imagine that!

3899_10102616521387013_529553900_nHow good is your imagination? Did you ever imagine riding a moose in a river or lake? Why not? I mean, come on, Teddy Roosevelt actually did it (not photoshopped according to and Life Magazine) and you didn’t imagine it?

Me neither! But then, I would have gone to the hospital if someone shot me. Not Teddy. Campaigning for a third term, he was shot and delivered his campaign speech, bleeding from the undressed bullet hole in his chest. Yeah, officially the most badass President ever.

But I digress.

What about your imagination? What are you doing to nurture and encourage it? It’s a skill, like any other. Visualize, read and analyze fiction (ahem, Annotation Nation anyone?), read things you would never read, do things outside of your comfort zone, take a dare, play with a kaleidoscope, ask questions of strangers outside your usual social circle. Write a story in another genre. Try role playing. Take an acting class. Read Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses. Go outside, lay on the grass or the beach and watch clouds. Play games that involve recognizing patterns. If you train yourself to see patterns, then you can combine things in new ways.

Have fun! And if you have suggestions, please share them. Thanks!

Do You Read As A Writer Or A Reader?

Two disparate events this week – we put up Lee Stoopsannotation of Volt, Alan Heathcock‘s short story collection, on Annotation Nation. Then, Wild, the memoir by my friend and mentor Cheryl Strayed was chose by Oprah to relaunch her book club into Oprah 2.0. Wow. I feel remarkably luck to have had Cheryl as a mentor at Antioch. She had me flip the last two chapters of Growing Chocolate and *boom* the ending worked.

Anyway, how are these two events connected? Lee examines Volt as a writer; Oprah has a section on her site with her favorite lines from Wild. Lee is a writer looking at the craft of another writer, things such as pace, tempo, language, and structure. It is the same process of learning in any craft – closely examining what another did and discerning how they did it.

Lee writes:

After character and circumstance, the element a short story requires to sustain its life and meaning is pace. Heathcock’s stories model methodic, measured tempo – the way a musician might craft the rise and falls of moving instrumentation. The effect is similar in that the reader can settle into the prose and let the story unfold at the speed at which it’s been set. Heathcock engineers the changes in pace with ultimate regard to the characters and their circumstances, without forgetting the reader and the needs he or she will have.

Oprah is doing something similar. She picks out her favorite passages and explains why, but as a reader she’s looking primarily at the emotional effect the section had on her or what she learned from it. This is not less than an annotation, just different, a reading anno, if you will. She does it well and it clearly helps other readers in their process and that’s a great thing.

Here’s an example from Oprah’s Favorite Lines:

Part One: The Ten Thousand Things

I set my toothbrush down, then leaned into the mirror and stared into my own eyes. I could feel myself disintegrating inside myself like a past-bloom flower in the wind. Every time I moved a muscle, another petal of me blew away. Please, I thought. Please.

Oprah’s note:
First of all, I love the notion of a person as a flower with the petals disintegrating. I don’t ever recall having that feeling, but that image—so specific, so gorgeous—caused me to have great empathy for people who see themselves that way.

I’ve mentioned before the importance of intentional reading. This is the difference between reading as a writer and reading as a reader. One is not better than the other, but if you are a serious writer, there is a difference in intentional reading for your craft versus reading for pleasure or other purposes.

As my Annotation Nation co-founder and Fiction co-editor, Kate Maruyama said in our guidelines:

If you loved it, (and “it” can be anything from POV, character development, narrative, dialog, setting, sentence structure to use of metaphor and so on) how do you think the writer did that? How can you learn from his or her technique? If you hated it, what has reading this work taught you to avoid? How did the experience of reading the book inform your own writing?

It’s an important skill and one worth developing.

Also, Annotation Nation now has a page on Facebook. Come like us!

3 Keys to Vanquishing Envy – UPDATED

Photo Envy Hotel courtesy of TripAdvisor

A friend of mine just got a book deal. Am I jealous? Honestly, no. Well, why not?? Because I don’t believe in fixed-pie thinking. Success isn’t some giant pie with only 8, 12 or 16 pieces. There’s enough to go around, which isn’t the same thing as saying everyone will be successful in the way they expect. Maybe you have to adjust your expectations or reassess your gifts or expand your knowledge (read the classics, learn a new skill). Change markets. Maybe you aren’t a fiction writer, maybe you’re better suited to essays.

