"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.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I have read wonderfully written books that are entirely unsatisfactory to me because I do not believe that the author was writing a story. The author was writing a book. There is a great difference. ~Kaitlyn Ramsey
Characters and Fear
Sky is overcast for now and a cool breeze is blowing in. Lately the weather has been oddly humid here--something we don't have a lot of experience with in the Northwest, so these cool mornings are welcome. 
I want to comment a bit more on using fear as a motivator and force in fiction. In most stories what a character fears or dreads is at stake. Often a character fears that he or she won’t achieve his or her heart’s desire and this failure will have huge ramifications. This is an important point: the failure of desire must be a looming and horrible possibility in fiction. If a character desires true love, the man or woman he or she meet is perfect for him or her—in fact, so delightful that life without this beloved seems a wasteland. Or, a woman has always desperately wanted children and now the man she falls in love with has had a vasectomy because he never wanted children and she cannot reconcile her desire for him with her desire for children.
          Or, a character desires a big promotion not only because he’s worked hard and earned it, but he needs the money it brings for a specific reason: he has elderly parents to support, his wife will respect him more because of it, it will put to rest long-held feelings of inferiority, and will allow him to exercise creative vision in the company. Without the promotion his career and life won’t be as meaningful or satisfying and his parents will need to be placed in a low-cost nursing home—a seedy, depressing place that will surely destroy this once proud and vibrant couple.
The more potent the fear, the greater the suspense and tension. The point is that not only is the fear palpable, but it also not a one-time thing, it is connected to his emotional needs (leftover wounds, desires, from childhood), and will have long-ranging implications. 
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart
Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.  ~Orson Scott Card

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Quick Tip:
What is your character's worst fear? Can you put that at risk in your story? For more information on this topic read Jason Black's article, What's the worst thing that can do to your characters? at Author magazine.

Track fiction series
In case you read series fiction and want to make certain that you've read all the books in the series, or in the proper order, there is now a website for you: Fictfact.com. It tracks all sorts of series by genre, author, most popular.
People who are convinced that a vision or result is important, who can see clearly that they must change their life in order to reach that result, and who commit themselves to that result nonetheless, do indeed feel compelled. They have assimilated the vision not just consciously, but unconsciously, at a level where it changes more of their behavior. They have a sense of deliberate patience—with themselves and the world—and more attentiveness to what is going on around them. All of this produces a sustained sense of energy and enthusiasm, which (often after a delay) produces some tangible results, which can then make the energy and enthusiasm stronger.” ~The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, education author Peter Senge

Monday, September 27, 2010

Upcoming Workshops & Groups
with  Jessica Morrell
If you want to make your writing better, I can help

Fiction Critique Groups
October 13 and running 9 weeks Wednesdays 12:3-4, 19th & Glisan Portland, Or
October 14 and running 9 weeks Thursdays, 6-9  42nd & Hawthorne Portland, OR
Limited to 5 participants  Cost: $310
Getting short stories or  a novel published can be daunting, so here’s a bit of help: a nine-week critique group led by a developmental editor and close work with a small group of like-minded writers. Helpful and insightful feedback, support and instruction. The group is suggested for writers ready to take their manuscripts to the next level who have a first draft written.

October 23, Make Your Writing Sing (and Sell) taught with Sage Cohen
Center for Contemplative Arts, Manzanita, Oregon
9:30-4:30 cost: $80
Writers often believe that it takes a knockout plot or idea to see their work in print. Of course, what you say is important; but many writers don’t realize that how you say it matters just as much. The truth is that the beauty of your sentences and strength of your voice can help take a solid piece of writing from the slush pile to publication.

Stories are built of sentences, and sentences are built word by word. An artfully-crafted sentence can bring shivers of recognition in the reader, stir his or her emotions, build or release tension and take the action forward. When words are consciously chosen for impact, you can keep your reader on the edge of his or her seat from start to finish––whether you’re writing a personal essay, a piece of fiction or a how-to article.

November 6,  Writing a Book That Makes a Difference
1241 N.W. Johnson (PNWA room 207) Portland, OR
9:30-4:30 Cost: $75
Because a writer is a scavenger constantly gathering materials from life and gleaning memory, because a writer holds an ear to wind and is constantly noticing, he or she needs a format to transform all that listening and gathering. With that in mind, this workshop instructs writers on how to write a book that comes from our deepest passions, and communicates emotions, caring and concern. We’ll discuss how our books can touch a reader’s imagination, life, and heart.  Or, as Erica Jong once said that when you write you try to become a conduit, a channel, a pipe from muse into matter. A wide range of examples from various genres will be used to illustrate the discussion and a reading list and generous handouts will be supplied.

