Housesitting Writing Retreat How-To

I'm trying something new. 

I'm on a writing retreat in someone else's house; I didn't break-in, they invited me (I'm like a vampire in that respect, I only enter other people's places when invited... in other respects, I'm not at all like a vampire).

It's a lovely house near Boston... lots of room, lots of light, lots of privacy and quiet. I love writing in my home for all sorts of reasons, but sometimes enjoy writing someplace else for precisely those reasons.

I find things to do besides write. I noodle around in the SmartPig kitchen. I play with the dogs. I watch TV and cook with/for my family. I do laundry or dishes. I feed and soak and measure the tortoises. I go grocery shopping more frequently than seems absolutely necessary. There are lots of ways to distract myself from writing when I'm at home.

When I go to Starbucks or my parents' house or to Goddard to watch friends graduate, I generally get a lot of writing done. It occurred to me that I could make a habit of periodically finding a way to get out of the house for a few days of writing.

The next thing that occurred to me is that I'd like to find a way to do that without having to spend a ton of money to do that writing... I found a way.

Trusted Housesitters is that way, for me. I found their website and joined and tried to find a couple of housesits close by, in case they were a scam (they weren't). I'm staying in a person's house for four days while they're away, taking care of their cats, Taz and Mack.

Trusted Housesitter is the middleman, connecting a person in need of place to stay with a person in need of a person to stay in their house and take care of their beasts. They have them all over the world, and it seems like it could be a great way to travel.

I love staying in AirBnbs because you avoid the lifelessness of hotels, but with this, I get to stay for free and to hang out with animals (if you don't like animals, this might be a downside, but since I do like animals, a lot, it's an upside). I get to live, for a while, in a neighborhood, as a local. I can cook my own meals, walk around and get a feel for someplace new, and most importantly... write, in peace and quiet and private and for free.

The house I'm living in this week is spacious and lovely and has several places to write and read and lounge.

It has a lovely and functional and well-stocked kitchen. I've mostly made coffee so far, but also a few meals, and there's a beautiful grocery store a few minutes walk away from the house that I'm dying to explore for treats/rewards for myself for the excellent writing days ahead.

Another living room at the front of the house, on the quiet street. I've done some reading there as well as in the living room back by the kitchen.

Between the two, there's a room with a piano in it, and while I'm horrible on a piano, it's fun to noodle around on it, and the cats aren't judging me (out loud at least).

The house is filled with lovely and spacious bedrooms with great light... I could probably sleep in a different one every night, but that'd be more cleanup for me in the end (I want to leave the house, and cats, in good shape so that the owner will give me a good review upon their return so that I can get more housesitting gigs in the future).

The bathrooms are lovely and modern and make my shower-singing sound even better than usual... the cats don't agree, but that's fine with all of us.

I periodically look up from my writing to find the cats staring at me with murder, or at least distrust, in their eyes but as long as I'm opening cans for them every twelve hours (and scooping litter once a day) I'm pretty sure they'll restrain themselves for the duration of my stay.

If you're interested in Trusted Housesitters (and honestly, why wouldn't you be, even if you're not looking for a writing retreat), you can follow one of the links I've scattered throughout the blog above and check out the site. The bonus is that if you use the link I posted, you'll get 25% off their annual fee of $109 (adjusts to $81.75, if you were wondering)... on first look that might seem like a lot for a middleman website, but I figure mine's already more than paid for itself with this first stay (probably with the first night).

In the spirit of full disclosure, if you sign up with TH, I get two months added to my membership, but that's not why I'm sharing it... I'm sharing it because I think it's a wonderful idea, a wonderful service (for both parties), a wonderful way to explore the world while staying out of hotels, and a wonderful way to get some writing done.

Anyway, I wanted to share what I'm doing this week, and what I hope to be doing more of in the future... TH has housesits in Egypt and Iceland and Mexico and Australia and Scotland and Italy, and I want to try them all!

I'm working on my next novel, "The World Beneath the World", while I'm here, and so far, I've been getting some good writing done.



Plans for 2020

Welcome to the new year!

My latest book, a collection of short stories, is doing well on Amazon and in some of the indie bookstores I've been working with for a while. I've gotten some good reviews online and through word of mouth.

