Tag Archives: writing process

I am weary of conflict

img_5348I’ll be honest. I’m having a tough time.

For a while I was just burned out. Writing four books in less than eighteen months will do that to a writer. But now it’s been almost three months since I turned in the last project. I’ve been on two canoe trips and spent lots of time in my happy place. I’ve rehabbed my knee and gone back to doing aerial silks. I’ve been trail running with the dog. And I’ve been trying to map out my next project.

It’s not working. The words aren’t cooperating.

Quite a few years back, when my daughter was little, she came home from an obviously awesome lesson about story structure declaring, “I hate stories that don’t have trouble!” It’s Writer 101 material, of course. Good narratives need conflict—they start conflicted and get worse and then even worse. Trouble is key.

And trouble is also my stumbling block. I am so very weary of conflict. My social media universe is nothing but trouble. My morning OPB shows. The newspaper. Every conversation. Everywhere I turn. Trouble. Sometimes it seems like the world is going down in flames. Or maybe just American democracy and civility and the safety of children and respect for other members of humanity.

As I scribble ideas in my journal, I can think of lots of snippets and images — a fish floating through a girl’s room, Miyazaki-style; a road made of solar panels; a boy farming carbon in some future world; a cross-country romp. Yet when I try to shape them into a narrative, I run into the trouble problem.

I want male characters who ask for consent and diverse characters who are not oppressed and female characters who aren’t demeaned. I don’t want them to have to fight for their lives or save the world or make heart-rending choices or defy authority. I don’t want to write villains or a world in ruins or a broken family or abuse. I just want everyone to be calm and happy and swaying in place with their hands entwined.

I am overwhelmed with heartache and trouble. The words aren’t cooperating. Everyday I try to acknowledge the suffering, to speak against it, and to amplify the voices that the world needs to hear, and then I try to turn away from horror and circle back toward a place where I can create. I try to return to joy.

But it’s not working. That’s the truth—at least it’s my truth right now. The words are not cooperating.

Poets, Virgins, LSD & More on the Writing Process Blog Tour

1980 Amber reading
10 Year Old Me, Weird Already

One of the best things about being a writer is getting to know other writers. We’re a quirky bunch, I tell you! So when poet Drew Myron and novelist Rosanne Parry invited me to join an online conversation about writing process, I jumped on board. Who wouldn’t want to listen to a bunch of writers spill the inner workings of their wordy brains?

In a series of blog posts like this one, we’ll each answer four questions about our writing process. You’ll get to see behind the scenes and discover some new books along the way.

Once you get a taste of Drew’s evocative, tender language, I know you’ll crave more. Visit her writing process post here and a link to her books here.

Rosanne is a master of middle grade fiction. She creates deftly-drawn characters who never let you go. Her writing process interview will post to her blog on the 17th, and her books, including the amazing WRITTEN IN STONE are here.

And on to my personal variety of writer-geekdom…

What are you working on?

I’m working on a project that scares me. And that’s good. It’s pushing me way out of my comfort zone in topic—it’s a young adult anthology of essays by women about losing their virginity—and in process because I’m acting as an editor for the contributors, something I have never done before.

But in spite of my jitters about how such an edgy book will be received, I am more convinced every day of its importance. I hope that the book will empower readers to take charge of their own sexuality, whether that means saying no or saying yes. If young women don’t, someone else will take charge of it for them.

THE V-WORD will be published in 2016 by Beyond Words, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

How does your work differ from other writers in your genre?

The only book on the shelves that I think is comparable to this one is LOSING IT, an anthology of short stories by YA writers. It’s a brilliant collection and you should read it, but it’s fiction. THE V-WORD is 100% true, and you’ll be astounded by the raw honesty of these talented writers. Every day I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to bring these stories to the readers who need them.

Why do you write?

Because I am stubborn and complicated and I like stories of all kinds.

What is your writing process?

My nonfiction books are usually sold on proposal so I do a lot of research up front. I need to have a very good sense of the story I am trying to tell and the shape it will take before any writing begins. The key to nonfiction is finding the right structure to carry the focal theme through to the end. After the book is under contract, the editor and I will refine the structure and outline together. With all that groundwork done, I start writing and add in research as needed.

For fiction, most of the pre-writing I do is around finding the voice of the main character. Once I have a sense of who this person is, then I generate a rough outline of the plot. The details sort themselves out as I proceed with drafting, my favorite part. After the first draft, comes the scissor-stage where I cut the thing apart and tape it back together. I have come to accept that there will always be radical and painful change.

But like I said, I’m stubborn.


Now I invite you to visit the blog of Kiersi Burkhart, who most famously described me as “stubborn as fuck.” She’s a fun and feisty writer of middle grade and YA fiction as well as a contributor to THE V-WORD. 

While you’re on the move, I encourage you to visit Ruth Feldman, writer of historical YA time travel novels. Ever wondered about the connections between free speech, LSD and medieval Paris? Look no farther than THE NINTH DAY.

Me and the Deadline God

The Deadline God by Wylie Elise Beckert

The only thing I like about deadlines is telling people, “I’m on deadline” and watching the impressed/sympathetic look on their faces.

