Dungeons & Dragons Taught Me How to write

I moved all my old Dungeons & Dragons journals to my main site today. For four years I played D&D with the same group of women — we called ourselves the Dungeon Divas.

Mid 2007. I hadn’t played D&D since high school (class of ’83, baby!) I had recently gone cold turkey off World of Warcraft and I wanted to find a story just as immersive but not quite as soul-consuming. You’ll have to be the judge of whether or not D&D fit that bill.

I was nervous to play face to face with people — strangers! (Except for Debbie) And really nervous to dive into this crazy world. But we all quickly became friends and allies in the fight to help Cauldron fight the evil that stalked its streets.

Playing my character – Indira, the cleric – was so fun and challenging. Thinking of her motivations, her reactions, her fears and dreams. It was a bit intoxicating. For fun I began to do a little weekly email recap in Indira’s voice that I would send to the group, in case someone had missed the session, they could get filled in before next week’s game.

In December Debbie surprised me with a website devoted to our adventures — dungeon-diva.com was born! Now I had room to really flex my storytelling sinews. We needed pictures and pages with maps! We needed character sketches! Backstories! Secret messages! We needed intrigue, danger, betrayal. The Shackled City provided all that, and we added the spice of our characters.

Retelling the week’s adventure was my Saturday assignment. As I wrote up those sessions, I was teaching myself about dialog and tension, about foreshadowing and comic timing.

For those four years I played and wrote, but I never allowed myself to really think about writing as an aspiration. It wasn’t until April of 2012, after losing a lot of weight and getting fit, that I began to really think about my life. I took long walks where I asked myself, if you didn’t have to work, what would you spend your days doing? If money were no object, what would you try? I finally admitted that I might like to maybe, just possibly try my hand at a little writing. Maybe.

I thought back to those Saturdays when I’d spend the morning crafting the week’s adventure. And so I imagined what it would be like for Indira — my Indira Burningwood — to find herself in a dire situation. I wrote slowly. Inching my way forward, and every time I found myself worrying about what to do next I thought, “It’s an encounter. You got players and NPCs; you’ve got a charisma check or a will save; you got to roll for initiative. …”  and it worked! I was playing a game of D&D with myself as the DM and the players.

That was almost 4 years ago and I still use the same logic with my writing. In fact Thornbury Confidential has such roots in D20 that I included the Open Gaming license in the book. The main characters in Thornbury – Vox, Even, Marilye, Boleian, and Finn – all have character sheets tucked into my draft notes.

Creation vs Editing

penI’ve just started a new novel. It’s exciting, scary, and a little painful. I’ve been revising my murder mystery (coming soon!) for so long that it’s hard to shift into pure writing.

The gulf between creation and revision is deep. In one realm you are trying to let your mind break free and in the other you concentrate on the minutia. Maybe it’s the difference between distance running and rock climbing.

There — I like that analogy: running versus climbing. Running with only a basic idea of your path and plan, versus carefully, painstakingly climbing to a predetermined destination.

I enjoy both aspects of writing. I love the freedom of creation, and I love the constraint of editing. They each use different parts of the brain, and I forget how much I love each of them when I’m away.

There’s the oft quoted idea that there are two kinds of writers architects and gardeners. Yeah, I’m a gardener. When I’m in creator mode I have very little organization. I have a voice, a character, a situation and the tale spins out from there.

yarnWhich makes it all sound so easy. It’s not. It’s a tangle of ideas, voices, theories, if-then statements, locations, scenes, and characters that somehow sorts itself out and becomes a book.

This is my third novel — perhaps it’s too soon to call it that. I’ve had a title — Stalking Horse — since 2013. I’ve written about 20,000 words, and I’ve put it down and picked it up a dozen times in the last 2 years. I finally figured out the problem — I had the wrong person as the main character!

I’m really thankful that this happened with my 3rd novel and not my first. It felt insurmountable — this Stalking Horse problem. My imagination wasn’t going anywhere, and no wonder since it would have been akin to taking a trip with someone you don’t like. Almost every one of those 20,000 words felt like a chore. Now, the words flow freely because I have the right voice in my head. I’m telling his story and discovering all of his traits — his strengths, foibles, fears, and hopes. I have an open road ahead of me and nothing but time.



W-WRITE — A Publishing Strategy

Spend any time with writers, and you’ll hear a thousand different approaches to writing and revising.
Here’s my fool-proof method:

Fancy_Letter_W_(7)W-WRITE which stands for
Tune up


The first letter is the most important, of course. Write! You have to write if you’re going to publish. This can be hard; I’m the first to admit it. I spent years not writing. I wasted years not writing. I wanted to be a writer — some day. And I thought “When we’re rich, when I retire. That’s when I’ll write.” But I’ve always said that I want to die with no regrets. Not writing was a HUGE regret, so I stopped making excuses and almost exactly three years ago today I sat down with my laptop and called up a new Word document. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done.

