Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Can you find the common themes?

Saw two movies beginning with the letter "E." "Elf," and "Easy Rider." I know, weird combo. Wouln't recommend it, but had never seen either one. Common themes, yes, both were about journeys of discovery, and Will Ferrell was on a sugar high while Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper were just high. Different endings, though, one a tragedy and one a comedy. I think you know which is which.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Name game

Let’s talk about names again. Names, like titles, are important. Who are the most memorable characters you’ve encountered in literature? Do their names say something about the characters? I wanted to name a geologist “Rockford,” and call him Rocky. Too much? Too coincidental?

Psychologists say that some people are attracted to professions because of their names. Dr. Cleaver is a surgeon. Dr. See is an ophthalmologist, Dr. Fish is an oceanographer. Using literal character names can “say” something about someone, although the connotations of names can be a hit or miss.

I like V names. Evelyn, Sylvia, Victoria. Strong names for strong women. Do initials spell anything? Does the spelling of a name mean anything. Does Sylvia Bragg brag about her children incessantly? You can play around with names for a while to see what you can come up with. Jennifer Lutz sounds different from Jenny Masterson.

Do you have a baby name book? Or do you look up the meaning of a name when you name a character? If I have a name in mind, then there’s no problem because sometimes the name just jumps out at me. But when I have difficulty naming a character, then I go to lists that help me with meanings, popularity and unique names for unique characters. By the way, a student recently told me he knew someone named “Unique.” 

Quiz time!

Can you tell the approximate ages of these characters just by their names?
Ethel, Esther, Dorothy vs. Shannon, Tiffany, Brittany. Which of these two groups of women carry AARP cards in their wallets?

Loretta, Lorraine, Louise vs. Katie, Caitlin, Kristin. Which of these two groups of women run track in high school or college? Who would have had a hip replacement?

Jack, Bob and Bill vs. Aiden, Connor and Ethan. Which of these two groups are entered in a diaper derby? Which group knows how to repair your lawn mower?

Remember, popular names come and go. Names, like all language can date a piece of writing, or tell something about a character. Don’t overlook the implications and connotations of names.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

More on words

Oct. 12, 2010

More on words and language. I love talking about words and language, and am fortunate that I get to talk about it in class tomorrow. Words define us, words scare us and words stir emotions in us. “Woman,” “cancer,” “fallen soldier.”

The denotative meaning of a word is its dictionary meaning, or the “official” meaning, and the connotative meaning is the emotional meaning attached to a word. Think about the words “mother,” “death,” “love” and “patriotism.” They all mean different things to different people. I once asked my class to define “feminism,” and got as many different answers as I had students in the class.

Words are symbols, and meanings are in people, not the words themselves. Even a simple word like “cat,” has a denotative meaning and a connotative meaning. A cat is a furry, four-legged domestic feline that meows and purrs. Most people would agree with that statement. But how we feel about cats, well, that’s another story. Maybe you love cats, and have seven or eight of them waiting for us when we get home from work each day. Or maybe someone you know and love has a cat that terrorizes you whenever you visit.

Enrich your writing with words that strengthen your characters and plots. Define your terms, and explain their importance to help us understand your characters and what makes them tick.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Word of the year

According to the American Dialect Society, http://www.american dialectsociety.org/Word of the year, the 2010 word of the year is “tweet,” and the word of the decade is “google.” Both terms come from computer terminology, and refer to aspects of communication, which I appreciate, and sometimes struggle to understand!

The 2009 word of the year was “bailout,” and 2007 featured “subprime.” I don’t know the exact criteria for selecting the word of the year, but members of the society can nominate and vote. According to a 2006 press release, members are instructed to select a word or phrase that is “newly prominent or notable in the past year.” They also note that the group is not acting in any official capacity of a governing body.

The ADS website states “Founded in 1889, the American Dialect Society is dedicated to the study of the English language in North America, and of other languages, or dialects of other languages, influencing it or influenced by it. Members include academics and amateurs, professionals and dilettantes, teachers and writers.”

After reading the article, I tried to come up with some great words of my own, but nothing seemed important enough to warrant such an honor as “word of the year.” There are so many great words that it’s hard to choose. I’m glad someone is doing it, though. The question is, what do you wear to the awards ceremony?

Talk to you soon,

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Flash fiction

I just mailed my entry to the Missouri Writer's Guild Flash Fiction contest. I have become a fan of flash fiction for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that I like short stories, which means that I also like really short, short stories. The second reason is that writing a really short, short story is a good exercise for any writer who struggles with words (which is every writer I know).

