The Writing Life

Holly Robinson Author and Writer

The Writing Life

How I Sold a Novel in Just 25 Years!


When my agent called a few weeks ago to say that an editor at Penguin wanted to buy my new novel, The Wishing Hill, I literally had to lie down. Otherwise, I might have fallen out of my chair. After all, I've been waiting for this call for 25 years.

How did it take me so long to publish a novel? And why was this novel chosen, but not one of the other half dozen my loyal agent sent out?

I don't really know. I was doing what all writers do, really: I was writing fiction around the edges of my life. I've been married (twice). I've had children (three of my own, plus two stepchildren.) I've done some traveling. I've renovated old houses and summer cottages. I've made a good living as a nonfiction writer.

Despite having so many people to love and things to do in my life, however, I never stopped trying to write a novel good enough for an editor to say, “Hey. I want to publish that.” I got so frustrated with the wait that I finally published my own novel, Sleeping Tigers, just a few weeks before I got the call about Penguin wanting to buy The Wishing Hill. I'm delighted that not just one, but two of my novels, will now be in print. To those of you longing to do the same, I hope it takes you less time than it did me. Meanwhile, here are a few tips for outlasting the rejection letters:

Watch Reality TV

Shows like American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance can be just the antidote you need to a crisis in confidence. That single mother with the lip ring, the doughy girl who thought she'd never be a dancer, and the guy with the cowboy hat all have talent. But, just like writers, they have to hit the audience and judges at the right time to win the gold ring.

If You're Writing, You're a Writer

Lots of people say, “Oh, if I had the time, what a book I could write!” It's true that everyone has great stories to tell—but only a few of us actually write them down and revise them again and again. If you're writing, you're a writer, and you will get better as you go.

Every Rejection Is Just One Person's Opinion

We've all heard the stories about various novels being rejected, like, 800 times, before editors taking them. Every rejection letter is written by just one editor. Tear up the short, nonsensical notes (I once received a rejection that said, “This does not amuse.”) Editors send those out because they have to say something. Keep sending your work out. It can only get published if it's out there.

There Really Is Such a Thing as a Good Rejection

When a friend called recently, despondent because she'd received a rejection letter, I asked her to read it to me. The editor had clearly taken the time to read her novel carefully and had made constructive comments. Even better, the editor said she'd take another look at the novel if my friend rewrote it. There really are editors out there willing to take the time to do that. My advice? Put aside your ego and do it, then send your book back out.

Be Not Afraid of Young Pups

Pick up an issue of Poets & Writers magazine, and you can't help but envy all of the babes-in-arms out there winning fiction contests and earning publishing contracts before they're old enough to need their author photos digitally enhanced. Yeah, well. Some people are talented and lucky, and some of us are talented, but don't get sprinkled with lucky stardust until later in life.

Never Equate Being Published with Being Rich or Happy

What did I do after I sold my first novel? I celebrated, of course—but only after picking my son up from school, throwing in another load of laundry, and doing the supper dishes. The thing about publishing a novel is that it won't make you rich, especially now that advances are lower and publishing companies are paying out in thirds or even fourths. Plus, don't forget to subtract your agent's commission and taxes on earnings.

As for being happy? My contented writer friends were happy before they published their novels. And my writer friends who are unhappy? Yep. They were that way before they published their books, too. Being published really won't change your life, unless you happen to become as well-known as Stephanie Meyer or J.K. Rowling—and my guess is even those two could shop at the local Market Basket for eggs without being recognized. They just drive better cars.

Surround Yourself with People Who Believe that Writing Is Worthwhile

Writing is a long and sometimes lonely business, so it's key to have a constructive writing group, writer friends, and a spouse or partner who believe that the act of creating a story is a worthwhile use of your time. Without my incredibly supportive husband and my LIW (Ladies in Writing) group, with whom I swap not only manuscripts, but stories about rejection letters and agents, children and spouses, I never could have made it through the past 25 years of crafting stories and surviving doubt. They helped me remember that the creative journey itself is worth savoring and sharing.

Why Do Writers Need Readers? Not for the Reason You Might Think.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked if I'd like to participate in his “Books, Authors, and Wine Tasting” event. I had just published my novel Sleeping Tigers, so I said yes. I wasn't expecting to sell any books, really—I hadn't started marketing the novel yet, and this was the kind of event where the authors sit at tables displaying their wares, like a craft fair, while potential readers wander around with glasses of wine.

