How To Write Fiction: A Guide for Poets

I was a poet to begin with.


And as a poet, I wrote slooooooooowly. Sometimes painfully so. I might spend an entire day, or week, or even month following the rise and fall of a line to its inevitable end.

To paraphrase Fred Chappell (another poet turned novelist), a good day’s work for a poet is to cross out the two lines he wrote the day before.

For someone like me in the habit of examining the universe two lines at a time, the idea of writing a novel—page after page after page, day after day after day—seemed daunting, to put it mildly.

You mean I have to write WHOLE PARAGRAPHS AT A TIME?


So, how did I get my poetry-wired brain from Point A (poem) to Point B (novel)?

Well, for starters, it took about a gazillion hours, numerous failed attempts, and the support from and commitment to my friend and coauthor Madelyn Rosenberg (shown here gleefully tormenting a toe-sock doll).


Most importantly, though, I had to let go of many of my deeply ingrained ideas about the writing process.

One. I could no longer write without “tuning in” consciously, the way I sometimes did when I wrote poetry.

It didn’t take me long to realize that strange, unacceptable things happened when I let my subconscious mind take over in fiction. I would sit down with the intention to write a romance novel, turn off my consciousness, and wake up a half hour later to find an intricate description of an old woman’s detached lung throbbing in the wildrose shrub outside an abandoned trailer’s front stoop.


Two. I could no longer count reading time as writing time.

Here’s how I work when writing a poem. I write a first line. I rewrite it. I write it again. Then I read it. Over. And over. And over until…………………………………………I’m ready to write the next line. Then I rewrite that line. Then I rewrite it again. Then I read it with the first line. Over. And over. And over until…………………………………………..I’m ready to write the third line. Which I rewrite and read and rewrite and read until…………….. I fall asleep in a puddle of drool.

Again, it’s pretty obvious this method is for crap when it comes to writing anything longer than a haiku. As I transitioned to writing fiction, I had to get comfortable with the idea that re-reading the entire manuscript from the beginning every time I sat down to work was not a practical option.

When desperate, I might use that method for paragraphs, pages, even chapters. But otherwise, it was onward! No looking back!


(Thanks for the inspiration, hat girl.)

Three. I had to get my butt in the chair and type something, whether I thought I had anything to say or not.

I’m going to let Neil Gaiman field this one for me, because he said it perfectly:

If you only write when you’re inspired you may be a fairly decent poet, but you’ll never be a novelist because you’re going to have to make your word count today and those words aren’t going to wait for you whether you’re inspired or not.”


(Neil Gaiman. Tasty!)

And yet, even as I had to shake loose numerous impractical poetic notions when I turned to fiction, there were a few concepts which, right or wrong, stuck with me as I wrote DREAM BOY with Madelyn—and they remain now as I write my current work-in-progress.

Of these, the most crucial is perhaps this:

There are certain moments when only the exact word will do.

Yes, I know we’re supposed to spew out that first draft. Get the words down and worry about making them perfect once we have a beginning, middle and end.

Fiction-brain gets that process. I’m able to do that at least 93% of the time. For the other 7%, though, the poet in me is convinced that writing any old thing is a great idea…


There are moments in writing when I need an exact word, dammit.

Its rightness is the bridge between what came before and everything that might come after. Its rightness is what makes the work, at least for that millisecond, worthwhile. Because for that millisecond, it’s not all about word count. It’s about following the right word to its best destination. It’s about accepting language for the gift that it is. In short, it’s what makes writing fun.


Even if I end up cutting the entire scene at some later date, I need that moment to keep me going. Without it, there is no joy in Mudville. Without it, what am I doing this for?

[Note: this post previously appeared on OneFour KidLit.]


A History of the T-Shirt – Plus Giveaway – Signed Copy and DREAM BOY T-shirt!

To cMaryandMadelynDreamBoyTshirtselebrate our half-year anniversary (not to mention the 102 anniversary of the T-shirt!), the lovely Madelyn Rosenberg and I are giving away a copy of DREAM BOY signed by both of us — plus a groovy DREAM BOY t-shirt. You can enter on Goodreads.