November 20, The Final Edit
1241 N.W. Johnson  (PNWA room 207) Portland, OR
9:30-4:30 Cost: $75
First comes the blank page and how to fill it, then comes the written page and how to fix it. Most often it is in the revision process that the real writing gets done. This workshop offers suggestions on how to be your own editor, concentrating on readying a manuscript for submission. We’ll be especially focusing on the three stages of revision: First Revision: Looking at the big picture and analyzing the overall coherence, structure and plausibility. Second revision: The aim of a second pass-through is to make the story seamless and to fine tune pacing, scenes, and the ending and to track character development and arc. Final Revision: this is where your think like a copy editor and your aim is to correct language, style, and hone in on details. This draft is also for making certain that there is enough tension throughout.  We’ll discuss what editors notice and reject in manuscripts. Generous handouts will be provided including checklists for revision to help writers reconsider and enhance final drafts. The workshop content will be geared to the specific needs of the group, so participants are encouraged to submit questions beforehand.

And please mark your calendars:
{June 10-12, 2011}
Summer in Words Writing Conference on the Oregon coast

The fine print: Thanks so much for reading this notice. Please feel free to forward to anyone you think might be interested. All events require pre-registration and payment. Space is limited, so you’re encouraged to register early. Contact Jessica at jessicpage@spiritone.com.
All groups and workshops include generous handouts and practical, doable information that you can immediately put to use.
Jessica Morrell is the author of Writing Out the Storm; Between the Lines, Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing; Voices From the Street, The Writer’s I Ching and Bullies, Bastards & Bitches, How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction and Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected. She has been teaching writers since 1991 and you’ll learn more than you thought possible in her workshops and sessions.
To reserve your place: Please send an email to confirm your interest and a  check for $150 for critique groups and the full amount for one-day workshops. (Balance due the first session of critique groups ) Mail to Jessica Morrell, P.O. Box 820141, Portland, OR 97282-1141. A confirmation e-mail will be sent so please include email address and phone number.
Blue appearing overhead pushing away cumulus clouds. Yesterday I finished reading Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann. In case you're down on life, on love, on writing, on humanity--this is the book to read. It's simply luminous and it's such a rich, layered tapestry of events and characters all adroitly tied together that it will leave you pondering his techniques long after you finish the story. If you're writing a multiple viewpoint novel, this is a must-read. At the heart of the story is the strange apparition of Philippe Petit, the French acrobat who in 1974 walked on a tightrope strung between the Twin Towers in New York. But the story isn't about the tightrope walker-it's about a wide cast of characters who are introduced along with themes of redemption, loss,  grief, and survival. It's profound and heart-wrenching and lustrous--all the sort of adjectives we'd love applied to our own writing.

In writing your journal give primary attention to detail, for it is detail which is organized and preserves experiences for your future self or some other reader. General statements like “We had a wonderful time” or “It was a dismal morning” make a mockery of the whole procedure, for they evaluate experience without recreating it. I kept long journals from the ages ten to twenty-two, chronicling events and describing emotional states, but again and again missing the physical immediacy of experience, the tiny hooks by with experience could have been caught and held. I failed to record how we looked, what we saw, the minor eccentricities of circumstance which gave special character to a day. I ignored these elements not only through lack of training but through misplaced priorities: I mistakenly assumed that one could discuss the heart of things without discussing the immediate details of life. ~ Robert Grudin 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling the story.
Stephen King, On Writing

Tip: Use direct characterization
When possible in your storytelling  use direct characterization more often than indirect characterization. Direct characterization is when the author or narrator comments directly on the character as in Melissa was a beautiful woman and every man fell for when he met herIndirect characterization is when the author or narrator shows a character acting and speaking; paints physical descriptions of the character; reveals the character’s thoughts; or reveals other characters opinions of her.  By using one or more of the indirect characterization methods, the author allows readers to draw their own conclusions. Direct characterization can also be supported by indirect techniques. When Melissa waltzed into the party wearing a low-cut dress the color of Cabernet, the room went silent. In other words, you trust the reader to read between the lines. 
Create a blueprint
            Fiction illuminates the significance of events. But first comes knowing your story because the more you know, the easier it is to write, particularly if you know the ending. One such tool is to create a blueprint for crafting your story or novel. Here are the elements of your blueprint:

Story Question:

Protagonist’s Name and Identity:

Protagonist’s Goal or Desire:

Protagonist’s Emotional Need:


Internal Conflict:

Time Span:



Thursday, September 23, 2010

Make Your Story Sing (and Sell) 
Taught by authors Sage Cohen and Jessica Morrell
The Center for Contemplative Arts, Manzanita, Oregon
October 23, 2010 9:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
Cost: $80 

To me the greatest pleasure in writing is not what it's about but about the music the words make. ~ Truman Capote. 

Writers often believe that it takes a knockout plot or idea to see their work in print. Of course, what you say is important; but many writers don’t realize that how you say it matters just as much. The truth is that the beauty of your sentences and strength of your voice can help take a solid piece of writing from the slush pile to publication.

Stories are built of sentences, and sentences are built word by word. An artfully-crafted sentence can bring shivers of recognition in the reader, stir his or her emotions, build or release tension and take the action forward. When words are consciously chosen for impact, you can keep your reader on the edge of his or her seat from start to finish––whether you’re writing a personal essay, a piece of fiction or a how-to article.

Join two inspiring writing teachers and authors for a deep dive into the possibilities of language. Through a mix of writing exercises, inspiring examples, generous handouts and personal instruction, writers of all genres will learn how to make potent language choices that will bring your great ideas to life and increase your odds of publication.