As I lugged my box of books up the icy driveway that night, part of me was longing to be at home, sacked out on the couch and reading or watching TV. Imagine my surprise, then, when one woman, and then another, and then a third—twelve in all—found my table and excitedly said, “This is the book I was looking for!” as she picked up a copy of Sleeping Tigers and, miraculously, bought it.

“Really?” I asked in shock.

One of the women explained that there were two book clubs attending the event, and the members had all agreed to read my novel. Then she leaned forward and confided, “I've had breast cancer, too. That's why I want to read your book.”

She told me her story, then, of her diagnosis and surgery, of her recovery and good fortune to have survived the ordeal. Then she walked away, my book in one hand, a glass of wine in the other, held aloft like a torch.

The stories that many of the women told me as they stopped by my table lingered with me for a long time. We talked about breast cancer and motherhood, travel and books, husbands and jewelry, among other things. Afterward, as I toted my empty cardboard box back to the car, I was reminded again why being a writer is the most spectacular pursuit in the world: as you share your own stories with others, readers share their lives with you in return.

Of course there is a part of every writer that longs to be on the New York Times bestseller list. We would all love to make enough money from writing to put our kids through college, or even to put a dent in the grocery bill. More important than that, though, is our longing to connect with readers on an emotional level. Hearing someone say “I loved your book” is a great thing, but it's even better when a reader takes the time to say why: “My best friend is like your main character, only she's a tap dancer,” or, “You made me laugh because my mother used to cut my hair like that, too.”

After I wrote The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, a memoir about growing up with a Navy father so obsessed with gerbils that he started raising them, I was stunned to discover how many readers had parents who were chain smokers. It was equally surprising to me how many people grew up with fathers who raised animals. I heard from one reader whose father hatched parrots in the basement, and another whose dad had tropical fish tanks in every single room of the house. Now, three years after that book was published, I still correspond with a thirteen year-old reader who is as passionate about horses and reading as I was at that age, as well as a woman in California who by now feels like a sister to me.

The point is that writers lead solitary lives. I work in a barn behind my house, usually in a flannel shirt and sweatpants. I finally get dressed and put on makeup (sometimes) when it's time to collect my son from school. Otherwise, I see few people and live inside my head, my fingers spinning stories on my laptop, never knowing if my plots and characters and settings will ever reach anyone beyond my best friends.

For most writers, every book takes months, even years, to write. We don't know how, or even if, that book will ever be published in the end, but something compels us to keep going. That “something” is the reader. In this age when so many bookstores have gone under and few books are reviewed in print, book bloggers and social media have become our lifelines. They let us reach readers, and we are forever grateful that they exist. Meanwhile, we'll keep seeking avenues to meet readers in person, especially the ones who aren't afraid to carry a glass of wine around as they shop for books.

We write, because we want to open our hearts and share our stories with you. We hope you'll do the same with us.

Every Picture Tells a Story. A Novel Tells a Life.


Just yesterday, while listening to Margot Livesy talk on NPR about her new novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, I was struck again by how every picture tells a story—and every novel tells a life—not just its imaginary characters' lives, but the author's, too. Livesy's novel is essentially a retelling of the classic novel Jane Eyre, a book that she read at just nine years old. However, Livesy set her book in more contemporary times, and infused The Flight of Gemma Hardy with bits of her own life as a lonely Scottish outsider in boarding school “out of a certain longing for those landscapes.”

Readers sometimes ask writers how we get our ideas. I became a writer later in life, but I've been spinning stories out of my head since first grade, when my mother forced me to entertain my rambunctious younger brother in the car. “You could keep a story going for nine hours,” she says.

That's still true. I love telling stories, and writing for nine hours seems to me like I've only been in my chair for nine minutes. For my new novel Sleeping Tigers, I imagined Jordan O'Malley, a young woman whose diagnosis of breast cancer sends her life careening in another direction. This cautious, well-organized elementary school teacher is nothing like me. I didn't grow up Catholic, as she did, nor was my dad an alcoholic.

However, like Jordan, I was treated early for breast cancer, and the experience transformed me in profound ways. Jordan worries that having breast cancer means that she'll never fall in love or have a family. I was already the mother of five children, the youngest of whom was just in kindergarten; I worried about how they might cope if I died, even though my doctors assured me that the surgery had left me cancer-free. Even years later, I felt like “a chipped teacup,” as Jordan says, and worried (still do) about “when the handle might break off.”

