Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Intercom

The intercom system was a great idea when we bought our home, but now that I am huddled in my office, frantically typing away when I should be downstairs for dinner, I wish that it would malfunction. Deadlines are always a powerful motivator, and right now my deadline depends upon how long my son and husband will tolerate me hiding from them. "Momis Writis Too Muchis," is what my son claims is my Latin name. I've already been paged over the intercom, so to speak, to come down for dinner. Right now the smell of something yummy is cooking. I can hear every sound outside my well-insulated door, and I've turned off the Internet radio so I can hear any approaching footsteps. They may have given up trying to dislodge me with intercom reminders that DINNER IS COOKING. At this moment, it appears I may actually pound out a paragraph before The Men appear at my door to demand my presence downstairs. For them (because of them?), I've learned to tolerate interruption (much to their dismay).

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hospitals and Other Writing Prompts

Over the past few days, I’ve been at the hospital a few times. Said hospital, Valley Hospital here in Las Vegas, harbors a tremendous number of memories for me. I initially thought it odd that so many of my personal stories have this institutional building as a backdrop; but then I realized that how silly that was. Hospitals are teeming with stories, not just mine but a whole building full – patients, families, doctors, nurses, sorrow, sickness, joy, and birth. That’s what put me in mind for prompt #1. If you’re not feeling all Grey’s Anatomy, move stat to the next writing prompt.

Take ten minutes to write without interruption about…

--The last time I was at a hospital….
--Daisy liked to play piano….
--“You wouldn’t dare,” said Phyllis, although she wasn’t really sure that Glenda wouldn’t….
--I had stitches when I was a child because….
Photo courtesy of Daniel Wilkinson at

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Little Writing News

Unless you’ve been stranded in some media-less wilderness (please send directions if this is the case), you’ve heard about the writers strike in Hollywood. Now that people are facing their sixth week of television re-runs, they’re starting to panic. Good heavens, what will Americans do while they’re eating dinner? Might this mean – and I know it’s frightening – that people may actually talk to each other? Or perhaps (and this is an even wilder idea) read a book? Oh, the horrors.

One more reason to be glad you live in the United States:
“Burma's Military Junta Bans 19 Writers, Performers.”

I’ve often said that adults shouldn’t be frightened of grammar, but neither should they avoid proofreading. It concerns me that the people at the Department of Education don’t seem to know this: “For Want of a Proofreader, or at Least a Good One, a Reading Exam Is Lost.”

The non-profit StoryCorps has been busy collecting stories for the largest oral history project in U.S. History: “’Listening’ a page-turner packed with historic revelations.”

Friday, December 07, 2007

Kindle Lust

I’ve never been interested in e-reading devices. Just give me good old-fashioned paper, I always said. Then I saw Jeff Bezos on Charlie Rose, talking about the new Kindle. It was the same day that the device was released, and I’ve been in a state of deep gadget lust ever since.

Maybe I was hooked by Bezos’ enthusiasm for the Kindle, which he said wouldn’t have been possible five years ago. “What is more meaningful than trying to improve the book?” said Bezos, and at that moment if I could have spent $400 in good conscience, my credit card and I would have been on Amazon’s web site.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that I have budgetary constraints, because otherwise I’m afraid that the bookstores and the office supply would see a whole lot more of me. I stopped looking at the Levenger catalog because of the sheer number of irresistible and even useful bookish/writerly knick-knacks – tempting but non-essential goodies.

But how to resist a portable library that connects and downloads thousands of books, magazines, and newspapers? Amazon’s goal is to have every book on earth available for download. Kindle is getting great reviews – it’s the new iPod of books – and the thing is selling like those proverbial hot cakes.

Guess I’d better start saving my pennies.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Sam's Job & Other Writing Prompts

If you watch Inside the Actors Studio, you know that one of the questions host James Lipton asks his guests at the end of the show is: What profession would you not like to do? Perhaps your answer can help you with writing prompt #1. (You can read all of Lipton's questions at Wikipedia.)

--The only job Sam could find was….
--The Christmas tradition I could do without is….
--Janet huddled in the back of the restaurant….
--“Get me a neon sign,” said Lenny, “because I want everyone to know….”
--Combine a tomato, a lizard, and a little girl in a story.
Photo information: I picked this photo because of my answer to the Lipton/Pivot question - cashier. I actually did attempt cashiering a few times, and I was terrible. Photo courtesy of

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt. ~Sylvia Plath

When I checked the authenticity on this quote, I found over 1,000 web sites – almost every one of them aimed at writers – featuring it. How rich with both truth and sad irony; if you don’t know, Plath committed suicide.

