The Week I Gave Up Writing

In the summer of 1990, I attended a writer’s conference in Aspen, Colorado. I felt fortunate to have been accepted into a fiction workshop with one of my favorite writers, Jane Smiley. And it came at a time when I needed a lift. My first novel, TULKU, had come this close to being accepted by Little, Brown: I had rewritten it after feedback from an editor, and she advocated for it. But in early June, my agent called me to tell me they had turned it down. Not only that, but he didn’t know anywhere else to send it.

TULKU was dead. But there was much worse. Earlier that week, my father had died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 62.

So there I was in Aspen, fighting the sadness. I had a story to workshop about a young woman growing up in East Boston, which is where I practiced medicine at the time. The story was okay; it grew out of my attempts to understand a patient I reacted to in an instinctively negative way. The problem is that I’ve never really liked short stories, and fiction writing classes love short stories. They can get into the nitty gritty of style and theme without having to deal with lots of text. But okay.

I made friends. There was the young woman who got altitude sickness, another who wrote about her twisted, sadistic mother, another who wrote for some reason about auto glass. Jane Smiley was insightful, caught up in a love affair, and strangely remote. She told us she would never say whether or not she liked our work, because she had seen the negative effect a teacher could have on a student. One writer she knew of had had a twenty-year case of writer’s block after harsh words from a mentor.

When I met with Ms. Smiley for my one-on-one session, though, she did say one thing. I didn’t have the writing skill, she told me, to attack the kinds of themes I was addressing. I should start with something lighter, something simpler, as she had with her first horse novel.


Silver_Queen_Gondola_Nima3I never touched the East Boston story again. My last day in Aspen, I took a silent journey. I rode up the gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain. So many times since childhood I had taken that trip in winter with my father. At the top we often paused for photos in the sunshine before finding our way down. He was a strong graceful skier. At times it seemed he could lead anyone anywhere. He made us forget our clumsiness, our hesitations.

I walked down the mountain, trying in my mind to transform the grass and rocks into the snow-covered slopes I knew so well. I remembered turns and falls, and I let grief wash through me along with the beauty of the mountainside. I thought of John Keats, worrying that he would never write all that was inside him in “When I have fears that I may cease to be.”

                                 . . . then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

The next day I flew home to Boston. Soon, I started helping my stepmother establish the foundation we set up in my father’s memory. I worked on improving math and science education for American schoolchildren. I didn’t write fiction again for fifteen years.

How Working with an Editor Strengthened the opening of THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE

THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE had taken me two years to write, and I thought it was good. I took it to Calumet Editions editor Ian Leask for a read.

The opening is weak, he told me.

I thought I had masterfully crammed my main themes into my opening. My protagonist Kiran hesitated between becoming a musician and becoming a soldier. He argued with himself internally even as I showed the world he lived in and wove in backstory about his lost father and brother.

Too static, Ian said. Make the conflict external, active. Besides, he added, your book is about Kiran’s identification with his father. Make him defend his father.

Begrudgingly, I started for the fifteenth time to rework my first chapter. I threw Kiran into in mock swordfight with his nemesis Ryan, the blacksmith’s son, who taunts him by insulting his father. Kiran gets crushed, but writing the scene opened a way for me to show other aspects of his conflict. Ryan threatens to break Kiran’s flute where it leans against a tree, and Kiran jumps to rescue it.  He doesn’t dither; he doesn’t think to himself; he shows what he values by acting.

A bell rings. As the two rivals rush back to the village to prepare for the barge bringing examiners from the capital, Kiran encounters the herb-woman Nora. Village children have knocked her down, and

Old Woman and Boy in a Forest, by Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, around 1848

reluctantly Kiran stops to help her rise and to carry her burden. All at once I found myself portraying a classic fairy tale figure: the old woman who makes demands on the hero’s kindness and then prophesies for him. Nora says,

“I know why you’re discontented, Kiran. Instead of the sword you yearn for, you carry a flute. Instead of a spear, you carry water for slaves. I’ll tell you something that’s painful to learn. We don’t always choose our burdens; sometimes they choose us. In war or in peace—”

Nora’s daughter Myra interrupts. Then the herb-woman resumes.