I set Sleeping Tigers in San Francisco because I lived there for a time, and loved it despite always feeling like an East Coast outsider. I also traveled to Nepal—not to find my drifter brother, which is what propels cautious Jordan to take such a risk--but because I was a hippie backpacker the year I turned thirty. Jordan has to save her brother's life; thankfully, neither of my brothers has ever needed saving. If they did, though, I hope I would be as brave as she is.

My point is that every novel carries not only the fictional story on the page, but pieces of the author's life. When I teach writing, I sometimes give this exercise: Write about the scariest time in your life. Then write those same events in the third person, a person very different from you. If you're an older woman, write the events from the point of view of a younger man; if you're afraid of the dark, make the story happen to someone who spends most of her time in a dim room. If you have trouble inventing a character, imagine your sister or your weird Uncle Jack. What would those people do in the same scary situation? The results are usually astounding.

Technically, a novel is fiction—a story that is not true. But the emotions on the page of a novel are often truer than anything people say or do in “real” life. As we write and inhabit other characters, we're able to drop all of the defenses and social niceties we have been taught to maintain. Through our characters, we can say or do outlandish things, have passionate moments, or even grow wings as we rage against an enemy.

We read to be transported and transformed. When authors let their true emotions and experiences mingle with their imaginations, it's a potent brew. Fiction writers strive to leave the reader in a sort of dream state, as if we've opened a secret door—think Alice in Wonderland here--and invited you to step inside.

The facts of the story on the page may have been spun out of the webs of our imaginations. But look closely. Do you see those droplets of dew glistening on the web? Those are the truest things in our hearts, drawn from our own lives, that we wish to share with you.



Upstairs, Downstairs: My Books and My Kindle

My husband gave me a Kindle for my birthday. (Forgive him, O Indie booksellers. He is an engineer who knows not what he does.)

At first I protested. As a writer, avid reader, and patron of indie bookstores with cats curled on floral armchairs, what did I want with this devilish contraption?

“Give it a try,” my husband suggested. “A lot of the books are free.”

Did he say free? As the daughter of a Do-It-Yourself-Or-Die-Trying gerbil farmer, “free” is my middle name, whether I'm surfing for curbside antiques or checking out sample cheeses at Market Basket. How could I resist?

Of course, like any addiction, that first hit lures you down the slippery slope of, “Oh, hell, just one more can't hurt.” Soon I was downloading books by the dozen, bemused and freaked by the fact that the Magic Hand of Amazon could find me even in bed. It could even find me in the White Mountains or riding the subway in New York City. Need a book? Press a button!

The thing is, I started to love my Kindle. But I couldn't give up my obsessive fondling and purchasing of books. I also worried that my books—waiting so patiently in their pretty bright book cover dresses on my bookshelf, or climbing over each other on my nightstand in their zeal to be read—might be hurt by my disloyalty. Alternatively, I worried that my smart-mouthed, quick-on-the-draw Kindle would know I was cheating on her with her plumper, more beautiful cousins.

I agonized for weeks over which was better: digital books or “real.” At first, reading the Kindle was downright confusing. For one thing, what to do with that free hand flapping around while you hold such a slim rectangle and touch buttons to flip pages? (And why didn't I have a Kindle while I was breastfeeding my kids?)

How do you pretend not to notice an annoying neighbor if you can't hide your face behind an actual book? How do you loan your books to friends on a Kindle? What do you put on your bookshelves if you stop buying books? (Either wine glasses or my son's Lego collection, in our case.) And how do you stop ordering books on Amazon once you've seen how easy it is to get a fix?

Gradually, though, things smoothed out. My house has become like that popular British TV series, Upstairs, Downstairs: my supposedly more refined (though not necessarily more entertaining or informative) books reside upstairs, on the table next to my bed, where I contentedly read for an hour or so every night before I go to sleep. My Kindle stays downstairs with the dogs.

At the moment, my upstairs book is Island, a collection of lilting, atmospheric stories by the brilliant Canadian Alistair MacLeod. Reading his textured, elegant, emotional prose, it is impossible not to imagine that Cape Breton's misty cliffs loom just outside your window.

For instance, MacLeod's description of rain in the title story goes like this: “Sometimes it slanted against her window with a pinging sound, which meant it was close to hail, and then it was visible as tiny pellets for a moment on the pane before the pellets vanished and rolled quietly down the glass, each drop leaving its own delicate trickle. At other times it fell straight down, hardly touching the window at all, but still there beyond the glass, like a delicate, beaded curtain at the entrance to another room.”

