Gift Ideas: Say It With Words

Find this illustrated quote and others at

Words make great gifts. What kinds of words?

  • A friend’s favorite quote, poem, or expression: A beloved aunt, whose sassy spirit lives on, used to say, “I thought I made a mistake once, but I was wrong.” (To give credit where it’s due, that’s a paraphrase of something the late “Peanuts” creator, Charles M. Shulz, said.)
  • Something you write especially for someone: “You laugh at my jokes but not at my dreams. You make it OK for me to be myself. I hope I do the same for you.”
  • A favorite line from a movie you and a friend shared: “I’ll have what she’s having;” Meg Ryan came up with this line for When Harry Met Sally.
  • A title, line, or full lyrics of a favorite song: “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green;” Joe Raposo wrote the song originally performed by Jim Henson as Kermit the Frog on Sesame Street. (Here’s a great version, Kermit with Ray Charles on Cher in 1975.)
  • Anything to make someone laugh: “Before you marry a person you should first make them use a computer with slow internet to see who they really are.” –Will Ferrell

Where should the words go?

On a tote bag, T-shirt, pillow case, something suitable for framing, mug, a single greeting card or box of note cards, but not a tattoo until quarantine ends.

DIY or custom print?

You can use transfer paper to embellish a T-shirt, tote bag, or pillow case. Maybe use a calligrapher for the words. (You can find one on Etsy.) You can add images, too. I like for images I use on the blog. Images are free, but I like to “buy the designer a cup of coffee.”

Try for coffee mugs.

Red River Paper has tips for making cards on your inkjet printer.


It wouldn’t be 2020 without masks. Design your own at VistaPrint.

Quotes That Nudge You To Keep Writing

Inspirational quips for writers abound. Which do you turn to when you’re stuck like I find myself recently? I can see an end in sight, but my writing is the verbal equivalent of walking through quicksand.

 I’m about 80 percent of the way through a major revision of my WIP. Never liked how I ended the story in the draft. So now, after two-plus years of revising, I’m creating some brand new scenes. That requires a whole different muscle.

I toiled yesterday putting one word after another and hearing the voice in my head saying,  “This is boring.” “I don’t know where it’s going.” Etc. But I kept on writing. One motivational quote that comes to mind in these moments is from Jodi Picoult: “You can’t edit a blank page.”

But my favorite quote, my mantra, is one of my own making: “Give yourself permission to suck.” Somewhere in the mess of words I’m dumping onto the page is something salvageable. If that sounds much like trying to find something of value while traipsing through a stinky landfill, that’s just what I’m saying.

There are quotes that inspire you to write, and then there are some that don’t. 

Quotes I like:

E. L. Doctorow: Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Margaret Atwood: If I waited for perfection I would never write a word.

Kurt Vonnegut: We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing wings on the way down.

John Cleese: Nothing will stop you being creative so much as the fear of making a mistake.

Aristotle: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.

Quotes I ignore:

Stephen King: Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Terry Pratchett: There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.

Herman Melviille: To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.

Dorothy Parker: I hate writing, I love having written.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Itching To Write a Novel?

Itching to write a novel but don’t know where to start? This post will give you a leg up. (Can’t believe I wrote that. I hate puns.) Make that two legs up.

Leg #1: Retell an old story. It’s a time-honored tradition. How many authors have penned novels based on Romeo and Juliet? The fact is the story had been around long before Shakespeare retold it and made it a classic.

Retelling offers you a number of givens, the plot being the main one. (What I wouldn’t give for a ready-made ending for my work-in-progress at this point.) And take as much as you want from characterization and setting.

You have lots of latitude with your retelling. You can set your story in 14th century Verona, Italy, or 19th century Osaka, Japan, or 21st century Tupelo, Mississippi. Your characters don’t even have to be teens or Italian.

Retelling offers plenty of room for your imagination. The story gives you a framework. You get to figure out things like the cause of the ancient grudge between the Capulets and Montagues, how it manifests in the lives of Romeo and Juliet, and what happens when even the servants feud.

Leg #2: Write fanfiction. How many times have you read a book or series and thought, “wouldn’t it be fun if such-and-such happened?” With fanfiction, the characters are already fully developed, often the setting as well. You get to dream up the plot.

My suggestion to write fanfiction comes with a caveat. If you want to publish your work, even just on your web page or blog, check the legalities. Some authors welcome fanfiction; others will come after you, your brother-in-law, your best friend, and your pet goldfish.