[She] reached to probe the bruise on Kiran’s wrist where he had struck aside Ryan’s sword. “What I mean to say,” she told him, “is you need not worry. The day will come, and you will be a warrior, Kiran.”

Kiran will be a warrior? What does Nora mean? In what way? “The day will come . . .”  Now I, as writer, have made a promise to my readers. The story is launched.

Thank you, Ian.

Book Signings: Best and Worst

A few people have asked me if I’m planning a book tour for THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE. I’d be happy to come talk to just about any group that invites me, but I find talks at schools or to teachers much more fruitful than bookstore signings.

The sad truth is I’m not famous enough for people to flock to a bookstore to see me. Not very many authors are. Think about it: how many times have you gone to book signing and author talk, especially for a new author you don’t already know? Bookstores know this. Some of them (I’m talking about you, Kepler’s) even charge an author or her publisher for the chance to visit.

Still, I’ve had some really great events. The trick is to have a main event that is something more than a signing or even a reading. I’ve talked about women in science in places from colleges to gatherings of science teachers to research labs, and in April I’m going to lecture at the American Library in Paris. Not that they’re paying for my trip or anything, but I’ll be there visiting family, and it will be fun to talk about the Curies and Sophie Germain in their home country.

At a lecture, I can often sell twenty to fifty copies of MAGNIFICENT MINDS or REMARKABLE MINDS, and one site bought two hundred, so those are good events.

And then there’s family or kid-oriented events. Once a co-author and I created a trivia contest. For LOST IN LEXICON, I worked with the wonderful Kirsten Cappy to create a “Lexicon Villages” event. At schools or in libraries, I set up nine stations of playful word and math-related activities for kids. We pulled in teacher or parent volunteers to help staff the tables. At one of the very best of these events, a school in Brookline held an event on a snowy evening. Parent volunteers even served pizza. A third of grades 4 through 6 showed up with their families, and I wandered among the villages and signed books for two happy hours.

But even having great activities is no guarantee of a good event. Once an enthusiastic bookstore owner in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who urged me to come do an event. She could get 200 schoolchildren there, she promised. Eventually, I decided to stop in Albuquerque on my way to California for a work trip.

At the airport I rented a car. The event was going to be the next day, but I decided to scout out the store ahead of time. That was a good idea that I carried out badly–by locking the car keys in the trunk in the bookstore parking lot. It took AAA an hour to come, and my trip expenses rose further. I also learned that the bookstore owner had recently suffered a heart attack. She was much bettlil-coverer now, but she had never managed to contact her partner schools to make arrangements.

Next day, I arrived in plenty of time to set up my activity tables in the aisles of the bookstore. Then I sat. And sat. Finally, a young black woman came in with her daughter, who must have been around five years old, and asked about the special event. I started to show her some of the activities, but the proprietess bustled up and told the visitor that her daughter was too young and could not participate. Frustrated that she had come our for nothing, the lady muttered angrily as she swept her daughter away.

Nobody else came.

So that was that. Two thousand miles, two days, and one angry, rejected customer.

That was my worst book event ever.

What would you most like to see or hear at a book event? Do you like to hear the author read? Talk about how the book was constructed? Hear about what the author is working on next? Play games?



Character 2: Writing the Middle-Grade (or YA) Novel

In the last post, I addressed round vs. flat characters. Now let’s discuss how to create round characters.

First, a confession. In many of the middle-grade books I’ve written, character has taken second place to plot or to concepts I’m trying to get across. Two books, I think, have really deep character exploration. One is THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE, where virtually all the characters are round enough to have shadows–darker, more complex facets to their personalities. You can imagine them having bad dreams. But BEECHWOOD FLUTE is a young adult novel; it has a little more room than the average middle-grade novel.

