Why I Wrote a Book Set in the Pacific Northwest

I found home once, completely unexpectedly, in the last place I thought it would ever be. I was traveling — (don’t all good stories start this way?) — with my husband and our two best friends. Two months on the road in an RV, discovering all the best the USA had to offer. We went from deserts to tropical islands to mountains covered in snow. We braved dust storms and heat waves and theme park lines and the tail end of a hurricane. We found places that felt a bit like where we’d come from — southern California — and were teased for our “American” accents in Montreal. It was exhausting and wonderful and the best thing we’d ever done.

But that home part, that struck me hard and fast. As soon as we left that little corner of the country, I felt it tug me back. Nothing felt quite right after that.

I’ve always been a summer girl. I grew up with dry heat and bush fires, cool rivers and summer storms. I spent my childhood yearning for the beach, and my teenagehood finding it. I always hated winter, the rain and grey skies, the feeling of being boxed in, kept from adventure. And yet…

I think we travel to find ourselves, to delve deeper into that inner landscape that seems at times as alien as the ones we visit. I wanted to find the unexpected, and I did. There’s this moment I remember, driving back through Washington State from Vancouver, when I turned to my husband and said: “I don’t want to leave.”

We’d been there only a few days. We’d seen Seattle and North Bend and Vancouver, and that was it. We hadn’t made it to the islands yet, or to Mount Rainier, which would steal my heart all over again, and yet somehow I knew. This place, this land of mountains and sea and pine trees and rain, was where I was meant to be.

I can’t explain it, that bone-deep knowing. In just a few days, the Pacific Northwest changed me. I’ve spent the two and a half years since rediscovering myself and searching for a way to go back.

There’s this word I discovered recently that captures how I feel: Fernweh; farsickness, the longing for far-off places.

Because here’s the thing. I’ve found my home, but I can’t be there. Oh, we have plans. Michael is retraining to be a teacher so he can meet the visa requirements, while I’m contributing to a mortgage that will be our nest egg once we get there. But all this takes time. We don’t know when we’ll ever get to go back. It could be this year, it could be eight years from now.

It’s hard, but we’ve dealt with this kind of thing before. I want to be a writer, remember? It’s hardly a straight-forward career path.

In the meantime, we dream and save and work and write books set in the San Juan Islands. We create walls dedicated to our dreams and we trust that if we work hard enough, one day we’ll get there.

And that’s the answer to the question I’ve heard over and over again since signing with my agent: Why do you write books set in the Pacific Northwest? Because I can’t imagine writing about anywhere else.

Our dream wall.
Our dream wall.
Mt. Rainer, which stole my heart.
Mt. Rainer, which stole my heart.
Seattle.
Seattle.
Friday Harbor <3
Friday Harbor ❤
Home. Oct 22 2011.
Home. Oct 22 2011.
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Why I Wrote a Book Set in the Pacific Northwest

A Writer’s Intuition

When I was a baby writer, I taught myself to ignore words like muse, writer’s block, inspiration. These words were unhelpful to me, because what all baby writers need to learn is to finish things. What I was learning in fits and starts was how to do the work. That was my mantra for years, and necessarily so: Just do the work, Beth. Do the work.

But work alone doesn’t a good writer make.

I tweeted something the other day that seemed to resonate with a few people, and it’s something I’ve been re-learning lately:

Screen Shot 2014-04-05 at 2.25.46 PM

Because now I’ve learned the hard bit, the work, the finishing of things, I need to put my energy back into those more mystical aspects of writing. Inspiration, intuition, ideas.

Intuition is an interesting one. I haven’t heard a lot about it in the writing world, but it’s something I’m coming to rely on the longer I do this. Part of it is that after four years of cramming my head full of grammar rules, industry trends, critiques and advice, I’m having to work to hear my own creative voice again.

I’ll give you an example. I’ve had a really hard time finding the beginning of my story. I’ve written probably a dozen versions of the first few chapters, and I’ve discarded them all. The version I sent out to agents was passable and critique-partner approved, but passable just doesn’t cut it in such a competitive industry. Every agent I spoke to in that time gave me feedback on my manuscript and most of it was focused on the beginning.

