Saturday, April 30, 2011

"Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing" Giveaway

To celebrate the publication of my new book, Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing, I'm giving away a copy to one lucky blog follower or visitor who leaves a comment.

To enter:

1. If you are a follower, just leave a comment or question by Friday, May 13.

2. If you not a follower, become a follower and leave a comment or question by Friday, May 13.

3. Any of my followers who post a link about the contest on their blog will have their name entered a second time.

4. Along with your comment be sure to leave an e-mail so I can contact you if you are the lucky winner.

5. I will pick one name at random.

6. Winner's name will be announced by May 15.

Good luck!

Talk to you soon,


Friday, April 29, 2011


An award is something given to a person or a group of people to recognize excellence in a certain field; a certificate of excellence. Awards are often signified by trophies, titles, certificates, commemorative plaques, medals, badges, pins, or ribbons. ...

I’m pleased to announce that I won the Arts & Humanities Division “Adjunct of the Year” award at St. Charles Community College for 2011! I’m not one to win many awards, so this was a pleasant surprise.

I have won a few writing awards, and am proud of all of them. But I want to tell you a story about one award in particular that I will never forget. I wrote articles for a national organization many years ago, and one of my articles won the “Most Informative Article” award from the National Safety Council. To this day, I still don’t know which article won. My boss wouldn’t tell me, said he didn’t know. I called someone else on the committee, who said my boss WAS on the committee that selected the winner. I asked again, he said he didn’t know anything about it.

To say my boss didn’t like me would be an understatement. I was upset and actually cried because he completely denied every aspect of the award. What I remember most from that experience was that he was able to negate every good feeling I had about winning. I would like to tell you I learned a valuable lesson. I didn’t. I would really like to tell you that he learned a valuable lesson. He didn’t.

Some authors win big awards, others don’t. I’ve been introduced to a few books because they’ve won awards, and sometimes I agree with them, and other times I don’t. But for me, I just keep plugging away, hopeful that people will read my work and respond. An award is a response, and that’s a good thing.

The “Adjunct of the Year” award doesn’t have any monetary benefits, but I’m proud of it, and no one can take that feeling away from me.

What awards are you most proud of?

Talk to you soon,


Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Samaritan -- a review

I wasn’t expecting philosophy when I opened Fred Venturini’s book, The Samaritan, (Blank Slate Press) but philosophy is what I got.

“To age is to embrace a slow hurt inside and out, to collect scars like rings on a tree, dark and weathered and sometimes only visible if someone cuts deep enough. Scars keep the past just close enough to touch, but healing is forgetting. Healing invites another cut. Healing is the tide that smoothes away our line in the sand.

For life to begin, the damage must be permanent.”

Pain and healing can add layers of meaning to life, but for two poor school boys from a small town in Illinois, the process takes years to complete, and leaves a few scars. Dale Sampson is the anti-hero, an interesting but unlikeable young man who discovers he has a special gift – the ability to regenerate limbs and organs. Like many people who are blessed with a particular talent or gift, he struggles with how to use it. He examines its positive and negative implications throughout the book, pushing himself and readers to the edge of what they believe to be possible within the human spirit.

As a kid, Dale’s best friend Mack saves him from the kind of social damage that can wreak havoc on self-esteem. Mack opens the door to a world that Dale never would have been able to enter on his own. For Dale, life is a series of cuts and bruises waiting to heal. For Mack, life is a series of conquests, for which there is a winner and a loser. In school, at least, Mack is a winner.

After high school, Dale falls into a deep depression following the violent death of the woman he loves. He spends years sitting on his couch watching Matlock reruns, waiting to be whole again. Everything changes, though, during a trip to Wal-mart for Ramen Noodles. The cashier whose lane he chooses is the twin of the deceased woman. During the encounter, she tries unsuccessfully to hide a black eye. Something stirs in Dale, who now has a reason to live – to punish the man who did this to her because he cannot avenge the death of her sister.

The book takes us on a wild ride of hurting and healing in a plot full of twists, surprises and connections that will stay with readers for a long time. Add some reality television, religious ideas and a few fires, and you have one man’s quest to find meaning while nursing the invisible damage of sorrow and longing for something he may never understand.

The Samaritan is one of the first releases from Blank Slate Press, a St. Louis publishing company that makes me optimistic about the future of publishing. The Samaritan is a story well told – a fast read that I didn’t want to put down, but when I did (only because I had to go to work!) the characters stayed with me. The strength of the narrative combined with the emotional impact of the story left a lasting impression that will not fade.

Talk to you soon,


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Does truth exist?

Here we go again.

Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, is accused of fabricating much of his autobiographical work that details his experiences building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also may be sued by the Pakistani tribesmen that Mortenson said kidnapped him. “It’s lies from A-Z,” said Mansur Khan Mahsud.

I understand that memory (and perception) are subjective. Three people can witness the same incident and come up with three different explanations of what happened. In addition, everyone comes to the party with a different set of events and memories that are filtered through our minds and perceptions.

