Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Aim, Shoot, Bull's-Eye: Writing Targets for The New Year

"It's the sheer act of writing, more than anything else, that makes a writer." --John Gardner

photo courtesy of

I know it's just semantics, but I've decided to set writing "targets" rather than resolutions for the new year. The "dart board"--what I'm aiming for--is to write every day. No matter how much,  how little--my goal is to at least hit one of four targets every day. Each is represented by the graduated concentric circles of a dart board. (I wish I could diagram this, but such design skills aren't in my repertoire yet!)

The four targets include:
1. The Bull's Eye: Write 1000 words. I hope to hit this mark more often than not in the upcoming year. But that is the real prize, and often hard to attain. So if circumstances--like life's challenges away from the computer--preclude this then I'll aim for...

2. The Inside Ring: Write two pages. Linda Sue Park, author of the 2002 Newbery Medal Winner A Single Shard, in an interview over at Cuppa Jolie, said: "My most valuable tip came from Katherine Paterson, who wrote in an essay about how she tries to finish 2 pages a day. I read that when I was starting work on my first novel, and it was a huge light-bulb moment. I thought, I can do that! I don't know if I can ever write a whole novel, but I sure as heck can write 2 pages a day. I've written every single one of my novels that way, and I'm positive I never would have written even one if I hadn't read that tip." Still and all, though, if time is at a premium on a busy day, I will at least shoot for...

3. The Middle Ring: Write for 15 minutes. Dan Goodwin, at Coach Creative, says: "Create every day and you get used to starting creative sessions quickly and easily. They become a routine, a habit, and you begin before you've had a chance to procrastinate. The less often you create, the harder it becomes to get started, and the more excuses and 'urgent' tasks that have to be done before you create begin to stack up...(so) start today, set aside 15 minutes, make an appointment with your creativity, and write it down. Do the same tomorrow." Yet, being realistic, on days I can't even do that I will at least...

4. The Outer Ring: Write ten words. This from Mary E. Pearson, on a  guest post at Dear Editor: "When I feel like I can't move forward, I will do all kinds of things to help me keep going, like...Trick myself. I sit down to write and tell myself I only have to write ten words and then I can get up and do whatever I want guilt free. TEN. That's all. But I have to do it every day." She says it's amazing how allowing yourself ten simple words more often than not jump starts the writing process and you end up writing more than you thought you would.

So there you have it, my targets for 2011. Every day, hit at least one. Now my aim might be poor at the beginning. After all, I haven't been all that consistent in the past. But with practice, who knows what  will come. I'm looking forward to finding out!

What are your writing targets for the upcoming new year?

It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop. --Vita Sackville-West

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Christmas Candle

A Christmas candle is a lovely thing;
It makes no noise at all,
But softly gives itself away.
---Eva Logue


Congratulations, Catherine A. Winn. You have won a copy of the board book, Bear Snores On. It will be in the mail shortly. Please leave your e-mail address in the comments below, and I'll contact you for mailing information. Enjoy!

And thanks to those who perchance stopped by, with wishes for light, joy and peace to all. And writing successes in your stockings! 

May you have warm words on a cold evening, a full moon on a dark night,
and a smooth road all the way to your door. --Irish Blessing

Friday, December 17, 2010

10 Tips on Voice--and a Beary Good Giveaway!

A writer's voice is not character alone, it is not style alone; it is far more. A writer's voice--like the stroke of an artist's brush--is the thumbprint of his or her whole person--his or her idea, wit, humor, passions, rhythms. --Patricia Lee Gauch

Bear Snores On, by Karma Wilson, has fast become one of my picture book favorites. I love to read it with Angelica, and anticipate reading it to the newest family member Adrian--unless, of course, his big sister beats me to it. And, not surprisingly, it has found it's way cross-country to little Nicholas, too.

Recently, after yet another reading, a whimsical  thought hit me. The story is also a metaphor for that elusive quality writers look for in their writing: "voice." After all, Bear SNORES ON until (without giving anything away) a series of events come along and he WAKES UP--and uses his voice as only he can. Which is what we writers are trying to do: wake up the voice that is only ours to speak.

Voice. A variety of definitions exist for voice.  Chip MacGreagor calls it your personality on the page. Laura Backes says voice is the way each author approaches the art of writing. Voice is "you," according to Graham Salisbury. Others say it is the identity of the writing, the way words flow, what makes the piece unique. I personally like Linda Fraustino's definition: "voice is attitude with rhythm."

Personality. Uniqueness. Attitude. Rhythm. The way words move and flow. The writer's thumbprint. Who you are. In other words, the life that a writer breathes into words.

The past year's been good for me in exploring the idea of voice--in writing and in blogging. Along the way, I picked up some tips that have been beneficial. I list them here in hopes they will help you as well.

1. Practice. Write. Write to your word count goals. Write character sketches. Free write. Journal. Write, as Backes says, simply for the pleasure of writing and not always necessarily with an eye toward publication. "Over time, with lots of practice," she says, "your voice will emerge, if you let it."

2. Let Go. I recently read an article in which Patricia Lee Gauch related how, as a young writer working for a local newspaper, she had an experience that helped her understand voice. A story she had submitted came back with these words from the editor: "This piece has no energy, no pizzazz...I want to hear your Voice." She said he looked at her to make sure she was listening. "You are going to have to let go when you write." Helpful words to us all. Let go. Self-conscious, "trying-to-get-it-right" writing will come across in just that way. Relax. Let the words flow.

3. Close Your Eyes--and Write Like You Talk. Again from Backes: " The best voices appear when authors write as they speak. (So) try typing your writing exercise with your eyes closed so you can't see the computer screen. Closing your eyes also helps you focus inward where the story is conceived. Then you'll be guided by how the words sound and feel, and that's the closest thing to your true voice."