The same could be said for THE ICE CASTLE, which is the second book in my Lexicon series. It’s written for ages 10 to 14 or so, but it’s longer than many books for that age range. In it, my characters Daphne and Ivan become much more complicated and individuatedice-frontcov-rd3101-hires than in LOST IN LEXICON. They clash about social justice in a world where all that matters is how well a person sings, and they take action in separate spheres. But perhaps I had the most fun delineating their spoiled but constricted cousin Lila, a child singing star who wakes to her own sense of freedom.

But I think my best characters yet are in a middle-grade novel that will be coming about a year from now called . The heroine is a seventh-grade girl, half-Kenyan like my nephews, and her conflicts involve identity (not just racial identity, but her identity as a young scientist) and justice. If any of you out there are interested in seeing an advance copy to review it, please let me know!

Now that self-promotion is out of the way, on to how to create characters. Many writing manuals will suggest that you should know everything about your character before you begin: looks, fashion choices, age, family tree, hobbies, schooling, greatest hopes and fears, house and neighborhood, favorite foods and TV shows and bands, etc. I’m not so sure. I’m always wary of the assignments we give ourselves to put off actually sitting down and writing a first draft.

I like to get to know a character the way I get to know a friend: by observing him or her, hearing her speak, gradually learning more about his background as we become closer. Characters start to inhabit the writer’s head; they become clearer over time. Yes, it can be helpful to ask yourself questions like the following:

What does this character fear most?

What does she hope for?chemistry

What is his happiest memory?

Who are her heroes?

What embarrasses him?

What does she carry in her pocket?

But I think these questions are better asked over time, as you see how your character speaks and acts.

Think of a dating app. Imagine filling out an extremely lengthy questionnaire, and then choosing a date based on answers to something similar. By the time you go on your first date you might already be a little bored by your partner, or you might find that despite all the careful screening there’s just no chemistry.

With your characters, you have to have chemistry first. There’s no way you’re going to want to spend a year or more with someone who never reveals more layers and never surprises you. Let character be something that deepens and reveals itself over time, even to you.



Character: Writing the Middle-Grade Novel III

In Tuesday night’s middle-grade novel class, after reading and discussing students’ first chapters, we moved on to discuss how to portray character in middle-grade fiction.

There are two categories of characters, flat and round, and there is a place for each of them. Not every character can be complex and nuanced. Some characters serve a simpler purpose in driving the story forward.A flat character should be simple but memorable. We don’t expect subtlety or growth from such a character. We do expect unusual or highlighted features that help us remember the character, so we aren’t scratching our heads and searching our memories when he or she makes another brief appearance.

Examples of flat characters include Mrs. Micawber or Miss Havisham in Dickens. We remember one thing about them (“I shall never leave Mr. Micawber,” or a faded wedding dress) and we don’t expect them to change. Think of characters in the Harry Potter series like Malfoy’s goons Crabbe and Goyle or the ghastly, sickly sweet Doris Umbrage. Flat characters often have memorable names that characterize them, along with odd looks and mannerisms. Flat characters can also provide comic relief.

Round characters are complex, and often they grow, change, or surprise us. Neither fully black nor white, they have shadows playing across their surfaces. Heroes have weak spots, like Dumbledore’s weakness for a Dark wizard in his youth or Sirius Black’s depression and foul temper. Even villains (or seeming villains) have redeeming features, like Draco Malfoy’s regrets at the end of the Harry Potter series (though I believe both Malfoy and Snape are failed characters, since both remained flat for far too long). Another example is Long John Silver in Treasure Island. He may be a murderous pirate, but he has a genuine soft spot for Jim Hawkins.

In my novel The Beechwood Flute (which is young adult, not middle grade), I round out as many as possible of the characters around the hero, Kiran. Their complexity lies in their stepping out of the charactersKiran grew up believing them to be. Kiran’s mother and father disappoint them, one with disloyalty, one with bitterness. The stepfather who always mocked him surprises him by placing great faith in him. His longtime rival Ryan becomes a temporary, complicated ally. The priest who taught him music shows himself to be cunning, treacherous, and ultimately pathetic. And Kiran struggles to figure out the girl Myra and the savages who enslave him.

