Your 1st Writer’s Residency

Making art can’t happen without living life. But often, life gets in the way. Residencies offer the gift of time apart, time for focusing on craft, for enjoying the company of other creative souls, and for letting go – for a time – of other obligations.

And yet the first residency experience can be terrifying. And there are many things I wish I’d known before walking in.

A few years ago I was honored and humbled to be accepted into my first artist’s residency. Elated and intimidated, I packed my suitcase and bundled up my laptop and notes and drove off deep into the countryside to a fittingly lovely and rustic retreat set amongst hills and farmland.

Picture of a wooden fance in front of a pasture
Hills, meadows, and trees in the countryside.

The space of those hours was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I spent my days writing, writing, writing. Occasionally I would walk in the woods, using the autumn quiet to incubate ideas. In the evenings I mixed with writers, artists, and composers from across the country and around the world: a sculptor from Germany who crafted exquisite figurines, a young modernist composer from Chile, an installation artist from Denmark. Writers from everywhere: poets, novelists, essayists. We were a veritable jungle of talent from all tribes.

Where was I in all this? I was working on my first book. I had publication credits in a few national magazines. (None of them literary.) I didn’t have an agent. I didn’t have an MFA.

I was thrilled when one writer expressed interest in doing a co-reading and asked me if I would share some of my manuscript with her. I pored over the pages and eventually gave her an extract. Then I waited. I wanted to read – the thought of putting my work out publicly frightened me but I also desperately wanted to walk over that bridge. And I didn’t want to go alone.

That night after dinner she invited me up to her room to talk. She spoke a lot but the word I never heard from her mouth was “Yes.” She handed me back the pages and gave me some advice – I can’t remember what. And though she never verbalized it, it was clear that she was retracting her invitation to read together. I took the pages. I didn’t touch that manuscript for two and a half years.

Our work is our deepest, most sacred, most intimate thing. To expose it is to put our naked heart into the world. We want honest responses. But we hope that the honesty is gentle.

The first residency is an opportunity to screw courage to the sticking point. Emotions surfaced. In the long hours with only me and my silence and my work, I found myself ambushed by a mix of feelings I neither expected or welcomed. Eventually I found a way to manage them: by journaling, by going for long runs in the afternoons, by the occasional phone call home to my husband. But it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t anything anyone had told me to prepare myself for.

And I kept writing. By temporarily putting aside my nonfiction manuscript, I produced my first draft of a new novel in less than a year. (For me, I am an achingly slow writer so that is a record!) It poured out in the weeks and months following my residency. I even managed a research trip to Scotland and started an e-mail pen pal exchange with a Brit that has blossomed into a lovely, real-world friendship. I attended conferences and made new writing contacts. And I launched both this website and my monthly e-newsletter.

Confidence can be a hard thing to hold onto. The writing life is rewarding but rarely easy. And every day for my first residency I had to push myself to believe in my right to be there. Over dinner one night I spoke with a novelist about his work and his path to becoming a writer. He talked about his MFA program – he was only a few years older than I – and we spoke of the fact that I hadn’t attended one. The he looked at me and said, “At your age it’s a bit late to go and do one.” (NB I was – and still am – in my 30s. And Ta’nehisi Coates has said it interviews it took him 18 years to build his writing career.)

My fellow author didn’t mean to say I was old that night, that I’d missed the boat. He didn’t intend to make a cut. But cut it did, for here was something I lacked, and now I was being told that the door to get it had already closed.

The world gives us plenty of reasons to doubt ourselves. I’m convinced that one of the most important things that writers must do is cultivate belief. Belief that what we are doing is valuable. Belief that we are saying something that is worth saying. Belief that the hours, days, weeks, months, years spent working on our material, practicing our craft, building our platforms are worth it.

Don’t let emotion determine your conviction.

A couple days later I was in the residency program’s shared kitchen. A very well-known author (multiple New York Times bestsellers) stood next to me by the sink as we rinsed our coffee mugs. Without preamble, he turned to me and asked, “What do you think of epilogues?”

