

How about you? Do you re-evaluate your writing routine every so often to see if it can be improved? Or have you found a writing design that works for you?

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The Best Laid Plans

In an earlier post about juggling multiple projects, I said the switching back and forth every other day between two stories was working for me.

Not so much anymore.

I’ve put the middle grade on the back burner and have focused on the YA fantasy for the past week. I tried to figure out what it was that disrupted my lovely balancing act. Part of the reason is that I have always preferred focusing on a single project to completion before starting another—that allows me to immerse myself in the details of the project in a visceral way. I can live, breathe, and dream it.

The other part, the “craft” part, is that I am in two very different stages in the manuscripts. In the middle grade, I am writing what is essentially a heavily revised first draft. The YA is in its fourth major revision, and is getting close to being query-ready. So while I needed to plot, character, and write from scratch in one manuscript, in the other I needed to search for –ing words and other grammar issues, as well as incorporate the latest feedback from my wonderful beta readers.

Of course, I certainly could have chosen to continue bouncing between the two. I have often juggled more than one project in my video editing life and created products the clients loved. But, because I did not have deadlines to meet, I chose to focus on a single project to completion, especially since “changing gears” between those two very different skill sets seemed inefficient. Since I have less than 3 hours a day to write, the time it took to get “into the groove” of each mindset felt like lost time to me.

The final deciding factor, though, was the closeness of the finish line. As I reached the last 25% of the YA revision, I could smell the end of the book. I could see the words “The End” emblazoned on the horizon. I wanted to get there, gain that feeling of accomplishment, revel in the knowledge that the manuscript was one step closer to being query-ready.

People reward themselves in different ways when they reach their writing goals. Some put money in a jar, to be used for fun when the project is fully complete. That doesn’t work for me. Some people give themselves “me” time. Well, I have an 18-month-old—all my “me” time is taken up with writing.

So how do I reward myself? It might sound completely pretentious, but my reward really is the exhilaration I feel when I accomplish my goal. I actually get giddy. It is a moment when I have proven to myself that I can do what I set out to do. It lifts my spirits and gives me confidence that I can do it again—and again. As often as needed. That soaring moment when I can’t wipe the smile off my face and my eyes feel like they are literally sparkling is all the reward I need.

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