Writer on the Road: 5 Reasons Writers Should Take the Train

All Aboard, Writers!

No doubt you’ve heard that quote attributed to activist writer Mary Heaton Vorse: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Okay, it’s a cliche, and writers are trained to give cliches a wide berth, avoid them like the plague and otherwise handle them with kid gloves. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

But in the case of the seat-of-the-pants axiom, it’s true that much of writing depends upon our ability to sit still. For long periods. Have you noticed that when you plop down to write, suddenly the litter box needs changing, dirty laundry finds its voice, and you realize you cannot put off the reorganization of the junk drawer last cracked open during the Roosevelt era (Teddy, not Franklin)?

Yep. Well, I have the perfect therapy for you. Ride the train.

I could fly to see my firstborn Hillary and her husband Jason in Seattle. The trip, including driving to the airport, wading through security (ugh) and the flight itself, would last 3.25 hours.

Or, I could board the train. That trip, including a 10 minute drive to the station and a leisurely stroll to the tracks, stretches to a delicious 22.75 hours.

Now I ask you, which transport mode is superior? Think about it.

Here are the top five reasons the train is perfect for writers.

1. No one will go with you, leaving you free to write. Instead, your loved ones will roll their eyes at your “stupidity” and inform you with maniacal glee that you could arrive at your destination by plane in one eighth of the time. Like you didn’t know that. Like you didn’t know that was the whole point.

2. You will reap the benefits of enforced seat of pants writing. The only possible excursions on a train consist of strolling to the observation car (1 minute), descending to the snack car (1 min 20 seconds), or ambling to the dining car (1 minute 30 seconds). Assuming one excursion per 1.5 hours and excluding meals, which you have to partake of anyway, that leaves a big % of chair time. (I planned to figure out the exact percentage, but I failed. I’m a writer, not a mathematician.)

3. Scenery outside your window can morph into setting details in your writing. On the Coast Starlight route, you will see velvet marshland, dive-bombing pelicans, grooming egrets, amber grasses. Barreling down the tracks, I penned this sentence for my first novel The Circle Line. “The train bisected farmland spotted with cattle and the cattle was hemmed within boundary markers–tires impaled on wooden spikes–a disturbing image, so she pretended the markers were giant root beer lollipops.”

4. Movement stimulates the “write” brain. National Public Radio interviewed neuroscientist Dr. Michel Muhlethaler who conducted a study on the effect of train rocking. Dr. Muhlethaler found that participants on the train slept more deeply with a resultant boost in memory (good for writers and other living things) and a positive correlation to cognitive function. Numerous studies demonstrate that side to side motion is critical to the brain development of babies. I can personally attest to the ability of rocking–train or chair–to stimulate my creative center.

5. You will create unique character sketches. We all need these. Particularly difficult are those secondary characters that we wish to paint with just a few brush strokes. Real models help us avoid character stereotypes. You know the ones I mean. Messy bachelor, clueless nerd, blond bimbo. By noticing your fellow passengers, you can keep a journal of characters to draw upon as needed. Some examples from my trip:

Eighty-year-old ethnic Aztec from Kansas City who refuses to speak Spanish outside of his home.

German Catholic journalist reading Elie Wiesel’s Night. (There’s a juxtaposition for you.)

Cherubic-faced Australian teen wearing brown overalls and a prayer shawl, just back from Burning Man.

You could make this stuff up, but isn’t this easier?

Two rules to make your train trip more productive:

1. Don’t bring your laptop unless you use it for writing. And then, ahem, use it for writing, not movie watching or web surfing.

2. Don’t let people chatter at you. Some travelers regard the person next to them as open season for nattering on about the minutiae of their lives. (Actually, that’s why I know so much about the Aztec from Kansas City.) If your seatmate does this, move to the observation car where there are tables and chairs. My daughter Manda recommends dummy ear phones to pop on as needed. Just smile and mouth, “Sorry. I can’t hear you.”

Have you had any experiences writing on the train? I’d love to hear. Until then, I’ll see you on down the tracks.


Ghost Novel Review: Black Rose by Nora Roberts



Black Rose by Nora Roberts

This is not Hamlet, nor was meant to be.

Instead, it is a fun romp through the land of the good and the haunted with a satisfying measure of revenge thrown in.

The prologue introduces Amelia, a jilted Victorian mistress (circa 1892), who wields revenge for her suffering from beyond the grave. To read my post on prologues, click here.

Enter modern day Roz—tough but fair, hard-driven but forgiving—with ex-beau complications of her own. As the business owner of a small horticultural empire, she embodies a sort of tough-love earth mother, which echoes her own protective maternal role. Above all, Roz possesses a righteous sense of, well, righteousness. This is what leads her (she’s a fixer) to repair the mess of Amelia the ghost’s past. Meanwhile, Roz meets a captivating man, and you know how that part of the story inevitably goes. (Hint: Roz resists; Mitch persists.)