With that question, he launched a lively discussion that covered not only epilogues, but his current book project and how he researched it.

Picture of an open window with checkered curtains
View from my writer’s studio

That 10-minute conversation did more to make me feel like a peer than anything else I experienced during my first residency.  And what I took away from it was this: Even when you feel like an imposter, show up. Show up, because serendipitous moments happen. Show up, because you never know who you might meet. Just keep showing up.

The final thing I wish someone had told me was the importance of creature comforts. New places, however welcome or exciting, aren’t home. The very first trip I took away from my writer’s studio was to get snacks, warm socks, and waterproof boots. (It was a rainy October and the shoes I’d brought with me were no match for the weather.) I had brought a Keurig coffeemaker with me and that was a lifesaver on chill and damp afternoons.

This summer I’m headed to another writer’s residency program. The pages that my fellow writer passed over were submitted to a national memoir contest this spring. And I’m working towards seeking representation for The Admiral’s Wife, the novel that sprang out like a tidal wave post-residency.

Writing is a long and winding road. But each step is part of a journey, and every part of the journey is yours to own.

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Book Cover Design: Q & A with Natasha Snow

Not sure where to start with cover design?  Read on for Natasha Snow’s fantastic Q & A and find answers to the things you always wanted to know about working with designers, selecting a cover concept, and industry trends.

How did you become a designer? What led you to specialize in designing book covers?

When I was younger, I dreamed of finding something to do with my life that was creative, but still… strict. I’ve always liked rules, deadlines, plans. And then I discovered design. It’s creative, fun, and visually enthralling, but with rules. Sure, you can bend those rules, but design isn’t entirely opinion-based. There is good design, and there is bad design. And of course, all those little spaces in between.

I went to college for design with a major in print and illustration.  After that, it was really my love of reading that escalated my career as a book cover designer.


What are some design influences that impact your work?

I like to go on to Pinterest and see what other cover designers are doing! I also spend a lot of my time on Goodreads so I’m basically looking at book covers all day. I find it really helpful for inspiration, but also because designing book covers is actually quite different from designing other things. You have to taken into account how it will look in thumbnail size, how it’ll look next to other book covers of the same genre, etc.

Do you have a favorite book cover?

Of mine? Oh, no. But if we’re talking about other covers, then yes! I have a few!

The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp (The typography, the color palette, the weight, the balance: perfect)

The Diviners by Libba Bray (The version with just the hands and forearms in the darkness. Stark, striking, represents the genre perfectly, great typography)

Between the Notes by Sharon Huss Roat (Striking, minimal, create colors, and the use of negative space is fantastic)

When authors start their search for a cover designer, what kinds of things should they be thinking about?

  • Style. Make absolutely sure you like the artists style. Every designer has a different style, so make sure you like the majority of their portfolio.
  • Typography. If you yourself can’t tell the difference between good typography and bad typography, hire a designer who does. Typography is one of those areas of design without a lot of wiggle room. There is good typography and bad typography. There are good fonts and bad fonts, and some authors and designers will have a personal taste that affects their likes. But the actual typography work isn’t negotiable. It’s one of the biggest issues I see with some book covers. If your cover is amazing but your typography is lacking, people will notice.
  • Price. Look around at portfolios and find one a design in your budget. Look for pre-mades if your budget is lower. If you’re looking to have covers designed for an entire series, send the designer an email and see if they offer any kind of discount for a series.
  • Genre (sort of). I personally think a good designer can design an amazing cover in almost any genre. Before starting a project, I do research on the genre and what’s selling, what big publishing houses are putting out in that genre in regards to the cover, what’s popular, etc. But make sure the designer you’ve selected is comfortable designing in other genres. If you love a designer’s work but don’t see the genre of cover you’re looking for in their portfolio, shoot them an email and ask.

How much about a book do you need to know when you start the cover design process? Should an author send you a synopsis?