Persistence is the most important characteristic a writer can cultivate. It leads to practice and trial and error. But to keep at your work – to keep sitting down, persistently – you have to believe in yourself. And that’s how self-doubt can puncture your creativity. If you don’t believe in what you’re writing, then who will?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Quitting Again

Over the weekend, as I contemplated yet again whether or not I should give up writing as a career - or perhaps just stop writing, period - I looked for signs that might lead me in the right direction. My brain was mired in an emotional quagmire. I tossed out the usual desperate pleas to God: please help me, how can I do this, please give some Sign, and (of course) why me.

On Saturday I cleaned my office because my over-worked brain could not support the construction of sentences. In my pile of agendas and handouts for my writing group. I found an old page of quotes from The Sun, a fabulous magazine that has an eerie way of speaking to my personal condition. I read:

“As I look back on what I have written, I can see that the very persons who have taken away my time are those who have given me something to say.” –Katherine Paterson.

“Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression.” – Issac Bashevis Singer.

Farther down in my pile of papers, I found a copy of a 1940 Writer article by Faith Baldwin, “Advice to the Book Lorn.” “Writing is self discipline. It means sitting down and working even when you don’t feel like it, and has nothing to do with inspiration. … There are obstacles and disappointments. You’ll find that out. Everyone does. There is no standing still. This is a highly competitive profession. Even the best writers have to revise and rewrite, have to sacrifice, meet disappointment, and even rejection. No one stays in one place.”

While I was certainly uplifted at the end of my office cleaning, I was far from over my inner crisis. All that was nice, but should I simply apply at Starbucks, where I hear they have health insurance? My mood was ugly. I felt like a rabid rattlesnake. My husband and I agreed that it was best if I was alone.

The next day, I picked up the latest copy of The Sun and turned to the last page, “Sunbeams,” their page of quotations. As I read down the page of quotes about reality, illusion, and awareness, I came to this quote from Eckhart Tolle:

“The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and education, physical appearance, special abilities, relationships, personal and family history, belief systems, and often political, nationalistic, racial, religious, and other collective identifications. None of these is you.”

After a few equally (eerily) relevant quotes, I came to:
“Enter each day with the expectation that the happenings of the day may contain a clandestine message addressed to you personally. Expect omens, epiphanies, casual blessings, and teachers who unknowingly speak to your condition.” – Sam Keen.

I laughed out loud at that one. And while my hodge-podge collection of fortune cookie wisdom probably reflects nothing more than my longing to wring encouragement and direction out of thin air, at least it kept me writing.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Matthew’s Disappointment & Other Writing Prompts

Pick a prompt and take ten minutes to tell the story.

--Betty knew she had disappointed Matthew because….
--Write a story in which someone’s good intentions go awry.
--“I would have told you sooner,” said Sam, “but I was worried….”
--“What kind of idiot are you?” snarled Tracy. “Surely everyone knows….”
--Delores saw the tracks in the fresh snow, so she followed them until….

Photo courtesy of

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Grateful Writer

I’m a big believer in gratitude, so Thanksgiving is a wonderful day for me! A few of things I’m giving thanks for today:

…That I acquired a love of reading early in life, and that it looks like I’ve passed this on to my son.

…My writing group. The Northwest Writing Group that I facilitate at the City of Las Vegas’ Northwest Senior Center has been a vital support to me for the past five years. Without them, I don’t think I’d be writing today.

…My writer mom, Barbara Hudson. Only another writer would understand why, on Thanksgiving Day, I’m working on my blog (which caused me to tell my husband, when Mom called, “Tell her I’ll call her back in 30 minutes!”). Thanks for everything, Mom. I love you!

…Family and friends who read my work and are so incredibly supportive. Some writers struggle to find acceptance, but these people recognize and respect me as a writer.

…My wonderful husband, David, whose love, guidance, and support can’t be easily summed up here. He makes my life as a writer possible. He’s my first reader and my biggest cheerleader. David has always believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. I love this man truly, deeply, madly.

I wish you and your family and friends a day filled with joy, good food and companions, and as many things to be thankful for as you can stand.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Stories You Might Have Missed

New York Times, November 15, 2007: “You Say Fake Ads, They Say Satire: Writers turn to Craigslist to find an audience,” by Andrew Adam Newman. Proof that writers will conscript any available medium to express themselves. Think of us as graffiti artists, only with better manners.

