Wednesday, April 1, 2015


            One of the most difficult things to explain to writing students is the age-old adage, "show, don't tell."             
            "What do you mean?" they ask.
            How do you respond?  Let's just admit at the outset that there is no easy answer to this.  And I am also certain that I break this rule myself, although certainly not on purpose.
            I am most aware of showing and not telling when I find myself trying to express an abstraction.  Joy.  Sorrow.  Fear.  I want readers to experience those emotions along with my characters.  I don’t want to tell them about it.  I want their hearts to echo with empathy and understanding of the predicament of my characters.
            In All That’s Missing, I needed to establish early on that my protagonist Arlo missed his parents who had died in an accident when he was 2 years old.  But, I didn’t want to say, Arlo missed his mom and dad so much.  I didn’t want to explain an abstraction.  I wanted my readers to feel it, to experience Arlo’s longing for something he could never have.  So, what did I do?  
          In one early scene where Arlo is rummaging through a cabinet, he happens upon his family album.  Paging through it, Arlo pauses at a photograph of his parents standing under a crabapple tree at his grandmother’s house. 
            I did not write, Arlo thought about how much he missed his mom and dad
            I did not write, Arlo was sad because he had never had a chance to spend time with his parents.  
            Instead I tried to go deep into Arlo’s head and channel his thoughts directly to my readers. 
           Here is what I wrote:

            “If only Arlo could have known them, really known them, before they died.  He studied his father’s eyebrow, the place where the hair thinned until there almost wasn’t a line.  Arlo reached up and touched the same spot on his own eyebrow, where it narrowed the same way.  He wanted to feel some connection.  Father.  Son.  Family.  But all that came was a single word.  Gone.
            My goal was to convey Arlo’s longing for family, for a group of people to whom he belongs.  It’s something visceral.  It needed to resonate below the surface.  Arlo yearns for connection to something stable in the world.  That word family is charged with meaning for him.  The only family member he knows when the story begins is his grandfather, whom he dearly loves, but who is losing his memory.  What will Arlo’s world be like when his grandfather’s memories are gone? 
            That physical resemblance, the spot on Arlo's eyebrow which thins until there almost isn’t a line, is a connection to the father he has lost.  Arlo touches it to remind himself that he is part of a larger whole, even if his mother and father are both gone.  That action, I hope, helps to convey what he’s feeling at that moment.

          One way to think about this is to consider how you would portray a character whose story you are writing.  What physical action might you perform to reveal the emotion a character is experiencing?  I think it has helped me enormously to have been active in community theater --- behind the scenes, mind you, not in front of the curtain.  It has helped to heighten my awareness of the physicality of a character.  Still, none of this comes naturally.  It is work.  But, it’s good work.  And nothing is more satisfying than to feel like you have made a small discovery.  Putting flesh and bones on a character involves a series of small discoveries.  Over time they add up, but my goodness, how much time it requires.  Patience is required.  And belief.  Lots of it.  To all you writers out there, I wish you generous helpings of both. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Winter Wind

I mentioned this poem in my last post and now that we’ve received the biggest snowstorm of the season here in eastern Virginia, a few short days before the end of February, it seems apt for the occasion.  Thanks to Sandra Ure Griffin for such a perfect illustration.  You can find this in the February, 2009 issue of Cricket magazine.

Illust. by Sandra Ure Griffin
Cricket magazine, Feb. 2009

Monday, February 16, 2015


"The winter wind's a scrappy hound

with gleaming eye and frosty breath."

Those are the first lines of a poem I wrote several years ago (Cricket, 02/09) and they've been running through my head over the last 12 hours as I listen to the predictions of what's to come weather-wise over the next several days.  Not five minutes ago, a large limb struck the roof.  And the snow won't even be here for another 12 hours.  

This is hunker-down season.  It provides quiet time for thoughtful work, for a while. . . 
I keep thinking of friends in Massachusetts.  I can hear them telling me it's different if you've been stuck inside for days on end.  And I know they're right.  I can't imagine how challenging this winter has been for them already.  There may be a bright side to the darkness, but sometimes it must be difficult to see. I hope the weather gives them a break very soon!  

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


            When I wrote the first drafts of All That’s Missing, I knew the emotional journey my protagonist needed to take.  I knew he would start with the threatened loss of family and home and, after a metaphorical, as well as physical journey,  end up in a new place with the beginnings of a new family.  What I did not know were the day-to-day ins and outs of the story, the step by step process that would take Arlo from page 1 to The End. 