Understanding other people’s point of view is a major task of adolescence, and reading has been shown to increase out powers of empathy. But even The Beechwood Flute makes use of characters who are simple and straightforward. These include the wise herb-woman, Nora, and Kiran’s two younger siblings. These characters are meant to be convincing and distinct, but they act and stand out clearly, without unexpected shifts and gray areas. A reader can take only so much uncertainty!

Soon I’ll add a post on ways of depicting character.




Do wooden flutes sound different?

Three flutes, three sections to the book: that’s the organizing principle behind my young adult fantasy, THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE.  Kiran, the flute boy who wants to become a warrior to avenge his father’s death, first plays a flute made of birchwood. He plays mystical or patriotic tunes in the temple and lighthearted songs for village festivals. He takes his flute along on his trip downriver to the capital, but in the disaster that follows, the flute, half-destroyed, has to serve a new function. When he returns home, the priest who has mentored him throws the ruined flute into the fire.

The pattern repeats itself in each section of the book. Each time, a new flute, built from a new kind of wood, represents Kiran grasping onto hope again. Music is his way of shaping the swirl of emotion inside him as he realizes that the world is more complex and fraught with cruel folly than he knew. Each flute has a darker tone than the last, and each one finishes by serving a vital role that is not its intended one.  The birchwood flute gives way to the cedar flute, and the cedar flute to the beechwood flute.

It is a conceit of the tale that each kind of wood carries its own tone into Kiran’s music. Whether this really happens is unclear. An instrument’s pitch depends on its length. The stiffness of its walls might influence the reverberations that constitute tone.

Most of what I have read about how the medium of manufacture affects tone has addressed the difference between wooden flutes and metal ones. Wooden flutes are often characterized as having a “breathy” or “reedy” tone, while metal flutes have a tone that is more “bright” and “loud.” However, I particularly like this comment from the Abell Flute website:

… the pungent, reedy tone produced with a wooden flute is unequaled in any other material. While the brilliance of tone produced in the metal flutes is exquisite, there is a quality of sound, a dark rich fullness in the wooden instruments, which the metal flutes can only approach.

Other musicians sometimes characterize the tone of wooden flutes as “sweet” or “warm.” For Kiran, each flute has its own voice, which echoes his own mood and understanding. Each flute invites him to explore music in a new way, even as he is exploring new ideas, making new judgments and girding himself for new ways of acting in the world.


Writing the Middle-Grade Novel II

In the second session of my novel-writing class, we explored how to structure a plot. There are two main schools of writers, I told my students: those who just plunge in and write without certain knowledge of where they’re going, and those who plot and outline. (Members of the first group are often called “pantsers,” because they say they are proceeding by the seat of their pants.)

Steven King claims to be a pantser. He says he starts with a character in a situation and then just lets the ink ccontest-coverflow, writing at least 2000 words a day.

I contrasted King with engineering professor Peter Wong, with whom a wrote a middle-grade mystery called THE CONTAMINATED CASE OF THE COOKING CONTEST. The book was complicated, with four kids investigating an outbreak of foodborne illness. We had to weave together cooking challenges, meals aboard a cruise ship, trips to visit scientists, and lots of clues. Peter laid it all out in a spreadsheet with a timeline that showed everything from food to restaurants to encounters to how long it takes different bacteria to grow. Then we just had to put life on the bones.


Map of Lexicon
Map of Lexicon


Most books, I suspect, are written with a combination of the two methods. I started my first middle-grade book, LOST IN LEXICON, with two children entering a world of words and numbers. I had only the vaguest idea of where they would go or how they would return home. But before long I began mapping episodes and trying to figure out the form of the book’s final confrontation between intellectual freedom and control.


