Category Archives: writing

Wanted: Time to Write


Today, you’ll find me over at Heather Cashman’s blog, Better Off Read, talking about time and where to find it.

…[T]ime remains a mystery. I can’t figure out how to tame it, so I try to tackle it — stretch it out or squeeze it in or steal a little of it here and there. When I started up my blog a few years ago, I knew time would be my biggest challenge, so I titled my blog “Writing Under Pressure,” as a reminder to myself of what I was up against, and as a battle cry.
Read more….

It’s funny how the writing world works (hello, alliteration). Just as soon as I sat down to put my thoughts on paper, Twitter went all a flutter with links to posts on other writers searching for time, too.

Do a quick search using “find time to write” on Twitter and…No, wait. Don’t. You should be writing. That’s the whole point of my guest post on Better Off Read. So, when you’re done writing for the day, jump back over here and pretend I’m your Twitter feed:

  • From @NataliaSylv: My results from last week’s #writing experiment: How Much Time Do We Really Need to Write? #amwriting >> Where Natalia reveals what happens when you devote an entire day to writing. A whole day folks.
  • From @elizabethscraig: Tips for making time for your #writing: >> Where Mary Carroll Moore guides you through an exercise in assessing your needs and making changes.
  • From @annerallen: Why the Rush to Publish? from Nina Badzin >> @NinaBadzin has written several posts on managing Twitter (while not letting it run your life). This post from Nina suggests that Twitter might not be problem after all (ouch).
  • From @LisaRomeo: Getting ready to kick a few you-know-whats next week when *I Should Be Writing* Boot Camp begins. #writing #writer >> Lisa Romeo offers an online class where she (and I quote) will “help you: create the time to write…develop and maintain regular writing routines, deal with writing obstacles….” Bingo.

Time is money, folks, or at least a lot like money. You spend what you earn. So, hop on over to Heather’s blog and tell us how you tackle time.

*photo credit: blue2likeyou on

Sometimes the words are just meant for me.

I’ve been sitting and studying the potential of this post for the last two hours. I had all sorts of ideas, inspired by an essay I read from Nathan Evans at Hippocampus Magazine.

You should read it.

He talks about first kisses, and the unexpected effects. And, deep in the middle of his essay is a message about the sweet taste of love.

I thought I’d write about my unexpected firsts, about how love came up on me all quiet and sneaky. And how it still comes, in waves.

But the lines read unfinished.
And raw.
And were maybe a study, in events, meant only for me.

You know?

Sometimes when we write, it’s because we have to see the words fall onto the screen, or onto the paper, in a comprehensible way so that our mind really gets it — whatever “it” is, that critical message we’ve been missing for weeks or months on end.

So, the early drafts of this post were an exercise in listening and understanding, and what the last two hours of writing yielded was a gift: that often, the quiet and profound revelations in life show up in unexpected places, even (and especially) when I’m not paying attention.

Where did your writing take you this week?

Blogs become books. Can a memoir become a sitcom?

Moving to the other side of the cash wrap…felt as disorienting to me as Alice might have felt when she slipped through the mirror into Wonderland, landing unawares in…a world populated by Mad Hatters, rushing rabbits, chatty chess pieces, and enormous mushrooms. ~ Caitlin Kelly in MALLED

Behind the scenes. That’s where Caitlin Kelly takes readers in her memoir Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail (out April 14, 2011 from Portfolio). Today, I’m hosting Caitlin here to talk about her journey from an essay in the New York Times, to a memoir, to contract talks with CBS.

From Caitlin’s bio:

The book combines her personal story of moving into low-wage customer service at 50; others, mid-career and mid-recession, taking these jobs and a detailed, national analysis of this $4 trillion industry.

A regular contributor to The New York Times since 1990, Kelly has written for USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Glamour, More, and other publications in Canada and Europe. A former reporter for the New York Daily News, Toronto Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette, she is the winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award (humor), and five journalism fellowships. Born and raised in Canada, she has lived in the U.S. since 1988, and has also lived in England, France and Mexico.