I've heard from a few people who loved the Tyler books that they didn't love this collection... that's OK. Not all books are for all people, not everyone has to like everything an author publishes. I like the stories in the collection, a lot, and think they provide readers with a clean window into what I'm writing and thinking about or was at the time I wrote them.

I'm currently about 20k words deep into my next book, a mystery novel, and am excited about the way this first draft feels. I'm hoping to finish my first pass in March, then start the process of rewrites and edits through the spring and summer, with an eye towards publication in the fall or winter.

I had a great visit to Goddard last week. I went primarily to see some members of my original cohort who were graduating a semester after me, but also to enjoy a few days of writing retreat with a friend and fellow MFAW graduate. Both were fantastic!

I'll be going to the AWP conference in San Antonio in March, representing Goddard, and remembering the Alamo. It's something I've looked longingly at previously but never been able to talk myself into before now.

I've got my CV in for a number of teaching jobs, fingers crossed, but will keep pushing for more and different work and writing options and opportunities.

Thanks for reading, and for spreading the word.



New Short Story Collection Published!

My latest book, titled No Man is an Island... Except Me, just went live on Amazon and is available through them, via your favorite local bookstore, or you can get a signed copy by sending me an email.

It's a collection of short fiction. Fifteen stories about people who are square pegs in a round hole world; a writer’s dozen of people and places where unusual is the norm, where odd is ordinary.

I had a wonderful time writing the stories, exploring those places in my mind (or soul), and hope that you have a fun time visiting them as well.


Thanks for your support and I hope you enjoy the stories.



The importance of big "W" versus little "w" writing in the life and times (and sanity) of a writer

"Write Every Day!" - This advice is casually tossed around in any and every discussion of Writing and Writers. from the moment you start filling notebooks with ideas and poking at a keyboard, visions of sharing your stories with the world dancing in your head like wordy sugarplums... the way it's normally given, normally meant, normally received, is wrong, is bad advice.

Luckily, you found this article, so you can be SAVED.

The worst possible interpretation of that dreaded advice is to literally force yourself into a chair every day and work on your novel, or poem, or creative non-fiction (if you believe in that particular unicorn)... cranking out continuous streams of words like piece-workers on an assembly line.

I think of that as little "w" writing... it's best suited to filling out forms or meeting deadlines on high-school essays. It's of necessity, a part of our lives, but it shouldn't be a part of our endeavors as creative writers.

No forced marches of storytelling, if the muse (or whatever facilitates your creative writing) is not available for comment or help on any given day, wander in some other, USEFUL, direction.

This is what I call big "W" Writing... an all-inclusive term that extends beyond stringing words together to make some new and creative assemblage of words to any activity that supports your writing and life as a writer.

It could, and should, include reading and taking notes...

It should also include blogging (along with making use of other forms of social media to check in with your audience and support/enhance/clarify your brand) and storyboarding or planning your writing projects...

Not only are these activities vital parts of your life as a writer, but they will also occupy the parts of your brain worried (or just thinking) about your work in progress, giving the subconscious the time and space it needs to do some heavy lifting, so that when you are ready to sit down and work on your latest creative piece, the words flow out in a meaningful and rewarding way, giving the world something it's never seen before.

I'm at a friend's wedding this weekend, officiating for the first time in my life... I'm nervous and my thoughts are, rightly, occupied with doing right by my friend, the woman he's about to spend the rest of his life with, and all of they're assembled friends and family.

I had a few hours this morning before the ceremony, so I wanted to do some writing, but my brain isn't geared up for working on the novel I'm currently writing, so I've been doing some big "W" Writing:

  • I read first thing in the morning, a mystery in the same vein as the one I'm working on
  • I checked in online, sharing some articles and answering emails related to my life as a writer
  • I wrote an article for a nerdy website I'm curating on tortoises
  • I wrote this blog, which will also be published on Medium
  • I drafted a letter to the subscribers to my newsletter (it's somewhere on the margin of my blog), offering them an early chance to grab my new book (a collection of short fiction) at a discount in exchange for an honest review of the book as soon as they finish it
Doing this, spending a morning in this way, gives me the room I need to take care of all manner of things important to my writing and my life as a writer, without going crazy trying to force myself to write on days when being creative, when forcing the creativity out through my fingers, would be very difficult.

