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




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 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

Links for Writers v2.0

Do you ever wonder how Charles Dickens or Edith  Wharton wrote novels without benefit of computers and the internet? We are fortunate to have an abundance of tools at our fingertips. I’ll connect you to a few in this post.

Disclaimer: Read this post at your own risk. You, alone, must accept full responsibility for the minutes and hours you take away from your own writing to peruse these links.

Write to Done

Write to Done has the tagline: “Unmissable Articles on Writing.”  You’ll see on its visually rich, commercially slick landing page a sampling of its offerings targeting novelists, short-story writers, nonfiction writers, and bloggers. Tips and articles cover productivity, motivation, writing craft, marketing, and more. Mary Jaksch, Chief Editor, believes that it’s practice, not genetics, that makes a writer, but more than that, the practice needs direction, hence her blog.

The Write Practice

Like Jaksch, Joe Bunting, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of  The Write Practice, believes in practice, so much so that readers will find a 15-minute assignment at the end of each article.  For example, in the article “How To Write a Mystery Novel,” author Joslyn Chase ends by asking readers to select a sub-genre–cozy, police/medical/legal procedural, private eye/noir, or suspense–and write the opening scene, respecting the conventions of the genre and reader expectations.

Writer’s Digest

As you might expect of Writer’s Digest, there’s a wealth of information covering all aspects of writing. If you sign up for the Writer’s Digest Newsletter, you can download free character development worksheets.

MOOC: “Moving the Margins: Fiction and Inclusion”

My thanks to Lolly Walter for alerting me to this MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), “Moving the Margins: Fiction and Inclusion.”  The free, self-paced MOOC is offered by the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa. Slated to begin mid-July, the course should be open for registration any day now. It features authors writing and speaking about voice, character, setting, style, language, and “moving the margins” of the known and the expected.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


A ratio of failures is built into the process of writing. The wastebasket has evolved for a reason.

–Margaret Atwood

Want Your Indie Book in Bookstores? Think Again

Besides offering Compromise With Sin on Amazon, I wanted to see it in bookstores and libraries (more on libraries later). That meant the book would have to be available from a major distributor, such as Ingram Content Group, Inc., and Baker and Taylor. Ingram makes that possible for indie authors via IngramSpark.

I did my research and got Compromise With Sin into the IngramSpark system. It required some special formatting as well as understanding what bookstores require. Independent bookstores buy at a discount, typically 55 percent. And they require that the book must be returnable.

My first shock came when I discovered that on the sale of my book at $14.99, my take would be 51 cents. The second shock was that I would have to bear the cost of any book returned. Ouch.

The third shock was that when I approached BookPeople, my big, local independent bookstore in Austin, I was told that even though Compromise With Sin was in the Ingram catalog, they would not buy it because it was a print-on-demand book. They would, however, be glad to carry it on a consignment basis. (I’ve learned that this is the policy of many independent bookstores.) I would provide six copies of the book, which they would display for three months. I would make up to 55 percent of the purchase price. They charge a $25 handling fee.

Here’s how the numbers would work for me: I pay $7.58 for each book I order from IngramSpark. That’s based on an order of 18 books and includes shipping and handling costs. So if BookPeople paid me the maximum 55 percent on $14.99, my take would be $8.24. But, there’s the matter of a $25 handling fee, which amounts to $4.17 per book. Now the store pays me $4.07. Bottom line? The sale of a single book would cost me $3.51. I passed up the deal.

While I wish that BookPeople had a friendlier policy toward local authors, I understand that bookstores need to make money. And while I never expected to make big money on my book, I won’t be paying people to read it. Bookstores can still buy it from IngramSpark but probably won’t because I no longer make it returnable.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


One benefit of summer was that each day we had more light to read by.

–Jennette Walls








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




Cooperative? Controlling? Dialogue Reflects Character

In revising my WIP, Candlelight Confessions, I discovered a glaring instance in which dialogue didn’t fit the character. (I’m positive I’ll find more such instances as I get deeper into revision.)

To put this example in context: Irina Taylor has just revealed to friends that her sister, Christina, has written a novel that will expose their darkest secrets. She describes how Christina fictionalized their characters, and after explaining how she, herself, is portrayed, gets this retort from Jocelyn: “I doubt that people in Riverbend will recognize the character in the book as you.”

That’s what she said in the first draft. But she’s a woman who speaks her mind and rarely equivocates. So in revision, Jocelyn says, “You’re wrong. You’re not like that character.”

By contrast, in the same scene their friend Mercy says, “I know Christina needs a success after the failure of her last novel, but I wish she hadn’t taken our secrets. I’m praying that book never gets published.”

Jocelyn and Mercy represent people whose dialogue almost consistently falls near one end or the other of a continuum from control to cooperation. But most people, while they have a tendency toward one extreme or the other, adapt their behavior to their environment or situation. The general who barks with authority at work might be a pussycat at home.

What I find especially interesting in depicting characters through dialogue is to have a person who always speaks on one end of the continuum until a situation arises that forces him or her out of their comfort zone. E.g, take a worker who is the quintessential team player. She accepts the hardest assignments, almost never calls in sick, and works overtime without complaining. But when her supervisor’s request challenges a core belief, out comes her inner pit bull. “It’s not my fault you can’t control your labor costs. I refuse to work off the clock. And if I hear you get someone else to do it, I’m going to management.”


We should only read those books that bite and sting us.

–Franz Kafka

Note to Self: Ixnay Contrived Plots, Stock Characters, and Boring Stories

When it comes to writing fiction, most gurus advise knowing your audience and delivering what they want. I take a different approach. I write stories I would want to read. (That’s not as simple as it sounds, and it’s certainly not a solo exercise. Achieving something I’d want to read requires many hours spent learning the craft and listening to feedback from others.) And I’m not tone deaf to readers’ preferences and complaints, which they sometimes address by leaving a review on Amazon, Goodreads, and other sites.

I think a writer can learn more from the one- , two-. and three-star reviews than from the glowing four- and five-star reviews. So, for this post, I cruised Amazon reviews, and here’s a sampling of what readers didn’t like:

“The main characters were not believable and I felt nothing for them but disgust.”

“I cannot understand the overwhelming, unmitigated praise for what seems an almost (“almost” because I hate to say it) cliched novel with stock characters . . .  contained in an outlandish plot that defies all credibility. Long on meaningless detail (let no research go unpublished) but short on character development. I could hardly make it to the end. I felt like one of the characters lost at sea for days on end without a credible character in sight.”

“This book was nothing but contrived situations with PC caricatures.”

“I did not feel anything for the characters.”

“Really wanted to like this but had to put it away after a few chapters. Contrived is the best word to describe her writing and the story.”

“The writing was very simplistic and did not contain any depth in the character development. There were no surprises and the problems were solved in a simplistic manner.”
“You could cut 100 pages from the book and not miss anything. It dragged and I couldn’t finish it.”
What amuses me about this sampling, is that I’ve been guilty of every sin mentioned. But I hope, that by the time my book made it to print, I had atoned for those sins. And now I’m in the midst of writing another novel, making mistakes, revising, getting feedback, revising, getting feedback. Rinse, wash, repeat.
You might be interested in a somewhat related post, “Three Questions Readers Ask.”
Your thoughts? Leave a comment.
 Anytime you write something, you go through so many phases. You go through the ‘I’m a Fraud Phase.’ You go through the ‘I’ll Never Finish’ phase. And every once in a while you think, ‘What if I actually have created what I set out to create, and it’s received as such?’
–Lin-Manuel Miranda