Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How Writers Are Like Spiders

Walt Whitman wrote a poem called A Noiseless Patient Spider. It reads:
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them. 
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
This spider and writers are so similar. We stand, isolated in so many ways, casting out our words like the gossamer thread. We have a desire to connect with others, to share what is inside us. Just as the
spider takes the time to launch forth "filament, filament, filament", the stories in us take time and effort. They have the same combination of strong - anything that has been refined like a story has to be - but there is also something delicate at the same time.


My husband spent a few years in England, where there are spiders that will attach their webbing to some permanent structure and build up a bit of a length before launching themselves into the wind. He said that all through the midlands where he lived, small glimpses of web could be seen in the sunlight, that when it rained, droplets of water would be suspended along these tentative lines of trust. Spiders drifted along the free flying web, a thrill-ridden experience to be sure, until its webbing landed somewhere deemed appropriate to settle down.

There is a reason so many people, when asked about a life goal, say they want to write a book. It is the third "S" of survival - we need shelter, sustenance, and stories. Stories allow our filaments to form into places of belonging. Shelters may crumble, sustenance mold and rot away, but stories have staying power. They form the bridges between the spheres of thoughts, emotions and experience, and join us to each other in a intricate web of humanity.

When in the thralls of outlining, drafting, revising and submitting, it would do us good to take a moment every once in a while to sit back, be still, and marvel at what we have created. There are great revelations possible when we give ourselves the opportunity to be a little bit noiseless and a little bit patient.

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher. Her days involve running kids around town, Diet Coke, small amounts of chocolate (more when necessary) and conversations with herself. She writes Women's Fiction, listens to lots of classical music and is an editor for the Women's Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

Monday, September 29, 2014

In the Mind of an Outliner - Arcs and Structure

This is my third post about outlining. You can see the others here and here.

One of the challenges of the beat board, for me, is portability. I'd like to say that I can remember all the nuances of the characters, that they are all friends to me and I just converse with them, but that isn't the case.

Carrying around a full size cork board doesn't tend to work with my life, and I don't always have the option of writing in the same location each time I do. I needed to take all the ideas I had and put them in a form that made sense, was portable, helped continue the story and lent itself to visualizing character arcs and overall structure as well as providing a way to see when and how the characters interacted and when they faded for too long.

Enter the word document.


Somehow, in all my technological training. I've never learned how to take a screen shot of a Word doc.
I lay out the characters across the top, give each column a color and mark ages or other qualifying information as I go. There are snippets of what will happen in the scene, along with notes to myself to remember while drafting (i.e. describe lushly, make this uber romantic, etc.).

I plot out the whole book. There are chapters where characters aren't present (see pink and yellow above) and that's okay. But if I go several chapters without them being in a sideline, passing scene, etc. I am able to question the role they are serving at this point. I am sure that many writers have had the experience of writing a character in before realizing they aren't serving a purpose besides existing. That sounds harsh, but taking the time to describe someone who isn't really an anyone is time that takes away from the characters who are driving the story.

This is also the chance I get to figure out how many chapters are in the book, if all of them need to be close in word count or if there are some that need only a few pages. I try to be as specific as necessary for the ideas to be memorable when I come across them again.

And then? The whole document gets sent to my critique partners. You can see that I made comments while they were talking, but then I also copied and pasted comments they sent to me. I won't fix them here - that's not the point. This is a service document, intended to keep the ideas close so my snippets of writing time are spent writing, not trying to remember.

This document gets loaded onto my Google Drive the synced with my iPhone and iPad so there is never an excuse to not make progress. Even if I can't be actively writing at a time, I can take out this document, think through scenes, solidify ideas, etc.

This is front loading a story with lots of work. I know this. But as a teacher, mom, wife, and all the other things, I realized I was doing more work trying to keep a story in my head than taking the time (several weeks) to really think through where I was going. Having a structured system lets me see the big picture and the small picture. This very logical approach allows me to tap into my emotions more, play with the lyrical nature of language while drafting instead of writing bare bones for fear I would forget what was coming next.

