"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Blue, blue morning skies. The annual Willamette Writer's Conference begins tonight with a Writer's Fair and Pitch Practice at the Sheraton at the Portland airport. It begins at 5, pitch practice is at 7. I'll be there with my books..... Directions and such are at their website www.willamettewriters.com.

I'll be giving a talk tomorrow morning about Fiction's Delicate Balancing Act--so I'm going to talk about balance and proportions in fiction. On Sunday morning I'll be talking about pacing, which come to think about it, is also about proportions in fiction.

I have just tried to paste the opening to my balancing act talk here, but for some reason I cannot paste here today--so I'll check in later and wish writers everywhere inspiration and in light of my current situation, a strong back.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

I received this email this morning and wanted to pass it along:

Dear Writers,

Literary Cottage is currently seeking entries for two, exciting new anthologies to be published by Adams Media: Woodstock Revisited and My Dog Is My Hero. Please click on our website www.literarycottage.com for full

For Woodstock Revisited, we are seeking fifty true stories written by people who attended the 1969 Woodstock Festival. This anthology will document the event itself, but will also provide a portrait of America as
that tumultuous decade came to a close. Stories should be historical within the context of 1969, and yet unique to your experience. Stories must be TRUE, 850-1100 words, vivid, and substantive. Adams Media pays $100 and one copy of the book. Literary Cottage offers prizes of $100, $75, and $50 to top three stories respectively. Please carefully review the guidelines and sample story provided on the "Woodstock '69 Guidelines" page available on www.literarycottage.com. HURRY - DEADLINE: SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2008

For My Dog Is My Hero, the fourth book in Adams Media's Hero Series, we are seeking fifty 850-1100-word stories featuring a remarkable dog in your life. Yes, about dogs and only dogs, not cats, or other pets. Adams Media pays $100 per story (one per volume), plus a copy of the book, and Literary Cottage will also award three prizes $100, $75, and $50 for the top three stories respectively. Please review the spelled out guidelines and sample stories on the "Hero Series Guidelines" page available on www.literarycottage.com. DEADLINE: TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2008.

Please, please pass on the word to any and all writers, friends, neighbors, bosses, etc., etc., etc., particularly regarding Woodstock Revisited, as we need fifty solid stories from people who attended the festival in 1969
an, due to the tight deadline, need to reach the largest audience possible in a short amount of time. You can write an "as told to" story if you have friends or family who attended.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sky is overcast and it’s supposed to rain today. I bought lentils last night and am going to make a pot of soup after my chiropractor’s appointment. So here’s the deal, my editor from Tarcher called yesterday and in a recent sales meeting they decided that the title for my upcoming book Dear Bad Writer: A Compassionate Guide for Avoiding Rejection was not going to fly. They claimed that people will not identify themselves as bad writers and thus will not buy the book.

This book is similar to How Not to Write A Screenplay by Denny Martin Finn—in I collect the typical problems I’ve encountered while working on people’s manuscripts over the years. And while the book is supposed to be sassy and fun, it’s never meant to make fun of anyone or to be rude in any way. In fact, I’m writing from a place of deep compassion because there is nothing worse than spending days and weeks and months of your spare time on a manuscript and end up with something that can never be published. And it breaks my heart to tell people bad news about their manuscripts—in this book I’m trying to help them before they start writing. So if you have any ideas for titles, drop me a line. I need a new one by next week because the art department is going to start working on the cover.

And Bullies, Bastards & Bitches, How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction is now on sale. Allelujah!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Sky is chapped with cumulus clouds and this week the weather is supposed to cool down.
Last night I was home and was watching 60 Minutes. The final segment was a rerun about Bruce Springsteen as he was getting ready for a new tour at 58. The tour began last fall and Scott Pelley asked him about his background, history with the band, and his latest album. As I watched the interview I was remembering how I’d see Springsteen in concert years ago and how he’d leapt from the top of a 10-foot speaker and onto the stage and how when you were at a Springsteen concert you felt so energized and like all was right with the world.