Norman Mailer passes away – BBC News Obituary, November 10, 2007: Honesty attracts readers, even when you’re saying things people don’t like.

Associated Press reporter Mike Robinson writes about the case one cop was determined to solve: Cop-turned-author tells story of notorious triple child murder.

Elmore Leonard shared writing tips in USA Today on November 15.

The NYT article, “Alexander, Mom and the Very Messy Stay,” by Rachel Donadio is about author Judith Viorst. Writers with children may be familiar with Viorst’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. With her latest book, Ms. Viorst proves again that your family is a rich (if reluctant) source of material.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Mrs. Beebee

When I was ready to start seventh grade, I saw that a Journalism class was offered. It was limited to eighth and ninth graders, unless you had approval from the Mrs. Beebee, the Journalism teacher. Before the first day of class, I arranged to meet with her. I brought a handful of my writing and both my parents. I got in.

Sometime during the next three years, Mrs. Beebee gave me a book, The Student Journalist and Free-Lance Writing by Emalene Sherman, copyright 1967. I still have that book. I have mixed feelings about it; what would have happened had Mrs. Beebee not given me that book? Would I have been able to escape the gravity-like pull of the writer’s life? Nah, probably not. But it’s easier to blame Mrs. Beebee for my fate behind the keyboard.

Last week at my writing group we briefly touched on the topic of writing mentors. I didn’t think about Mrs. Beebee right away because I was so busy pondering the fact that I don’t have anyone I would consider a writing mentor right now. I have plenty of writing friends, and I know a host of inspirational writers, but no one who fits the label of “mentor.” I never much cared for the idea of mentorship, actually. It always felt somehow condescending or subordinate to me, being the individualistic person that I am. But in Bruce Holland Rodgers’ book, Word Work, he points out that we should broaden our definition of mentor. He counts Raymond Chandler as a mentor, and not because he ever met the famous author. “He has advised me by example – good and bad – ever since I read Frank MacShane’s The Life of Raymond Chandler,” writes Rogers. “Biographies and biographical movies about writers and other artists can teach us a lot about this path we’re trying to walk, its hazards and its rewards.”

One vital thing a mentor does is help us recognize ourselves as writers. Acceptance by someone you respect is the first step in self-validation, and without that we doubt ourselves. Self-doubt sinks a writer. It makes her question her message, her voice, and her delivery. It’s why a little bit of an ego is a good thing in a writer – in any artist, for that matter. A mentor can help solidify that internal core of your writer’s identity.

Mrs. Beebee is long gone, but her book and her legacy remain. All these years later, when I’m asked what I do, I get to say, “I’m a writer.” I think she’d be proud.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Making Friends With My Mailbox

I imagine I’m not the only who has suffered from issues with her mailbox. I know Mailbox Anxiety Syndrome afflicts writers in greater numbers than non-writers, but anyone can develop an aversion to what the mailbox holds. For writers, MAS may begin with rejection slips. In my case, MAS resulted from bills, notices from the IRS, and incomprehensible insurance mumbo jumbo (that always resulted in more bills). Rejection notices didn’t help. In the final stages, I suffered from the associated syndromes of Junk Mail Terrors and Obsessive Shredding Disorder. I was a certified MAS with JMT and OSD. (Right now, a pharmaceutical company is probably working on a drug to treat these disorders. Look for the inevitable commercial.)

As silly as it sounds, I began avoiding my mailbox. Since it conveniently sits in my next-door neighbor’s front yard, right next to the walking path I use every day, this should tell you just how strong my powers of avoidance are. There it was every day, that hulking grey box that held those ugly little pieces of mail. When I could no longer put off picking up my mail, my stomach would twist into knots as I approached the Evil Mailbox. My heart would start pounding before I got the key in the lock. I dreaded its contents. That’s how the JMT began – because I let the junk mail accumulate like… well, like junk mail. Even rabbits can’t reproduce that fast. For many obvious reasons, I had to do something to correct my MAS.

