Author Archives: Clarissa Southwick

About Clarissa Southwick

A nomad by birth and a linguist by choice, Clarissa Southwick writes tales of adventure where cultures clash and hearts collide.

Writing Upside Down

When it comes to titles, I am completely tone deaf.

My usual writing process is similar to watching a film. A picture plays out it my mind and I write down what happens. When I’m done, I spend many desperate hours brainstorming a title.  Eventually, I give up, label the file with some random word from the text, and send it out to my critique partners.

Typically the responses range from “That’s a working title, right?” to “You aren’t really going to call it that, are you?”  Without a decent title, my manuscript is doomed to be mangled, misunderstood, and abandoned.

Forgotten before the first page is turned.

I have known writers whose titles always shine, even when the texts are lackluster. They’ve got that hook, that title that makes you want to grab the book off the shelf. I’ve asked them for help, studied their methods, and done all I can to imitate them. I know how important a good title is.

And still, I fail to come up with anything memorable.

So imagine my surprise the other day when I was driving the carpool, listening to the kids chattering, and overheard a phrase that would make a perfect title for a YA novel. It was the type of thing that no one over twenty would think of saying, yet it captured the essence of these kids exactly.

Now I’ve got the title, I’ve got the characters, but I haven’t got a story. Instead, I’ve got questions: What kind of trouble could a kid like that get into? And how am I going to get him out?

I’m turning my process upside down, starting at the end and writing backwards. I’ve heard authors say they start with just a title, but is this really enough spark for a book? Writing this way feels like trying to walk in someone else’s skin.

I would love to hear your suggestions. Have you ever tried to change your process? How did you move forward from that first spark to a full-bodied story?


Posted by on November 26, 2012 in Idaho, writers, writing, writing craft


Should You NaNo?

Costumes. Candy. Ghoulishness and gore. As October draws to an end, many Americans are caught up in the annual frenzy of Halloween fun.

But writers around the world are already preparing for November and the month-long party that is National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo as participants affectionately call it.)  For one whole month, they will put their lives on hold and focus on a single goal:  To write an entire novel in thirty days.

In the past, I have joyfully signed up for the challenge. I love to write first drafts and what could be more fun than to do it with the support of 200,000 other writers? The NaNo site has tons of tips and programs to keep participants motivated and on track. Local groups get together and compete to keep things interesting. It’s everything a writing celebration should be.

So why aren’t I joining in this year?

Although I’ve participated in NaNo three times, I have never even come close to “winning” or writing the required 50,000 words during the contest. Oh, I’ve written entire first drafts in a month before, but never during November.

November is family time. Winter days are short, and there’s Thanksgiving to prepare for. I can’t ignore housework for a month when relatives are coming from out of town to visit. My kids will have at least a week off school for the holiday, and they usually catch a winter virus or two. Despite my best efforts, the season will take its toll. My word counts will fall flat and before I know it, I’ll be hopelessly behind.


Failing at NaNo leaves me feeling burned out and exhausted.

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that NaNoWriMo was never intended for people like me. It must be wonderful for those who live alone.  But for those who have children at home, work long hours, or care for chronically ill relatives, it can be very discouraging.

As much as I love National Novel Writing Month, I think it would be healthier for me to write a little bit each day than to try to cram it all into one month-long writing binge.

I would love to hear your ideas on NaNoWriMo. Will you participate? If so, how will you juggle writing and family demands? If you’ve decided not to participate, why not? Would you be more likely to do NaNo, if it happened at some other time of year?


Posted by on October 29, 2012 in NaNoWriMo


The Art of Writing Creepy

October is here and it’s the month for Halloween and all things creepy. I’ve always been intrigued by scary stories. Why does one have you on the edge of your seat and another fall flat?

Authors devote endless hours to creating the perfect villain and a believable plot, but when it comes to writing creepy, success comes from focusing on details.

Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock made their names selling all that’s eerie. Yet, perhaps their true genius lies in creating perfectly normal worlds. Their characters eat Doritos and drink root beer.  Their lives are not so different from our own. So when some small detail changes or something seems out of place, we notice.  When they focus on a bird on the fence or the color of a card in a hobo’s shirt pocket, the tension instantly rises.

Last summer, my family visited a tourist town in Tunisia. We spent ten days enjoying the beautiful beaches, touring the ruins of Carthage, and shopping in the old souk in Tunis. The weather was perfect. The sea was calm. On the surface, it was paradise.

Yet, every single person who went on that trip agreed that the place was really creepy.  The air just seemed to crackle with conflict. No one was surprised when riots broke out in front of the American Embassy, and an American school in Tunis was set on fire three months later.