The interview ended with this segment:

"The music that emerged from his upbringing was a kind of blue collar ballad set to rock and roll, Elvis meets Dylan, uniquely Springsteen. Much of the new music is a protest. Some of it blunt, as in the song that asks "Who will be the last to die for a mistake," but most of it subtle, like "Long Walk Home," the story of a man who returns to his all-American small town but doesn’t recognize it anymore.

"What's on your mind? What are you writing about?" Pelley asks.

"I guess I would say that what I do is I try to chart the distance between American ideals and American reality. That's how my music is laid out. It's like we've reached a point where it seems that we're so intent on protecting ourselves that we're willing to destroy the best parts of ourselves to do so," Springsteen says.

Asked what he means, Springsteen tells Pelley, "Well, I think that we've seen things happen over the past six years that I don't think anybody ever thought they'd ever see in the United States. When people think of the American identity, they don't think of torture. They don't think of illegal wiretapping. They don't think of voter suppression. They don't think of no habeas corpus. No right to a lawyer … you know. Those are things that are anti-American."

"You know, I think this record is going to be seen as anti-war. And you know there are people watching this interview who are going to say to themselves, 'Bruce Springsteen is no patriot,'" Pelley remarks.

"Well, that's just the language of the day, you know? The modus operandi for anybody who doesn't like somebody, you know, criticizing where we've been or where we're goin'," Springsteen says. "It's unpatriotic at any given moment to sit back and let things pass that are damaging to some place that you love so dearly. And that has given me so much. And that I believe in, I still feel and see us as a beacon of hope and possibility."

Springsteen sees himself following a long American tradition reaching back through Vietnam and on to the Great Depression.

"There's a part of the singer going way back in American history that is of course the canary in the coalmine. When it gets dark, you're supposed to be singing. It's dark right now," Springsteen says. "And so I went back to Woody Guthrie and Dylan and the people who said, say take Pete Seeger, who wants to know, doesn't want to know how this song sounds, he wants to know what's it for."

"What needs to be said, in this country at this moment, in your opinion, what needs to be said?" Pelley asks.

"I think we live in a time when what is true can be made to seem a lie," Springsteen says. "And what is lie can be made to seem true. And I think that the successful manipulation of those things have characterized several of our past elections. That level of hubris and arrogance has got us in the mess that we're in right now. And we're in a mess. But if we subvert, the best things that we're about in the name of protecting our freedoms, if we remove them, then who are we becoming, you know? Who are we, you know? The American idea is a beautiful idea. It needs to be preserved, served, protected and sung out. Sung out on a nightly basis. That's what I'm going to try to do."

Friday, July 25, 2008

So last night on a summer evening with the sky changing into whispers of soft pink and the air soft as a baby’s blanket I was out for a short walk and thinking about things. But let me back up-- I was always a bit worried about writing a blog. First, I spend a lot of time at my desk alone writing, thinking, fixing writing, planning on how to write and how to teach writing, and analyzing other writers. It’s not an exciting life. I travel a bit, but generally few places exotic. I have interesting friends, meet famous people, but am not too inclined to name drop. So if I write a blog, I worried what the heck I would write about besides my sometimes rabid opinions about what is wrong and criminal about the Bush administration.

Second, I tend to feel sorry for people who have the need to write blogs and memoirs full of self disclosure, navel gazing, and complaints about life. I share my troubles mostly with friends and family, try not to give too much away to strangers. Third, in times of trouble, I can be a whiner, which is such an unattractive trait even in attractive people.

That said, last night as I was walking I stepped into the park in need of reassurance. Three people in their twenties were perched on a picnic table jamming on their guitars, all bent toward each as if drawn by magnets, all as colorful as gypsies. Kids were clambering on the playground equipment, and a pair of lovers were setting up a camera on a tripod amid embraces and kisses. The creek is shrinking but still smells like turtles and green and rocks.

On Tuesday night my sense of safety was ripped away when I was awakened in the middle of the house by someone trying to break into my living room window. I was naked, I was groggy, I was terrified, and contrary to my beliefs about myself I wasn’t particularly effective in a crisis because I couldn’t even find my phone to dial 9-1-1. But they didn’t get in, and I flipped on a light switch and they left and I gradually managed to get back to sleep that night although the next night was a different story.

