Recipe for becoming a writer: be an outsider

by Sandra Hutchison

I know there are writers who never leave the town they were born in (think Emily Dickinson), but that’s far from my own experience. We moved often as my father’s career in newspapers advanced; I consider myself a journalism brat. And I think displacement is often a spark for writers who aren’t already tortured enough by some other trauma.

Moving can be fun, it can be educational, and it can be wrenching. One benefit is the keen eye that comes with simply not being local to a place. You naturally notice more — you have to in order to find your way around. It’s a survival mechanism that probably predates human civilization, when everything new in the environment was potentially deadly, and being the outsider was particularly dangerous.

I grew up in Florida, moved to the Northeast, and have always set my novels there. This makes sense because I noticed the hell out of the Northeast. It was a strange place with people who seemed standoffish compared to Southerners. I was a bit shocked by all the quaint housing and pastoral scenery that I had previously assumed was some sort of American mythology that only showed up in textbooks and historical novels like Little Women. Actual red barns covered in snow freaked me out.

This week as I am visiting my parents in Florida, I find myself noticing the hell out of their sleepy little town in Citrus County. I suppose if I moved down here, I’d be able to write realistic novels set here in a few years, not that I’m eager to do that. Right now, I’m still just observing, and aware that although I’m Florida born and bred, it doesn’t feel like home anymore.

I’m a naturalized Yankee who does remember and appreciate certain Floridian delights,  however, including live oaks covered in moss, Southern magnolias, the rare May morning that hasn’t gotten hot yet, pecans with just about anything, guava turnovers, Cuban sandwiches, and the vernacular use of “Bless her heart!” in the grocery store (you REALLY don’t want someone to say that about you).

A Florida live oak draped in Spanish moss

A Florida live oak draped in Spanish moss

And that’s all I have to say this week because I am busy with family obligations. As it is, I’m just glad I finally remembered my password to get onto my own blog.

Have you ever been an outsider? Did that end up being a good experience or a bad one, or — as is so often the case — a bit of both?


How authors can have fun with Pinterest

Like most Pinterest users, I tend to poke around in there for home decor, garden ideas, and recipes, as well as art and photography. But authors can get a lot of other use out of it, too.

I’m sure the number one way authors ought to use Pinterest is to market their books, but I haven’t added that to my regular duties yet. But I do find it ideal for seeking inspiration (or providing it) in three other areas: setting, characters, and cover design.

Pinterest is just great for exploring settings. I usually have an actual place in mind when I am writing, and when I need to ground my recollections in some details I can go looking for pictures of that place, or places like it, and easily “pin” what I find in one collection.

I actually started doing this the first time mostly so I could communicate with a cover designer. (If I’d checked earlier, I would have discovered that my memories of Peterborough — Lawson in the novel – did not match reality nearly as well as I thought they had.)

I have pictures from Greenfield, Massachusetts and environs for The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire, along with some of the art that plays a role in the book.

Bardwell’s Folly already has a page, too, but the tricky part is finding a slightly decrepit, entirely out-of-place Southern plantation-style house that could actually be sitting in a small town in Massachusetts. Feel free to suggest pins to me!

Pinterest is also fun for playing with characters. I’ll be honest and confess I don’t care that much how my characters look. I think readers fill in the details themselves. I only fill in enough to show that someone else has noticed them — for what is a better indicator of love than paying close attention?

So Mary did have to notice details about Winslow to be convincingly smitten.And for that I was inspired by a lovely painting I saw once in the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine of a young Jamie Wyeth. I don’t have the painting, nor can I find it online, but I do have a photograph of the actual young Jamie Wyeth on my Pinterest page for The Awful Mess.

Jamie Wyeth and a pig, from somewhere on the Internet. (I’ll update the source if I can ever find it!)

All I know about Mary’s looks is that she has brown hair she hasn’t cropped short yet, she’s underfed, she isn’t impressed by her own breast size, and Bert could describe her as horsy. My parents informed me that she should obviously be played by Sandra Bullock, which just shows you how long this manuscript had been kicking around. That got me thinking about how I would cast Mary, though, and I would probably go more along the lines of Hilary Swank.

I never got around to thinking of actors or paintings for Molly and David. It’s probably even worse for Dori and Joe in my current manuscript, because now I know what a pain in the ass it is to be limited by hair color when looking for good cover images. Seriously, I’m ready to search and replace hair color until I have a cover design I like.

Which brings me to my other favorite use for Pinterest: Whenever I see a cover I really admire, I pin it.This makes it easy to let my cover designer know what my taste is like. One of these days I’d like to use it to keep track of the books I read, but I have a hard enough time just keeping up with Goodreads.


You can set your Pinterest pages to public or private. I have a friend who keeps Pinterest pages as a kind of scrapbook for a book she is writing, pinning pictures and other sources of inspiration to it as she goes along. (Scrivener has a similar function, I believe, although I’ve never mastered it.) I know this because she invited me to join a secret page. So this means you can use Pinterest to share inspiration privately with friends, co-authors, a writing group, or a street team.

