Lessons from Taylor Swift’s Remarkable Pandemic Creative Burst

Growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s, I couldn’t wait for my favorite artists to release a new album. In most instances, I didn’t have to wait longer than six months to a year.  Between 1962 and early 1970, the Beatles put out 12 studio albums, including the double album The Beatles (white album). From 1969 to 1976, Elton John released 11 studio albums, including two double albums, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) and Blue Moves (1976). Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was John’s second album of 1973! In January, he had released Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player. That kind of creative output seems beyond belief today. Many major artists take between two and five years (or longer) between albums.

During the pandemic in 2020, Taylor Swift released two superb albums, Folklore, which dropped in July, and Evermore, which came out in December. In interviews, Swift said the pandemic helped her creativity, as all tours were quickly cancelled in March of 2020. The lockdown caused Swift to set up a home studio, where she sent music files back and forth and worked remotely over FaceTime with her longtime collaborator, Jack Antonoff, and Aaron Dessner of the band, The National, whom she had met the year before on tour, according to an interview in Billboard magazine. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver also sings on both albums.

Swift was in lockdown in Los Angeles when the pandemic hit. Earlier, she had expressed an interest in working with Dessner.  She told Rolling Stone magazine: “We were there for four months maybe, and during that time, I sent an email to Aaron Dessner and I said, ‘Do you think you would want to work during this time? Because my brain is all scrambled, and I need to make something, even if we’re just kind of making songs that we don’t know what will happen…’”

Here is Swift’s explanation for how Folklore and Evermore evolved, from an interview with Paul McCartney in Rolling Stone magazine. She explains how she met Dessner and asked him how he wrote music. “It’s my favorite thing to ask people who I’m a fan of. And he had an interesting answer. He said, ‘All the band members live in different parts of the world. So I make tracks. And I send them to our lead singer, Matt, and he writes the top line.’

“I just remember thinking, ‘That is really efficient.’ And I kind of stored it in my brain as a future idea for a project. You know, how you have these ideas… ’Maybe one day I’ll do this.’ I always had in my head: ‘Maybe one day I’ll work with Aaron Dessner.’”

Dessner had been composing instrumental tracks. He sent 30 tracks to Swift. The first track he sent to Swift became the song, ‘Cardigan,’ from Folklore. “And it really happened rapid-fire like that,” Swift told McCartney in the Rolling Stone interview. “He’d send me a track; he’d make new tracks, add to the folder; I would write the entire top line for a song, and he wouldn’t know what the song would be about, what it was going to be called, where I was going to put the chorus.”

Swift had considered coming out with an album early in the following year (2021), but she ended up releasing Folklore in July, according to the Rolling Stone interview.  “ And I just thought there are no rules anymore, because I used to put all these parameters on myself, like, ‘How will this song sound in a stadium? How will this song sound on radio?’ If you take away all the parameters, what do you make? And I guess the answer is Folklore.”

So what lessons can fiction writers take from Swift’s incredible creative output? Here are a few that come to my mind:

Long periods of inactivity can provide the space for creativity. Some artists found it easy to write during the pandemic. For others, the high stress of the pandemic made it difficult to concentrate. When one is worrying about his or her health and the health of one’s families, the stress can become all-consuming. Absent a pandemic, opportunities like writer’s retreats and writing vacations can stimulate the creative juices. Our busy schedules certainly get in the way of writing, so we have to be intentional about making the time and space to write.

Artists should build a creative community. I am a part of three writer’s communities and the connections I have made with other writers have improved my work. Whether it is finding a beta reader or bouncing ideas off colleagues, artists need communities to take their work to the next level. What would have happened if Swift had not met Dessner on tour? Folklore and Evermore would never have been made. As artists we can support one another, review each other’s work, and, perhaps, even collaborate. Which brings me to my third lesson.

Writers can achieve new heights through collaboration. Swift’s two-albums-in-six-months outburst would not have been possible without her collaboration with Dessner. It took dire circumstances to bring together this amazing songwriting partnership. What could writers do by reaching out to other writers under ordinary circumstances? As proof, I point to the amazing cross-Atlantic collaboration between my friend, Heather Webb, and fellow historical fiction writer Hazel Gaynor, which has produced three beautiful novels.

