I’m converting my yard into a garden, one square-ish foot at a time. The goal: a yard full of edible perennials, Florida native plants, and hardy fruits and veggies that take minimal care from me.
I recently had the honor of working with Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital on a story about a remarkable patient. His rare genetic mutation inspired one of the JHACH doctors to launch an international investigation into potential treatment options and their outcomes.
You can find the full story here.
(Photo from JHACH)
In the first ten pages of a novel, characters need to become whole, rich people that we care about. We need hooks to keep us reading, questions that need answers, and enough plot to let us know we’re in for a good ride. It’s tough to fit it all in, and seeing it done well helps me identify what to include, and more importantly, what to cut.
I just started reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Chapter 1 introduces numerous characters, with just enough backstory and questions that I’m hooked. An excellent example of introducing lots of people quickly without info-dumping.
Another first chapter that I’ve read many times is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. This book earns accolades for plot, for character, for twist, but what I love most about it is Chapter 1. Flynn delivers an immense amount of backstory without making it feel like an info dump. I’m amazed at how much story she stuffed into just a handful of pages.
Tell me your favorite first chapters. What do you love about them?
To improve your writing, read more. That’s the advice I hear. But I think the advice should be a bit more specific, like this:
Read more passages that accomplish exactly what you are trying to accomplish in the passage you’re working on.
It’s not pithy, but I think it’s more accurate. Maybe a cleaner version is:
Read for the sake of modeling.
When I read, I read to learn. Or escape. But when I read for the sake of bettering my writing, reading becomes a form of study. And if I’m studying, I need to choose my textbooks carefully.
I am going to catalog the passages I study from. When I stumble on excellent passages that accomplish specific things that I have struggled with, I will add them here under Writing Role Models. If you can add recommendations, please do!
I tap Jer on the arm and point. He spots the barracuda and nods. We swim on. The current is strong on Banana Reef, but still the seas are calm and we glide easily through the bright blue waters.
Earlier today, we took the glass bottom boat tour and heard the descriptions and names of the reef life. The turquoise waters glinted like science fiction, painting the seascape with impossible hues. I spotted six sea turtles on the ride back to shore, more than I’ve ever seen in the wild. Really, I could have happily ended my day on that note, but there was more to come.
I push my goggles to my forehead and spit saltwater. I’m not a very good snorkeler. I forget I can’t breathe out of my nose and fog up my vision, or I look too far down and drown my spout. Jer pauses next to me while I readjust and plunge my face back in the water. Then we kick off, taking turns pointing at rainbow parrot fish, bluehead wrasse, and hogfish.
Clouds of pale blue roll below me. Closer inspection reveals millions of tiny fish, swarming in unified rhythm with the rocking currents. A few silver grunts slip in amongst the cloud, ten times larger than the little fish, but nearly obscured by their density.
The purple sea fan sets a perfect backdrop for the stoplight parrotfish donning checkered red, white, yellow, and black scales. I spin the names around in my head: Sargent major, French angelfish, spotted eagle ray.
Jer points. I spot the jellyfish floating toward me and shift left. I drown my spout again and check our location. We have drifted far from the boat. Jer’s head pops above water next to mine.
I point. “Let’s head back toward that reef.”
We swim against the currents for a few minutes, then ride it back again, watching and pointing. The last five minutes, we dawdle. Most passengers have boarded, the other stragglers climbing the ladder and removing their fins now. I soak in the last few sights and then I spot it. A few feet below me, a silver shark, maybe five feet long, heads our direction. I point. Jer points. With a slow swish of the its tail, the reef shark speeds away. We surface. Time to board.
We ride back to shore on the upper deck. Sun warms my skin and wind tangles my hair. I scan the turquoise waters, half looking for sea turtles, half thinking about the last time I did this trip. A year ago, I rode the glass-bottom boat and snorkeled the reef alone. I loved it. I enjoy traveling alone, catering to my own schedule and impulses. But today, I’m thrilled to be with Jer. Another set of eyes to help my avoid jellyfish, but it’s more than that. It’s knowing that the color and beauty I experience, he saw too.
When we settle in at our favorite Oceanside pub later, we compare what we saw. Trapped in my memory, those glimmering fish would circle around like a screensaver. But shared, the memories come to life. Fine details are recalled—some mine, some his. Together, we put together a stunning picture that is somehow truer than my solo version. And in the end, we talk about the shark.
A mustard yellow single-engine plane interrupts the quiet evening. I watch it take off from my balcony overlooking the airstrip. It occurred to me a few days ago that the homes across the water sporting odd-looking garages probably house similar aircraft. I wonder where they store their cars.
A few seconds after takeoff, the familiar evening sounds return. Squirrels chirrup angrily at mockingbirds. The cardinal hiding in the bougainvillea shares its signature whistle song. Boats hum into the docks, depositing tired fishermen in long white sleeves who unload coolers and gear while the kids disappear before they are given chores. A small dog yips.
Sun sets in an hour or so. Evening in Islamorada in August is a quiet affair, a far cry from the crowds and bustle of Key West. I prefer it here, island life lived at island pace. While my husband cooks the fish we caught today, a smattering of vermilion snapper, grunt, and triggerfish, I write. I read novels by Carl Hiaasen and try to pinpoint his local settings. I listen to the water lap at the dock pilings. And every once in a while, I stop to watch a little plane fly away to who knows where.
I am uncomfortably full, but I didn’t want to waste a single bite of that fresh-caught mahi mahi. I adjust my seatbelt and glace at Jer. He looks as sleepy and well-fed as I feel.
I tinker with the AC, turn it up a notch and direct the vents just a smidgeon closer to me.