As a bonus, Caitlin is giving away a signed copy of her memoir. At the end of her guest post, leave a comment to be entered into the drawing for a copy of Malled. will choose the winner on Tuesday, September 6th, at high noon.

 Welcome, Caitlin Kelly

If you’d told me that taking a low-wage job folding T-shirts in a suburban mall would lead to negotiating a contract with CBS on my birthday for a possible sitcom based on my life, I’d have laughed hysterically.

But that’s exactly what’s happened to me since Sept. 25, 2007 when I was hired to work as a part-time sales associate for The North Face at an upscale mall in White Plains, NY. I hadn’t worked a low-wage job since high school, was 50 and heading into a recession.

My own story quickly became just one of many in this ongoing recession. In February 2009, I published an essay in The New York Times business section explaining how moving from journalism – my only industry since graduating college in 1979 – to retail had turned out, then, to be a good choice for me. I liked the clarity of retail’s reported numbers: how much I sold per hour, my average daily sale, what percentage of my merchandise was later returned. In journalism, publishing and blogging, all judgments of value are totally subjective.

By June 2009, I had found an agent who felt confident we could find a publisher to take my memoir of working in the nation’s third-largest industry and single greatest source of new jobs. It wasn’t quite as quick and easy as we’d hoped, with 25 rejections before Portfolio, the business imprint of Penguin, bought it in September 2009.

I continued working in the store for another three months, taking many more notes than before, gathering as much detail, color, anecdote and dialogue as possible. No one at the company knew I was writing a book, and it felt strange to be writing things down while standing at the cash wrap.

I quit the job December 18, 2009 and began to write full-time. By June I was done, although revisions and some restructuring were necessary. Because retail is ever-changing, I read the business press every day, adding as necessary to keep the manuscript timely and up-to-date.

“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” was published April 14, 2011 and received a terrific amount of national attention, with reviews and features in People, Marie-Claire, USA Today, The New York Times, Financial Times and Entertainment Weekly. I also appeared on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show (2 million listeners), Marketplace and The Brian Lehrer Show.

Emails soon started showing up from major entertainment companies expressing interest in it as a vehicle for film or television. I thought they were hoaxes! But by June 6, 2011, my birthday, we had an offer from CBS to option “Malled” as a possible sitcom. They have since commissioned a script. The next steps, I hope, are a pilot and a series; if so, I’m signed on as a story consultant for a few years.

This fairly quick journey from a Times essay to a book to a possible television show is a combination of factors: timing, luck, story, competition, voice and a tough agent. There have only been three other books I’m aware of now on the market that really describe in real time what it’s like to lose a good job, move down the economic ladder and tell the truth about how it feels. I was fortunate enough to find a good agent and an enthusiastic publisher. The book is written as a memoir, but it’s not just my story. I knew from the start that my story alone was insufficient, so it also includes dozens of original interviews with other sales associates nationwide, senior retail executives, Wall Street analysts and others.

One way I managed to get the book produced fairly quickly was – as I also did with my first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” – by hiring researchers. They conducted some of my interviews and gathered statistics.

In the past few weeks, I’ve spoken as the closing keynote at a retail conference in Minneapolis, celebrated the sale of “Malled” to China, where it will be translated, and chatted with the veteran screenwriter who’s now creating his characters, one of them based on me.

It’s all a little surreal, kind of exciting and a lot more fun than folding T-shirts.


Entertainment Weekly calls [Malled] “an excellent memoir” and USA Today says “Malled is a bargain, even at full price. Kelly is a first-rate researcher and storyteller.” Original interviews include consultant Paco Underhill, retailer Jack Mitchell and Costco CFO Richard Galanti.

Read more on Caitlin Kelly by visiting her website and her blog, Also, check out another book by Kelly, Blown Away, on American women and guns. Don’t forget to leave a comment, as well, for a chance to win a copy of her memoir.

Sunday Discoveries

Found, in the freezer at our local grocery store:

Packer Country

Kemps Touchdown Sundae. Vanilla ice cream with a hint of fudge swirl and small treasures of chocolate footballs (complete with a caramel filling). It’s egg-free, nut-free, but not sugar-free, and it’s perfect for a rambunctious about-to-be-a-fourth-grader boy who’s trying to “beef up” for the school year.