As our readers are aware, the quirky, geeky Will is a T-shirt aficionado. So I’m offering here a few tid-bits about T-shirt history (which are new to me–but Will probably already knows).

T Shirt History1913: T-shirt ( so-called for the T-shape it makes) first used as a light undershirt for sailors in the Navy

1920: the word “T-shirt” first included in the dictionary

1932: Jockey International designs a modern T-shirt to absorb sweat for the University of Southern California Trojans football team

1Gob Tshirt938: Sears sells a 24-cent T-shirt called a “gob” shirt and marketed as either an outer-shirt or undershirt.

It did NOT look like this. (WTF is a gob anyway?)

1940s (early): Marines uses the Navy-style white tee dyed with coffee grounds to avoid being an easy target in the field

1940s (late): printed T-shirts enter the scene, such as the Smithsonian’s oldest printed tee, “Dew-It with Dewey,” from the 1948 presidential campaign of New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey

Dewey T Shirt

1951: Marlon Brando yells “STELLA!” while wearing a T-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire

1955: James Dean rebels with no apparent cause — while wearing a T-shirt!James_Dean_in_Rebel_Without_a_Cause

1970s: Iron-on transfer developed

2006: Matt McAllister earns a Guinness World Record by donning 155 T-shirts at the same time

2007: Aaron Waltke beats McAllister’s record by simultaneously wearing 160 shirts

** Look for upcoming post on the top T-shirt slogans, and my person top ten shirts!

A Final Step Down the Cemetery Trail

An enthusiastic EEEK! goes out to all you Halloweeny readers out there! There are many prizes to be had on this cemetery trail.

I’m so excited about being part of this tour. While my coauthored novel DREAM BOY has lots of humor, romance and suspense, there’s a good dash of horror in there too! (Yep, a comic horror story. Go figure.)

How does it work? Simple! Check out the ten Halloween-themed posts along the Cemetery Trail, take the quiz, and you could win TEN awesome prizes! Signed copies, a manuscript critique, a Skype author chat and more! All this could be yours, my lovely ghosties!

So, get reading! Here’s my interview with the fine folks at the Halloween Book Trail.

HBT: Do you believe in ghosts?

MC: Both my mother and brother saw a ghost—the same ghost in the same house, about 10 years apart. So I guess I have to believe in ghosts. Either that or call my dead mother a liar.

Maybe it’s a southern thing, but our ghost wasn’t particularly creepy. She’d play tricks sometimes (like turning all the paintings crooked when we went out on Halloween), but mostly she was just there—an invisible someone in the rocking chair, an altered air in the hallway, a kindly presence by my bed at night.

I think she loved children and worried about my sisters and brothers when we were little. Both of the times that she let herself be seen, it was to care for a lonely child.

After my parents brought their first baby home, my mother and father would take turns getting up in the night to bring the crying infant to bed. It was my father’s turn to get the baby, so when my mother, half-asleep, heard little Laura wailing across the room, she didn’t rouse herself. My father didn’t either, and the wails keep coming.

After a few minutes, my mother felt hands on her shoulders, shaking her awake. “Robin?” she mumbled, but when she opened her eyes, she saw not my father, but instead an old, gray-ish lady. Bolting upright, my mother said she went through the lady, who instantly disappeared.

What did you do?” I remember asking her.

Her answer pretty much sums up my family’s laissez-faire attitude toward the supernatural: “I got up and took care of the baby, of course.”

The second sighting came about nine years later, when I was the baby. In my mother’s tellings, there are many complicated explanations for why she, my father, and five of their six children were in a van barrelling toward the nearby city while my three-year-old brother Edgar ended up left at the house alone. I will save you those details and cut right to the moment when, after realizing Edgar was absent and demanding my father turn the van around, she finally arrived home. I’ll finish the story in my mother’s own words:

I imagined every conceivable horror, but when we finally got back and I raced inside, I found Edgar quietly coloring a picture.