I love getting a synopsis! It’s definitely helpful and an integral part of the design process. Sometimes a brief passage of the book is also provided, which can be very helpful.

Also, I need to know the genre, overall feel, about the setting(s), and the characters, including visuals on how they look and their persona. I need to know if it’s a series cover as well. Knowing if there are any vital elements that the author thinks should be on the cover also helps a lot. And if the author has any suggestions in regards to visuals, I’ll definitely take those into consideration as well.

Describe your ideal collaboration process with an author when creating a cover design.

To start, I love having all the information about the book(s) before starting. Usually, the author will fill in the order form on my website  and from there, if I have any questions, I’ll email them to touch base, discuss when I’ll be starting the project, when we’re likely to be finished, and if we can meet all the deadlines.

From there, I start working on some concepts and send them to the author. Ideally, I do like getting feedback. Good types of feedback are things like “Oh, I like the blue, but remembered that the landscape is more green. How would a green palette look?” or “Can you try other fonts for the title and author name? I’m not sold on this one.” Or letting me know if some of the visuals need changing in general. I find my best work comes from feedback and usually after a handful of rounds of revisions.

I’d say the most important part of the relationship between author and designer is communication. If both parties are able to communicate well, I think you’ll end up with a great design.

What kinds of things should authors avoid doing?

Authors should probably avoid giving too much feedback or going through a lot of rounds of revisions.  Not only will this delay the process but sometimes it’s easy to get hung up on the small details that are only opinion-based.

I would also suggest avoiding getting too literal. If the character on the cover doesn’t look exactly like how you picture the character in the story, that’s okay. It should look similar, but I would always suggest going for something that looks good over something that looks accurate. Good will get potential readers to click the thumbnail and read the blurb.

I always say that it’s best to lure readers in with a great (but as accurate as possible) cover, and then hook them with the blurb.

What trends do you see in cover design?

In Romance right now (Contemporary, Erotic, and New Adult), black and white images with neon text is super popular –  usually with a shirtless and tattooed model, and a script font! Urban Fantasy is also really popular. A lot of bestselling covers in this genre have neon or bright colors and a model on the cover, holding something that looks magical.

Silhouettes are very popular in mystery/thrillers, as they have been for awhile. Double exposure is also becoming more popular in mystery/thriller covers.

Any final words of advice?

Trust your designer. Above all else, trust your designer and their opinion, their taste, and their style.

As a cover designer, it’s my job to make the author happy and give them a cover they love, but it’s also my job to tell them what works, what doesn’t work, and what I believe will sell.

Sometimes an author wants a cover that, unfortunately, won’t sell. Or won’t sell as well as it could with a different cover! My best advice would be to trust the designer you’ve hired, trust when they tell you one font is working more, one layout is working more, or one color palette is working more.  Nine times out of ten, you’ll get a much better cover by listening to your designer’s recommendations.

See more of Natasha’s work in her portfolio, contact her online, or visit her Facebook page.  

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On Writing and Place

This morning I walked along the Atlantic coast. The sun had not long risen, and yellow light sliced through gray and pink clouds. I thought of how artists have always been drawn to the sea, and the waters that are always mesmerizing, always changing, always the same.

picture of ocean in early morning, with waves and sunlight

I have seen many oceans. The Atlantic was the first, but also the North Sea along the English coast, the Mediterranean that circles the Greek islands of Naxos and Santorini, the aquamarine-blue Caribbean. Then the Pacific along Nicaragua, and then later off the coast of California, and finally the reaches of the Pacific along the northwest coast, along the old whaling towns off Bainbridge Island.

I could not know, as a child catching her first look at the sea, that I would one day write a book where the waves and storms and mists become as much of the fabric of the story as any character. All of those seaside walks, the early morning digging oysters in Wellfleet, the squall on the Mediterranean that had me ferrying ginger ale and aspirin to seasick passengers – those all invisibly built something in my mind that years later, came spilling out onto pages.

We all have a place that we know so well, it has become part of us, consciously or not.