4. Give it Time--and Be Patient. Allowing your voice to develop is a process--and it will be hampered if you try too hard. Backes: "Give it time, and remember that each of you already possesses your destined writing fingerprint. If you're patient, you can place that fingerprint on your work."

5. Expect to Write a Million Bad Words First. This comes from agent and's Mary Kole, in a guest post at Guide to Literary Agents (11/23/10). Daunting, but so true. "In order to get published or anywhere near publishable," Mary says, "you've got to write about a million bad words. That's right. A million of 'em. Only after you write a whole bargeload of BS will you: a) start to recognize what's good, and b) start getting a handle on the craft. Writing is a thing to be practiced, just like everything else. Write every day. Do it diligently and without ego until those milion bad words are behind you."

6. Be Persistent. I especially love this piece of advice. "To understand voice," according to Salisbury, "you must invest long hours of hard work. You can eat an elephant a bite at a time, and that's how we improve--a bite at a time." I don't know about you, but I'm determined to eat the elephant!

7. Be Yourself. Les Edgerton, in Finding Your Voice, says it this way: "Your mama was right: just be yourself, honey, and eveyone will love you, pimples, bad haircut, gap teeth and all. Just be yourself, compassionate or ironic, flirtatious or embarrassed, imperfect and real; with your style, your tone, and your sense of humor...Loosen up, improvise...Your words, your language. Not language borrowed."

8. Listen, and READ. Listen to others. Listen to the way you talk. Listen to other writers by reading--and read alot. "Really listen to people talk. Listen to yourself. Read all kinds of writing, from comic novels to journalistic essays, and think about how the voice works," says Editor Amy Flynn.

9. Read Your Work Outloud. "Read your work out loud to yourself and to audiences and clean up all areas that falter." This from Wendy Lamb, Editor.

10. Play with Words. "Play with words. Play the same scene from multiple perspectives...Practice the possibilities and know where your best writing flows."--Linda Fraustino

So voice comes down to this: write, write, write; read, read, read; practice; play. Repeat. To paraphrase a line from the movie Field of Dreams: if you write it, voice will come.

Now to a giveaway! I have a copy of Bear Snores On I'd love to give away. All you have to do is post a comment here by Tuesday, December 21. The winner will be announced the next day, Dec. 22. Two chances if you are a follower. You and/or the one to whom you read it are in for a real treat.

"...Ultimately if we are to succeed, we must discover and disclose our own voice...sense of style...particular embrace of language and information. Consider by way of explanation these words: authentic, nonformulaic, rhythmic, properly detailed, nuanced, musical, magical, bone-and-sinew touching...Consider writing that pulses with a heartbeat of the writer--his soul, her personality--something that connot be duplicated because it comes from within someone." --Peter Jacobi

Thursday, December 9, 2010

In This Season of Miracles

Where there is great love there are always miracles. --Willa Cather

Sometimes miracles come in increments, like words that build one by one to make a book that you can hold in your hands. Other times--the more awesome times-- come after a period of unseen mysteries in the darkness of the womb until, in the whisper of an early morning hour, the angels sing at the birth of a new little person. A new little person who, once you hold him in your hands, changes your world for the better just because he was born.

So it was for us this week when our second grandson Adrian--baby brother to big sister Angelica and cousin to our first grandson Nicholas--was born. A miracle in the warmth of his tiny body, his sweetness, his yawns and stretches, funny little grimaces, and, yes, even his loud cries that will take big sister some time to get used to.

Precious. There's nothing like the moment of gazing down into the face of newness, promise and hope, of joy and dancing of the heart.

No, it won't always be smooth going and happy dances, balloons and flowers, gifts and well-wishes. There might be nights of crying and fussiness to come. But the miracle is also in how love lays the foundation well and paves the way, lighting the path ahead.

Can you tell I'm a happy grandma? Along with Angelica and Nicholas, baby Adrian has not only captured a piece of my heart, but he has grabbed it tight with a mighty grasp for such a small hand.

In this season of celebrating the greatest miracle of all--God's gift of his Son to the world--I'm savoring a small taste of that great love in this birth week. Writing may be on hold for a few days. But you'll excuse me, won't you? I have a better miracle to hold in my hands for a time.

May this be a season of miracles for you, too.

"The child must know that he is a miracle, that since the beginning of the world there hasn't been, and until the end of the world there will not be, another child like him." --Pablo Casals

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Stay Curious--But Get the Facts

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity." --Albert Einstein

I ran across a list of explanations and definitions for historical traditions and word meanings in a recent issue of our local historical society's newsletter. While the tidbits were interesting, and in some cases downright funny, I had to ask myself if the "facts" were true. There were no credits or source information given. Hmmm. Well, let's just say such an example can serve as a reminder to double-check our research notes before taking them public. First account sources--like diaries, original documents, photos, interviews--are always best to draw from. For sure there's a reader out there somewhere itching to correct us if we slip up!

Having said that, here--from "Life in the 1500s Was No Picnic!"--is the list:

"Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and they still smelled pretty good by June. However, since they were starting to smell, brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married."

"Only the wealthy had floors other than dirt. Hence the saying, 'dirt poor'."

"If thresh (straw) were spread on the floor and regularly added to, it would begin to slip out the door. To prevent this, a piece of wood (or 'thresh hold') would be placed in the doorway."

"Bread was divided according to status: servants got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top or 'upper crust'."