Cultivate friendships with talented people. Jack Antonoff is a renowned producer who has worked with such luminaries as Lorde, Lana del Rey, St Vincent, and Pink, and he is the lead singer of the indie band, The Bleachers. Dessner’s band, The National, is an under-rated musical group with a different style than Swift. Clearly, Swift’s willingness to work with other artists has elevated her music.

Working with artists with different styles can push the creativity and style of both artists into new directions. We saw this with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, two songwriters with very different musical sensibilities who meshed perfectly. And we saw this with Swift and Dessner. As Dessner put it in a Rolling Stone interview, “We really wanted to keep her voice as human, and kind of the opposite of plastic, as possible,” Dessner said. “That was a bit of a battle. Because everything in pop music tends to be very carved out, a smiley face, and as pushed as possible so that it translates to the radio or wherever you hear it. That can also happen with a National song — like if you changed how these things are mixed, they wouldn’t feel like the same song. And she was really trusting and heard it herself. She would make those calls herself, also,” he said.

Here’s more from Dessner about how the process worked with Swift: “She would always explain what each song was about to me, even before she articulated the Folklore concept. And I could tell early on that they were these narrative songs, often told from a different… not in the first person. So there are different characters in the songs that appear in others. You may have a character in ‘Betty’ that’s also related to one in ‘Cardigan,’ for example. And I think that was, in her mind, very, very important. It doesn’t seem like, for this record at least, that she was inspired to write something until she really knew what it was about. And I think I’m used to a more — at least lately — impressionistic and experimental world of making stuff without really knowing what it is. But this was more direct, in that sense. That was really helpful, to know what it was about and it would guide some of the choices we were making.”

There is so much more I want to write about Swift’s unbelievable pandemic output and how it happened, but I will leave it here. I didn’t do well with my writing during the pandemic for a variety of reasons, but I will take these lessons to heart.

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Book Review: Little Pieces of Me, by Alison Hammer

Paige Meyer has a lot to be thankful for, even though she has just been laid off from her advertising agency job. She is engaged to be married to a wonderful man, Jeff Parker, and her two best friends, Margaux and Maks, always have her back.

Just as Paige is looking forward to her future with Jeff, her past revisits her in the form of an email from a DNA website. Paige is stunned to learn that her beloved dad, who died two years earlier, is not her biological father. As Paige digs deeper into this mystery, she discovers why she has never fit in with her family and why her relationship with her mother, Elizabeth, has always been so strained.

The author tells the story in alternating chapters, moving from the present day to 1975, when Betsy Kaplan, a sophomore at the University of Kansas, was dating Mark Meyer, a steady, reliable man who doesn’t exactly spark passions in Betsy. Upset by Mark’s failure to understand her, Betsy breaks up with Mark. Seeing that Betsy is distressed, her roommate, Sissy Goldberg, convinces Betsy to attend a fraternity party. She ends up going to bed with Andy Abrams, a closeted gay man.

Hammer’s characters are well drawn. Paige is a strong, independent woman whose search for the truth triggers searing emotions. The story moves along at a brisk pace and the scenes with Paige and her mother have powerful emotional impact.

This novel’s themes of identity and what makes a family are handled in a sensitive and thoughtful way. And,  the little pieces of Paige that mean the most are the people who have loved and supported her throughout her journey through life. That many of these people are not biologically related to Paige is not lost on the reader.

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Book Review: “The Kindest Lie,” by Nancy Johnson

The year is 2008 and Barack Obama has just been elected as the first black president in US history. While the country is embroiled in a deep recession, Xavier and Ruth Tuttle are in a celebratory mood. Hope springs forth from this historic opportunity. That is the backdrop for Nancy Johnson’s excellent first novel, “The Kindest Lie.”