For this contest, I wasn’t sure what to send, and had been going through my archives/computer files for the past couple of weeks looking for something. At first I tried working with a dark short story but didn’t think it would work as flash fiction. I would have to cut too much to maintain the level of “darkness” I desired.

Later, I found a short romantic story that had been rejected by a magazine editor who took the time to tell me what worked. I knew I had something, but the piece was 900 words. I had to cut almost half to submit it.

I got to work right away. While I cut, I kept asking myself the same question. “What can I take out while keeping the story intact?” The answer was “A lot.” I was able to cut dialogue, description and (a little) action.

I only needed one line of dialogue instead of two or three to show someone was a jerk. Easy cut, the reader still knows this character’s a jerk. Description was easy. The right descriptive word can take the place of a couple of sentences. I also picked one item in a scene to focus on and describe instead of two or more. And finally, I was able to cut some of the action. That was a little more difficult, but I think I made the story tighter and simpler, which is good.

So I challenge you to write a flash fiction story, or take one of your existing stories and turn it into flash fiction. Make every word count, and watch your writing improve.

Talk to you soon,


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Does spelling matter?

If u cn rad thws thpn I gess spillebg dusn't mzter.

I read an article last week about some schools in the area eliminating spelling tests. With computer programs that spell for you, does it matter if students can spell?

It matters to me, but I love words and always did well on spelling tests when I was a kid. I think those "100s" on spelling tests helped balance the "70s" I earned on math tests, which may have kept my self esteem on a somewhat even keel.

I really want to think that it matters, but I'm not sure if it makes a difference. If we can communicate, then what role does the technique have? I'm a stickler for spelling, but even when there's a mistake, I still (usually) understand the meaning. I've had a couple of papers lately that featured "texting" language in a sentence or two. I understood, and corrected them. But isn't the fact that I understood the most important aspect?

Right now, I'm having trouble justifying both sides of the argument. One side of me (the writer, teacher, English major side) is screaming out ARE YOU INSANE? DO YOU HEAR YOURSELF? OF COURSE IT MATTERS!

But the other side says laws change, language changes, spelling can change, too. Dictionaries are written/printed with ink, not stone. What do you think?

My friend, Donna Volkenannt, recently posted something on Donnasbookpub.blogspot.com about the death of the English language. Why isn't the issue ever the death of math?

Talk to you soon,


Saturday, September 18, 2010


Some writers love them, some writers hate them, but most have an opinion about outlines. My opinion is that although I may not love them, I find them very helpful. I use them, in varying formats, for many reasons.

My students will present their first speeches in about a week, so I’m trying to help them find topics and organize their thoughts. Most students aren’t as passionate about writing as I am, and that’s OK. But if I can help them get through their speeches more easily, I’m pleased. I spend a couple hours every semester going over what outlines are, how to use them and why any writer can benefit from them. I have three main reasons why I believe outlines are useful.

Outlines are useful tools to help writers figure out what they think about a topic, organize those thoughts into an understandable format, and help remember what they wanted to say without going off on unrelated tangents. That’s really all there is. Sounds simple, and it is.

Last semester, in one of the best classes I’ve ever taught, (confirmed by my husband who said “I didn’t hear you complain about anyone all semester!”) one of my students told me that he used to hate outlines, but came to realize that they are useful tools to help him organize his thoughts. YES! I felt like I made a little difference, and I was happy.

Talk to you soon,


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Have faith, and a plan

Writers need to have faith: faith in themselves, faith in their work and faith that someone will appreciate their work. It’s not easy to send a story or article or book into the abyss and wait for a response that may or may not come. Some writers hear from an editor or publisher months or years after a piece was sent. That’s a wonderful surprise down the road, but many writers give up while they wait..

Don’t view writing as a linear process. The odds are not in your favor when you put one piece in the (e)mail, then wait for it to come back before you send it out again.

If you’re like me, you probably have something “almost” ready to go out. This holiday weekend, spend a couple hours polishing your work. When you’re sure it’s as good as it can be, go to the bookstore or library to find magazines, newspapers, publishers, editors or agents who might be interested, and send it out. (You can also go to your Writer’s Market and look it up, but it’s not as fun!) Send it to more than one editor that accepts multiple submissions.

If you send one piece to two editors, you’ve doubled your odds of success. If you send two pieces to three editors, you’ve increased your likelihood of success by a factor of six. You need faith when you send out your writing, but you also need to increase your odds of success by increasing the number of submissions. Have faith in yourself, and a plan.

