Sunday, July 26, 2015

Lifting the sag

For my entire writing career I have struggled with “sagging middles,” fighting and failing to sustain a story’s plot in the middle. That’s right: I can write a riveting opening and a memorable ending, but the middle of my novels sag like an old mattress, whether writing a rollicking romance or a thriller-suspense. 

My last novel, Undercover, was a finalist in the Writers’ League of Texas 2013 Manuscript Competition, but judges only considered the first section, and as I said, I sizzle when it comes to the opening scenes. Alas, I have sent the novel to a dozen agents who have returned it with a “no thanks… not the novel for me… good luck…”

I’ll be honest. These rejections unleashed my Internal Critic constant taunt: “Why are you still writing? You know you’re gonna write another milquetoast middle.” I stalled on Chapter 5 of my current novel.

But no more.

I’m home from the summer writing retreat, sponsored by Writers League of Texas, in Alpine, TX, and I am so PUMPED. Thanks to the amazing novelist Charlotte Gullick, I am confident that I have the skill-set to lift and tighten those middles by following her advice.

I finally understand revision, as in “re-vision,” as in “see with a different lens.” I’m ready to look at my Undercover manuscript again, but today I’ll use a focused lens to review the plot. Does the character in each scene have a goal? Is there a drama in each scene? Predictability breeds reader boredom.

It’s okay if you don’t understand, because I do, and I am sure that Undercover, after its next revision, will be marketable. 

The current novel? No longer stalled, it awaits its turn in line.

NOTE: Please order Charlotte Gullick’s novel By Way of Water on She is a phenomenal novelist (referred to as “the current John Steinbeck” by Jody Pryor—and I agree, although I think she carves a deeper emoitonal landscape). She is also a creative writing professor at Austin Community College, and all I can say about that is, her students are both lucky and blessed.

Sunday, July 19, 2015


When I look back over my life, I know that courage got me where I am today, but creativity is the personal trait I truly embrace. I claim it all: create, recreate, co-create.

I have been working on several writing projects over the summer, and I'm very excited about the results. First, I developed a 6-week course on "Writing the Journey into Womanhood" for the Jung Center in Houston, which will be offered this fall. The course will focus on girlhood, womanhood, and elderhood with writing prompts to encourage deep reflection regarding each phase.

I also finished a workbook last month that takes people through the common themes of memoir writing: home, family traditions, education, courtship, important people/role models, choices, and spiritual wisdom. I've titled it Stories from a Well-Lived Life Workbook, and it'll be available on my website soon.

More recently I finished a proposal for a TEDxTalk in October that is being sponsored by Lone Star College-Tomball. I want to give a talk on "The Power of Words," and how expressive writing can lead to inspriation, healing, and change. I'll know in August if I'm among those selected. (Prayers to the Great Creator are much appreciated.)

All of this creating and co-creating has been absolutely exhilarating. But I have to be honest... my creative juices are beginning to dry out. So I've come to the well of creativity, surrounding myself with like-minded writers and poets at a weeklong writers' retreat in far west Texas. I will soak in their intoxicating creativity until I am so satiated that my imagination generates its own adrenalin-charged ideas to the zenith once again.

Sweet mercy, I love my life.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Loss of innocence

My father brought me into the living room and directed me to sit on the divan. My 5-year-old body barely caused a dent in the pillowed bench. Excitement beat like a jackhammer along my skin--I was delirious.

"Abra-ca-da-bra." My father intoned the beginning of a chant that would create a toy beneath the cushion.

My 7-year-old brother slithered  into the room. "It's fake. Look now. The toy is already there!"

What? Really? My eyes widened, and I started to get up, but my father placed a gentle hand on my shoulder.

"Don't listen to him," my father warned. "If you look, you'll kill the magic."

But like Eve in the Garden, my curiosity had been unleashed by a snake, this time in the shape of my older brother.

I can still see my father's eyes, kind and steady, willing me to remain innocent and rely on his magnificent magical powers to feed my wonder. Countless times his magical chant had created a plastic doll, or a book of rhymes, or a wooden whistle, or some other marvelous prize. When I tried to conjur a toy without his presence, even though I'd repeat his chant, I could create nothing. My father was the Great Magician... Or was he?

Curiosity nipped at the edges of my developing brain. I turned to my brother.

"Do it! Look! He's tricking you!" My brother jumped around like popcorn on a hot skillet.

Time stopped as my eyes danced between my father and my brother.

Curiosity won out over obedience and I jumped up, raised the cushion, and discovered the bright red ball.

"Okay," my father said, resignation tainting his acquiescence.