‘Are you okay?’ I asked him.

‘Oh, yes,’ he told me, calm as you please.

‘But weren’t you scared?’

‘I was, but the Gray Lady came. She told me you’d come back.’

”What gray lady?’ I asked, looking around the room. ‘There’s no gray lady here.’

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘she went away. She went away when you came back.’

HBT: If you were in a horror film, what number are you to die and how?

MC: I’d love to say I’d be the last one standing, but the truth is that I’d probably die somewhere around the middle.

I’m pretty sure I’d be preceded by the gorgeous young couple indulging in rambunctious sex, the non-believer, and the stoner.

That said, I’d almost certainly be followed by the woman who twists her ankle, the snappy one-liner, and the survivor’s best friend.

How? Nothing so exciting as an ax to the forehead. I’m thinking I’d trip and fall in a well.

HBT: If the zombie apocalypse happened (and it will), what would be your weapon of choice?

MC: As a mega-fan of The Walking Dead, I’ve considered this question a good bit. I think I’d go with a sword. It’s quiet, doesn’t require ammo, and you don’t necessarily have to have good aim to use it.

HBT: If Annabelle from DREAM BOY went trick or treating, what would she dress up as and why?

MC: Annabelle loves music, so she might go for something old-school like David Bowie or Gwen Stefani. Or she might do something with a twist—a zombie Taylor Swift. Maybe a cross between Lorde and Wonder Woman.

Now, one last stop before you take the quiz! Go check out what spooky tales Heather Marie, author of THE GATEWAY THROUGH WHICH THEY CAME, has to share!


In the Event of Cynthia Atkins

Poet Cynthia Atkins (photo by Fancher)

Poet Cynthia Atkins (photo by Fancher)

When poet Cynthia Atkins published In the Event of Full Disclosure earlier this year, she tackled topics of mental health, family, and culture at war. I’m talking to her today about her latest work, the public/private boundary in writing, and where her poetry is headed next.

Thanks also to Cynthia for sharing two of her wonderful poems with us here: Family Therapy II and In Plain Sight.

Mary: Tell me a bit about the process you went through to write and publish In The Event of Full Disclosure. Continue reading

Poetry Hop!

mortimer-final-300x229The ever-insightful Madelyn Rosenberg tagged me for the Mortimer Minute Poetry Hop. Bless her for doing so! And I’m not saying that in the southern bless-her-heart kind of way. It’s been too long since I’ve taken the time to ruminate about poetry.

So, my little bunny friend, come with me as I share three questions (and things that take the place of answers but are actually not) about poetry!

How do you feel about rhyme?

Here are 4 things I think about rhyme:

  1. Rhyme is a powerful drug, and as such, should be used with caution. It’s addictive and can lead to dire consequences. But when administered properly, rhyme can be just the right kind of intoxicating.
  1. Sometimes rhyme guides us to the inevitable word in a poem. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.
  2. Rhyme is fun. Fun on the run with a cat named Bun-Bun. Fun in the street with the cars that go beep. Fun everywhere, now that cat’s in my hair and I’m chasing a bear with my aunt’s underwear. (For me, the inevitable word always seems to be “underwear.” You can ask my children; I am telling the absolute truth.)
  1. Rhyme makes its own sense, so I don’t have to.

Read Madelyn’s much smarter answer to the same question here.


Can poetry matter?

This is a question poets apparently love to ask themselves, so I’m asking it here. I probably shouldn’t have, because my real question is “Why do poets keep asking themselves if poetry can matter?” I mean, it’s sort of like bakers asking themselves over and over if muffins matter.

Hell yes, poetry can matter. But not the way open heart surgery can matter or firetrucks can matter or group homes for developmentally challenged people can matter. Even so, sure, poetry matters. It matters to me. At least as much as muffins. Unless I’m hungry and there’s nothing but muffins to eat.


Why should people read poetry to children?