            I needed to discover what would happen once he reached his destination and met his grandmother.  How would their relationship develop?  How would she feel about him?  Why didn’t he know her? These were all questions I needed to answer in order to write the book.  Maybe needing to know those answers is what drove me to write the book.
            When I had written (and revised and revised and revised), I shared the manuscript with trusted first readers.  Here is what one of them said:

            “As usual, the text reads like a dream.  You’ve got just the right touch with your prose.  It’s really, really good.  Here’s what I think, however …once Arlo meets up with [Ida Jones], everything is too easy.  It’s fine to have a respite in there, when life seems wonderful to Arlo, but on the edge of that respite, there should be some tension.”

            Deep in my gut, I knew this.  The trouble was, I had worked so hard in getting Arlo to Edgewater to find his grandmother, I didn’t have the heart to throw additional complications in his path.  He and I had suffered enough, hadn’t we?  I wanted the rest of his journey to be easy.  But, who did I want it to be easy for?  Arlo?  Or myself?  Those trusted first readers gave me the answer.  I needed to steel myself and write the hard parts.  Arlo hadn’t earned his place in a new home yet and it was my job to make that happen.
            I needed to go deeper into my imagined small town in Tidewater, VA, so I made a trip to the town which had inspired the idea, the town where my grandparents lived when I was a child.  My fictional town of Edgewater is NOT Tappahannock.  But, there are similarities. I took photographs.  I parked my car and walked to the beach.  I inhaled the air.  I took note of small neighborhoods.  I thought about the light and the trees and the osprey nests.  I imagined my own version of the main street of town and began filling in the businesses I thought would be there.  I drew maps.

            When I came home, I let my imagination roam.  I thought about what an 11, almost 12 year old boy would do if he were suddenly living in a strange town with a prickly grandmother.  Where would she take him?  What would they do?  The town where I lived at the time, Charleston, WV is in many ways, a small town.  At least, it has that feel.   There are two gathering spots on the main street, Ellen’s Ice Cream and Taylor Books, the indie bookstore/art gallery/coffee shop which is the default meeting place for just about everything.  I decided my fictional town needed a place like that, so I created a bookstore.  And, as is true of the real Taylor Books, I made the owners of the business live in an apartment over the shop.

            And then the magic started to happen.  Edgewater came alive in my head.  I “discovered” that Arlo was going to make a new friend in Edgewater.  She would be the daughter of the couple who ran the bookstore.  Her name was Maywood.  This discovery led to others.  I was off and running.  I had characters I felt belonged in the place.  Now I needed tension.  Since the novel is about finding your place in the world, what if, just at the moment, Arlo finally meets his grandmother, she is about to lose her home?  What if, just when he thinks he has found a new place, that place is threatened? Then it would be up to Arlo to help her save her home. 

            The story was evolving in an organic way.  That’s the trick with revision.  If you impose a plot on characters without allowing it to evolve, it will feel unnatural and manipulative.  In short, it won’t work.

            But, now I had characters and setting and tension and plot.   The work became fun.  I had to let my characters walk through more darkness.  I didn’t want to do that, but the story demanded it.

            And, as I understood the characters on a deeper level, as I came to love them in all their brokenness, I could allow them to be imperfect.  I went from having a bland grandmother who asked no questions when her long-lost grandson showed up out of the blue, to having to a prickly lady who is suspicious of his motives and questions everything he tells her. In short, I had my story.

            And now I have embarked on another story.  I’ve written the first draft.  I’m working on the second.  The characters are evolving.  I am coming to know and love them.  I am finding my way.

[Excerpt from talk given at SCBWI MD/DE/WV Fall Conference 2014]

Saturday, December 27, 2014


There is much to be grateful for at this time of year;  friends, family, good food, music, and chocolate.  Always chocolate.  But, today I am feeling especially grateful for readers.  One of the best gifts a writer can receive is a comment from a reader.  And one of the most gratifying comments to read is that the voice of your main character sounds authentic.  It more than makes up for those hours and days of wandering in the wilderness with wild hopes of turning an idea into a story.  You can imagine my gratitude at reading this from a Goodreads reader. “Sullivan must have been a sixth grade boy in a former life, because Arlo is completely believable in his actions and reactions, and her story of how Arlo finds his grandmother and navigates the mysteries of his life - why didn't Poppo and Ida get along? what was his father like? - brings to light both the complexities of family relationships and the simplicity of love and friendship.”

It doesn’t get any better than this.  THANK YOU, dear reader, from the bottom of my heart.


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