You’ll find a delicious sort of bad boy motif throughout—the ghost and Roz both battle an evil ex-lover. And both are fiercely protective of their progeny, which the aforementioned bad boys threaten. The fun escalates when Roz and the ghost join forces.

There is one resemblance Black Rose bears to Hamlet*—a sense of filial duty that outlives death. Like Hamlet, Roz is a descendant of her ghost. But happily for our protagonist, for her extended family and for her new love interest (and for the reader), the similarity ends there.

*If you enjoy ghost stories that pay homage to Hamlet, I recommend The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. To read more, click here.

Word Count Blues: Novel Manuscript Trimming

Putting Your Manuscript on a Diet

I’ve got the…I’ve got the…I’ve got the word count blues. Had ‘em for a while.

I remember the day I walked up into the sky for twenty minutes. (The cable cars were in the barn; the Powell Street line in the throes of renovation.)

It was Presidents’ Day weekend 2011 at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, and I was a starry-eyed, breathless (from my uphill hike, admittedly) attendee at the San Francisco Writers Conference. By the way, I highly recommend this conference. Check out the link above.

I entered the lobby, huffing a bit, popped into the phone booth (yes, The Mark features an old-fashioned but elegant indoor booth) to change Superman style, which consisted of exchanging clunky New Balance running shoes for clunky Dansko clogs, secure in the knowledge that my manuscript Moonlight Dancer was ready to roll onto Publication Street fully loaded but sleek at 103,000 words. I had, after all, trimmed said manuscript from 106,000 words. Think 1959 Chevy Impala to 1970 Ford Mustang. And don’t imagine I hadn’t sweated over removing those tail fins. I loved the tail fins.

Of course, I rounded down and claimed my manuscript was even slimmer at 100k. Sort of like the weight on your driver’s license. One reason I maintain a stellar driving record is to receive automatic license renewal. On paper, my weight has not changed since Clinton was in office. The first time. Would that it were so!

Well, much of the buzz at the various writing conference round tables revolved around word count. If you look at articles written by literary agents or publishers, most provide a range of acceptable words for novels somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000. However, with Borders on its way out and publishers reducing titles and bestselling authors going commando, a debut author feels the word count squeeze.

Mind you, three agents at the conference were sufficiently interested in my story to request partial manuscripts, but to a woman, they said cut 10,000 words before sending it. Turns out, 90,000 words is the new 100,000. They didn’t want a Mustang; they wanted a Shetland.

Home I went. I’ve been cutting since. My husband, helpful as always, suggested I simply remove a chapter. I assume he was joking.

Instead, I’ve been through the novel three times, keeping a word count log. Not normally a math person, I’ve been figuring my own formulas to calculate cutting proficiency. You know, 1 is to 100 as x is to whatever. I’ve estimated word loss per 100 pages. I’ve done long division. Then there were those dark days when I cut 300 words but added 400. We don’t talk about those days.

But finally, I finished the third round and did the math. If I cut a mere six words more per page, I will reach my goal.

And yesterday on page 80 when I chanted, “Computer, computer on the desk…” it indicated I had only two thousand words to go. Yippee!

I’ll let you know when I get there.

I’ll also let you in on a secret: I sort of like the trimmed down version.

Anyone else out there in writing land doing this slow cut process? I’d love to hear from you. How’s it going?

Book Review: The Distant Hours

The Distant Hours

by Kate Morton

Atria Books, 560 pages.

I hesitated to review this book because the supernatural element is so subtle–as subtle as the wisp of a ghost’s gown, a ghost more suggestion than apparition.

Yet within these pages you will find whispering stones and unexplained stains and distant laughter. Even a ghostly glimpse here or there. Or was that merely a trick of the light?

Things go bump in the night, but, generally speaking, they assume humanoid form.

I like the idea of reading The Distant Hours after reading The Keep. For me, it was pure serendipity. I came across The Keep while looking for something else; I read The Distant Hours because I checked it out of the library for my mother who’s been extolling Kate Morton’s writing for, well, forever.

The novel follows two story lines–a modern daughter, Edie, who suspects her mother hides a secret past involving a centuries-old castle (you can see how this makes a good companion read to The Keep), and a trio of sisters, each with a secret dream, each connected to the aforementioned mother-daughter, each shackled to the will of a domineering writer father in a sort of King Lear/John Milton montage. Throw in a decades old disappearance, a mysterious letter, a touch of madness, and the novel takes shape. As well, the author’s manipulation of multiple allusions and nods to fairy tales are skillfully done.

What I found less skillfully done is pacing.  Though the opening is lovely and lyrical (a cool prologue for those of you who share my prologue views), you soon find yourself plodding through 50 or 60 pages that drag with insufficient action or character development to sustain interest. You flit in back-to-back vignettes from narrator to narrator, none of whom fully engage your spirit.


Yes, however, wait and read.

It will be worth your while. At last, the characters’ stories sweep you into a spinning updraft. Secret compounds secret and consequences twist into a tornado in which history cycles backward into itself. What at first manifests as cruelty is revealed as kindness and vice versa; what at first appears simple is anything but.