When I did a photo search on Flickr for Creative Commons images of muffins, I learned two things: people like taking photos of muffins and there are many cats named Muffin. Take that, Mortimer. Ohh, I think that's my new idea for PiBoIdMo -- Mortimer and Muffin! At any rate, this photo by Elaine Vigneault. Thanks, Elaine, for sharing. Love your puppy's puppy dog eyes!

When I did a photo search on Flickr for Creative Commons images of muffins, I learned two things: people like taking photos of muffins and there are many cats named Muffin. Take that, Mortimer. Ohh, I think that’s my new idea for PiBoIdMo — Mortimer and Muffin! At any rate, thanks to Elaine Vigneault for sharing this photo.

Because children deserve it. Just by being alive and having spongy brains, children deserve the gift of silly words that will click-clack-rump-pump-wiggle-waggle through their day.

Plus, I’m pretty sure frothy concoctions of playful language (by which I mean poems) make them smarter about how regular old Jane-and-Joe language works.

So do it, people. Read a kid a poem. The world will be a better place for it. And then give a kid a muffin. And give puppy a muffin as well. And then give a kid a puppy. Then give a sea urchin a haircut.  The world will be better for all that too.


So now it’s my turn to tag someone. Hillary Ferguson is an excellent poet, fiction writer, and blogger. I look forward to seeing what she asks, and answers too, of course!

Duckie in Pink / The original (superior) ending to the 80s classic

Here’s what I remember of seeing Pretty in Pink in the 80s: Molly Ringwald wore nifty hats! Molly Ringwald could sew cool stuff! People told me that I looked like Molly Ringwald! Yay!!!

Oh, and Duckie! I loved Duckie! He wore nifty hats too!

Other than that, the movie has been pretty much a blur in my gray matter for the last few decades until a day or so ago, when I sat down to watch Pretty in Pink once again… this time with my teenage daughter. I still love the hats. And Molly Ringwald can still sew amazing things (though the prom dress was much much uglier than I remembered it).

So here’s an unexpected revelation I had this go around:

Andrew McCarthy has semi-psycho eyes and there is absolutely no reason for Andie (aka Molly Ringwald) to like him.

Seriously. He doesn’t do or say anything particularly likeable. Not even wear a cool hat. So I did a little digging and found out that in the original ending to the movie, Andy ends up with Duckie!


Here, from the Tampa Bay Times, is the script for the final shots:

Andie takes Duckie’s hand and walks him on the dance floor. The crowd separates and opens a large circle. Andie and Duckie stand at the center of the floor. Andie takes Duckie in her arms. She looks at the band leader.

BAND LEADER: He turns his back to his band and they begin to play again.

DUCKIE: He’s terrified.


“I can’t dance.”

“Neither can I.”

“Are we crazy?”


Andie takes a few steps and starts dancing. Dukie follows clumsily. A few steps and they get in step. They dance without shame or concert for what anybody thinks.

BLANE: He turns back to watch Andie and Duckie.

STEFF AND BENNY: They glare at the new couple. Steff can’t hide the anger he feels at being undone by Duckie.

KATE: She glowers at Blane for his gesture to Duckie and Andie. He could care less.

ANDIE AND DUCKIE: The look at each other and smile. Duckie laughs. Andie squeezes him tight and lifts him off his feet.


I’m pretty sure Will, a sweetheart of a character in our upcoming novel DreamBoy (coauthored with Madelyn Rosenberg), owes a good dose of his aesthetic to Duckie. In fact, I think it’s quite possible that on the subliminal level, the novel was a sort of mis-wired protest on my part against Blane and all his supposed perfection. Hmmmm… Ok, that might be an overstatement. Sort of.

The Beauties and Beast of Writing with a Friend

Last week (at the very moment my friend Madelyn Rosenberg and I were announcing to the world the good news that our young adult novel DreamBoy will be coming out next summer from Sourcebooks Fire), a friend shared with us this New York Times article,”On Writing with Others” by John Kaag.

Having just finished a young adult novel with the awesome Madelyn (and begun another with the awesome Jenny Bitner), I have found the experience to be full of surprises–almost entirely the good kind.