So I wish I had a bedtime tale to tell of fabulous book deals or glamorous parties. But I’ve been talking to my neighbors and friends—I’ve been connecting and working on feeling safe. I’ve spent a lot to time in the past weeks at medical appointments trying to get my body in shape to sit at this computer. In time I’ll have more to say, but right now, I’m righting myself in many ways.

And the more I look around, it seems like that’s what a lot of people are also up to.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Skies are overcast as the marine layer has moved into town. Ever since I read Paulette Jiles extraordinary novel Enemy Women I’ve been waiting for her next novel. I didn’t care what she wrote about, I only wanted to be lost in her story world, captured by her language like a captive on a pirate ship with no way to reach shore. Because when writers like Jiles spin a tale, you are far, far from home. So I was thrilled when recently I was walking through a bookstore and chanced on her latest novel, Stormy Weather. From the first page, I was entranced, I was enthralled, I was swept away into times past.

And when it comes to times past, Jiles knows how to thrill and convince a reader. In Enemy Women the protagonist Adair Colley is tossed into a woman’s prison during the Civil War. Before I had read the book I wasn’t even aware these prisons existed in the 1800s. But the federal authorities were arresting women and girls who were suspected of enemy collaboration.

In real life, although some of my favorite people are from Texas, it’s a place I avoid, although I’d love to check out the Austin music scene one of these days. But oh man, a good Western novel replete with a giant brooding sky, the kick-you-on-your-ass elements and privations, and a heroine or hero who I want to invite over for a barbecue and beer, well, the whole package wrests me away from my chiropractic appointments, and an insurance adjuster who needs a soul transplant, and my deadlines which I’m not keeping up with. Which is another story that I wish I could fictionalize.

And well, I hate to confess this too often because after all I am a published author and am supposed to act like I’ve arrived, or at least sort of arrived, but I relate to poverty. Always have. Always will. And when these characters had holes in their shoes and longed for a new dress or bathtub, I believed. This book has plenty of ‘if we just had another 50 dollars’ sort of misery. Not to mention if only we had another 50 cents.

Ever since I read Timothy Eagan’s remarkable The Worst Hard Time, a nonfiction marvel which won the National Book Award about the drought, dust, and hard times in the 1903s Dust Bowl states I’ve been longing for more stories about this time when people were pretty much choking to death on dust and misery. I never claimed I was Pollyanna’s twin.

At the center of the novel is the heartless landscape of Texas in the brawling days just before and during the Depression and the freaky, black-out dust storms of the 1930s. There are oil rigs and dangerous stallions and tough women, and men who I want to sleep with, but don’t dare commit to like Jack Stoddard --the scalawag at the center of the tale. Despite his pretty wife and three daughters he has a weakness for whiskey, women and gambling.

He dotes on Jeanine, his middle daughter, who is often thrust among the rough and tumble world of men, so that we find her early in the novel, at nine, struggling to drive home her dead-drunk daddy home from a night of drink and cards. Jack, "a good hand with horses" and "could take on any job of freighting" is also realizing that he needs to trade in his horse team for a truck. Jeanine is Jo March with a lot more attitude and grit and libido and loss. Meanwhile, the citizens of Texas struggle with odds that make the Old Testament trials look cheery as the whole country stumbles into the Great Depression. (Sort of like present times with forest fires, droughts, floods, and hurricanes instead of dust storms. But I digress) With crude oil strikes and a chance for a quick buck, Jack moves his family across the scabby East Texas fields. And those are the good times.

Wait. I’m lying here….because those times aren’t too good, but once Jack is kicked down by sour gas, the family's situation plummets into beans, rags, and barely hanging onto hope. But I’m getting ahead of the story because when Jack kicks it after being arrested for raping a 14-year old, that’s when things get really tough. And please keep in mind dust---the kind that erases the sun, and drought—the kind that kills crops and cattle and farms and people and dreams, and then stir in 4 Stoddard females who need to survive without there hapless head of family. Which is when things get interesting. What I really loved about his story was the scope and how Jiles wove in several images that rode through the story and enhanced the theme. And language that will make you want to sever your typing fingers you are so not worthy.