In addition, memories are flawed, and can fade. In some circumstances, the storyteller in us might be tempted to add a little drama. Or in viewing an experience in hindsight, we may add a layer of philosophy and wisdom to explain our actions or motives.

So it’s true that when we write a memoir, we share our perspectives. But, we owe it to our readers to fact-check through other participants from those events, especially when those participants may be portrayed negatively. Does truth exist? Maybe – maybe not. But we can always check that those memories are at least factual.

Let me pose this question. Have you ever exaggerated some aspect of your past to make a point, or make it more dramatic? I think we all have. But most of us didn’t put it in writing and call it autobiography. Most writers call it fiction.

Talk to you soon,


Friday, April 15, 2011

Target Marketing

It’s been a week since Lou Turner, publisher of High Hill Press, placed ten copies of my book, Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing, in my hands. I sold about eight last week at the Missouri Writers Guild Conference, and to be honest, I’m still trying to figure out the best way to market them.

In my last post, I mentioned literary agent Kathleen Ortiz She gave a wonderful presentation about creating an online presence. I’m not unfamiliar with websites, Facebook or blogging, but I’m still working on my marketing mix to maximize my time and my reach. The goal is to have my book working for me online while I’m teaching in the classroom, or researching, or doing laundry (hey, clothes don’t wash themselves, ya know!).

In the meantime, I wanted to share something about marketing and advertising for anyone who is trying to sell their work. I’m teaching an Introduction to Advertising class this semester at STLCC – Wildwood campus, and have learned a few basics that apply to both high- and low-tech markets.

The most effective way to sell your product is to target your market. Select an audience that will benefit from your work. Do you write for kids? Then target publishers and agents who deal with kids. Don’t waste your time marketing to YA publishers when you write middle grade stories, articles or books. If you send 100 queries to 100 agents who don’t deal with your area of expertise, then you are wasting your time. A few targeted queries have a much higher rate of success than dozens sent to the wrong people.

This type of research is time-consuming, but will save time in the long-run by determining your target market. Let me know how you have applied this strategy in the past.

Talk to you soon,

Coming soon: the four Ps of marketing!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Best Advice

What is the best advice you ever received? Do you have one piece of advice that has served you well for years and years? Or did you hear something special at the Missouri Writers Guild Conference last weekend?

I heard so many excellent pieces of advice at the conference that it’s hard to decide. I liked what Kathleen Ortiz had to say about creating an online presence. Linking a web page to your blog, Facebook and Twitter is essential. She also recommended searching your name on Google or a different search engine to see how you present to the world.

Be proactive by commenting on other blogs and message boards. Signing up for Google alerts will allow you to know what information is being shared with, or without, your knowledge. Start shaping your online identity now, and begin on a positive note before someone does it for you in an unflattering manner.
What advice have you heard that struck a chord?

Saturday, April 9, 2011


This is my last night at the Missouri Writers Guild Conference, and I’m exhausted. I didn’t sleep well due to a loud, early morning storm. I’ve also had other challenges. My phone didn’t work, and last night my computer wouldn't connect to the internet. But after a day filled with several frustrations, I find myself focusing on one word that sums up the experience – community.

Although I’m going to cringe a little when I tell you this, I found the most comprehensive definition of the word on, um, Wikipedia. “In biological terms, a community is a group of interacting organisms sharing a populated environment. In human communities, intent, belief, resources, preferences, needs, risks, and a number of other conditions may be present and common, affecting the identity of the participants and their degree of cohesiveness.”

This definition describes perfectly the way writers have come together at the conference to share information, and help each other achieve our goals. Yes, we debate the way we use words, and the best way to write a short story, or article or novel, but we take away dozens of ideas we can use immediately to improve our writing.

Regardless of whether it’s a formal classroom setting, an intimate conversation at the bar or an impromptu meeting in the lobby, we are there for each other, building networks that strengthen our connections. The talk is lively, and often intense. We are serious, and we are happy. We are a community.

"Community." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. 09 Apr. 2011

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What's the point of a thesis statement?

I teach one of the most dreaded classes on any college campus – oral communications, better known as speech class. (Almost) everyone hates giving speeches. They hate writing them, and they hate giving them. I try to make it fun, I really do, but organizing information and presenting it to their peers continues to cause sleeplessness and excessive anxiety in students.

The correlation between speaking and writing is obvious. They are different forms of communication that use words to convey meaning and emotion. After 10 years of fielding questions and listening to students explain their thought processes, I‘ve accidentally learned a little bit about organizing and delivering information. As a result, I‘ve come up with some simple ways to develop a clear thesis statement.

Writers spend a lot of time ensuring the message matches their intent. They want to make it easy for the reader to follow. You know how the ideas in your head sound better than they do when you put them on paper? OK, well, maybe that‘s just me. But if that has ever happened to you, then the process of developing a strong thesis statement may eliminate the disconnect that occurs between the brilliant thoughts and the not quite-as-brilliant words that end up on the paper or computer screen.

One of the most common mistakes writers make is to try to complicate the issue. My first rule is that simple is good. You don‘t have to talk down to someone to be understood, but understanding is an essential component of effective communication.