So doing a retelling or writing fanfiction isn’t the story you always wanted to write about how your grandmother was sold as a child to a farm couple who worked her mercilessly until she ran off to join a traveling band of accountants. That can be your next book. For now, think of this project as a) fun and b) your customized writing workshop. As you put one word after another or drift off during a conversation with your partner because you’re thinking about getting your character out of peril, you’re learning how to write a novel.


There’s no harvest so bountiful as one’s own pain.

–Sandra Scofield

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Writing Prompts, Anyone?

I took a break from working on my WIP this morning and thawed some veggies in the microwave to have for lunch. It reminded me of the time not long ago when I had a bag of frozen French-cut green beans I wanted to thaw in hurry. I spread them on the counter and got my hair dryer. Do you know how long it takes to pick up itty-bitty green beans?

So, as often happens, my brain conjured an image as it might appear in a scene. A woman on the kitchen floor, cussing like a longshoreman when her partner walks in. From there my brain segued to turning the scene into a writing prompt. And that led to more writing prompts.

Play with them, and post your results in a comment, OK?

Following the high-pitched cuss words to their source, he . . .

Just one more YouTube how-to and she could  . . .

The last thing she wanted to hear from her hairdresser was . . .

“Smoke? I don’t smell smoke.”

“Not again.”

“Did you forget it was Daylight Savings Time?”

The capsule door was locked.

He looked in the mirror and saw . . .

“Don’t make me . . .”

My DNA profile says I’m related to . . .

“Unless you have  a screwdriver, we’re screwed.”

“You don’t look anything like your . . .”

“I found this on your computer.”

“What do you mean you threw it out?”


To write something you have to risk making a fool of yourself.

–Anne Rice

Ladder of Abstraction: Choose the Right Rung

Writers, where do you stand on the “ladder of abstraction?” Maybe you’ve never even heard of it. It’s a close cousin to “show, don’t tell.” Mainly it deals with the nouns you choose.

The concept was developed by S. I. Hayakawa and spelled out in his book Language in Thought and Action. Simply put, imagine the word “eggplant” on the bottom rung of the ladder and the word “food” on the top. Hayakawa’s ladder has four rungs, going from the concrete to the abstract.

Level one words are specific, identifiable nouns, e.g., “eggplant.”

Level two words fall into broad noun categories, e.g., “vegetable.”

Level three words fall into noun classes with less specificity, e.g., “food.”

And level four words are abstractions, e.g., “sustenance.”

Now, there are no hard and fast rules you can take and run with. Often it takes more than a single concrete word to replace an abstract noun. Take an abstraction like “grief.” It might require a sentence or more. “He turned off his phone, closed the blinds, and poured another tumbler of Scotch.”

Writing on the lowest rung of the ladder evokes the strongest response from readers. They can identify with concrete images that cause their hearts to melt or race or break.

Here are a couple of things to think about. One is that you can use the different levels, especially the extremes, to differentiate characters in dialogue. A pretentious, vacuous, or secretive individual might load his speech with abstractions, while the salt-of-the-earth type speaks in concrete terms.

The second is that in my writing circles, we like to avoid using the abstract word and concrete image together. So in describing the man’s grief, I wouldn’t precede or follow the image with, “He was immobilized by grief.” I wouldn’t use the word “grief” at all. The reader gets it.


One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.

–Jack Kerouac

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

I Desperately Need Marshmallows

Here’s the draft of a short-short story:

Water splashed underfoot as Manuel walked down the line for at least the hundredth time this morning. Raised umbrellas helped keep shoppers the required six-feet apart. He watched a woman get out of a silver Lexus, leaving three kids with faces pressed against the windows. She took a place at the end of the line and raised her umbrella, a bit late as her wet T-shirt revealed “headlights on” and deep cleavage. No mask.

“Lady, you’re not getting into WalMart without a mask,” Manuel said. “Put one on, or get back to your car.” He’d given up saying “please” weeks ago, not long after the store announced its mask mandate.

All heads turned to watch the encounter. The man in front of the woman stepped aside, giving her a wide berth.

“You don’t understand,” she wailed. “I desperately need marshmallows.”

“I understand perfectly,” Manuel said. “You’re spewing germs and putting these good people at risk for your essential marshmallows.”

The woman, who looked vaguely familiar, stood her ground. Manuel wanted to drag her to her Lexus, but he obeyed the store’s “never touch” rule. Could there be a crappier time to lose a job? “Who do you think you are, a Kardashian?”

Chuckles came from the line, and a deep voice said, “She’s the broad in that loan-shark commercial.” The speaker then thrust out his chest, and in a mocking all-too-bright voice said,  ‘I got my title back at TitleBack.’”

“Hah, a Kardashian wanna-be,” someone called out. “Entitled.”

A few groans sounded.