Instructor Bios:
Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writers Digest Books), The Productive Writer: Tips and Tools for Writing More, Stressing Less and Creating Success (Writer’s Digest Books, forthcoming in December 2010) and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Learn more at sagesaidso.com and writingthelifepoetic.typepad.com. 

Jessica Morrell is the author of Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected; Bullies, Bastards & Bitches, How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction; The Writer’s I Ching: Wisdom for the Creative Life, Voices from the Street; Between the Lines: Master The Subtle Elements Of Fiction Writing; and Writing Out the Storm.  
How to Enroll: Space is limited so we suggest you register early. Send a check for $80 to Jessica Morrell, P.O. Box 820141, Portland, OR 87282 Please include your email address and a phone number. A confirmation email will be sent when your check is received along with further instructions. 

What to Bring:  Please bring writing materials, two colored highlighter markers, a two-three paragraph writing sample, and questions about language and craft.

Morning Landscape
In reality the sky in front of me is overcast and half a block away a cement mixer is, well, mixing cement. When it stopped at the corner below my window at 7:14 a.m. (I checked the clock) my heart fell a little. Now I don't mind new buildings in the neighborhood, just the distracting noise it takes to create these buildings, when I would really like my window open as I write. So I started imagining that outside my window there was a much different view, a view that would whisk me away and entice me with exotic scents like wild bergamont and sounds like a call to prayers. And here is what I came up with: 
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Equinox is coming
"Winter is an etching, spring is a watercolor, summer is an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all." ~ Stanley B. Horowitz
What are your autumn rituals? And how are your writing goals progressing as the year wanes?  Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.
 You must write every single day of your life….You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads…may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world. ~ Ray Bradbury
Toing and Froing
            Imagine a story as a river with its current rushing forward. Many techniques help press the river (and the reader) toward the waterfall or climax that lies ahead. But along the way you need techniques to fuse a story together and let readers know when you’re moving around in time and space, switching viewpoint or emotions. Which is where many writers resort to excess and their characters are toing and froing with a dizzying array of movements and unnecessary time and scene switches. Too much of this leaves the reader feeling like he’s just stepped off the Tilt-A-Whirl or simply annoyed.
     At times the writer needs to provide bridges to show readers that a switcheroo of some kind has happened. But then at times you don’t and you can simply employ a scene cut or move the story directly from one scene (an empty office building at midnight) to a new scene (the protagonist’s apartment where she’s pouring herself a large glass of wine). You don’t need to depict the protagonist slipping into her coat, walking across the office, switching off the lights, stepping into the elevator, trudging to the parking lot and driving across town. In a well-written story the reader can leap with you into the new setting.
      Now, if as the protagonist is unlocking her car door the villain leaps at her and clasps a knife to her throat, that’s a place to carry us along with her. Or, if a rapist is waiting in her apartment wearing her lingerie, you might want to foreshadow this by inserting shadows in the parking lot or some other creepy detail. The point I’m making is that you can skip over ordinary movements, especially those found in stories set in contemporary times. As a reader you always want to note how quickly authors move in and out of scenes.
  Another technique you want to do with moving around in time is to use fresh methods. Here are a few examples from Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River: I woke the next morning smelling change. Or this one: Just past midnight that hunched bundle behind the barn was me, Reuben Land, in deep regret. Skittish, that’s how I was, and unnerved about walking out into the dark.
7 Contests that Impact Your Career
Jane Friedman is simply the goddess of wisdom when it comes to the writing life. Check out her latest post about 7 free-to-enter contests that just might change your career.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Dress up for your dreams. ~ Gay Talese

Monday, September 20, 2010

We only live one breath at a time. ~ G. Kim Franz
If we writers had no other place to do it, we would write in the dust, on rocks, on the back of our hand, all the way up our arm until we got impossibly lost in our own armpit, or perhaps we’d just write on the back of a shovel with a piece of charcoal, Abe Lincoln-style. Our legacy was bequeathed to us by those first primitives who sketched pictograms of the things they saw on stone overhangs and in caves. They too were different from the others—crazier, the others probably thought, just as they still think now. Those ancient scribes couldn’t help themselves either. They just had to make a ‘written’ statement, communicate what they observed. Others must have shrugged and said, “Why bother? The antelope’s standing right over there, bozo! We see it! What do we need a symbol for?” And our writer ancestors might well have said, “Ah, yes, you see it, friend, but do you see it?” ~Dan Newland from his blog, The Southern Yankee, A Writer's Log
Quote from a writer friend:
The novel I haven't written yet is really tight.