Ruth and Xavier, a young and successful black couple living in Chicago, are brimming with optimism. With President Obama about to take office and the promise of sweeping change in the nation, Xavier confronts Ruth about his wish to have a child. That triggers Ruth’s deepest secret. As a 17-year-old, she gave birth to a son who was mysteriously whisked away for adoption, engineered by the grandmother who raised Ruth and did not want to risk her scholarship to Yale.

When Ruth finally admits this news to Xavier, he feels betrayed. He is crushed and the news threatens to break up their marriage. Ruth decides she must return to her gritty hometown of Ganton, Indiana, and find her son.

Back in her hometown, Ruth discovers a changed town that reflects the miseries that have roiled the country. The auto factory that employed many in the town, including her grandfather and her brother, has closed and there are few good jobs to be found. During her first day back in town, Ruth meets Midnight, an 11-year-old white boy who is currently living with his grandmother, a friend of the woman who raised Ruth. Broken homes are everywhere.

As Ruth digs deeper into the identity of her son, she discovers deep secrets about her family and the pastor of her church. This story is just as timely in 2021 as in 2008, given the deep rifts over racial inequality that exploded last summer with the killing of George Floyd.

Johnson deftly ratchets up the tension when Ruth finds out the identity of her son and meets him for the first time. I won’t spoil the suspense, but at this point, the reader is turning the pages rapidly to find out what happens.

This is a gripping and powerful story of race, inequality, lies, abandonment, and identity and the pain that occurs when Ruth finally confronts deep truths about her live and herself.

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The Secret Sauce for Developing Memorable Characters

Think for a minute about some of your favorite books or movies. What do these have in common? Stories that illuminate universal themes? Yes. Deep conflict and escalating stakes? Certainly. A thrilling and unexpected ending? For sure. These are important elements of any blockbuster book or movie, but the best novels or films would be nothing without one thing: authentic and memorable characters.

How do writers create memorable characters? Many books and blog posts give writers advice on this subject. Some essays on the subject list essential elements of character development, like Tom Pawlik’s Writer’s Digest article, The Nine Ingredients of Character Development. Read Tom Pawlik’s post.

This is a solid list, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus on these elements—a character’s goals (ambition) and obstacles (character defects and restrictions) – cited by Pawlik.

Some beginning authors rely on character questionnaires, and there are many online. Here’s one good questionnaire from Gotham Writers.

When discussing character development, blogger and author Janice Hardy eschews detailed character questionnaires. Hardy instead urges authors to begin the character development process by asking eight key questions, beginning with: what are the main character’s critical needs and the character’s greatest fears? This feeds into the next thing the writer needs to sort out: who are the main character’s friends and enemies? Next, what personality traits help or hurt the main character? What is the character’s perception of fair and unfair? This gets at the character’s moral compass. Next is what does the character like or dislike about friends? And, finally, how does the character cope with stress? Read Janice Hardy’s post.

A key and often overlooked aspect of character development is back story. In her excellent book, Story Genius, author and writing coach Lisa Cron emphasizes the importance of establishing the main character’s “misbelief.” A misbelief is the one thing that the main character firmly believes to be true, but which is actually false, Cron writes. The misbelief stems from something big that happened in the main character’s past—her back story. The Origin Scene is when the misbelief takes root. If a main character believes her father is a paragon of virtue, the writer must craft a scene when the father does something to make the main character believe in his strong moral center. This misbelief often occurs before the story begins, so the author must weave it into the narrative. At some point, though, the character will make a discovery that will debunk this misbelief. Perhaps she will witness her father cutting corners or compromising his values. The result is the main character’s misbelief is shattered and the character sees the world differently and more clearly understands what is preventing her from reaching her goal.

Lisa Cron discusses the character’s misbelief in this interview on the Writers Helping Writers blog.

Another key point Cron makes about character development is this: stories are internal. As she puts it in this interview on Writers Helping Writers:

“Story is not about what happens on the surface, but what goes on beneath it. It’s about what the protagonist has to face, deal with and overcome internally in order to solve the external problem that the plot poses. That means that the internal problem pre-dates the events in the plot, often by decades. So if you don’t know, specifically, what your protagonist wants and what internal misbelief stands in her way, then how on earth can you construct a plot that will force her to deal with it?”