It is what lets the writing part flow.

How do you prepare before starting a new story? If you are a pantser, what do you do to keep everything sorted? 

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher. Her days involve running kids around town, Diet Coke, small amounts of chocolate (more when necessary) and conversations with herself. She writes Women's Fiction, listens to lots of classical music and is an editor for the Women's Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.


Friday, September 26, 2014

In the Mind of an Outliner - Plot Points

This is the second post in my outlining series. For the first, click here.

Several years ago, I blogged about the brilliance that is Save the Cat, specifically the beat sheet, or in my case, the beat board. I took to heart the idea of a three act structure and considering each aspect of the story.

In the time that I have been both teaching and participating in the writing process, the clear cut idea has changed a bit for me. I know without question that I am an outliner. I like things that are planned and organized, things that arrive with something resembling forethought.

But I also know that there is a time when outlining needs to serve more as a point in a dot to dot drawing. It needs to be a place holder but the events that lead up to that point may push it back or require that it comes forward. I know that leaving space in my outline will give my creative side the parameters in which it can frolic without going way off track.

Because of the nature of what I write, the main component of the story is character development. But this development is manifested not only in the main character (or two) but a bit in the side characters too. Soon, after thinking about arcs and wants and wishes and fears of all these characters, they have a tendency to become jumbled, which usually means the same for my mind.

You will notice from my post about beat boards that the characters each were assigned a color of a sticky note. By the time I assign a color, they have been hanging out in my head long enough, have started to manifest in a way that I know their personality. The color is picked accordingly.

For the most recent book I started, I sat down at my dining room table one day, threatened everyone in my family the most horrible things if they touched the papers, and I started with the first character that shows up. I already had the notebooks where I worked through characterization, and in my case, a little bit of magic, I knew some of the laws for their magic (see Sanderson's Laws of Magic), researched in depth the nuances of their interests, and considered how the journey I devised would make them change.

And I plotted.

But sticky notes aren't forever, and a family only has so much ability to stay away, besides the fact that we like to eat.

That is where the word document comes in.

What steps do you take when considering where a story should start? Have you found outlining techniques (to whatever degree) that work when you are starting a story?

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher. Her days involve running kids around town, Diet Coke, small amounts of chocolate (more when necessary) and conversations with herself. She writes Women's Fiction, listens to lots of classical music and is an editor for the Women's Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

10 Ways to Write More with Children Underfoot

Kids.

I adore them. Especially mine. Which is good, since I went and had six of ‘em.

BUT how does one actually get writing done with little ones around? Is the only solution to stay up after they're all in bed and you're completely exhausted? 

Sometimes I find the answer. Sometimes I don’t.

I decided to ask loads of writing friends for their thoughts and I received loads of fantastic advice. Here are ten ideas…




#1: Set a timer.

YA author, Jolene B. Perry said, Depends on the AGE of the kid, but I've ALWAYS set a timer, and when the kids come to me, I point at the time. Once the time's up, THEN they can ask questions.

I love this idea. Kiddos can easily see how long they have to wait before they can ask Mom for help. It teaches them patience and respect. 

Of course, if they’re bleeding profusely or they’ve misplaced they’re little sister, they can probably ignore the timer.

#2: Invite more kids over.

Wha? This seems counterproductive. Or does it?

Writer Gina Larsen said, “I have found INCREASING the number of kids is super helpful. HEAR ME OUT. When they have a friend over, they forget I exist until they're hungry. Ta-dah! I write. I'm not a hover parent, at all, though. If you are a worrier or aren't like me in this area, this plan probably wouldn't work for you. Anyway, I ignore them and they me, and they seldom get into trouble. {I don't leave fingernail polish, markers, etc. lying around, either.} Sure there might be a bigger mess of toys to clean up... But the pay off is worth it, plus friends have to help clean up if they wanna come back.

Ok. That is an awesome idea. My kids completely forget I exist, too, when friends are over. *note to self: invite more friends over*

#3: Limit screen time.