I was reading the ending last night on my patio while lamb kabobs were grilling and yelped in pleasure (out loud) at several closing passages.

I don’t want to give away the ending, but with their meager yet treasured possessions carefully packed, and with Bea's cat and their father's racehorse in tow, the Stoddard women travel to Elizabeth's (the wife and mother) family's abandoned homestead in Central Texas and start over as the world prepares to enter another war.

It’s a story with timeless themes of toughness and survival. But in these days when the George II’s empire has decimated our constitution, treasury, and economy I was thinking that like Jeanine and her sisters, I might just be able to climb on the roof and nail down some shingles as the endless dust blows in. Or swallow another dinner of pinto beans. Or right myself after another near-fatal blow. Or crouch down as yet another storm rages through.

From Publishers Weekly: “Jiles's eloquent, engaging sophomore novel celebrates four strong women toughing out the Great Depression in the Texas dust bowl. As the book opens in 1927, Elizabeth Stoddard and husband Jack have three daughters: the pretty Mayme, the tomboyish Jeanine and the writerly Bea. Jeanine, resented for being daddy's favorite, soon becomes the novel's primary point of view. After the disgraced Jack dies in 1937, the four Stoddard women move back to the 150-acre homeplace on the Brazos River in Central Texas. Drought, hail and dust storms, land-tax debts and grinding poverty make life a struggle; radio shows, horse-racing, wildcat oil well speculation and stuttering news reporter friend Milton Brown provide diversions. Jeanine falls in love with local rancher Ross Everett; Mayme dates soldier Vernon. Visceral detail of the 1930s rancher life and the hardscrabble setting add authenticity, particularly in the characters' feel for horses. While forthright, some of the dialogue is less than believable (as when Ross compliments Jeanine on her "furious bloody purple" dress), but it serves the characters' greater-than-usual emotional bandwidth. Jiles winds this gritty saga up on the eve of WWII with a patchwork quilt's worth of hope.”

Friday, July 18, 2008

Sky is dissolving into dusk. I’ve been trying to get back to work part-time. Work is not easy because my body throbs with pain whenever I park at my desk for more than five minutes; it’s incredibly difficult to concentrate; I seem to spend most of my time traveling to and from medical appointments; and then when I return from these sessions, I’m sleeping a lot or lying on ice packs as my bones settle back into place.

And I also spend a lot of time leaving lots of messages on someone’s voice mail. I spent more than an hour writing emails and leaving phone messages this morning pertaining to my accident. By the eleventh phone call I was not a nice person and after my bones were rattled at the chiropractors, on my way home I had such a craving for comfort food that I stopped and ordered drunken noodles for lunch at a Thai restaurant. And couldn’t wait to get home to eat them (why didn’t I just sit in the restaurant—I guess it was because I didn’t have reading material along) so I ate most of my lunch in the parking lot feeling more than pathetic. I don’t want to go into big details but today I spoke with my state’s insurance commissioner. So my plan is to work on my patio as often as possible because it makes the world look better….

When bad things happens your blood pressure spikes, your heart might turn to ice, but you go on and order drunken noodles for lunch.

I have also been trying to get some exercise because frankly I haven’t been moving much lately except to water my plants and hobble up and down the stairs from office to kitchen. So last night I went out for a bit at dusk just as the sky was being painted with giant swaths of pale pink and apricot. Again, the air felt so soft and sweet and I felt like a prisoner set free. As I neared the park and creek I spotted three neighbors peering into the water. When I asked what the attraction was, they replied “We’re just watching the nutrias. They’re so cute.”

Okay, I’m just not a rodent person. I prefer to pretend they don’t exist on this planet, particularly in my vicinity. I don’t want to watch them swim, slink around at night, or in any way acknowledge their presence. A few years ago my daughter and I were strolling along on an Easter afternoon walking along the creek about 20 miles east of here. As we walked along four oversized nutrias (Myocastor coypus, a large, semi-aquatic rodent) approached us like animal versions of the Night of the Living Dead. We fled. Last night the nutria-lover woman explained how she loved to feed them, (carrots and lettuce) and when they’re fed regularly, they’ll come up to you and tug on your clothes, begging. She grabbed the leg of my capris to demonstrate.