While all of the above was happening, some thoughts and worries about my current WIP were tumbling around in the back of my head like that noisy rock polisher I kept in my closet as a boy, and I think I've got some ideas about how to write my way out of a few corners I painted myself, and my protagonist, into... we'll see on Monday, when I sit down to see whether I'm ready to Write  or write.


13 Books for Writers, by Writers, about Writing

I was recently speaking with a friend who's also a writer, and we got to talking about the things we do outside of working on our current WIPs (works in progress for those who collect acronyms) to support our growth as writers, our sanity, or our connections to other people and other writers.

My answer was that the most useful and enjoyable piece of "Homework" that I give myself every month is to read a book in preparation for leading a discussion with a writers bookclub at my local library. The bookclub focuses on books by writers about writing. We have a great time reading and discussing the books, learning about how other writing professionals approach the art and science and life of writing.

We get together at the Keene, NH Public Library, which is a nice central spot for the group of regular attendees (by which word I mean they attend every month, most of aren't regular in any other sense of the word), but when I lived in the Adirondacks, before moving to New Hampshire, I ran another similar bookclub and we met in a local coffee shop that was more than happy for the business.

The important thing isn't the location, it's the books and a group of people engaged in writing sharing their thoughts about those books... I come away from every meeting refreshed and invigorated and eager to bring the new items in my writing toolbox to bear on my work the next morning.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of books that you could read and discuss with your bookclub, but the list below contains books that we've read in the last few years that those of us participating in the bookclub enjoyed particularly (my favorites are bolded).
  1. Zen In the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury
  2. The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron
  3. Wired for Story, Lisa Cron
  4. The Writing Life, Annie Dillard
  5. On Moral Fiction, John Gardner
  6. Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert
  7. Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
  8. On Writing, Stephen King
  9. Bird By Bird, Annie Lamott
  10. Writing Magic, Gail Carson Levine
  11. Steering the Craft, Ursula LeGuin
  12. The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp
  13. Writers on Writing, Collected Essays from the NYT
I'd love to hear from other writers, or bookclubs, that have read and discussed books in the same vein, to hear which books you really enjoyed.




MFA Winding Down... What's Next?

I heard from my advisor yesterday... she's happy with my thesis.

{imagine the release of a breath held for months, a breath I'd not been aware of holding}

The collection of stories that I'll be submitting to the archives and archivists at Goddard College went from 27 stories to 15; I think it's a much tighter collection, more in line with what I wanted to serve up to readers, and with the revisions all of my readers helped me to find my way to is very close to the stories I had in my head when I started each one.

More than anything, I've learned that my writing needed, and needs, more (and more thoughtful) revision than I had previously done (or even considered). I've never had a problem with writing productively, but before my time at Goddard, I was unwilling to push myself to edit my work to the degree I've become accustomed through the last two years.

This semester was far and away the most challenging at Goddard, for me. 

I found myself wallowing in fear and self-pity after a sobering review of my first thesis submission by both my advisor and my second reader. It wasn't that they said the work was horrible, far from it, but they didn't love the still-rough stories so much as I wanted them to. This was a hard pill for me to swallow and process (rationally).

Taking their advice for tuning, and in some cases chopping, my stories was a freeing process though, and one I mixed in the feedback from another collection of readers I was able to take a step back from my fear and ego and hubris and address the shortcomings of my work. 

The result is a better collection, and 15 stories that are all objectively, markedly, improved since February. Through my editing and revision process, I've considered them singly and together and played with ordering how a reader experiences them to hopefully craft a better overall effect.

With the help of my family, I was able to carve out three days to disappear into northern Vermont to a tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere to give the work a final read-through shortly before handing in my "final" submission (""s added because although I'm finished with the thesis/collection so far as Goddard is concerned, I'll likely give it another round of polish before either shopping it around or self-publishing it). 

The quiet and time away from (my admittedly pretty idyllic) life allowed me to dive into the stories and collection and swim around in the ideas and people I wanted readers to experience when they pick up the book... it bolstered my confidence in the work at the same time it illuminated a few more changes I wanted to make.