Yep, some curious stuff here. But, while we should never lose a sense of curiosity, in writing we should back up our work with facts that can be documented. What do you say?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Books on the Brain

"A good book on your shelf is a friend that turns its back on you and remains a friend." --Author Unknown

Lately I've found that I have books on the brain more so than ever. Along with finishing revisions (I'm this close--yea!), researching for the next project, and trying to make headway with the piles of books around the house yet-to-be-read, I'm excited by the variety of titles that have popped up on some of the family's wish lists for Christmas. Shhhh, don't give it away, but I've already hidden some away that are waiting to be wrapped. I also took a day to sort through groaning shelves for some gently-used books I could bear to part with, and headed  to Half Price Books to resell them (ahem, 65 books and magazines!) to make room for all those books I've put on my list.

And then recently I was entertained by a unique idea that popped up on other blogs--that of making a story out of book titles we find on our shelves. Christina Lee at Write-Brained called it "Titles that Tell a Story." Tahereh at T.H. Mafi called it "A Poem of Novels." And Jen at Unedited worked her magic with "A Story Out of Novels." And so I revisited my shelves and the titled friends that reside there, to try my hand at the exercise. (Thanks, girls, for the idea!)

So, although I'm a little late to the party, I came up with this:


That was fun--want to give it a try? What story do you find in the titles on your book shelf?

"TV. If kids are entertained by two letters, imagine the fun they'll have with twenty-six. Open your child's imagination. Open a book." --Author Unknown

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Seeking the Simpler Things

"There is a calmness to a life lived in gratitude, a quiet joy." --Ralph H. Blum

Just taking a quiet moment before the pace speeds up, pies go in the oven, and cranberry bread gets mixed--to add to all the Thanksgiving wishes being offered across the blogging world. Writing voices are on pause while the voice of gratitude is celebrated.

So! May we enjoy this time. May we laugh and share. Care. Hug. Remember. Cherish. Offer help and, yes, words--words of compassion, support, encouragement, thankfulness. The simpler things plumb deepest.

Once back at work, may gratitude and quiet joy give the next round of written words more meaning.

"Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action." --W.J. Cameron

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

If Words Were Peas

The style of an author should be the image of his mind,
but the choice and command of language is the fruit of exercise. --Edward Gibbon

On a recent visit with my dad, I heard a story I'd never heard before. It seems that his grandfather lost the index finger of his left hand, down to the second knuckle, in an accident on a farm combine (harvesting machine). Not a particularly interesting story, even with the tidbit that this man, my great-grandfather, was left-handed. What did make the story interesting, at least to me, was that Grandpa always ate peas with a knife--using the hand with the missing the finger--and never dropped a pea.

After Dad finished telling his story, I asked, "Did Grandpa eat the peas with honey?" When he looked quizzical at what seemed to be a silly question, I said, "Well, didn't you ever hear the little ditty about the peas?" It was a poem I learned when I was little:
I eat my peas with honey,
I've done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny
but it keeps them on the knife.

I figured with a story like that, maybe my great-grandfather could have written the poem. He sure had enough style for it.

Style. According to David Carroll, A Manual of Writer's Tricks, there are two areas in any written document that cause it to succeed or fail: content (what we say) and style (the way we say it). "Content is the information and message which a writer communicates. Style is the way in which this information is conveyed." Carroll explains: "From a more technical perspective, style is the way in which a writer uses language...a way of combining the standard elements of prose--tone, vocabulary, rhythm, grammar, syntax, emphasis, usage--into a unifed word tapestry which is amusing or lyrical or emotive or profound or fun." Style is "the writer's personality reaching out to the reader from the one-dimensional page."

"With maturity," Jorge Luis Borges says, "the writer becomes more secure in his ideas. He finds his real tone and develops a simple and effective style."

And from Oakley Hall, The Art & Craft of Novel Writing, "A writer's style is more than his diction--word choice--or his rhetoric--his intention to persuade; it is his use of sentence rhythms, short, long, simple, complex...the use and originality of metaphors, the form of the differences of fact, style emerges from all the author's quirks and mannerisms, weaknesses and strengths."

Sounds to me like style, on one hand, is an intangible thing that's hard to get a handle on--personality, tone, rhythm, voice. But it's also a tangible thing, expressed from such things as mastering conventional rules, sitting down--regularly and consistently--at the writer's table, choosing from a good diet of ideas. Maybe it's not so much different than eating peas with a knife, trying to get slippery words on paper and do so with an individual flourish.

Hmmm, but just how to make it all taste good...?

How do you define style?

(Note: for discussions on the origins of the peas-and-honey poem, see Poetry Foundation, Food Reference, or

Friday, November 12, 2010

John Gardner on Mastering the Art of Fiction

Her daddy is teaching her a new skill and she has just about mastered it. Our two-and-a-half year old granddaughter is learning how to get in and out of her car seat by herself. It's is a skill that needs mastered, and pretty soon, since she will have a new little sibling here in less than a month and her parents will need as many free hands as possible.

I remember when little Angelica mastered the skill of jumping. What a hoot to watch her try. She's learning to sing and dance, too, among other skills she's already mastered--like handling a spoon by herself, turning pages in books, and the big one that continues to amaze me, her ability to learn not just one, not two, but three languages. English and Spanish together are her "first" languages, and her mommy has introduced French as well. Without pause she will say "hi" to me and "hola" to her daddy, rattle off a stream of Spanish to him, and turn right around and talk to me in English. I wish I could switch language gears like that.

Then there's the little six-month old grandson out in California. Baby Nicholas is at the beginning stages of mastering skills. He eats bananas from a spoon that is offered to him, but has yet to master the skill of getting a cracker to his mouth by his own hand. We saw a first-hand example of that via Skype this afternoon!