Disclaimer: easy for me to say because I’m really enjoying my life right now. Was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, getting some royalties, a little fan mail, just had a short story accepted, great trips ahead, etc.  But I felt this way even when things were bleak and I mean bleak. My first screenplay agent took my contacts to launch his own writing career. The head of that agency took over my career, then ended up in rehab and leaving the business… after her office manager tossed out all of the client scripts when he “cleaned up” the office! Oh yeah, I’ve paid some dues.

So, how to get past those awful feelings of envy? 3 suggestions:

1. I’m next! This is your new mantra. Something great happened to another writer? You’re next! See how that changes your perspective? No fixed pie thinking – think in terms of abundance, that there’s enough to go around even if it doesn’t feel like it. You cannot be ruled by your emotions or you won’t endure until the point of breakthrough. It takes persistence to finish something and even more to see it to market.

2. Create good karma. Everyone rises: help others, celebrate others and they will help and celebrate you. This isn’t always a direct result, but the more generous you are, the more things will come around to you. Plus it’s good for you on many levels. Be a good and kind person (added benefit: it makes the world better). Note: (shameless plug alert) Hitting “Like” on my FB Author Page will help create good karma. Well, in any case, I’d be grateful!

3. Keep writing! The more you produce, the better your chances of getting those wonderful acceptance letters and emails. And keep improving your writing with good impartial feedback, classes, workshops, the company of other writers and directed reading. If you can’t be happy for other writers or get past feeling crummy, then use any negative feelings as fuel to energize your ambition. Psychologists say “I’ll show them” is the most powerful force to overcoming obstacles.

Beat envy by being enviable and keep writing. Oh, and my friend? As soon as the contract is signed and I get the go ahead, I’ll be celebrating and publicizing.

UPDATE: Contract signed! Kate Maruyama’s novel, Harrowgate, will be published by 47North! Release date TBA. Congratulations, Kate!


When I was in grad school, we had project period contracts, approved by our mentors. I found that it helped a lot to focus in on what I really wanted to accomplish. After, some of us continued, but missed most of last year, so I started this year with a new one. How to do it? Below is one that has some of my tasks and objectives for 2012. Not all of them belong in public, hence the gaps, but it will give you a better idea of what I’m talking about. I left January’s pretty much intact. Make your own, sign and date it then exchange with another writer or give it to someone who will hold you accountable. It helps.

Establish your goals for the next 5 months, including the books you want to read. These should be craft books or fiction that will help your own work. When I was working on my comic novel, WRESTLING ALLIGATORS, I read Nick Hornby, Carl Hiaasen, etc. List those books at the end. It will help your writing a lot if you annotate them and see what you learned, what could inform your writing or what you want to avoid. Then submit that annotation to and let other writers know what you’re thinking, how you work, what you find valuable. Anyway, after you’ve decided what you’d realistically like to accomplish and the reading that will support it, then break it down month by month. Which book are you going to read each month, how many pages will you write either per day or week, include updating any blogs or websites you maintain, include how many submissions per month both to agents and journals to keep you circulating your work. Keep your activities to 4-6 monthly tasks. My list of objectives is longer than usual because I have some things in the works and because I’ve done a number of contracts. Start slow, but challenge yourself. Also, do not beat yourself up if you don’t meet a couple of your goals. Just adjust for the next time.

In case you’re wondering, I was in the Citron cohort (referred to below) while attending Antioch (one of The Atlantic’s top 5 low residency programs). We still check in with each other every Sunday and they’re a tremendous source of support for me.

