Category Archives: The Take-away

The Sentiment Resonates, but . . .

One of the rewards of reading fiction is coming upon a passage that makes you pause because it so truly illuminates something you’ve experienced or felt yourself. It happened to me while reading my book club’s recent selection, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.

To set the scene, pretending that his wife, Rachel, is dead, Marty sits with Ellie in a jazz club.

Excerpt: He takes a big sip of his Tom Collins to wash away the aftertaste of deceit. He thinks about the European river cruise in the spring, the way Rachel will lay out the brochures and ship menus across the perfectly made bed. They will eat oysters and truffles and make love once or twice, floating by the peat fields of old Europe, sunken down into its ancient rivers. She will read novels in bed and fall asleep with the light on. The predictability of it is both heartening and its own kind of ruin.

The Take-away: This paragraph begins with so much promise, and the last sentence, “The predictability of it is both heartening and its own kind of ruin,”  perfectly captures Marty’s ambivalence. I know that feeling.  Coming upon it expressed so well made me pause. Unfortunately the paragraph doesn’t end with that sentence.  The author adds words that suck the power from the sentiment: He looks up at the stage where the trumpeter is on the outer edge of his solo, rising onto the balls of his feet to launch his big, buttery tone. “That kid’s not bad,” he says. We’re back to the present moment in the jazz club. And the paragraph peters out with an unnecessary dialogue tag.

Paragraph breaks exist for a reason, as I pointed out in a previous blog post “Domesticating the Paragraph.” My guess is that Smith, intent on developing a pivotal scene with Marty and Ellie, didn’t recognize the potency of the sentence in question. It happens.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


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



A Most Exquisite Scene


 I am reading Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan, for two reasons: 1) the book blurb grabbed me, and 2) it’s my book club’s current selection. Ordinarily I wouldn’t write a blog post about a book until I’ve finished it, but I wanted to share a most exquisite passage, just a piece of a moving scene, and my take-away.

Excerpt: “Hello, Liddy,” he said stiffly. “How was your day, kiddo?”

It was hard not to sound mocking, knowing she couldn’t answer. When Lydia did talk, in her way, it was senseless babble–echolalia, the doctors called it. And yet it felt strange not to talk to her. What else could one do with an eight-year-old girl who couldn’t sit up on her own, much less walk? Pet and greet her: that took all of fifteen seconds. And then? Agnes would be watching, hungry for a show of affection toward their younger daughter. Eddie knelt beside Lydia and kissed her cheek.

The Take-away: There’s much more to the full scene that reveals Eddie’s conflicted feelings for his daughter and the deeper family relationships and foreshadows a plot point. I am struck by Eddie’s struggle, his effort to connect with Lydia and falling short.

That said, I would not have reached this beautiful scene had the novel not been a book club read. I (I should say we because Tim and I are reading it together) slogged through the first chapter or so wondering why we should keep reading. I call the style “a day in the life of” because it relates characters’ actions and interactions without a sense of purpose or intrigue. What does Anna, the twelve-year-old protagonist, want? What does Eddie, her father, want?

There’s a hint of something sinister in Eddie’s meeting with Mr. Styles, a rich man who  owns nightclubs. Now, that’s interesting. But here’s where I have a big problem. We’re seeing things through Eddie’s eyes, yet he doesn’t let us in on facts that will come out later, such as this meeting is not on the up-and-up, and, oh, Styles is a mobster. I know this doesn’t bother some readers, but for my part, I find it a major cheat.

I should add that my go-to writing guru, Donald Maass, loved some of what I didn’t about chapter one. He wrote a piece entitled “When Worlds Collide” for Writer Unboxed in which he cites Anna’s experience at the home of the super-rich Mr. Styles.

I’m reminded once again that readers are not a homogenous group.

Your thoughts. Leave a comment.


Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last. and it always tells the truth.