Really, that’s the only thing.

Getting things done as a writer (with all those hours and hours of potentially distraction-filled time) is knowing your own process, especially knowing what is likely to get you bogged down. I have learned to read myself pretty well.

Stuck but almost breaking through the wall feels one way, and it means I need to stay in my chair and power through. Stuck but depleted feels different and means I need to get out of my chair and take a run to recharge my batteries. Stuck and never doing this again requires whiskey.

One thing I know for sure is that I don’t like or need deadlines. I know what needs to happen to get a book done, and most of the time, I like doing it. I plan my time so that there isn’t a rush to finish line. I don’t do my best work under pressure or time-constrained or sleep-deprived. I am not a sprinter. I do endurance best.

Can you think of anyone who works well under pressure? Because I’m almost certain that nobody can. Regardless of whether you’re a writer (like me), an CEO of a successful global company, or an office worker, it is hard to complete daily tasks and to perform to your highest standard on a lack of sleep. And it can affect anyone, for a variety of particular reasons. My friend had sleep deprivation not so long ago and said it was down to her stress, so decided to have a look for the best CBD oils in her area to see if this would help her to feel better on both counts. Luckily for her, it did. And to be honest, I may decide to do the same too. But if I take my time and don’t rush, I will be at the finish line before I know it.

On the wilderness canoe trips we take every summer, I carry a very heavy pack (half my body weight) over portages. I am slow but I don’t stop much and I get to the end when I get there. On the lakes, I can paddle for hours–not fast but steady. I’m a long-distance kind of gal.

But sometimes things happen.

In the lead up to the book I turned in yesterday, for example, I had three travel days for work, tax day (with unexpected complications), my daughter’s birthday party, Passover (hosted at my place), and my usual everyday stuff.

So I needed an extra day from my editor, which she was happy to offer, but made me feel like I’d let myself down. (Mantra: professional writers meet all deadlines.) And I had to work in a pound-it-out way that is very far from my natural rhythm.

Now I know there are those of you who love deadlines, who relish the chase and love the hot breath of the Deadline God on your neck. Happy times for you people!

But me…

… not so much.

If you don’t mind, I’ll get back to work now. There are deadlines in sight, and I plan to meet them for a civilized cup of tea.

Me today


Most days, I get right to work, knocking out word counts or revising away the crap.  Today, I am metaphorically wearing this hoodie.

I’m trying to write something hard.  I don’t want to do it.  So I am 100% screwing around, putting my head to my desk, jumping up to prep dinner before it’s even lunch.

Sigh.  I’m not proud.  It just is–for today.


In praise of Scriva Liz, kayaking, and straight talk about tough books

I have this spectacularly epical (thanks MB for coining the best word ever) critique group called Viva Scriva and each and every member is someone I want to hug tightly and feed cookies for ever and ever.  Today, however, I must call out Scriva Liz for straight talk.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to find my way back into a manuscript about a teen boy and an eleven-year-old girl thrown together by tragedy.  The lovely Kiersi B. calls it THE FAULT IN OUT STARS meets INTO THE WILD–an apt pitch.  Anyway, I worked hard on it during the winter and had made it to about 50K words.  The first two parts were in decent shape.  The last part was a hodge-podge of disconnected scenes and gaping holes.

As I re-read those 50K words, there was no glimmer or spark.  I felt flat and worried that it was crap.  I complained to Scriva Liz (who has read early pieces of it) about how unenthused I was to work on it (even though my agent wants me to finish it right away).  I wondered aloud if my poor response to it was because it wasn’t good or didn’t have the legs to carry a novel-length story.  She looked at me and restrained herself from a dope slap (I’m extemporizing here) and said, “You feel that way because it’s such a hard book to write.”

Face palm.


This book draws heavily on my own grief following the death of my first daughter, Esther.  It’s not a fun one to write.  No swash-buckling.  No make-outs.  Lots of pain, and I hope, lots of heart.  But it is a story I need to tell, and thanks to Liz, I got to work.  I’m making great progress.  I’m in the zone, and I’m even glad to be writing it.

What does this have to do with kayaks, you ask?  Well, also thanks to Liz, I jammed through my writing goal early this morning (1300+ words, thank you very much) and played hooky for the rest of the day.  We kayaked from Hayden Island up to a floating restaurant, drank margaritas, and gabbed.  It was 80 degrees and we were feeling the love.

As I send you off into the weekend, I hope you have a good one, and I hope you have a Scriva Liz!


Calling All Young Writers – I’m teaching a free, transmedia storytelling workshop this Friday

Book Fan Friday is a workshop for tweens and teens who love to write.

April 12, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing
3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd.
Beaverton, OR
503 228 4651

Transmedia storytelling refers to the delivery of story through a variety of media.  These forms can include film, graphic novels, traditional books, flash fiction, gaming, iPhone/iPad delivery of content, and various forms of audio.  Typically, story lines are interwoven and connected but not strictly repetitive.  Often, fan engagement and participation in the creative process are facilitated by social media.