Starting the day I first turned in my thesis and then recommencing after the final submission, I've been shopping some of the individual stories around to various magazines... to date four of the stories have been picked up (and I'm hopeful for more in the coming weeks). 

Graduation is in June. I'm working on my CV and looking for teaching gigs in the region; in the meantime, I'll be working on my next novel as well as evaluating and polishing some of the hundred or so stories that didn't make it into No Man is an Island... Except Me.

I'm excited for what's next and grateful to all of the people I worked with during my MFA at Goddard, who helped me improve my approach to writing.


My thesis will be finished. Not yet, not soon, but someday, and looking at the collection of stories I've put together in the semi-final stages makes me proud, and happy, and excited ... for what's next.

I found my way to Goddard two years ago, hungry to change my approach to writing, eager to improve and professionalize my stories and the way I produced and shared them with the world. My take on me was that I was more storyteller than writer, and what I wanted to get from my time at Goddard was to slide further along the continuum towards being a writer, while not losing the storytelling.

Goddard's been nearly perfect for that, for me, in that it gave me what I wanted as well as what I needed. The magic of Goddard exists in two areas: intellectual freedom, focused on learner desires and outcomes; and a community of people to learn with who are brilliant and engaged.

I was able to define my goals, choose my path, and make my own way, comfortable knowing that my teachers and advisers would support me and help me with course-corrections as needed along the way. Living and working and learning with a vibrant and vital community of motivated thinkers and creators only served to pull me higher and faster, along narrow paths to summits I'd never visited before.

My process has been to read and write, supported and nurtured by my peers and faculty. With their guidance, I've read and annotated an eclectic mix of books (fiction, poetry, and books about writing by writers), many of them titles and authors I never would have encountered on my own. Before, during, and after reading these dozens of books, I wrote ... and wrote ... and wrote.

Since starting at Goddard, I've written between 80 and 100 short stories ... lots of them pretty horrible. Some of them, however, were informed by something I'd read, a discussion I'd had, or a seminar or workshop I'd attended during one of the residencies; these stories are generally the ones I circled back to again and again to tweak and polish and prune and graft.

Of those many stories, I sifted and sorted about two dozen that I felt were both representative of my work and growth while at Goddard, seemed to hang together as a collection, and also meant something to me on a personal level.

One of the joking/not-joking taglines at Goddard is to "Trust the Process" ... the process of becoming a writer, or at least my process of becoming a writer, involved reading a lot, writing a lot, talking with smart people who enjoy both reading and writing, and drinking lots of coffee.

Goddard has supported me, and my growth as a writer, in all facets of this process.

For me, that process included finding the time and energy to love editing and revising my work more, much more than I had previously done. As Storyteller-Jamie I loved the creation, making something from nothing; as soon as I was done with the initial creation I'd be ready to move on to the next thing, only grudgingly editing and revising my work as a necessary evil.

Post-Goddard, more-of-a-Writer-Jamie still loves the creation, but sees, and acknowledges, editing and revision as a part of the creative process ... that the creation isn't whole until it's as good as I can make it. That probably seems like a subtle difference to anyone still reading this interminable blog entry, but it's made a big difference to my writing, and to me.

Long story still long, I picked 27 stories and submitted them to my advisor and second reader at Goddard.

The feedback is still coming in, but I agree with what I've consumed and digested so far:

  • a number of the stories don't work as well either on their own or with the collection as a whole, so I'm dropping five (my advisor lobbied for a couple more, but I know what the stories can be, and I'm trusting myself to get them there in time for my final submission)
  • I need to work to polish and reorder the remaining 22 stories to present them in the best possible light ... only then will they, and the collection be done.

I can feel "what's next" floating out there, in front of me, stories waiting to be told ... but I'm not done writing these ones yet, so I'll wait, they'll keep. 

{a detective novel, a fantasy novel, another collection of short stories, more Tyler stories, a cookbook, etc.}


Westmoreland, NH


MFA, Short Story Collection, and what I'm working on this morning ....