Here’s my take on five reasons that having a co-pilot on that long trip across a novel is a good thing… and one reason it’s not. Some are echos of Kaag’s excellent insights; others are my own.

The amazing Madelyn Rosenberg

The amazing Madelyn Rosenberg


1 ~ a committed relationship ~

Perhaps the most encouraging part of collaborative writing is the commitment I bring to the project. When I work on my own, it’s easy for me to convince myself (after 20 or 30… or even 120 pages) that what I’m writing is crap. When I write with a friend, however, I am committed for the long haul,whether or not it seems crappy during those horrible spells of self-doubt. I can’t help thinking of all the time and work my friend has put in on the project, and that makes me push through the muck, even when I’m not sure where exactly we’re headed.

2 ~ instant editor = better risks ~

I am, as Kaag suggests, much more likely to let loose with some half-baked notions in early drafts when I know my co-writer is there. These risks are usually huge fails, but every so often, they work fantastically.

When I write fiction on my own, I may take the same risks, but I worry much more over them. On my own, a serious misstep could head me down a long and fruitless path. Since I don’t have an instant editor, I may not be convinced of my mistake until I’ve already pounded out another 50 pages or so. And we all know there’s nothing quite so sweet as trashing a huge stack of pages just start over where you were a month before! Yippee!

When I write with a friend, I know I have an instant editor who can shake her head and point me in a better direction. Yippee, for real!

The astounding Jenny Bitner

The astounding Jenny Bitner

3 ~ operation UNblocked ~

There is nothing so amazing as getting stuck with a scene, sending it off (sometimes mid-sentence) to a trusted friend, and having it return a day or so later with that scene successfully finished and another started.

Gone is the head-pounding!

Gone the endless trips to the kitchen’s candy jar!

Gone the long walks full of mulling and wondering and wishing I knew what came next!

4 ~ surprise! ~

The surprising things that happen when you write with a friend are beyond fun. I’ve created structures that I thought were headed one way, only to find out when Madelyn returned her editions/additions that there was a whole other dimension to the scene if I just tilted my head one way or another.

Sometimes it’s a matter of a fortunate misunderstanding. For example, when I first named the character Talon for DreamBoy, I intended for her to be a male. Madelyn read the name as a female and used a female pronoun for her. So I’m easy… and here’s proof. I just rolled with it. Now Talon, the girl, may be my favorite character in the novel, and calling her a boy would probably prompt her to reach through the pages of the book and whack me on the head. (Yeah, she’s got that kind of spunk.)

5 ~ balance ~

Let’s face it. I have obsessions — those go-to things that give me energy and make me glow. I would write about rivers and earthworms and clouds all day if someone would buy me food and cover my mortgage for doing so. But a book about nothing but rivers and earthworms and clouds is… well, I was going to say boring, but since I’m obsessed, I actually find that idea pretty intriguing. Maybe I should write a book about nothing but rivers and earthworms and clouds? Hmmm… But I digress. Back to point: I have obsessions, so do my my co-writers. And sometimes those obsessions, being as they are obsessions, get to be a bit much.

I mean, what is it about the canned peaches in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? And I’m pretty sure Nora Roberts was watching way too many of those cook-off shows when she wrote Angels Fall.

So having two different writers with two different sets of obsessions gives a bit of balance to the work. Or at least I like to think so.


There are some projects that are not good candidates for collaborative writing because co-authorship requires you to let go. And letting go of something extremely close to you can be difficult and scary… and quite frankly, unnecessary. Here are the facts: The final writing will not reflect your solitary vision nor be subject to your solitary control, and there are some things that won’t come out right without your solitary vision and control.

So choose wisely when considering a project. Are you willing to let go of your idea and allow it to become what it becomes? Do you have a friend whom you respect enough to work with? If you can answer yes without reservation, you might want to give collaboration a try. If not, keep it to yourself until you’re ready to publish. And then let it go the old-fashioned way.

(… oh, and the waiting… sometimes the waiting can be be a drag…)