The making of a novel, part 6—how writing is like parenting

Granted, I only have one child, but all of my friends with multiple kids say the same thing: the second is nothing like the first. In many cases, it seems, they’re the complete opposite.

Having finished one book and begun another, I’m tempted to say the same is true of writing. With Dell’s story, I knew I needed to do a lot of research to get the details right. But I didn’t want to be doing research; I wanted to write. So I started writing scenes in random order, working on the ones that didn’t require medical knowledge—just a solid feel for the characters and their emotions. After I put in the time to learn what I needed to know, I built the structure of the story around the treatment journey and fit the character scenes in where they made sense.

That seemed to work well for me. Only a few scenes couldn’t find a place in the narrative, and it made writing from the beginning go faster and more smoothly. So as I embarked on this next story, I figured I might as well approach it the same way. But my second novel, the little bugger, is nothing like the first.

Rae’s story doesn’t need the framework that Dell’s did, which is good on the one hand because it gives me more freedom, but bad on the other because I don’t have a structure to guide me along. I didn’t edit the last book as I went. But I’m about an eighth of the way into this one and I already feel the need to revise what I’ve got.

We’ll see what happens when I get to the third book. Maybe a pattern will emerge and one of these two will be the outlier. But I have a sneaking suspicion that—like kid #3—it will be its own unique blend of challenges and joys as well.

How parenting has made me a better writer

Accepting criticism

Curious about what I’ve been writing, Ellie once asked if I would read it to her. Figuring a book about cancer isn’t appropriate for a six-year-old, I read her one of my old middle grade novels. Because I hadn’t looked at the manuscript in a decade, the flaws were painfully obvious, but Ellie was hooked by the story of a girl who is put-upon by her brother. She was engaged until the very end, when the sister teaches the brother a lesson and they declare a truce. But the parents never know how horrible he was to her, and Ellie was offended by this lack of justice. Crying actual tears, she told me my book was terrible and that was why no one wanted to publish it. I’d like to think agents will be kinder than that.

Reading aloud

Years ago, having heard the recommendation to read your work aloud, I sat alone in our guest room and awkwardly listened to the sound of my own voice. Whether it was helpful or not, it was definitely uncomfortable. But once you have a kid, you get pretty used to hearing yourself read. And when I started recording myself reading my current novel aloud, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it not only felt more natural but also turned out to be quite enjoyable. Despite the criticism of my brother-sister saga, Ellie frequently compliments my reading prowess—I pride myself on my inflections and voices (my favorite is Roald Dahl’s The Witches).

Mind over matter

I’m not a fan of bugs. But I didn’t want Ellie to acquire my fear. So once I became a parent, I forced myself to think of insects as fascinating specimens of nature. Seven years later, Ellie picks up every bug she finds in the house and escorts it back outside. She doesn’t hesitate to put her face right next to a cicada or hold a cockroach in her hand. I’m not quite that brave, but I’m far less afraid than I used to be. The mind is a powerful thing. So when I was at a writing conference last month, preparing to pitch my book to agents, feeling the nerves creep up on me, I gave myself a little pep talk. Reminding myself that agents are people like everybody else and that they were there to help aspiring authors like me, I was able to calm myself down and go in with only mildly sweaty palms.

Random acts of kindness: how we began

Toward the end of 2013, I was starting to realize that Ellie would have a lot of stuff in her life. Shawn and I were pretty sure we didn’t want more kids, and we’re both only children ourselves, which meant all the love, affection, and buying power from two sets of grandparents plus other family members would be concentrated on her.

This was especially true at Christmas, when each day brought her closer to an influx of toys to add to the pile she already had. Not wanting to deny her the pleasure of presents, I wondered if we could embrace her good fortune while also establishing a family tradition of giving back.

Every year, we hang on our wall the same fabric countdown calendar I used to anticipate my childhood Christmases. What if we borrowed the countdown idea but changed the payoff?

Starting December 1st, in addition to marking time until The Day of Many Gifts, we would think of something to do for someone else—a way to brighten their day or lighten their load. Once the holiday season ended, we would have 24 “happy tasks,” as we’ve come to call them, to complete over the next 12 months.

Now, more than five years later, with nearly 100 unique random (or not so random) acts of kindness under our belts (plus many we repeat from year to year), this tradition is one of my proudest parenting accomplishments. Ellie is an active participant, coming up with her own ideas and helping execute nearly all of them, and the habits this endeavor has instilled in her shine through her actions—from leaving her money for other kids to find to wanting to donate her hair (more on that in a future post).

And because this has become a regular part of our lives, it seems only natural that it should make its way into my writing. With Dell, I proudly set her treatment in Nationwide Children’s Hospital, a recipient of many of our happy tasks. One of my new projects is a story about a 16-year-old girl named Rae, who is struggling to overcome a major loss and needs the healing power of kindness.

As part of this blog, I’ll periodically feature posts about random acts of kindness that Shawn, Ellie, and I commit—the Happy Task Series. Please check back, and feel free to take our ideas and spread some joy yourself. Leave comments too with suggestions—the world can’t have too much kindness.