If you are a writer than you know that starting any new project is a leap of faith. Starting the first project? That’s a jump of faith. Sit down right now and get started. Don’t even finish this blog post — I’ll be here when you get back.

Your job is to write 60,000 words. I’m giving you 3 months to do it. That’s about 650 words a day. Some days you will write more, much more. Some days you probably won’t write at all. It happens, and it’s fine. In the course of these 3 months, don’t look back at your writing. Now is not the time to revise. Of course you may need to read back over the previous page or two to pick up the creative thread, but resist the urge to go back to the beginning because that is a trap. You could spend months rewriting the beginning, and that’s useless.

While you are writing, under no circumstances can you show your work to anyone.
Anyone. Not your spouse, your friend, your dog, no one can see it. Well meaning people who know that you are embarking on this grand adventure will ask to see your work. Tell them it’s not done cooking.

Fancy_Letter_W_(7)The second letter is another W. But it stands for Wait. You have got to set the draft aside and wait at least 2 months, preferably 3-4 months before you look at it again. And no one else can look at it either.

During this waiting period, your brain is forgetting the story, forgetting the character’s motivations, fears, and dreams, forgetting all the nuances that you may or may not have added to the story during the writing phase. Time is the only thing that will allow you to return to the draft with eyes that can see the problems, see the gaps in logic, see the confusing parts, and where you need to expand, change dialog, add another character.

Letter rSo let it sit undisturbed while you start another story. When you’ve finished the draft of your second story you are ready to move to phase 3 on the first story:
. Because you waited, a lovely bit of alchemy happened — you are both the writer and a reader. Open up the document and get your editing hat on! As you read, note places that need work and do small edits. The heavy lifting will come with the second read-through. You’ll want to have the full story clear in your mind before you start doing any serious re-writing. And, as you work on your revisions you will be fueled by the knowledge that when you get the revisions done, you can finally show it to someone else.

The_Letter_IWhich brings us to the next letter — I which stands for Invite! Now that you have revised the story, you should ask one or two of your nearest and dearest to read it. Only show it to 2-3 people at most because you will (hopefully) be showered with feedback, and you’ll have more work to do based on their critique.

Remember that some people will not want to read your work — it doesn’t mean they don’t love you. Be prepared as well that someone may say they’d like to read your draft; you give it to them, and they never mention it again. Ever. That’s OK, too. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, or that they are a bad friend. People get busy.

Fancy_Letter_T_(2)Based on the feedback you get from your friends/fellow writers, you will now Tune Up the story. This is your chance to accept or reject all the suggestions that your readers have made. It’s important to note that you don’t have to act on all feedback. As the writer you have final say about the shape of the story and the fate of the characters.

Once you have finished your tune up, it’s probably not a bad idea to have a new person read the story — someone who hasn’t seen it already. This could be another friend or fellow writer, or it could be a professional editor. Because of the hard work you’ve put in, the money you spend on an editor will be money well-spent because he or she can focus on high level aspects of the story and not get bogged down in grammatical errors and logical fallacies.

Letter eAnd now — last phase — you are ready to publish your Ebook! Your story deserves a chance to be shared, so do it!

There are many avenues for publishing, depending on your goals. Maybe you want to make money, or build a readership, or simply make the story available freely for everyone, whatever your plan, there is a platform for it, from Amazon Kindle to Smashwords to Wattpad and beyond! Take some time to decide where you want to publish because each place has its own requirements, and you’ll want to tailor the book file accordingly. You’ll also want to make sure that your story gets the cover it deserves — people really do judge a book by its cover.

Once you are done with this whole process, it’s time to look at your second story! By using this formula you can get at least two, if not three books published each year.

Please let me know what you think of my method and post any questions you have. Thanks for reading.

Time Travelers

True story:

Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day — which is a rare thing in Portland in winter. Like the rest of the city, Debbie and I decided to take a walk along the waterfront, and it was there that we met three time travelers.

They didn’t tell us they were time travelers — I mean, temporal prime directive, right? But it became obvious as they hurried away from us.

We were on the west side, well south of the Hawthorne bridge and three young women approached us coming in the opposite direction. The short one said, “Can you tell us where this is?” And she held out her iPhone. There was a picture on the phone. It was slightly askance, but it kind of looked like this (minus the people):









I said, “Um, oh, yes! That’s OHSU! The waterfront station.” I pointed over their shoulders toward the Ross Island bridge and said, “But you can’t get there from here. You can’t walk along the river to get there.”