John Gardner, in his The Art of Fiction, speaks of mastering the art of fiction. He says, "The primary subject of fiction is and has always been human emotion, values, and beliefs...The writer's business is to make up convincing human beings and create for them basic situations and actions by means of which they come to know themselves and reveal themselves to the reader. For that one needs no schooling. But it's by training--by studying great books and by writing--that one learns to present one's fiction, giving them their due. Through the study of learns the best, most efficient ways of making characters come alive, learns to know the difference between emotion and sentimentality, learns to discern, in the planning stages, the difference between the better dramatic action and the worse. It is this kind of knowledge...that leads to mastery."

He clinches the thought by adding, "Mastery is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather."

Or, we might add, like a child's gathering power as she or he moves through time. Looked at that way, we might say that writing can be a hoot, too, as we continue to master it.

Any writing skills, or skills of another kind, that you feel like you've gotten a better handle on lately?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Deus ex Machina

Did you ever study Latin in school? I took two years, and wish I remembered more than I do. But recently I had reason to revisit a Latin term, deus ex machina.

Deus ex machina: "a plot device that usually involves a last  minute appearance by a character who saves the day, or a sudden event that conveniently resolves the plot." The phrase comes from ancient Greek theater, where seemingly insolvable situations were conveniently solved by 'dropping a god' on to the stage--often literally dropping the actor by way of an elaborate crane. Hence the meaning, "god from the machine."

My deus ex machina was a key that seemed to drop from the sky on a recent day when we got locked out of the house. How convenient, huh? Hubby and I had started out on a walk together, a Saturday morning tradition. Usually, since we part ways at a point and I return home while he goes a longer route, he makes sure I have the key. But this time neither of us thought to make the exchange--and he took off with said key in his pocket.

Good thing the day was warm. Once I realized the oversight, I also realized I might have a long wait. So, after checking to see if any door had been mistakenly left unlocked--no such luck--I decided to make the best of the situation. So I sat on my garden bench for a bit, enjoying just being outside. I did deep-breathing exercises. I tried to make myself useful by moving flower pots that need to be stored inside for the winter closer to the house.

Time crawled, so I strolled through the backyard. I peeked through broken windows in the neighbor's old barn next door, a barn that fell into disrepair years ago. I picked stickers off my pant legs that had hitched a ride. I headed back to the bench. That's when I looked down and...found a key, right smackdab in the flower bed, one I had never seen before. Now where did that come from? But then the thought hit me, do you suppose...? I hurried to the door to see if the key would get me in the house.

Of course it didn't. But if it had, it would have been a perfect example of a deus ex machina, an easy resolution to my problem--and obviously an example of what we don't want to do in our stories. Where's the action in a resolution so easy, the conflict, the character's need to resolve his problem?

Some examples of this unwelcome plot device, according to Bright Hub, include:
  • A character waking up and realizing it was "all a dream"
  • A hero turning up just in time to save everyone
  • A sudden discovery of a super power or magical ability that solves all the plot problems
  • A sudden dramatic natural even, such as an earthquake or fire
  • A character who magically returns from the dead.
Interesting stuff here. Other helpful links on the subject include Novel-Writing-Help, and Citizendium.

A key and a bit of Latin illuminated a story problem for me. How about you--any helps lately from Latin? Or any deus ex machinas that you've stumbled upon?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

"Reality Surprised"

"Fiction is more than a recitation of facts or author embellishments. It is reality surprised. It shakes us up and makes us see familiar in new ways. Fiction is like wrestling with angels--you do not expect to win, but you do expect to come away from the experience changed."--Jane Yolen

The day started out with the surprise of a spectacular dawning sky on what I thought would only be gray reality on my morning walk. Then, in preparation for a day of revision, hoping to come much closer to the final chapter, I picked up one of my favorite books on writing, Jane Yolen's Take Joy, A Writer's Guide to Loving the Craft, and discovered the above quote. No better inspiration to set the stage for tweaking and tightening--wrestling if you will--with words. A day at the desk, or BIC (a term coined by Jane for "butt-in-chair"), turned out to be a fun experience. I may not have "won"--but I did come away with a number of  improvements when some of what had become familiar flipped around and wanted to be expressed in surprising new ways.

And then imagine my surprise when, in surfing a few writers' blogs, I found word about an interview with Jane Yolen at Alice Pope’s SCBWI Children’s Market Blog. Here Alice further links readers to Martha Brockenbrough who offers a great talk with this author of over 300 books and counting (and also the second author ever to join SCBWI back in 1971). On Martha's post is also a video interview, where Jane discusses writing in general and also reads from her book, How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night. It's a real treat--a "reality surprise," of its own. You might want to check it out.

All in all, a good day.

How about you? Any "reality surprised" events happening in your world? I bet there's a lot of that for those who are participating in NaNoWrMo (National November Writing Month), where--from last count--172,000 participants in this "seat-of-the-pants approach to novel writing" have signed up. The goal here is to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. I didn't sign up but I cheer on those hardy souls who have!

May all your surprises this November be happy ones.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"I Was So Embarrassed, I Could Just..."

Feelings are much like waves, we can't stop them from coming but we can choose which one to surf. --Jonatan Martensson
I was so embarrassed once...once? I've been embarrassed more times than I care to remember. There was the time in junior high when I was scheduled to give an oral report right after lunch but spilled juice on my skirt during that lunch. Oh, the dark blotch, the snickers, the finger pointing. Want the floor to open up and swallow you...?

And the time, many years later when I was a chaperone for a youth group on a trip to Washington D.C. and sported a brand-new camera. There I was, standing in awe in the middle of our nation's National Archives building, surrounded by twenty-some teenagers (for whom I was to be an example) and as many signs that practically shouted, NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY. And, with this being a new camera and all, I thought the flash was off when I aimed to take a picture...and of course it wasn't. I can still feel the breath of the guard who was there in a nanosecond, and hear his reprimand. The color in my face didn't come back until we were sitting in the dark of Ford's Theater several blocks away...