Talk to you soon,


Sunday, August 29, 2010

Don't quit when you're behind

My favorite definition of success is "the enthusiasm with which one moves from one failure to the next." This definition implies resilience and perseverence. I like that implication.
We've all been discouraged by our writing careers, or lack thereof, at one time or another. But when you think about the writing careers of many famous writers, those roads weren't always smooth, either. We see those careers at the end of the road, at the finish line. Many of us are still at the beginning, or maybe a little farther. But we just aren't there, yet.
We didn't see the hours of solitary writing at a sad little desk, or the marked-up galleys that bleed red, or the edits and fact-checking that made your favorite writer want to pull out his or her hair. We missed all that. We came in at the end, where everything came together and the writer received the payoff for months or years of hard work.
So the next time you are a little discouraged about the progress of your career, count those rejection letters with pride, and savor those criticisms as badges of honor that pave the road of success. Maybe next year at this time, you will be recognized as one of the up-and-coming writers you've read about so many times.

What if the following people had quit when they were behind?

Tina Brown was expelled from school, as were swimming champion Diana Nyad and Roger Daltry, composer, musician and lead singer of The Who.
Dr. Robert Jarvick, inventor of the artificial heart, was rejected by 15 medical schools.
Sally Jesse Raphael was fired 19 times before becoming a famous host of her own radio and television shows.
Walt Disney was fired by an editor for having "no good ideas."

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Do you enter contests? I do at times, but have limited my contest entries during the past few years. Instead of sending out my work to any contest, I pay attention to the judge, his or her work and the entry fee.

If the judge has written something similar to my style, I may have a better chance of having him or her respond positively to my work. If I write fantasy poetry, and the judge has published books on fantasy poetry, then I think my work may be a good "fit."

A couple of years ago I entered a contest that featured a judge whose work wasn't similar to mine, but I submitted a piece I thought he would respond to. My strategy worked. I won second place.

I also make sure my entry fees go to contests where I get the most for my money. For instance, I check the entry fee, the prize awards, and whether or not a critique is provided. I wouldn't spend $25 on a contest that features a $50 prize. I might, however, be willing to spend a little more if I get a critique from someone whose work I admire.

Some writers vary the amount they spend every month,  others have a strict budget they adhere to, and others just send out whatever they want, whenever they want. Whichever type of writer you are, try to get the most for your hard-earned dollars. And remember, if nothing else, you may be able to deduct this expense from your taxes!    

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

All the rules, all the time

Have you ever stopped writing because you don’t know all the rules? If you think about it too much, the rules can be overwhelming. Trying to remember all the rules of grammar, spelling and fiction or nonfiction can conjure up a big bad case of writer’s block.

A few years ago at a Saturday Writers meeting, we had a magazine editor who was pretty laid back and honest about the whole process of writing. He acknowledged how difficult it is, but like many other forms of art, realized that there are times when rules can hinder writers. Sometimes, the whole is greater than its parts, and writers can drive themselves crazy trying to follow every rule, especially while trying to break new ground.

Someone asked him about the story arc in one of his stories. He hesitated while he thought for a moment, and then said something like, (and I’m paraphrasing here) I don’t even know if I really know what that is. Everyone laughed, and breathed a sigh of relief. Obviously, he hadn’t thought about following a story arc when he wrote his story. But the story was wonderful regardless of a story arc, or lack thereof.

I’m not saying you can disregard all the rules. I’m saying you need to know the rules, but realize that sometimes the writing takes you to a place “outside” the rules, where creativity takes precedence over everything else.

This man is a good writer who doesn’t always follow all the rules. In this case, wasn’t even sure what the exact rule was. I appreciated his honesty, and he helped many writers in the group who struggle with following all the rules, all the time.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Five-minute fiction

Hi again

I wanted to talk about marketing today, after a meeting this morning with some writers looking for ideas to market their work, but I'll save that for next time. Today I have a fun challenge.

My daughter challenged me this afternoon to write a story in five minutes! Sounds hard, and it was! I couldn't do it, but what I did was start a story that I finished within the hour.

Now I want to challenge you to do the same! Keep stories to a maximum of 500 words, and finish within the hour. I wrote about 150 words in five minutes, so let me know how far you get in five minutes, and then how long it took to finish. (The funky lines mark how far I got in five minutes.)