The one with short brown hair said, “How do we get there then?”

I’ve only been to the waterfront OHSU a few times; neither Debbie nor I know that part of the city very well. “It’s not far,” I said. “If you walk in a few blocks off the river, you can walk it or grab the Max.”

The brown haired one said, “What’s a max?” I blinked at her. “It’s the streetcar, um like the subway, but on the street?” Debbie nodded saying, “Public transit.”

The short one said, “OK, um so… We–” But before we could point them to the first street off the river, a couple our age jogged by and the woman said, “Moody. It’s Moody Ave. You can get there just down that way. Between those two buildings.” And they jogged away.

Debbie and I glanced at each other and at the three young women. “Yeah,” I said, “Moody — that’s the name of the street. I don’t get down this way much. So, if you turn around…” I shooed them with my arms. “I think she meant that building.” I pointed to a light brick building that seemed to crease in the middle. The short one nodded, and the one who’d not spoken moved her windblown hair from her face.

“We’re walking that way, too,” I said, and we all started moving. “It’s such a beautiful day; it’s OK to get lost, hmm?” I was trying to make conversation, but the women all picked up their pace, and the short one flashed a quick smile.

They pulled away, walking faster, and Debbie touched my hand. “Here’s that little park,” she said and stopped walking. I said, “That was very odd.”

“I know! Those people jogging by? I thought they knew them. Do you think they’d asked for directions already?”

I shrugged. “And where did she get that picture?”

“They’d never heard of the Max?” Debbie shook her head.

“Time travelers.” I tapped my forehead; “Of course, they’re time travelers.”

“And they’re late for an appointment….”

“At the Health and Science University.”

“Where else?” Debbie smiled. “It’s a good story.” She hooked her arm through mine, and we continued our stroll along the river.

Destructive Readers

I’m part of an online community called Destructive Readers. It’s a writing and editing group hosted at reddit. Despite the name, it’s a fairly civil place where writers can get honest feedback and critiques of their writing. I’ve done my share of destroying and being destroyed, and I cannot recommend it enough.

It is hard to find real, unvarnished feedback, and at Destructive Readers you pay for your time in the spotlight by offering your critiques of other member’s work. The symbiotic balance is monitored by the group’s moderators, and they are quick to call out those who ask too often and don’t give enough in return.

Being on the hotseat is uncomfortable; there is no way around that. It’s a bit like having a stranger assess your toddler’s prowess on the playground. You’ve both been sitting there on a bench, watching the children playing, and at one point the person next to you leaned over and said, “Little Sammy fell off the swing, what a clutz!” You nodded sagely and offer your own thoughts; he’s not your kid, and yeah he did fall.

But then the stranger says, “That Katrin, she can’t throw a ball very far, can she?” But that’s your Katrin and she’s only 4, so exactly what sort of throwing arm should she have already? Stupid stranger doesn’t understand your kid. Your kid’s a natural athlete, and your story is perfect. Your story is exactly right, exactly as you wrote it!

And as you sit there looking at your computer screen*, reading a critique of your work, you become uncomfortable: the stranger might have a point. Maybe your writing could use another round of edits. Maybe it does drag there in that scene after the fight. God help you, maybe you do use the main character’s name too much. And just like that, you have grown as a writer. You have become someone who cares more about the craft than about being “right.”

EB White said, “The best writing is rewriting.” That’s all writing is, really. You get the plot down and then you spend hours, days, months rewriting. You polish the scenes until they shine; strip away the excess so that the sentences purr like a balanced motor. It’s hard work, lonely and thankless, and it’s what makes you a writer.

Being critiqued and critiquing has helped me improve my skills. I see my own bad habits as I recognize others’. In turn as I write a new story or edit an existing one, I am conscious of the critiques. I remember that I tend to overuse the structure “As she did X, Y was also happening” and try to find a new way to describe the scene. I hack away at the extraneous physical pointers that pop up like blackberry brambles in my writing. And I certainly red-line the flowery similes.

I’ve submitted my work three times, using Google documents as a way to share the work and easily get edits and comments. The first was the opening 2,000 words of a novella I had written. I felt really, really good about the work, and the critiques I got were sort of what I expected – some simple mistakes, lots of reader confusion about setting, plot and motivation that was easy to improve with the right word here and there, and suggestions to tighten up the prose and structure. Excellent suggestions all, and what I was prepared for because I have a lot (perhaps too much) confidence in my writing.