Then there was the time...oh, I think that's enough!

Embarrassment. An emotion of the third level according to, right under sadness and neglect. Robert Plutchik, Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions, named what he saw as eight basic emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. However, if you count through all the first, second, and third tiers, you come up with close to one hundred emotion variations.

Portraying a character's emotions following the cardinal rule, "show, don't tell," is one of a writer's greatest challenges. If you say, "She was embarrassed," you've told how she felt, but give readers no emotional anchor to hold on to that helps them care. But if, for example, you say, "She slipped, fell, and smacked her face hard against the dirty tile outside the chemistry lab just as her ex-boyfriend rounded the corner" (ahem, sad to say, another true story), you're more apt to catch their attention.

I was reminded of all this when I learned that the children's magazine Highlights for Children is sponsoring a contest, "Fiction Involving an Embarrassing Moment." All entries must be postmarked between January 1 and 31, 2011 (details here). I think I'll take a short detour from my WIP and play around with the idea for a couple of days. I need the exercise. Maybe with a little practice I won't fall on my face?

How are you doing in your attempts to show emotion, not tell, in your stories? Have you drawn inspiration from a real life moment? Maybe you could try your hand at the Highlights contest, too.

Friday, October 22, 2010

On a Quest to Find Just the Right Word

Today was a day of fighting with words. And believe me, it was a struggle. A battle. Words--those just-right ones, ones best for the thought, those that would convey on paper what I pictured in my head--proved elusive. In scene, emotion, dialogue. They just wouldn't come. Maybe I need a few days reprieve. Oh, yes--it's the weekend. I'll take the break!

 But I'll also take comfort in knowing that most writers have such days.

Yet, along with the problems, the fits and starts, I was reminded of just how important it is to find that right word. How important it is to not settle for a close-second. Maybe I should just put things aside for a few days. The reminder came in this little ditty that I ran across. It comes from David Carroll's A Manual of Writer's Tricks:

Call a woman a kitten, but never a cat;
You can call her a mouse, cannot call her a rat;
Call a woman a chick, but never a hen;
Or you surely will not be her caller again.

You can call her a duck, cannot call her a goose;
You can call her a deer, but never a moose;
You can call her a lamb, but never a sheep;
Economic she likes, but you can't call her cheap.

Ha! There we go. It's that important. What do you think? Been struggling with just the right word, too?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Moments of Inspiration

The past week, for me, was filled with the study of story, the writing of story, fall walks, camera shots--and inspirational moments that can come from a mix of it all. Here's a peek at what I gathered.

"An author must learn the principles of good storytelling only in order to write better from the heart." --Uri Shulevitz

"Imagination needs noodling--long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling, and puttering." --Brenda Useland

"I think you must remember that a writer is a simple-minded person to begin with and go on that basis. He's not a great mind, he's not a great thinker, he's not a great philosopher, he's a story-teller." --Erskine Caldwell

"Moving around is good for creativity: the next line of dialogue that you desperately need may be waiting in the back of the refrigerator or half a mile along your favorite walk." --Will Shetterly

"Any work of art must first of all tell a story." --Robert Frost

"Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." --Albert Einstein

Wishing you beauty and inspiration in the week ahead...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Case For Reading Your Writing Out Loud

In conversation you can use timing, a look, an inflection. But on the page all you have is commas, dashes, the amount of syllables in a word. When I write, I read everything out loud to get the right rhythm. --Fran Lebowitz

photo source: GeekPhilosopher
What I think I hear in my head when I'm writing is different than what my ears hear when I read my work aloud--something I was reminded of today. Whoa. It shouldn't have come as a surprise. In the writer's craft, reading your work aloud is a key revision technique. But I realize I've neglected the process. And sad to say, my work shows it. Some parts sound out of tune--and are missing rhythm.

Note to self: Read. Your. Work. Out. Loud.

The mind, you know, is a funny thing. In it, your scenes march by in great order--the inciting incident in the first chapter through the conflict, story arc and struggle of the middle, all the way to the climax, resolution and (hopefully) satisfying conclusion at the end. You can visualize it, like a band as it marches across the football field at half time. Awesome movie reel running.

But then you pick up a page, begin to read, and actually hear the words--and it's like the tuba player has run into the clarinet player who knocks over the drum major. And the whole things comes to a halt.

For example, I stumbled over a confusing word then an awkward sentence--and then a distracting alliteration. All on the first page. Clunk.

Les Edgerton, in Finding Your Voice, How to Put Personality in Your Writing, explains how rhythm is one of the elements that go into voice. Rhythm, he writes, " the drummer or the bass player of the voice 'quarter.' The timekeeper in your band...(So) Read your work aloud (to check for rhythm)."

Julia McCutchen, in an e-zine article (here) adds another key point: "Reading your work out loud will enable you to gain a clearer picture of whether your writing truly captures the essence of what you want to share with your readers." Joanna Penn at thecreativepenn says that reading your work out loud helps you find inconsistencies, improves dialogue, and gives you a sense of pacing. And Audrey Owen, at writershelper  says, "Read your work aloud. You will find awkward places or unclear references as soon as the words are out of your mouth."

So when we build a case for reading our work out loud, we see it helps with rhythm...essence... inconsistencies...dialogue...pace...voice. It also uncovers grammatical and spelling mistakes, repetitions, and awkward places.

Anything you care to add to the list?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Workshop Highlights

The fact remains that there's no substitute for meeting in person when you want
to build emotional support and develop relationships. --Mary Beth McEuen

Had a great time this past Saturday at the Central Ohio SCBWI Scarlet & Gray workshop. What is it about writers' conferences that make them so special? To me, they're all about sharing our excitement about writing with those who understand. It's about stretching and improving in our craft, about learning all we can about the publishing industry. It's about the energy, the discussions, the buzz. It's about making new friends--and encouraging one another. And in this case, it was about meeting with an agent and being able to pitch my book. Priceless!