After signing with Joan, I jumped back into revisions once again, but despite all that feedback, I still couldn’t get it right. More discarded words, more fruitless attempts. I ended up going to my husband and moaning for about half an hour before he said something to me that cut right to the heart of my problem: You have too many voices in your head. Forget what everyone else is saying. Write the beginning you want to write.

So I did. I had a collection of maybe six possible opening lines, all of which would lead me in different directions. I considered each of them, examining how they made me feel, listening to my intuition as it lead me to the line that best represented my character and her world. I didn’t expect to land on the line I eventually chose. But it feels right. And after weeks of struggling, suddenly I’m powering through.

Everyone gives the same advice: Butt in chair, hands on keyboard. But the thing is, sometimes you can’t. Sometimes just do the work is terrible advice. It doesn’t give you room to listen to your own voice, your intuition. It leaves no room for finding inspiration. Sometimes what you need most is quiet and ears to listen.

Work and inspiration. I’m becoming better at making room for both.

Elusive inspiration.
Elusive inspiration. WA 2011.
A Writer’s Intuition

So, That Happened

Just over a month ago I signed with an agent. Me. Agent. Sunshine and rainbows, unicorns frolicking, birds and mice doing my laundry. You get the picture.

I’ve spent most of the last month processing everything that’s happened already this year. I knew 24 would be a big year, but this is BIG. I guess you could say I’m still adjusting my personal narrative. Most of you are writers, so you’ll understand that although you keep working and submitting, sometimes it starts to feel like this will never happen for you. And then it does.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I’ll get published. But people believe in me and my book. They’ve invested time in me. And one has put her commitment to my career on paper and added a pretty signature. It means a lot.

As well as staring off into space with a goofy grin on my face, I’ve jumped into revisions with my agent. (CAN YOU BELIEVE I JUST SAID “MY AGENT”???) This is the cool part. I’ve been given some fantastic notes, I don’t have a deadline, and I have the faith of an agency behind me. I’m digging deep and I’m determined to produce the best bit of writing I’ve ever done. My book is good. It’s going to be great.

Revising for me isn’t butt-in-chair work. It’s thinking work. I spend a great deal of time rearranging the story in my head before I ever put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). While brainstorming, I’ve found a few resources that have really helped me. Maybe they’ll help you, too.

Chuck Wendig gives a list of 25 things that should be in a first chapter. Beginnings are hard, man.

Carrie Ryan details a plot structure chart given to her by Jennifer Lynn Barnes. I love this one because it breaks the story down into manageable chunks. I’m not a plotter, but I can plot one chunk at a time.

Susan Dennard explains how she revises in a series of 6 lessons. My favourite part is where she advises you write a letter to yourself detailing the perfect book — how you want your book to look at the end of the revising process. If you don’t have a goal, if you can’t picture that book perfectly in your mind, how are you ever going to get there?

So. That’s my March. How has yours been going?

This is what a writer looks like after she mails her contract to her new agent.
This is what a writer looks like after she mails her contract to her new agent.
So, That Happened

Day of Small Beginnings

You’ve all heard the story. Girl meets pen. Girl and pen dream up a fabulous future together, involving bookshelves and coffee. Girl gets rejected, over and over and over. Girl tries to break up with pen but it just won’t stick. Girl realizes she’s in for the long haul.

But the story doesn’t end there.

The pen.
The pen.

I’m about to embark on a whole new adventure, and it’s got me thinking about small beginnings. We all remember the day we began that first novel, sent that first query, received that first request, but what about the smaller beginnings? What about the day we woke up at 5am to write, the day we started over, the day we forged forward even when we wanted to give up?

Every small beginning takes courage, but with each step forward into darkness we take we grow closer.

Photo taken in Yosemite 2011. Design mine.
Photo taken in Yosemite 2011. Design mine.

The Sea Wolves is my third completed novel, and I’ll always remember it as the book I almost didn’t write. After shelving my second novel I came so, so close to giving up. I’d faced periods of discouragement before, but this was different. I knew I couldn’t go on the way I had been and I started looking for a way out.