All stories are internal. A character’s goals are internal and are manifested through the external events of the story.

Cron disputes the notion that a main character must be likeable. Instead, she believes the main character must be relatable. In an interview on the Writers on the Storm blog, Cron explains: “The reader needs to be able to relate to the protagonist, and to do that the protagonist must be vulnerable, flawed – in other words, decidedly not perfect and definitely not a surface, sanitized version of “a good person.” Otherwise, what do they have to sweat over?” Cron said.

Character development is a topic that is too vast to cover adequately in a single blog post. Focusing on the main character’s goals, needs, motivations, and fears—and identifying the character’s misbelief—can give authors a great start.

What about you? What are your thoughts on character development?

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Book Review: “Gilded Dreams,” by Donna Russo Morin

Rhode Island author Donna Russo Morin’s historical fiction novel, “Gilded Dreams,” could not be more timely. Coming on the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, granting women the right to vote, this gem of a novel puts the fight for women’s suffrage in personal terms. At the same time, it is a story of two women from different social classes who form a bond that endures through times of loss, violence, and national upheaval.

Its setting, in Newport, Rhode Island, gives the story a dimension that contrasts the wealth of families in this summer playground with the dire struggles of women who were often consigned to poverty upon the death of a spouse.

The story begins in April of 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic in the frigid north Atlantic. Socialite Pearl Worthington Wright lost both her parents, who were aboard the ship. Adding to her grief, Pearl later learns from the reading of the will that all her family’s wealth and property will go to her husband, Peter, who married into the family, and not to her. This gross unfairness ignites a flame in Pearl, who shares her feelings of outrage with her best friend and confidante, Ginevra, an Italian immigrant and naturalized citizen.

Pearl and Ginevra find a kindred partner in powerful Newport socialite Alma Vanderbilt Belmont, who actually was a leader of the suffrage movement and not a fictional character. One of the most vivid and powerful character in the novel, Alma is a formidable force for the women’s suffrage movement. They met when Alva was consoling Pearl for the loss of her parents. Alva invited Pearl and Ginevra to a suffrage meeting in Newport.

Their meeting with Alva changes the course of their lives. Pearl and Ginevra devote the next eight years to advance the movement to gain passage of the women’s suffrage amendment. Morin’s novel reminds us all that the right to vote, like the fight for equal justice, is one that was hard earned in the face of prejudice and violence. Pearl and Ginevra encounter stiff resistance in the form of the “antis,” men and women who push back on the suffrage movement. The story moves through World War I and the Night of Terror, when women’s suffrage protesters were jailed and subjected to cruel treatment.

Gilded Dreams was published as America prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the women’s suffrage amendment on Aug. 18, 2020. At a time when the quest for racial justice and equal rights for people of color has boiled over in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and other Blacks, Gilded Dreams reminds us that the struggle for equal rights has existed throughout our nation’s history.

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Query Letter Basics and Beyond

Your novel is ready. It is time to send query letters to land a literary agent. As I prepare to send off my own query letter, let me share some basics of writing a query letter that will get your manuscript noticed.

Is Your Manuscript Really Ready?

First and foremost, make sure your manuscript is polished. This does not mean you have finished a second or third draft. It means you have a fully refined manuscript that has undergone professional developmental editing, line editing, and proofreading. Your manuscript should be as flawless as possible. If not, you are not ready to send a query letter to agents.

Do Your Research

Second, conduct an extensive internet search and visit the websites of literary agents. Make sure the agent you are querying accepts work in your genre. You can do this by checking the submission guidelines on the agent’s website. If you are pitching a sci-fi thriller and an agent only accepts non-fiction submissions or Young Adult fiction, you should not query that agent.

Third, make sure the agent is currently accepting submissions. The agent will usually indicate on his or her website whether submissions are being accepted.

