Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Inspiration or Imagination?

My husband repeatedly jokes around, telling me he’s the inspiration for my writing and that he is obviously the model for the protagonist of my first book (even though he neither looks, nor acts, anything like the character). He even goes so far as to describe specific scenes that he maintains he had a part in creating to our friends. When he says this, I generally give him a condescending tap on the back and a wink and say something like, “Of course, honey”, though we both know it isn’t true.

It does make me think though. How much of what I write is purely from my imagination, versus bits and pieces I’ve taken with me throughout my life? It seems like even when the plot might have nothing to do with anything I’ve ever experienced, parts of my life still creep in.

They say write what you know. Admittedly, there are no similarities between either of the main characters’ lives in At This Stage and mine. (There’s my imagination piece.) However, when I look back at the story, naturally I find links. The setting is where I’m from, I’ve taken the trips to the places I mentioned and have taken part, to some extent, in the different activities my characters engage in. (My inspiration.)

I recently read an amazing book in which a major part of the story was an impossible circumstance which kept the two lead characters apart. While I was reading it, I wondered if the author was using this circumstance as a code for something she’d really been through, a prejudice she’d encountered in her life. If it was, it was disguised in an incredible story and very well done. It might also be that I’d known people in parallel situations, and it made me think of them.

Maybe that’s the key. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much of a story is from the author’s imagination or inspiration, so long as the reader finds his/her own imagination and inspiration while reading it.

All this wondering has made me take a different look into the draft of my next book, searching for pieces of myself. Once again, my life is not reflected in either of my protagonists’ lives (and my husband’s is certainly not either, although I’m sure he’ll disagree when he reaches some parts he likes). Be that as it may, I have no doubt that, while experiences may be completely different, some emotions are universal. And I think those come from the best parts of inspiration and imagination combined.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Puzzle Pieces

Puzzles were one of my favorite things to do as a kid. Jigsaw puzzles. The more pieces the better. I remember spending many a rainy afternoon doing puzzle after puzzle, lining them around the border of my bedroom as I completed each one.

As I got older, my obsession with puzzles increased, as did the number of pieces in them. Now, each winter break, I pick a 1000 piece puzzle and my children tackle it with me the entire time they’re off from school. I try to pick pictures that don’t torture them too much, like animals or different flavors of ice cream. No eggshells in this house. I’m not a sadist, after all.
I think it’s the process that draws me to puzzles so much. First, I work on the frame to get a basic idea of what it will be. Then I move on to the inside, the meat. I might plod along for a while, successfully putting things together, when I suddenly get stuck. I’ll search for the piece that’s been alluding me, maybe for hours. I’ll take a break from it, only to come back and still not find it. But then, when I look down at the pieces in front of me, there it is, clear as day. It’s been staring me in the face all along. When I find the mysterious piece that fits together perfectly with the rest of what I’ve made, it’s like the planets have aligned themselves and the universe makes sense. Okay, I might be exaggerating, but it is pretty cool.

While I was writing the other day, a similar thing happened. A chapter came to an end and my words were at a dead standstill. I knew where I wanted to go a little later in the story, but I had no idea how to get there. A piece was missing and no matter how long I sat staring at what I already had, I couldn’t find it.
I walked away from it and worked on a different part of my book. When I came back, still nothing. I shut down for the night, but the next day brought me no closer to finding my missing piece. Then, out of the blue, I saw it, without really looking. I reread what I’d written and knew exactly where I had to go. And somehow, that idea connected with what was going to happen next. And so on and so on.

I’ve come to realize that this is one of my favorite parts of writing. The way things come together, sometimes on purpose, but other times, almost by accident, leading me to the next portion. I don’t know if I appreciate this so much because of my passion for puzzles, but the similarities are not lost on me.
These days, my children often ask me if they can have “puzzle marathons”. They take out all of their puzzles and spend hours in their rooms putting them together until there is no space left to walk on the floor. If this is an interest they’ve inherited from me, I’m happy about it. I don’t know if it will translate into any other interests for them as well, but I look forward to finding out.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Good Match

I’m not much of a sports fan. But every rule’s got an exception. Mine’s tennis. Every year, over the same two weeks, I spend more time than I care to admit in front of my television watching the US Open. Coincidentally, it’s around this time that I make my way to the court year after year to remind myself what an awful player I am.