Downstairs, meanwhile, my Kindle seems best suited to books by comics or mystery writers, as well as indie authors like Darcie Chan, whose books were never published by traditional publishers because they weren't deemed “good enough.” (Many of those authors, like Chan, have gone on to sell thousands of copies. Go figure.)

Digital books accompany me throughout the day, because they are so easily stowed in my purse or coat pocket. My Kindle does its work during doctors' visits, in the car while waiting for kids to leave sports practices, or on business trips that would otherwise require an extra piece of luggage for my paperbacks.

On my Kindle, at the moment I'm reading Holidays in Hell by the conservative but consistently hilarious P.J. O'Rourke—somebody whose books I never wanted to pay full price for because of his politics. Check out his description of General Omar Torrijos of Panama: “Torrijos was a half-baked socialist and a blow-hard, but he was lovable and good-looking...He had genuine feeling for the poor, started some only moderately useless social programs and maintained a modest style of life, keeping no more than two or three mistresses on the side.”

I once read that Hemingway used to write his dialogue on a typewriter because it sounded more like people talking, but chose to write his descriptions in longhand. As a writer, I also go to different places and use different tools, depending on what I'm trying to work on. I often write in a journal when I'm collecting ideas, flesh them out at my laptop, and then edit on paper, standing up in the kitchen with a cup of tea at my elbow, I suppose because then it seems like my work is by a different writer and I can be more objective about revisions. For me, reading has become like that: I choose a book's delivery mode based on what kind of reading experience I anticipate.

So my books reside upstairs and my Kindle is downstairs. Different rhythms, different lives, different sensibilities lead me to choose whether I read fiction or nonfiction, short stories or poetry, ebooks or paper. The important thing is that, for every mood and moment, there is a story to treasure, no matter where I am—or in what form I read it.

Book Covers, Backsides and Body Parts

In the book world, you can easily spot novels designed to attract women by the body parts and backsides on their covers.

Don't believe me? Go to Amazon and browse the postage stamp images for anything that falls into the category of women's contemporary fiction, and you'll see what I mean.

Here are a few examples of covers graced with body parts, all featuring legs: Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos, The End of Everything by Megan Abbott, These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf, Falling Home by Karen White, and Heat Wave by Nancy Thayer.

Even more popular for novels destined to be pitched to women's book clubs (the Great Last Hope of the publishing world) is the human backside. The humans are generally women—always slender, usually blonde, typically with their hair in disarray and in a style that shows off a slender neck. They might also be back views of children, usually in motion, and often with flowers around them or held in their sticky little hands. Contemporary examples of what I call BBC's (Backside Book Covers) include Julie Buxbaum's After You, Elin Hilderbrand's Silver Girl, Juliette Fay's Shelter Me, Wendy Wax's Ten Beach Road, and Lesley Kagen's Whistling in the Dark.

I suppose that, in the interest of full disclosure, I ought to mention that my own first book, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, also shows the back view of a little girl running through an orchard of flowering trees. When my editor at Broadway Books first showed the design to me, I was appalled—this design was for the paperback, and I'd become enamored of the hardcover, which showed gerbils peering out of a pair of rubber boots. What did a little girl running through an orchard have to do with gerbils? Who was that child, and what the heck was she wearing?

Anyway, that was in 2010, and now I've been through another cover design process, this time for my novel, Sleeping Tigers (due out in December 2011). God help me, I have a body part on the cover.

Let me explain. When the designers sent me a form asking for my ideas, I wrote up a little synopsis of the novel: Jordan O'Malley has everything she ever wanted: a job she loves, a beautiful home, and a dependable boyfriend. When her life unravels after a breast cancer scare, Jordan decides to join her wildest childhood friend in San Francisco and track down her drifter brother, Cam, who harbors secrets of his own.

When Cam suddenly flees the country, Jordan follows, determined to bring him home. Her journey takes her to the farthest reaches of majestic Nepal, where she encounters tests—and truths—about love and family that she never could have imagined.

Funny, heartbreaking, and suspenseful, Sleeping Tigers reminds us all that sometimes it's better to follow your heart instead of a plan.

For cover images, I suggested that the designer look for something representing the title—the “sleeping tiger” within is breast cancer, as my main character, Jordan, sees it, because it can awaken and sharpen its claws at any moment. (Yes, it does sound like an obvious, hit-your-thumb-with-a-hammer image when I sum it up this way, but I'm trying to write a blog post.)