The woman leaned toward Manuel, her Botoxed lips parted. He thought she was coming onto him, but there was a plea in her eyes and voice. “My little boy has leukemia, and he can’t swallow pills unless I put them in marshmallows.”

Manuel went weak. “I’m sorry. Wait here. Don’t get close to anyone.” He strode to the store’s front door where his co-worker, sheltered from the rain, clicked her handheld counter and let three shoppers enter. “Cheryl, do you have an extra mask?”

She reached into her fanny pack and pulled out a cloth mask. “Will this do?”

Manuel took it from her. “Thanks. Trade you places in forty minutes, OK?”

She grimaced, but returned his fist bump. “Bet you the rain will be over.”

Manuel returned to the TitleBack woman and waited while she placed the mask over her face and slipped the elastic loops behind her ears. He couldn’t be certain, but was that a smirk behind the face covering?

After that, the line moved in orderly fashion. Manuel just wanted everything to be over: the rain that chilled his feet and legs, the line of shoppers that never ended, the disease that ravaged his mother’s lungs.

He kept checking the time on his phone. Thirty-seven minutes had passed when the TitleBack woman emerged from the store with a bag in hand. One of her kids dashed from the Lexus, snatched the bag from her, and looked inside. He turned back toward the car, waving the bag and hollered, “Hey, guys, Mom’s gonna make s’mores.”


Do these strange times inspire you to write? I love hanging out with my early 20th century characters in New Mexico, but I just got an urge to write this story.

Banished Words List 2020

Risible, isn’t it?

One time back in my freelance writing life, I approached a man with a request for an interview, and he agreed on one condition: “Whatever you do, don’t use the word ‘plethora’ in your article.” I hate that word.”

We all have words that set our hair on fire. Mine of late is the adjective “risible, e.g., “The Senate made a risible attempt to carry out its duty.” Can the word possibly be more pretentious? Why not say “laughable?”With that, here are some examples of words or phrases that made Lake Superior State University’s “Banished Word List 2020.”

Influencer–Urban Dictionary calls it “A word Instagram users use to describe themselves to make them feel famous and more important when no one really knows or cares who they are.

Living my best life–Are there options for multiple lives?

Totes–Used for “totally”

OK, Boomer–This one insults the generation that didn’t trust anyone over 30.

Your thoughts? Words on your hit list? Leave a comment.


Do something every day that scares you.

–Eleanor Roosevelt

Gifts for Writers and Readers 2019

Antiquarian Bookplates

I’m late putting together a list of holiday gifts for writers and readers. Mea culpa. No excuses. But if you’re a last minute shopper like I am, you might find just the perfect gift here. I’ve noted the deadlines for ordering gifts to be delivered by Christmas, but you’ll want to double check.

It also helps to read customer comments. I was all set to feature a gorgeous–and not inexpensive–quilted throw until I read the customer comments. Three buyers mentioned a bad odor when they opened the package. Yuck.

Antiquarian Bookplates: I think I’ll order these bookplates for myself. This set of 55 bookplates features literary quotes from august writers, including Cicero, Gustave Flaubert, Helen Keller, and Jane Austen. $11.69 Amazon

Writer’s Mug: I take comfort in having books about writing on my shelves even if I only rarely crack them. Titles of 26 books surround this ceramic writer’s mug. I must have one. (While you’re on the web site, you’ll see a Mysteries Mug as well. Just be advised shipping on that mug will take a bit longer.) $14.00, order by Dec. 17th.

Adjustable Lap Desk: Laptops are great until you have to actually use them on your lap. I use a basic lap desk to hold my little laptop, mainly for sitting in bed and reading books on my Kindle for PC app (or for playing FreeCell). I might like this lap desk better as it adjusts to six different heights. $27.99 Prime Amazon

Hogwarts Tapestry Throw Blanket: What Harry Potter fan of any age wouldn’t be proud to own this fringed throw? It’s 100 percent polyester and measures 60″ x 48″. Place your order by 4 p.m., Dec. 14th, to ensure delivery by Dec. 24th. $25.99 Bed Bath & Beyond.

A final word: Browse your favorite bookstore for literary-themed calendars, sassy socks, clip-on LED reading lights, and, oh, books.

Happy holidays.


We read to know we are not alone.

C. S. Lewis

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Three-minute Boost for Writers

Writers, feeling sluggish after putting one word after another all day (or the last half hour)? Head to YouTube for a quick burst of insight or inspiration. When I say “quick,” I’m talking about as little as under two minutes. Here are some I found worth watching.

