Write a Novel: Who Are Your Dream Angels?

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Lisa is a freelance writer, consultant and life coach. She has her BA in English and Creative Writing from Princeton and her MPA from Harvard. Lisa recently finished the first draft of her book manuscript, Burning Down the House. Her dream is to publish this first book and teach the world how to discover their hidden joy. Her post day is Tuesday.
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You are a very good writer.

These words are always nice to hear, but they were especially meaningful considering the source: Pulitzer Prize winning author William Kennedy, who wrote Ironweed. I had managed to talk him into letting me interview him after he initially declined.

“I’ve talked about all of these things before,” he said. “What are you going to ask me that is unique?”

Buy Ironweed: A novel  by William J. KennedyI was a fledgling journalist at the time, new to the Albany area, writing my third or fourth story for a local weekly paper called The Source.

I was flush with idealism and absolutely convinced that I would conduct the definitive interview with Kennedy, that I would pull something new from him and illuminate the hidden motivations for his writing, find out what haunted him and spurred him on, what was underlying his obsession with the city of Albany and its history, how he came to write about its ghosts, what made him great.

So I spent hours reading every interview I could get my hands on about him, and then wrote him a two-page letter describing why he needed to let me, specifically, interview him and why I would do such a good job. Then I called him.

That’s when he said those magic words and agreed to be interviewed. I never forgot it!

Words of Encouragement On The Path

I have received so much encouragement from other writers along the way. While in college, I attended a summer writing workshop at UMass Boston. Tim O’Brien was one of the visiting authors that summer.
Buy Tim O'Brien: A Critical Companion (Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writers)

I wasn’t officially signed up for his class, but I sneaked in one day just to sit in, cornered him afterward, and asked if he would consider reading something I wrote. I have always had chutzpah, that’s for sure.

We went to a nearby bar, where I ate vegetable soup. Perched on a stool in the dimly lit dark-wood bar, peering from under the brim of his baseball cap, he read excerpts from stories in my journals.

“You write excellent prose,” he said. He went on to add that not everyone does.

He made some suggestions about how I could string some of the different story ideas together into a book. I never pursued writing that particular book, but I always remembered the time he spent with me and his encouragement.

Author Michael Chabon once told me, “May your words find a thousand homes.” Poet Martin Espada signed a book to me, “Para Lisa, Poeta Del Futuro.”

Thanks for The Encouragement…

Other writers have always encouraged me. I have taken countless writing workshops over the years, studied fiction and poetry and journalism, and have been writing since I was a little girl.

I once joined a writing group in which we all had to read the work of the other writers aloud. One woman read a few of my poems out loud, and a hush came over the group. They gushed about how phenomenal I was.

One of the women said, “I have a feeling your book will be the next book on my nightstand. I feel like I’m in the presence of greatness.”

I promptly quit the group. It was nice of course to hear that they believed that I had talent, and also a little overwhelming to hear my name attached to “greatness.” Honestly, I think I’ve always been a little afraid of my own gifts, because talent alone isn’t worth much.

You have to do the work. You have to actualize it.

Remembering Those Who Have Believed In Me

I really needed the reminder that others believe in my writing this past week. I’ve been steadily writing my book since last October, page by page, scene by scene.

Yet I hadn’t up to this point sat down to read through the whole manuscript, all 150 pages in draft form.

Sunday, in between Mother’s Day brunch and dinner with Mom, I camped out at Haymarket Café in Northampton, MA. I ordered a chai and a banana oatmeal chocolate chip cookie.

I took a deep breath.

And I read through the first draft of my book.

I will not lie to you. It was a mess. There are some good bits of course, good sentences and scenes, but the book as a whole hasn’t come together yet, doesn’t have an underlying sense of structure that works yet. It lacks the flow I want it to have to make it irresistibly readable.

Reading it all at once definitely was a big reminder that I have a lot of work yet to do.

Luckily, other writers remind me that writing is a process, and that it is really okay to write what Anne Lamott calls the “shitty first draft.”

As Lamott writes in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “Almost all good writing starts with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper.

“A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately.

“And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.”

buy Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life  by Anne Lamott

I am still in the middle of the “down draft” — just getting the story down. I will be able to fix it up after this. Shape it, craft it, polish it.