My husband and I are almost always cheering on opposite points. He usually roots for the underdog, while I’m loyal to the players I’ve loved and followed for years. Of course, even among those I have my favorites.
The other night, though, I was watching a match with two players I’d never seen before. Within minutes, I found myself rooting for one player over the other. I started to wonder what made me choose him, even though the match was very close and neither player was particularly better than the other. I ran through my favorite players in my mind to see if they shared personality traits, but found they did not. While Djokovic is full of flair, guys like Federer and Nadal are much more demure. Yet I love them all.
It made me think about the kind of fictional characters I’m drawn to and whether they’re similar to each other. As I went through my mental checklist, I realized that the characters I love are all over the map. Some are strong, dark and quiet. Others are sarcastic and witty. And then there are those who are so confused they don’t know whether they’re coming or going.
So what draws us to people, fictional or not? And in fiction, why do we want certain characters to end up together? Do they have to exhibit traits we can relate to in ourselves or is it the opposite? Do we gravitate towards people who are not necessarily like us, but instead, what we would want to be? Maybe it’s not necessarily any of these. Maybe we just like characters who make us feel invested in them. If they have one thing that makes us want to read more, watch more, hear more about them, maybe it’s not important what that one thing is, as long as it’s real.
I stayed up way too late to watch that match. The guy I was hoping would win didn’t. I wasn’t very upset, though, because I would have just had to root against him in the next round anyway, when he faces one of my favorites. But regardless of who wins the tournament, whether it’s my guy or not, what interests me most, both in tennis and fiction, is seeing a good match.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

To Be or Aspiring To Be?

I was at the beach this weekend. It was the kind of summer day you wait for. Sunny, no humidity, slightly breezy. The weather couldn’t have been more beautiful. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought so, because all of New Jersey was on the beach with me.

As is often the case on days like that, if you want to be within yelling distance of the ocean, you’re probably going to be about twenty sand grains away from your neighbor’s blanket and umbrella. Luckily, the woman closest to me was incredibly considerate and friendly, too. We chatted here and there throughout the day and laughed together when the group behind us played their music so loud we thought it was coming out of a boom box from 1985.
At one point, I pulled out a notebook and started writing. After a few minutes, the woman asked me if I was working on a paper. And I froze.
I wasn’t expecting the question from a stranger and I knew I had to answer it one of two ways. Either I’d be evasive and not tell her what I was doing. Or I would, which for me, was much harder. If I told her that it wasn’t a paper, that it was in fact, fiction, I had a pretty good idea what the next question would be. It would go something like this: “Oh, are you an author?”
The answer shouldn’t be complicated, but to me it is. It’s the line between aspiring to be something and actually being it. When I wanted to be a teacher, the line was very clear. While I was student teaching, before I had a hired position, I was aspiring to be a teacher. The day I stepped foot in my own classroom, and was working for a salary, I was a teacher. Simple.
I don’t think it’s so cut and dry when you write, though. The line is fuzzier. Are you an author as soon as you start to write? Once you type the last word of a novel? Once you’re published? Once you make your first sale? Once you have multiple books out? Once you can support yourself with your book sales? Once you have a best seller? Somewhere in between?
Maybe it’s not so bad to always be an aspiring…whatever. If we’re always aspiring to be something, then we’re constantly trying to be better at it. When I was teaching, I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking of ways to make my lessons more engaging. Maybe I was really aspiring then, too, but didn’t recognize it.
In any event, I took the coward’s way out that day. I made a joke about being too old to be writing a paper and let the subject drop, not answering the woman. I kicked myself for hours afterwards. I mean, if you want to be an author…aspiring or not, you have to let people know you’ve actually written something, right?
For now, I’m going to chalk it up to a learning experience. Hopefully, next time I’ll have a better answer. There’s something to aspire to.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


We had a thunderstorm last night. A big one. The kind where you anticipate the huge boom seconds after the room shines from a bolt of lightning, the kind where the windows rattle when that boom comes and you wonder how homes can withstand the vibration. And while I enjoy those kinds of storms and can sleep through them like the dead, I know that’s not true for everyone.