“Writing Advice from Matt Stone and Trey Parker” 

Matt Stone and Trey Parker, most famous as creators of TV’s “South Park” series, describe a simple but useful principle for moving a story forward.  2:14 minutes

“Hillary Jordan: Richard & Judy Show Interview”

If you know “Mudbound” only as a movie, I highly recommend reading the book. In this interview with author Hillary Jordan, you’ll learn how the novel sprang from a three-page creative writing assignment, one I’d like to try myself. (I know, novels rarely spring forth. They emerge from a heap of words spilled onto the page and then cleaned up with shovels and demitasse spoons.)  3:23 minutes

“Writers on Writing: Lee Child on Starting Writing After 40”

Spoiler alert: the author of the popular Jack Reacher detective series has good news for people who think they’re too old to start writing.  3:00 minutes

“Peter Heller on Writing”

My favorite dystopian novel is Heller’s The Dog Stars. If your writing day starts off like Sisyphus pushing the stone up the mountain, you’ll appreciate Heller’s strategy for keeping the momentum going from one day to the next. I’ve heard it before from Tosh McIntosh, who chairs the Austin Novel in Progress critique group. Sage advice, if only I’d remember it. 1:47 minutes

“20th & Vine: Backstage With Ann Patchett”

Besides being a best-selling, award-winning author, Patchett owns Parnassus, a bookstore in Nashville. It’s a magnet for other writers visiting the city, and Patchett describes how they help one another through “novel therapy.” 1:48 minutes

This blog post was inspired by fellow author Sharon Scarborough. She urged me to watch the clip of Matt Stone and Trey Parker. I was so taken with the two-minute gem that I started looking for more little jewels.

Leave a comment.


The fact is I don’t know where my ideas come from. Nor does any writer. The only real answer is to drink way too much coffee and buy yourself a desk that doesn’t collapse when you beat your head against it.

–Douglas Adams

Compromise With Sin Free

Kindle users can get Compromise With Sin free from Nov. 1 through Nov. 5.

Break Patterns To Intrigue Readers

I was recently reminded of the importance of patterns as we drove home to Texas from Albuquerque. I found myself on a frontage road near Sweetwater. I know the rule about yielding on a frontage road in Texas. It’s so confounding that I typically give a PSA to friends or family driving from out-of-state. (I know, by now you’re wondering what the heck this has to do with writing. Bear with me.)

Simply put, if you are driving a frontage road you must yield to traffic entering the highway from the frontage road or leaving the highway to enter the frontage road. That’s fairly straightforward. What makes this rule confounding is that often there is a yield sign, but just as often there isn’t. You’re expected to know that even if there’s no sign you must yield. So if you’re new to Texas and driving a frontage road where yield signs are posted, you might infer from this pattern that if there’s no sign you’re not required to yield. You might find out the hard way. Say you’re on a two-way frontage road and an approaching car crosses your path to take the exit ramp. Could get ugly.

Patterns, rightly or wrongly, set up expectations. There’s more to the yield sign than the word “yield.” If you’ve seen signs posted at exit and entrance ramps, you might logically expect that the absence of a sign means you’re not required to yield.

Now that I’ve run this example into the ground, how can patterns enrich your writing? Break a pattern to defy readers’ expectations.

Take characterization, for instance. Let’s say you’ve defined Janet as fastidious about herself and her home. In the process of cleaning windows, she stands out in the street to look for streaks she can’t see from the inside. (This woman was my neighbor.) She won’t leave the house without being perfectly coiffed and made-up. She washes dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. Your reader gets it. Then one day she tucks disheveled hair under her husband’s John Deere gimme cap and leaves home with the bed unmade and dirty dishes on the table. Whoa! This departure from Janet’s pattern of behavior upsets the reader’s expectations and piques her curiosity. She’s eager to know what possessed Janet, and the only way to find out is to read on.

Breaking a pattern can work with setting, also. Along a dirt road, there’s a never-ending row of shacks, their roofs sagging, their postage-stamp yards overgrown with weeds and littered with old sinks and busted chairs. A mangy yellow dog drinks water from a ditch. A barefoot kid zigs and zags on a rusty bike way too big for him. The road curves. There stands a collonaded mansion, its vast grounds and Monet-inspired gardens surrounded by an iron fence. Your reader rounds that curve with an expectation of more of the same only to be struck by a most unlikely image. Now the reader has questions. Who are these people? What accounts for this juxtaposition of wealth and poverty? How do such apparently different people co-exist? If this bit of setting is significant, you’ll eventually provide answers, but it’s possible that the setting exists only to color the story. In any case, you’ve given the reader motivation to continue reading. And isn’t that your goal?

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


Sometimes stories cry out to be told in such loud voices that you write them just to shut them up.

–Stephen King