We’ve all read stories, too, where place becomes a presence that seems to influence or even drive the behavior of the characters – for good or ill. Novels like:

Of course there are more! Which novels moved you with the way place shaped the story in a way that you can’t forget?

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Quotes on Writing


November is National Novel Writing Month (also known as NaNoWriMo) – but any time of year is a good time to read quotes on writing and inspiration by great writers.

“When you’re writing, you’re conjuring. It’s a ritual, and you need to be brave and respectful and sometimes get out of the way of whatever it is that you’re inviting into the room.”
~Tom Waits

“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the hearts affections and the truth of imagination – what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth, whether it existed before or not.”
~ John Keats

“Don’t be a writer. Be writing.”
~ William Faulkner

“If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
~ Toni Morrison

“Every book is holy. Every single one of them, even the bad ones. Every single book has at least one good idea about how to be a human being.”
~ Sherman Alexie (read the complete interview on The Lightning Notes)



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Stephen King’s Writing Tips: Infographic

“If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able  to  describe  it, and  in  a  way  that  will  cause  your  reader to prickle with recognition….Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” – Stephen King

Stephen King needs no introduction, and this infographic contains 14 of the bestselling author’s top tips on writing:

Infographic showing 14 writing tips from Stephen King

[Note: This infographic appeared on Hodderscape, in the post “Infographic: 14 Top Tips from Stephen King’s On Writing“]


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What If Books Had Soundtracks?

Storytelling and music are natural fits. From ancient Greek poetry that was more sung than spoken to the piano music that accompanied early silent films, humans have paired the languages of music and speech together for millennia. Music evokes memories, sets word to rhythm, conjures up moods.

I’ve always been a sucker for movie soundtracks, and as I’ve been thinking of character arcs and motivations for my novel, I can’t help but make associations between songs and characters. Just for fun, here is some of the music I associate with my protagonist, Kate Cochrane.

Tiffany – I Think We’re Alone Now

This song is so young and innocent and bubbly, I can almost imagine it playing as Kate and her soon-to-be-husband elope into a secret marriage.

Cyndi Lauper – Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Classic song for women who want the best out of life and aren’t afraid to go after it – especially if they haven’t had many chances to do so. Kate’s first blush as a woman of title and money must have opened a new world to her.

Gin Blossoms – Found Out About You

Secrets just won’t stay hidden, and what we try to conceal to protect those we love usually has a way of coming out.

P!nk ft. Nate Ruess – Just Give Me a Reason

Is there a better song that encapsulates love that’s gone wrong?

Eminem ft. Rihanna – Love the Way that You Lie

Possibly the gold standard of dysfunctional relationship anthems. Can’t stay in, can’t stay out.

Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse of the Heart

The song for when you are ready to take the plunge into love. And Kate finds a second chance.

Vertical Horizon – Best I Ever Had

When the recognition of the truth comes too late to change events.

Sia – Chandelier

The lyrics on this speak for themselves.

What songs make of you think of your favorite characters?

P.S. I do love Menselssohn’s Hebrides Overture and have from the second I heard it. If the novel is ever made into a film, this much has to be a part of the soundtrack!

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How AirBnB Helped Me Write

Virginia Woolf famously wrote that in order to write, a woman needs a room of her own. I’m lucky enough to have two – a cozy office with bookshelves that reach to the ceiling, and a sunroom that looks onto a tangled green backyard surrounded by trees. These are the places I feel at peace, where I can shut out the world for a time and focus on bringing my inner world, my writing world, out into life.

Unfortunately, neither are portable. While I have written in hotel rooms, on Amtrak trains, at writers’ retreats, in campgrounds, and even in bars, a rooted place has always felt most natural to me, most like home. So when I put together a research trip to Scotland for my upcoming novel, I went searching for a base camp, too.

View from windows showing old buildings in Edinburgh, Scotland.
View of Edinburgh from my AirBnB flat.