I peered down at the critters paddling across the creek--they looked to weigh in at almost 20 pounds each and explained that if one grabbed my clothing I’d likely go into cardiac arrest. She suggested I ignore their “big yellow teeth.” I then walked along and witnessed a man and his spaniel walking along when another dog leapt out of its yard and viciously attacked the spaniel. I headed back home as the dog owner checked his dog for injuries thinking that my evening walks, while shorter, didn’t seem as peaceful as I recalled.

You might want to check out Net Roots Nation (http://www.netrootsnation.org) that is taking place in Austin right now…..some of the smartest bloggers around are in attendance, although I heard that the convention site wasn’t quite set up for so many bloggers. Many of them are on the floor typing away on their lap tops like a giant, indoor camp out. Anyway, smart pundits abound, politicians are visiting, they’re streaming the events, and I happen to think it’s a brave new world. Check the online agenda for listings.

And did you hear that Phil Graham who suggested we were a nation of whiners and the recession is all in our heads has resigned as the economic advisor from John McCain’s campaign? Apparently a lot of whiners weighed in about gas prices, food prices, banks about to fail, and jobs lost. Did you know that the former senator also gave us the Enron loophole and is partly responsible for our gas prices? Speaking of gas prices—if you’re planning on travel over Thanksgiving or Christmas, you’d better make your air reservations now. The skyrocketing fuel costs means that airlines are cutting flights and raising prices.

Okay, I’m stealing here, but you might want to read Libba Bray's Writing a novel, a love story. Doubtless you’ll see yourself in this grim, okay, humorous portrayal.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Morning sky is again cloudless and pale blue. Yesterday a friend drove me to the Oregon coast so that I could give a talk at a children’s writing conference. I’m still not in the best shape since my accident so was sitting against an ice pack and taking a lot of pain medications. But once I arrived, I felt energized and was impressed with the staff, the writers gathered, and the passion in the room. But mostly at dinner that evening, I was impressed about how the staff of instructors, some editors and agents, took such care in giving feedback to the writers/attendees on their manuscript segments. One editor remarked that she uses a form letter to reject manuscripts because it helps to not injure the writer’s feelings when the writing is especially bad.

I had never thought of form letter rejections in that light so was fascinated. An agent told the story about meeting a children’s writer at a conference. The woman was taking a correspondence course in children’s writing and asked the agent for feedback on a manuscript. She also told the agent that she didn’t like her job and was planning to quit it so that she could write full time although she had a son to raise. Then the agent started reading the story that began something like “the cute little chicky waddled out into the bright moonlight and chirped cheerfully.”

The work was dreadful and the woman had been misled by the course instructors and the agent told her so as diplomatically as possible. She also explained that it’s extremely difficult to make a living as a children’s writer. The woman burst into tears and cried from twenty minutes. (By the way, this was happening in the agent’s hotel room at a conference many miles from home.) When the writer pulled herself together she thanked the agent for her honesty.

That story made me feel better because I so often must write memos to clients and suggest to them that a manuscript is not ready for submitting to publishers but instead needs a major revision.

My friend and I got a chance to talk a lot about our lives and concerns and I realized that my car which was hit in my recent accident is making a strange sounds when traversing sharp curves—there are lots of curves when driving to the coast since you’re zigzagging through mountain passes of the Coast Range.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Blue skies this morning and yesterday I sweated through another day in the 90s. In the background my sprinkler is whirring, one of the quintessential sounds of summer.I just woke up from a long involved dream where I was working as a community organizer in an impoverished and dangerous neighborhood. I was based at a center where the phone didn’t even work and the place was dirty and run down. My contribution in the dream was that I created a place for young mothers to come in and pick up free baby supplies. First I begged friends for cash donations then bought diapers and lotions and powders and supplies, stocking cupboards and shelves. I started cleaning the place and cleanliness and hope started spreading. I woke up on that note thinking how hope can be catching.