I believe that someday I’ll be proud of it, I’m just not there yet.

Have I Mentioned How Much I Love Anne Lamott?

I think that when I finish my book, I will buy Anne Lamott flowers.

She reminds me that I’m not the only one who feels these way:

“People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.

“But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.

“I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.

“We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.”


Luckily you can all still like me and be my friend, knowing that this process is also challenging for me. Books apparently do not just pour out of me in final form, words tumbling onto the pages like gems, dazzling page after page of cleverly crafted sentences that are all polished jewels, ready for the best-sellers shelf in the bookstore. Nope, my first drafts suck too.

Keeping the Faith

Yet I do maintain the total blind faith that I can write a book that will touch, move and inspire others. I really believe that.

I also know it will take a lot of work, and that still I have a long way to go. I called upon my “dream angels” this past week, those who have lifted me up along the way, to remind me that I can do this, that I will do this, that this is all just part of the path.
Buy In the Arms of Angels: True Stories of Heavenly Guardians
I believe that any dream requires vision, and action, and the willingness to stumble blindly along sometimes, taking steps forward without always knowing exactly where we’re going, being willing to make mistakes and learn from them along the way.

And it requires keeping the faith.

This week, can you remember words of encouragement along your path that spurred you on? Who has believed in you? Can you use their words to help you keep the faith and keep going?

Who are your dream angels?



  • Thanks all :) So moved by your thoughts, feedback, encouragement and love!

    @Julita, thank YOU for cheering me on as I live my dreams… want you to live all of yours and I look forward to seeing you soon…

    @T-Bone, you’re right, it’s all about the small steps forward… One step at a time, right?

    @Cath, so inspired by YOU and all you have done and do now to make our dreams possible…

    @Heidi, THANKS GIRL :) Doing my best and so appreciate your thoughtful words…

    @Veronica thanks love :)

    @Remy – thanks for sharing, that is inspiring and a great reminder that perfection is NEVER the goal… and that it takes learning and growth and missteps along the way to live our dreams… just keep moving forward…

    @Rachel loved that dancing story! :) We should ALL be someone’s idol :) (so great to be able to inspire others…)

    and Mom, thanks for the reminder of some of the amazing angels I always have on my side, and for your never-ending love, support and faith in me. :)


    p.s. am doing the work :) and committed to making this book happen… one scene and page and theme at a time… working on it!!!

  • JP roche

    Lisa, I know a dream angel who always believed in you, the writer. Pops you have him and grandmom who are real angels pulling for you. There is a plaid old human here — no angel, but someone who believes in you. I know that working “bird by bird” can seem endless, but I know that your final work will touch people. So please be patient with the birds AND with yourself.

  • Toni Schram

    I do believe destiny is calling your name Lisa of Troy. You are a true adventuress!

    You definitely have the talent and cajones to get this book published and sitting on bestseller shelves all over the country.

    I would like to check off Michael Chabon from my bucket list. He is frequently in town and something always comes up. Damn!

  • Rachel

    Ha-hah, I look at my writing from yesterday (I mean the comment here), and think I should have put the thing aside & done some editing before posting :o

    But I really came back to comment again because I wanted to give a stab answering some the questions you posed. (I love it that you do that, and I know how it is when you write a nice post, end it with some questions to engage the commenters, and no one answer them.)

    It’s way cool that you got encouragement from such great writers (I <3 Michael Chabon, BTW.) I've never experienced anything like that; I get my encouragement closer to home. Some of my best (and certainly most faithful) encouragement has come from Mom and Dad. As I've grown up and met people who come from all different kinds of families, I realize how lucky I am to have that from them, even when it's over the top and annoying. And then there's my husband, who really believes I'm someone special (and not just in the special-to-me way.)

    I'll never forget the time one of the newer dancers told me, "You're my idol!" My first response was, "I can help you find a better idol." But later on, I realized that taking someone like me as role model was probably good for her, because dancing as well as I could was an obtainable goal (few people will EVER be able to move as well as our teacher, after all.) It made me realize that what I was doing with my dance hobby had more value than just my own pleasure, and that was very inspiring for me.