–Margaret Atwood

Writing To Admire and Emulate

It’s no secret that I’m enamored with Janet Fitch’s writing. Here’s another example from White Oleander:

Excerpt: If I were a poet, that’s what I’d write about. People who worked in the middle of the night. Men who loaded trains, emergency room nurses with their gentle hands. Nightclerks in hotels, cabdrivers on graveyard, waitresses in all-night coffee shops. They knew the world, how precious it was when a person remembered your name, the comfort of a rhetorical question, “How’s it going, how’s the kids?” They knew how long the night was. They knew the sound life made as it left. It rattled, like a slamming screen door in the wind. Night workers lived without illusions, they wiped dreams off counters, they loaded freight. They headed back to the airport for one last fare.

My Take-away:
“If I were a poet,” then comes, in essence, a poem about people who work in the middle of the night. I love the humanity of this description that avoids “shorthand” adjectives, such as “disenfranchised” or “fringe.”


Cheat your landlord, if you must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality anymore than you can fake a good meal.

–William S. Burroughs Continue reading Writing To Admire and Emulate

Words Breathe Life Into Abstraction

Finding the words to describe an abstract concept can send a writer into a spiral of self-doubt, maybe–and this is where it gets ugly–to the point of plucking a low-hanging cliche. But the seasoned writer slogs on, knowing that the right words will resurrect self-worth.

It may seem that when Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of that Montgomery, Alabama, bus in 1955, the civil rights movement took off and “spread like wildfire.” But in the words of Eldridge Cleaver in the following excerpt from Soul on Ice, here’s what happened:

Excerpt: And as that spirit of revolt swept across the continent from that wayward bus in Montgomery, Alabama, seeping like new life into the cracks and nooks of northern ghettos and sweeping in furious gales across the campuses of southern Negro colleges, erupting, finally, in the sit-ins and freedom rides–as this swirling maelstrom of social change convulsed the nation, shocking an unsuspecting American public, folk music, speaking of fundamental verities, climbed slowly out of the grave; and the hip lobe of the national ear, twitching involuntarily at first, began to listen.

My Take-Away: Sheer poetry, this passage invites the reader to imagine.  That “spirit of revolt” becomes something tangible as it “swept across the continent.” Who knows what the “cracks and nooks of northern ghettos” are? I’ve pondered those words but can’t figure out why they touch me in a way that saying  “reached northern ghettos” would have.

And such dynamic, sensory language: “sweeping in furious gales,” “erupting,” and “swirling maelstrom of social change convulsed the nation.”

Then there’s the surprising twist in which “folk music . . . climbed slowly out of the grave,” not to “capture the attention of an American public ready to listen,” but “and the hip lobe of the national ear, twitching involuntarily at first, began to listen.” Wow.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.

–Robin Williams

Stuck on a Novel Opening

I’m in the mode of revising the very rough draft of my WIP. How rough? I practically get abrasions from turning the pages. But that’s OK. My philosophy is that any first draft is good, and truth to tell, I really like how this story is shaping up.

But as I revise, I know the opening needs a lot of work. It probably amounts to only one or two paragraphs, but I’m struggling. One things I’ve decided to do is draft five different openings and see what that tells.

What will help, I think, is to look at my little collection of novel beginnings to see what I can learn. Here’s one from One True Thing, by Anna Quindlen:

Excerpt: Jail is not as bad as you might imagine. When I say jail I don’t mean prison. Prison is the kind of place you see in old movies or public TV documentaries, those enormous gray places with guard towers at each corner and curly stripes of razor wire going round and round like a loop–the loop atop a high fence. Prison is where they hit the bars with metal spoons, plan insurrection in the yard, and take the smallest boy–the one in on a first offense–into the shower room, while the guards pretend not to look and leave him to find his own way out, blood trickling palely, crimson mixed with milky white, down the backs of his hairless thighs, the shadows at the backs of his eyes changed forever.

My Take-away: The first sentence hooks me. What follows pulls us into a description of prisons as we identify with what we’ve seen in movies and on TV. It leads us from the innocuous physical characteristics of a prison exterior to the vulgar assault of a boy with hairless thighs. I’m impressed with Quindlen’s ability to evoke the horror of that scene without overly graphic details. And this paragraph lets you know you’re in for a ride with a superb writer.