At some point during the night, the noise woke my daughter and she came into my room, which she almost never does. She asked me if she could hang out for a while (or so she told me this morning, since I have no recollection of our conversation). I guess I mumbled yes through my semi-comatose state. What I do remember is glancing at her through one open eye a little while later to see if she was still there.
She was. She couldn’t fall back asleep, had taken out her tiny book light and was reading. The sight made me way too happy.
Lately, with camp, the beach and just summertime life in general, my kids haven’t been reading as much as I would like. They watch me writing a lot, and as a result, their interest in writing stories has increased, so much that I find random pages scattered throughout the house, followed by the question, “Mom, can you staple these?” And though I love that, I don’t want it to come at the expense of their reading.
Whenever we get a chance, we try to have a family reading time, where we sit together and read our own books. But to me, reading shouldn’t be a scheduled activity. It should be, and for me has always been, something you can’t wait to do when you have downtime. I very badly want it to be that for them, instead of automatically turning on the TV or an ipad when they’re looking for an activity.
So when I saw that her reaction to not sleeping was to pick up the book she was reading earlier in the day, even though she could have easily gotten away with playing a handheld video game on mute, my heart fluttered. I didn’t let her know I saw her, but I watched in silence for a few minutes before drifting back to my dreams.
The storm must have ended or her fear must have passed because when I woke up it was sunny and she was gone. This morning, when she casually brought up her book, discussing a part she found exciting, I nodded and shared her enthusiasm for the story.
And while she was telling me she couldn’t wait to see what happened next, I was secretly contemplating all the ways I could simulate another thunderstorm after she goes to bed tonight.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Fear of Commitment

I’ve always been sort of a commitment-phobe. Not with relationships, really, but with decisions. I tend to hem and haw between things, worrying that I’ll choose one, when the other one was actually the better option. My husband jokes that even when we go out to a restaurant I’ve been to a million times, I take 20 minutes figuring out what to order from a menu I know by heart. Plus, I’ve got to hear what everyone else is ordering before I place mine…what if my friend gets her dinner and I realize her dish is really what I wanted?

Even when I was deciding on a color for the entryway of my house, I had this problem. I put fourteen (not exaggerating) different paint swatches on the wall before I could pick one, and we’re not talking about a huge space here. But the real kicker…they were all beige.
I wish I were more decisive. I wish I were the kind of person who makes a choice without hesitation, sticks with it and doesn’t look back. Unfortunately, second-guessing is in my nature. I always wonder about the path not taken.
Surprisingly, I had no trouble committing when I started writing At This Stage. I knew the basic premise from the start and never strayed from it. But, inevitably, I came to a roadblock where I just couldn’t bring myself to make a decision. I was working on a scene between Kaitlyn and her current boyfriend, and I didn’t know which way I wanted this piece of the story to go. I wrote it two ways in the draft, leaving both versions in there until I was entirely finished. I knew if I went with choice B, I’d have to rework a number of other things, too. I only took choice B out right before I gave the draft to a couple of people to read. Even then, I was uncomfortable committing to it and asked them to read it both ways. They unanimously picked the same version I did, so I was able to breathe a little bit easier.
I know doubt is normal, and there were many times I reworked scenes over and over. However, that was more for overall improvement than to determine which direction I wanted to take. And there were times when the story took me places I didn’t expect, but I knew they felt right. This particular time, though, I just couldn’t pull the plug one way or the other until the very last second. I almost wished it was a Choose Your Own Adventure story and I could leave both options in there for readers to make their own selections.
But that’s not how life works. I had to choose a scene, just like I had to choose one of many beiges and last night’s dinner. And even though I may always wonder how almond bisque might have looked on my walls instead of sandalwood, it doesn’t mean I love sandalwood any less.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Things That Stick

It’s funny - the things that stick with you. The other day I was reminiscing with some friends about games we used to play when we were kids. We started talking about it because of some Facebook post about manhunt and freeze tag. We’d all played the same games, even though we grew up in different places. The general consensus was that we look back on those as great times.