For me there is nothing harder than talking with a writer who has given up hope and is mired in cynicism. These writers have often been at the game for years and some deserve success. Hope is one of the chief attributes that separates published writers from those who throw in the proverbial towel. We’re not talking about syrupy homilies or blind optimism here. Instead, habits of optimism and resiliency are practical because they are simply good for you. Research continues to prove that optimism is associated with lowered risks of heart disease, improved immunity and overall health.

So understand that optimism is rational, empowering and create conditions for success. It means that you’re taking responsibility for your attitudes, thinking and actions. But optimism is linked with action and you cannot sit around dreaming of publishing deals without working at the craft, researching facts and marketing your work. So face the reality of this business and become a pro. Link your optimism with relentless focus. Optimism is way of using our reason rather than succumbing to fears and desires. Always stay open minded and assess your weaknesses and then choose a course of action to correct them.

Then give your cynic a job as your inner editor, one who enjoys the ruthless scrutinizing that is called for while crafting your final drafts. You might want to invent a ritual where the cynic and editor combine forces, segregating the tasks of creating from editing. Some writers wear a certain hat while editing, or can edit only when holding a red pen. It is enormously helpful to print out your manuscript and retreat to another location for reading, thinking and fixing. Perhaps you can move to another room in your house, a coffee house, or schedule a coastal retreat with the sound of the surf and dazzling sunsets as the backdrop to your process. But once the editing is over, slip off the critic’s hat and return to your creativity mode.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Afternoon sky is endless blue and temperature is perfect today—low 80s and breezes coming in from the Pacific, though more heat coming tomorrow. Lately I’ve been sitting out on my patio for a bit every day eating lunch or breakfast and reading some of my old writer’s notebooks. It’s such a revelation to go back and revisit what I was thinking, worrying about, working on in years past. Found the beginnings of a lot of short stories, one that I’m going to start tinkering with because it takes place in a trailer park near the Black Hills and involves a murder. Haven’t had time to murder someone on the page in a long time, so it might be something I can do longhand while I’m recuperating.

In this particular notebook I ran across this quote from Joanna Harris: “I love living. I have a house on a river in Nova Scotia, and I watch the water coming and going. Being a poet is not a choice, it is a way of life. It comes to me like the water, from some invisible well or source.”

So now that I found the quote and fell in love with it again, I’m wondering if I meant to write Joanne Harris, who is the author of novels such as Chocolate and lives in England. I’ve googled Joanna Harris and cannot find her. If anyone know this poet’s identity, let me know.

Meanwhile, here are a few writing opportunities:

Memoir Journal is accepting entries through August 15 of memoirs in prose, poetry, graphic, letter, photos and other forms of exploring the self. Winning entries will be paid according to the form, and published in the Journal. $10 entry fee. See http://memoirjournal.com/ for details.

Real Simple magazine is accepting entries for its Life Lessons Essay contest through September 9. The prize is $3,000 for an essay on the most important day of your life. No entry fee. See www.realsimple.com/lifelessons for details.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Pale sky and another day heading into the 90s. I just wanted to remind you that the Pacific Northwest Writers Association has a terrific online magazine (http://authormagazine.org) chock full of resources for writers. These include as section called Daily Minutes , podcasts, reviews, articles, an editor’s blog and interviews with a variety of authors such as Alice Hoffman (The Third Angel), Simon Winchester (The Professor and the Madman), and Blue Balliett (Chasing Vermeer). Stay cool!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Sky is intense blue today and temps are expected to rise to 90. Remember when people talked about the “new normal” after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001? I have my own new normal these days and am trying to adjust to life with a back and neck injury. On Sunday night I was in the backyard with a few friends when we heard a crash and scream. I live on a corner that is a direct route to a bike path that snakes 40 miles east toward Mt. Hood and bicyclists stream past all day since it opened.