But on the whole, this is unfortunately a trick opening for what is otherwise a really fine novel. The narrator is not in prison, and she’s most certainly not in a men’s prison.

What I can take away from this novel opening and apply to what I’m trying to do is the recognition that my original draft failed to hit the mark in terms of suggesting what was to come. I have the protagonist grappling with one thing, when it’s really another matter altogether that dogs her.

Back to the drawing board.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


Invention, it must be humbly admitted, consists not of creating out of the void but out of chaos.

–Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley



Show? Tell? Summarize?

Somewhere between “showing and telling” lies “summarizing,” as in this excerpt from “The Magic Barrel,” by Bernard Malamud, in Major American Short Stories, A. Walton Litz, Ed.

Excerpt: . . . .All day he ran around in the woods, missed an important appointment, forgot to give out his laundry, walked out of a Broadway cafeteria without paying and had to run back with the ticket in his hand; had even not recognized his landlady in the street when she passed with a friend and courteously called out, “A good evening to you, Doctor Finkle.” By nightfall, however, he had regained sufficient calm to sink his nose into a book and there found peace from his thoughts.

 My Take-away: Malamud’s summary offers a satisfying middle ground between telling the reader that the character was scattered all day vs. showing each of the character’s distracted behaviors. I think the strength of this summary comes from piling lapse upon lapse. Presenting one or two of these lapses wouldn’t capture the state of his mind nearly as well. It also doesn’t hurt the imagery that “all day he ran around in the woods.”


San Marcos Public Library will hold its indie author day on Sat., Sept. 30th, 2-4 p.m.


I follow K.M. Weiland’s writing blog. Today’s post, “6 Lifestyle Changes You Can Make To Protect Creativity” was exceptional.


I’m playing with placing quotes over images. Probably need to keep working at it.

Janet Fitch’s Rules for Writers

As I’ve said before, White Oleander, by Janet Fitch, is a book I look to again and again to study writing style.  I’m happy to see that Fitch has a new novel coming out November 7th, entitled The Revolution of Marina M. It’s called “a sweeping saga of the Russian Revolution as seen through the eyes of one young woman.” (Just wish she hadn’t chosen the chopped-off head look so in vogue for covers today.)

A while back, Fitch, who teaches writing, shared her advice for writers with a blog of the Los Angeles Times.

Janet Fitch’s 10 Rules for Writers is worth taking a look at. Not wanting to reprint it in full without permission, I’ve taken just a sampling:

 Write the sentence, not just the story 

Long ago I got a rejection from the editor of the Santa Monica Review, Jim Krusoe. It said: “Good enough story, but what’s unique about your sentences?” That was the best advice I ever got. Learn to look at your sentences, play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences. The music of words. I like Dylan Thomas best for this–the Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait. I also like Sexton, Eliot, and Brodsky for the poets and Durrell and Les Plesko for prose. A terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone’s writing who has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your own words for theirs, and see how they achieved their effects.

My Take-away: I find reading Fitch’s rules heartening. I like to picture her laboring over craft just like I do.

Glimpse of the Past

I was recently talking with a friend about my former career as a newspaper reporter. This was before computers so stories were typed. We made small revisions following a copywriting guide, so, for example, if you crossed out a phrase and later decided to keep, it you wrote “stet” and circled it.

For big revisions, we had scissors and rubber cement. Need to move a paragraph? Cut it off and paste it where it belongs. Hence, “cut-and-paste.”


The truth is libraries are raucous clubhouses for free speech, controversy, and community. 

–Paula Poundstone 



Writer Skillfully Employs Meteor Shower

In the overnight hours of August 12th and 13th, I hope to catch the Perseid meteor shower. I’ve watched for the meteors several times but caught them just once. On that memorable occasion, friends and I had driven into the foothills of Denver to get away from light pollution. After staring up at the night sky for some time, we decided to lie down on the side of the road. Kids, don’t try this, OK?