Within seconds of launching into my first AirBnB search, it was love at first sight. A perfect, snug little hideaway of a flat just steps off of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. From here, I could easily walk to both the National Records of Scotland and the National Library of Scotland, two key sites for my research. There was a tiny galley kitchen, a comfortable bedroom, books and DVDs to keep myself entertained should I need them. Shops and restaurants stood within easy reach. The building itself had stood for over a century, and looked likely to stand for several more. I booked it straightaway.

The feeling I had when I stepped through the door went beyond “charm” and “character.” Yes, the flat had both, with its large windows of antique glass, thick stone walls, and utter lack of elevator (the flat stood on the 5th floor). But the appeal went beyond mere aesthetics.

Here, the space was mine, and mine alone – there was no schedule, no set times when coffee would be available or breakfast served. I could write and order my days as I pleased, breakfasting in my pajamas if I so desired on whatever lovely foods I brought up from the local market. (Scottish sausages, coffee, toast, and fresh eggs most mornings.)

I had a sense of space that was not sterile, but would be filled with the day’s rhythm of activities and the city around me. I had solitude and independence, but not isolation. If it wasn’t home, it was the next best thing. And I wrote and dreamt and pondered and wrote some more.

When I returned home, I finished the first draft of my novel within the month. I can’t say it was all due to AirBnB magic, but having a room of my own in what’s become one of my favorite cities certainly helped.

Disclaimer: This post is a statement of personal opinion, and is not an official endorsement of AirBnB services. No financial compensation, goods, or services have been received in exchange for this post.

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From Source to Story: How I Used Primary Materials

The most memorable writers I’ve encountered have a way of throwing you into the story through your senses. Think of Zora Neal Hurston’s description of Janie lying under the peach blossoms, or Jack Kerouac chronicling his manic, visceral, joyous romp across the United States. 
Primary sources are our surest means of knocking the dust off the past and getting our hands on it. They are goldmines for writing historical fiction, and here are three ways I’ve used them for my current novel-in-progress.
Regency evening gown, 1810
Evening gown, c. 1810. The Met.
The item: Letters written by Lady Katherine Cochrane
Kate’s surviving letters, held at the National Library of Scotland and the National Records of Scotland and elsewhere, offer an engaging look at a charming, strong-minded, brave, affectionate, resourceful, stubborn, sexy woman – with a bit of a temper. Next to speaking with her, the letters have offered me the best way to hear her voice. Whether she’s reminding her husband of her brilliant success in helping him attain a pardon from the British government, or lamenting her separation from her children, she’s a force to be reckoned with. 
My favorite line – so good it could have come from Jane Austen – is “With a few dinners and a little flattery I might accomplish a great deal.”
The item: Clothing from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
A heroine must be dressed! But how? Thanks to the Met’s collection of Regency clothing – much of which has been digitally photographed– I gained a sense of what a woman like Kate might have worn for day-to-day activities as well as special events like balls.

The item: a reproduction of an 1816 cookbook
strawberry jam
Homemade strawberry preserves.
As soon as I saw A New System of Domestic Cookery by Mrs. Rundell listed in the Persephone Books catalog, I knew I had to have it! Not only is it an invaluable source of what people ate and how meals were prepared, it includes the early 19th-century version of Hints from Heloise. There are tips for mending broken china, making homemade ink, and removing stains from linen. 
I’ve found that in the era before freezers, refrigeration, and chemical preservatives, food was much more seasonal! Mrs. Rundell’s book includes monthly menus of what meats, fish, game, vegetables, and fruits are available, and also offers suggestions for

which dishes to serve for dinners at various levels of formality.

Mutton collops, anyone?
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3 Types of Primary Sources You Can Use as a Historical Fiction Writer

Photograph of Dundonald Castle, c. 1903.

Let’s face it – historical fiction is easier to get wrong than to get right. When you write historical fiction, you aren’t just writing a story; you’re building an entire 360 degree universe. Your characters likely have ways of thinking, and ways of expressing themselves, that are the result of a time and place very different from our own.