  • Why is a guy who's written and published four novels back in school pursuing an MFA?
  • Why is that same novelist laboring to produce a collection of short stories for his thesis?
  • Where is he in that process ... it's been a long time since he published anything?
  • What's next ... why ... when?
Those are all excellent questions, especially the first two, and rather than Sir Edmund Hillary-ing my answer, let me try to think my way through them in this blog entry ... if you promise to read it, I promise to write it thoughtfully.

I went back to school (yet again, some might say) to get my MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College because I felt that I was more a storyteller than a writer. This may seem sophistry or pretense, and perhaps it is (I've been accused, and guilty, of far worse), but nevertheless that was the fulcrum I needed to get myself back in the classroom (on the student side of the lectern, at least initially). Over the course of the MFA program I think I've stretched and grown as a writer ... trying new things as well as getting better at things I was already doing.

I felt confident in the structure and process of the four Tyler Cunningham novels, and had concerns that while I could likely produce another novel, it wouldn't stretch me in the ways I wanted to be stretched in an MFA program. A novel is one example of a thing, one chance to practice new strategies, one opportunity for growth; I wanted dozens. To that end, I wrote a gazillion (nearer to 100 actually) short stories; two dozen (ish) of which will be in the collection that is my thesis project: "No man is an island ... except me, I'm definitely an island".

Having the luxury to write, and subsequently select from, a large number of short stories, I was able to pick both my favorites, and further, from among those was able to pick a sampling that all seem to row in the same direction when taken as a whole. The stories (including the title piece) are all about people both outside of human society and aware of that outsideness, and (I hope) explore the condition from a new, or at least interesting, perspective.

Last week, upon my return from my final residency at Goddard, I took the time to make a final  selection of the stories that will be in the collection ... final-ish, it may be that after my advisor and second reader take a look at the collection, they suggest I drop or pickup a story or two.

I printed out all of the contenders, reread them so as to climb back into the various worlds presented, and then tried to establish a reasonable order in which to offer the stories. some of the strongest works at the beginning to grab readers, an undulation of pacing and type and mood throughout, and another of my favorites with which to end the collection. Three of the stories have been published in literary journals (so far, I have hopes for a couple more being grabbed, including two submissions to The New Yorker ... why not dream big?), something I had previously thought was verboten, but have learned actually makes the collection more attractive to potential publishers.

My plan for the rest of the semester, including this morning once I've finished this blog entry, is to polish the stories and the collection within which they float. In a few weeks I'll send it to my advisor and second reader for their thoughts and guidance. I have some administrivia and paperwork to do for Goddard in the assumption that I'll be graduating in July. Once I hear back from my advisor and second reader (and any other wise eyes I ask for help with the collection), I'll spend the intervening time trying to deal with bumps in the road that is my collection. I'm a big believer (now) that editing and revisions are never done, just due.

Although I'm mostly focused on the completion of my thesis and MFA, I am looking beyond Goddard and this collection of shorts to what's next. I've got two thirds of a very rough draft of my fantasy novel, Oasis, written, and that's calling to me. Readers of the Tyler Cunningham series have been (mostly) patiently waiting for three years for the next installment; I have a couple of stories waiting to come out, possibly novellas, possibly interwoven as a novel. I've also gotten to know a new detective duo who have set up shop in the back of my head, providing an amusing distraction when I'm stuck on other projects; they have a lot to offer, and feel as though they'd be great fun to work with, so I'm tempted to open with them. A (the?) cherry on top of future projects is a cookbook that's not a cookbook, something more along the lines of a lifestyle and gadget and gift guidebook for the kitchen adventurer; I've never done non-fiction writing, never worked with graphics in a book, never formalized/organized my explorations in the kitchen beyond fun and a love of food and drink.

It should make me nervous or scared, but really I'm just excited ... I hope you'll come along with me on the next steps, and the ones after that ... I'm really looking forward to sharing these stories, and the next ones, whatever they are, with you.




Storyteller versus Writer

I tell people I'm a writer.

It's possible that I'm lying ... or at least that I think I'm lying.

I'm a student of story. I love the feel and shape of a good story. I've spent my life enjoying watching, listening to, and reading stories that other people tell; after a lifetime in the pursuit of story, I generally know which way a good one will bend and twist before sticking its landing.