Found, in my local library:

A Memoir after my own heart. Because reading food labels, on everything from ice cream to bread, is more about bypassing a trip to the ER than counting calories for me.

If you stand in the middle of the grocery aisle and study ingredients, or if the mention of a “pot luck dinner” makes you break out into a cold sweat, read this book. Sandra Beasley’s memoir touches on every aspect of food allergies, from the perspective of the allergic, those who care for someone with allergies, and even the research and science behind allergies.  I can’t say enough about how much I love, LOVE, this book. I have it on loan right now, but I want a copy for myself. I want to slip it onto my son’s nightstand in a few more years, when he’s too big for me to check his pockets for his Epi-Pen.

Found, in my schedule for fall:

Not enough time (27/365)Time. I was glad (ever-so-slightly) last Monday when my day job kicked in, and not just because my mornings and evenings became more predictable. As I considered my start and end times and my work schedule unfolded, my day planner revealed a secret: little pockets of time to myself each day. The impossibility of it all was matched with a dose of guilt, so I closed my calendar quick. Afraid to breathe. Maybe that sounds dramatic, but if you’re a mother and a writer, you know the value of any uninterrupted time (and the power in a second of guilt).

Free time is there, though. I’ve double checked.

Found, on Writer Unboxed:

Twitter Bird SketchTwo great posts by Nina Badzin on the Art and Science of Twitter, Part 1 and Part 2.

If you’re new to Twitter, and even if you’re not new, these posts are a must-read. Because when you suddenly discover a pocket of time, you don’t want to waste it on Social Networking. Nina Badzin explains how to make Twitter work for you, so that you can get back to work, doing what you love best.

What’s new in your kitchen, on your shelves, or in your reader?

Welcome Jenna Blum, Bestselling Author of The Stormchasers

Go get him, Karena, he said. You’re the only one who can.

And Karena knew this to be true, from the nights she was the only one who could sing Charles to sleep, the only one who could coax him off the roof, keep him from climbing the water tower, make him stop chanting that song, stop bouncing that ball, stop kicking that door. She ran out into the lot, tasting the dirt in the air, positioning herself…where Charles would either have to stop or run her down….
~ from The Stormchasers

More than once, I’ve fallen victim to the belief that I could save someone: a friend in despair, a parent on the brink, a loved one chasing a false god down a dark road. I’ve set my voice on an uncomfortable high note in hopes that enthusiasm was contagious, played counselor during marathon phone calls,  stood in the way of the inevitable and gotten pinched in the middle. Painful lessons are never pretty.

But in Jenna Blum’s amazing novel, The Stormchasers, we find a story that mixes the agony of mental illness with the beauty of landscape, the power of devotion, and the miracle of unexpected healing. A novel as much about mental illness as it is about storms, The Stormchasers gives readers vivid images of how both phenomena mirror each other in the way danger brews and crescendos, then crashes and leaves a path of destruction.

The main character, Karena Jorge, is driven in her work as a journalist and in her search to save her twin brother, Charles, from himself. She sets out on a stormchasing expedition, one that puts her in danger at times and brings her closer to a different discovery: Charles is not the only one who needs saving.

The Stormchasers, touching and poignant, is a story that I will read again. I’m so honored to host Jenna Blum today for an interview about her novel, about writing, and about karma. At the end of the interview, leave a quick comment to be entered into the drawing for a copy of The Stormchasers. will choose the winner on Tuesday, August 30th, at high noon.

**UPDATE: Because of Irene’s visit to the East Coast, and subsequent power outages over the weekend, I’m going to postpone the drawing for a copy of Jenna Blum’s novel until Thursday, Sept. 1st.**

CC: In a recent and compelling essay on the website, Style Substance Soul, you talk about a childhood fascination with tornadoes and reasons why you chase storms (even after the novel has been published). Did the idea for THE STORMCHASERS stem from your personal experience on the road with Tempest Tours, or was it your research with them that took root and sealed your strong connection with the chasing community?

