Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Establishing goals is all right if you don't let them deprive you of interesting detours. --Doug Larson

Confession time. I didn't make my goal. You might remember the challenging stack of books I brought home from the library recently. Well, the results are in. 11 books = 7 read, 4 renewed. But it's okay. I took a bit of a detour when I added Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer to the pile.

I have no regrets, though. Otherwise, I may not have slowed down enough to catch some really memorable writing.

For example, in Chapter Two, Words, Prose says, "All the elements of good writing depend on the writer's skill in choosing one word instead of another." Here, in Avi's Poppy, the word "syrupy" makes all the difference: "Only thin ribbons of light seeped down through the green and milky air, air syrupy with the scent of pine, huckleberry, and juniper." It wouldn't be the same if "thick" had been substituted instead.

In Chapter Three, Sentences: "Read your work aloud...Chances are the sentence you can hardly pronounce without stumbling is a sentence that needs to be reworked to make it smoother." How about this from the prologue to Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting: "The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning." The cadence of this sentence, when read aloud, is delightful.

Chapter Four, Paragraphs: "In general...the paragraph could be understood as a sort of literary respiration... Inhale at the beginning of the paragraph, exhale at the end." Breathe this, from Alan Armstrong's Raleigh's Page: "The crossing was rough. It rained and sleeted on the Channel, the wind shrieking and snarling in the rigging like spirits. The ship creaked and groaned like she was dying. The trip was all staggering up steep hills of frothing waves and falling down the other side, only to begin the same again as waves dashed and slobbered them. They made nothing forwarad; it was all side to side."

Chapter Eight, Details: "If we want to write something memorable, we might want to pay attention to how and what we remember. The details are what stick with us." See if the following, from Karen Cushman's Alchemy and Meggy Swann, sticks with you like it did me: "The smiling and nodding Master Grimm was stuffed into a doublet so tight that Meggy thought his belly might burst forth and fire buttons like cannon-shot across the room."

I'm not finished with Prose's book yet. I still have Narration, Character, Dialogue, and Gesture to study. But that works out just about right. Four additional categories. Four more books. The detour's been worth it.

What words, sentences, paragraphs, or details have jumped out at you in your reading lately?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

On Writing and Listening, Thanks to Suzie

The writer gleans wind scraps; he listens wherever he can. Each day is full of instances." --Nicholas Delbanco
She escapes the invisible fence once again and sets out to accompany me on my walk. Oh, bother. She's harmless enough as she patters along, tail up, nose sniffing, nails clip-tick, clip-ticking against the asphalt. But she has become a pest--and an endangerment--to herself, drivers, me.

She's a nice-looking dog--marbled coat, muscular haunches, floppy ears. She wears a gold collar. I guess that's where the (dead?) battery is stored.

Pant, pant. She trots ahead. One front paw turns inward. A zig here, a zag there, and a car swerves around her. A noise distracts, and she jumps into the grass--only to dart right back on the pavement. This time an oncoming car comes to a complete stop to avoid hitting her. I shrug my shoulders, lift my palms, and mouth the words, "Sorry, she's not my dog." And then, in my most commmanding voice, I tell her, "Go home, dog. Go home. Now."

But she ignores me. She's not a very good listener.

The next time I learn her name. A truck pulls over and the driver gets out. "Here, Suzie," the young man says. He nods in my direction. "She's not mine," he explains, "but I know where she lives. I'll take her home." And he corrals the wayward dog, hooks a leash to her collar, and puts her in his truck. As he drives off, dear Suzie hangs her head out the passenger-side window like she's having the time of her life.

I come upon the owner's house as the Good Samaritan unloads her. She immediately--you guessed it--heads for the road. The GS calls, "Suzie, come back!" And, of course, she doesn't. You see, she really isn't a very good listener.

We're going to have to do something about Suzie--starting, I suppose, with a call to the owner. I sure hope he listens better than his dog does.

In the meantime, Suzie teaches me a lesson. I've come to realize that I need to improve my listening skills, too. Especially as a writer. For we writers need to keep our ears open for sounds, speech patterns, voices and snatches of conversation that will add color, depth, interest and believability to our work. It takes a conscious effort, better habits--and a desire to tune in to, not out of, our worlds.

My goals for the upcoming week include work in this area--listening exercises, prompts, attempts to better capture the snatches and scraps of good details that come my way, and record them before they get lost.

