Disney, Writing

What Building Legos Taught Me About Writing

So, we recently enjoyed Fox’s two week holiday break from school (also known as “No, you will not write so much as a sentence, Mommy! No productivity for you!”). Santa as well as wonderful family members and friends brought Fox lots of Legos for Christmas. His gift to me was the Cinderella’s Lego carriage.

Cindy's carriage


Suffice it to say that Fox and I spent a lot of time on Christmas break building with the tiny little bricks (aka manicure ruiners and impromptu burglar device—you ever stepped on one? Yeouch!)

Anyway, while building my 87 step tow truck, I reflected on what building Legos can teach you about writing.


1) The picture on the front of the box looks great. Just like the mental picture of your perfect, beautiful story with the clever dialogue and gorgeous metaphors. And then, in reality, you put the sticker on crooked (or backwards) and it never comes out just like the photo on the box. That’s okay. It’s still a beautiful Lego tow truck or a novel. Whichever.

2) Takes longer than you expect. I hoped that I could finish our car carrier in something less than a lunar month. Maybe not. Just like a novel, it takes way longer than you thought it would to put together 300 Lego pieces into something resembling the intended creation. That’s ok. Take however much time you need.


3) You’ll always have extra pieces. I think Lego puts extras in there just so you’re never entirely sure that you followed the directions properly. No matter what happens, there are going to be pieces of the story—scenes, dialogue, description, the entire third act—that you don’t need for the final version. Keep them in a handy-dandy ziploc. You might need them for that next project—Lego or otherwise.

4) There’s a point in every project where you’d like to toss it across the room. For Lego, this usually happened around step twenty. For writing, it’s usually just past the mid-point where I decide hate the story, every character in it is too stupid to live, I must have been drunk when I came up with the idea and I should never again scribble notes in the middle of the night… At that moment, maybe take a short break, grab a juice box, and just breathe for a bit. Then, keep going. You’ll never build that 700+ piece castle if you quit. Same for your novel.


Now, time to get back to mine…


Writing Friends


28c79aac89f44f2dcf865ab8c03a4201So, in the mid-1990s (which was twenty years ago—OMG! How did that happen? I feel like Rip Van Winkle!), I attended law school at night while working full-time during the day. As you can imagine, this did not leave much room for fun activities like sleeping or watching TV. I completely missed the first few years of Friends.

Thank goodness, Netflix gave me a little New Year’s gift. All ten seasons of Friends are available to stream, just in time for hibernation season. I mainlined the first two seasons (I’m right at the end of season two as I write this).

I do know, in broad general terms, how it all ends and the major plot points along the way. But, I’d never seen a single episode of the first season. And, as I watched, I considered all the writing lessons I could draw from it. Multi-tasking like a boss 🙂

1) Archetypes with a twist:

I haven’t figured this out yet for the girls but the boys are classic Kirk/Spock/Bones archetypes. Their traits are not as exaggerated as in Star Trek. Joey is a good-hearted womanizer (Kirk), Ross is a socially awkward scientist (Spock), and Chandler is the wise-cracking guy covering his vulnerability with humor (Bones).

Chandler-Ross-and-Joey-friends-2822190-376-478 Kirk_Spock_McCoy_bridge_2267

It’s just like how Golden Girls and Sex and the City are the same show. I doubt Joey, Ross, and Chandler are going to boldly go anywhere other than Central Perk but the basic character types are the same. Understanding tropes well helps to create a set of characters. The trick, of course, is giving them your own unique spin.

Lesson learned: Base characters on archetypes but be sure to give them a unique spin.

Here’s the link to TV Tropes about the trio. But, I warn you, it’s a greater time sink than Tumblr and Facebook combined.

2) Backstory:

Even though the show focuses on a group of friends who’ve known each other for a while, it’s not immediately clear how these individuals know each other at all. In the pilot, we learn that Rachel and Monica were friends in grade and high school. Pretty quickly thereafter, we learn that Monica and Ross are siblings. We don’t find out until the second season that Chandler and Ross were college roommates. I still have no idea how Joey and Phoebe became part of the group, though I know that Phoebe was Monica’s prior roommate.
So far, it hasn’t been necessary to know any of that. So the writers haven’t shared. It helps to sustain interest on the part of the viewer.

Lesson learned: Only give backstory out when it’s essential to understanding the current story. Not before.