It’s easy for writers to employ cosmic events in trite ways, but I’m reminded of a passage from Janet Fitch’s White Oleander. Astrid is standing with Ray and others watching for the Quatrandid meteor shower:

Excerpt: I could hear the mud sucking at his boots as he shifted his weight. I was glad it was dark, that he couldn’t see the flush of pleasure on my face as he drew closer, looking up at the sky as if he cared about the Quatrandids, as if that’s why he’d come out. . . . He was standing right next to me. If I shifted just an inch to my left, I could brush him with my sleeve. I felt the radiant heat of him across the narrow gap between us in the darkness. We had never stood so close.

My Take-away: The first line puts us right in the moment, hardly a romantic one, but it lets us know how acutely aware Astrid is of Ray’s presence. The rest of the paragraph reveals the growing mutual attractio without Fitch ever saying so directly.

Let me add that if I had only one book to emulate in terms of writing style, I’d choose White Oleander.


Compromise With Sin Available for Pre-order

The Kindle edition of Compromise With Sin will be published on August 19th. It’s available now for pre-order at $3.99.


I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. If you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it full speed. Embrace it with both arms. Hug it. Love it, and above all, become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good.

–Roald Dahl

Sensory Images Enrich Writing

Model of the Führermuseum


There’s nothing like a few well-chosen sensory images to bring a scene to life. In the following example from All the Light We Cannot See, by Anothony Doerr, we’re in the imagination of Sergeant Major von Rumpel.

Excerpt: In his weaker moments, he imagines walking in some future hour between arcades of pillars in the great Führermuseum at Linz, his boots clacking smartly on the marble, twilight cascading through high windows.

My Take-away: A lesser author would have said, “. . . he imagines visiting the Führermuseum at Linz.”  But Doerr’s words: “arcades of pillars . . . his boots clacking smartly on the marble, twilight cascading through high windows”  evoke a sensory experience that puts us right in the moment. The passage also reinforces von Rumpel’s exalted opinion of himself.

I thought for a moment that “walking” could be replaced with “strutting,” but I realized that’s how an observer would describe von Rumpel, not how he would describe himself.

Incidentally, both von Rumpel and Hitler could only dream of the  Führermuseum, intended to house much of the world’s finest art, most of it confiscated by the Nazis. Hitler’s plan for a grand museum complex, to include a library, opera house, theater, and more, was never realized.


Writing a book is an adventure: to begin with it is a toy. And an amusement. And then it becomes a mistress. And then it becomes a master. And then it becomes a tyrant. And the last phase is that just about as you are reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster. And fling him about to the public.

–Winston Churchill

Write a Scene That Plants Doubt

I used to be a fan of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Thanks to the shows’ producers and editors, there’s seldom a lack of tension.

But in one finale there was a tense moment so delicious I wished I’d written it.

Excerpt: After Deanna chose Jesse over Jason, Jason had an opportunity to confront her, with Jesse present, as to why she hadn’t chosen him. I don’t recall her answer, but he got in this parting shot: “I always wanted you to look at me the way you looked at Jesse and Grant.”

My Take-away: Whoa. What if Jason had said, “I always wanted you to look at me the way you looked at Jesse?” He would have come across as just a whiny loser Deanna and Jesse could more or less forget about. But his words planted the knowledge (or nagging suspicion) that she wanted Grant perhaps as much as she wanted Jesse. (Btw, Deanna and Jesse didn’t make it to the altar.)

OK, I know that in this reality TV world Jason’s revelation probably didn’t phase the couple. But the scene inspires me to think about how I might introduce doubt into my protagonist’s budding relationship. There’s not only the moment of revelation, but also the fallout that will bring tension to later scenes. E.g., when they’re having a romantic dinner out, it’s ruined when he accuses her of flirting with the waiter. Etc., etc.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.

–Warren Buffet