To non-writers, my solution may sound wacko, but I expect writers will appreciate my solution to MAS. I made friends with my mailbox. I began by imagining it as my mail butler, or the doorman I’ll (probably) never have. My mental image of Mr. Mailbox, as I so unimaginatively refer to him, is a cross between a Walt Disney-style walking and talking inanimate object (think Beauty and the Beast) and his actual government-issued appearance. He has a slight British accent. Lately, I’ve been giving him pats after I pick up the mail. Okay, so maybe other writers will also think I’m wacko, but it works for me. I’ve overcome my MAS, and my JMT is under control. Now, the OSD… well, that’s a topic for another day.
Photo information: The innocent Mr. Mailbox.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Purple Envelope: Today's Writing Prompts

Take ten minutes to let your imagination run wild: pick a prompt and write without stopping, backspacing, or correcting yourself. At the end of ten minutes, you may be more interested in what's in that purple envelope than you might think.

--Judy was surprised to see a purple envelope in her mailbox. She was even more surprised to find that the envelope contained….
--The pictures in Jean’s office reminded her that….
--Mark was afraid to leave the house because….
--Carla sighed before she began, “My biggest regret….
--Combine dragonflies, a block wall, and boulders in a story.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Taking A News Break

I usually read three newspapers – USA Today, the Las Vegas Review Journal/Sun, and the New York Times. I don’t watch television news much, except for Larry King and Anderson Cooper. Well, and Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, who so brilliantly combine social commentary with humor (at least when their writers aren’t on strike). Sometimes I feel like a news junkie.

I have many perfectly good reasons to submerge myself into news every day. Being a writer is at the top of the list. I’m supposed to be informed, or so I reason, especially since the majority of my work reflects current events in some way. I used to think that keeping up with the news was an essential part of my writerly duties, until I realized that sometimes it was just a distraction.

For about a month this summer, my newspapers were going straight to the recycle bin several days a week. I had a list of projects that had nothing to do with current events. My son was out of school for summer break. Time constraints forced me to choose between turning in projects on time or reading the paper – and the deadlines won, of course. Do you know what I found at the end of the month? Nothing had changed. Wars were still raging around the world. The environment was still hurling natural disasters at us. People were still committing crimes. In short, the world had not stopped existing just because I had stopped spending two hours reading about it every day.

Are you a news junkie? Have you taken a break recently?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Personal Fiction

Yesterday I was eating lunch with a couple of acquaintances. During the meal, one of my companions said that he writes short stories. He emphasized that his writing was strictly of a personal nature, not something he wanted to have published, and we all agreed on writing’s therapeutic value. His comments brought to mind something I’ve found interesting about male writers in general. Women are the gender more likely to write (or read), but when women write for themselves it’s often a first-person, journaling-style chronicle. Think: “Dear Diary,” but all grown up. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of gender differences in our society – women are more comfortable pouring out their thoughts and experiences, while men tend to develop stoic attitudes.

I’ve found that men tend to write fiction and poetry for their personal writing, often saying that they have no desire to write about their personal experiences. If their personal experiences do make it into a story, the events are heavily disguised and fictionalized. In my writing group, two of the three men are writing fiction and/or poetry. Jim, the one man who has written a memoir, took great care to change names and to use third person. Vince, who writes short fiction and poetry, says he finds stories about his life to be boring. Barry, who generally does poetry, does write about his observations and experiences – to a degree – but within the context of poetry’s lyrical, imagery-rich language.

We ladle just as much emotion and personal involvement into fiction as we do into a first person rant. Fiction can actually reveal deeper truths than a first-person foray into actual events. Sometimes the imagined version, the exaggeration, or the altering of an event holds more clues about its importance in our lives than the bare facts.

Do you write fiction or poetry as a form of personal writing? How has it provided you with a release?

Friday, November 09, 2007


How do you define imagination?

Is it strictly the ability to create stories out of nothing – in other words, to construct fiction? According to, imagination is “the faculty of imagining, or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses.”

A wonderful writer I know recently told me she just didn’t feel she was imaginative. I asked her if she thought imagination was restricted to fiction, and she nodded her head. Now, this is a writer with a true gift for the rhythm of language. Her words paint vivid pictures and carry powerful emotion. I was aghast that she felt unimaginative.

Imagination is more than being able to pluck a good story line out of thin air. Imagination is in the words you choose and the topic you select, even the format or genre you pick. If you and I go to a park and observe people for an hour, we’ll write a different summary of our experience. Our imaginations will take us in different directions, depending upon who we are and what we see. Even if we agree on a specific person to watch at the park, we’ll describe her with different words. Imagination grows out of our individuality, our specific experience and interpretation of life.