"It's hard to remember that this day will never come again. That the time is now and the place is here and that there are no second chances at a single moment." ~ Jeanette Winterson

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Short stories, part 2
Once you’ve established the location, introduced the protagonist beset by change you’ll have ingredients for conflict. Then, as the story progresses, add complications that force matters to a head.  In the climax, which is always staged, create a moment where the problem finally boils over via a confrontation or action; a conversation that alters the lives or situation of the characters; an epiphany that enlightens the protagonist; or a decision that changes his direction in life.
 In a fiction story based on conflict, usually another person is the obstacle and the final scene is a showdown. The main character is proactive, sometimes on a quest or what might be considered a mini quest. Some short stories are focused around the protagonist making an important discovery.  Discovery stories are often quiet, subtle little stories, but the discovery is vital to the character’s future. In a discovery story the main character often starts out lost, confused, and trying to understand himself.  A realization is part of the ending and this realization about the self must be meaningful, weighty or life-affirming.
 A short story can also be centered around a character’s a search for a new direction—usually a problem that must be fixed in order to assure future happiness The protagonist is often presented in the first scene with a flaw or something lacking in his character and the story events feature him overcoming this flaw or lack. Again, the trick with this type of story is that something crucial is at stake
 Finally, what has been called a Chekhovian story centers on the deep revelation of character.  A decision, conflict or direction story can all be considered Chekhovian, but the emphasis is on conveying intimate truths about the protagonist and all human nature.
Late in the 19th century, Anton Chekhov revolutionized the short story with this approach.  The focus of the story is most often found in what happens within a character, and that shift of being is often conveyed delicately, sometimes by suggestion or through significant detail. Chekov, who was a doctor, seemed to have a keen awareness of emotional undercurrents and the plot invariably stems from these inner forces
Chekov’s advise to fiction writers is timeless. In a letter written in 1886 he advises: “In displaying the psychology of your characters, minute particulars are essential. God save us from vague generalizations! Be sure not to discuss your hero's state of mind. Make it clear from his actions. Nor is it necessary to portray many main characters. Let two people be the center of gravity in your story.”
       Chekhov shifted the direction of short stories by illustrating the psychological potential of the character-driven story and by demonstrating how a protagonist can change both subtly and credibly.  Later Raymond Carver, O’Connor and other masters followed and the form has been the better for their skills. Remember, in the short, readers share your characters’ experiences, blow by blow. Filter descriptions and actions through a single point of view and make certain that the story question is answered by the ending.

Checklist for shorts:
Have you begun the story at the last possible moment?
Have you started with a threatening change in the protagonist’s life and will this change have consequences?
Have you revealed your characters through action?
Is the subject appropriate for a brief length?
Does the opening introduce a story question?
Does the story focus chiefly on the story question?
Does each scene contain conflict?
Have you limited flashbacks and transitions between scenes?
Are the central issues and obstacles personal, not universal?
Is the turning point moment a single event staged in a dramatic scene?

Short Stories, part 1
Thunderheads covering the sky promise more rain, in fact, the sky would make a terrific backdrop for a horror film or murder. I was out with a friend last night and we were eating at on outdoor table, under an awning. And ended up camped under the awning because the downpour (we'd left our umbrellas in the car) stranded us.  Watched people trek in and out of various restaurants, hunched against the rain, watched it pound against the pavement.
     But on to the subject of this post. I'm judging a short fiction contest this month and have been reading the entries this past week. And what's fascinating me  is that most of the fiction stories cannot be classified as fiction. Now that doesn't mean the events didn't happen or actually happened, but instead I mean that the writer didn't give enough thought to the story arc or character arc. Many were anecdotes, many rambled, and most didn't conclude as much as they limped to a close.
     Now, short fiction is notoriously difficult to write. Readers need an immersion in a world and there just aren't that many words to work with. So short fiction is storytelling on an extremely tight budget. But that doesn't mean you can get away with merely gathering characters in a place and have them go about their days.  The story needs to start with some disturbance and conclude with significance.
     When you think about it, short stories, like poems are designed to be read in one sitting and must quickly sweep the reader into a fictional world. And although an abbreviated timeline is involved, the events must resonate deep within the reader.  Like poetry, the writer crafts an intensity of effect, uses a poet’s knack for language and every word and scene is carefully chosen and crafted. Typically 1500-5000 words in length, (though they range up to 10,000 words) they’re small gems packed tightly with elements that all add up to something meaningful and exquisite.
Because of budgetary constraints, a limited cast is featured—usually two or three players and most are written in five to seven scenes. Naturally there are exceptions, but they are told from a single point of view, with enough setting details to provide a sense of place, but not large information dumps about any single aspect.  Dialogue is tightly constructed, based around important moments, most often used when emotions and conflict, thus characters are revealed.  There are rarely subplots in short stories, but the character’s motivation, as in novels, is an essential ingredient.  Thus, a short story writer is stingy with words but never with impact.
  Perhaps the most grievous mistake you can make in writing a short is that your main character is essentially the same person at the end of the story as he was when the reader encounters him in the opening. Like all fiction, change beats at the characters and how they react to change is what makes the situation interesting.
   Beginnings are often compressed yet essential to the drama and force the protagonist onto the stage as soon as possible—within the first 100 words if possible (he or she is usually the first person to arrive on the scene).  Start with an event that slams into the main character’s life, introduces a story question, and starts the story action rolling forward. The old adage for Westerns, “Shoot the sheriff on the first page” is a good one to keep in mind when writing shorts.
  And then there is a tricky matter of theme and plot.  Not all situations or events translate into a short story. Raymond Carver had a sign taped over his desk that read simply: “Tell the story.”  I like to remember Sol Stein’s advice that fiction has “a motor in it.” A short story is a not vignette, is not a series of musings or ramblings. In it a character undergoes stress whereby he or she is revealed through actions and is somehow transformed by these actions.
 Flannery O’Connor, the grand dame of shorts once said: “I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected.” 

