Category Archives: Stuff That Defies Categorizing

Ben Rehder Visits our Book Club

A “halo” appears above the head of Susan Mayson for inviting Ben Rehder to our book club. Richard Slagle, on the right, has read everything Ben has written.

It’s no secret here that I’m a big fan of Ben Rehder. His novel The Chicken Hanger is one of my all-time favorites. At my urging, our little book club read it, loved it, and Susan Mayson decided to invite the author to our meeting.  He graciously accepted, even flexed when presented with a time change.

He would probably want me to comment on the shirt he’s wearing in the photo. He’s promoting not a book, but Emancipet, a low-cost spay and neuter clinic, and  Clear the Shelters day.

Ben is best known for his very funny book series about a Blanco County (TX) game warden, and fans are eagerly awaiting the  book he’s currently working on. (I envy Ben for being able to write a book in eight or nine months.) A newer series, the Roy Ballard Mysteries,  features a private investigator. The first book in each series is free for Kindle users: Buck Fever and Gone the Next, respectively.

In discussing The Chicken Hanger, a book I recently wrote about on this blog, people were surprised he’d written it in 2007. Ben said in his research for the book, border issues have scarcely changed over the years. “You see headlines of fifty years ago that could have been written today.”

I told him that his books are being recorded by the Texas Talking Book Program, which he seemed glad to hear. In my seven years of volunteering with Talking Book, I’ve noticed there’s almost always a Ben Rehder book in the process of being recorded.

I’d love to have talked to him about self-publishing, which he turned to after having a legacy publisher for his earlier books. But I respected that our group is a book club, not a writing club.

Book club members loved the book, and I asked Ben how we can best promote it. He said, “Tell your friends.”


When I’m writing, I write, and then it’s as if the muse is convinced I’m serious and says, Okay, Okay, I’ll come.

–Maya Angelou





Texas Talking Book Program Fills Real Need

On Tuesdays, my husband, Tim, and I narrate books for the Texas Talking Book Program. The free service, which depends heavily on volunteers, is affiliated with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, administered by the Library of Congress.

When I brought Tim to Austin eight years ago, he had fifteen years of experience with the Colorado Talking Book Program. He’s the better narrator in the family. His acting background has been a bonus as he does characters and dialects well, which is not a requirement for narrators. In fact, there are those who would prefer to leave such interpretations up to the reader, but Tim’s narration often brings kudos from the people who review our work.

The Texas Talking Book Program, now in its forty-first year, serves anyone who cannot read or hold a book. A majority of patrons are blind or have low vision, but other patrons include those who have a reading disability, can’t read English, or can’t hold a book. Books chosen for recording have a Texas theme or setting or are written by Texas authors. Priority is given to patron requests.

Over the years, the program has faced the challenge of adapting to technological change. Today’s recordings are done in a digital format. Once recorded, a book is copied onto cartridges, which are mailed to patrons, who load them into a specially designed player provided by the program. Currently an ambitious program is underway to convert archived books from tape to digital.

In recent years, books recorded in Texas and elsewhere have become available nationwide through BARD, which stands for Braille and Audio Reading Download.

You can’t get much more patron-friendly than the Talking Book Program. Everything, including players and mailing costs, is provided free of charge. Patrons can even call and talk to a reader adviser for help in selecting books. I learned only recently that there’s a phone-in book club so that people can get together via a conference call to discuss a selected book.

Every once in a while, I like to stop and think about the significance of what Tim and I and all the other volunteers and staff are doing. I like this quote from a patron: “When my vision deteriorated, much of the fun of life disappeared. The Talking Book Program restored much of the zest of living.”


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

–Stephen King


Write it Hot

As I write this post, it’s 110°F in Austin, TX. As you can imagine, the heat is a subject that flares up at some point in every conversation. The usual, “You keeping cool?” or “I don’t know how people work outdoors when it’s this hot.”

