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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. IdealBookshelf.com

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.

Quotable

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.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGUNqq3jVLg  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.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4iobnSWX6I  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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8slg78LVPQ  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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DOwMc6MSeM 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.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCiUMaJ-srs 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.

Quotable

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. https://www.amazon.com/COMPROMISE-SIN-Leanna-Englert-ebook/dp/B0742K6VQ6/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=compromise+with+sin&qid=1572367570&s=books&sr=1-1

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.

Quotable

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

–Stephen King

Filters–More Weeds in Your Prose Garden

Almost any attempt to revise my WIP brings opportunities to cut out nuisance words. Continuing in the vein of my last post, “Wimpy Verbs–the Weeds in Your Prose Garden,” I’m writing today about filters, the second-cousins of wimpy verbs.

Here’s an example from my published novel, Compromise With Sin, Louise being the point-of-view character in the scene:

“Doc picked up the button and gave it to her, letting his hand linger so that for a moment they held it together. He said nothing, but Louise felt his eyes said it all: time was running out.”

The filter words are “Louise felt.” Revised, the sentence would read, “He said nothing, but his eyes said it all. Time was running out.”

Here’s how Janet Burroway describes what makes filtering a problem: “As a fiction writer you will often be working through ‘some observing consciousness.’ Yet, when you step back and ask the reader to observe the observer–to look at rather than through the character–you start to tell-not-show, and rip us briefly out of the scene.”

(Credit for the term “filters” often goes to Burroway, who described this creative writing nuisance in her text Writing Fiction: a Guide to Narrative Craft. But it appeared earlier in John Gardner ‘s The Art of Fiction.)

I would change the last sentence to read: “He said nothing, but his eyes said it all: time was running out.”

Just between you and me, I’ve heard about filters for several years but pretty much pooh-poohed their significance. I heard that agents regarded filter-heavy writing as amateurish, and my instinct was to ask, “But does the reader care?.” But I started noticing them in fiction–especially when they appeared in paragraph after paragraph–and feeling jerked out of the POV character’s head. I get it now.

Here’s an incomplete list of filters: see, hear, taste, realize, decide, feel, know, watch.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald

Wimpy Verbs—the Weeds in Your Prose Garden

Like weeds that spoil your splendid garden, wimpy verbs sully your prose.

“Be verbs,” the various forms of “to be,” dominate the wimps list: be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being. Along with the linking verbs—appear, become, feel, grow, look, seem, remain, smell, sound, stay, taste, turn—they belong to a class known as “state-of-being” verbs.

Truth to tell, wimpy verbs litter my drafts, and sometimes even my revisions. If I’m not vigilant, I get called out by my writing friend Gaylon Greer.  Thank goodness.

Here are some examples of how choosing verbs other than “be” verbs strengthen sentences.

Ex: Brandon is fearful of giving his speech.

Fix: Brandon fears giving his speech.

Ex: Danielle grew uncomfortable when the interviewer asked inappropriate questions.

Fix: Danielle’s chest tightened when the interviewer asked inappropriate questions.

Ex: I am lonely.

Fix: Loneliness grips me.

Ex: Such a brazen crime seemed unimaginable to residents of the quiet neighborhood.

Fix: Residents couldn’t imagine such a brazen crime in their quiet neighborhood.

When you start messing with words, the fun begins. For example, as I think of Brandon,
certainly “fears” is better than “is fearful.” But I want to feel his angst viscerally. And that’s what I want for my reader. So, “The mere thought of giving his speech made Brandon’s knees quake and his mouth go dry.” Been there, done that.

And I can’t resist going beyond the “brazen crime” sentence. So, “Several neighbors bought guns. Two men took turn patrolling the streets at night. A widow put her house on the market.”

Search in a chapter of your WIP for these key culprits: am, be, was, and were. You don’t have to weed all of them out of your prose–sometimes you’ll just like the cadence of the sentence as is. But you’ll find many sentences can be improved.

Leave a comment or example of your own.

Quotable

What could be more nostalgic than the smell of the library you grew up with? Or more likely to produce a lump in the throat than memories of riding bikes to the library with kids? Or more significant than thwarting the John Birch Society’s attempts to get certain books off library shelves?

–Leanna Englert, in “The Voice for America’s Libraries

(I meant to use this for Library Week, but April got away from me.)

This Glamorous Writing Life

As a fan of the late E. L., Doctorow–his Ragtime made me fall in love with the Progressive era–I felt validated when learning that he’d said this about novel writing: “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

That describes me. I don’t outline. I’m in the writing camp known as “pantsers,” as opposed to “plotters.” So after writing a first draft of Candlelight Confessions, my work-in-progress, I started revising, which in my case often means overhauling. I threw myself into it, massaging style, complicating character relationships and plot, and even toying with nitty-gritty stuff like changing “happy” to “glad” and back again.

It occurred to me I needed a bit of back story regarding Irina’s failed engagement. So I wrote a scene. And that inspired another and another and another. Magnificent scenes. Characters revealed new sides of themselves, and things happened that laid the groundwork for later events and character motivations. I was happily immersed in the anguished act of creating, which is essentially problem-solving, squirming with uncertainty and myriad possibilities, then knowing I’d found my way on this journey, as Doctorow suggests.

Then a forehead slap from my friends who critiqued these chapters at Austin Novel in Progress. I’d gotten seduced by a detour, that one new scene that called for more. Trouble was, these scenes did little or nothing to advance the story I intended.

Stunned, I listened to Tim who suggested I take a month off. That was about three weeks ago. The characters and story visit me now and then, but I swat them away. Hard to say what will ultimately happen with these pages. They just might end up in the landfill (or, to be PC, the recycle center) with the approximate 100,000 words cut from Compromise With Sin.