Just get to the verb ~ Robert Altman

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression.  The chasm is never completely bridged.  We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper.  ~Isaac Bashevis Singer

Friday, September 17, 2010

The process of writing has something infinite about it.  Even though it is interrupted each night, it is one single notation.  ~Elias Canetti
Great Rules of Writing
Overcast skies this morning and I've been writing since 5:40, on my second cup of Earl Grey watching daylight arrive.I've been writing about motivation these days--how to keep writing no matter what, how to establish a writing practice, how to weather storms. One of the things I really appreciate about writing is that it forces me to think deeper, to question my thoughts and ideas and beliefs and sort through how I live. This analysis and deepening is no small thing. Now for a bit of a laugh: 

Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don't start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
De-accession euphemisms.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.
~William Safire, "Great Rules of Writing"
 Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions." ~ James Michener

Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside. ~ Ernest Heminway, A Moveable Feast
Quick Take
Don't mistake big emotions for big words,sentimentality, or melodrama. Often the most intense moments in fiction and memoir require the most restraint on the part of the writer. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

When rewriting, move quickly. It’s a little like cutting your own hair. ~ Robert Stone

"A reader will supply details without even realizing it as he or she visualizes a scene, so I try to point the reader in the right direction as quickly as possible and then let him or her do the work for me. Sometimes just one phrase will do it—often an analogy or metaphor. It’s like target practice: one bullet may be all it takes to hit the center. For instance, one of my characters thinks that a big-boned man she meets reminds her of a Viking. That, combined with his hair color and eye color, is enough to send the reader a clear and vivid image without wasting any time."~ Clare Dunkel
Quick Take:
Read your dialogue and complicated scenes out loud. The written word is not the spoken word.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day
Go here for this terrific essay by Walter Mosley first published in 2000. Here's an excerpt: 
''I know I have a novel in me,'' I often hear people say. ''But how can I get it out?''

The answer is, always is, every day.

The dream of the writer, of any artist, is a fickle and amorphous thing. One evening you're remembering a homeless man, dressed in clothes that smelled like cheese rinds, who you once stood next to on a street corner in New York. Your memory becomes a reverie, and in this daydream you ask him where he's from. With a thick accent he tells you that he was born in Hungary, that he was a freedom fighter, but that now, here in America, his freedom has deteriorated into the poverty of the streets.

You write down a few sentences in your journal and sigh. This exhalation is not exhaustion but anticipation at the prospect of a wonderful tale exposing a notion that you still only partly understand.

A day goes by. Another passes. At the end of the next week you find yourself in the same chair, at the same hour when you wrote about the homeless man previously. You open the journal to see what you'd written. You remember everything perfectly, but the life has somehow drained out of it. The words have no art to them; you no longer remember the smell. The idea seems weak, it has dissipated, like smoke.

"Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return."
Carlos Ruiz Zafón (The Shadow of the Wind)
Quick Take
Remember that the speech tags (he said, she said) parts of writing that describe dialogue should be as invisible as possible. And you rarely need to use adverbs (he whispered longingly) to describe the tone of the speech--the dialogue should imply it. As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.” ~ Mark Twain.
Over 40
Skies are dusty-colored this morning from a marine layer although it's supposed to be 80 and sunny later today. In case you're feeling that writing is a long slog, that getting published takes forever, and you're not getting any younger (who is?), here's a heartening list of 41 authors over 40 who published their first novel compiled by Randy Susan Meyers at Huffington Post.  I found some of my favorites in this list such as Julia Glass' Three Junes and Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees.  Now don't you feel better already? 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Writing Prompt
Carry on. Keep writing, adding on to a  first line of a published poem. However, it’s not necessary to  continue writing a poem. You can pen a story, essay or scene.  Try these first lines written by Richard Hugo. Or try the first lines of your favorite poems.
  • This is the final resting place of engines
  • One tug pounds to haul an afternoon
  • We had to get him off, the dirty elf-
  • In gold life here a small guard
  • A field of wind gave license for defeat
  • This summer, most friends out of town
  • You remember the name was Jensen. She seemed old
  • Dear Bobbi: God it’s cold. Unpredicted, of course, by forecast
  • He is twice blessed, the old one buried here
  • Town or poem. I don’t care how it looks. Old woman
  • Believe in this couple this day who come
  • Now I’m dead, load what’s left on the wagon
  • You might come here Sunday on a whim

Confessions of a Style Nazi
It would be endless to run over the several defects of style among us: I shall therefore say nothing of the mean and the paltry, much less of the slovenly and indecent. Two things I will just warn you against; the first is, the frequency of flat, unnecessary epithets; and the other is, the folly of using old threadbare phrases which…are nauseous to rational hearers, and will seldom express your meaning as well as your own natural words. ”    Jonathon Swift