Guest speaker and agent Mary Kole, Andrea Brown Literary Agency ( and also over at her fantastic blogsite, spoke on "Kidlit: Writing for Publishing's Coolest (and Hottest) Market," and "Escape the Slush Pile: How to Survive Your Agent Search."

YA author Lisa Klein (Ophelia, Two Girls of Gettysburg, Lady Macbeth's Daughter) spoke on "The Scene: Your Story in Microcosm." And Marcia James, PR specialist and romance author spoke on "A PR Primer: Promoting Yourself Before--and Just After--'The Call.'"

Gleaning through some great tips:

"Do your research. Read. Interact with real kids. Be authentic. Don't preach. Stay within the guidelines of the business. GET A CRITIQUE PARTNER. Make connections with writer friends. Learn to love the process of writing and revision. Have an insatiable curiosity. Write an irresistable book." --Mary

"What is a story but a sucession of scenes. Scene and story both have a beginning, middle, end. Both have rising action, character in conflict, falling action, resolution. Every scene needs to have a purpose. If you can write a good scene, you can write a good story. The end." --Lisa

"Learn what PR options are available. Budget your time as well as your money. Determine what niche markets are worth targeting. Don't discount the role your personality will play in which PR options are best for you." --Marsha

And then came time to pitch. And I want you to know that those six minutes were a highlight of the day. Nerves settled down, story line flowed, and we...talked. What's better than sharing a story you love with someone who wants to hear about it? Thanks goes to Mary, whose love for children's books radiates. Her time, interest and encouragement were much appreciated.

And hats off to the Central Ohio SCBWI team, headed by Susan Bradley, who made it all possible. The workshop was well worth attending. No doubt about it.

And so now, back to work--with the highlights and high spots to spur me on. What about you, any highlights lately? Sure hope so!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Heading Off to Pitch

"Stick to the facts, but make those facts fascinating." --Blythe Camenson

Although the dry weather has pretty much nixed colorful foliage this fall, I did notice a few bright spots on my walk this morning. There is beauty if we would only pause to look for it. And, although there were times in the past few days as I prepared for this weekend's pitch opportunity that the progress seemed to go dry, I found bright spots along the way there, too. Can I hear the collective cheer when we all say thanks to those who have posted so much wonderful help for the rest of us? One... two... three... YEAAAA.

Recapping highlights. First, on the one-sentence summary--the starting place for effective pitches:

"The resulting very basic pitch is: When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER(s), they have OVERCOME CONFLICT to COMPLETE quest...The important thing to remember is that a good pitch is a description of what actually happens. It's a one sentence description of the plot, not the theme." --Nathan Bransford, Literary Agent

"The one-sentence summary, also known as a logline, a hook, or a one-sentence pitch (it is not a tagline, however) a one-sentence summary (that) takes your complex book with multiple characters and plotlines and boils it down into a simple statement that can be quickly conveyed and understood, and generates interest in the book." --Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

"Knowing a story's pitch (a one-line description) is an effective way to keep the main concept in mind when writing and revising. To develop your one-sentence pitch, here's a formula: Title + Genre + Life Change = Pitch." --Adventures in Children's Publishing

On the verbal pitch itself (which I will have six minutes alloted to me to do):

"Be prepared...Conquer the nerves...Accept criticism."--Sue Lick, writing-world

"Keep it short. Focus on a character and the character's problem. Stop at a moment of tension and wait." --Jane Friedman, Writer's Digest There Are No Rules

"So if you do get an agent or editor in front of you, relax. Impossible, I know. But once you relax, you can actually talk to the other person. Tell them about your book. Ask a question. Talk as well as listen. There's nothing I appreciate more than a writer who is prepared yet flexible, professional yet casual. Someone who'll talk to me as another person who loves books, not as someone desperately trying to get my approval." --Mary Kole, Literary Agent

So here we are. Ready and raring to go. I expect the entire workshop to be fun, and the pitch to be a great experience.

As for the future, I think I will reverse the order. Instead of trying to come up with the one-sentence summary and short pitch paragraph after writing the book, I want to follow Blythe Camenson's advice in his book Give 'Em What They Want, The Right Way to Pitch Your Novel to Editors and Agents: "If you create your pitch line before you actually write the novel, it can guide your writing and keep your plot on track." And, may I add, cut lots of time off the work to the finished product? I think so.

I'll share some of what I learned when I get back. Until then, happy plotting, revising, dreaming, imagining, pitching--whatever part of writing occupies your time in the days ahead. May there be many bright spots along your way, too.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wanna' Go Back?

I'm knee-deep in some pretty intensive prep work for an upcoming pitch on my MG historical fiction novel, but at the same time I'm anxious to start the next project. It, too, will be historical fiction. Its characters are calling for attention, and I don't want to ignore them much longer! And so, torn between two eras, I took an unscheduled break and opened up Keeping Hearth & Home in Old Ohio, A Practical Primer for Daily Living (edited by Carol Padgett), that I found at the Half-Price Bookstore. (An aside, don't you love second-hand stores--books and, ahem, designer clothes?)

Anyway. The tips come from 19th-century cookbooks, household manuals, and periodicals. And what wise, whimsical, and in-today's-world-odd-sounding gems can be found in its pages. For example...

Developing Good Habits for Personal Appearance: Stock Your Toilet. "No matter how humble your room may be, there are eight things it should contain, namely: mirror, washstand, soap, towel, comb, hair-,nail-,and tooth-brushes. These are just as essential as your breakfast, before which you should make good use of them."

