I have a great idea for a book. Where do I start?

Short answer: write it!

Long answer: some people will tell you to think about your audience and your “platform” (a.k.a. how you will reach your audience once the book is written) and all that before you ever put pen to paper – or finger to keyboard – but I say that’s not just putting the horse before the cart, it’s putting the cart before the invention of the wheel. Start writing the book already!

When you get stuck, as you probably will, set your book aside and read lots of other people’s books, making note of how the authors establish character, approach point of view, move between scenes, and so on. When something works really well, note it in the margin; when something falls flat, draw a big frowny face [ex. 😦 ] and write how does this drivel get published? No, don’t do that. Instead, try to explain what precisely is not working. Figure out if you’re doing the same thing in your book.

Next, write the book again from the beginning. You’ll probably get a bit further this time, but if you get stuck (again), then check out some of the many useful craft books out there. I usually recommend SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder for structure, STORY GENIUS by Lisa Cron for character, and ON WRITING by Stephen King for inspiration and/or a kick in the proverbial pants.

Begin your book again from scratch. This time, you might get to the “end” (it can actually be a bit of a problem if you get to the end too early). Celebrate!

After a week or so of celebration, ask one or two nice friends who read lots of books and are able to articulate what they like and don’t like if they will read your book and give you their thoughts. Hopefully, they’ll love many things about it, but have some constructive criticism for your next draft.

Retreat to your garret and stew. Consider becoming a plumber or an accountant or something else relatively straightforward.

When you’ve finished stewing, rewrite your book again.

You might at this point ask, Why didn’t I just read all those craft books and other authors’ books BEFORE I spent heaps of time writing eighteen drafts that went nowhere? To which I answer, because you don’t know what you don’t know until you hit the wall. Also, you can’t know how to read like a writer until you’ve tried writing some stuff. Also, Because every word written is important practice, and you can’t expect to master any skill without practice. 

Once you have a draft that really sings, that feels effortless and clear and true, you can do a few different things. You can say, Well, that was fun, and leave your manuscript on your hard drive forever – a private reminder of your potential and the complexity of your soul. Or you can submit it to agents to seek traditional publication (that’s what I did). Or you can self-publish on a platform like Amazon. Regardless, you should be very proud of yourself. Go treat yourself to a nice long nap.

How can I get a book agent?

Oh, geez. I have no idea. I unsuccessfully tried to get an agent for years, and then when I wrote draft 14 of WHEN I WAS SUMMER and sent it out, I got two offers from great agents and it was the most stressful thing! I could tell you to go to conferences (and you should), research agents thoroughly (definitely do that, too), and read the Acknowledgments section in the back of books to figure out who represents the stuff you like (also a good tactic), but I believe that when your book is truly ready (and when YOU’RE truly ready), an agent will be anxious to represent it (and you!).

How do I publish my book?

Either by self-publishing or by getting an agent who then submits your book to publishers!

Will you read my manuscript?

If you’re in one of my Creative Writing courses at Chapman University, then I will of course read anything you turn in for the class. However, my schedule will not allow me to read any other unpublished material.


When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

In elementary school I wrote plays and made my neighbor perform in them with me. I wrote stories mimicking my favorite books – Anne of Green GablesThe Wizard of Oz, A Wrinkle in Time. I was a writer before I knew that writers were a thing a person could be.

When did I know that I wanted to write books for a living? That’s a tougher question. In high school I very secretly dreamed of writing for Saturday Night Live. Later, I wanted to be a playwright. Figuring out that I wanted to write novels and what sort of novels I wanted to write was a process of figuring out who I am, what I’m good at, and what makes me happy. In other words, I’ll probably be tweaking my answers to those questions for the rest of my life.

What would you be if you weren’t a writer?

When I received my grant for graduate school, I was in the process of taking prerequisites to become a physical therapist, so… realistically? A physical therapist.

In my imagination? A private investigator. Or a theoretical physicist. Or both.

Where did you get the idea for WHEN I WAS SUMMER?

I originally set out to write a book about a girl who plays bass in a band and has an ill-fated crush on one of her bandmates. I played bass for a band in high school. As for the rest of that plot line? Let’s call it fiction.

Nora’s adoption story arose out of my husband’s experience as an adoptee who eventually made contact with his biological family. Nora’s feelings and her journey are very different from my husband’s, but that central question — what makes me the way that I am? — was deeply personal for both of us.

Why the initials?

Because I’m the least mysterious person in the world and wanted to feign mystique.


Favorite book? ugh. so many. The Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier made a huge impact on me. Also, Pride and Prejudice and Emma by Jane Austen. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle (I named my son after her male protagonist). And Harry Potter, obviously. Those are the books that formed my identity, but these days my favorite book is almost always whatever I’m reading right now. I loved The Power by Naomi Alderman. I read every new thriller by Tana French and Robert Galbraith. I read lots of nonfiction, too. I’ve gifted Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari to many, many people.

Favorite band? The Beatles. Or Joni Mitchell. (Does a single person count as a band?)

Favorite word? kerfuffle

Favorite food? tangerines, in season

Favorite color? spring green contrasted against a steel-gray sky

Favorite holiday? my husband’s birthday

Favorite animal? specifically, my dog. broadly, dolphins.

Preferred superpower? invisibility

Pet Peeve? cigarette smoke (why is this still a thing???)

Worst fear? something bad happening to the people I love

Favorite quote? “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none…” All’s Well That Ends Well, William Shakespeare