Don’t box imagination into a box marked “fiction.” Accept imagination into all your work, into your metaphors and personifications, into your descriptions. Recognize the role of imagination in expressing your vision. Broaden your definition to realize the full potential of imagination – bringing to life that which is “not actually present to the senses” – and realize that there are many different ways to infuse imagination into your writing.

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create. – Albert Einstein
Photo courtesy of

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Today's Writing Prompts

You know the drill: pick a prompt and write for ten minutes. Write without interruption, correction, or editing. Forget you have a dictionary. Ditto on a thesaurus. After your ten minutes, who knows? Little projects sometimes lead to big ones. Happy Writing!

--Sean watched the river rising and thought….
--Alex didn’t want to go home, so he kept driving until….
--The smoke alarms were going off at Mary’s house….
--Have you ever found money on the street?
--Thanksgiving is just around the corner, which make me think of….
Photo Information: This picture was taken in Zion National Park.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Publishing Question

Should you be trying to publish your work? A friend of mine recently wrote to me about her hesitancy to send out her work. “It’s the being picked apart by trying to write for something/someone to get published that I’m not so keen on yet,” she wrote. She’s far from alone. In my writing group, I’d say more members are writing without the goal of eventual publication than are writing with a byline in mind.

Your desire to wade into the waters of publishing should be determined by one thing: Do you want other people to read your work? If the answer is yes, then you have to figure out how many people you’d like to reach, if getting paid is important to you, how much you will compromise your artistic visions, and a host of other things. Getting published is not the same as writing – it’s more of a business venture – but the myth that they’re the same thing persists. Here are the some other myths I’ve found that people associate with writing and publishing:

Writing a book is a quick way to make money. Those of you who have written books are laughing at that sentence. Nothing about books and money belongs in the same sentence with quick and writing. Yes, I know there are plenty of stories out there about first time authors who get six-figure deals, and yes, you could be one of those people. You could also win the lottery and find a Sasquatch in your living room, but your chances are slim. Don’t let the odds discourage you, but do understand that this isn’t a get-rich-quick opportunity.

Getting published will make people respect you. Fat chance. The people who don’t respect you for being a writer will not respect you unless you’re on Oprah, and maybe not even then.

Getting published is really hard. Getting published is easy. Getting published in a national magazine for a big check is hard, although not impossible. Getting a book published is a completely different experience.

You have to be published to be a real writer. This one irks me the most. I meet people all the time who are writing family histories, poetry, short stories – you name it – and publication is the last thing on their minds. They’re writing because they enjoy putting the words on paper, and they are every bit as much a writer as someone getting paid the big bucks. Writing makes you a writer.

Only people who know someone get published. Knowing someone in any business makes success more likely, but it seems that for writers, persistence combined with some degree of talent and business acumen is the best combination.

My work doesn’t matter if it isn’t published. Take this moldy old belief and run it through your shredder. The pieces of paper that mean the most to us are not the ones we buy at Barnes and Noble. It’s the letters, the notes, the handwritten thank-yous that we save. I have a good friend who has a tattered, yellowed copy of his grandfather’s account of a cougar attack in the turn-of-the-century logging camp where he worked. A buddy typed it up on what I’m sure was an old Underwood typewriter and folded the story into a booklet. It’s close to a hundred years old. When my friend showed it to me, I felt privileged to hold it. I can think of several friends with similar written artifacts, and none of them care that these works were never published.

Publication is a worthy goal, but it should never be the only goal.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Picture This: Writing Prompts

Using one or more of these pictures for inspiration, write without interruption for ten minutes.

Friday, November 02, 2007

A Dose of My Own Medicine

I spent most of today at the Vegas Valley Book Festival (read about the whole day at my Vegas Girl blog), but only one of the sessions held any information for writers. Travel writer Tom Miller talked about his travels and about creating a sense of place, of delving into history, people, and culture. I’ve spent the past year dong a lot of travel writing, so I enjoyed hearing that I’m on the right track, so to speak.

As an interactive exercise, Miller told us all to write one or two paragraphs on a travel destination. I chose Pipe Spring, Arizona, which I recently wrote about for a local magazine. I’m usually on the other side of these types of exercises, so it was a new experience to be the one frantically writing.