Setting Up Household: Sleeping Rooms."The best feathers for beds and pillows are feathers plucked from live birds. Chicken, goose, or duck feathers may be preserved and used by putting all the soft feathers together in a barrel as they are picked from the birds after scalding. Leave the barrel open to the sun and rain, covering it with an old screen to prevent the feathers from blowing about."

Appointing Your Kitchen: Match Safe. "Keep a stock of matches on a high, dry shelf in a covered earthen jar or tin box where they will be out of the way of children and safe from rats and mice. These animals are fond of phosphorus and will gnaw match heads if they can and often set them on fire."

Care of the Hands. "Always wear gloves when housekeeping, outdoors, sleeping. Sleeping in soft, white kid gloves, after rubbing mutton tallow on the hands, will keep them soft and white. Large mittens worn at night filled with wet bran or oatmeal keep the hands white, in spite of the disfiguring effects of housework."

Butter. "For making butter, strain unskimmed milk into a scalded churn, where the churning is done daily...In summer try to churn early in the morning, as fewer flies are swarming then."

And, finally, Remedies for Household Pests. "Mix a little powdered potash with meal and throw it into the rat holes and it will not fail to drive the rats away."

I could go on and on, but I hate to bore you. Besides, I want to dig a little deeper and find out more about "Developing the Mannerisms of a Lady,"and "Strengthening the Union." Just for fun.

And you? Any books you've read recently, just for the fun of it?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Toolbox Treasure

"I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work." --Stephen King

I've been slow in getting to Stephen King's classic On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, but finally finished it yesterday. One impression that stayed with me is that of Uncle Oren's toolbox, a huge homemade box with leather straps. It contained construction and repair implements that stood the test of time. It also contained a surprise treasure at the bottom--a brass etching hidden away. Once discovered and valued, the etching was found to be of significant worth. Who would have thought?

From the carpenter's toolbox, King draws an analogy to a writer's toolbox, and the tools there that serve us well. His list includes: verbs (and few adverbs!)...elements of style (aka Strunk and White's The Elements of Style)...good description, dialogue, narrative...symbolism...theme.

Reading is also important. "Can I be blunt on the subject?" King writes. "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."

All these things are good. But as in any terrific story, the heart of the matter comes in the last few pages. Many know that King suffered a horrifying--and life-threatening--accident in 1999. At the time he was working on On Writing, and the manuscript was not yet complete. Just to read about his massive injuries and long months of therapy made me cringe. How can a person even think about writing, let alone finish a book, after suffering such a nightmare?

"I didn't want to go back to work," he writes. "I was in a lot of pain...(and) couldn't imagine sitting behind a desk for long...Yet I felt I'd reached one of those crossroads moments when you're all out of choices." Writing had helped before, he says. "Perhaps it would help me again."

And it did. He eventually found that writing continued to do what it always had done--make his life "a brighter and more pleasant place." He had found treasure at the bottom of the box.

He concludes by saying the book is not only about how he learned to write, and about how others can write better, but that with it he offers a permission slip. "You can (write)," he says, "you should, and if you're brave enough to start, you will."

Of course we don't really need permission, but encouragement sure helps. And that's the treasure I found in this little book. Persevere. Remember the joy. Go back to the basics. Continue to learn. Grow stronger from the struggle. I've enjoyed a great degree of encouragement on my journey--in my writer's group, at conferences, from family, and with the great community of writer/bloggers.

Yep, I've collected some super treasures in my toolbox. What favorite tools/treasures are in yours?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Open Eyes, Open Hearts

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the
greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. --Roald Dahl

stock photo: kllproject.en

A great secret, it turns out, was hidden in the plane's belly.

While riding the shuttle from long-term parking to the Northern KY/Cincinnati airport for a trip to California last week, we learned for the first time about the World Equestrian Games to be held in the next few days in Lexington, KY--a mere 75 miles away. "Horses," our shuttle driver said, "are being flown in from all over the world. The first fifty came in that." He pointed to a huge FedEx cargo plane on the tarmac that we could see from the curb.

Fifty horses in one plane. That's a lot. And more to come, over a thousand more (plus 800 riders)--and from 57 countries. That figure blew me away, too. The countries represented run through the entire alphabet at least twice--from Argentina and Azerbaijan to Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Mexico all the way through to Turkey, Ukraine, Uruguay, USA and Venezuela. The games will start this Saturday, Sept. 25, and run through October 10. It's the first time the WEG, held every four years, will be hosted outside of Europe. (You can find the story's coverage and original pictures at Lex18 News.)

I don't know about you, but it sounds like a pretty big deal to me. The world--represented by some of the most skilled horses and riding athletes--has come to our doorstep. For some reason, this amazes me, though I myself have had little experience with horses. (The time in college that I took horseback riding for a phys.ed. credit doesn't count. That experience will remain a secret--at least for now!)

Once we arrived in California, a stroller held secrets of another kind--baby Nicholas, four months old, tooling around the neighborhood with this doting grandma at the helm. I learned real quick that he was not content to just stroll, he wanted to see his little world. As long as he could see out, he was happy. But when a blanket was draped over the stroller's canopy to keep the sun out of his face, he changed his tune. He not only wanted to watch the world go by, he wanted to be a part of it.

One day his world will expand beyond the stroller to airplanes, too. Adventures will be embarked upon, surprises met, secrets revealed. Until then, I savor a specialness that should be no secret to anyone--babies are to be held, cuddled, cherished and loved. I'm so glad my plane took me to him. Our time spent together was precious--and too short.

Now I'm home, and I bring me with me a reminder: watch the world with glittering eyes, everywhere and at every chance. Take in as much as possible. Be open to surprises. Learn from the children. Yes, the greatest secrets are often hidden in the most unlikely places. 