Last tip: If you do decide to use Pinterest, accept any time-saving plug-in or app it suggests. You definitely want pinning to be as effortless as possible.

I’m sure there are some real Pinterest power users out there. Feel free to weigh in with good advice. And if you want to ‘cast’ any of my characters, feel free. If you’re on Pinterest, suggest a pin for those pages!

The reader’s dilemma: What to do when you stall out

All right, I”m going to confess. I’ve been reading the same book for the last three months. Which is to admit that I haven’t really been reading much at all. This is embarrassing for a writer with a reading list so long it stretches out the door and down the street.

Here’s the problem. This book just hasn’t grabbed me. It’s not terrible. It’s about some of the same themes I wrote about in my last novel, themes that obviously interest me. And a friend recommended it, so I purchased it AT FULL RETAIL from an actual bookstore, partly because I was feeling guilty for not buying enough from actual bookstores.

Every chapter I think, “Well, that was pretty clever.” But I don’t really care what comes next. I can’t get through more than one chapter at a time. Often, I fall asleep before I can talk myself into picking the book up at all. Honestly, the only reason I’m compelled to keep going is that I PAID FULL RETAIL FOR THIS DAMNED BOOK.

I will finish this book if it kills me. I think I only have another chapter left. I thought I was done last night. I even thought the last paragraph was a very good conclusion. Imagine my horror when I found yet another chapter followed it.

This is the last time, I tell you. The next time I stall out, I’m done!

Novelists, go read Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel if you haven’t already. Seriously. Your novel needs to grab people by the throat and not let them go. Or at least politely tug on the reader’s hand and keep pulling her down the road with you.

Don’t just lightly tap, and then walk away, wandering from one side of the road to the other as a patch of flowers or something catches your eye.

Yeah, I know some literary types look down on potboilers. Even a literary novel, though, needs some suspense to pull readers along to whatever sublime point is being delicately made. Otherwise, you basically have a fine performance of technique that only critics and other writers will appreciate — and even they may start skimming.

Plus, critics get their books for free, and other writers are too small an audience to keep the mortgage paid. The best case scenario is that your book gets such good notices that everyone thinks they have to read it, so they buy it even if they never finish it. (Here’s William Falk complaining about that very phenomenon.)

This is what I’m thinking about at the moment, anyway, as a currently irritated reader. And no, I’m not going to say whose book it is, because that would be mean, and maybe it’s just me. And I should have quit two months ago. (It’s definitely not The Goldfinch, which I have in my Kindle account but won’t start anytime soon after reading Falk’s piece.)

I just hope the next book is absolutely merciless in demanding my attention. As I’ve expressed on Jenny Milchman’s blog “Made It Moments,” I want to be TAKEN HOSTAGE by a book. I think we all do.

So even though my reading list is already too long, tell me what books you’ve read recently that did that for you — that just couldn’t be put down, that were brutally captivating.

Because I need one of those next!








The five stages of grief of being rejected by BookBub

1877 etching of Andromache grieving for Hector

“Grief of Andromache for Hector” from The Peep-Show: Amusement and Instruction for the Young, circa 1877. This and the background art below courtesy of