JB: That’s a great question! I had the idea for THE STORMCHASERS–a novel about a bipolar young man who chases tornadoes when he’s manic and his twin sister, who basically chases him–long before I started chasing storms with Tempest. In fact, I wrote an abbreviated draft of the novel in my graduate MA program at Boston University, back in 1996.  I didn’t have a stormchasing community before I started chasing with Tempest to research subsequent drafts of the novel, and what I didn’t expect were the lifelong friends I would make chasing.  I chase with the same people every year, my esteemed mentors and friends like me who are still learning, and they are my storm family. THE STORMCHASERS continues to introduce me to new folks in the chasing community, for which I’m profoundly grateful.

CC: All of the characters in your novel are written in such a way – authentic and relatable – that readers will think of them long after they close the cover of your book. Do you have a special technique you use, early on in your writing, for developing characters?

JB: Thank you for the generous comment about my characters!  I suppose they come off as real because to me, they are real.  They just happen to exist in a dimension halfway between the ether and the paper, hovering somewhere above my head.  My first job as a writer is to get them out where others can come to know and love them the same way I do.  I’ve been told that my characters are lovable despite their flaws–or sometimes hateful because of them or sometimes just plain flawed–and I take that as proof I’ve succeeded in getting them down as real people.  Because who among us isn’t flawed?

When I’m first getting to know the characters, I start by writing down everything I know about them, which ranges from macro big-picture stuff–basic family history–to the fact that Charles Hallingdahl, for instance, the brother in THE STORMCHASERS, ate only green food as a child. Not all the details make it into the novels.  But because they’re part of the character, I write them down.  More details reveal themselves as I go along, and the biggest struggle is to remain true to the characters’ characters, to not graft behaviors onto them because it suits the plot or it’s something I myself would do.

CC: In your career, you’ve traveled all over and seen a variety of landscape. Do you have a favorite place that you’d love to call home or visit time and again?

JB: Again, a great question, and one that strikes a poignant chord with me these days, because although I’m proud to say I have a home in Boston and a house in rural Minnesota where my mom and grandmother were born, I’ve been on the road at least 300 of 365 days in the past year.  One night, when I was checking into a hotel in Florida, the desk clerk looked at my MA license and said, “Wow, you’re far from home.” I thought: Yes, I sure am, both literally and metaphorically. I’ve traveled and divided my geography so much that I’m not sure where my central home is.  But I love my writing community and friends in Boston.  And geographically, my heart belongs to the heartland.  The landscape of the Midwest and the High Plains makes sense to me and allows me to breathe freely–all that space and big sky.

CC: What are you reading these days?

JB: Galleys!  I have the privilege of reading books before they’re published to supply authors with quotes for their book jackets (you’re like Ah-ha, *that’s* where those come from). It’s a great kind of sneak preview.  I read Rebecca Rasmussen’s incredible debut THE BIRD SISTERS and Kaira Rouda’s inspiring novel HERE, HOME, HOPE.  Three novels I highly, highly recommend for 2012:  Anna Solomon’s THE LITTLE BRIDE, about a Jewish mail-order bride who ends up in the Dakotas.  Nichole Bernier’s THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D., about a woman discovering her best friend’s secret life after that friend’s death.  And Jami Attenberg’s THE MIDDLESTEINS, which is about food, family, love, life, and loss–all the important stuff–and will tell you why it’s vitally important to include cinnamon in pastry.

CC: What advice do you have for writers on the rise?

JB: Usually I would cite Winston Churchill here:  “Never give in, never give in, never give in.” And that’s still true. But in today’s swiftly changing publishing landscape, it’s also important to be open to new ways of doing things. There’s no room for a lazy writer these days (if there ever was!).  Expect to do your own legwork, your own homework, your own promotion.  Use social media. Reach out to and support as many other writers as you can.  It’s good karma, and that must always come back to help you in the end.

Thanks, Jenna. And, for all you readers out there, don’t forget to drop your name in the comment section for a chance to win a copy of The Stormchasers.

JENNA BLUM is the New York Times and # 1 international bestselling author of THOSE WHO SAVE US and THE STORMCHASERS.  She is also one of Oprah’s Top Thirty Women Writers. For more information about Jenna Blum and her bestselling novels, visit her website, follow her on Twitter, or Like her page on Facebook.