What part of the wider world has opened up to you lately? Any recent surprises that you might even write about?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Storytelling Wisdom

"Literature was not born the day a boy crying "wolf, wolf" came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: Literature was born on the day a boy came crying "wolf, wolf," and there was no wolf behind him." --Vladimir Nabokov

There are no wolves where I am this weekend (at least I hope not)--but I thought I'd take a moment to share this tidbit of wisdom as we consider the stories we'll be working on this upcoming week. Have a good one! 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On Feet, Toes, and Theme

You can't tell any kind of story without having some kind of theme, something to say between the lines. --Robert Wise
It would seem that last week's theme over this way centered around feet and the piggies that go with them. Feet as in the little one who came for a visit and almost immediately shed her small pink crocs to dance, jump (a new skill to a two-year old), and prance barefoot on cool tile. Later Angelica helped apply nail polish to mommy's toes (clear base coat--important to know) before painting her own, and grandma's. But it wasn't enough, and the only others left in the room were grandpa and daddy. Ever see a man with shiny toenails? Hubby had some explaining to do at his physical the next morning.

A few days later, I got blisters on the bottom of my feet. Hard to understand when the sandals have been worn now for two summers. Ouch. And then there were those moments when I had to be careful not to step on toes (think 1 Corinthians 13 here), but that's another story.

Theme. Tying all this together made me think about the role "theme" plays in writing. Theme is not plot. Theme is not story, or character. A great definition comes from Irwin/Eyerly's Writing Young Adult Novels: "A little girl explained theme best when she said it is what you remember about a book after you have forgotten who the characters were and what they did." Jane Yolen, in Take Joy, says, "Some people call the theme the 'meaning' of the story. Some call it the 'subtext.' But then, some people call a basement a cellar, or a bunker, or a foundation...Whatever we call it, it still supports the house.

"It is," she adds, "an overarching idea that encompasses the entire story."

Overarching idea--like love, heroism, journey, coming of age, power, family, good and evil. Your theme will be there, whether you start with knowledge of it at the beginning of your work, or discover it as you go. You'll find it--between the lines.

As long as you stay on your feet!

How do you determine the theme of your story? Do you find it difficult to identify, or does it come easily?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Taking a Moment to Remember

There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief...and unspeakable love. --Washington Irving

Taking a moment this day...
a memorial moment
a remembering moment
a prayerful moment say we will not forget.

September 11, 2001

The following list links to tributes, photo galleries and lasting images of that tragic, heartbreaking day just nine short years ago:

The Washington Post Magazine: "This special issue is a meditation, in a few pictures and words, on what has happened to us all since the morning of 9-11. Many of the photographs are from The Post's prize-winning staff; the captions are by staff writer Tamara Jones. We have sought to step back from the events themselves, to capture the human face of the tragedy and its aftermath, and to produce a modest tribute to the living and the dead."

Christopher Casciano: "Look elsewhere for words. I have not yet found any that does what I saw justice."

Make History: "Make History is a collective telling of the events of 9/11 through the eyes of those who experienced it, both at the attack sites and around the world."

A Time Magazine Exclusive: "Shattered--A remarkable collection of photographs by photojournalist James Nachtwey."

World Statesmen. org: "September 11, 2001--In Honor of the Victims and the Heroes," including a timeline.

And a touching YouTube tribute posted by Sandra Heska King, "Words Then--and Now." It's one that will trigger the tears anew.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Blogger Awards

Blogging has been such fun these past few months--with challenges, learning curves, and amazing discoveries on writing that are only key strokes away. More than that, tho, is the fantastic writer's community to be found in the blogging world.

And surprises! One of which came the other day from Catherine at The Writing Room when she awarded me these:

And so to Catherine I say thanks! Your kindness is much appreciated.

I understand that a few rules come with the acceptance (although I also understand each awardee may tweak them as they see fit).
1. Thank and link back to the blogger who gave the award.
2. Share seven things about yourself.
3. Pass the award on to fifteen bloggers, newly discovered or those you've been following (I'll do ten).
4. Contact the bloggers that you selected for awards.

What I like about this is how the award provides links to new people and places, widening the circle. And so, without further ado, I pass the awards forward. Some have received these awards before, I know, but this is my way to express appreciation for the inspiration, encouragement, and fun that has come my way from meeting and sharing/reading about writing with them. And please note that this comes with said appreciation, and without requirements. So do with as you wish!

 1. Karen at Write Now
 2. Lindsey at The Write Words
 4. Sandra at Sandra Heska King
 5. K.M. Weiland at Word Play
 6. Jeannie Campbell at The Character Therapist
 8. T.Anne at White Platonic Dreams

As for seven things about myself:
1. I started out a journalism major in college but ended up graduating with a teaching degree.
2. The one movie in all my life that impacted me the most was Life is Beautiful.
3. In my BGM (before-getting-married) life, I worked part time in the Apiary Division of the Ohio Department of Agriculture processing beekeepers' registration forms. In my AGM life, I filled out those same forms for my hubby, the beekeeper, and mailed them in for someone else to process.
4. I love hummingbirds, goldfinches, and windy days. The latter may be because I met hubby in the Windy City?
5. Sometimes I think I am too windy. Need to write more/talk less.
6. I have both fantastic daughter (university Spanish instructor) and daughter-in-law (photographer)--each of whom are the world's greatest mothers to my 2 1/2 grandchildren (# 3 is due in December)--and of course fantastic son and son-in-law who are the world's greatest fathers to those same children.
7. I have visited 45 of the 50 states. My husband says maybe, possibly we'll make a trip to Hawaii in a year and half for our anniversary. I'd say that qualifies him for the world's greatest husband!

That about wraps it up...