Post MFA Project Period Contract

NAME: Diane Sherlock   

TERM:      Winter/Spring 2012

PROJECT PERIOD: From Monday, January 2, 2012 to Monday, May 30, 2012

Post MFA Objectives:

• Continue to produce works of fiction

• Write critical analyses of literature

• Reflect on the place of creative work in community, culture, and society via my blogs and websites

• Raise visibility as an author

• Continue to develop a professional literary career

Project Period Objectives:

1.  Finish the polish of African screenplay

2.  Read at least a novel/book a month

3.  Participate in the Citron post-MFA conference

4.  Continue with blog and branding ideas

5.  Continue with Annotation Nation

6.  Apply to writing residencies and other interesting opportunities


8.  Develop marketing strategies; continue to submit novel excerpts, short stories and flash fiction to literary journals

9.  Finish volunteer commitment, continue support in Ghana and Kenya.

10. Draft notes for the next novel; travel for inspiration and research

11. Develop TV series

12. Finish co-written book with Y

Based on the learning objectives, identify the activities for this Project Period:

Finish African screenplay & register with WGA

Edit WILLFUL IGNORANCE, format, submit to Smashwords 

Edit GROWING CHOCOLATE, format, submit to Smashwords 

Develop TV series, write synopsis and character list, meet with X for background info

Read from personal book list; annotate THE FAMILY FANG

Give African screenplay to V 

Date:  January 31, 2012

(part of a goal above)           ________________________________________

   (ditto)        __________________________________________

Update websites           

    (another from above)       _______________________________________

    (and one more to achieve your goal)       _______________________________________



Date:  February 28, 2012



Check status of submissions           

Brainstorm new novel            


Read from personal book list            

Date:  March 30, 2012



Update websites           

Read from personal book list with 1-2 pg annotation           


Date:  __April 30, 2012







Date:  May 30, 2012

List readings to be completed:






(add more if you’re a fast reader)

 ______                                          _______________         

Signature                                              Date

What do you think? Will you try a contract? Please report back if it works for you. And feel free to post your objectives in the comments. Happy New (Writing) Year!




a timeout

In a few days, I’m taking my first trip to Africa and decided on a separate blog for the trip and hopefully future trips. I’m going with two dozen others for both service and a safari in Kenya, including an orphanage, an AIDS clinic where we contribute money for the food, meet the kids we raise scholarship money for, giraffe and elephant sanctuaries, the Kibera slum and hopefully we’ll briefed on the process to begin to move the giant dump in Dandora. Have fun writing and a great rest of the month. And please check out Annotation Nation. New posts up in both fiction and non-fiction.

how to be a better writer

from her website

Take a look at Dylan Landis’ dissection of linked stories, what makes the best collections work and why. She’s not afraid to go back to her book and look at why she didn’t feel it was as good as it could have been. If you want to teach students how to read more deeply, if you want to improve as a writer, if you’re interested in any part of the process, do yourself a favor and head over to her site.

This is the kind of connection between reading and writing that we’re looking for at Annotation Nation. Speaking of which (shameless plug warning), my latest of Douglas Coupland’s ALL FAMILIES ARE PSYCHOTIC is up. I read it when I was looking at comic novels about family dynamics while writing WRESTLING ALLIGATORS (currently out to agents, thanks for asking).

7 reasons annotating will improve your writing – UPDATED

The novel I just finished writing is a dark comedy about a group of siblings prematurely vying for their inheritance. I read a  number of comic novels that dealt with crazy families, estates and wills, fights over money, etc. All of the authors taught me something useful and I found the process of annotating (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) valuable. And fun.

So, at the risk of the shameless plug for Annotation Nation (which will soon be accepting creative non-fiction), consider annotating a few books in preparation for writing and as a helpful tool as you work on your novel. Why go to all that trouble? Funny you should ask….

  • Closely examining a novel enables you to focus in on a particular issue that you may be having trouble with or help you make one of the many decisions that make up a book, such as which point of view you want to use for your narrative. Is your book better served by a first person narrator, multiple POVs or an omniscient narrator? ROOM by Emma Donoghue shows the power of confining a book to one point of view (and mostly one setting). Limitations can be freeing. That kind of approach won’t work for every book, but it could help with a single scene.
  • Determine what doesn’t work and why, then avoid the same pitfall(s). If you’re put off by the tone of the fiction, figure out why. I’ve found one common case is that the author has contempt for the characters and/or the audience. The best and lasting works of fiction come out of a deep love for people and trying to figure out why we do the things we do.
  • Examining a novel on both the macro and micro level is the best writing teacher there is. You can learn from people who haven’t drawn breath for the last hundred years as well as those who are walking around today. Tastes change, but Tolstoy and Twain remain treasure troves.
  • You may learn more from unsuccessful novels or those you dislike in part because you don’t get caught up in the narrative. Not loving a book allows clarity to look at the individual elements.
  • Then again, inspiration is a great positive force to motivate your writing. We can get lots of energy from negative emotions, but why not let yourself be carried upwards by a book you absolutely love? The deep love of books is what led us to write in the first place. Rediscover that, get carried away and use your enthusiasm to awaken your creativity and have fun. Creating should be fun, at least some of the time!
  • The key to annotating is to look closely at the nuts and bolts of writing, then to apply it to your own writing. If you love a writer’s imagery, how can you achieve your own version of that element? If you are blown away by the sentence structure, what is that writer doing? No one creates in a vacuum. Think of this as your apprentice system.
  • Often agents will want to know that you understand the book market. You will be prepared to discuss what books are out there, whether they’ve been successful and how yours is different. A number of online query forms now require that information.