It got me to thinking a lot about childhood friends, one in particular. I’ll call her Penny. I hadn’t thought about her in a long time, as our paths haven’t crossed in years. But, because I was nostalgic, and because of where I’m at in life right now, a memory surfaced that I didn’t even know was there.
I guess we had to be in junior high school (aka middle school to most people outside of the 5 NYC boroughs). I was making my first attempt at a full length “book”. I remember the actual book I was writing in so clearly. It was a black and white composition notebook with doodles all over the cover. The writing inside was bubbly tween-girl handwriting, nothing like the chicken scratch, script-print combo I have now.
The story was about twin sisters – one good, one bad, of course. I can’t say I remember any details about what I’m sure was a very deep plot ;). Except for the fact that, since they were twins, there was naturally some kind of swapping-places thing going on. But what I do remember is this. At first I didn’t show it to anyone, because I was too nervous. But Penny knew what I was doing and asked to see it. Since she was my best friend, and what 12 year old girl can refuse her best friend, I reluctantly let her look at what I’d written so far.
She devoured it. Not only that, she told me she couldn’t wait for the next chapter, and asked if I would sit down and write it at that moment, instead of continuing the game we were playing. This went on for weeks that summer. I’d write a few pages, Penny would read them as soon as the words were on the page and enthusiastically ask for more.
To this day, I have no idea if Penny really enjoyed what I’d written as much as she said she did, or if it was terrible and she was just being a great, supportive friend. Either way, I can still remember how much she inspired me. I started writing because I loved it, but I kept writing because of her.
The topic of inspiration comes up a lot. And normally, I’m guess I’m short-sighted. I think about the things that inspire me now. Maybe, in fact, I should be thinking about the things that inspired me way back when.
I don’t think I ever ended up finishing that story. Summer ended and I probably moved on to the next thing, whatever that was. But I’ve kept most of the notebooks I used to write in and I bet if I dig around in my basement, I can find it. Maybe one day I’ll look for it. And maybe one day I’ll have an ending to Penny’s story.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Pressure of a Name

I have so many fun memories of being pregnant. Reading all those books to check out the size of that little thing inside me. Watching my stomach move like there was an alien in there. Even seeing the numbers on the scale continuously climb, knowing at some point they would have to come down, didn’t bother me.

What I found more stressful than anything was actually having to pick a name for that person who would inevitably come out and need to be called something. Forever.
As someone who changes my mind pretty often, deciding on something that permanent was kind of daunting, not only once, but twice. So much so that on the way to the hospital with my second child, in between contractions came my husband’s pleading request… “Please. Just pick a girl’s name.” (We were between two.) Luckily, it was a boy and I never had to decide.
It wasn’t until years later, while I was writing, that I realized something. Picking a living person’s name didn’t have to be permanent or the worst kind of pressure. If my daughter comes home when she’s 20 and tells me that she hates her name and is changing it to Ice Cream Sundae, then Ice Cream Sundae she will be.
But a character’s name? Once it’s in print? Yep, that’s forever. There’s no changing it and no going back.
And so enters a whole other kind of stress.
So I kind of cheated when I began picking characters’ names for At This Stage. I dug through my memory bank to find names that we wanted to choose for our kids but which never made it to the finish line. Jackson was the easiest. My husband and I both loved that one, but I vetoed it because there were already too many derivatives of it in our families. For Kaitlyn, I knew I wanted a name I thought was strong, both in the full version of her name and her nickname. Many of the others were names we’d considered, too, with some alterations along the way.
Now that I’m embarking on having to choose more names for my next book, I’m finding the process doesn’t really get any easier. It’s kind of the opposite of naming your child, where you pick a name but have no idea what kind of human you’re getting. Here, I have an idea of who the person is going to be and I need to find a name to fit.
Maybe I’ll have to have another child so I can increase my name pool for future novels.
Um, nope…I think I’ll just buy one of those baby naming books instead.