Candles, Cake, and Links

Birthday Cake
Today I turn one year older.
But luckily, as my daughter told me, I don’t look any bigger.

Not for a lack of trying, mind you. I spent last night at a wedding reception filling my belly with desserts and this morning nibbling on a cinnamon bun baked for royalty. “Looking bigger” is only a matter of time.

After the sugar highs, I’m laying low, soaking up some beautiful weather, cashing in a gift certificate on new clothes, and getting ready to jump back into my day job tomorrow. My birthday is always bittersweet, as it marks the end of my summer and the beginning of a new school year.

So, while I kick up my feet and demand more cake, here are some links I’d like to pass your way.

  1. 10 Things to do with an Old Sweater (from Savvy I know it’s still August and plenty hot these days, but when Fall does round the corner, here are some great ideas for how to deal with those sweaters that don’t fit anymore. You know, the ones that got all stretched out last winter? Or put in the dryer with that load of kids’ clothes? There’s nothing like slipping on a sweater to find the arms two inches too short.
  2. Return to Writing in Six Steps (from Did your summer fly by like mine? And, there on my desk sits that novel in progress, still…in progress. Waiting and whispering, Rewrite. Rewrite. oooOOOOoo0! So, get to it.
  3. Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Tracy Seeley. A great Writerhead interview on Kristin Bair O’Keefe’s blog with Tracy Seeley. Tracy has a new memoir out, My Ruby Slippers, that sounds amazing. And, in her interview she mentions one trick that keeps her writing: not checking email before she gets out of bed. Not that I do that….

And, PS. Don’t forget this Wednesday Jenna Blum stops by for an interview about her bestselling novel, The Stormchasers.

Happy Day, folks!

Between Panster and Plotter: Finding a Middle Ground

look downstairs into stairwell whirlWhen it comes to writing, I’m a “pantster,” as they say; I spit out drafts of a story in one forward motion, without looking back.

That’s the kind of writer I started out as, anyway.

The first essay I wrote (and submitted…poor editors) was a cathartic experience, in which I hardly glanced back even to edit. And, the novel I’m working on right now poured onto my computer screen during a frenzied dash to win a NaNoWriMo banner in 2009. Or, was it 2008? It’s a little murky now, sort of like that first draft.

But lately, I’ve been reading James Scott Bell’s book on plot and structure, and I’m discovering a middle ground between writing a first draft with one eye open and pre-planning a story scene by scene. Bell’s book gives writers a look at the basics of plot and story structure, using a set of principles he calls “the LOCK system.: Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout.

“That novel,” as I affectionately call it, still needs a lot of work, so I picked up this book with the aim of applying it to my draft — to see what I was missing, figure out what might be holding me back. What I’m discovering is that, even though I haven’t finished Bell’s book, understanding the LOCK system is changing the way I see this WIP (in a good way) and giving me new insight on how I approach all of my fiction.

Seeing how my novel incorporates the four LOCK principles, I’m more confident that the plot can work. More interesting, though, is the new perspective I have on an upcoming short story deadline. I was invited to join a group of writers and contribute a 10,000 word story to an anthology, and now there’s more than a self-imposed deadline looming on my calendar. This short story will stretch my skills as a writer, I’m sure, and I love a challenge (she says, knees shaking). If this were pre-Bell days, I would sit down with a main character and a first line and go with them, face my fears and see what happens. This time, though, I’m brainstorming more before I write, thinking through the lead and his objective, considering confrontations and a possible Knockout ending.

Whether or not pre-planning will change the outcome of the story, I don’t know. And, I’m not giving up on writing by the seat of my pants completely. There’s something about this simple planning, though, that gives me a teeny bit of confidence as I approach this story. And, maybe…just maybe…all the “thinking time” (as Roz Morris calls it in her excellent book, Nail Your Novel) will mean less time at my computer.

Since finding time to sit and write at my laptop seems almost impossible these days, I’ll take the “writing” however it comes.

Has your approach to crafting your stories changed lately?