The other images I suggested to the designer were anything that represented Nepal, because I had traveled to Nepal and loved that country so much that I had set a good part of my novel there. I wanted this to be a sort of fictional little sister to the massively successful Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (which, by the way, has neither backsides nor body parts on the original cover).

The result: two completely different cover images. One showed a very literal (if reversed) image representing the title, with a woman sleeping and a faint drawing of a tiger in the background. The other was a gorgeous shot of a Nepali temple with prayer flags fluttering in the wind.

Neither worked. The sleeping woman was intriguing, but looked very Jersey Shore, with her mass of teased blonde hair, pouting lips, and obviously fake eyelashes. That cover might have worked for, say, a paranormal thriller about a woman who morphs into a tiger when she's ticked off, especially when men do her wrong. The other cover, while beautiful, and while certainly in Nepal, was more like the cover of a travel book—maybe one of those Lonely Planet guides, telling you where to buy a coffee for thirty cents in Kathmandu.

What to do? I went back and forth with the designer several times, looked at countless photographs online, and checked out other book covers. It dawned on me, as I made my study over a couple of weeks, that the reason you so rarely see an actual face on a book cover is because then it's harder to imagine the story in a way that lets it surround you completely.

If you don't have a face on a book cover, then you're left with household objects, typically set against a blue background (check out Deep Down True, by Juliette Fay, and Falling Together, by Marisa de los Santos), or backsides and body parts that give you the emotional feel of the book—happy, sad, searching, longing, scary, or whatever.

That realization gave me a new idea for the book cover. I asked the designer if she could try just one more thing: show me Nepali images with women in them. She promptly sent me several more possibilities. All of them had Nepalese temples (she must have read Eat, Pray, Love, too), but these included women in the photographs. Most didn't work. The women in the photographs were almost always too young (my character is in her thirties), or too touristy (taking pictures of the temples or standing in line to go into them).

There was one image, however, that I loved: an ancient Nepalese prayer wheel in gorgeous colors, with a woman's hand tentatively reaching out to turn it. But did I really want to contribute yet another book cover with body parts to the genre?

The more I looked at that picture, the more I loved it. The image captured the book completely. There was hope and longing in the touch of those fingertips on the prayer wheel, and the colors were exotic enough to suggest a woman on an adventure.

The woman turning that prayer wheel on the cover of Sleeping Tigers isn't just traveling. She is on an emotional and spiritual journey, like my main character—and like all of us who read because we love being transported to other worlds and other lives. It was perfect.

Yes, my new book cover has a body part. But at least it's a hand and an arm—no legs in sight.

When Do You Write: Juggling Motherhood and Writing


One of the most frequent questions I'm asked at book signings or when I teach writing classes is this one: “When do you write?”

The aspiring writers who ask this questions are searching for a recipe to follow. They want me to say something like: “If you sit at your desk from six to nine every morning, you will become a writer.” Or maybe: “If you set a goal of writing just 500 words every day, you'll have a novel in a year! Easy as ABC!”

Even people who aren't aspiring writers ask me this question. Maybe it's because they struggle to imagine what writers actually do. They imagine us on safari or having affairs like the characters in novels, or maybe kicking back with a brandy at noon.

“It must be so exciting to be a writer!” people often tell me. “When do you write?”

Writing, alas, is not that exciting, seen from the outside, and there's no simple recipe for getting it done—especially if you're a mother. Because mothers get so little time to actually put words on paper, we often look like we're doing something else when we're writing. We're burning dinner because we're working out a plot line, or furtively jotting notes during a school concert, or suddenly walking the dog when the dog is tired and acting like a cement block at the end of the leash.

In my early years as a writer, I, too, was looking for the secret to success. I had already become a mother by the time I was seriously trying to publish, and I was juggling a paying job as a public relations consultant besides. I was so exhausted when my kids were little that I just wanted to lie down at the end of the day with a pillow over my face.

My question at book signings therefore had a slightly different flavor. Instead of asking writers when they wrote, I would ask, “How do you find enough time to write?” I couldn't imagine it, you see, because I already had more tasks than hours in a day.

Most male authors gave very prescriptive answers to this question. They had set hours for writing—even if they had regular jobs and kids. “I get up early and write for two hours before my job,” they might say, or, “When I come home from work, I go straight to my study and write until bed.”

As a mother, I couldn't crack this secret code. How could I write early in the morning, if I had to find gym clothes or pack lunches before school? How could I write at night, if the baby got up every hour with colic, or if I had to help with one of those dreadful fourth grade dioramas, the kind where you have to fashion little ears of corn out of Play-doh and ladders out of twigs?

