Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

A not-quite-midlife crisis sent me back to school last year–VMFA Studio School. There I tried to shed my business journalist skin by enrolling in a riot of short story, poetry and photography classes. The highlights: the heartfelt tutelage of writing instructor Susan Hankla, quirky new friends like fellow over-enroller Kim Drew Wright, and a glut of writing that made up in fun what it lacked in skill.

I love Kim’s deeply imagined and affecting stories and so I jumped at the chance to participate in this writing process blog tour with her. You can check out her writing process post here and see my answers below.

What am I working on?

I write practical essays at the intersection of memoir, service journalism and social commentary for an audience of dynamic women, seeking happiness, meaning and power. My blog is a magazine-style collection of how-tos, advice columns, interviews, book reviews and musings, but delivered in one writer’s voice, colored by personal experiences and insistent on selling ideas, not products.

The posts hurtle from the philosophical to the practical and back. I cover books and reading because they inform, stir and anchor my life. I answer reader-submitted questions to stay connected, responsive, relevant. I sweep from nuts-and-bolts topics like emptying an email inbox or taking useful meeting notes to the inspirational tales of women who’ve pursued their visions to the hilt and made a difference in the world.

Why the eclectic mix? Because lives–my own and those of the women I interview–have been transformed through both the unexpected flash of inspiration and the nitty gritty of simple habits taking hold. Life as I see it is a messy tangle of the mundane and the sublime and my interests reflect that blend.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Despite the wide variety of topics I cover, my posts are anchored by their focus on helping women find their way to fulfillment and success. Specifically, beyond the particular quirks of my life experiences and writing style, I think my site stands out from other lifestyle blogs because of its preoccupation with one particular question: What does it take for a woman to fulfill her potential in a world that’s often unkind to her ambitions?

Why do I write what I do?

Because I believe that what I do and write makes a difference for me and the world beyond. Because I believe that each post, no matter how short, proffers a sliver of an answer to a vital question and that the sum of the posts can illuminate ways forward for me–and the women who read me.

How does my writing process work?

Blog post ideas can come from anywhere–a gut instinct, a quote in a book, a bit of overheard conversation. But once they emerge, I am quick to store them in individual Google documents within a Story Seeds folder or a Working Posts folder if they are a good topical fit for the blog. The seeds are just fragments, bullet points that need time, space or research to flourish.

Many story seeds stay forever young in the folder, never watered, never blooming. Others leap to my Working Posts folder, where ideas with teeth and imminent publication reside. This folder is the place for  ideas that can blossom in the light of 30 to 90 minutes of my attention.

I typically write straight through my idea (1,000+ words in a go) before revising. Significant pruning is usually required. Usually the first 3-4 paragraphs I write get cut immediately because I tend to back into my arguments. My book review drafts inevitably start with a critique of the title and the cover but except in one case (Wonder Women) I ultimately drop those ruminations in favor of a more attention-grabbing lead.

After weeding the initial draft, I always read or reread (as it were) a chapter of Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer” and revise the post with that particular tool in mind. The elegant guide offers counsel like “order words for emphasis” and “prefer archetypes to stereotypes,” backed up by examples from celebrated writers and exercises that apply the wisdom. Referring to the book ensures that my self-editing efforts go beyond mere proofreading to push toward fluency and potency–blog-style.

For example, after drafting this post, I read chapter 13, which urges writers to “choose words the average writer avoids but the average reader understands.” Then I took its suggestion to play with vocabulary and share the results with a test reader.

I seldom publish anything that hasn’t been read by at least one other person. Doing so would miss an opportunity to learn and grow as a writer. Readers will post their responses to the content of my posts in the comments section, email or on social media, but they are unlikely to comment directly on the style, clarity or mechanics of my posts. So I consciously seek out that kind of feedback from trusted people prior to publication.

My blog posts represent an iterative process of capturing, developing, testing and publishing ideas and insights. The question at the core of the writing process is: How can a woman express herself in a way that resonates beyond her? The answer is: Trial and error.

What are other writers’ processes like?

Stay tuned! This blog tour continues on April 14, 2014 with posts from two fellow Richmonders, young adult authors Meg Medina and Lana Krumweide. I met both of these stellar ladies through their herculean work on behalf of James River Writers.

Lana Krumweide

Lana Krumwiede began her writing career by creating stories and poems for publications such as Highlights, High Five, Spider, Babybug, The Friend, and Chicken Soup for the Child’s Soul. Her first novel, “Freakling” (Candlewick, 2012), tells the story of Taemon, a boy who lives in a society where everyone has telekinetic powers. Lana has attempted telekinesis many times, particularly when it comes to household chores, but she could never make it work. “Freakling” was named a finalist for SCBWI’s Crystal Kite Member’s Choice Award and an honor book for the International Reading Association’s Intermediate Fiction Award. Taemon’s story continues in subsequent books in The Psi Chronicles, “Archon” (2013) and “True Son” (2015). Lana lives in Richmond with her husband and daughter.

Her website is: lanakrumwiede.com/blog/

Meg Medina

Meg Medina is an award-winning Cuban American author who writes picture books, middle grade, and young adult fiction.

She is the 2014 recipient of the Pura Belpré medal and the 2013 CYBILS Fiction winner for her young adult novel, “Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass.”  She is also the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writers medal winner for her picture book “Tia Isa Wants a Car.”

Meg’s other books are “The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind,” a 2012 Bank Street Best Book and CBI Recommended Read in the UK; and “Milagros: Girl from Away.”

Meg’s work examines how cultures intersect through the eyes of young people, and she brings to audiences stories that speak to both what is unique in Latino culture and to the qualities that are universal. Her favorite protagonists are strong girls. In March 2014, she was recognized as one of the CNN 10 Visionary Women in America.

When she is not writing, Meg works on community projects that support girls, Latino youth and/or literacy. She lives with her family in Richmond, Virginia.

Her website is:  www.megmedina.com