Make a List and Track Submissions

Next, make a list of literary agents who accept manuscripts in your genre. Open a spreadsheet and list the agents. Make columns for agent’s name, website URL, email address, submission guidelines, date the query letter was sent, dates for follow-up emails, and notes (any relevant information, such as whether the agent represents an author you like). As you query agents, it will be important to track which agents you have written to and the status of your query.

The Query Letter Itself

Okay, so you have a killer manuscript, you have a list of agents who accept submissions in your genre, and you have a spreadsheet to track submissions. You are ready to write the all-important query letter. Where do you start? Here are a couple of considerations. If you have met the agent at a writer’s conference or if another agent has recommended that you query that agent, this is a perfect way to introduce yourself. If not, go right into the story. Make sure your writing is punchy. If your query letter is boring, the agent will assume that reflects the quality of your writing.

Here’s what must go into your letter:

The Basics: Title, genre, word count. Make sure your word count is within industry standards and the agent’s submission guidelines.

The story’s “hook,” a concise summary with special emphasis on what makes it unique. What is it about your story that makes it stand out from the flood of manuscripts that inundate agents? The story summary should include the main character’s name, the setting, the character’s goal, the central conflict, antagonistic forces, and the choices a character is forced to make to achieve the goal. All of this should be done in 150 words or fewer. Experts caution against describing the theme in a query letter. Agents want to know what happens in the story. That’s the best way to judge whether they can sell the story to a publisher. The theme does not tell the agent anything about the quality or marketability of the story.

Brief bio, including publishing credits. If you have not been published, mention any writing you have done for newspapers or magazines. If you have a blog, which you should start well before you query agents, mention that.

Close your letter. Thank the agent for considering your manuscript. Include your contact information. Be brief, professional, and straightforward.

Your query letter should be no longer than one page (400 words). If it is longer, you will increase the chance the agent will not read it. Agents are busy and they get tons of query letters. Be concise, get to the point, and don’t gush about your work.

Query letters are the key to getting published. Make sure to take your time to create the strongest possible letter.

Here are more query letter resources:

Jane Friedman-The Complete Guide to Query Letters

The 10 Do’s and Don’t’s of Writing a Query letter
Brian Klems, Writer’s Digest

Rachelle Gardner-How to Write a Query Letter

Nathan Bransford-How to write a query letter

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Re-entering a COVID-19 World

I have not posted anything on my blog since I started graduate school 20 months ago. With the rigors of academic writing and research, I found it hard to shift gears into fiction writing, so I have also not written any new fiction since September of 2018.

I am a changed person since I earned my master’s degree in organizational leadership in April of 2020. More significantly, the world has changed dramatically with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the related public health orders that have restricted social contact.

This is a watershed event, like the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the Great Recession of 2008-2009. The big difference with the COVID-19 outbreak is that life will not return to normal any time soon. After 9-11, life as we knew it resumed quickly. I remember President George W. Bush at the time stressed the importance of restoring a sense of normalcy because the way the terrorists win is to disrupt our way of living. After a brief pause, life resumed its former pace. Sporting events and concerts returned, people began flying again, and the World Series was played weeks after the terrorist bombings.

As I write this, my hometown of West Hartford, CT, resembles a ghost town. Few cars are on the road. People walk the streets with face masks, careful to keep social distance. On a recent hot, sunny day, scores of people flocked to a local park, the entrances to which were blocked to prevent vehicles from entering. The people walking in the park respected social distancing. There were no large gatherings within the park, where normally people might sit on a blanket and gather within close proximity.

I have heard many writers say they write to make sense of the world. I have even said this myself. But, how do we make sense of a global pandemic that has upended our lives? How do we process this? How do we write about it? What conclusions should we draw?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. The best advice I can give to writers is to focus on what you can control. Establish a daily routine. This may include time set aside for writing, for daily tasks, remote work (if you are employed), for reading, and, importantly, for connecting with others. I have participated in more Zoom videconferencing calls than I can count. These have been a lifeline to me in maintaining social contact with friends, colleagues, and other writers.

We will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis at some point. I prefer to take the long view. I plan to follow public health guidance, maintain connections, practice self care (eat healthy and exercise), and I am even getting back to my work in progress. Let’s support one another and stay connected!