Finally, a famous male mystery novelist shed some light on how many male authors were finding the time. I knew that he had small children as well, so when I heard him speak at our local library, I said, “How do you find time to write?”

“Oh, that's easy,” the famous novelist said. “I have a wife.”

I swear to you that this is true, but I won't divulge this man's name. His wife would surely kill him if she heard this, or leave him, if she hasn't already.

Finally, though, someone gave me a recipe that I could actually use: the now-deceased short story writer and political activist, Grace Paley. When I approached Ms. Paley at the Boston Public Library to ask how she got any writing done when she had small children at home, she grinned and said, “Day care.”

Day care! I mulled this over in my mind. I had day care for the hours I worked as a public relations consultant, of course, but did I dare pay for babysitting if I was just writing? How could I justify such a debutante expense?

I couldn't. There was no rational reason on earth that I could give to support the idea of spending solid cash on a babysitter. How could I, when my efforts at writing short stories, novels, and essays were being rejected, one after the other?

For a couple of years after that comment by Paley, I kept trying to fit writing around the edges of my life: while the kids watched videos or played in the yard, or after everyone was in bed, before I fell into a coma. I had a ritual, where I'd make a cup of tea and allow myself two squares of chocolate, essentially bribing myself to sit in front of the computer.

Finally I started running away from home, abandoning my family to go on occasional weekend writers' retreats—typically to Wellspring House in the Berkshires, but sometimes just holing up in a cheap hotel to write for ten hours a day. Not everyone's idea of fun, but for me it was bliss.

Going away for even a weekend was tough at first, because I felt so guilty. I'd abandoned my family! I was missing that Girl Scout camping trip, that track meet, that night of video and pizzas with my children!

Plus, once I was at the retreat, it was hard not to mother everyone around me. I'd feel compelled to do all of the dishes in the communal kitchen at first. Once I even moved a glass out of the way, so that another writer (a young guy) wouldn't knock it off the table with his elbow with his wild gestures.

Once I got over the guilt, though, these retreats were amazing. It was absolutely liberating to just get up in the morning and go right back to the sentence or chapter I had been working on the day before, with nobody demanding that I make breakfast or tie shoes.

The downside was that sometimes it was more difficult to write when I got home. I'd face the same fractured work schedule and house chores as before, and I'd despair again because I wasn't making any progress as a writer. I needed more hours to myself if I was ever going to focus on ideas long enough to put words on paper.

My husband, luckily, was supportive. He urged me to essentially buy those hours. “If this is what you really want to do, then get extra day care,” he said. “We'll get by somehow.”

God bless him. I lined up extra day care hours. Guilt drove me to become assiduous about dividing my time: day care hours two days a week were for writing my own essays and fiction, and three days a week I would use day care for paid work.

Amazingly, it wasn't long after that when my previously unpaid writing efforts started to pay. I didn't sell any fiction, but I sold one essay to Ladies' Home Journal magazine, and then another. An editor from Parents magazine saw one of my essays and asked if I'd like to write an article for them. From there, I was able to use my clips to convince editors at many other magazines to buy my pitches for articles and essays.

It wasn't long before those day care hours where I was writing my “own” stuff were actually paying more than my per-hour PR work. I flip-flopped my schedule and started using day care three days a week to write and two days a week for public relations. I finally sold my first book, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, to Crown, and from there, I started taking on contracts as a ghost writer and book doctor.

Best of all, because I had those long, uninterrupted hours to think and write, I was less frustrated, and more able to enjoy the days when I wasn't writing. Even more surprisingly, I found that I was more creative on my “off” writing days. Thoughts bloomed at odd times, like when I was grocery shopping or yelling, “Good job, honey!” on the playground.

When I visualize why this happened, I see it like this: the whole top of my head opened up and let ideas flow out like water on the days I had day care, as I poured the words out and arranged them. On days I didn't have day care hours designated for writing, that well in my head was able to fill with new ideas from some secret area in my brain that I'd never been able to tap into before.

Okay. I need to work on that metaphor. But you get the idea. Now, when people ask, “When do you write?” I answer, “There's never a time that I'm not writing, even if it looks like I'm doing something else.”

And, if the person asking me the question is a young mother, I add, “You'll write best if you pay for day care. Run away from home sometimes, too. Your children will survive. They might even be proud of you.”