Oh, and try to get Suzie and/or her owner to listen to me!

What listening tips, goals--or great snatches of conversation--have tickled your ear lately?

"Writers look and listen, and they see and hear relationships...Writers need to learn to listen."
--Judy Delton, The 29 Most Common Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Playing with the Ps

          You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope. --Thomas Merton

Pondering the preponderance of "p" words that pertain to the writer's profession (as if I have nothing more profitable to do!), I present for possible reading pleasure to any who perchance stop by:

The Preparation--pencil, pen, paper, pages, posts, perusals, paragraph, paraphrase, preface, punctuation, parse, plan, platform, penname, peptalk.

The Process--pretend, pause, putter, poke, pinch, push, pursue, particularize, practice, persevere, permit, present, pitch, pray.

The Promise--possibilities, pain, peaks, pruning, pop-ups, paths, peeks, pictures (painted in words), potential.

The Problems--procrastination, potholes, perspective, pulls, poutiness, pace (i.e. "pick-it-up"), poor patterns, patience ("lack of").

The Positives--progress, pleasure, passion, partners, participation, poetry, prose (but not purple).

The Punch--publication, parades, parties (with maybe pie?)!

Pathetic post, here? Possibly. Probably. But the presence of so many writing-related "p" words that popped up in a recent exercise prompted me to see how many such words I could pack in.

So patience, pals, I'm just playing. Though it took a little courage to pass it along!

What is it that you've pondered lately? (and...any pet words of your own you'd like to post on the list?)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Picking up the Pace, Or Not

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You're on your own, and you know what you know.
And you will be the guy who'll decide where you'll go.
--Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You'll Go

I'm always on the lookout for tips. Writing tips of course. Nutrition tips. How-to-clean-the-house-without-lifting-a-finger (oh, don't I wish!) tips. Here's the latest exercise tip I came across for those of us who are walkers: walk at least 3 miles an hour to help maintain weight. Anything less doesn't burn enough calories.

How to calculate the speed? Simply count the number of steps you take a minute. 120 steps/minute = 3 mph. 135 steps = 4 mph (which, by the way, is considered "very brisk" walking).

I decided to take the test. I laced up my shoes, grabbed hubby's trusty stopwatch, and headed out the door. Piece of cake, I thought. I've got this beat.

Well, not so much. I found out that if I want to keep the pounds off, I'm going to have to step up my pace. Turns out, I'm a rather poky walker.

But I also found that if I pushed a bit more--kicked it up a notch, if you will--I could get there. It just took a little more effort. And I wasn't even winded.

I guess you know where this is going. It's the same in my writing. I can poke along and not really make much progress. Or I can prod myself, step it up, and have a better chance to reach my goals. Sometimes, of course, I might purposely slow the pace--like I do on my walks when I pause to make note of an inspiration that comes to me. I carry 3" x 5" cards just for that purpose. I give myself permission to pick it up or slow it down, depending on the need.

What I don't do is give myself permission to stop--walking or writing--altogether. For, like the enduring Dr. Seuss says, "oh, the places we'll go," if we keep on trying.

What do you give yourself special permission* for?

*Speaking of permission, Molly O'Neill, associate editor with Katherine Tegen Books, shared fantastic thoughts on the subject at the recent WriteOnCon online conference. Lisa and Laura at Lisa and Laura Write posted the transcript. Check it out. It's a great read!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Teapot Spunk

          Your attitude is like a box of crayons that color your world. Constantly color your picture gray and your picture will always be bleak. Try adding some bright colors to the picture by adding humor, and your picture begins to lighten up. --Allen Klein

I'm a little teapot, short and stout...Out of the blue, little Angelica sang this song without being prompted. It was so cute. Out of the blue, we sang a different tune when--because of an unfortunate cooking accident--we had to buy a new teapot.

Here is my handle, here is my spout...Maybe it isn't as cute as a two-year old's song, but our new teapot is bright--a spunky kind of lime green. It took some getting used to since I tend toward porcelain white, but it's now become my new favorite kitchen thingy. I've decided color is good.

When I get all steamed up then I shout...The other day I found a new favorite book in my current stack of library books (see previous post): The Unfinished Angel, by Sharon Creech (2009). The summary: "In a tiny village in the Swiss Alps, an angel meets an American girl named Zola who has come with her father to open a school, and together Zola and the angel rescue a group of homeless orphans, who gradually change everything."