So I hurried out and found a family trying to figure out what to do. The father was on his cell phone calling his brother, the step mother (at least I think she was a stepmother) went back and forth between sort of yelling at the girl to calm down and hanging out with two younger boys. The girl who had crashed was in her early twenties, wearing very little in the way of clothing, and no helmet. She was bleeding in at least a half dozen places, her skin was scraped raw and she was in a semi-fetal position. She was inconsolable or possibly hysterical.

I suggested a 911 call and paramedics, worrying about a concussion. Her father insisted he had the situation handled and was on his cell phone. I went inside for ice. Brought ice, asked what else I could do. More hysteria, more complaints from stepmother for girl to get up. She said she didn’t think she could stand. I went back inside and brought a pillow which I placed under her head and a quilt. Asked again what I could do. How about aspirin or Ibuprofen? Between sobs she agreed, and I went back in for Ibuprofen and a bottle of water. By this time hiking up the small hill into my place was taking its toll and I was ready to join the girl in the road and start sobbing. Her uncle pulled up in a truck the size of a school bus (okay I exaggerate but I immediately guessed it would cost $100 to fill the gas tank.) So that’s my new normal—an urge to lie in the road and weep because it hurts so much to hurry in and out of the house.

So enough whining.

I often notice when editing that writers don’t strive to use emphasis as a technique. Yet emphasis—whether you need to slow down for important scenes, stress scary language to make a horror scene more horrific, or underline tension in a relationship by using subtext in dialogue-- is vital in all forms of writing. Emphasis also helps unify your writing.
Here are a few quick tips:
Put your most important ideas and intense words at the end of sentences. If your sentence has several clauses, arrange the ideas or language so the most potent is at the end.
Vary your sentence lengths—and use fragments and short sentences for emphasis.
Put ideas that you want to develop further at the end of sentences and paragraphs so the ideas flow forward into what follows.
Place transitions and connecting words at the beginning of sentences, paragraphs and scenes.
Always signal a contradiction or qualification with the appropriate words such as but, however, although, etc.
Make certain that your logic flows from the sentence that preceded it.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Morning sky is the color of the soot and I awoke to a dream that I was about to move into a strange apartment that needed lots of work before I could move in. Worse, there were only two closets. Maybe it was because when I fell asleep last night’s fireworks were still exploding before my eyes. NPR is reporting how Starbucks and other retail outlets are closing stores across the country because of the economy. Isn't it time we started calling the state of affairs a recession?

I’ve been writing here that many major newspapers are slashing their staffs and trying other cutbacks to stay afloat. It seems these days that the whole newspaper business is in peril and since most of the television and radio news come from only a few corporate sources, we all need to keep searching for real news about real issues. Now of course we can find plenty of juicy coverage of Paris, Linsey, Angeleina and Brad, but stories about how the mortgage industry was essentially deregulated are scarce as rain in the Sahara. One such cutback that’s been going on is that many newspapers have been trimming their coverage of books and book reviews.

Apparently CNBC has jumped in with more coverage on books, and their latest offering is a blog by Gloria McDonough-Taub Bullish On Books She is the senior producer at CNBC responsible for booking authors onto the network. The blog is about nonfiction books and includes scoops about Kathy Lee Giffords upcoming book (I know you’re waiting for that) and a memoir by the world’s first pregnant hemale, Thomas Beatie, LOVE MAKES A FAMILY: A Memoir of Hardship, Healing and an Extraordinary Pregnancy. Oh boy. If you’re writing nonfiction or self help, it might be a blog to keep an eye on.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Cirrus clouds painted across a pale sky. Yesterday’s weather much more bearable, although it was still hot. I was out running an errand yesterday when I was rear-ended by a young woman who was reaching for her cell phone instead of noticing that the traffic ahead of her (me) had stopped. Problem is she was coming off a ramp where the posted speed limit was 45 and my neck and back seem to have taken the impact of her lack of attention. When she opened her car to retrieve her insurance information the car was so full of crap—clothes, fast food bags, and things I’m afraid to speculate about, it was clear why she couldn’t find her cell phone among the piles of debris.