The group was slow to share, and I didn’t want to read mine at all, but my husband and my conscience kept nudging me. How could I torture the writers in my weekly group with this same kind of impromptu writing exercise and not participate? So I stumbled through my scrawled paragraph, which was illegible even to me, and not very good to boot. I figured I gave the others confidence. Miller said my use of the present tense was “risky,” which I agree with. Curiously, I didn’t even consider tense when I wrote it. I saw the scene so clearly in my mind that I fell into it unintentionally. Here’s exactly what I wrote and read:

The sandstone hills behind Winsor Castle are deceptively steep. Rising behind the fort, the rocky hillside feels like an addition to the fort. These were the hills that women and children hid in when the federal marshals came looking for them during the raids on the polygamists. This is what I think about as I trudge up the switchbacks on the trail to the top – my son and I, fleeing into this rough territory. When I reach the top of the hills, I can see the Grand Canyon’s beginnings in the far distance. This patch of land in northern Arizona is harsh, but not inhospitable – it has water.


But the yuckiness of my paragraph taught me something important. Now I know just how it feels to hear someone say, “Everyone, take out a pen and paper and write about….”

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Second Floor File Room

Years ago, when I first worked for the police department in the Records section, sometimes I had to go to the second floor file room. This pad-locked room was located right next to the elevator and around the corner from the City Jail. During daytime hours the room was only mildly creepy. I worked the graveyard shift, however, which meant that when I visited the second floor file room, it was often 2 a.m. We rode the same elevator that people coming to and from the Jail used. The elevator, apart from sporting a prominent bullet-related dent in one metal door, was prone to breaking down and trapping its passengers, sometimes for hours. As you might imagine, all of us had times when we waited for the next elevator rather than ride with whomever was waiting. The file room itself, which probably started life as a huge utility closet, was lit by banks of flickering florescent lights hanging from the ceiling. Everything was concrete. One side of the room was filled with rows of old files, which looked just like this picture, and the other side held old homicide files in metal cabinets. Exposed pipes and locked electrical boxes decorated the walls. The room smelled of old paper and mildew.

As I was wading through a grammar book recently, I felt that I’d been sent to my own SFFR. Beyond the basics – verbs, nouns, where to put a period, etc. – I don’t venture into the depths of grammatical definitions, and I was an “A” student in English. It’s been so long since I opened some of those old mental files that sometimes I wonder if they're still there. For instance, the word “subjunctive” makes my eye twitch. Here’s a selection of scary English terms: gerund, participle, split infinitive, comma splice, misplaced modifier. (When I read Wikipedia’s definition of participle, I felt like I was reading Greek.) Have any of those terms led you to your own SFFR?

One of the quickest ways adult writers can become discouraged is through English Anxiety. Just the thought of going to the SFFR petrifies them. They’re not even sure they know where the elevator is anymore. The only thing that could make it worse would be if they actually had to ride in an elevator with a smelly criminal. Relax, people. So what if you don’t know what a gerund is. You can learn, or at least learn how to use it properly. I can’t name all the parts in my car’s engine, but I can drive my car. Especially when you’re writing your first or second draft, don’t make grammar worries your top focus. Get your story on paper and worry about the grammar stuff later. As long as you get it onto the page, you can fix it. I don’t know anyone who can edit a blank page.

Invest some time and energy into buying a good grammar guide, if you’re that concerned. Use online resources. Go find one of those grammarian types who sleeps with the most recent edition of The Chicago Manual of Style under her pillow and ask her for help. Grammar shouldn’t be scary.

Photo courtesy of Grzegorz Kozakiewicz at

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween Writing Prompts

Write for ten minutes on one of these....

--Elizabeth thought the trick-or-treaters were done for the night. She was surprised to hear a knock at the door after she turned out the porch light. When she opened the door, she saw….
--What’s your opinion of horror movies?
--Jeffrey cried when he saw the smashed pumpkin….
--Doug lost control of the car….
--My favorite candy….

Remember, no stopping for the full ten minutes!
Photo courtesy of

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Vegas Valley Book Festival

Vegas book lovers and writers will want to check out the Vegas Valley Book Festival, held in conjunction with November's First Friday. Free sessions on Friday include:

"Down and Out in Las Vegas: The Struggle to Survive in Sin City” Mathew O’Brien and Kurt Borchard; Moderator Geoff Schumacher.

“Traveling Through the Americas” -- Tom Miller One of America’s most accomplished travel authors will share his experiences traveling the hemisphere.

“Old Vegas, New Vegas: Everything Old is New Again,” -- Norm Clarke and Heidi Knapp Rinella; Moderator, Mike Weatherford.