The strength and balance of his (Swift’s) sentences are due to an exquisite taste. As I had done before I copied passages and then tried to write them out again from memory. I tried altering words or the order in which they were set. I found that the only possible words were those Swift had used and that the order in which he had placed them was the only possible order.”  W. Somerset Maugham
        When I first began teaching writing classes in the early 90s, my mission was  to teach brevity. And with missionary zeal,  I’d exhort students to “eschew verbosity”  quoting my heroes William Zinsser and Strunk and White.  I explained that nouns and verbs were the workhorses, the Clydesdales of writing and claimed that most other words were inferior.
I denounced modifiers “the leeches that suck at the pond of prose” until my students cowered. After I decreed a policy that students must defend every adverb they used, I was accused of being an adverb Nazi. Unfazed, I borrowed an analogy from  Nancy Kress,  explaining that relying on modifiers was like attending a function donning a tiara, a dozen pairs of earrings, four necklaces, eight rings, a bangle of bracelets and an assortment of toe rings. But times were changing and with the streets swarming with bejeweled navels, face jewelry, and head-to-toe tattoos, I fear that my examples about over accessorizing might not have the impact it once had. 
                Over the years I added to my advice, and suggested that voice—the sound of our personality on the page was another key to style.  Next, came adding layers or music to writing, those grace notes like metaphor, repetition, alliteration, that made the words linger and resonate.
        I kept circling around “show, don’t tell” that too-oft repeated advice, explaining how examples, anecdotes, dialogue and action bring the reader into the writing, not pronouncements. 
        Then I became an editor and added fiction classes to my repertoire. I explained the importance of hooks and in media res, I lectured on structure, conflict, and character motivation.
        But finally, I’ve come to understand that while it’s necessary to understand craft and to hone style, that writing always comes back to story. A survey conducted by the University of Wisconsin  revealed that newspaper readers  prefer narrative journalism. Narrative, or story is what all writing boils down to. No matter if you’re penning an essay, memoir, poem, short story, or article. People want to read about people. They’re looking for a “what happened next” or “once there was” structure.
        We’re descended from ancestors who hunkered around a fire, huddled close to keep the night sounds, the cold and the beasts away. And when they gathered, through the centuries, they told stories. To take their minds off the cold. To understand how the stars decorated the night skies or how the rivers formed. They wanted answers for why people are sometimes cruel, why innocents suffer. Stories. The stuff of life.
        So look hard at your writing and search for the story in your work,  or the “why?” the “what next?” Don’t write to emote or lecture. Draw nearer, feel the flame. If you’re able, introduce a  mystery you can unravel. Or, subject a real person or character to jeopardy and resolve it. Or introduce a problem and its solutions. Or show how life works by using examples we recognize and the people living them.
Make us care, or better yet, worry. Wrap it up, not with a bow, but with an ending that casts a final look backwards,  or with someone talking or thinking or weeping, so  we cannot forget.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Every writer I know has trouble writing.  ~Joseph Heller
Three Minute Fiction Contest
Pale blue skies this morning and I'm making a list for the farmer's market, salivating  about buying more real tomatoes. The weather around here couldn't be finer. Yesterday I went for a long walk with a friend along the Willamette River and the sky was azure, the temperatures in the low 70s, the smells of autumn mingling in the air as we passed under old cedar trees and followed the river. I was trying to imagine the Clackamas Indians who lived there long ago before they were decimated by disease from contact with the Europeans.

But for all you short-short fiction fans, here are the rules for NPR's fifth Three Minute Fiction Contest. This time, your story must begin with the line, "Some people swore that the house was haunted." It must end with, "Nothing was ever the same again after that."

And for those of us who overwrite, you might want to check out past winners of the contest. Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Friday, September 10, 2010

New Chicago Manual of Style is out
I know what I want for Christmas (among other things), the 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. No longer orange, it's the first new edition since 2003 and has thousands of updates that will warm a word geek's or copyeditor's heart.
Also, click on this link for a free e-book from the University of Chicago Press and the Chicago Manual of Style has free content for writers and editors online

Thursday, September 09, 2010

For me, writing something down was the only road out…I hated childhood, and spent it sitting behind a book waiting for adulthood to arrive. When I ran out of books I made up my own. At night, when I couldn’t sleep, I made up stories in the dark. ~ Anne Tyler.
For many writers – professional writers – writing faster is simply a matter of survival. Writing faster can mean the difference between making a go of a challenging career as an author versus going back to your old job as an accountant or asking ‘Smoking or non-smoking’ down at Bob’s Big Boy. Writer’s block, you might even say, is a luxury that real writers can’t afford.” ~ David Fyxell

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Reminder: Lauren Kessler
Lauren Kessler will be at Powell's/ Burnside on Monday, September 13 reading from and signing her new book, My Teenage Werewolf.  Be there if you can. 