So after I got home I found out my chiropractor’s office was closed so began the insurance game. Which was when the driver’s insurance company adjustor (or whatever she is called) phoned me five times and was trying to railroad me—which I made things sticky since I wasn’t in the mood. Lots of time icing my back. Trying not to hobble because that makes things worse. So today will be spent trying to figure out what needs to happen to treat my neck and back. Moral of the story: if your cell phone rings when you’re driving, ignore it.

Two things: I’m looking for guest bloggers for a stretch in August and September. If you’re interested, write to me and I’ll give more details.

I often advise writers to prefer using short words over long words. Here is Richard Lederer on using short words “Big words can make the way dark for those who read what you write and hear what you say. Small words cast their clear light on big things — nigh and day, love and hate, war and peace, and life and death. Big words at times seem strange to the eye and the ear and the mind and the heart…..Here is a sound rule: Use small, old words where you can. If a long word says just what you want to say, do not fear to use it. But know that our tongue is rich in crisp, brisk, swift, short words. Make them the spine and the heart of what you speak and write. Short words are like fast friends. They will not let you down.”

In another piece Lederer continues, “Short words are as good as long ones, and short, old word—like sun and grass and home—are best of all. More small words than you might think can meet your needs with a strength, grace, and charm that large words don’t have.

Big words can bog down, one may have to read them three or four times to make out what they mean. Small words are the ones we seem to have known from the time we were born, like the hearth fire that warms the home. Short words are bright like sparks that glow in the night, moist like the sea that laps the shore, sharp like the blade of a knife, hot like salt tears that scald the cheeks, quick like moths that flit from flame to flame, and terse like the dart and sting of a bee.”

For more from Lederer go to: http://www.verbivore.com/

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The morning sky is overcast and temperatures today are only supposed to be in the lower 80s, so perhaps the heat wave has broken. I can scarcely believe it’s already July, this year is whizzing by with such crazy speed. I’m finishing an editing project today and have been walking around with my client’s story in my head for a week, puzzling over the story arc and themes, trying to find the parts and pieces that are working, teasing out the places that are not.

When I was a kid my third grade teacher was Mrs. Schultz. She was tall and broad shouldered with a mole on her chin and wore steel-rimmed glasses. She wore thick soled shoes and dresses in muted patterns. She was stern, she was tough, and I learned many basic skills in her class that I still use today. When it was time to learn the multiplication tables she led the class through the tables over and over until I can still hear the refrain: “six times six is thirty-six; six times seven is forty-two, six time eight is forty-eight." Repetition sticks in the brain and hammers home ideas.

That said, one problem that I’ve noted lately in manuscripts I’ve been working on is that that there is excess repetition. Now, repetition is a great tool in the hands of a crafty writer. It’s used in many ways, in many genres. For example, it’s used often by song writers when they repeat a chorus or refrain. Think about Lennon and McCartney’s Yesterday as an example, and how the key word and phrases are repeated so the effect is haunting. The things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a fabulous example of effective extended repetition. Poets use repetition ( I hear America singing), ministers use it in their sermons (I have a dream), politicians employ it in speeches (Ask not what your country can do) to emphasize and stir emotions. Advertisers use repetition because it’s persuasive.

Repetition can be used in smaller increments as in repeating sounds as in alliteration, assonance, consonance, or rhyme. Thus repetition can add power, unity, and resonance to writing and can be pleasing to the ear. However, when a writer uses the same vocabulary again and again, when details in a story are repeated, when themes are explored too often the reader becomes weary. One way to avoid too much repetition is to vary your language, and respect “word territory.” Another is to avoid redundancy which is another way of saying don’t repeat the obvious (small babies, friendly smiles, past history). Also vary your sentence structures and try not to begin sentences with the same words or phrases.

The second way to avoid repetition is to keep in mind that when the writing is finely honed, readers will remember significant details so they don’t need to be repeated. Instead, try to build your details, so that you’re constantly adding to a reader’s understanding of a place, a person, a relationship. The third thing is to remember that themes should whisper beneath a story. When a writer overemphasizes themes the story feels shrill and the reader feels bludgeoned by the writer. Think about it, when someone leans over and whispers to you the exchange is intimate, you pay attention. The moment has power.