3) Character combos:

There are six main characters in the ensemble. It’s not uncommon to see Chandler and Joey together as well as Rachel and Monica. They are roommates so lots of scenes there. We see ensemble scenes frequently too. Now that Ross and Rachel are on (for the moment) we see scenes of them together often.
They also break along gender lines occasionally so we have a few scenes of the boys and some of the girls. One of the best is the one when Rachel tells Monica and Phoebe about her kiss with Ross while Ross bonds with the boys over pizza.

So far, two seasons in, it’s rare to see Ross and Joey have a scene on their own. Or Phoebe alone with Ross. One of the funniest scenes so far was Phoebe and Chandler having dual break-ups together in Central Perk but we don’t often see them either. The writers play with these combinations a great deal.

Lesson Learned: Use unusual character combinations to keep the story fresh and interesting.

4) Couples

Even if I didn’t watch the show on the first run, I’d have to have been living under a rock not to know about Ross/Rachel. I remember watching an episode with my friend (I think it was the season two one after Ross and Rachel’s first kiss) with my best friend and saying to her, “So Monica and Chandler are a couple?” It was not my ever-reliable ESP but rather that, even in the early seasons, Perry and Cox are usually positioned in camera shots together. The show runners claim that the early positioning was due to Cox and Perry’s on screen chemistry and they do have great comedic chemistry. Still, it’s difficult not to see it as foreshadowing. Perhaps the writers of Friends didn’t do it deliberately but, as a writing lesson learned, it’s hard not to see it as foreshadowing.

Lesson Learned: Figure out the end game first and then use foreshadowing to get you there.

ross-and-rachel-rachel-green-25395276-1024-768 wedding-chandler-matthew-perry-monica-courteney-cox-2001-76746


I wondered if the show would feel dated. And it does a tiny bit. The fashion and the hairstyles are very unintentionally funny. (Did we all wear those high waisted stone washed jeans?) They are perpetually dashing into each other’s apartments to use cordless phones the size of bricks. And every time they show background shots of the twin towers I feel like I’m bleeding internally. But the situations and the relationships are timeless and relatable even twenty years later.

I can’t wait to see what happens next—hey, do you think Ross and Rachel will break up again?

Parenting, Writing

Snow Day Fun


We’ve now had four snow days in a row here. That’s right, after a two week holiday vacation, the kiddos had exactly two days of school before enjoying another six days in a row off. In many ways, this was super-convenient for me, the stay-at-home writer mom, because all my careful new year goal setting went right out the window the first week of January. How stress-reducing for me! Take that, resolutions! I didn’t even make it to the 5th before I blew it. With the holiday next Monday and a teacher work day the following one, Fox won’t have school on a Monday for the rest of January–that means a three 4 day work weeks in a row for me.

Remember when you were in school how a snow day seemed like a gift from God? No homework, no stress over where to sit at lunch, and if today was one of those god-awful Presidential Fitness days where the gym teacher actually expected you to run a mile. I mean, I changed into my gym clothes. Wasn’t that enough? Now I was expected to ruin my makeup on top of everything? Or, even worse, having to play that crazy crab version of kickball in the gym where all the guys crowed over seeing your undies up your gym shorts. No? Just me with that fun memory then? But back to snow days—as an extra snow day bonus, you got to stay home and see what mom was up to all day, relaxing at home. Snow days. They were the best, back then.

And then, once the work-a-day grind commenced, a snow day meant sleeping late before curling up on the sofa to read a whole novel or watch a movie or, once paired off like the animals in the ark…well, let’s just say, there’s always a baby boom nine months later for a reason, am I right?

And now? Now that I work from home, what is a snow day like with a six year old? Well, first of all, he’s still at the age where he adores school and is furious that he can’t go hang out with his friends for story and snack time. My little social butterfly is in kindergarten this year and still thinks school is awesome!

Snow Day1

Also, because of the reflection of the sun on the snow outside, his bedroom is lit up like a magazine cover photo shoot so he’s awake at the ass-crack of dawn. My little darling is a breakfast eater—adores breakfast and it’s the one meal he’s guaranteed to eat—so sleeping late is out the window. Then, he’s expecting a non-caffeinated Mommy to bounce of bed trilling circle time songs and ready with a convenient craft time activity. That’s so not happening.

After I negotiate time for Mommy to sip coffee by swearing to play Legos all afternoon, he’s got every Thomas the Trackmaster train he owns running across our hardwood kitchen floor (the noise alone is enough to make me weep into my coffee cup) and then I get to trip over one of Thomas’ 45 closest friends on my way to brew a second cup. Eventually, I feel awake enough to read Fox a story which I do wrong so he takes the book away and looks at me expectantly. Oh, yes, I still have to come up with an activity, don’t I? Last Wednesday, we made banana bread, cut out 3D snowflakes, and built Legos–all before lunch.