“I try to limit screen time so that when I do turn on the TV, they're glued,” said writer Melissa Meibos.

Ok. So, I’m not a huge fan of using the TV as a babysitter. I much prefer my kids to be devouring books or climbing trees. BUT there are those days. Those days when you need to get your twenty minutes of writing done or you have to finish up your pages for your critique group or you finally figured out the best way to fix a tricky scene and you need a few minutes of uninterrupted writing time. If you save screen time for when you really need it, it could be a lifesaver Or, at least, a writersaver.

#4: Get a babysitter.

Melanie Bennett Jacobson, author of romantic comedies, said, “Until this fall I had two little ones home, so I decided to reinvest some of my profits by spending 10% of my royalty checks on a babysitter when I was on deadline. I don't get huge royalties, and this obviously only works if you're making some writing money already, but I considered it an investment in my career AND my mental health because I'm much happier when I don't have the stress of deadlines weighing on me. 

This is a great way to squeeze in writing time. And even if you can only swing an hour or two a week to pay for a babysitter, you’d still be moving forward with your manuscript.  

#5: Ask for help.

Maybe a babysitter won’t work for you. Do you have family nearby willing to help ? Or Mom or Dad friends willing to swap childcare? My daughter is in a little co-op preschool group. We take turns teaching once a week. When my baby was younger I made sure his nap time lined up with when she was gone. I had two hours a week with an (almost) empty house. It was awesome!

If not friends, then what about your spouse? Have you talked about your need to write? Every so often I run away for a mini writing retreat. I pack up snacks, water, notebooks, and my laptop. Then I reserve a little study room at the library and spend the whole day there, hanging out in my fantasy land.It’s lovely.

#6: Get creative.

Put together a box of activites, things your children only see when it’s time for you to write. Does your child love playing with tape and stickers? Or playdough and an odd selection of utensils? Maybe your little one likes to play in the kitchen sink with a bit of water. Get your children busy with a fuss free activity and then get busy yourself.

#7: Choose your poison.

Are you spreading yourself thin? Do you have a love of many hobbies, activities or pursuits? If you want more time to write, you’re gonna have to make a hard choice.

“I've just had to give up (okay, not give up but definitely limit) other things like crafting, TV, movies, and Pinterest to spend my time more wisely with my books,” said writer Judy Robinson.

Oy. This one is for me. I need to embroider it on a pillow. Or not…because that would defeat the purpose a bit.

#8: Yes makes less.

If you want more time to write, you have to say no. A lot. You can’t be on every committee. You can’t be involved in every PTA activity. You can’t go on every field trip. You can’t make every meal completely from scratch. You can’t sew ALL of the Halloween costumes (ok. That one might be just for me.)

Of course, you don’t want to be a curmudgeonly ol’ hermit who won’t help anyone and doesn’t ever do anything fun with their kids or spouse. BUT you have to realize creating comes at a price. It takes time! And time is finite. Choose where you want to spend it.


#9: Shove it in the cracks.

Writer Rebecca Birkin said, “I credit Josi Kilpack for her idea to always take a notepad or tablet wherever you go, waiting at the doctor's office, soccer game, waiting at the bus stop, etc.

How much time do we waste waiting? For our kids, in lines, and on the phone with someone in the Philippines as we hope, hope, hope they know how to fix our laptop? (that last one was all me again.) Are you taking advantage of those potentially lost moments by writing? You could be like super smart Helen Boswell and carry an iPad mini and a cute little keyboard with you at all times. And then maybe you'd be as prolific as her, too!

#10: Make it.

The time isn’t going to fall into your lap. If you want to write then you have to make room for it. 

Writer Shelly Brown said, “When my kids were tiny I just hauled my laptop around from room to room. They play with toys, I write. They watch a movie, I write. I only got in an hour or two but add that to the hour or two I got after bedtime and it was a decent haul for the day. There really want more to it than that. It was about trying and being patient with myself and my kids when the day just wasn't lending itself to writing.

