Archive for November, 2009

Everyday Heroes

Last week the temperature dipped to 30 below—our first cold snap of the season.


The sun was going to set soon, and besides cracking the door open to get a draft for the woodstove, I hadn’t had any fresh air all day.

I do most of my writing on a treadmill so I’d had a lot of movement, but no real exercise. (I can walk 1.5 miles an hour and still type. It keeps my back happy.) I wanted to go running, but running at 30 below is hard on your body. The bottoms of your shoes lose all their spring. (And no way was I going to run on the treadmill after walking on it all day!)



I decided to go for a walk instead. It’s much easier on the body.

I’d been walking for about ten minutes when I heard footsteps behind me. It was my neighbor. My eighty year-old neighbor. Running.

He doesn’t run fast, and he’s always hunched over, but he runs every day. I often see him on our road, but have also seen him as far away as three miles from home. 

We’ve exchanged a few words over the nine years I’ve lived in the neighborhood, but mostly we just wave at each other.

One spring when I was trying to keep our road from washing out (as you can see, I failed), I ran into his wife and learned that he had started running  late in life, after being very ill.





A day rarely passes when I don’t think about him. He’s an everyday hero who inspires me to keep pushing myself in all areas of my life. I’ve told all my friends and family, near and far, about him.

Do you have any everyday heroes in your life? Who are they? How do they inspire you?

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Riff Writing

A riff is an improvised solo—a musician going with the feeling of the moment to create some original music. Some riffs become part of a studio recording. Others live and die on the stage.

A couple years ago I took a workshop with Elizabeth Lyon, and she introduced me to Riff Writing. I was pleasantly surprised by the results.  Now Riff Writing is part of my revision process.

Here’s how it works:

Start at a specific spot in your manuscript, maybe a character’s feeling or attitude, or a memory, or a specific setting. Just jump off from that spot and start writing. Dig deep and follow it where it goes, however illogical it may seem. Resist your first impulse to stop. 

Instead, keep writing and see what you produce. Maybe a brilliant analogy. Or a cutting phrase as sharp as obsidian.


Yes, you’re going to overwrite, and that’s okay. Later you can go back and decide what’s suitable for the studio.

I highlight my riffs in green. I cut much of what I write, but often end up keeping the last parts, words I wouldn’t have written if I hadn’t done the riff.

Riff Writing has helped me with characterization and scene building. I’ll take a scene that I’d considered finished and let the characters keep interacting. That new material sometimes becomes the bulk of the scene.

I applied Riff Writing to the fifteenth draft of a novel that I twice had thought was finished. I let my characters run with their thoughts and feelings, and pushed scenes that I had thought were imbedded in stone.

 Riff Writing helped breathe new life into my story.

Have you ever tried Riff Writing or something similar? How did it work for you? Or if you haven’t, are you willing to give it a try?

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“Momentum is far more important than inspiration. Inspiration comes from momentum, from revisiting the manuscript every day.” Pam Munoz Ryan.

I heard Pam speak at a conference several years ago. She is a prolific writer who has published close to twenty children’s books and a few adult titles, too. I wrote down her words as I heard them so I’m not sure if I got them exactly right, but they struck me as powerful.

When I was a teacher there were countless times in the classroom when I was inspired by my students’ resilience. The more effort they put into their projects the more I wanted to support them.

When I train to run a marathon, a couple of successful 20 mile training runs inspire me to do what I need to do to be in top shape on race day. Stretch, eat the right foods, keep pushing myself. The inspiration, at least in part, is a result of the momentum I’ve built up.

And what about writing? Sure, you need a spark of an idea to start writing, but where does your inspiration come from and how do you sustain it? What keeps you going and drives you forward whether you’re into your first draft or your fifth or your fifteenth?

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Moose are huge. And outside my house, sometimes it seems like they appear out of nowhere.


When I see a moose, I stop what I’m doing and pay attention. I almost always learn something new. Last winter I watched one gnaw on shell fungus that was growing on a birch tree.


Several years ago I watched a mother and two calves as they ate the jack-o-lanterns perched on our deck railing.

With writing, I think of a moose-on-the-loose as being struck by a different idea. It wasn’t in the picture a moment ago, but now there it is. And, it’s huge.

So, do you check out the idea? It might be just what your story needs. You never know. Do you just make a note of it and move on, or do you run with it?

I wouldn’t want to use a moose-on-the-loose as an excuse to abandon my story idea, or to procrastinate, but it could be just what my story needs.


I’ve been observing a moose-on-the-loose in my current WIP for a few days now. I’ve just decided to follow it because I think it will deepen an already existing plot thread and add complexity to both the protagonist and two major secondary characters. Hopefully, this moose-on-the-loose isn’t just leading me into a dead end swamp.

What do you do when  a moose-on-the-loose suddenly appears in your manuscript?

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Tanana River

The Tanana River carves its way through birch forests and black spruce swamps. By Alaska standards it’s a pretty ordinary river: silty and swift, braided but no white-water, and glacial in its origins.

I float parts of the Tanana every summer.


Paul Tanana RiverA couple summers ago it was over eighty degrees and we had a tail wind for two days. But sometimes the wind blows so hard that you find yourself in a dust storm and five foot standing waves. One year I had a bad headache and what was usually enjoyable was tortuous.

Sometimes we find surprises, like the entrance to a wolf den.

wolf den

And that’s just summer. Here’s what the Tanana looked like yesterday.

 Tanana River freeze-up1


Soon I’ll be able to ski across it.

Several years ago three of my former students stole a canoe and took off down the Tanana. Maybe to have a Huck Finn adventure, I’m not sure. They swamped their canoe and ended up on a remote island in the middle of the river. Cold and soaked and with no supplies. Luckily a helicopter plucked them from the island after a couple of cold nights.

Take a look at the setting (or settings) in your story. Are you utilizing your setting to its potential? Look at it from odd angles and different seasons. Through different eyes.

And ask yourself : How do the setting details I choose to include drive the story forward? How do they develop character?

But most important, consider the emotional state of your POV character. Let that emotion infuse and drive setting description whether your character is in a warehouse or on top of a mountain. Otherwise, that description might stop your story dead in its tracks.

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