The second time I submitted, it was a really fresh piece of writing. It was barely a 2nd draft of a short story, and I again submitted the opening 2,000 words. I submitted it so soon because I wanted to try to make a contest deadline. I thought, rightly it turns out, that Destructive Readers would tell me if I was on a good path with the story.

I felt eviscerated by the critiques. Although I am sure there were a few nice comments scattered in the mix, it was a bloodbath. Half a dozen people weighed in and to a person they hated it. I took a day to pout, and then I went back and read the story with eyes wide open. Then I read the critiques. All of them, every word. I opened my draft and the heavily annotated Google document side by side and began to revise. I had survived my destruction.

*Getting critiqued online is worlds better than being face to face with your critic. I abhor in-person critique groups because they are either never useful enough, or they tip into a brutality that would make Lord of the Flies seem like a day camp. Either the group pulls punches on their critique because it is hard to say critical things to someone you know and like, or the bully of the group (and there is always one) sets the tone and all you hear is the bad stuff without a whiff of positivity.

Sourdough Bread Recipe

sourdough rolls

Sourdough rolls cooling

I love to bake, and making bread is one of my favorite activities. Here’s my sourdough bread recipe and instructions for making the starter and the bread.

Do not be alarmed at the wall of text below! It’s actually pretty simple, but it’s a weird concept so you need a lot of words to describe it. 

Starter or Sour
The good news is you only have to do this once.
Take 1/2 cup of warm water and put it in a ceramic bowl (don’t use metal sourdough doesn’t like metal). Make sure it’s a big bowl — the starter will double in size.

Add 1 cup of flour and mix them together thoroughly.
Cover and let it sit on the counter.

The next day just stir it and cover it again.
On the third day you’ll need to feed it more flour and water. Give it another 1/2 of warm water and a cup of flour. Mix it all together and cover and let it sit on the counter.

Now, day 4. By this time the starter is going to be bubbly and a bit yeasty smelling. We’re going to give it just a bit of flour and water today. Use 1/3 cup of warm water and 2/3 cup of flour.

We’re nearing the end of the process! For the next 2 days you’re going to do what will become your standard practice when you’re prepping to make sourdough bread.

Your bowl of sourdough starter is probably pretty full, so we’re going to take just some of it, put it in a fresh bowl and throw out the rest. Seems crazy, I know but trust me.

Take about a cup of starter and place it in a large bowl. Add in about a cup and a half of cool water — about 55 degrees. Mix the starter and the water together. You want a soupy consistency — something like pancake batter. If it’s too thick add another few tablespoons of water until it’s thin. Then add a cup and a half of flour and mix. The mixture should be very stiff — almost like dough. Think biscuit batter. If you need more flour add it in a 1/4 cup at a time. Mix well and cover.

Repeat this process on the next day. As you look at the bowl today you will see that your stiff batter is now more like a thick paste. That’s the wild yeast doing its thing.

Finally, here at day 7 it’s the big day! You can make bread! Or if you don’t want to make bread today, no problem. Store your starter in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks without touching it. I use a ceramic flour jar as my container.

Even if you’re not going to make bread, you need to feed the starter. Here’s how you feed it or prep to make bread with it: The night before you are going to make bread, take the starter out. I make bread on Saturday to bake/eat on Sunday, which means that I take my starter out on Friday night. Got that?

Friday night I open the fridge, take out the ceramic canister and put it on the counter. Done.
Saturday morning I transfer the starter to a large ceramic bowl and add enough 55 degree water to make a thin batter consistency. Then I add enough flour to make a stiff batter. Cover and let it sit on the counter. Then I wash the canister and let it air dry.
About 8-10 hours later I’m ready to make dough! You will use almost all your starter for the bread, but you will save a good dollop for next time. So transfer all but about 1/3 cup of starter to your mixing bowl.
The remaining starter needs to be fed and tucked away. So add about a 1/3 cup of cool water to the bowl. Mix it with the starter and then add in enough flour to make a thick dough. You should be able to pick up the starter with your hand and plop it into the canister. Put the container in the fridge and forget about it for two weeks.

The Bread Recipe
First, this recipe is an overnight recipe. You will make the dough and then let it sit overnight in the fridge. Although I use my scale for bread making, I’ll go easy on you and use measuring cup amounts.

[this recipe assumes you have a stand mixer with dough hook] In your mixing bowl, add 2 cups of warm water (about 80 degrees)
Add  almost all of your starter — leave about 1/3 cup out.
Mix together for about a minute (I do this by hand as the dough hook can slosh water out of the bowl.)
Add about 4 and 1/2 cups of regular unbleached flour
Add a 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour (if you don’t have whole wheat, just substitute regular)

Mix the ingredients together for about 2 minutes. Flip the dough over in the bowl at least once, if you can. It will be sticky but that’s OK. Now, cover the dough in the bowl and let it sit for 15 minutes. This is known as autolyse, and it helps improve the flavor of breads made without oils and sugars.