I started brainstorming with myself about how a writer of fiction might describe extreme heat without being trite. Ideally, it involves “showing, not telling,” especially when it reveals the impact on characters. My list:

  1. A couple in a car argue over how much money to give to a panhandler who offers bottled water from a cooler to drivers.
  2. Firefighters collapse from heat exhaustion.
  3. A mail carrier sees a tied-up dog in distress, gives it water, and returns after dark to rescue the animal.
  4. While eyes are closed and heads are bowed in prayer, a church-goer takes a hand fan, provided compliments of Bowers Funeral Home, and slips it into her purse.
  5. A driver encountering a road block where a work crew is removing concrete chunks realizes the debris had burst from expanded highway seams.
  6. Looters delight in a power outage.
  7. Mother, who has never been known to utter a swear word, grips a hot handrail and says, “Holy shit.”
  8. The lover on top slides off.
  9. A roofer buying work boots inquires about soles that won’t melt.
  10. Homeless people park with their backpacks and over-stuffed trash bags in the public library.
  11. Swamped by an increase in heat-related emergencies, an EMS team loses precious minutes getting to a call because they’ve run out of ice and have to stop at a convenience store.
  12. Home Depot sells out of window air conditioners.
  13. Home invasion burglaries go up as more people sleep with their windows open.
  14. An air-conditioned mosque provides overnight shelter for people of all faiths.

Btw, I have some experience with # 3 and #5. I once knew a musician who sometimes after a late gig would rescue  dogs he knew to be abused. And I once had to stop on a highway while road crews removed chunks of concrete.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin.

–Mel Brooks




A Lesson in a Word

I was immersed in a poem the other day, one that created a compelling and dramatic scene with enviable turns of phrase. For example, . . . “because the hallway is empty of everything but soothing lemon wallpaper and the eucalypt  sting of disinfectant . . . ”

The poem is “The Gurney,” by Sarah Holland-Batt. I was engaged until the last line where the spell was broken by a single word: “gimballing.”

Not knowing the word’s meaning, was I missing something critical? Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines “gimbal”: a device that permits a body to incline freely in any direction or suspends it so that it will remain level when its support is tipped.

Hmm. So now I know the definition. I’m picturing the wheels of a grocery cart which can, theoretically, turn in any direction. But other than the fact that the word works rhythmically, I don’t find that it enhances my appreciation of the poem.  If I were to make a stretch, I’d say that the gimballing wheels suggest that things can change at any moment.

My point with this post is that a single word can act as a road block on the page. Something I must remember. Simple words are best, except in the dialogue of a character who fancies himself smarter than everyone else.

Now, this brings me to The New Yorker, where said poem was published. When I  read the magazine’s poetry, fiction, and cartoons, more often than not I’m left  with “Huh?”

I’ve concluded it’s because I lack sophistication. What would help me a lot is if the magazine would print a little gauge with each selection, sort of like, “You must be (this) tall to ride this ride.” It would say, “You must be this sophisticated to read this (poem, story, cartoon).”

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.

–Christopher Columbus

The Chicken Hanger: a Story for our Times

I don’t fancy myself a book reviewer. But I want to tell you about a novel that has stayed with me for several years, one I feel is in keeping with today’s messed up management of the border. The book is The Chicken Hanger, by Ben Rehder. He’s been called the Carl Hiassen of Texas for his comic crime novel series: The Blanco County Mysteries and The Roy Ballard Mysteries.

But The Chicken Hanger is a literary novel, quite a departure from Rehder’s usual work.  The story is about Ricky Delgado, who crossed the border into Texas illegally and works with other migrants at Kountry Fresh Chicken in Rugoso, Texas.  When the story begins, he’s sick, but going to work nevertheless, at the worst job he’s ever had. He’s a chicken hanger, meaning that he grabs squawking chickens one at a time from a crate as they enter the plant and hangs them from shackles on an overhead conveyor belt.  Of all the workers doing live hang, he is the fastest–30 birds a minute.

Learning that his brother has been shot and injured trying to cross into Texas, Ricky must decide if it’s worth seeking justice, a move that could expose him and lead to his deportation. And he faces another dilemma when he learns what is making him and other workers at the plant sick.

A big reason the story succeeds is that it’s not limited to the immigrant perspective. A rancher, who tries to scare off immigrants with warning shots, finds a bloodied backpack and engages in a cover-up. A Border Patrol agent faces the toughest decision of his career.

Btw, I encountered this novel several years ago when my husband, Tim, narrated it for the Texas Talking Book Program. He subsequently narrated Hog Heaven, a book in The Blanco County Mystery series. The story is as funny as The Chicken Hanger is sobering.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.