Color fairly leaps off the page when dear Zola enters a scene. For example: "Zola, she is swooshing with her colorful skirts, three of them: red on top of green on top of blue; and two blouses, yellow over white; and violet leggings..." Don't you just want to hug this child?

Just tip me over and pour me out! Reading this book has inspired me in several ways. One is the desire to add color--pour some spunk--into my writing this upcoming week. Draw on the five senses and spice things up; add punch by showing not telling; tip the words and let them flow.

But first? First I have to learn how to revamp (revise?) the tea kettle's whistle. Man, it sounds more like a tornado warning siren. This was totally unexpected and came as a disappointing discovery.

Here's a cup of tea to you with wishes for a good week. What color do you hope to add to the days ahead?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Imagination Revisted, Part 2

There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. --Ralph Waldo Emerson

A trip to the library reminded me of an overlooked key in my last post about kickstarting a writer's imagination. So, without further ado, here is part 2--which, simply put, is:


Yes, read. I say this not only to share a thought, but to imprint the importance of that on my own brain! After all, we have it from Stephen King who said, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write."

And so, I present the titles of the books I brought home (and can't wait to get started on). There's no rhyme or reason to most of the selections. But as I studied the library's shelves, I chose authors I like, and authors I've never read before. I chose Newbery Medal authors and New York Times best sellers. Most are children's books, but some are YA. There's fantasy and historical fiction, recently published books and classics. Here then, in no particular order, is the list of books before me:

Alchemy and Meggy Swann, Karen Cushman
Twisted, Laurie Halse Anderson
The Slave Dancer, Paula Fox
               The Unfinished Angel, Sharon Creech                 
Coraline, Neil Graiman
Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt 
Iron Thunder, Avi
The Witches, Roald Dahl
Raleigh's Page, Alan Armstrong
Poppy, Avi
Poppy's Return, Avi
If I were to boil it down, what would I say then are my conclusions to igniting the imagination?

...Observe...Visualize...Dream...Read...Write...Have fun...

The joy of being a writer takes us many places--in books, in real life, in our imaginations.

Now the question is, have I overextended myself? Will I finish all these books in the next 21 days--the library's alloted time without having to renew them--and meet my writing goals? The challenge is on!

What's your latest read?

The greatest part of a writer's time is spent reading in order to write;
a man will turn over half a library in order to make one book. --Samuel Johnson

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Imagination Revisited

"Write. The physical act itself will free the imagination." --Steven Taylor Goldsberry

We discovered a winner when we pulled out an old doll house in preparation for our granddaughter's recent stay. What to do with a two-year old when it's too hot to go to the park and all the old regulars--bubbles, puzzles, and Play-Doh--have become, well, old? The doll house, one her mommy helped put together when she was a little girl--was a big hit.

Angelica's reaction to the new-to-her plaything was precious. Eyes wide with wonder. Little voice exclaiming, "House!" The discovery of furniture, doll family, and even (ahem) a doll-sized toilet. She loved the piano--they have one at home--and ran fingers over keys as "B-I-N-G-O, Bingo was his name-o" played behind her. We even overheard her tell the children to "sleep" as she laid them on the bunk bed.

A child's imagination was reintroduced into OUR house. Priceless.

I've been thinking alot about imagination as I begin book two. Though some elements, like setting, shout at me, the story still remains elusive. I need to stir the imagination big time. Marshall Cook, in How to Write with the Skill of a Master and the Genius of a Child, says most of us grow cautious as we grow up. "But inventors, pioneers, and entrepreneurs retain that childish ability to play 'let's pretend'. "

So, how to play let's pretend as an adult? How to dream up, create, craft a story using a lively imagination, holding nothing back?

One way is to dip into the experience bag of others who have gone before. One book I have on deck is Blake Snyder's Save the Cat. Though designed for screenwriting, it's also a great handbook for exploring the subject of storytelling. I also plan to play around with Cook's Skill of Master/Genius of Child writing exercises to help jump-start the process.

The most important way, however, is to simply write, with faith that the physical act itself will free the imagination. And that, because I'm a writer and I like to write, should be a little bit like child's play.

What do you do to help stir your imagination?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"Today Was Good"

Today was good.
Today was fun.
Tomorrow is another one.
--Dr. Seuss

Playing while Mommy is out of town. Just had to share. Hope you had a fun day, too.
Writing will be the better for it after we stop swinging.
Have a great tomorrow!

There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million. --Walt Streightiff