Send in those you finish within the hour. I'm counting on honesty! And also that you keep the stories PG-13 rated, please. No erotica or gore or horror.

Since my daughter is in high school, I wrote a story about a couple of high school girls shopping for dresses. It's light and fun and I hope you enjoy it. Maybe it will inspire you to write one.

Send your five-minute fiction and let's see how creative we can be in five minutes, and an hour!

Here's my five-minute fiction:

The perfect dress

After searching all day for the perfect Homecoming dress, Laurie Taylor knew exactly what she didn’t want. The ones she had tried on. Each one was wrong in a different way. The hems were too short, too long or too weird. The necks didn’t fit right, or hung awkwardly from her shoulders. The colors were too bright, too pale or the pattern was awful. Nothing worked. She and her friend Claudia were ready to give up.

“Let’s go get a cappuccino,” Claudia said. “We can think about what you want, and where to go next.”

“I don’t think anything will help,” Laurie said.

“Well, at least we can get off our feet for a while and regroup,” Claudia said. “Maybe the cappuccino will have all the answers.”

Before they reached the counter of the Coffee Klatch, the clerk asked “What’ll you have?”

Laurie didn’t answer. She just stared at him. He didn’t bother to look up.


This was no ordinary coffee clerk. This was Jake. Jake Phillips, the coolest kid on campus. Even in his white apron, he managed to look like the most interesting person in the coffee shop. His dark hair was pulled back in a casual ponytail that curved under slightly, just brushing the place where his neck and shoulders met.

The sleeves of his white, button-down shirt were rolled up, exposing his tanned, muscular forearms. He rolled the pencil between his fingers and focused on his order pad while waiting for a response. He didn’t get one. Laurie just stared, mouth open.

When he finally looked up, he smiled. He recognized her from chemistry class.

“Hey, I know you.”

She smiled, still unable to speak. She couldn’t stop staring at this beautiful boy who was actually talking to her.

“What’s your poison?”

Laurie laughed too loudly at the comment.

Claudia jumped in, and ordered a cappuccino for her friend.

When they got to the table, Laurie said she wanted to leave.

“We are not leaving,” Claudia said. “We need to figure out our next move.”

“My next move is to change my mind about going to this stupid dance,” Laurie said. “You and Janice and Cynthia and Katie will have a better time without me, anyway. I don’t belong there. My people just don’t do that kind of thing.”

“Your people?” Claudia asked. “What people are those?”

“My family. We aren’t dancers. We don’t do parties well. One time, my uncle accidentally fell into the pool underneath the dance floor.”

“Nice try, George Bailey. That was a scene from “A Wonderful Life.”

“Well, maybe it wasn’t a pool, but he fell off something, somewhere, I’m sure.”

Jake came out from behind the counter and walked over to their table. Laurie sank in her chair.

“My people aren’t dancers, either,” he said to Laurie. “That’s why I play the guitar. My band’s playing at Homecoming, you’re going, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Of course I’m going.”

Laurie turned to Claudia. “C’mon Claudia, let’s go look for dresses. I think I saw one that might work.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Hi again.

Back from vacation, ready to tie up a few loose ends for my book Strengthen your Nonfiction Writing. I haven’t talked to Lou Turner, publisher of High Hill Press, since I’ve been back, but am working on the “Acknowledgements” page. Now I know why the speeches go on so long at the Oscars. There are many people to thank whenever a large creative endeavor is undertaken, regardless of how many people contributed directly.

I’ve been thinking about how many people have touched my life, and offered a word of encouragement or praise when I needed it most. Kind words, a few laughs, and the feeling that you aren’t completely alone on this planet go a long way. There are several people in my “Acknowledgments” that I haven’t spoken to in years. But when I think about the type of person I am, and why, I realize these people contributed something positive that helped shape my world.

In the book I mention connections, and the importance of words to connect people and their emotions. Words connect us when we feel like the only one who wasn’t invited to the party, or dumped by a boy- or girlfriend, husband, wife or lover. Words allow us to feel what someone else has experienced. Words allow us to share the wonderful moments of being crowned queen of anything, along with the humiliating memory of falling down the stairs in high school. Powerful stuff, words. Hope you love them as much as I do.

See ya later this week.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010


The good news is my book "Strengthen your Nonfiction Writing" will be published soon by High Hill Press. The writing is finished, but there's still a lot of work to do. I hadn't thought about type or the cover, so Lou Turner and I will hammer out the details during the next few weeks, and I'll share with you the highs and lows of the publishing process. Stay tuned.