Photo information: my photo of a mural at the Fremont Street Experience.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Truly Unique Writer

I remember hearing the NPR interview with Robert Shields, a man committed to writing down the details of his life – at five minute intervals. During good years, he penned some three million words; a “bad” year saw only a million. The New York Times reports that Mr. Shields passed away on October 15. He was 89. Here’s a link to his NYT obituary:

Robert Shields, Wordy Diarist, Dies at 89

The obituary author, Douglas Martin, wrote, "What seems certain is that Mr. Shields believed that nothing truly happened to him unless he wrote it down." I think we can all relate to that.


Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Mushroom Bomb

Ever notice that writers tend to favor walking as an exercise? Perhaps this is because of the solitary nature of walking. You’re not responsible for anything additional, like a bicycle. You have the advantage of quiet if you’re observing something. And you can sit down and contemplate the landscape, the people, and the weather.

I do my best to take daily walks on the Greenbelt, as the walking path in back of my house is known. Just a few days ago, I was striding along, jamming to my iPod, when I saw something jutting out of the grass. At first, I kept walking, but then I thought I should check to make sure it wasn’t something with a fuse. It looked strange enough to be a bomb. Upon closer inspection, the mass of armored-looking stuff turned out to be mushrooms. In the desert, a mound of mushrooms was growing under a skinny ash tree.

“Start with the day that’s different,” writers are told. Observation gives us clues on what that day might contain.
Picture: The mushroom bomb on day two, when there was enough light for a picture.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Taking It Personally

On the Writer’s Advice List, “Don’t take things personally” appears right under “Write every day.” Like every item on the Writer’s Advice List, which is what I call that nebulous collection of guidelines and wisdom that writers try to follow, detachment is a deeper idea than you realize at first. My initial inability to take comments without personalizing them almost derailed me as a writer. After I discovered how freeing it is to refuse to apply critiques and rejections to my worth as a person, life got a lot better for me, and not just as a writer.

Although I’d been a writer for virtually my entire life, I was still mired in what could be described as “The Swamp of Me-ism” when I decided to write full time. Intellectually, I understood that I should avoid taking things personally, but at that point I still saw everything that went wrong in my story, from its yucky first draft to its rejection slip, as the result of my personal failings. It was all about Me, just not in a good way. Enter Client A.

Client A needed a brochure written. He wanted to appear smooth, suave, and sophisticated. Unfortunately, he failed to communicate that to me. I thought he wanted homespun, honest, and hardworking. When I got his corrections on the first draft, I was stunned – not because I’d misread the image he wanted, but because he’d given the brochure to his secretary to “correct.” I was incensed. How dare he delegate my work to a secretary?! And one so obviously language-challenged, at that. Every one of her corrections inserted a grammatical error. I had many options at this point, and today I can think of several I would choose, but at the time I was just angry. Really, really angry. And insulted. I didn’t even realize I was taking things personally. I thought my rage was justified.

I grimace every time I think about the phone conversation I had with Client A. It was ugly. “You made me sound like I was picking hayseeds out of my teeth,” he finally said, after doing his best to dodge my flaming questions about what on earth I was supposed to do with his secretary’s grammatically-challenged corrections. I don’t know what happened to the final copy I did for him, but I do know that Client A entirely changed his business direction soon afterwards. As you might imagine, he didn’t hire me again. It took me another couple of years to overcome my defensiveness and to realize what a huge mistake I’d made.

When we tell someone not to take things personally, we’re reducing a tremendous amount of wisdom and maturity into a single sentence. Since Client A, I’ve learned that taking comments and corrections as a personal attack is one of the quickest ways to kill your creativity. From a business standpoint it’s also pretty deadly, but that’s minimal compared to the muse-squashing effects of aiming criticism meant for your words at yourself instead. Writers who convince themselves that they’re idiots because of unflattering comments about their work are less likely to sit back down at the computer. Writing is all about perseverance, so ignore your ill-informed detractors and study the hell out of any useful comments you get.

I’ve found that it’s helpful to remember that non-writers are usually unable to offer anything beyond “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it,” and they come up with odd stuff when they try. When you hear weird comments on your work that make no sense to you, chances are that the person making those comments has no clue how to give you useful feedback. To avoid hurting your feelings, people will attempt all manner of strange verbal contortions. Do your best to read between the lines. Ask questions to elicit better information, if you’d really like to get a better understanding of what they mean. Keep an open mind and exercise your active listening skills.