What about you? How are you coping with the global pandemic?

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Back to School After 40 Years

Followers of this blog may have noticed I have not posted any new essays since last August. And, this was after I had made a New Year’s resolution a year ago to post regularly–at least monthly. What happened?

In September, I returned to the classroom after 40 years to pursue a Master’s of Science in Organizational Leadership (MSOL) from Goodwin College in East Hartford, CT. I had always wanted to pursue a master’s degree, but circumstances got in the way. When I was hired as a Grants Officer at Goodwin College, I noticed that the college offered a master’s in organizational leadership. When I reviewed the curriculum, I discovered it aligned with the many years of experience and non-academic training I possessed in the subject matter.

My interest in leadership dates back to my involvement in the Greater Hartford Jaycees during the late ’80s and early ’90s. The Jaycees is a leadership training organization for individuals under the age of 40. I had served on the Greater Hartford Jaycees Board for five years, rising to the position of Chapter President. My experiences in the Greater Hartford Jaycees changed my career trajectory. I left the field of journalism after spending 15 years as a daily newspaper reporter and began a long career as an association management executive.

Leadership development is a must for any executive and I took advantage of every opportunity for training in the subject. In 2003 I earned a Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential from the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). I have renewed my CAE credential every three years by attaining 40 continuing education credits in executive leadership-related training. All the while, I have dreamed of obtaining a master’s degree. The opportunity finally emerged last year. With the support of my boss and the MSOL Program Director, I enrolled in the program. I have now completed the first two courses. I am on track to reeceive my degree in June of 2020 (Goodwin has year-round semesters).

So, what’s it like to go back to school after 40 years? It’s exhilirating! I am using a part of my brain that has been dormant for a long time. I am leveraging many of the skills I have developed as a fiction writer, but in new ways. Academic and fiction writing are different in some ways and similar in other ways. In academic writing, we begin each paper with an introduction that serves as a roadmap for the paper. We present a thesis and then use a well-constructed argument based on facts and examples to prove the thesis. We end each paper with a conclusion that wraps up and summarizes the main points of the paper.

Academic papers are fact-based and use evidence to prove a point. In fiction writing, we make up stuff. We invent imperfect characters and place them in uncomfortable situations. We challenge them in ways that are sometimes cruel, like killing off their best friend or a family member. While fiction is rooted in make believe stories, these stories must be connected to reality. A novel set in the Civil War era, for example, must be historically accurate (unless it is historical fantasy) in describing the key battles, as well as the norms, customs, and fashions of that time.

Like academic writing, fiction writing has an organizational structure. Every story has a protagonist who has a goal, but faces weaknesses and challenges that prevent her from reaching the goal. Overcoming these challenges forces the main character to grow. The main character reaches his goal at the end of the story and emerges as a transformed person.

Organlizational leadership requires an understanding of people, group dynamics and cultural diversity. We are learning about emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, and employee motivation. These same concepts apply to fiction writing. The best characters in fiction must navigate a culturally diverse world, possess emotional intelligence, and, through overcoming challenges, exhibit conflict resolution skills. Motivation is a key elemeent in fiction as it is in leadership. Many leadership theories explore various ways for a leader to successfully motivate followers.

As a lifelong learner, I recommend the continuous pursuit of learning and self-development. The only downside is that it cuts into my fiction writing time, but it’s a fair tradeoff, given the sheer depth and breadth of what I am learning about leadership. And, the biggest benefit is what I am learning about myself, which will help me to develop my leadership skills.

What about you? Have you thought about pursuing a degree? Have you considered taking a course?

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Should You Persevere or Pull the Plug?

I recently received my manuscript back from a trusted beta reader, who made a number of thoughtful suggestions and recommendations to improve my story. That was the good news. The bad news was that the changes I would need to make will take weeks, if not months, at a time when I thought the finish line was in sight. My first reaction was that I should finally pull the plug on this story, which I’ve worked on for six years.