Primary sources can be valuable keys to unlocking past worlds. Mining them for details allows you to recreate a universe that your readers can see, hear, and taste. 
Archival Materials
What they are: Manuscripts, letters, journals, books and documents held in archive or library collections. These are sometimes referred to as “special collections.” Unlike secondary sources, all of these materials date from the period. Sometimes special permissions are needed to access these kinds of collections, but there is nothing like holding a letter written by one of your characters to inspire thrills and chills. These collections may be held in city, state, or national archives, or sometimes at university collections or in research libraries such as the Folger Shakespeare Library or the British Library
What they can tell you: Archival materials are terrific sources of information on details you just won’t find anywhere else. Reading a family’s letters may tell you far more about their dynamics and relationships than a biographer’s account. Census records, or registers of births and marriages, are great place to go shopping for authentic period names. A caveat: you will likely need to do some extensive research in the special collection’s catalog to find what you are looking for. If the material isn’t available digitally, you’ll need to go in-person to take a look. Extra effort, but I’ve always found it to be well worth it.
Digital Collections
What they are: Much like the name suggests, digital collections are digitized versions of “physical” materials. More and more archival materials are being made available in this way. It reduces wear and tear on the objects themselves, and it also makes materials available to people who can’t visit the collection in person.
What they can tell you: You can find much of the same information that archival materials contain. However, touching and seeing an object may reveal things that seeing it on a screen won’t – the quality of the paper, signs of wear like tears or watermarks, etc. The Library of Congress has extensive digital collections of everything from photographs to sheet music to sound recordings.
What they are: Reproduced versions of original items. Not all primary sources are available as reproductions, but when they are, a reproduction may be an excellent and far more accessible version of the original. 
What they can tell you: You won’t get a sense of how the item was originally made or the signs of use it has accumulated over the years, but you will see the tastes and aesthetics of the period in the reproduction. For example, the Museum of Jewelry in San Francisco has many kinds of reproduction pieces representing many historical eras!
In my next post, I’ll share some of my favorite sources in each of these categories and how I have used them.
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A Room of One’s Own, aka Cache

Virginia Woolf  wrote that for a woman to write, she needed an independent income and a room of her own. While exceptional women authors have emerged without those two advantages, I do see Woolf’s point. Quiet is nice. Solitude is nice. And I imagine that I could write a whole lot more if I didn’t need this thing called a day job to pay my bills.

This is my first morning writing in the room I have made my office. Birds are chirping outside the window. I’m sitting in an old wooden chair that I used when typing essays in graduate school. My laptop rests on a desk that my dad found in some antique store and painstakingly refinished. The desk has a drawer with a lock – and a key. It feels old and secretive. I love this desk.

So my immediate writing zone is good. However, boxes lie on the floor, and I have a suitcase, an ice cream maker, and piles of assorted gift wrap keeping me company. It feels more like an attic than an office at the moment. But we’ll get there.

Earlier this spring, many of the materials now in my room were in boxes for temporary storage in our sunroom. A flock of 8 adolescent chickens were also resident in the area. What I learned from this unfortunate juxtaposition is that chickens are terribly dusty. Notebooks, papers, letters, souvenir brochures, newspaper clippings of articles that I’d written  — things collected over a lifetime — were all sprinkled with a fine layer of white, smelly chicken dust. Some of these things could be salvaged. Others could not. I spent hours sorting, saving, going through my past with a fine tooth comb. Throwing some of it away.

What’s left is mostly collected in this room, my writing room. I am slowly making order out of the chaos. I’m starting clean. I’m making happy discoveries.

For instance  – my National Insurance card from my time in England, last seen in 2007. It disappeared during a move, and I felt sure it was lost forever. It unexpectedly turned up in a box of papers, along with my student ID cards from various institutions. My access card for the British Library (now expired), and assorted library cards. The tally looks something like this. Major credit cards: 1. Library cards: 7. Student ID cards: 3.

This room is where the past catches up with the present. Amy the student, Amy the traveler, Amy the writer are all here, working on the same story.

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