My most recent book, a young adult fantasy called THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE, began with a character facing a dilemma–his failure of courage at a pivotal moment. I knew themes I wanted to explore, but I had to build a world and an entire plot around those themes. I cycled between writing scenes and working out where it was all going. And yes, I drew maps for myself. Because the phase of the moon in different scenes mattered a lot (How dark is it at night? How does the moon guide Kiran, the hero?), I worked out a detailed timeline. Lots of sticky notes were involved.

During the class, I gave the students a few different approaches and tools for plotting. We talked about concept mapping and about writing ideas and brief notations of scenes on sticky notes arranged on a wall. We talked maps and timelines. We discussed rising action, and how it hits a high point very close to the end of the book (95% of the way through, we discovered, in looking at a couple of examples of middle-grade fiction). We discussed how the climax of action may occur at a different point from the climax of character, when the character embraces a new understanding or identity.

Then I briefly introduced the students to Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method, which begins with a one-phrase plot description and one-phrase descriptions of main characters. Alternating from plot to character, the author builds out with ever more detail sections, chapter, scenes, and a complex history for each character. It’s like the fractal crystal growth of a snowflake as it forms.

One of my students really latched onto the snowflake method, while others felt more drawn to concept mapping. They split between outliners and pantsers. (I think I’d rather call them “plungers,” but maybe that sounds too much like plumbing.) I sent the students home with a big challenge for the week: to come in next time bringing either a full book outline or the first draft of a full first chapter. I’ll let you know what they came back with!

Writing the Middle-Grade Novel I

Right now, I am fulfilling an old dream. I’m teaching a community-based course on writing the middle-grade novel.* True, I have only three students and we’ve met only twice so far, but Tuesday evenings are now delightful. To my relief, I’ve found that I actually do have something to offer.

I asked my students to come with a novel in mind and perhaps already started, but in fact each arrived with only a vague sense of what she wanted to write. That was fine; we talked a bit about the length and sophistication of a middle-grade  novel (around 9 – 12 years old, or around grades 4 – 7, and usually 20,000 to 40,000 words long). Then we discussed our ideas in all their vagueness and tried to get a glimpse of the emotional core motivating each writer’s story.

In that first class session, we followed up with ten minutes of free writing, or what I call “writing around the story.” I asked each woman to write in the voice of her main character, quickly, without thinking, just letting the wormarbleds flow out. This way, the character can speak to the writer, helping them get to know one another.

The “homework” assignment for the week was to do ten minutes of free writing a day. Once again, I asked the students to “write around” their main character, any other key characters, and the characters’ story, while trying past and present tense, first and third person narrative.

And how did the week go? The women succeeded in writing for ten minutes on at least four of the days in their busy lives, writing on the train, in a coffee shop, or with the door closed on their family at home. More importantly, they discovered things about their main characters and their stories. One found herself drawn to the story of her character’s mother. One found that instead of writing a time travel story she wanted to dive straight into historical fiction.

I was happy to learn that free “writing around” worked for my students. Just write, I told them, and the story you are carrying with you will begin to make itself clear, just as the statue inside the block of marble called out to Michelangelo.

* My own most recently published novel, THE BEECHWOOD FLUTEis geared to a slightly older readership, ages 12 and up, called “YA” or young adult.

The Fisher King, the Ideal Father and THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE

Parsifal encounters the Fisher King

It seems to me–though perhaps some male readers will comment–that the quest to become a full man is in part a search for the father. It’s more difficult for a boy or young man who never knew his father, who lost him at a young age, or who has a father that deeply disappoints him, to find a strong masculine identity within. If the boy cannot find his real father, he must somehow identify an ideal father, someone to emulate and to make proud.

These ideas lurked in the crannies of my mind as I began to write The Beechwood Flute.  I had vague memories of the Celtic/Arthurian legend of the Fisher King, who suffers from an unhealing wound. After looking more into the tangle of medieval traditions and Christian (Grail) symbolism surrounding this myth, I identified most closely with the Wolfram von Eschenbach’s version. The Fisher King is a good king, wounded by a lance thrust into his thigh or groin. Because of the king’s ongoing illness, associated in the legend with emasculation and infertility, his kingdom languishes and becomes a wasteland.