To begin, decide what you want to say about your topic. Develop a strong thesis statement to focus your writing.

A thesis is a declarative statement that identifies your opinion, or the general message you want to convey. One of my favorite definitions of a thesis statement came from Jordan Starkey, English Dept. Instructor at St. Charles Community College. He said topic plus opinion equals thesis statement.

A declarative statement makes a claim. Unfortunately, when I think about a declarative statement, I hear Scarlet O‘Hara in my head saying ―I declare, it‘s hot in he-ah, and she‘s fanning herself. She/me/the voice in my head makes a declaration of what she/me/the voice in my head believes to be true (it‘s hot in here).

So my thesis statement might be "Cats make great pets," because this is something I believe to be true. I support that thesis with reasons why I believe it, or the main points.
I. Cats require little care
II. Cats love to snuggle

Once you‘ve determined the thesis, every word of that piece of writing supports the thesis statement. I like to keep thesis statements to one idea or thought, but some writers will use two or more sentences. It‘s up to you to decide the format of your thesis, because ultimately it‘s your article or book or essay, and you know what works best for you.

I also like using one idea or thought because it also forces me to narrow the topic, and focus on the important information. The thesis may also be the answer to the question ―What‘s your book/article/essay about? By using a thesis statement and supporting it, every sentence that follows is more likely to be clear and concise.

Talk to you soon,


(This post is an edited excerpt from my book Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing.)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Writing tips from Joe Holleman

Have I mentioned the great speakers we attract at Saturday Writers? Joe Holleman, “Life Sherpa” columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, shared his unique vision for writing at the St. Peters Cultural and Arts Center last Saturday.

Holleman has been writing professionally for 28 years at newspapers, with more than 20 at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He offered dozens of tips writers can use immediately to improve their work, including what to do when staring at a blank screen.

Starting any article is difficult, but daily newspapers usually have short deadlines. He has often had less than an hour to turn in a story, so he begins by using outlines, and writing the lede first.

Holleman uses outlines because he said writers need some kind of plan. He uses the standard, “Catholic-school Roman numeral version” for long stories, or some abbreviated version of that for shorter pieces. Outlines help him focus his thoughts, which allow him to focus on creativity instead of worrying about forgetting basic points.

Outlines also help by laying out four or five things to include in an article. “It just kind of makes your mind work,” he said. “It also makes your mind clear, which makes it easier.”

Write the lede first
The other technique he uses to get started is to write the lede to his stories immediately, which prevents him from staring at the screen for inspiration. “Boredom and distraction strike before inspiration,” he said. “Just put something on that blank, merciless screen. Sometimes I change my lede, but it gets my mind in that mode of typing, which leads to a story.”

Holleman said he has always taken pride in his ability to write a good lede. When asked about a favorite, he said it would be hard to pick just one, but he did recall a particular lede he wrote for a story about an old delicatessen going out of business: “Dunie’s is done, but it will be remembered with relish.”

Don’t bury the lede
One downfall to writing fast is that there may be a tendency to bury the lede, which means beginning a story with details that aren’t important, while pushing important facts or details to the middle. He believes that getting something down (on paper or the screen) is important to begin the process. Holleman said when writers inadvertently bury the lede, they always can go back and change it later.

Sometimes, good writing is about good editing. He told the group to read their stories out loud from beginning to end. “Don’t just read it in your head,” he said, “because in your head you are reading what you want it to be.”

He claims that reading out loud will catch all those silly mistakes that every writer makes. “When you read it out loud, you are now the reader and no longer the writer,” he said. “You are reading it as a reader would read it.” He then recommended reading it again.

The first problem he notices during the reading process is clumsy sentences. This process helps identify those sentences that bring everything to a grinding halt. “If you read it out loud, you can find out the rhythm of a sentence,” he said. “It can be long and flowing, or short and staccato. The only way you find that is by reading it out loud.”

Every writer writes too much
Holleman said writers need to force themselves to edit their work. “Writers love what they write, and every word is a masterpiece,” he said. “We fall in love with our stories and think every sentence needs to be in there, but it’s not true. Somewhere in your story you have unnecessary modifiers and awkward phrases. Force yourself to cut.”

Holleman always cuts twenty-five percent. For starters, he recommends cutting the words “very,” and “that.” “The more you write, the quicker you write, and the more you can cut,” he said. “Just like reading out loud, cutting becomes a game.”

After a writer has deleted twenty-five percent, he or she should read it out loud again. “I bet it is better,” he said. “Try to cut so much you find yourself putting words back in. That’s when you are done.”

Thanks, Joe for sharing your helpful advice. You make it look and sound easy.

A few quick tips for writers from Joe Holleman:

Use Active voice
Use Outlines
Read your story out loud
As long as we are writing, we are improving (He said he has made every mistake he discussed)
Use strong quotes
There are exceptions to the rules (but just because Faulkner or Fitzgerald did it, doesn’t mean you can do it)
Read Elmore Leonard for dialogue