Writing in the midst of life

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.

Resolve to be kind

If you’re looking to spread more kindness in the coming year, here are some ideas for easy resolutions to incorporate into your everyday life.

1. When you buy something from a vending machine, put in more money than you need.

2. Park further away so someone else can park closer.

3. Use thank-you notes for more than gifts: write a note of appreciation to teachers, coaches, doctors, librarians, etc.

4. Use AmazonSmile to donate to a charity of your choice.

5. Embrace bouquets: give them to the office staff at work or school, send flowers to someone on their birthday, or bring them to the nurses’ station of a hospital for whichever patient they think could use cheering up.

6. Leave copies of your favorite books in public places for other people to take and enjoy.

7. Dedicate a day, week, or month of compliments—see how many you can hand out.

8. When you bake cookies or other treats, double the recipe and take the extras to neighbors, the police or fire station, or your pediatrician’s office.

9. Donate food, toys, or clothing to a food bank, an animal shelter, or a children’s hospital.

10. Treat a friend to dinner.

11. When you take a walk around your neighborhood, take a notepad with you. Write complimentary notes about people’s homes and gardens.

12. Don’t be afraid to have fun while doing something kind: join a wine club or a culinary “of the month” club and share the bounty with friends or colleagues.

No act of kindness is too small. Making kindness a part of your daily routine helps keep it top of mind. Soon you’ll see all kinds of opportunities to do a good deed.

The making of a novel, part 5—serendipity, and Christmas

Around the time of making the switch from GNR to Bon Jovi, I was also noodling around with the theatre aspect of the story. I’m still exploring the relationship between Rae and Mac, but I know they’re going to meet through high school theatre. What show would the school put on? What roles would my main characters play? Would they be cast opposite each other as the leads? Might that lead to awkward physical/romantic moments? 

All valid questions, but because of a session at a writing workshop I attended this summer and some research I’d done for Dell’s story, there was another, more pressing issue: How can I include rehearsal scenes without using dialogue from the script? I’ve learned more about copyright laws, and I’d like to avoid having to deal with getting permission (something I’m told publishers will be reluctant to deal with too). 

Here’s where life comes in handy. Years ago, I was the assistant director of a community theatre production of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. First of all, I love Christmas. Second, there are a handful of holiday movies I watch every year, among which is It’s a Wonderful Life. Third, the stage play is one of my all-time favorite pieces of theatre to present or view. And fourth, it’s as much about the props, sound effects, and other stagecraft as it is about the words the actors say. 

I think Rae will be in the show, but Mac will be the student director. They’ll grow closer as they work on bringing the show to life—trips to Goodwill to scour the store for props, late nights in the theatre experimenting with how to make the sound of George jumping into the river (it’s harder than you’d think).

Convinced this was the right approach, I hopped online and ordered a copy of the script. And when I told Shawn, he said what had occurred to me as well: book or no book, I should have a copy of that script in our library because I Iove the show so much. All of the meaningful literary pleasures from our lives have an honored place in our library. I’ve got two shelves of theatre books, including librettos and scripts from my favorite musicals and plays. But should my newest acquisition go with my theatre books or my novel research/inspiration books…?

The making of a novel, part 4—names

It’s been a l-o-o-o-n-g time since I was in the brainstorming phase for a book. With Dell’s story, I did most of the ideation back in 2011; when I returned to the story earlier this year, I jumped right into writing.

One of my absolute favorite parts of brainstorming is coming up with character names. Years ago, my grandfather gave me this giant dictionary, and at the back of it was a list of baby names. This was before the Internet, so I poured over this list time and time again, first for my dolls (I don’t know how many times my plastic Playskool doll house family were renamed) and later for my characters. These days, my fire of passion burns for the Social Security Administration Baby Names website. This is a tremendous resource for writers—you can see the top 1,000 names in any given year. So you can give a character a name that was popular the year he/she was born or, if you’re looking for an uncommon name, you can search for names that were popular decades earlier (sometimes they come back around, but other times, I think, Yeah, no one will ever name their kid “Gaylord” again).

After scouring this list in search of a name for a boy Rae will meet through theatre, I had a short list of three names. The problem was that my top choice is the name of my husband’s best friend from college. Part of the challenge of choosing names is that there are so many that are essentially off-limits—I don’t want to use the name of someone I know well, or a name that conjures an image of someone unpleasant from my past. Ideally, characters should have a memorable name, somewhat unique, and not one that already holds a strong position in children’s literature. So as for Amos, the name of my husband’s friend, I was torn. Although we see him occasionally, he’s not a regular part of our lives. Is that still too close a relationship to borrow his name?

As it turned out, it was a moot point. My brain was still churning, and here’s how my mind works: Ellie and I were eating mac and cheese from Panera. This led me to think about Friends (because many things make me think about Friends) and The One With Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E. I liked the name “Mac” and I immediately had an idea of having it be short for something the boy dislikes (“Macmillan”) and there being a scene between him and Rae in which they banter about pretentious-sounding names.

At this stage in the process, my brain is always on, and anything from the depths of its recesses is up for grabs. As it turned out, the hours and hours I’ve spent watching Friends weren’t just mindless entertainment. (And hats off to you if you thought of Friends when you read the word “moot” in the paragraph above—Joey: “a moo point. It’s like a cow’s opinion. It just doesn’t matter. It’s moo.”—you know I did.)

Kindness through the ages

Ellie with our “Angel” gifts in 2017

Having started doing “happy tasks” when Ellie was one year old, we’ve seen her involvement change dramatically over the past six years. It was exciting when she started coming up with ideas of her own. (One of her first was to “leave a penny to help the animals” at the zoo.) And it’s been fun seeing her ideas mature as she has.

Every year at Christmas, we “adopt” a child through the Salvation Army Angels program. (You can learn more about the program here.) We always pick a girl who’s the same age as Ellie, and we encourage Ellie to help us pick out presents she might like. This year, shopping for our girl—Raina—was the most fun it’s ever been. (And yes, after I narrowed down the options by gender and age, I definitely picked this girl because she shares the name of the main character in my next novel.)

We were given a list of things Raina likes and wants, so Ellie and I entered Meijer last Friday with our sights set on doll accessories. Having found multiple possibilities, Ellie spread all the choices out around her on the floor and proceeded to deliberate on which ones Raina would like best.

Watching Ellie give so much thought to gifts for someone else (gifts she would be happy to get herself) filled my heart with joy. I ended up spending more than I normally do, partly because it’s wonderful to imagine a girl who doesn’t have a lot being surprised and delighted on Christmas morning, but also because of how gratifying it was seeing Ellie’s excitement.

I don’t think good deeds need to be selfless; in fact, I think people are more likely to be kind if they get something in return. I love having fun with Ellie as we complete our happy tasks, and I hope the fact that she enjoys it instills in her a desire to continue giving back as she grows up.

The making of a novel, part 3—puzzle pieces

Before I put pen to paper, I like to 1) know the characters well and 2) have a decent idea of the major plot points of the story. I don’t need all the specifics, but I want to know the landmarks to be on the lookout for. I knew this book would open sometime before the anniversary of Rae’s father’s death, and I knew the actual anniversary would be the turning point as far as kindness. What I needed to figure out was 1) what she does on that day and 2) what act of kindness someone performs to inspire her to embark on her own crusade of kindness.

The simple act of changing the title from GNR to Bon Jovi answered both of those questions and more. Because I, too, am a fan of Bon Jovi, I knew they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. If Rae’s dad loved 80s rock and loved Bon Jovi in particular, surely he would have wanted to see their exhibit in the Hall of Fame, especially given that Cleveland is only a couple of hours away from Columbus, where my story is set (write what you know). But maybe he died before he got the chance.

So on the anniversary of his death, Rae skips school to go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and see the Bon Jovi memorabilia in her father’s honor. When she arrives, the exhibit is closed. Despite all her pleading, the person at the ticket counter refuses to let her in. Enter the kind stranger—an employee who sees her huddled on the floor, despondent, and sneaks her in.

The Bon Jovi change also gave me an idea for the opening of the book. Previously, I’d had the idea to use an 80s rock song title to open each chapter. With the Bon Jovi connection, it seemed obvious that the first chapter has to be a Bon Jovi song. And while I’m still not sure about the whole opening scene, I think it makes sense to open with Rae’s musing on the connection between Bon Jovi and her dad. Here’s what I’ve got:

I like to pretend my father’s mortician was Jon Bon Jovi’s grandfather. Granted, we didn’t go to Bongiovi Funeral Home because we don’t live in Raritan, New Jersey, and Bon Jovi’s grandpop is probably dead too, but if somehow Mr. Bongiovi had buried my dad, it would have made him happy.

Now I just need the right song title….

The making of a novel, part 2—titles

When Rae’s story was intended for adults, the key elements of the narrative were as follows: Patrice’s husband, Derek, had died almost a year before the beginning of the book; Derek loved Christmas, and the book opened with Patrice struggling to deal with her first holiday season without him; Rae was struggling as well, and Patrice didn’t know how to help her—musical theatre was Rae’s one salvation but not something she shared with Patrice. Eventually, Patrice came up with an idea of doing kind things for others as a way to distract themselves from their pain, thus leading them down the path to kindness and, ultimately, healing.

As I’ve started thinking about how to rework the story for a young adult book, I’ve decided to keep Rae’s interest in theatre, but not a whole lot else. Rather than her mom organizing the kindness crusade, it’s a random act from a stranger on Rae’s darkest day—the one-year anniversary of her father’s death—that prompts Rae to explore the power of doing good for others. And instead of her dad loving Christmas, now it’s 80s rock music.

It’s been interesting writing after having attended two writing conferences this summer/fall. I find myself brainstorming with half a mind for what may be more likely to sell. And because I know I’ll ultimately have to write a query letter and synopsis and so forth, I tend to focus my thinking in terms of how I’ll one day describe this book—which led me to the title.

I know publishers often change the title of a manuscript before it gets published, but I’d still like my work-in-progress title to have the potential to go the distance. So while I drove to work one morning, thinking about the main themes of this book—theatre, kindness, and rock—I had the idea of using those three elements in the title. After a moment, I felt I had it: Ghost Lights, Kindness, and GNR.

Excitedly, I told Shawn that night—but I knew even before I revealed the title that he wasn’t going to like it. Sure enough, I got a blank stare, and when prompted, he explained that my title doesn’t tell him what to expect from the book, what it’s about. He likes literal titles—The Hobbit, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When I asked him if he would know what to expect from a book titled The Fault in Our Stars or All the Ways the World Can End, he admitted he is not a competent authority on book titles, especially young adult book titles.

So for the time being, Rae’s story is called Ghost Lights, Kindness, and Jon Bon Jovi. Shawn (probably rightly) suggested that my target audience likely doesn’t know that GNR refers to Guns N’ Roses. Switching to Bon Jovi also filled in some other missing plot points in the story, like a puzzle piece fitting into place, but that’s a tale for another post.

The making of a novel, part 1—a young adult voice

After more than eight years, I’m on the verge of finishing Dell’s story and sending it out into the world. So as I embark on my next project, I’ve decided to chronicle the journey from germ of an idea to completed manuscript.

First, some background: in the fall of 2017, I was dabbling in writing again after taking a several-year hiatus as I adjusted to life as a parent. Shawn, Ellie, and I had started doing our happy tasks, and I thought, Hey, this would make a cool book. So I began writing an adult novel about a woman whose husband has died and who, over the course of the novel, discovers the healing power of kindness.

Fast-forward two years. When I made a New Year’s resolution to write more in 2019, I picked up where I had left off on what I was calling The Happy Jar. But something wasn’t working. The 50 pages I had felt flat.

I had debated whether to spend my newly committed writing time working on this kindness story or on Dell’s, so when I hit a wall, I switched. Obviously, I saw Dell through to the end, but as I was working on it, I realized something about the other book: it shouldn’t have been an adult novel.

One of my strengths as a writer, I think, is my voice—and it’s a young adult voice. So why was I telling the story from the mom’s point of view? A logical question, but scary nonetheless. It’s hard to abandon something you’ve put time, effort, and heart into. And although I knew something was wrong with what I had, there was a lot I liked about it too. I’d begun to fall in love with the characters—my main character, Patrice; her late husband, Derek (revealed in flashbacks); and her daughter, Rae. But once I was willing to entertain the possibilities of starting over, it became clear that Rae needed to be the one to tell this story.

So, meet Raina (Rae) Ballester—you’ll be seeing more of her soon.

Selfless good deeds

As those who know me can attest, Friends is my favorite show of all time. So many life situations harken back to an episode. Recently, I was thinking about “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS.” Joey tries to convince Phoebe there’s no unselfish good deed because doing kind things for others makes you feel good.

Here I turn to Merriam-Webster. Selfless means “having or showing great concern for other people and little or no concern for yourself.” Because I find joy in performing acts of kindness, I have to disagree with selfless good deeds. But M-W defines selfish as “having or showing concern only for yourself and not for the needs or feelings of other people,” so I also disagree with calling them selfish.

Fortunately, because our language has a colorful variety of words with subtle nuances, we have another option. Unselfish means “having or showing more concern for other people than for yourself,” which I think is a fair description of our kind gestures.

But realistically, I believe things fall along a continuum. Some of our acts of kindness sit further from selfless because of how fun they are for us. When we buy a nice bottle of wine to share with friends or family, we’re getting as much out of that experience as they are. But some of our acts require a sacrifice and thus come closer to that elusive selfless good deed.

I am not enjoying growing out my hair in order to donate it. It’s a pain in the ass. When I sit on the couch, I have to move it out of the way. At night when I turn over, I have to flip my head around to get all the hair out from under me. Sometimes I have to use two hands when I comb it, and as winter approaches, I know it will get stuck in my coat.

Plus, beyond the inconveniences of growing it out, I’m not looking forward to getting it cut. I have had short hair twice in my life and hated it both times. So if any of our kind acts approach selflessness, this is it.


I still feel good about choosing to do it. Especially because I work in a cancer-related field, I think often about the people going through such a journey. I can only imagine the challenges—physical, emotional, financial, logistical, spiritual­—these people face. When struggling through hardship, I believe we should find as many small moments of joy as possible. And if I can help someone look in the mirror and feel a little bit better about herself, that makes me feel good.

A kindness mind-set

I was driving to work yesterday and stopped at a red light. In my rearview mirror, I saw a man get out of the car behind me and rush over to the truck to my right. Confused, I tried to figure out what was going on. Then I saw what he saw: a cell phone on the back bumper. The Good Samaritan picked up the phone and waved it in front of the driver’s side window. The driver of the truck rolled down the window and took the phone—grateful, I’m sure—as the man hurried back to his car.

It made me smile.

The kindness crusade my family and I completed last Saturday was a success—we committed 100 acts of kindness in a single day. And we weren’t alone. It was heartwarming to read the stories of others who joined in by performing their own good deeds. But it wasn’t just about that one day.

Watching the cell phone recovery reminded me of something a friend said at dinner the other night—how kindness is a mind-set and how, hopefully, all of my recent postings on the topic have kept kindness top of mind for many. This made me think of my neighbor (whom I know has been following my adventure in kindness). She recently told me a story about getting her nails done while sitting next to a 92-year-old woman doing the same. As this elderly lady shared some of her life story, my neighbor was inspired to pay for the woman’s manicure.

So while I’m proud of our accomplishment and happy we met our challenge on September 21, I think all the talk of kindness leading up to the event may have been the bigger win.

Over the years, when people ask how I get ideas for my writing, I say they often pop into my head spontaneously—but only if I’ve generally been thinking about the story. When we think regularly about kindness, I believe we’re more inclined to notice opportunities to be kind and to act on those impulses. Thank you to everyone who has done and will do something kind.