How Jigsaw Puzzles Can Jumpstart Creativity

October 15, 2018

“Move.” I actually force myself to utter this word aloud when I get stuck while assembling a jigsaw puzzle. I’m kind of embarrassed to declare my love of jigsaw puzzles. The hobby seems like the antithesis of my right-brained approach to life. The pursuits that most reliably fill and nurture my soul are generally creative, like the novels I write. In fiction, there are no rules. Life is a series of endless possibilities, of infinite new paths, of countless unexplored destinations. A novelist’s protagonist (insert name here with whatever name you feel like assigning your protagonist) can choose option A, option B, option C or option “other” at any juncture at all. The choices are wide open. A jigsaw puzzle, of course, is the exact opposite: a challenge with only a single acceptable solution for any given dilemma. That blank space in your picture can’t be filled by your imagination. It can be filled only by the one puzzle piece that exactly conforms to its dimensio...

Giving Thanks for Tips to Push Past Writer’s Block

October 1, 2018

When I’m plagued by writer’s block in the middle of a novel, I picture myself at Thanksgiving dinner. Well . . . not the dinner itself, but the after-party, when family members are scattered in various places throughout the house. There’s the den of course, where sports fans sprawl semi-catatonically in front of a football game on a large-screen TV. There’s the spare bedroom, where kids are transforming pillows and linens into forts. There’s the living room, where political disagreements are getting heated. There’s the kitchen, where chitchat turns mellow while dishes are rinsed or slices of pumpkin pie are picked over. There’s the back yard, where a game of kickball is unfolding, or the front-porch stoop, where an intimate conversation is bringing tears to someone’s eyes. Yes, that’s the house my imagination walks through when my inspiration is flagging. Once I’ve begun a novel, I have a strong sense of the basics: tone, voice, setting . . . and all cyl...

What I Hope Baby D3 Never Unlearns

July 3, 2018

With my third grandchild due to arrive in less than a month (insert gasp of joy here), I’ve given some thought to what I’d like to teach him. But as I started contemplating my words of wisdom, it occurred to me that the most important things I want him to know aren’t things he has to learn. In all his pure, beautiful perfection, he’ll come into the world knowing them. But sadly, most babies outgrow what they intuitively know. So what follows is not a list of what I want Baby D3 to learn; it’s a list of what I want him not to unlearn . . . at least not too early. Baby D3, please don’t unlearn: *That people are good. I love that you will come into the world knowing this. Your utter faith in the fact that every smile you share will be returned will manifest your expectations. Your faith will uplift those around you, will remind them of their higher and better selves, will make them want to be worthy of your trust. Yes, you’ll learn too soon that some people...

Pulling Together Rather Than Tearing Each Other Apart

June 27, 2018

I was the funny one. That’s the sibling role I settled into at a young age. I was one of five children, and there was lots of jostling-about for bragging rights, so it was no easy task establishing my bonafides. My big brother, the eldest, was the smart one, the leader, the pitch-perfect musician. My oldest sister, number-two on my parents’ hit parade, was the little mother — the caring, maternal one who put everyone else’s needs and preferences ahead of her own. My next sister, Hurley number three, was simply a perfectionist in every way possible — class valedictorian, a prodigy on the piano and many other superlatives associated with an over-achieving middle child jockeying for her fair share of attention. I was number four, so humor and storytelling became my forte. (The pickings were slim by the time I came along, particularly amid such formidable competition.) My baby brother threw all the balls in the air and carved a new niche entirely, distinguishing himself in ...

Do You Have a Moment?

June 12, 2018

Moments. Those are what find their way into my novels. I'm frequently asked if my characters are based on real people. Of course, the occasional characteristic or physical trait of a friend or acquaintance might end up in one of my books, but for the most part, no. One of the joys of fiction-writing is to create a person from whole cloth, endowing the character with a decidedly unique set of DNA. But moments. . . Those I collect like precious stones as people cross my path, and they occasionally do make the cut. They're the moments I can't shake from my mind for one reason or another, no matter how much time passes. They resonate. They haunt. They inform. They encapsulate in a single anecdote a lifetime of wisdom, or angst, or perspective, or all of the above. For instance, there's the assault victim who shared with me that after her ordeal, her rapist muttered contemptuously, "Go clean yourself up." That detail -- so cruel, so searing -- found its way into the rape scene o...