If you put in the extra time to annotate, to write down what you learned from a book, it can only improve your writing. If you don’t already know it, you will discover writing by the seat of your pants wastes far more time than giving deep thought to the decisions that go into fiction. Going the extra mile will enrich your own experience as both a reader and a writer.

And yes, please submit them to Annotation Nation!

UPDATE: Melissa Chadburn on lessons learned from WORKING BACKWARDS FROM THE WORST MOMENT OF MY LIFE by the wonderful Rob Roberge.

3 ways your hometown can help your novel

News! The Rumpus just put up my piece on their series The Last Book I Loved – Nice Work by David Lodge, if you’re wondering. Lodge is a wonderful comic writer introduced to me by the brilliant Rob Roberge. I learned a lot (and was inspired by) reading and annotating comic novels by Lodge as well as Richard Russo, Carl Hiaasen, Zadie Smith, and others while I was writing my latest, Wrestling Alligators.  You can check out those and more annotations at Annotation Nation.

I’m from La Jolla, CA. It was a spectacularly beautiful place to grow up. La Jolla was the setting for my first book, Dead Weight, as well as my third, Growing Chocolate. I write about La Jolla because I love it, it’s part of me, but I also want to preserve some of my favorite places that no longer exist, including the garden of old family friends, long dead. The garden found a place in Growing Chocolate. I’m experimenting with changing that book into a YA (will let you know how it goes when I’m further in).

La Jolla also makes an appearance in Wrestling Alligators. There are three main characters, siblings who come into conflict: Alison, the oldest, a psych nurse, middle child Brian, a Wall St. strategist, and the youngest, Emma, a painter. At one point, Alison drives to San Diego. What better place for her to stay than the La Valencia? The hotel opened in 1926, designed by architect Reginald Johnson and cost $200,000. My dad used to have his annual office party in the Sky Room, which has a breathtaking view of the coast. More history? Gregory Peck used to host parties for the La Jolla Playhouse in the Whaling Bar. Raymond Chandler used the hotel as the backdrop to his thriller Playback. As long as I’m mentioning a mystery writer, take a look at Aaron Gansky on mystery vs. murky. On to the business at hand…

How can your hometown help your novel?

1. It will provide resonance in your writing. It’s a place where your first memories are formed, where you first explored the world, so those emotions are going to run deep and provide a goldmine of sensory and emotional experiences.

2. You know it and you know it in a way that a visitor can’t. Take a look at how it formed you. I grew up next to the ocean. The smell of the sea was always there. I was able to go to the beach after school whenever I wanted. My experience of the ocean is very different than someone who’s never seen it or from someone who never cares to. My childhood was spent building sandcastles, bodysurfing, running in the sand. When I grew up, I learned scuba diving and wrote a novel about it. Setting doesn’t only affect characters.

3. You know how to adapt it. If you want to create a fictional town for your characters, you can adapt your memories. Chances are those memories aren’t entirely accurate with the passage of time anyway. Use your hometown as a template for a fictional place and redesign it to suit your story.

One last look at the La Valencia

I’m going to have to visit soon…..



My friend and mentor, Rob Roberge has a new piece up at THE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN on the ups and downs of publishing, including his experience with having his book cancelled. And yet there’s reason for hope. Go read it, especially for the reality check on how long it takes to get a book out.

Also, please check out the latest at ANNOTATION NATION.

p.s. the image will make sense if you read about Rob’s upcoming book (though it’s not their logo)