It's this gift, or skill, that gave me the courage to write Here Be Monsters, my first novel. I knew that I could tell a story, having absorbed thousands (maybe tens of thousands) in my life, and knew the guy, and place, and situation, I wanted to wrap the story around.

It's a good story ... it could be written better. The subsequent novels and novellas were written better, and were still good stories.

The dozens of short stories I've got printed out and milling around in my office are all good stories ... the question I'm hoping to answer in the positive at the end of my time at Goddard is whether or not they're well written, crafted.

I think that a story being well-written goes beyond spelling and grammar and syntax ... it plums the depths of craft, along with the iterative, obsessive, practice of polish.

The concept of polish is the hill upon which my becoming a writer very often hangs, and stalls ... working the story again and again and again, then dusting it off and working it some more, until there are no bumps or snags in the flow of words or sentences, dialog or exposition, that drop the reader out of the hallucinatory trance the story has lulled them into.

I have, in the past, been satisfied with telling a cool story, comfortable in the knowledge that my ability to communicate that story through words is sufficient for transmission from my brain to my reader's ... the pursuit of my MFA at Goddard has been the pursuit of a greater understanding of the writer who lives within the storyteller I am, and to encourage the writer to work just as hard as the storyteller.

I feel that I am in the midst of a transformative process, sliding along a continuum towards the writerly end of things while hopefully still maintaining the storyteller ... I imagine the writer abides in the brain, roaming up and down the dusty shelves that line the passages of my skull, while the storyteller lives in my heart, beating and racing and rushing with my excitement each time we sit down at the laptop with an idea as our polestar.

Anyway, that's what I was thinking when I woke up this morning (which is a polite way to say "when Olive woke me up because she thought she heard a bear outside") ... I'm ready for my second cup of coffee.

Thanks for indulging me ... keep reading, I'll keep writing (and storytelling).



3 Easy Ways to Build Your Writing Community

Writing is a task best done by oneself.

Wait, that's not true ... let me rephrase that to explain how I'm right, as well as how I'm wrong.

Writing your first draft is generally best done in private; what happens before and after that first draft is best done in some form of writing community.

One of the ways in which writing is difficult, at least for me, is that dichotomy, the bi-directional pull of introvert and extrovert.

I love sitting alone for hours or days, pulling stories out of dark corners of my brain, but I need people outside of my skull to help me polish my work, and eventually, hopefully, to enjoy it.

Finding and maintaining the balance is, I believe, critical to the success of any writer ... I don't claim to have THE answers, but I have some answers that have worked for me.

Three things I've found helpful in building a functioning writing ecosystem for myself to live, and flourish, within (in addition to the lonely writer/writing thing, which I've got down) are:
  • Writing exercises
  • Reading group
  • Writing group

Writing Exercises: I like story dice as writing prompts. Roll the dice, have everyone fix on one or more of the images, write for 10-15 minutes, then everyone who's comfortable shares what they wrote. It's a great way to prime your creative pump, work on building from bare ideas, and growing your comfort with sharing material with people.

Reading Group: There are tons of wonderful books on the craft of writing, and the writing life, and getting together with a group of writers to talk about one of them once a month or so is a great way to learn about writing as well as learn from other writers. I started a writers bookclub in Keene, and it's growing each month, with each book we read and talk about amongst ourselves.

Writing Group: sharing your writing with a group aimed at getting feedback on how to improve your material can be intimidating, but it's an invaluable resource and aid in polishing your craft and your product. Finding the right group for you can be difficult, as different groups have widely varying goals and methods; you should try any given group for a couple of sessions to see how the fit feels, and then either fully invest or move on in search of a better fit.

Where? ... How?
All three of the tools I've mentioned may already exist in your neighborhood, or at least nearby. If you ask people at indie bookstores and your local library, or search FB or Google, you will likely find numerous options.

If for whatever reason, these things don't exist near you, or the configuration for some reason (time, distance, population, focus, etc.) doesn't work for you, then you're in luck ... you can start your own.

Ask the library or bookstore if they'll let you use the space to start a group for any/all of these activities, and you'll generally be pleasantly surprised at their reply.

Once you begin making regular use of these three devices to grow and nourish your writing community, you'll be surprised at the improvement in the output and quality of your writing.