At some point, he’ll say, “Mommy, lunchtime!” And I look around for my mother to show up with my favorite snow day lunch of grilled cheese and tomato soup. Then I remember, I am the Mommy and slap together a crustless PB&J before trying to sneak another chapter in my book (currently the fabulous Yes, Please by Amy Poehler. It’s more a series of comedy essays than a memoir but it’s great. I want her to write more books all the time but I know she’s the single mom of two kids so I kinda get how it is. Snow days and all that equate to no writing time.)


Now, after lunch, Fox informs me that it’s recess time. It’s time to struggle into the snowsuit for a bracing three minutes of outdoor fun that will take us thirty minutes to get undressed from and re-dressed in our jammies (which I never wanted to get out of in the first place!) Better go find the snowsuit…and pray for warm weather.

Lost Art of Second Chances, music, Writing

Book Soundtracks

Last week, I talked about music that I listen to during the drafting process. Usually, when I’m drafting, I listen to instrumental music. Lyrics just confuse the issue.

Writers use a whole bag full of tricks to wrestle their stories onto the page. I’ve tried all kinds of things over the years—free writing, Artist’s Pages, collage, casting…the list goes on. One of the tricks that consistently works for me is to create a soundtrack for the book. Because they are not usually instrumental songs, I usually use the soundtrack to keep my head in the story while I’m away from my keyboard, not when I’m drafting it.
The Lost Art of Second Chances is a dual narrative. Lucy’s story is set in modern day but Bella’s story covers from the mid-1930s to just before the opening of Lucy’s narrative in the present. That’s a lot of musical ground to cover. Part of both Lucy and Bella’s narratives are set in Tuscany.  Just as I started writing Lucy’s story as my 2011 National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) novel, I found Jim Brickman’s Romanza CD. With one exception, it’s instrumental. I played this album a whopping 57 times during the drafting process.
I also made a playlist for Bella and Lucy’s story. In the final draft, their chapters are more or less interspersed. I wrote them independently though—Lucy’s story in 2011 and Bella’s in 2014.

These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You) by Frank Sinatra
Always Something There to Remind Me by Naked Eyes
Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy by Bette Midler (I know the Andrews Sisters did this originally but I had the Bette Midler version)
Dreams and Disasters by Owl City
A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square by Harry Connick, Jr. (Just like Bette, this is the one I had)
There You’ll Be by Faith Hill
Give Me All Your Luvin by Madonna
Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive by Bing Crosby & the Andrews Sisters
Sway by Michael Buble
Crazy for You by Madonna
Moonlight Serenade by Frank Sinatra
Livin’ On A Prayer by Bon Jovi
That’s Amore by Dean Martin
Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets
Your Love by The Outfield
Mr. Moon by Dick Hyman (from Moonstruck Soundtrack)
We Don’t Need Another Hero by Tina Turner
Surfin’ USA by the Beach Boys
In the Mood by Glenn Miller
Shooting Star by Owl City
Save the Last Dance for Me by Michael Buble
La Vie en Rose by Louis Armstrong
Put On Your Sunday Clothes by Michael Crawford (from Wall-E)

Lucy and Jack are a second chance at love story. They were teenagers in the 80s so I chose the Madonna, Bon Jovi, and other 80s hits to reference their high school experiences. As I was also a teenager in the 80s, this was a bit risky because I have my own associations with these songs. Still, they remind me of being in high school and work for me.

The Frank Sinatra, Michael Buble, and Glenn Miller definitely harken back to the WWII era, which is just passing out of living history. Rock Around the Clock and Surfin USA connect to specific scenes in the novel and parts of Bella’s life.
I add to the soundtrack throughout the writing process as I find tunes that are appropriate.
What do you think? Any songs I should add?

music, Writing

Writing with Music

Do you write with music? I love to listen to music as I write but only instrumental. Lyrics are too distracting to me as I capture the story. I do use all kinds of songs in my story soundtracks but I don’t typically listen to those while writing. Those are more an out-and-about to keep my head in the story when I can’t be at the keyboard.

I’ve always been told that I have eclectic taste in music. My husband and I combined all our CDs into iTunes years ago. Between our widely varying choices and Fox’s kids music, I think our iTunes is perpetually confused. At least, I’ve never had very good luck with genius playlists. So, as a result, I’m always on the hunt for new writing music. I thought I’d share some of my favorites and new finds with you today. Next week, we can talk about story soundtracks.