Increasingly, all media forms—books, movies, games and TV shows—are looking for transmedia opportunities.  During this session, Amber will introduce transmedia storytelling and show how the Angel Punk team (www.angelpunk.co) delivers story via novel, feature film, comic books, and an interactive fan site with an emphasis on the creative process.




When writers read: inspiration, encouragement, or despair?

In recent weeks, my pile of books-I-want-to-read-because-I-want-to has been greatly neglected.  As some of you know, I continue to be dogged (or whaled) by 493 pages of Herman Melville’s weird-not-really-a-novel treatise on whaling, Moby Dick, which I have been trying to finish for five months.  (Thank god for the Moby Dick Big Read.)  In addition, I’ve had a number of work-related manuscripts to read for colleagues as well as reading for research on a new nonfiction project.

I think my eclectic reading of late has been good for my writing because it is so different in content, style and approach.  It helps avoid issues of syntactic persistence, about which I’ve blogged elsewhere.  However, I have missed disappearing into a truly extraordinary piece of fiction.  So it was with relish that I opened John Green‘s The Fault in Our Stars.

It lives up to every starred review and glowing commendation, but I can’t blog here about how I responded to this book as a human, especially in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary.  Too much is raw and painful for me.

Rather than dissect the inner workings of my broken heart, I want to comment on how what I read influences my writing life.

Sometimes I read a book and I am inspired to try and write something that good.

Or I am encouraged that I have the ability to write something at least as good as that.

Or I wish I’d written that book (and believe that I probably could have).

Or–as in the case of The Fault in Our Stars–I despair at ever writing anything even a fraction as true and perfect.


Maybe I should stick to being a reader.




Ideas into stories–the compost/rock tumbler approach

Photo by Kevin Fleming

Perhaps the question most frequently asked of authors is Where do you get your ideas?

When I heard William Gibson speak,  he said that he imagines he has a compost bin attached to the back of his head.  He throws things in there–articles, snippets of conversation, images, experiences–and eventually they knock together enough to transmogrify into something new.

When Laini Taylor launched DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT, the wildly inventive sequel to DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE, she talked about how stories are born when many ideas crash together.

Sometimes I carry ideas around in my back pocket for a very long time.  One in particular–a scene with a broken-winged heron–has been very persistent.  I tried to make it into a picture book, which earned me my “worst critique ever” experience.  (After reading it, Big NY Agent told me that I couldn’t write.)  I rewrote it a bunch of times, but it never really worked.  I think it’s not a big enough idea to graduate into “story” status.  It needed transmogrification.

I was gleeful when I realized that–with a complete overhaul–the heron and the emotion behind the image could be woven into the novel I’m currently writing.  The idea will emerge from the head-bin completely different than went in but it has not been lost.

It’s at times like these when the writing process becomes alchemy–a little bit of magic in real life.


When writing inflicts collateral damage on real life

Garth Nix gave a fabulous speech a few years back about how writers take kernels of reality — images, emotions, events, people — and spin them into fiction.  No longer recognizable (usually) because they are  both more vivid and raw than reality was and also deeply interwoven into the narrative, these kernels take on a life of their own.  But they retain the smells and sounds of truth and that is what enables a skilled writer to evoke an emotional response in a reader.

An example:  Last week I worked on a fight scene that is built around a fight I narrowly avoided when I tried to intervene in a domestic dispute between two strangers.  There were lots of reasons I should have walked away from that situation, but I didn’t partly because I wanted to help and partly because I was an angry young woman with something to prove. I drew on those feelings to write the scene, and I hope that it makes the reader believe in my character’s reasons for getting involved.  I want them to feel like her choices were inevitable and if they had been in her shoes, they would have done the same things.

Cool, right?

What’s not so cool is when there is blow-back.

Sometimes the fiction bleeds back into real life.  Last year, I was working on a young adult novel that centers around the unlikely friendship of a fifteen-year-old boy and an eleven-year-old girl brought together by shared tragedy.  Their tragedy is one I’ve lived.  When I showed the first chapters to my critique group, Nicole asked me if I was really ready to write that book.  Was I ready, she pushed, to feel what I would have to feel?  Could I take going back to that place of broken-ness day after day after day?  What about critique on something so dear and so raw?  Would I be able to handle it?  Ultimately I decided that I was ready for it, but I definitely spent much of the year draped in a touch of depression.

Now I’m writing an impulsive, reckless, limit-pushing heroine.  To get Mara right, I’m drawing on what good, responsible kids would call their “gap” year between high school and college.  For me, it was twelve transgression-filled months, which I’m damn lucky to have survived at all.  (Not getting my ass-kicked in the aforementioned fight being one example of many dangerous situations I landed myself in.)

Now I’ve grown up and made good and am generally a respectable citizen, but writing Mara means digging up the dirt and drawing on it.  I’ve abandoned the indie folk rock I usually listen to and have switched to much more hard-charging, punk inspired music.  I’m reading edgier fiction and watching edgier movies.  It’s all supposed to make my writing better and more real, but Mara’s impulsiveness is rubbing off on me.  I’m pushing more limits than I usually would.  I’m taking more risks.

So far, there’s been no serious collateral damage…  except the blue hair.  Thanks, Mara!