Now add a tablespoon of salt and mix for 2 minutes.
Again, flip the dough at least once during this 2 minutes. The dough will be a bit sticky but that is totally fine.

Dump the dough on to a lightly floured countertop and then quickly and lightly oil the mixing bowl you just used. Put the dough back in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. If it is chilly in your kitchen, cover the plastic wrap with a towel. Set your timer for an hour and go do something else.

Tip the dough back on to a lightly floured countertop and fold it over on itself in thirds and then cover it with the plastic wrap again. Let it ferment for another hour.

When the timer goes off, divide the dough in half and shape them. Are you making French bread loaves? Then make the dough oblong or square-ish for loaf pans or round for boules. Don’t make it the final shape. In other words, don’t handle the dough too much. Cover and let sit for 10 minutes.

In the meantime, take a clean, dry dishcloth and line your pans or baking tray. Then dust the cloth with flour. When the timer goes off, finish shaping the dough how you want. You can be a bit rougher now. You want to get a nice tight finished dough. Place the dough upside down (bottom-up) on the floured cloth. If you are using a baking tray, use some excess cloth as a border between the loaves. Cover the dough and let sit for an hour. When the timer goes off, put the covered dough in the fridge overnight (or for at least 8 hours).

The next morning (or 8-hours later) pull the dough out and let it warm up on the counter for an hour or maybe an hour and half. About 20 minutes before you want to bake, go ahead and preheat the oven to 475. If you have a baking stone, put it in at this point (or if you are like me — you just leave it in the oven all the time). About 10 minutes before baking put a tray of water on the bottom rack. About 3 cups of warm water is good.

If you are using a baking stone, you will gently flip the dough from the floured cloths to an oven peel lined with parchment paper. Otherwise, use oiled loaf pans or a parchment paper lined baking tray. Spray the loaves lightly with water about 5 minutes before baking. Right before baking, score the loaves with a sharp knife and spray with water again.

Put the loaves in the oven and reduce heat to 450. Bake for about 12 minutes and, if using parchment paper, now remove it from the oven.
You can usually slide it out from under the loaves and then that lets the loaves bake directly on the stone (or on the baking tray). At the same time, take out the water pan. Be careful! That is some hot water.

Let the bread bake for another 15 to 20 minutes. Put it on a cooling rack for at least 30 minutes before you dig in.

Running in the Rain

In a 1999 essay for the New York Times Joyce Carol Oates muses about running. She says: “Ideally, the runner who’s a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.”

I am beyond thrilled to know that I share a habit with one of the best (and most prolific) writers in the US. As I’ve said before, it’s a fairly new hobby for me, but one that has a great impact on my life, health, and art.

These days I’m always wrestling with one story or another — at the moment I’m trying to finish a short story on a tight (read: One Week) deadline — and I’m not sure if I could even try to meet that goal if not for running at lunch.

It’s winter in Portland and usually that means rain. But this year, it’s been a dry winter. I’ve run more on dry sidewalk than wet this year. I try not to enjoy the sensation of running without rain gear; I know it’s temporary. What I like about running in the rain is the sheer solitude. In the summer the sidewalks are filled with fellow office workers looking for a little sunshine. In winter, though, it’s just me, the geese, and their poop.

The first five minutes of any run are horrible. I spend the entire time trying to convince myself not to quit. The next five minutes is only slightly better, as I settle into a rhythm and begin to think of something besides how much I want to stop running. After ten minutes though, I break through that strange miasma, and I’m running and writing.

It’s odd, to be sure. Sometimes I get the most marvelous dialog flowing as I run, and by the time I get back to my desk (after showering, of course. Otherwise: poor coworkers!), with a few minutes left in my lunch hour, the words have literally been washed from my mind.Sometimes I have to clamp down on an idea so that I don’t lose it. Tuck into the corner of my mind, hold the idea tight, or it will melt away.

Sometimes, the very best times, I want to shout with joy at the idea that just arrived in my brain. It’s a plot twist or a motivation, an ending, or even, sometimes, a beginning.  And I don’t know if I would have gotten it without the chance to run.

I almost included “the sidewalks of SE International” in the dedication for my first novel. It was, after all, conceived on my, then walks, expanded on those early runs, and polished over the miles.

What a gift I have given to myself! Time, silence, solitude — all that in addition to the health benefits. This writer’s secret weapon: running shoes.

My Books

NaNoWriMo 2014

Friends and Favorites