I wanted to capture that uneasy feeling in my writing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what caused it.

Then I recalled my first impression in the Tunis-Carthage International Airport. Mangled bits of suitcases revolved on the creaky baggage carousel. A twisted handle here.  A crushed wheel there.  A smashed lock teetered on the edge of the otherwise empty conveyor belt.

Ridiculously unimportant details, yet I still remember them today.

I polled my fellow travelers: When exactly did you decide that place was disturbing? What was it that made you uncomfortable there?

Here’s what they said:

“The way the women in hijab whispered when we walked by.”

“That dead kitten lying in the middle of the market.”

“The waiters’ pinched mouths.  The smirk of the guy at the Internet café who always told us the Internet had just been shut off right before we got there. The way their body language always said the exact opposite of their words.”

“That guy who made us pay him for directions and then intentionally sent us down a dead end alley.”

More ridiculous details, yet you definitely get the feeling that these people did not like tourists. In a town where the economy is entirely based on tourism, isn’t that  disturbing? Aren’t you surprised we came out of that dead end alive?

I would love to hear your stories. What is the creepiest place you’ve ever been? Did it look perfectly normal on the surface? What details made you think it was eerie?


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Is Your Character’s Career a Cliché?

Happy Labor Day! What a fantastic idea for a holiday, an entire day to relax and celebrate the contributions of our workers.

Yet, even when a writer is enjoying the cookouts, sales, and pool parties, she never really stops thinking about her novel.

How would our characters celebrate this day? What memories would this holiday stir? What emotions?

Well, that depends on what kind of jobs they have.

When creating a fictional character, few decisions are as important as choosing his occupation. A person’s point of view will always be shaped by his day-to-day work experiences. Still, authors seem to limit their characters to a rather short list of careers. Our fictional worlds have an over-abundance of policemen, waitresses, reporters, artists, and archeaologists.

Sometimes, the choice of career is dictated by the genre. A cowboy romance has to have a cowboy hero. In regency romance, the character’s occupations are going to be limited by what was socially acceptable for nobility at that time. The lead in a mystery or thriller needs to have the necessary skills to bring down the bad guy. Above all else, our stories have to be believable.

But sometimes, common career choices just seem like lazy writing. When the book’s not riveting, I think this author made her heroine a baker because she didn’t have time to research a more interesting profession. Personally, I prefer stories where I learn something. I don’t learn much when the heroine’s a waitress in a greasy spoon.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve abandoned a book because the lead character–and his career– were too clichéd. It’s almost as if the writer is using shorthand. No character development needed. All she has to do is put a uniform on the hero, and we’re supposed to divine everything about him.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting to create an unusual character who is not prepared to fight the bad guy? Then we could cheer him as he struggles to overcome the villain’s unfair advantage. Doesn’t everybody love an underdog? Don’t we always root for the fish-out-of-water?

When choosing a traditional career for his character, a writer risks falling into the cliché. However, with a little extra work, a talented author can always find a quirk or two to lift his hero up out of the stereotype.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. What careers do you think are over-represented in fiction? Do you see this as a cliché or a genre requirement? How do you take a character in a stereotypical career and break him out of the mold?


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Lie Your Way to Better Fiction

'Promise?' photo (c) 2007, Carmella Fernando - license: is one of my favorite things in writing fiction.

I love it when characters tell lies, thinking it will get them out of trouble, but instead they only dig themselves in deeper.

I love it when they intentionally use words with double meaning, or their body language conveys the exact opposite of what they’re saying.

I love it when they make sneaky deals, thinking they’ll outsmart the opposition who, of course, is doing the exact same thing to them.

But most of all, I love it when the characters lie to themselves.

We all tell ourselves little lies to get through the day. We want to make sense of a chaotic world, so we twist the facts just a little bit until they reinforce what we need to believe. Every observation is filtered, slanted, and spun by our own desires and delusions.

The start of the school year always forces me to confront my own favorite lie. All year long, I tell myself that I really am an organized person. If only I didn’t have to deal with carpooling, homework projects, and extra-curricular activities, I could really get things done. I will do better when summer comes and I don’t have all these darn appointments.

Then school lets out. Of course, I can’t accomplish anything with kids running through the house and a vacation to plan…and…and… It’s not me. It’s never me. I really am an organized person. I’ll get so much done once school starts.

Lying to ourselves is wonderful until we realize we’re wrong.

Then reality comes crashing down and chaos ensues.

Chaos can make a really great novel.

Writing lies into a story can be the difference between writing cardboard cutouts and creating characters that come alive. The lies our characters tell themselves reveal so much about who they are.  Once the reader understands the character’s flawed belief system, they’ll anticipate what the character is going to do, and enjoy the novel even more.