Wolfram von Eschenbach

Only a pure knight can heal the Fisher King, and the healing must begin with the young man asking the right question. The Fisher King’s castle is hidden; the searcher happens upon it by chance. In Wolfram’s version of the tale, the brash young knight Perceval finds the castle and the ailing king but is too overwhelmed and confused to ask the healing question. As a result, Perceval finds himself the next morning alone in a deserted and ruined castle, doomed to return to his wandering.

Years pass. Perceval endures suffering of his own. He learns what it means to love and be faithful to a woman. He grows in strength and faith and chivalry, until one day he finds the castle again. The king is more ill than ever, screaming, with the stench of his wound filling the room. This time Perceval provides the question. He asks in compassion, “Uncle, what is it that troubles you?”

In The Beechwood Flute,  I wanted to show Kiran, like Perceval, failing the Fisher King on his first encounter. Of course, the King or bandit chief fails Kiran too: sick, suffering, he has no patience or empathy and sends him away. Kiran must return to his own quest, alone. Through suffering, fidelity, and moral growth, he must become a man who has the compassion and wisdom to heal. His friend Myra tells him, “A good man makes things whole,” and Kiran has to figure out what that means. Only then can he try again to find the hidden castle, in hopes of healing the Fisher King and returning the land to fruitfulness.

One issue I faced in adapting the legend is that, although classified as a fantasy, Flute steers away from magic. No spell or curse could cause the unhealing wound. Indeed, when a book group kindly read an early draft of the manuscript, they questioned Corbin’s wound: How could it persist for so many years? Luckily, another doctor (like me) was a member of the group, and she assured them that chronic osteomyelitis or infection of the bone can flare up and drain intermittently over a very long time. Moreover, it might be cured by the kind of packing and open drainage that Kiran recommends. With a little knowledge of medicine, I was able to bring together legend and likelihood, bitterness and hope.

The Dark River

On the dark river
On the dark river

When I was a medical student on the cardiology service at Stanford, we admitted an elderly pediatrician one night with a heart attack. He was a gracious, generous man who in his retirement continued to volunteer providing medical care to juveniles involved in the justice system. At first he seemed to be recovering well, but within a few days his heart began to fail, and his weakened heart could no longer pump enough blood to keep his lungs clear and his blood well-oxygenated. While we gave him diuretics to drain excess fluid and other drugs to stabilize his rhythm, he ordered takeout food from a local Chinese restaurant and invited the nurses, house staff and students to a dinner party in his room. Of course, he couldn’t eat any of the food himself.

One morning on rounds the attending physician asked our patient how he had passed the night. He gave us a sad smile. “I have seen the dark river,” he said.

Two days later he died quietly.

“I have seen the dark river.” That phrase has echoed in my mind ever since. At the moment he said it, all of us listening understood that our patient had foreseen his death and accepted it. I often imagine him coming down to the dark river and gazing across it. On the other side, beyond the fringe of trees, children play in sunlight on the grass. Maybe they are children he cared for, some he lost, all during his long career. Maybe they are simply other children like the ones he knew.

The waters of my pediatrician’s dark river move slowly. They swirl, but gently. They reflect the stars, but there is no moon.

A reader once told me that crossing water in a story or myth means death. In Christian imagery, crossing the river Jordan is associated with spiritual death and rebirth. Sylvia Plath’s posthumous collection of poetry, collected by her husband Ted Hughes, is called Crossing the Water. The title poem, haunting and beautiful, shares the metaphorical death that is despair and then hints at a rebirth of hope.

Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.

Where do the black trees go that drink here?

In THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE, Kiran crosses the water a number of times, but each time creates a crisis and perhaps a kind of death. There is the death of his dream of becoming a soldier, the death of his belief in his own bravery, and then the very near physical death of his swim across the lake—this time, finally, leading to a kind of spiritual rebirth.

In life, I think, we may cross the water many times in different ways. But in the end, and this is nothing to fear, each of us will approach and finally see, in all its clarity, the dark river.