The Writer as Hairdresser

June 7, 2018

A hairdresser with awful hair. That's what I challenge fledgling writers to think of when they ask for advice on writing an effective query letter. I often find that unpublished writers seem to have two sets of writing standards: one that applies to their novel and one that applies to the tedious business of trying to get their novel sold. I think that's a mistake. My short answer to the question of how to write an effective query letter (or any of the other document related to trying to interest an agent or publisher in your novel) is to convince the recipient that you're a great writer with a great idea. I think the former is particularly important. Great writers tend to make virtually any groupings of words sparkle. Whether they're writing emails, thank-you notes or novels, they're cognizant of engaging the reader. That doesn't mean being pretentious . . . just the opposite, in fact. It means respecting the reader enough not to squander the opportunity to form a connecti...

Stepping Out on William Styron

June 6, 2018

A confession: I’ve been stepping out on William Styron lately. I’ve finally gotten around to reading “Sophie’s Choice” (I know, what an idiot for waiting so long), and I’m totally in love with Styron’s lush and elegant prose. But I’ve got to pull away from it occasionally. I’ve seen the movie, and I’m clear that the Holocaust drama gets more heart-wrenching with every page. So after absorbing a few pages at a time about Sophie, Stingo and Nathan, I zip down the metaphorical street to check in with Michael and Kit in the memoir, “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies,” or take a sharp detour by reading a chapter or two of “Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.” In other words, I’m reading all three (and a couple of others as well) simultaneously. I once considered such a flighty attention span nothing short of sacrilege. I mean, how was I supposed to do justice to the neurotic idiosyncrasies of Harry Angstrom if I was alternating chapters of...

Reading by the Pool

May 31, 2018

I was reading a book at my neighborhood pool the other day when I noticed two little boys playing in the shallow end, laughing gleefully as they invented new water games on the fly, refining the rules with every round. After about an hour or so, they emerged from the pool, shaking chlorine-scented water from their ears as they joined their mom in a deck chair. She retrieved a book from her beach bag and began reading aloud to them. They nestled languidly against her as their limbs spilled over the sides of the chair. I couldn’t make out the words she read to them, but I detected her soothing voice as she turned page after page for the next forty minutes or so. The boys were entranced. And so was I. I loved seeing kids so utterly captivated by the written word, so lulled by their mom’s sonorous voice. No wonder they’d played together so easily, so effortlessly, in the pool a few minutes earlier. They were clearly accustomed to keeping themselves happily and harmoniously a...

Say What?

May 24, 2018

My BFF, Wendy, and I had an ongoing shtick throughout college. We’d be making normal conversation, then we’d follow the last sentence with, “she said.” We often added adverbs for fun. For instance, if I was trying to talk Wendy into going to a concert with me that night, I’d follow it with, “. . . she said hopefully.” We got crazy mileage and endless mutual appreciation out of this little verbal tic that made everyone around us roll their eyes. I can’t swear to it, but I’m guessing I’m the one who set this silly trope in motion. Why? Because I spend my life actually subconsciously adding, “. . . she said” after I say something aloud. It’s the writer in me. Conversation isn’t conversation, it’s dialogue. I spend so much time writing dialogue for imaginary characters that I can virtually visualize the quotation marks around my real-life words. Dialogue is my favorite part of writing, a way to fully immerse myself in a make-believe person and to bring t...

My Non-Advice for Aspiring Writers

May 21, 2018

I'll be among the panelists at an upcoming writers' workshop, so I'm brushing up on my advice for fledgling novelists. I'll trot out the tried-and-true adages: show, don't tell; read your dialogue aloud to road-test its authenticity; edit yourself mercilessly (don't count every word, but make every word count); be smart and strategic in submitting your work for publication . . . stuff like that. But I always feel a bit like a fraud when giving advice. I mean, what do I know? Yes, I've had a modicum of success in the publishing business, but maybe I'd have had way more had I played my cards differently. I certainly didn't follow a specific path; I just kinda bumbled my way along, learning by trial and error. The fact is that creative writing is an intensely personal endeavor. One-size-fits-all just doesn't apply, particularly considering fiction's inherent subjectivity. So maybe I'll try a different tack. Maybe rather than advising aspiring writers what to do, I'll advis...

© 2018 Christine Hurley Deriso