These character-developing lies don’t have to be huge.  Think back to all those classic I Love Lucy episodes. Lucy almost always got in trouble because of a single lie she told herself. She convinced herself that she could do anything if only Ricky wasn’t holding her back. Never mind that she didn’t know anything about wrapping candy, or making vitamin commercials, or towing a trailer. She always believed she could outsmart him and that little self-delusion drove every episode.

Which kind of lies are your favorite in novels? Do you intentionally write lies into your stories?


Posted by on August 20, 2012 in Idaho


Writing through Hard Times

In the hospital

Several years ago, my two-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. As part of her treatment, we spent weeks in a hospital isolation room. No visitors. No distractions. Just a little television playing Law and Order reruns on a seemingly endless loop.

To fill the long hours while she slept, I started to write a novel. My fictional world, set in the early days of the Oregon Trail, was the perfect place to escape from the pain and uncertainty we were facing.

For all of its doom and gloom, the hospital was a fantastic place to write. It was usually quiet, I wasn’t distracted by household chores, and nothing enforces “keep your bum in the chair” like being a captive inpatient.

Thanks to the wonderful staff at MSTI Pediatrics, my daughter made a full recovery. But I’d caught the writing bug.  For years afterward, I lugged my laptop wherever I went. In doctors’ offices, the carpool lane, and airports, my mantra was, “If I’m waiting, I’m writing.”

No matter how bad things got, I could always shut out the world and escape into a novel.

Until this year.

Last month, my father’s cancer returned and he had to be hospitalized for a couple of relatively minor surgeries. This time, no matter how I tried, I couldn’t focus on my writing. Instead, I found myself pacing the floor, constantly calling for updates, unable to concentrate.

For the first time, I couldn’t escape into my writing world. Perhaps it was because he was in another state, I wasn’t at the hospital, and I couldn’t see him breathing in front of me. I could only sit by the phone waiting for news.

Fortunately, he’s recovering, but my faith in my ability to write through anything has not. So I’d like to ask our readers: What do you do when anxiety keeps you from writing? Do you have any “tricks” to get back in the groove?


Posted by on August 6, 2012 in Idaho


On Writing Emotion: How Big Are Your Scissors?

photo by PDiaz courtesy of

Showing emotion can be one of the hardest things for new writers. Most spend hours learning body language and the physical reactions emotions stir.

Fist-clenching. Teeth grinding. Lip-curling. We know them all. We have the list.

The problem is that these standard expressions get old quickly. If your antagonist sneers more than once in a book, he looks like a cartoon villain. My agent calls this “grimacing” and she wants it out of my writing.

Fine. Agreed. But what can we put in its place? Dialogue can’t carry all the emotion. Sometimes the strongest feelings are the ones we can’t put into words.

There has to be a way to physically show emotion without falling back on these old clichés.

I have always struggled with this, but recently I remembered a scene from my childhood which illustrated exactly what I need to do as a writer.

When I was growing up, my mother had a violent weekly ritual. Every Sunday morning, she pulled out a pair of giant scissors and –in a fit of rage–murdered the Parade magazine that came with the newspaper.

She slashed. She sliced. She stabbed. The assault seemed to go on for hours. And it was the same for every magazine and every coupon book that entered our home. No cigarette ad ever left our house unshredded.

As a child, I don’t think I fully appreciated all the layers of emotion at play in this scene. I’m not sure I understood the immense grief she must have felt after losing so many loved ones to lung cancer. I only saw the anger and what I perceived as an unspoken threat: This is what I will do to you if you ever start smoking.

More than thirty years later, that scene is still crystal clear in my memory. None of my mother’s children smoke, a testament to the impact that dramatic display had on us.  Recently, I was surprised to discover that those scissors are the exact same size as the ones I have in my own home. Fear had enlarged them in my mind.

As a writer, this is what I want to do with emotions in my scenes. I want to paint a picture that sticks with the reader long after she’s closed the book. I want a tangle of feelings that can’t be covered by one easy label. I want the reader to magnify the scene with his own emotional experiences.

I realize not every scene needs to be this over-the-top. But now when I’m trying to instill more emotion into a key scene, I stop and search for the “telling detail.” I ask myself, “What physical object would be as emotionally significant to my character as the cigarette ads were for my mother?” I hold that object in my hand. What would I do with it if I were completely enraged, devastated, or thrilled? How big are my scissors?

I would love to hear your tips on how to add emotions to scenes without falling into the same old clichés. Please share them in the comments below.


Posted by on June 11, 2012 in writing, writing craft