At a stoplight, I grab my phone and swap my Margaritaville playlist for one more appropriate for the weather. Something classical, quiet, and brooding.
Storm clouds gather in great heaps in the dark sky. The fluffy pink cotton balls I snapped photos of at sunset now look ominous in the moonlight. Lightning slices, a hot blue line lighting up everything in the sky. An instant later, another shock of lightning bolts toward the ocean.
I expect a crack of thunder to follow, but nothing. Not even a low rumble. A few raindrops splatter my windshield, but not enough to keep the wipers moving.
Another bolt of lightning, this time invisible to me, except that it backlights a great swath of grey and black clouds.
I yawn, but the brewing storm keeps me on full alert. Our evening in Key West, celebrating the sunset at Mallory Square, watching the street performers, tipping the dog who took our cash and deposited it in his owner’s bucket, was all it promised to be. But my favorite part of the night will be watching this gorgeous light show play out in the clouds for the full two-hour drive back to Islamorada.
Rent a bike from Riverside Outfitters.
Happily coast down the giant hill toward Pony Pasture.
Swallow a bug. Close your mouth.
Continue coasting. Consider how difficult climbing this hill will be later.
Stop at Pony Pasture and take photos of James River. It’s lovely.
Enjoy the river and the scenery while biking Riverside drive.
Spot an unmarked side trail that looks shady and interesting. Take it.
Power through the mud holes, duck under branches, go off trail to avoid the logs.
On a wooden bridge, lose your balance when your muddy tires slip. Crash into the Rattlesnake Creek bed.
Be grateful you opted for the helmet.
Be grateful there are no rattlesnakes.
Climb back up to the trail. Your legs burn. Wonder if those plants were poison ivy.
Stop at the river and wash off your legs and hands. Your legs still burn.
Keep biking up and down the lovely hills. Pant and sweat heavily.
Bike up a big hill. Keep going. Keep going. Stop. Sit on a log, pant, and drink water.
When a cyclist asks if you’re okay, say yes.
When cyclist #2 asks if you’re okay, say yes.
When cyclist #3 asks if you’re okay, get on your bike and head back.
The only route you know is that shortcut through the side trails. Take it. Walk your bike across the wooden bridge this time.
Get heavily splattered during one particularly muddy stretch. Grab a handful of leaves to use to wipe off some of the clumps.
Remember what stinging nettle looks like. Remember really, really well.
Get to the water as quickly as possible. Climb over rocks and sink into the muddy bank. Jump to a log. Balance awkwardly, shaking your stinging hand enthusiastically the whole time. Stick it in the water.
Grab big handfuls of squishy mud to suck the tiny needles out of your hand.
Realize this is why your legs burn and briefly consider wiping your legs down in mud as well.
One shoe slips deep into the muck. Pull your foot out and balance more carefully on the slimy log. Look around to make sure no one is witnessing this.
Your arms are covered in dirt from the tree you’ve been clinging to while supporting yourself on the log. Precariously splash water onto your dirty arms. Decide it’s a lost cause. Wipe your arms and hands on your shirt.
Return to the trail. Find the main road.
Wonder if it’s starting to rain. Realize it’s just your tires spitting mud at you.
Spot a doe and her baby. Pause to watch them eat for a few minutes.
Reach that big hill. Walk up it slowly.
Return the bike.
Tip the Uber driver extra well for the mud you’ve left in his previously clean car.
Back at your hotel, enjoy your triumphant shower. You earned it.
I’m just getting started on a novel classified as speculative fiction or sci fi, with a tinge of medical thriller.
Synopsis: In the near future, we no longer need to work. Artificial Intelligence systems have integrated fully, relieving humanity from all burdens: farming, medicine, childcare, everything. Until a new disease creeps into Taylor’s city. The AIs fail to act and human physicians haven’t existed for generations. To save her sister from this unknown plague, Taylor must solve this medical mystery by reviving the old traditions of learning, investigating, and experimenting.
Here’s how I envision Taylor:
A bit of inspiration for this future world:
And some background research on what we can expect in the near future:
If you had unlimited free time, what would you do with it? And how long could you do it before you’d get bored?
I’ve always wanted a beautiful old spellbook, a truly magical one, with spells that would solve the problems I face every day. Maybe if an owl had brought me a Hogwarts invitation, I would believe enough in magic to look for it. Alas, he must have gotten lost, and my belief in magic waned. But my longing for this book still remained.
I took Toni Morrison’s advice: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I compiled the life lessons I have learned (most of them the hard way), combined them with magical creatures and language to create tangible visuals, and wrote my own spellbook full of techniques that really work.
“Emmeline’s Spellbook: Banishing Demons and Nurturing Your Magic” is a new adult self-help book with a supernatural glow. The book tackles familiar issues, such as letting go of old embarrassments, dealing with social parasites, and handling anxiety.
For example, Should Wraiths are those nagging thoughts of where you should be in life by now. You can quiet them using the My Own Drum spell, which blends the act of drumming with a simple incantation. Each resolution includes sound advice paired with concrete actions. The magical language of demons and spells allows the advice to be more fun than demeaning, more quirky than preachy.
The book is structured around Emmeline’s journey in magic and in life. She first learns to wield her internal powers, speaking with authority and presenting herself well. As she progresses, she collects spells on dealing with others. During a rest period, she learns to honor her Web of Instinct. The spells address deeper issues as Emmeline’s magic matures.
Professional illustrations blend with the 30,000 words to create a spell book that is both beautiful and insightful.
Here’s a bit of my inspiration for Emmeline’s Spellbook:
What regular plague do you wish could be solved with a magic spell? Let me know in a comment.