  • Remy G

    Lis, what a thoughtful post! Thank you for the energy and courage you grabbed to write it down. My post for Friday is gonna be similar, in that i was able to sit in room last Friday with a famous photographer – and for 8 hours got to see his successes and huge misses, and hear him talk about the value of the crappy shots he’s taken over the years… so we’re all far from perfect – and perfect isnt even the goal.
    Keep writing, keep drafting – if you do all this icky work the book will seem to just write itself after a while – Love and support to you – Rem

  • Veronica

    I am on Heidi’s page . . . best column ever . . . you go girl!

  • Heidi

    This is your best column ever…
    It’s on.

  • Catherine, Site Admin

    This post makes me think of when I first started blogging and what I thought when I went back to edit my posts 4 years later. YUCK. I sure wrote a lot of crap.

    I love blogging, but it is work – a great deal of work and I don’t think going into it people realize this.

    It’s the same with working our dreams. Some have thought that they were going to just love the entire process of chasing their dream. Not possible.

    Dreams are hard work – PERIOD.

    There’s boring, unimaginative stuff that needs to get done and you have to do it. There’s the late nights I spend cleaning up images and tags and looking up keywords and at our competition.

    Not to mention the times I just don’t feel like writing every Sunday.

    But I do.

    Because I have faith in what we are creating here.

    Hugs, Cath

  • T-bone

    Love this part:

    “Honestly, I think I’ve always been a little afraid of my own gifts, because talent alone isn’t worth much.

    You have to do the work. You have to actualize it.”

    Taking small steps every day towards your goal is the way to go!


  • Julita

    Lisa, keep working on it and one day it will be all exactly the way you wanted it.

    agree with the above that doing what we love has its own rewards. and you love to write!

    all my best!!

  • Lisa, the famous author

    Thanks Rachel for the kind words and encouragement. :) So true about the dancing – nondancers are always absolutely wowed by whatever we (or when I was teaching, my dance students!) pull off on the dance floor… Even when we feel we are not at our best.

    Honestly, it was just the kick-in-the-pants I needed to remind me that I simply have some work to do. Writing is fun for me, so it’s fun work… Still have a lot of time I need to invest to get this book into the shape I want it to be in, to match the vision for the book that I have in my head.

    It’ll happen :) I am reminded this week that so many have encouraged me along the path and that there’s a reason I’m doing this and pursuing it.. Just have to keep at it. :)

    Doing what we love always provides its own intrinstic rewards as well, so writing this book and crafting it and making it something I can be proud of will bring me the greatest rewards – and of course, hopefully touch many readers. That is always the hope!

    Hugs to you Rachel! Keep on dancing and dreaming girl! (and thanks for being such a great dream partner here!)

  • Rachel

    One of us. *sigh*

  • Rachel

    [i]I’ve been steadily writing my book since last October, page by page, scene by scene.

    Yet I hadn’t up to this point sat down to read through the whole manuscript, all 150 pages in draft form.[/i]

    Yikes. I’ll bet that was a lot like seeing video of yourself dancing (you know, back when you were still honing your skills and didn’t grock what you really looked like.) But of course you know that’s exactly what is supposed to happen when you go over a first draft.

    Sunday before last, I went along with my daughters to a dance class. They were focusing on movement, so I got up in back and did some things with them (the things I could do.) And boy did I look bad in the mirror. Not all the way I think of myself looking when I dance.

    But… the previous weekend, I’d gone to a family wedding. I wore the immobilizer brace, but the music was good and I couldn’t help getting up and dancing. It was awkward dancing in the brace, and I knew I didn’t look my best. Even so, one of my aunts made a comment on how well I danced (just butt-shakin’ with her.) She sounded a little surprised (we’re not close enough for her to know about my dance habit), and it was sort of obvious she felt a little outclassed. Later in the evening, I overheard one of the uncles commenting — positively — on my dancing to my brother (who said they should see me when I wasn’t disabled.)

    We are our own worst critics. The same movement that looked awful to me in the dance studio mirror (or probably better, since I wasn’t inhibited by the brace there), looked so good to the non dancers, they were talking about it. And I’m sure if one of use read even your sloppy copy, we’d all think it was much better than you do.