Then I thought about all the time and effort I’ve put into this story. At an average of 10 hours a week for 52 weeks times six years, that comes out to 3,120 hours. This wasn’t the only project I worked on during this time. I drafted two novellas and numerous blog posts and a couple of short stories, but this was the project that consumed my passion. It was the centerpiece of my fiction writing and I just couldn’t throw it away.

So, I patiently went through every one of my beta reader’s excellent comments. I thought long and hard about how I could reorganize sections of the story and make adjustments to some of the scenes. I wrote down the adjustments I would need to make and then I began attacking the manuscript with a rejuvenated enthusiasm.

My experience with multiple rounds of revisions over a period of years begs several crucial question: when should a writer decide whether to pull the plug? What are the factors the writer must weigh? What process should the writer use to arrive at the best decision? I’m hesitant to tell any writer to throw away years of work. That is an individual decision each writer must make, but at some point the writer needs to make an honest, self-assessment of the work.

Here are some questions the writer should ask:

• Do you still have the passion for the project? If the answer is yes, by all means keep going.
• Are you getting closer to realizing the full potential of your story and having a publishable manuscript or do you feel after several rounds of revision you are still far from the finish line? If this is the case, you may want to consider abandoning the project?
• Is the story itself flawed? Is there something about the premise or the execution of the story that your trusted beta readers have consistently found lacking? If the answer is yes, you can always go back and fix the premise, but that will leave you with a lot of work ahead. It would be almost like starting from scratch.
• Are you comfortable moving on to something else? Or will you be second guessing yourself? A good way to find out is to start a new project. If you find a gnawing yearning to get back to your work in progress, you can always return to it. Sometimes a break from it will allow you to view it with fresh eyes and a new perspective.

This is a difficult decision and not one to be taken lightly. I hope these suggestions help and I wish you the best on whatever project has you stymied at the moment.

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Book Review: “Little Fires Everywhere,” by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, begins at the end—in the aftermath of an arson fire that destroys the tony suburban home of the Richardsons, the family at the center of this story. From there, Ng goes back to uncover the origins of the “little fires” that smolder at first and ultimately ignite the conflagration.

Little Fires Everywhere is a brilliantly plotted story that touches on hot-button issues of race, assimilation, abortion, adoptions, motherhood, the tenuous family bonds and the furtive lives and shifting alliances of teen-agers. That’s a lot of ground to cover, but Ng does it skillfully and without coming across as preachy.

Set in 1998, the novel offers powerful lessons that are relevant today as our nation struggles with racial tensions and deep fissures that roil on national political debate.

The Richardsons are in many ways the embodiment of the American Dream. Elena, the matriarch, is a third-generation resident of Shaker Heights, a progressive suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, built on order and rules. Their lives are upended when an itinerant visual artist, Mia Warren, moves into town with her teen-age daughter, Pearl. Mia rents an apartment in a home owned by the Richardsons at a below market rent, which Elena sees as an act of charity.

Pearl quickly forms a bond with Moody and the two high school sophomores are inseparable. But Trip, a year older than Moody, has designs on Pearl. And, complicating matters, Lexi, the Richardson’s oldest sibling, a high school senior, takes Pearl under her wing. And that’s just the children’s dilemmas. Conflict erupts among the adults when Elena and Mia find themselves on the opposite sides of a custody battle after family friends of the Richardsons try to adopt a Chinese-American baby. Elena, who works as a reporter for a local paper, is suspicious of Mia’s motives and begins digging into her past. What she discovers is troubling and she makes the fateful decision to act on it.

The most mysterious figure in this tale of two entangled families is Isabelle (Izzy), the youngest Richardson. A high school freshman with no filter and an iconoclastic streak, Izzy is able to grasp the toxicity of the situation, but lacks the judgment and maturity to deal with it in a constructive way.

Secrets and mysteries can create unbearable burdens, just as a slavish devotion to rules and order can cloud judgment and impede empathy. At the same time, people who believe they have progressive views on race can act in ways that are contrary to their professed beliefs. These are among the chief take-aways from this thought-provoking story.

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