I thought about switching to adult fiction, I thought about finding a new dream, I thought about writing just for me, but in the end I knew none of those paths would satisfy me. I spent many long hours praying and soul-searching and in the end what got me through was this: only when I’d hit the bottom was I ready to give it all away and trust in a net to catch me.

That was February 2013. In March I started The Sea Wolves. I wrote it in 3 and a half months and it was the most amazing writing experience of my life. I finished in July and I knew, I just knew, this story was different.

In November, after a few months of revising, I finally got up the courage to share the manuscript with my critique partners. With their encouragement, I entered a mentorship contest called Pitch Wars. Pitch Wars involved an insane five weeks of mentoring by the brilliant Stacey Lee, spit-polishing my manuscript until the agent round in January.

On January 22nd, the pitches were posted on Brenda Drake’s blog. I spent two days stress-baking and avoiding all electronic devices. At the end of the contest I had 11 requests from participating agents and a further 3 “ninja” requests from agents not involved in the competition.

A week later I woke to two offers of representation in my inbox. I cried and went out for a quick breakfast with my darling husband before work. Over the next week I would receive four more offers.

On 15th February 2014, I officially accepted representation from Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

Signing the contract 22/02/2014
Signing the contract 22/02/2014

If there’s any takeaway, I think it’s this: Don’t be afraid of small beginnings. Don’t be afraid of starting over, again and again and again.

Because once upon a time a girl had a dream. She stumbled a lot, but she just kept on getting back up. She made some good friends and worked hard and didn’t give up, no matter how much she wanted to.

And now that girl has an agent.

A small beginning.
A small beginning.
Day of Small Beginnings

Of Joy and Heartbreak

If one day The Sea Wolves is published and someone asks me, “Why this book? What made it different from the others?” I’m going to tell them this: joy. I found the place for joy in my fiction.

I’ve learned it’s hard to hope for a character who doesn’t have hope for themselves. Even in their darkest moments, a character must have hope — what else will keep them moving, keep them fighting toward the end?

I’ve learned that hardship means less without the bright moments of joy to throw it into sharp relief. Dark moments are darker when compared to moments of joy. Give your character something to love, something to find joy in, and suddenly they will have something to lose. Let your characters feel happiness and their heartbreak will mean more.

SF 2011
SF 2011

I’ve learned anti-heroes aren’t for me. I know there are people out there who enjoy these stories, but I’ve become convinced that what we really seek in fiction is characters who are more than what we are. We don’t want to see ourselves in fiction, we want to see our better selves, our braver selves, our greater selves.

But the rule about darkness and joy still applies. A character’s greater qualities mean little without the contrast of flaws. A character’s flaws are only obvious when compared to their strengths.

LA 2011
LA 2011

But the single most important thing I’ve learned about joy in fiction is this: we need it.

As readers, we need it. As people, we need it.

So much is said about stretching the boundaries of darkness in fiction, going deeper and deeper into the human psyche, and this is important in its own way. But people come to fiction not just to be challenged, but to be reassured.

We need to believe growth is possible. We need to know we can persevere. We need to have hope in the power of love. We need joy.

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”– G.K. Chesterton

I wish I could end this with a real-life example, but there are things happening that I can’t talk about publicly yet. Just know that when the odds are against you, when you’re beaten, when it seems impossible, it’s still not over. If you can find the strength to keep working toward your goal, your day will come.

That isn’t just fiction, it’s truth. And that’s why I write about joy.

DC 2011
DC 2011
Of Joy and Heartbreak

Sea Love

I’ve spoken about it before, my romance with the sea. I went there again today, on my way home from work after a long week. I was wearing all my motorcycle gear and carrying a heavy helmet, but the moment I stepped onto the sand, the second that scent of salt and water and seaweed hit my nose, it was like everything else just faded away. Any weight I was carrying, any worry niggling at the back of my mind, any muscle squeezed tight from stress and long days at a computer… the sea just carried it all away.

I never feel so calm as when I’m by the sea. I never feel so connected with the invisible.

My beach.
My beach.

My brother lives away from the coast. He’s used to it — we grew up inland, dreaming of water. But he’s like me — whenever he has the chance he gravitates to the sea. We caught up with him and his girlfriend the other week, something we don’t get to do very often, and we did it the Hancock way: on the water.