The full reality of the moment sunk in and I knew two things: I could keep the ball, but the game of magic was over. Forever.

I felt like I imagine Eve felt in the Bible story...  so very sorry, and couldn't we just pretend that I'd never looked? But it didn't matter how I felt--the veil of magic had been pierced, and my world was forever changed.

Years later, looking back on this memory, I see a third thing in this experience: Curiosity. I took ownership of this powerful emotion that afternoon. I think it's good that I did because curiosity is what eventually leads us from our comfort zone of safety and onto a path of adventure. Without it, we'd never leave home when it's time to journey into the larger world.

I have to say, truth be told, I'd rather have the driving curiosity I have today than a childlike, childish innocence.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The taming of a cat (and much more!)

Anne Kaier has written a lovely memoir about rescuing a stray cat, bringing him home to her new house, and building a relationship that helps make her house a home for the both of them. She has been on a blog tour with her book, and I invited her to Sunday TOAST so she can share her process with us.

JB: Anne, can you tell us what compelled you to write this delightful book, Home with Henry?

AK: Curiosity played  a large part. I had literally picked up a wounded feral cat after someone had hit him in a busy road. I had no idea what to do with him. After the vet checked him out, I brought him home to live with me. However, he hid under the bed and hissed every time I approached. Who, except for my dear vet, would give me advice about how to tame him? It was 1997. The internet was in its infancy, so I couldn't go online to get help. I kept a journal to record Henry's daily progress--or lack of it--so I would have a record of what happened. I thought it would be interesting to reread in later years. When I stopped keeping the journal, I realized I had a manuscript that people might enjoy reading. When a publisher approached me, I thought a cat memoir would reach a broad audience. Home with Henry is now my publisher's best selling book.

JB: What are the themes you explored in this memoir? Did they emerge organically in writing the draft, or did you purposely choose the themes before you began writing?

AK: Life as a single woman is a major theme. How do you construct a kind of "alternate family" when you are single and, as in my case, have no children? I purposely included my adventures with my friends and my nephew Tommy, a frisky ten-year-old, to show how I have brought people into my life. The human-animal bond, with all its joys, is obviously a major theme. The importance of work friends is also a biggie. I wanted to include scenes set at work because my work friends helped me as I was taming Henry. The city dweller's need for a natural world also figured in the book. Some of these themes appeared in my original journal entries, which became the first draft of the book. Others, such as the emphasis on the natural world, emerged organically in later drafts.

JB: You are a poet, an essayist, and a memoirist. How do you select a genre for a particular subject? In particular, why was Home with Henry told in journal entries rather than a series of essays or a poetry chapbook?

AK: When I wrote journal entries as I was trying to domesticate Henry, I didn't know how the story would end. Would Henry spend his life hiding under the bed? Would he run away? I wanted the reader to have the same feeling of suspense as I did. So I kept it in chronological journal format.

JB: What was hardest or most challenging about writing the book?

AK: One of the hardest things was to weave all the themes together. I wanted to keep the primary focus on the cat, but sub-themes entered the story. I rewrote several times to get a good balance between the cat scenes and the nephew scenes, for example.

JB: One of the reasons people write about their life is to make sense of it. You once said in an interview published in Wordgathering: "When I'm writing about my life, I feel that I can partially define how I am perceived--and perhaps, influence how I see myself." Can you expand on this statement?

AK: As a single woman and a person with a physical difference--I have a skin problem like psoriasis--I can easily be stereotyped. Especially in a cat story. I wanted to be perceived as the fairly complicated, intelligent woman I am. However, this is a pet memoir, so I saw it as lighter in tone than other essays and poems I've written. I worked to bring the nuance and humor into my self-portrait. 

JB: An editor once told me that you have to give up a piece of yourself for a story to be more than a nice, or funny, or sad, or horrific memory turned into a story. Do you think it takes courage to write from one's life? What parts of yourself did you give to the reader in Home with Henry?

AK: Your editor had a great insight. It does take courage to write an honest memoir. It's always hard to reveal your vulnerabilities. I wanted to be honest about my life as a single woman. I also wanted to celebrate the choices I've made. And I wanted to celebate Henry himself. That was the easy part--to write about his quirky ways and his innate sweetness.

JB: Thank you, Anne. Now... for my loyal readers, you can purchase Home with Henry: a memoir by Anne Kaier online at or at It is a book you will want to share with your friends and your children, for it is a classic in the making.

And, if you are inspired to write your own cat story, Anne has authored "Tall Tails: How to Write about Your Cat." It's free and available on her website: