Virtual Blog Tour: Hi, World

1I was fortunate enough to be invited to be part of this virtual blog tour by Claudette Young. I met Claudette when  I was first becoming aware that there was a supportive online world of creative writers and was putting out tentative feelers at places like Writer’s Digest and Facebook.  She’s inspired me in so many ways – among other things, she and her blogging partner, Meena Rose, were the inspiration for this blog. Theirs was the first writer’s blog I’d seen that was co-written: Two Voices, One Song. I can’t recommend the blog enough.

Claudette herself is an ongoing inspiration: she’s been writing seriously since 2008 in multiple genres: poetry, science fiction/fantasy, flash fiction, children’s literature, women’s fiction, along with creative non-fiction, essay, and memoir. Claudette has been published in numerous online publications for poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, as well as print magazines and two international poetry anthologies. I’m always amazed at the number of writing projects she has in the works – you’d never know she was juggling so many different enterprises (including her blogs), because she makes it look so effortless. Even as I type, I know she’s working on some book length work as well as some poetry. I can’t encourage you enough to stop by her collaborative website and blogs at: as well as her one-woman blog at

I feel so fortunate in the friends Andrea and I have here, and Claudette is proof of that. But for now, let’s move onto the tour info. The point of this blog tour is to give people a chance to see the writing process as its engaged in by various writers. So I’m giving you a picture of my writing life as well as pass this tour torch to other writers who can share their process with us.

The tour questions:

1) What am I working on?

SQUIRREL history america gray 1This is a tricky question. I know that the minute I tell you what I’m writing, I will instantly think of four more things that sound great to start on, and trying to rein myself in..well, it’s a bit like harnessing squirrels.

I’ll take the risk though and say that right now I seem to be working on three things: First I’m writing a poem a day. It’s not for a contest or challenge or anything; I just have the time and mental space to do so. It’s convenient because August Poetry Postcard Month is coming up soon; it’s absolutely my favorite writing event each year, and I’m already in the rhythm for it.

Second, I’m working on an epistolary novel.Well, sort of. It started as a vague idea that I’d like to write a novel with a writer friend. We decided that her protagonist and mine aren’t writing to each other, but they are communicating. Between worlds. Without, at first, knowing it. No spoilers, but I will say that I am having a blast and without the pressure of having to do the plotting myself, I am writing much more than I’d planned.

Third: a few years ago at NanoWrimo, I wrote a “novel” that wasn’t – it was more like a really long world-creation exercise.  I’m now writing a couple of short stories set in that world and at the same time writing a longer piece in that world that seems to be turning into something that looks suspiciouslylike a novel.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’ve been writing since I was 5, and published my first poem when I was eight. But if you ask me how I defined myself, even early on, I would have said that I was a biologist, not a writer. I used to draw pictures of paramecia and imagine walking giant ones on a leash down the street. I spent lots of time just imagining the way in which humans and other animals were alike, with parallel bodies and live minds. I had pet fish that I watched avidly, trying to understand them, and tried to grow every kind of plant from cuttings. That sense of being part of the biological universe still seems to pervade everything I write.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Partly, I can’t help it. A phrase or a sentence pops into my head and it sticks there until it’s on paper. Partly, though, it’s because I’m a very poor visual artist – often I can see something beautiful with my eyes or in my mind but can’t draw it or photograph it, so writing it, describing it with words, is often the only way I have of sharing what I’m seeing with others.

4) How does my writing process work?

Gerrit Dou - Scholar sharpening a quill penI used to have a sort of process. When I was in school, I’d come home and write almost every night – not because I had set aside the time but because I’d be “downloading” everything I’d seen or felt during the day. Now with a family and a young child, I find myself having to put off writing more than I like. I do two things to help with that. First, a yellow Post-It notepad.  I write poems in the five minute slots between doctor’s appointments and chauffeur duties to sports events on a yellow sticky pad (I have a lot of sympathy for William Carlos Williams, who often wrote poems between patients, fitting them on his prescription pad). Second, I keep a list of inspirations. At the back of my family to-do notebook, which I also carry with me, there’s a page with a completely random list of phrases, images, notes on a place to go back and see again, sometimes a sketch or a website. That’s where I go when I’ve managed to snatch a few minutes for myself.

So that’s a look at my writing process. I want to say thank you again to Claudette for inviting me to join this amazing tour. I am looking forward to our next tour stops, with writers:

I’ll post when more information is available about each of these “tour stops.” In the meantime, there have been some really inspiring blogs and bloggers who’ve gone before me on this tour. You’ll really enjoy:

Xo – ina



Writers on Wednesdays: Margaret interviews Joan O’C Hamilton

Joan O’C Hamilton hit the ground running as a journalist.  Shortly after graduating from Stanford University, she joined BusinessWeek, where she developed the biotech beat, worked as the San Francisco bureau chief and wrote a column about Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom.  From there, as she explains in her interview, she moved into co-authoring books by such movers and shakers as former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and Kamala Harris, current California attorney general. ~ Margaret Young

Joan  in Malawi, 2012, interviewing women farmers

Joan in Malawi, 2012, interviewing women farmers

MY: I was once told you made a really early start as a journalist — in that as a high-school student in San Francisco, you decided to cover the Dan White trial. Is this true — and if so, what was it like and were you born with that kind of gumption?

JH: I did do that but there was gumption beyond my own involved.   I went to ICA [editor: Immaculate Conception Academy in San Francisco] in the Mission District.  Dan White had a lot of connections to our school – many of his female relatives were alums, and he had actually been our graduation speaker the spring the same year he shot Mayor Moscone.   ICA girls worked at the “Hot Potato” which was his business at Pier 39.

I went to the trial because we had an incredibly cool and wise Dominican nun who taught our government class, and she sent us to watch the trial one afternoon as a field trip.   I saw a television reporter there named Joyce Shank who covered the trial every day, and so after I wrote my story for the school newspaper, I sent it to her in a self-addressed stamped envelope and told her I wanted to be a reporter and asked if she could she give me some feedback and criticism.  A few days later I got a multi-page, handwritten letter back from her going through the story paragraph by paragraph with great advice.  And then she called me to talk about it and asked if I’d like to babysit her 5 year-old son.  Long story short: She became a huge force in my life, encouraging me in journalism, recommending me for jobs, connecting with me at Stanford when she or other Channel 7 reporters needed help on a story.  She just died a couple of years ago, unfortunately.  Joyce was my first mentor even though I was much more comfortable working in print than TV news, and we became very close friends.

MY: For many years you were a correspondent for BusinessWeek, focused mostly, but not entirely, on biotech. Then you made a switch to co-authoring memoirs by well-known movers and shakers such as Meg Whitman. How big a transition was it?

whitman.COAUTHORJH: The transition was not something I planned.  I did do biotech and many other subjects, including wine, retailing, sports, and industrial design.  But the last beat I covered at Business Week was writing a satirical column about the “dot-com” lifestyle in Silicon Valley.  The column led to book projects with dot-com entrepreneurs, then an agent, and then things snowballed when I ended up ghostwriting a NYT [editor’s note: New York Times] bestseller for someone I can’t name.
 I loved magazine journalism and had a ball writing that column, but I had two young children and the book opportunities arose at the same time Business Week ad sales went into a death spiral and most of the columns were axed.  The flexibility and new income from books was terrific.

Fortunately, I discovered that I was good at writing in other peoples’ “voices.”   It turns out a lot of reporters who try to work with people on books have trouble with that.  They are so used to an objective voice and it is really difficult for them to channel the author.  Also, with my news magazine background, I can create a structure to convey complex material quickly, and I can advise my clients with some authority on what readers need to understand and connect to a message.  If you’re trying to sell a mass market book, it can’t read like a speech to a trade group or your customers or employees where everybody knows the same buzzwords.

MY:  Is it difficult when the client’s point of view differs from yours?

JH: Frankly, no.   I will only work for clients who are truthful and sincere and who I respect.  That becomes clear very early — some people lie and exaggerate to an astounding degree and I have walked away from a number of projects.  But I don’t pick clients on the basis of my agenda or politics or point of view. Writing these books is an intense process; it’s like signing up to go on a year-long cruise with someone so you better like and respect him or her.  But you don’t have to agree about everything.  I’d much rather work with a smart person with a good sense of humor with different views than mine, than with some humorless self-promoter whose voting card matches mine line for line.  Besides, sometimes I learn something that changes my mind.

MY:  You still free-lance for magazines — do you see yourself doing a long form journalism book at some point instead of memoirs?

JH: It’s possible. Actually, I don’t think of myself as working on memoirs per se—Kamala Harris’ bookSmart_on_Crime was a myth-busting book about crime, and Meg Whitman’s book was about the values she thinks are important for success.  I am just finishing a project that tackles a huge global issue with my client’s new ideas for reforming the status quo.  All these books are told through the eyes of a particular person, but they aren’t chronological narratives; they have the goal of inspiring people to do something or think differently.

Journalism is my first love and gave me the skills I’m using today.   I have been a contributing editor at Stanford Magazine for over 20 years and I get to write feature stories about an incredible variety of subjects and people, from psycholinguistics to profound battle injuries to private chefs.  Every once in a while I dig into a subject that makes me consider if it could make a good book, but I also wonder if I would get weary of working one subject like that for a long time.  It’s a pretty lonely business and the best of those non-fiction books can take many years to write with uncertain financial prospects, especially these days.  I have great respect for those who do them.

In my book work today, I do not approach it as a journalist.  I enjoy bringing an important mission or worthwhile set of ideas to life for someone who is busy doing what he or she does and does not have time or perhaps the writing experience to do the book efficiently alone. It’s fun to be part of a team in that sense.    I’m blessed that I have worked with very intelligent, principled people who are trying to make the world better.   Kamala Harris and Meg Whitman, for example, are extraordinary, inspiring women.

MY: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about book writing?

JH: I think my answer only applies to my strange little corner of non-fiction book collaboration.

I am always surprised by peoples’ perceptions of where books come from or how they are written.  So many people (typically ones I don’t end up working for) underestimate how difficult the book process is.  Some successful people assume that because they want to say something, people automatically want to read it.  They forget that publishing a book means selling a product.  I’ve had prospective clients hand me a six-inch stack of clips and speeches and background papers as if I can then just go off and reorganize all that and then we’ll drop in a few quotes and be done.  That won’t work.  We are asking the public to buy these books, and we need to sell them the opportunity to be smarter and wiser. You can’t just repurpose a stack of speeches or annual reports or tell the same story the same way you tell it at cocktail parties.  I sometimes tell my clients, “You can’t build an ocean liner by lashing together 100 speedboats.”

Books need to be built to last and we’re competing with a jillion other information and entertainment options. In the writing we need to sell an engaging, rewarding experience, and we need to manage the energy and surprises to keep the reader turning the pages.  We’re working with a long lead time and I can’t let the author stick his or her neck out with risky predictions or over-reactions to the news of any given day. And just because we have more space we can’t just prattle on forever and go into mind-numbing detail. The reader will bail out.

Often the interesting connective tissue of books involves motivation—why someone made a decision and what he or she wants next.  Many prominent, busy people aren’t used to their staffs or employees asking them WHY they did something or how they FELT about it.    But those emotionally charged factors can be important in terms of what we put in and leave out.  My clients are surprised sometimes at the background and subject matter we need to cover even when we decide not to use that material.

MY:  Journalism and publishing in general have been turned topsy-turvy in the past several years. What would you tell your daughter if she said she wanted a career like yours?

JH: It is tough out there (yes, a penetrating glimpse of the obvious).  Some of the best journalists I know have had to change careers.  In terms of advice, I think as a young person you need to show that you’re willing to work hard and that you want to learn.  It’s very important to make personal connections so that professionals a few rungs up the career ladder WANT to help you.  That was invaluable to me.  I know how important it was when my friend Joyce encouraged me and I have tried to do that for several young journalists over the years who showed me they were really serious about the business.  I’m proud that one went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.  Journalists are very competitive but we’re also very passionate about our work and the need for good reporting and we like to help young people who have a fire in the belly for it.

I have to say it bothers me that journalism schools are still charging a fortune for masters degrees in a field with fewer and fewer jobs.  There is a magazine class at a very prestigious journalism school that I speak to every year. It’s always over-subscribed with a waiting list.   I ask:  “Where do you all see yourselves working?”  And they invariably say, “I want to write investigative features for a national magazine,” or “I want to write cover stories for the New York Times magazine.”  It’s the same answer I would have given in 1983 when I left Stanford, but the opportunities to do that are nothing like they were then (and it wasn’t exactly an easy goal then).  I hope for their sake journalism will rebuild itself and find a sustainable business model so all this training and talent doesn’t go to waste.

By the way, I have two daughters and neither is interested in becoming a reporter or writer.  One is going to be the world’s greatest pediatric nurse; the other wants to be a math teacher, which, given my own math dysfunction, is cool and miraculous to me.
First Little Free Library -schoolhouse

Note from Ina: Thank you to the writers who have given of their time and experience to talk with guest blogger Margaret Young. For queries on the Writers on Wednesday series,please contact Margaret at Writers
On Wednesdays [all one word] {insert “at” sign} yahoo and then .com ~ ina at IOB

Monday Coffee: Little, beautiful things

LittleGuyI love chinchillas. They’re so ridiculous – like little rabbits with squirrel tails and elf ears. If one suddenly spread gossamer wings and fluttered away I’d be totally unsurprised.

A couple of days ago,my family was passing a favorite used bookstore after dinner. My spouse stopped and pointed. “We MUST go in there!” The sign in front of the bookstore said, “Chincilla adoption event.” Inside the store a woman was tucking a grey bundle of fur one of a set of carriers on wheels. The lady, a volunteer with the local chincilla rescue, had brought her own in addition to potential adoptees: a black “chin” named Midnight.She settled Midnight into my lap and I stroked her between her ears.She curled herself into a ball in the crook of my arm and settled in.

Cappuccino with latte art on Coffee Right in Brno, Czech RepublicIsn’t it nice  to have a few minutes to sit, maybe sip a cup of coffee or tea, and enjoy something beautiful? To that end, a few other little, beautiful things I found this weekend:

  • Some lovely poems and pieces have been left for our Summer Brighter Light challenge. I’m encouraging people both to join us before the challenge closes (July 8th night), but also just to stop by and see some of the lovely things that we’ve received – I feel really fortunate in the people who read here.
  • A friend, Claudsy, is recovering from a bout of pneumonia. While recovering she’s talking about a small collection of poems that she’s putting together as a Kindle Single. I love any author that has the guts to talk about what they’re working on. I have a tendency to hide what I’m doing until I’m sure I’ll finish it – this kind of post is an homage to writerly courage. You go, Claudette.
  • I’m getting our Writers on Wednesdays post for the week ready to go. Joan Hamilton’s “how I got started” is a bit of Amazing. So when you need a little inspiration to get through the mid-week slump, make sure to stop by with your cuppa.
  • If you’re unfamiliar with senryu – the form is similar to haiku but with a theme of human character or foibles rather thannature-themed. The Senryu contest on Robert Brewer’s Poetic Asides blog had 10 amazing results. They’re short – and each is wonderful.
  • Laura Hegfield at Shine the Divine is offering a weekly spiritual practice called I Heart Macro – if you might enjoy photographing the beauty of small things, this may be for you.  Even if you aren’t, the photos people have posted are a chance to be a close observer and take a break from the rush of Monday morning.
  • And lastly, if you haven’t seen today’s “Roswell” Google Doodle, it’s adorable. Even if you don’t (a la Agent Mulder) Believe.