Submissions Wanted
CALYX, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women will be open for Submissions October 1-December 31, 2010
CALYX Journal will open for submissions of poetry, short fiction, creative non-fiction, and interviews on October 1. Please limit poetry submissions to six poems, and prose pieces to no more than 5,000 words. To submit, send self-addressed stamped envelope and a brief bio with your submission to:
PO Box B
Corvallis, OR 97333
We are always open for submissions of visual art and book reviews. Click here for full submission guidelines.
"It's impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many." ~ Margaret Atwood

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Rain, and more rain. Rain early for this time of year and blotting out my plans for an evening walk. I know that sounds wimpy, but I'm just not in the mood for wetness, although I must admit the sounds are more soothing than a lullaby or lover's sigh. Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Sunday, September 05, 2010

You are on the look out for experience, strength, and hope. You want to hear from the horse’s mouth exactly how disappointments have been survived. It helps to know that the greats have had hard times too and that your own hard times merely make you part of the club.” ~ Julia Cameron.
In the end, writing skills are mostly absorbed, not learned. Like learning to speak as a native speaker, learning to write well is not just learning a set of rules or techniques. It’s a huge, messy body of deep language, inspired by bits of readings, conversations, incidents; it’s affected by how you were taught and where you live and who you want to become. For every convention, there is another way that may work better. For every rule, there are mavericks who succeed by flaunting it. There is no right or wrong way to write, no ten easy steps.” ~Philip Martin.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Color of Moonlight [moon.jpg]
 Ivan Aviosovsky
John Stobart
Mostly blue skies this morning, but the blue is less vivid than during these last mornings when heat was on the way. The naming of things in writing lends solidity, accuracy, and lushness to your pages.  A simple trick for writers is during each day, in each season, to ask yourself about the color of sky, the quality of light and shadow, and the moods they engender.  Just look at these painters' interpretations of moonlight and ask yourself, what is the color of moonlight?

Maxfield Parrish

Friday, September 03, 2010

photo by Marv Bondarowicz
Cathy Lamb Interview
I first met Cathy Lamb in some of my classes when I began teaching in Portland and knew from the first that she was going to make it as a fiction author. Some people just have "it"--persistence, passion, depth and other qualities that it takes to shape thousands of words into meaningful stories. You recognize it as soon as you meet or when you first read their writing.

Now with her latest book Such a Pretty Face is in print, and her novella in Holiday Magic coming out in December  it seemed like a good time to ask her about her writing process and life. Because she's a writer who writes characters you'll come to understand in that deep satisfying way that happens in fiction, that makes reading fiction so much better than real life.  After working as a freelance journalist and not making it as a romance author she started writing women's fiction. She said, "I let my imagination fly and I let my characters be the wild, devoted, screaming, lost, strange, quiet, secret-harboring, desperate, joyful, lusty, pig-loving people they needed to be. I let the plot grow organically instead of trying to shove it into a rigid formula. I addressed issues I wanted addressed that were close to my heart and I tried to inject humor. I wanted to reach women. I wanted to give them a book that would allow them to escape from life for a few hours, a book with characters they could relate to. A book that would make them laugh." That book turned out to be Julia's Chocolates and launched a thriving career.

Q: You and I talked once about the difficulty of inhabiting a character who is much different from you--say one who like Stevie Barrett in Such a Pretty Face who has lost 170 pounds or Julia Bennett in Julia's Chocolates who has been abused.  Could you offer some advice on how to imagine fictional people much different than yourself on the page?

A: Can I offer advice on how to imagine fictional people that are completely, wildly, utterly different from myself? Go to Pioneer Courthouse Square and sit there. Watch people, eavesdrop, study people. Or, try the Hawthorne district. Or Washington Square. Tell stories about others in your head. Pretend you're them. It's wild what you can learn about your characters, or use in your characters, by people watching. I can go to downtown Portland and my mind is on fire for days, it's smokin' hot.  Also, get a journal and write. Draw a picture of your character, as best you can, then start writing down every little thing about her that comes to your head. Do this with a decaf mocha in your hand from Starbucks. I swear those things make me think better, and I need all the help I can get with this menopausal fuzz in my brain. 

 Write down what your character likes to do, who she doesn't like or is threatened by, what she cooks, how she walks, where she lives, how she decorates her home, her idiosyncrasies, habits, worries, write down all the problems she might have had in her life and go deeper and deeper into those problems. Most often, when people have huge problems as adults, you can pin point things that happened to them as kids that helped this problem take shape. There's something there. So, in your characters, go for it. Why is this person the way she is? Why does she cry? Why is she so angry? Why does she have a short fuse? Why does she let people walk on her? Why is she a loner? Why is she so scared? Where did her sarcasm come from,? Who hurt her, why did they hurt her? Why hasn't she set up better boundaries for herself? Why did she just kick box that guy? Why does she drive so fast? What made her start singing outside?
Go into your character's head and sit there for awhile. Ask her all sorts of questions. Honestly, she will answer back, and then, after you sketch and write and think and think some more, and maybe cry and wail, you will have a character that is completely different from yourself.  A really, utterly cool character that you can work and live with for months while you're writing your novel.