Monday, June 2, 2014

What's For Dinner?

I absolutely love food. And I don’t discriminate. I’m as likely to gorge myself on some delicious sloppy street food as I am to enjoy a beautiful meal over a bottle of wine.
The fact is, I don’t think I’ve ever met a cuisine that didn’t offer at least one dish I felt I could sink my teeth into. For me, one of the best parts of visiting a place I’ve never traveled to before is eating where the locals do. I used to be too shy to ask random people on the street for recommendations. But after doing it a few times, I came to realize something – most people don’t mind being accosted by a stranger if the stranger is asking for a restaurant endorsement in the town they love.

My husband, Neil, and I have what we call our “benchmark” foods. When trying a new restaurant, we order some go-to dishes to do a quick assessment. If I’m having Mexican, for instance, I have to start with black bean soup. And if I’m eating anything Cajun (a personal favorite), there’s got to be crawfish at some point during my meal. Neil and I debate this one. He’ll fight for his jambalaya with his dying breath.
We would love for our kids to be miniature foodies, too. We recently started doing something new with them. Whenever we travel to a new state, we pick a food the state is known for, ask a bunch of locals where we can find the best (fill in the blank), and set off in search of the place that got the most votes. We’ve only done it a few times so far, but if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that the locals are ALWAYS right.

And the kids get a kick out of asking strangers for their suggestions, since under any other situation, that’s a total no-no, of course.

It shouldn’t have been a huge surprise for me to see that a love of food came through in my writing. But when I finished my first draft of At This Stage and read through it, I was hit with my characters’ eclectic eating habits. I realized that, though unintentional, there was actually a part of me (and Neil) in them.

So we’ll keep exploring different dishes and bothering unsuspecting people with our questions. If there’s a great dish in your town, let me know where to go and save a stranger near you.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Playing What If?

I’ve always taken an interest in life’s little riddles – those complicated questions that don’t necessarily have any answers. No right or wrong. Ones you could sit around for hours and discuss and never come to any sort of conclusion. They’re my absolute favorite.

On a rare and coveted lazy weekend, the kind when there are no kids’ activities, no friends’ barbeques, no family festivities (as much as we love them all – wink, wink), my husband and I sometimes sit around creating scenarios that are out of the ordinary. They usually begin with the words What If. They start off simple and tame.

But as the day goes on, both the questions and answers become more convoluted. For example, “What if I killed someone? Would you stand by me if it was an accident? What if I did it on purpose? Would the reason why matter?” I find that life’s real dilemmas never come with a “good decision” handbook and are often less believable than fiction. So our game has to reflect that. What would be the fun in life if everything was easy anyway?

One of those marathon conversations led to the idea for my first novel, At This Stage, which hits this summer. The general topic of unanswerable questions that day had been impossible relationships. Well into the night, it stayed with me and I was still making up possible scenarios in my head. I found myself in bed wondering what would happen if two people were thrust into a situation where it was truly inappropriate for them to be together. And could something happen over time that would change their circumstance and make their relationship okay after all? Thus, Kaitlyn and Jackson, my two main characters, were born.

More than once, I’ve wished I had a tiny, crystal ball. One that could show me my future if I decide on Path A, rather than Path B. One that could take the doubt out of my decisions and show me definitively what I should do in a certain situation.

But then, I guess if that little ball existed, we’d all have to have one. And then everyone would know exactly what to do all the time. No one would ever make mistakes if they listened to their ball and there would be no more mystery about where life would take us. What a horrible bore that would be.

And even worse than that, my husband and I would have to come up with another game to play on our down time. I’d rather live with the unknown and see where all the What Ifs lead me.