I hope you all have a lovely day, not too “squashed” with things to do (I know, I know, but the picture is so cute!) to stop and enjoy a little beauty.


Writers on Wednesdays: Ellen Sussman

Today’s post introduces “Writers on Wednesdays” by guest blogger Margaret Young. For her first post, Margaret interviews multi-talented author and teacher Ellen Sussman. 

author_photo_2010_hi_resEllen Sussman is the author of three bestselling novels – The Paradise Guest House, French Lessons and On a Night Like This as well as the editor of two of my favorite anthologies, Dirty Words and Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave. She was the San Francisco Library Laureate in 2004 and 2009 and has received fellowships from many, many institutions including The Sewanee Writers Conference, The Napoule Art Foundation, Wesleyan Writers Conference and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She now teaches through Stanford Continuing Studies and in private classes. She has two daughters and lives with her husband in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Margaret Young is a freelance writer who works at being a novelist when she’s not teaching children music.  She lives in Palo Alto with her family and can be found Tweeting at @MargaretYWrites.

MY:  If you couldn’t be a writer, but you could be anything else and succeed, what would you be?

ES: I’d be a singer in a rock band.

MY: When did you know you wanted to be a novelist and why?

ES: I decided to become a writer when I was six. I remember climbing on to my brother’s bookshelves (he’s a year older), and copying the titles of his books. Then I’d make up a story to go with the title. One of my first short stories is called, “The Little Engine that Could.”

I loved reading and wanted to write stories like the ones I read. That never changed throughout the years. I’ve been singularly focused on this career choice. The only surprise was that I needed a day job. And luckily I have loved teaching writing as well.

MY: What has been your best moment as a writer?

ES: Publication of my first novel. I waited for so many years to hold my own novel in my hands. It’s a remarkable feeling. And I love that moment each time a new novel comes out.

MY: What’s been your worst or most disappointing?

ES: I’ve written two novels that didn’t sell. That’s hell. You spend a very long time creating characters and a story that you love. And after too many rejection letters, you have to tuck that novel away somewhere. It’s a killer.

MY: As well as being a best-selling novelist, you’re known as a top-notch writing teacher, if you could make your students follow one piece of advice what would it be?

ES: To find a writing schedule that works for you — and to stick with it! I most highly recommend daily writing, especially if you’re working on a novel.

paradiseMY: Your break-out novel French Lessons was set in Paris and your latest The Paradise Guest House is set in Bali. Do you feel like you’ve found yourself a niche as a novelist of Americans in exotic locations? If so, is this a good thing, a bad thing or both?

ES: I may not stick to that for all my novels but I’m liking it right now. I think that we learn so much about ourselves when we leave home. And I love using the exotic setting in a way that really matters to the story.

MY: Can you tell us about what you’re working on and what intrigues you about it?

ES: I’ve just finished a draft of a new novel. The working title is A Stranger at the Wedding and it takes place in the south of France. I’m exploring love again and family relationships. In this novel, there’s also real danger.

MY: One of the things you talk about in your classes is the importance of structuring the writing process. Would you describe a typical writing day for you?.

ES: I write for three hours every morning, five or six days a week. That’s sacred time for me — I never make a doctor’s appointment in the morning or meet someone for coffee. And if I’m writing a first draft of a novel, I’ll write 1,000 words a day.

Thanks to Ellen and Margaret for sharing this conversation with us (and Ellen, when your first album comes out, please let me know !) ~ Ina