The first anniversary is hard, they say.

Compared to what? The first day, week? Decade?

It seems “they” are right.

Late May. Roses in full bloom. The season of calls from nice detectives with an unbearable task.

(What families must feel when the find a soldier at their front door.)

“Is this a joke?” I asked. Like a bad actor in a bad movie, or a nightmare. Time stopped, but in my head, rushed the refrain: No. Not this. Not Dad. I just spoke with him. He was just here. Just in Italy. Just.   

“I’m afraid I’m not joking, Ms. Doyle. I’m very sorry.”

Afterward, I lit candles. Picked some of those roses out there last spring from the Mr. Lincoln, Double Delight, the Gemini bush he bought me for a birthday. Made a beautiful table to lay my sorrow.

“Here’s to more beauty in our lives. Love, Dad.”  This, in an enclosure card for the flowers delivered the day he proclaimed Daughters Day—lilies or orchids–I don’t exactly recall.

The roses, I remember.

I know it’s coming this time, you see.  I’m ready. This morning, I picked two blood-red Mr. Lincoln blooms, a Double Delight. Three Geminis. They’re in the cobalt blue vase on the little shelf in the kitchen, next to the candle and the photograph.

When the call comes, I’ll talk to that detective with the kind voice, set him straight. Tell him You can’t fool me this time.

Tell him the roses are blooming, and how much Mr. Thomas Doyle loves flowers in any size, shape and scent. That beauty makes sense to him. As for the rest of it, well.

How I’ll keep picking flowers for Dad every May; and loving those roses right along with him, every damn day they bloom, and every day they don’t.


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Writing fiction is difficult. Duh.

This Wall Street Journal post says it all: “How to Write a Great Novel.”

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Top 10 favorite short stories

My only complaint about short fiction is that I don’t have time to read more of it. That said, here’s my current top ten list of short stories (listed in the order they came to me). I hope you’ll post a comment about your faves.

1. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” By Flannery O’Connor

2. “Red Weather.” By Lewis Buzbee (from the After the Gold Rush collection).

3. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” By Raymond Carver

4. “The Twenty-seventh Man.” By Nathan Englander.

5. “Brokeback Mountain.” By Annie Proulx

6. “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” By Flannery O’Connor

7. “The Masque of Red Death.” By Edgar Alan Poe

8. “The Chrysanthemums.” By John Steinbeck

9. “Hills Like White Elephants.” By Ernest Hemingway

10. “How to Date a Brown Girl.” By Juno Diaz

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Marriage Sucks and Then It Doesn’t

Marriage sucks sometimes. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. marriage At points during our more than 20 years together (fifteen of them married) it’s been so hard, we’re pretty sure it must be over. That like all those other couples, Tim and I are done. 

The sucky times always turn out to be necessary. They have ultimately invigorated our relationship and made us love each other more deeply and honestly. This is the gift of hanging in there–not through the struggle, but through the pain of not knowing where the marriage is going. We show up and say what’s true for each of us, no matter what. 

Before we got married the Episcopalian priest who counseled us said marriages sometimes die. This and not literal death, was the ’til death do us part, part. Father Bradley had been divorced and had remarried. He wanted us to understand that while we were entering into a lifetime committment, there were exceptions. 

Tim and I went through a rough patch around our anniversary this month.  The details aren’t really important. On the surface, the struggle was related to finances. But really we were both struggling with change. Change in ourselves and consequently, change in how we see each other as partners, lovers, parents, and human beings.

Would these changes be  the death of our marriage?  Or were they simply part of the two of us growing up, and learning to be better people and partners?

We’ve come out the other side. It doesn’t suck right now. Not by a long shot. We’re closer. Standing on our own two feet more than ever. 

We found out that how we love each  in this moment is what matters. How can we do our best to see each other in a new light? How do we look for the humor, and not to sweat the small stuff even when it feels like big stuff? We’re figuring this out, and our marriage is stronger for it.  

The other morning, I walked Tim out to his car. The air had that cozy crisp smell of autumn; the fallen leaves were swirling in the street.

“It’s fall, sweetie,” I said.

“Yeah,” he replied, kissing me passionately. 

A few seconds later he came inside the house. He’d forgotten his keys. 

“Can we do that again?” he asked. 

I followed him outside again. The air still smelled wonderful, the leaves were still dancing. 

“It’s fall, sweetie.” 

“Yeah, it is.”

The kiss was twice as nice this time.

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musicConstance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose calls voice “the je ne sais quoi in all strong writing.” Other writers and critics refer to voice as the music behind the prose, the unique way a writer expresses herself–a fingerprint of language. Voice can be imitated but not duplicated; its rythymn and tone are unique to each writer.

Voice is often confused with style. But style is concrete–the way we structure our sentences, our word choice and use of metaphor, whether we tend to write formally or informally, etc.

I think voice is something deeper and ultimately unnameable because it orginates underneath language and only takes shape through language.

The writer’s task is to write from this original source, particularly when first drafting a story. In revision, we must continue to listen for the original voice and build on it. The result is an authenticity of language that the reader immediately feels and wants more of.

On a more superficial (but equally essential) level, voice is shaped by the writer’s background, cultural heritage, and personal experience.

Voice changes with point of view. A cat sees the world differently than his master, a sister views the house she grew up in differently than her brother.

The writer’s experience of a landscape also shapes voice.  My first novel is set in the Salinas Valley where I grew up. Sheila’s story couldn’t have taken place anywhere else. The Valley is in my bones, my very being.

Finding Your Writers Voice by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall stresses finding one’s “raw” voice, and then refining it through craft (revision). What enables us to tap into this raw voice, “the writer’s most powerful tool?”

Writing about childhood–simple memories such as climbing the tree in your front yard or a meal your mother prepared–can unearth an interior language that existed before our egos had fully formed. Before we learned that writing required us to be someone other than who we are.

I’ll be teaching a two-hour class on Voice tomorrow night at Book Passage in Corte Madera. It’s the first in my Fiction Toolbox series, which will also include an evening each on character, plot and setting. Get dates and other details here.

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Farewell to Elizabeth Banning

ebanningMy dear friend and writing colleague Elizabeth Banning died last week. She was a member of my writing group, and on the verge of publishing a fabulous historical fantasy novel about three matryed saints. Elizabeth had a two-year battle with cancer. During this time, she wrote profilically, had all of her stories published, completed one novel, and started another. She was also a brilliant editor who helped me and other writers sharpen their stories for submission to literary journals and agents. She never felt sorry for herself.  She just kept writing and living fully; through the treatments, the peaks and valleys of remission and recurrence. She was a remarkable woman and an exceptional writer.  A true professional.

Anytime I bitch about not wanting to write, revise or send a story out, I think of Elizabeth. She was tenacious, humble and exuded more grace than any other person I know.  I’ll miss her terribly.

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Some of my favorite novels



1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

2. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

3. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

4. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullen

5. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

6. Middlemarch by George Eliot

7. Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

8. Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

9. Victory by Joseph Conrad

10. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishigura

11. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

12. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

13. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet

14. Atonement by Ian McEwan

15. Independence Day by Richard Ford

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