Just like a hundred family holidays, my brother and I went adventuring on the sea.

Hanging with my awesome bro.
Hanging with my awesome bro.

It’s in our blood.

My critique partner, Shari, is the same way.

— Shari Green (@sharigreen) January 28, 2014

She sent me the most amazing gift this week. Sea glass from her home on Vancouver Island, all the way on the other side of the world.

CP love!
CP love!

Sometimes I get sad I don’t live close to my critique partners. I can’t see them to commiserate or celebrate. We’ve sent countless emails and DMs but I’ve never heard their voices. But you know what? The only thing between Shari and me is the sea.

Half a world, and all of it water. Credit to Shari.

I’ve crossed that ocean before and I’ll do it again. Next January I’ll get to see the islands that inspired the Sea Story and I’ll get to see some of the people who helped me become a good enough writer to bring it to life.

On good days and bad days, when I’m close to the people I love and when I’m far away, I’ll go to the sea, and I’ll feel peace.

My sea cliffs.
My sea cliffs.
Sea Love

Unfinished Business

Last Christmas I only asked for one gift. Just one. I was thigh-deep in Sea Story brainstorming and I wanted a complementary project to fill my year with, so I asked my dad for a model ship kit. Being a model ship builder himself, Dad was enthusiastic. He even painted me this little pirate’s flag for me to hang when I was done:

(See my anchor necklace? Isn't it pretty?)
(See my anchor necklace? Isn’t it pretty?)

I was enthusiastic, too. I even included it in my 2013 resolutions. 2013 would be the Year Of The Sea.

My 2013 Resolutions
My 2013 Resolutions

The observant among you will note the model ship is the only resolution not crossed off. Yeah.

2013 was indeed the Year Of The Sea. After putting aside the Ghost Story in February, I sunk into the Sea Story and stayed there all year. There’s this line in my MS about the sea being all-consuming. It’s a little dramatic for the current context, but the Sea Story really did consume me in the most wonderful way.

No guarantees this line will remain.
No guarantees this line will remain.

All year I’ve felt this terrible guilt at my poor, unfinished ship. I even wrote it into my manuscript. Anna’s biggest regret is that she never finished the model ship she started building with her father when she was a kid. She spends the whole book trying to fix the unfinished ship after it is accidentally crushed. If these scenes are particularly poignant, its because they come from my own fear of disappointing my dad (and myself).

Poor Anna!
Oh, Anna.

As someone who views life as a series of finished goals, ending a year without achieving all my resolutions is a difficult thing. I had such plans. Where did I go wrong? But see, as well as being the Year Of The Sea, 2013 was also the year of Becoming, which sounds weird, but bear with me.

2013 was a wonderful writing year for me on the whole, but the start sucked. This was the year I almost gave up writing altogether. I couldn’t do it anymore, striving and striving towards a goal that was completely out of my control (publication).

I was tired of being an aspiring writer, tired of tying all my hopes to a few carefully addressed emails once every 18 months. Tired of trends and agent wishlists and endless requested revisions. Don’t get me wrong, none of these things are bad, but in early 2013 I was a person who defined herself based on the goals she achieved. Not being published, coming up on four years of hard work, just about killed me.

So, I decided to stop. Not stop writing, but stop aspiring. Stop defining myself by other people’s reactions to my work and just accept it: Published or not, I am a writer. Not an aspiring writer. Just a writer. That’s not a goal I’m striving towards, it’s just a thing that I am. I’m completely in-progress, but that’s okay. I have so much to learn. That’s okay.

2013 was the year I stopped aspiring and became.

I spent a lot of the year feeling guilty about that model ship, but I’m not anymore. I didn’t finish it in 2013, but I did start it. It’s in progress and it’s important to me and it will get done, dammit. That little painted pirate flag will fly.

People ask me what my writing goals are and the only answer I can give is this: to write. I’ve stopped tying my happiness to an end goal. I’ve found satisfaction and purpose in the journey, and this year has been so juicy and full and joyous because of it.

I’ll just have to wait and see what 2014 brings.

Peace and Love to you all this New Years!

Highway 1, California. Enjoying the journey.
Highway 1, California. Enjoying the journey.
Unfinished Business