And, just so you know, ALL of my main characters have something of me in them, yep, they do. So put something of yourself in your characters, too. 
Q: Could you describe how you make choices about structuring your books? Is it organic, do you make decisions such as where to place flashbacks as you go along?
A: I love that word, organic. I heard it about five years ago in relation to writing books, and it confused the heck out of me and I thought about it endlessly until I understood it. When I found my answer as to why stories must be "organic," I can't tell you how much it  helped me.  Organic writing means that all of your characters, their issues, their actions, their problems, the flow of your story, the descriptions, the character arcs, they all have to be real to the plot, real to the people. True and honest and sincere. They have to come along with the characters naturally, they must not just arrive as if from Pluto. The author can't force it, they have to know their characters so well, that the problems that come up, the problems the characters experience are an intrinsic, believable part of their lives.

However.  Yes, even though I try to write organically, there is definitely some practical cutting and pasting that goes along with organizing a book. Especially with my book Such A Pretty Face, which was a monster of a book. There was a lot of back and forth between Stevie Barrett's early childhood, mid - childhood, and adulthood. I had to hook the reader with what happened to her as a child in the first chapter, then fill in the blanks as the novel progressed, leaving cliff hangers here and there, questions unanswered, and tension as I went. I wanted to feed the back story slowly, carefully, so as not to overwhelm the modern story and to keep the reader reading, and wanting to know what happened in Stevie's past.  I wanted her past, and how I weaved it into her present, to be - here's the word - "organic" to the book, in that the flashbacks flowed naturally in and out of modern times.  A trick here is transitions. If something in Stevie's life happens - her own nightmares or flashbacks, then that could be a good time to fill in a bit of back story.
So, it's organic and it's practical writing. Both. Blended. Shaken and stirred. A couple of ice cubes....

Q: It seems to be that when writing about the topics you're drawn to--love, loss, healing, redemption, or finding a place in the word-- that it's necessary to portray finely tuned emotions and emotional subtext. Do you have any tips for would-be authors on how to achieve this?
A:Yes. Take your grief, your loss, your loneliness, your pain, your anger, your frustration,  your tears, your hopelessness, your despair, and write some bang up scenes for a book with it. If you're going to experience all that stuff, ya might as well write about it, right?  Also, LISTEN to other people, read the paper, read tons of books, develop deeper relationships, really think about emotions, analyze how different  people would feel in different situations, analyze how you would feel. Some of the best scenes I've written, I've written after I've been upset about one thing or another. You don't have to be feeling vengeful to write a scene about revenge. 

However, if you're feeling ticked off, well, it might be the time to sit down and write that scene where your character is furious and throwing things. Had your heart broken? Write a scene on anger or rage or loss, that brokenness will come out and your writing will feel real. Feeling lonely? Write that lonely scene or write the scene where your character is crying or grieving. Use your own emotions to enhance and improve your writing and to make your characters more rounded, complex, layered, relatable. Don't be afraid of dropping your own emotions into your writing, even emotions you have buried for years or decades, your writing will be more sincere and authentic, more touching, if you do so.

Q: How do you manage to mix heart-wrenching scenes and topics along with humor in your stories?
A: Well, some of the scenes in my books are, as you say, heart wrenching. So, to lighten the mood, and to do a switch - back with readers' emotions, I often deliberately put in a funny scene right afterwards. I don't want the heart wrenching scenes to become too depressing for the reader.  I think both types of scenes drive a book well, and when they're next to each other, the juxtaposition fuels the storyline and how much a reader will care about your plot and your characters.  Plus, it's life, isn't it? Some days are beautiful, funny, laugh filled, some days are terrible and filled with tears.

And, sometimes you get both emotions in one day, or one hour. I have readers tell me all the time they laughed and cried reading my books, and I just love to hear that, I really do. Women need to laugh, but women also need a good cry sometimes.

Q: What books are on your nightstand?
A: I just finished La's Orchestra Saves The World, and I enjoyed it a lot, especially as a summer read. I am reading the Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie now. I loved Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier for the history, Daughters of the Witching Hill, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, One Thousand White Women, and A Walk In The Woods. I have been reading various books on WWII for my next book, for Such A Pretty Face I read many books on schizophrenia. I am going to read The Kitchen House, Someone Knows My Name, A Mercy, Cutting For Stone, My Name Is Mary Sutter, and the Calligrapher's Daughter, not in that order, in future.

Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on my next book, due in December. I have been told that the title will be The First Day Of The Rest Of My Life. It's about lavender, pink, and gunshots.

Q: What is something few people know about you? 
A:Hmmm....well, I have two sisters who know EVERYTHING about me....but let's see...I would love to have a beautiful garden, but I don't really like to garden. I am obsessive about my work. Every word must be right, every sentence structure perfect, every character arc detailed, but I am not obsessed with anything else in my life and in no other part of my life am I a  raving perfectionist like that. I like to be alone. I have to be alone for a period of time every day so I can think freely or I get real edgy... sorry, no fun secrets to share. My life as a mother of three teenagers/talented bathroom cleaner is quite predictable...
Happy reading to all. 

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Skies so blue they seem to be vibrating.
I forgot to mention that I guest-blogged at Polly Campbell's Imperfect Spirituality blog. You can find my piece on awareness posted on August 16 here