–John Green

My Scrivener Pitfall Work-around

In December, I wrote a post entitled “A Year of Scrivener.” I continue using this comprehensive software for writers as I work on my WIP, Candlelight Confessions. It’s not without its pitfalls, however. It may be that if I’d upgrade, the problems would go away, but I’ve already established a work-around that addresses the issues.

My approach to organizing my project is to label scenes, which then appear in the Binder, a table of contents of sorts. (Some writers organize by chapter, but I find it easier to move things around if I use scenes.)  Also included in my Binder are Characters and Research.

Scrivener can be wonky. Items sometimes change their position in the Binder,  Or more alarming, they vanish from the Binder.

The other day, I wanted to check on my description of Señora Garcia, but her name wasn’t listed under Characters. I discovered that her name and that of another character had migrated to the Research category. That’s an easy fix. Just drag and drop them where they belong.

What is scary is wanting to open a scene and finding it’s not in the Binder. If it’s not there, where is it? One way to fix the problem would be to create a new scene label in the Binder, then go to the text I compiled as a Word document the previous day or week or month, depending on when I last worked on that scene. Then I could copy and paste the scene into Scrivener.

I wondered if the scene still existed in Scrivener but was hiding from me. So I did a Search on the word Hoosier, which I knew appeared only in that scene. The Search Results showed one item, a scene labeled “Bonnie Burned.” I clicked on the item, and there was my text. Leaving the scene open in the Composition window, I Googled a question about restoring a scene to the Binder. The solution was to click the page icon next to the scene title and, in the drop-down menu, click “Reveal in Binder.”  Voila.

Tattling on Myself

As I wrote rather piously in the post “Writers, Heed the Name Sheriff,” I am the self-appointed name sheriff for my critque group, Austin Novel in Progress.

Imagine my chagrin when I discovered I’d used the name Andy twice in Compromise With Sin. One of the characters appears as a secondary character in my WIP and the other is mentioned as the husband of Madge Anderson. Madge calls him by his given name, Clement, not Andy.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy.

— Gustave Flaubert



Thank you, Philip Roth

Remembering Philip Roth last week, NPR’s Fresh Air broadcast archived interviews Terry Gross had done with the literary giant. I was especially gratified to hear the author of more than two dozen books including Portnoy’s Complaint, Goodbye Columbus, and Everyman, talking about his writing process as an act of discovery.

“I don’t know anything in the beginning, which makes it great fun to write . . . You begin every book as an amateur. . . . Gradually, by writing sentence after sentence,  the book reveals itself to you. … Each and every sentence is a revelation.”

I couldn’t agree more. My experience is there’s nothing that compares to the joy of discovery. And I learn to write as I write. That meant it took 24 years to get Compromise With Sin into print, and I’m sure I tossed at least 100,000 words.

Roth’s comments reminded me of an aha moment that occurred to me as I was writing a scene. One objective was to show protagonist Louise Morrissey’s compassion, as she was not always an admirable character. The scene involved Louise’s caring response to the family of two brothers who accidentally drowned in Crescent Lake. In my first draft, the family was not known to the reader. Then I decided the tragedy struck Henryetta, Louise’s cook and housekeeper. For me, that hit home, as I already knew and loved Henryetta–and I hoped it would be meaningful for the reader. It’s moot, of course, because that scene didn’t survive a later revision. But it impressed upon me the importance of having readers invested in characters so that when something good or bad happens, the reader feels it emotionally.

Btw, this icky background color appeared and I can’t get rid of it.

Your comments? Leave a message.


A dogfight on a Denver street is more important than a war in Europe.

–Frederick Gilmer Bonfils, Publisher, Denver Post




Tweet Your Story


I once wrote a blog post entitled “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” It was about Six Word Stories, and a few blog readers came up with some good ones of their own. Other than that post I’ve never done anything more with the subject of flash fiction.

I was trolling Twitter recently and came up with a few things to pass along.

ShareAStory InOneTweet

Here are two of my favorite examples from #ShareAStoryInOneTweet, where all the stories have a medical theme:

From AbbersMD:

U collapsed at work (Home Depot).. u were dead when my ambulance arrived. I got u back. U have no idea who I am. I visited Home Depot just to see u during my darkest hours in medical school… ur a reminder that I can do it You saved me back.