I’m occupying much of my free time working on piano technique and learning new songs. I’m not sure what will happen once I get back to the book. I just know I have a story to tell and characters I want to hang out with.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

The cave you fear holds the treasure you seek.

–Joseph Campbell

Authors, Grab This Low-hanging Fruit

Thought you’d want to know that a zoo in London is holding a Valentine’s Day fundraiser, charging the equivalent of two dollars to “name a cockroach after your ex.” Seems the day for lovers means different things to different people.

If you decide to brave a restaurant on that hallowed day, look around. Some couples seem to delight in celebrating new or enduring love. One woman’s eyes hold the expectation of a proposal. A man looks off in the distance, as though he wishes he were with someone else.

As writers of fiction, we strive to create characters who resonate with readers. To that end, we struggle with characters’ emotions, and we struggle to differentiate characters. If it all seems like a lot of hard work, it is.

But there’s something I call “one of these days is not like the other” or “low-hanging fruit.” We can reveal so much if we’ll tap the power of certain days to evoke meanings and emotions for our characters, reveal something about relationships, and sneak in back story. I’m talking about showing characters on holidays, birthdays, or anniversaries.

Here are a few examples:

Holidays can mean so many different things. Over Memorial Day, Morris goes on a three-day fishing trip with his buddies while his wife decorates the graves of forgotten veterans. Nathaniel Begay declines an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner and goes to a movie alone. Laurie joins a protest against wage inequity on Labor Day. Working on Christmas Eve means that Donna, who is Catholic, is missing important family time, and her mother has been nagging her to get a different job. Meanwhile Jacob, who is Jewish, thoughtfully trades shifts with a Christian co-worker every year. (And I haven’t even touched on being in prison on Mother’s Day.)

Birthdays aren’t just about celebrating or growing older. Glenn remembers his mother collapsing and dying on his seventh birthday. Claudia abandons her good-girl persona and gets wasted with her friends at a male strip show. Melody bakes her own birthday cake and eats it and a carton of Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked. For the second year in a row, Grady’s family has spent part of his birthday in their tornado shelter. Julie threw a lavish dinner party for her fortieth birthday during which her husband announced he was leaving her for her best friend. (That really happened.)

Anniversaries can be about the usual things or the very personal.  Married seven years, Anna has given up expecting Bill to remember their wedding anniversary. Alex grieves on the anniversary of his brother’s death. Shelly takes a mini-vacation every year to observe the day she quit the job that gave her migraine headaches. (See the opportunity for some backstory here?)

You have rich examples of your own. I suggest that you look at your work-in-progress for scenes in which meanings, emotions, or tension could be heightened if you’d set them on a day that holds some significance for your character(s).

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything, is ready, we shall never begin.

–Ivan Turgenev

Banished Words List 2019

“Ghosting” made the Banished Words List.

Another year, another Banished Words List from Lake Superior State University. I have to say I find their selections a bit lackluster compared to previous lists, e.g., 2018 . Creators of the list, which originated at a New Year’s Eve party in 1975, would ban words and phrases from the Queen’s English for “mis-use, over-use, and general uselessness.”

So here are some excerpts from 2018, along with comments submitted by nominators:

  • Wrap my head around–“Impossible to do and makes no sense.”
  • Yeet, as in to vigorously throw or toss–“If I hear one more freshman say “yeet,” I might just yeet myself out a window.”
  • Ghosting–“Somebody doesn’t want to talk to you. Get over it. No need to bring the paranormal into the equation.”
  • Optics–“The trendy way to say ‘appearance’.”


I have to say I find their selections a bit lackluster compared to previous lists, e.g., 2018 . I happen to like “ghosting,” and I think it will stick. I’d contribute “at the end of the day” to the list.

Your thoughts?

Quotable

If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.

–Margaret Atwood

Crooked Path to Strong Dialogue

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

Too often, dialogue follows a straight, predictable path when it should veer off into the unexpected. In real life conversations, people often talk past one another. Putting this fact to work in your dialogue can enhance credibility and/or tension.

Imagine a writer creating dialogue between a therapist and a patient who’d tried to kill his own mother:

 

The therapist says, “Your mother was cited seventeen times for neglect and abuse. Do you hate her?”

The patient balls one hand into a fist. “My mother might not be perfect, but she’s a goddamn saint. Don’t you forget that.”

Instead of answering the therapist’s question directly, the patient reacts not to the question itself, but to what he perceives as the therapist impugning his mother’s integrity.

Another way one character responding to another rings true is when there’s apparent misunderstanding, which may or may not be deliberate. In this example, a couple has just finished setting up the crib and other furniture for the baby they’re expecting:

Eve imagines what it will be like to watch their baby sleeping on his back, his little chest rising and falling with each breath.  She takes Adam’s hand. “It seems almost too good to be true.”

He gives her hand a squeeze. “I know.  To think we got all this for under two hundred dollars.”

Here’s another example, this one from an oft-cited scene in Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist. Sarah and Macon are grieving parents whose relationship disintegrates as they drive in the rain:

There was a moment of watery blindness till the truck had dropped behind. Sarah gripped the dashboard with one hand.

“I don’t know how you can see to drive,” she said.

“Maybe you should put on your glasses.”

“Putting on my glasses would help you to see?”

“Not me; you,” Macon said. “You’re focused on the windshield instead of the road.”

Your thoughts? Examples of dialogue? Leave a comment.

Quotable

A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That is why there are so few good conversations; due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.

–Truman Capote