  1. DENIAL. This stage can’t last long. The email is right there and pretty easy to read. Writers generally have good reading comprehension skills. You can spend some time scanning it for clues, but if you’ve gotten this email more than once you know it’s boilerplate language. You may wonder why it got sent to you on a Saturday morning. You try to imagine who’s making these decisions, and how late they are working, especially since they apparently mulled it for three days. Was it like that time you sat in the jury box all day during jury selection before getting kicked out in favor of someone who hadn’t seen her brother hit a motorcyclist? Or did it just take three days because they are inundated?
  2. ANGER. Oh, writers are surely used to this. It’s why a lot of us self-publish. Back when I was still trying to find an agent or publisher, I would get some lovely and encouraging rejections. A persistent, resilient, emotionally healthy writer probably would react to these by thinking, “Oh, X likes my writing, so I should try with another book!”
    Then there’s me. I usually think something like “If you don’t like this, you’re not going to like the next one. A writer’s style is her style and her subjects are her subjects. So let’s not waste any more of each other’s time.”
    I teach literature as well as writing it, and the one thing my students and I always notice after a while is that the most acclaimed writers are almost always driven by something a bit dark. Of course, I refuse to believe this about myself (see “denial”), but if I were not driven by some unmet need of some kind, wouldn’t I be out spending my time actually being in relationships instead of sitting in a room writing novels about them? So, I must rationally conclude that I am probably about as prickly and neurotic as the next writer.
    It’s tempting to react with anger to BookBub, too, especially since their short, 30-day submission window means giving up many other promotional opportunities with longer windows in an attempt to nail theirs down, especially while trying to triangulate with Kindle Select and past promotions.
    If I hadn’t already had success with BookBub on the first novel, I might well decide to forget even trying in the future. Which would be stupid. Not all books are going to appeal as well as others. Ideally I’ll translate any anger into determination to “show them” (“them” being every person or entity who has ever not been immediately bowled over by my genius — sadly, there are legions of these people).
    3. BARGAINING. This is when you might be tempted to send an email back asking what it would take, or perhaps expressing some of that anger or desperation you feel, as if you could elicit some pity or even shame someone into doing what you want. DON’T DO IT. Speaking as a former acquisitions editor, the least pleasant part of the job was dealing with writers who wouldn’t take no for an answer. There is absolutely no way to do this and sound like a person anyone would ever want to work with in the future. You’ll be remembered, all right, and not in a good way.
    4. DEPRESSION. As an indie author rejected by BookBub, I have suffered the loss of some future income and reviews. The trajectory I had hoped for (and that I had the pleasure of experiencing before) is just not going to happen. Whereas last year I turned a small profit on this enterprise, this year I can now forecast that I won’t. Even though the writing income was never going to be enough to change my life significantly anyway, this requires some grieving. I just found this out, so the publisher in me is still grieving, because she would really prefer to be able to strut around a bit. The writer in me is, thankfully, already focused on the next two books. But she’s still a bit bummed, too. Writing inevitably courts grief as well as joy. Publishing inevitably courts grief as well as joy. You must decide for yourself whether the joy outweighs the grief.
    5. ACCEPTANCE. There was an interesting post by RJ Crayton on Indies Unlimited this week about people getting fed up with the hard work and poor returns of writing and/or indie publishing and quitting (aptly titled “Self Publishing Shouldn’t Be Miserable“). If you’re writing because you think it will make you rich, or give you status, you’re going to hit this point a lot sooner than someone who’s writing because she has something she really wants to say. Unless you’re very lucky or unusually brilliant, or perhaps awesome at marketing, there’s a long, long road to success as an author. Many never get there. For some, getting there is sadly temporary. Those of us who are older understand that we might well die before we reach the magical golden land of steady book sales to hungry readers.
    But I’m okay with that. This is a road that has its own rewards.
    The Only Way To Get There


Creating believable relationships: Who are your characters’ imagos?

My husband and I made it through 23 years of marriage before certain fundamental issues caused us to decide to part as friends. I doubt we would have made it anywhere close to that long if we hadn’t, fairly early on, participated in a workshop at our church on something called Imago Relationship Therapy.

Have you noticed that you (or your friends, since it’s always easier to see it in others) tend to fall for certain types of people … who tend to have the same issues? We do this, Imago Theory says, because what makes us feel warm and loved is very much based on what we experienced from our primary caregivers when we were growing up. Yet these same things are also guaranteed to make us absolutely crazy.

Imago Theory posits that we are all seeking to heal the wounds of childhood through our choice of mate, which is what drives romantic love, but in the process we will inevitably exacerbate those wounds — cue the power struggle.

brokenheartI bring it up here because, although I am by no means an expert at this theory and its practical applications, it can also be useful to look at what drives your characters to each other, especially since what attracts people to each other is also what may ultimately heal them … if they can survive the conflicts along the way.

And conflict is the heart of all compelling fiction, isn’t it? Sometimes, but not always, with a nice healing resolution at the end.

(Those of you who know anything about typical patterns of codependency in alcoholic/addicted families will recognize similar patterns in Imago Theory.)

When I was writing The Awful Mess, I gave Mary an alcoholic father, a powerful, critical mother, and a mean-tempered alcoholic first husband for a reason. Winslow definitely has a judgmental streak, and I’m willing to bet that Mary unconsciously grooves on that, just as she manages to feel comfortable with his almost comically judgmental Bible-thumping father. But Winslow being a cop and ex-Marine also freaks her out, since it means he has the potential for violence, which is what scared her the most in her first marriage.

Similarly, I suspect Winslow is unconsciously drawn to Mary’s bordering-on-depressive, withdrawing personality (though she also has a pretty mouthy judgmental streak of her own) because of what he experienced when he was growing up.

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.David’s emotional remoteness in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire echoes Molly’s experience of her own distant father, which is probably why he becomes so compelling to her when he does begin to establish a bond of affection with her. Meanwhile, Molly’s plainspoken exasperation probably echoes something from David’s wife and his mother, who hadn’t made any bones about her disappointment in him at key moments — which is why Molly’s affection can be so healing for him.

I won’t claim that I actually plan this stuff out when I’m writing (I’m a pantser, and I’m also probably too busy unconsciously working out my own demons), but once something is written and developing I do look hard at it and try to evaluate it in these terms. What are the wounds my characters carry with them, and how might they seek to heal them? (Not necessarily consciously or wisely, mind you.) Because that is one way to drive any character forward in a believable way.

If you’d like to learn more about Imago Relationship Theory, whether for your writing OR your love life, here’s a really helpful page: You might also want to check out the many books by its originators, Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt.

And here’s wishing you a happy, healing heart!