"I take my thus-far MS and a pen everywhere I go, and make notes and try to work out plot and character so that when I do have access to a computer, I can sit down and get to work quickly, without wasting time thinking (er, which is what I'm doing right now--puzzling out the next chapter)," said writer Rose Green. "I even once (okay, or twice) brought my laptop to the delivery room with me because I figured that afterwards there might be a moment to work in those five minutes when the baby was asleep and I wasn't. (Hey, it's better than TV!)"

"When my kids were small, I got up at 5:30 and wrote until 6:30 every school day. I found that I could get 1,000 words down in that hour, and then I felt accomplished enough to be Mom the rest of the day, " said writer Becca Wilhite

YA author Cassie Mae sums it up. “I don't have anything to say other than you just do, lol. I've written with kids on my lap, kids hanging over my shoulder, kids fighting on the floor. You do what you gotta do.”


Now for a disclaimer. 

Writing is important. For many of us, it's something we not only love to do, but we feel a need to do. However, my children's needs come first in my book. (Puns are awesome. Especially accidental ones.)

I'm okay with working on my craft here and there. My children are little. Ok. The teenager is taller than me. Whatever. But I'm trying to soak up and enjoy these days. More uninterrupted time to plunk away on my laptop will come. For now, I've got block towers to build and swings to push. And it's wonderful.

It's all about balance. Find the one that works for you!


Do you struggle to find writing time because of the demands of parenting? What solutions have you found? 

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Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, jewelry-making, and pretending she’s a grand artist. 




Monday, September 22, 2014

In the Mind of an Outliner - Characterization

Once upon a time, I tried to be a pantser.

Once.

It was a mess. I just wrote scenes as they came to me and then tried to make it all work. It was a ginormous jumbled mess. I don't know what I was thinking because I live a life of routines and schedules, but somehow thought I wouldn't need to incorporate that same preference into my writing?

No, that wasn't it. I was pantsing because I got caught up in the excitement of word count and percentage progress, and sucked in by the enthusiasm that was my first year of NaNoWriMo. I was really good at writing with literary abandon, but then end result took months and months to get to a somewhat consistent POV, story line, etc.

I'm starting this series of blog posts fully acknowledging that outlining doesn't work with everyone's brains, but also suggesting there may be something that shows up through these posts that could help out even the most discovering of pantsers.

My stories always start with a character. The premise of the book usually follows close after, but that initial character is who I focus on until the premise arrives. And when he/she knocks on the door of my brain, I answer with a legal notebook handy and we start a conversation.

This is my discovery process. I imagine what they would look like (enter Pinterest), likes, dislikes, and what their favorite color would be. That seems like a strange thing to consider, but I believe you can tell a lot about a person based on their favorite color (I love red and am quite an introvert - it's funny how those two things mesh together sometimes).

As I plot out their lives, what made them them, I often have scenes drop by, like little packages for my mind.

I always accept those, and write that scene right then. The perk of allowing that freedom to wander a bit is that it is always nuzzled close to the character I was working on. I may use the scene in the book; it may just be the kind of information that allows me to weave a better back story.

And when I feel like I know who that character is, I start researching.

I need to research the setting, the nuances of place that will allow that character to thrive (or not). I study the intricacies of their interests, hobbies, etc. In preparation for the story I'm working on now, I looked into recipes that use flowers (yummy!), the behavior of all sorts of insects (um...), watched performances of young piano prodigies and emailed a friend about ideas of interior design. To get a wedding scene just right, I studied the protocol of a military wedding and the differences in tradition between the branches.

All of this shows up in the notebooks of character.

Once this has been done, I feel confident taking a walk with these characters. They rarely stay exactly how they were created - there are still times when in the middle of a story, they surprise me in some way. I think when our characters do that, they feel more real. The point is by the time I reach drafting phase, I know the people I'm working with.

Do you outline? What is your character creation process?