U collapsed at work (Home Depot).. u were dead when my ambulance arrived. I got u back. U have no idea who I am. I visited Home Depot just to see u during my darkest hours in medical school… ur a reminder that I can do it You saved me back.

From Ali S. Raja, MD :

You: Student nurse who asked me to come to bed 24 to help you clean up a geriatric patient who had soiled herself, just to see if I would.

Me: Intern who took one look at you and ran right over. 14 years later, we still laugh when people ask us how we met.

Serious Flash Fiction

Serious Flash Fiction’s contest is open to anyone, with no restrictions as to genre or theme. Write a 269-character story, end it with #SFFiction, and submit it by June 23rd. The best entries will be published in an anthology.


Onward, the literary zine of English Department students at Universitas Padjadjaran (that’s in Indonesia), is currently inviting six-word-story tweets. Send them to #SWOnward.

Can you write a story in 269 characters? Or write a six-word story? Tweet it and post it in a comment here. I’d also like to hear about other flash fiction opportunities.


Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.

–Ray Bradbury




Cracking the Bestseller Code: Who Cares?

For today’s post, I set out to write a review of The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel, by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers. But I’m abbreviating that review because as both a writer and reader I don’t care much about bestseller lists.

Abbreviated Review

Writers are bombarded by countless forces that influence what goes on the page–dreams, real-life experiences, snatches of conversations, cousin Fred–and it was merely a matter of time before it came to this: an algorithm purporting to tell us how books hit the top of the charts. Believing that books don’t just randomly make the New York Times  bestseller lists, the authors set computers on a quest for patterns to explain how it happens. They (the computers) explored this frontier with a tool called text mining.

Topic, plot, characterization, style–the authors coded for all of these qualities and interpreted the findings. For example, in terms of topic, the top two authors were John Grisham and Danielle Steele. If putting those two authors in the same bucket seems odd, the book offers an explanation. Among the shared characteristics found in books by Grisham and Steele, the most striking is what the computer model found to be overwhelmingly present in bestselling books: human closeness and connection. “Scenes that display this most important indicator of bestselling are all about people communicating in moments of shared intimacy, shared chemistry, and shared bonds.”

I found The Bestseller Code to be of interest to writers and readers in terms of not just what qualities bestsellers share, but also in terms of the authors’ analysis. That said, bestseller lists don’t drive the choices of many of the writers and readers I know.

Who Cares?

I wouldn’t object to seeing Compromise With Sin land on a bestseller list.  But I’m happy that some people are reading and talking about it. If asked what audience I intended when I was writing it, I have to say, “I wrote a book I’d want to read.” Similarly, the books I choose to read are usually recommended to me by friends.

Many of the indie authors I know write books that appeal to a niche audience, a fact that almost guarantees they won’t have mass popularity. While the best of these writers strive to learn craft and meet professional standards, they don’t have to twist themselves and their work into virtual pretzels to satisfy agents and publishers.

And that’s the joy of going indie.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.

–E.L. Doctorow










Mirror Neurons: Connecting Writer and Reader

Janet wondered how many of the students in her Monday morning culinary class were as hung over as she. Not to worry. She could get through this. As the skin of a perfect red bell pepper yielded to her knife blade, she asked, “How much Vitamin C–” Shrieks, her own mingled with those of students, accompanied the blade slicing into  her finger and coming to rest on the bone. . . .

Did you flinch? I hope so. Surprising, isn’t it, how words can affect us as readers. Language has the power to evoke empathy. We feel it not just in the physical sense, as in the above example, but also emotionally if we identify with a character or situation. So, if a character we’ve come to like and root for finds his wife in bed with his best friend, we feel his pain.

A somewhat controversial neuroscientific theory has it that our ability to empathize is rooted in specialized mirror neurons . The areas of our brain responsible for producing certain actions are the same areas involved in understanding others’ actions. In animal studies, specialized neurons fire whether a monkey reaches for a peanut or observes another monkey reaching for a peanut. Presumably the mirror neuron system works similarly in us humans, and we go monkeys one better: we can experience empathy simply by reading.

The next time you find yourself laughing, flinching, or crying  as you read, think about how the words and your imagination interacted to work such magic.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.

–Gustave Flaubert