First up, some favorites:

The Boston Pops. My mother is from Boston and both she and my father love the Pops. My sister and I grew up listening to them. We even saw them in a holiday concert a few years ago. If they ever come back to DC again, I’ll be there. My favorite non-holiday Pops offering is the Celtic album. But, how can you go wrong with the Pops? All the albums are great.

Celtic Album

Jim Brickman. Some of his radio hits do have lyrics or are piano covers of pop hits that my brain supplies the words for each time they play. Can’t remember the name of the person I just met or the title of the book I want to buy but song lyrics are all in there. I also saw Jim Brickman in concert which was an excellent show. Some of my favorites albums by him are:

By Heart NoWords Unspoken

I’ve also recently discovered Brain Sync and have the ones for focus and creativity. They seem to work very well. I did need to purchase headphones for those because listening with earbuds so long was hurting my ears. I got these Sony ones for less than $20 and they work great.

Soundtracks can be a great choice for instrumentals. Some of my particular favorites to compose to are:

Pirates of the Caribbean


Pride and Prejudice (BBC) and the Kiera Knightly version too.

P&P1 P&P2


How to Train Your Dragon


Harry Potter:




The Lost Art of Second Chances includes a World War II storyline so I’ve been listening to a lot of WWII era music. Glenn Miller is the perfect accompaniment to writing the war time scenes. I especially love In the Mood and String of Pearls.


I also just discovered the Piano Guys. How great are they? Their newest album just came out last week and went right on my Christmas list. They have several other albums and I’ve had those on nearly non-stop as I race to the finish line on The Lost Art of Second Chances.



How about you? What do you listen to as you write? Got any suggestions I should try out?



Podcasts, Writing

On Podcasts, Buffy, and Learning from a Master Storyteller



Do you listen to podcasts? I was a little late to the podcast party. Last time I tried to listen to a podcast, they were impossible to sync properly and, at the time, I had no way to listen in the car. One of my dearest friends, a fellow Outlander fan, suggested The Scot and the Sassanach. After her patient coaxing, I downloaded the first episode to listen to on my hour drive home from her house. Technology marches on and now, through the magic of Apple’s podcast app and my car’s bluetooth integration, I’m a total addict.

I’m working my way through their Story Wonk Sunday, Story Wonk Sessions, and Story Wonk Daily archives. The Story Wonk Sessions are especially fun since they focus on Pixar movies. I can multi-task and watch Pixar movies with Fox in preparation for my Story Wonk school. Win-win all around.


Their newest Podcast, Dusted, focuses on analyzing Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, way back before the Pilot and I became parents to Fox, we glommed Buffy via Netflix. So far back, we had to wait for the next disc in the mail. Now, most of our television watching centers on age-appropriate TV for Fox. Am I the only parent praying for Peppa Pig to become bacon?

Anyway, I never got around to re-watching Buffy. In preparation for Dusted, I just watched the first two episodes and realized how much Joss Whedon, the genius creator of Buffy, seeded into that first episode. He hid so much in that episode that would later be key, important, or pivotal details.

For example, the opening segment shows a couple sneaking into Sunnydale high, seeking a private trysting place. The girl—dressed in a Catholic schoolgirl style—is Darla. That’s right, the first vampire we meet is Darla. That’s the very same Darla who created Angel and gave birth to Angel’s son, Connor, in an alleyway. We also run into Angel in this episode too as a helpful stalker.

Also, we meet Harmony for the first time. Harmony of Spike and Harmony fame. Harmony-the dimwitted girl who later becomes a vicious and funny vampire—is there. She only has a few lines of dialogue with Cordy in the computer lab. Blink and you miss it kind of thing. But she’s there.


At the time we watched this (at least a decade ago), I only had eyes for Angel. And he’s cute and David Borenz’s acting’s come a long way. But Tony Head as Giles is the same age I am now (43) when Buffy began. And that Giles is awful cute with that accent and the Harry Potter glasses. How did I not notice that before?

One of my favorite things as a reader is being surprised when a tiny detail later becomes monumental. JK Rowling is a master at this and so is Whedon. As a writer, I know some of this is accidental or at least subconscious. For me, I’m looking at this wondering how I can integrate the big important details into the early scenes of my story to provide this same kind of reader surprise.

When I watched Buffy the first time, I mostly just watched for the story. But this time, I’m watching as a writer and taking notes. Then listening to the Lani Diane Rich and Alastair Stephens of Story Wonk help me break it down. Because part of being a great writer is learning from the master. Joss Whedon? Definitely a master.