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher. Her days involve running kids around town, Diet Coke, small amounts of chocolate (more when necessary) and conversations with herself. She writes Women's Fiction, listens to lots of classical music and is an editor for the Women's Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Revision Tips: Revising for Plot

If you're reading this, you've probably known the incredible high that comes from finishing a writing project. Few things are more satisfying than typing "The End" on the last page of a first draft.

But for me, as exciting as that moment is, the real work of writing doesn't happen until the next draft. And the draft after that. And the draft after that.

I tell my students that first drafts are for them--but revisions are for readers.

Still, as important as revision is, it's easy to get overwhelmed by *all the things* that need attention: voice, characterization, setting, scene shifts, pacing, plot, formatting, and more.


"VanDusen Botanical Garden maze". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:VanDusen_Botanical_Garden_maze.jpg#mediaviewer/File:VanDusen_Botanical_Garden_maze.jpg

For me, the only way I can deal with this overwhelming sense that everything needs to be fixed at once is to tackle issues one at a time as I move through drafts. Obviously, if I notice an unrelated but glaring issue on a revision pass, I'll address it. But it doesn't make a lot of sense for me to worry about voice or punctuation in a scene that might not make it past the second revision.

I've passed the last seven or eight months in varying degrees of revision exaltation/distress. Some days I'm excited for the obvious improvement to my MS--other days, I'm convinced I'm only writing aimlessly in circles. But I've settled into a revision pattern that seems to work for me:

1. Revise for plot.
2. Revise for character (sometimes parts of this have to happen along with revision #1--if I don't know my character motivation, it's hard to make the plot work).
3. Revise for scene and pacing.
4. Revise for voice.
5. Revise for polish: format, grammar, word choice, etc.

That's not to say these are the *only* revisions I do. Sometimes I have to repeat a step. Sometimes I do additional revisions based around beta feedback. I'm about to dive into my eighth time this MS--after some recent beta feedback, I decided I needed to tackle the plot again.

So I'm offering up some tips on revising for plot.

Tip #1: Goals. Make sure the character has a goal that drives the entire plot. The goal can change, but the character has to want something, and has to be willing to endure some kind of opposition to get it. If the character is just doing one thing after another with no forward progress, that's not plot.

Tip #2: Structure. Try reverse-plotting your story against a common plot structure. Make sure that your story hits all the important turning points. In my case, I realized that too much time elapsed between two critical turning points, which slowed down the story for readers.

Here are some I've found useful, both as I plan my stories and as I revise.
    • Dan Well's 7-point story arc
    • Blake Snyder's Save the Cat Beat sheet (though written for screen writers, there are lots of useful adaptations for writers. I love Jami Gold's downloadable form. Read her explanation too--it's terrific.
    • If the thought of multiple plot points is intimidating, Janice Hardy has a useful description of the three act story structure on her blog.
    • The Cockeyed Caravan also has some useful questions to ask about structure, as Part 3 of the Ultimate Story Checklist

Tip #3: Readers. Outside readers, both critique partners and beta readers, are critical for identifying parts of the plot that aren't working. Beta readers might have an edge here, because they see the story in its entirety, rather than in pieces. If you're like me, that initial advice that the plot doesn't work might sting--and after fuming for a day or two you'll realize that they're right.

These aren't the only  methods for revising for plot, but these have been the methods that have helped me the most as I muddle through my revisions.

What about you? What resources have been most helpful for you as you revise for plot?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why Are You Really Stuck On Your Novel?

We are thrilled to welcome Jamie Raintree as a new monthly contributor!

For me, this year has been one of a lot of excitement, a lot of changes, and a lot of challenges. I landed my agent in February and it was a dream come true, but the excitement was quickly replaced by reality (read: revisions) and I've been editing ever since.

Yes, you read that right. I’ve been editing for nearly eight months...and I’m not done yet.

The last couple of months, especially, have been ones of desperation as I worried I’d never get my novel in shape for publication or that maybe I should just give up on it completely. No matter how many angles at which I tried to approach my story, how hard I pushed at my mental blocks, or how many breaks I took, I couldn’t reconnect with the confidence I once had in my story and myself.

The worst part was that I wasn’t sure where I was stuck. Troubleshooting is easy when there’s only one variable of change, but suddenly I was:

1) receiving feedback on my story that was far more intense than I’d ever received before

2) facing the reality that my book would actually--hopefully, but also frightfully--be read by people other than my critique partners one day soon

3) starting to think about my career and my business as a writer

4) being haunted by burn out on this story after five major revisions before my novel even reached my agent

My biggest fear was that I wasn’t ready to be a published author after all. If I can't complete edits when they're asked of me, how can I ever hope to be a professional writer?

Thankfully, a couple of weeks ago, I had an “aha” moment that changed the way I understood writer struggles. I couldn’t tell you what finally led me to my epiphany aside from being on the verge of giving up, but one evening it hit me that the culprit hindering my progress was that edits had taken me down a wrong turn at some point. As I continued to edit down the wrong path, my uncertainty grew worse. As soon as I realized the deviation I'd taken from my original vision and came up with a solution to get back on track, all my fears—about publication, about the quality of my story, about my career—melted away.

But before that, one hang up had shut down the entire operation.

The thing about writers is that our emotions about our stories, our writing, our careers, how our work will be perceived by others, and the myriad of things that crop up in our personal lives are so tied together that sometimes it's hard to tell what's holding us back. That's why writing is so damn hard. And this is what makes it almost impossible to disentangle those emotions and keep moving forward on the other aspects of our writing lives while we sort out the one wobbly leg. We have the tendency to chop all the legs off and bury ourselves in chocolate and wine instead.

But professional writers (and that's all of us who take our writing seriously and strive for publication) don't have the luxury of hanging up our pens and calling it a life. We wouldn't even if we could. Instead we have to fight through the times when we struggle by looking inside ourselves and asking, why am I really stuck?

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

- Am I trying to turn my story into something it's not? Am I writing what I think I "should" instead of what I want to write? What book do I most wish I'd written and what aspects of that book do I most love or most admire?

- Have I done enough prep work in understanding this story and these characters? Do I really understand their goals, motivations, conflicts, and stakes?

- Do I understand my own goals for my career, or am I simply following the path that has been laid before me because that's what writers are "supposed" to want? If there were no beaten paths, which one would I trudge for myself?

- Which aspect of my writing or career is scaring me the most? How can I make myself stronger and more knowledgeable in this?

- What is overwhelming me and how I can break that down into more manageable chunks? Where is the pressure coming from--myself or an outside source--and how can I relieve that pressure? Move back a deadline? Have a heart-to-heart?

- Am I going through any transitions in my life or my career? How do I feel about that? What scares me and what trills me about this change?

- Is the feedback I'm receiving helpful or harmful? Can I learn from it? Can I implement it? Can I be strong enough to say it doesn't apply and let it go?

- Is there something outside of my writing that's taking my attention and energy? Am I setting healthy boundaries between family, friends, work, and my writing? If I had complete control to create my ideal schedule, what would it look like? And how can I bring my current schedule closer to that?

- Am I taking care of myself? Am I allowing myself enough quiet time, enough reading, enough fun, enough time where I'm not thinking about my writing at all?

I'm a big advocate for journaling through the blocks (something someone should have reminded me when I was struggling through this one!) because the Flannery O'Connor quote is true: “I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.” Respond to these questions in your journal until you have your own "aha" moment, until the weight lifts off your shoulders, and the future looks bright again. Because sometimes what you think is making you stuck on your novel isn't the actual battle you're fighting. But every step you take toward self-knowledge makes it easier to identify your struggles in the future, and to overcome them.

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Jamie Raintree writes Women's Fiction about women searching for truth in life and love. She is currently working on revisions of her first novel in preparation for submission to publishers. In the meantime, she blogs about her journey toward a well-balanced life and a career in publishing--her struggles and successes along the way. She lives in Northern Colorado with her husband and two young daughters and is a Workshop Coordinator for the Women's Fiction Writers Association.