And learn the art of ignoring. Those of you with children should be familiar with this tactic. If Aunt Ruth hates your personal essay on the Thanksgiving Turkey she burned because she enjoys her reputation as the family’s own Martha Stewart, well, learn to shrug it off. Not everyone will like your work. Consider the agenda of your critic before getting too caught up in what she’s saying.

I just worked with a lovely woman on a history project. We were on the phone after the first draft and I was asking her questions, dissecting what worked and what didn’t work, when she suddenly paused and said, “Gosh, I hope you’re not taking any of this personally.”

Actually, I was taking notes when she said that, mentally planning my attack on the next draft. She was a great collaborator, able to articulate what she wanted. I reassured her, “Oh no, don’t worry about that. I don’t take things personally. I can’t.” Years after Client A, I now understand what that really means.

If you’ve let yourself be angry, defensive, or bitter about criticism of your work, let it go. Keep writing and remember that YOU are more than your words. Let your words be what’s rejected, not you.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Writing Prompts

This week's other prompts, for your writing pleasure:
  • A cloud of Monarch butterflies….
  • The sound of thunder made Jack….
  • Have you been to a wedding at a Las Vegas wedding chapel? Tell us about it.
  • Thelma snatched the Valentino gown off the thrift store clothing rack….
Remember, the goal here is to write for ten to fifteen minutes without stopping or self-correcting. Ready, set, go!

The Flames of Creativity

This week’s warm-up prompt for my writing group was inspired by current events.

Have you ever had a fire in your home or vehicle?

At first, a collective moan went up. Sometimes a prompt falls flat, so I suggested, “Think of fire as a starting point for anything. Go with fiction. Or use one of the other prompts.” But being diligent and determined writers (I daresay some of us may even be stubborn), everyone plunged in. When we shared the results from the prompt, we found something interesting.

The more fire stories we shared, the more we remembered. Those people who initially said they had not experienced a fire in their home or vehicle suddenly remembered flaming pot roasts and tea kettles left unattended. To use an overworked but apt cliché, the fire stories spread like wildfire.

When I started thinking about fires, I initially remembered my friend Cindy. She set a package of light bulbs on a hot burner, accidentally causing a small fire that we squelched with baking soda. Cindy’s next fire was in her Firebird. (Yes, I know it’s a pun, but what can I say. That’s the car she had, complete with the bird on the hood.) She was driving down Maryland Parkway when the smoke began rolling out. I think she may have even spotted flames. Her brakes failed, and she careened through a vacant desert lot, smoke belching from her hood, her steering working only partially. When the fire department arrived, she had come to a stop. She had also wet herself. “Were you trying to help put out the fire?” joked the firemen. Cindy broke out bawling, if I remember correctly. Or maybe I just remember what I would have done if my car caught fire and took me on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

Then more fire memories emerged. I remembered my dad pulling a flaming broiler from my oven, shrugging, and shoving the fire-engulfed drawer back in. Baking soda again saved the day. My mind flew to the years one of my nephews developed a fascination with fire, as so many boys do, and managed to scare the bejesus out of everyone in the family. “Arsonist” is a frightening label to consider. Or the dim recollection of the childhood Christmas when a house down the street burned to the ground. The single lady living there fell asleep with a lit cigarette, and never woke up.

How about you? What are your fire memories?
Photo Notes: Once again, as you can see, Blogger has decided that it doesn't want to fully display any pictures I upload. According to their truly auful "help" site, this has something to do with my column width. Personally, I'd think they might want to fix that, but instead you're on your own. To see the whole picture, visit

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dollars Over Sense

Last week at my writing group, I caught some subtle comments (shall I say hints?) about the blog.

“Well, I had to call so-and-so because I didn’t have the prompts,” was one I heard, and I’m sure there was an unsaid second half, something along the lines of “because she hasn’t updated the !$%# blog!”

Both my blogs have been neglected over the past couple of months. It’s certainly not a case of me running out of things to say. Heavens no! The reason I was MIA is one common to writers striving to write for a living. Sometimes the projects that warm your heart leave your checkbook cold. I enjoy writing my blogs, especially since they give me the freedom to write about whatever I want. For some bizarre, Murphy’s Law reason, whatever I get paid to write about is usually diametrically opposed to my interests and passions. Which is one way a writer can get into trouble.

You’ve probably heard the old adage about not leaving your day job – a piece of advice given to all artists, musicians, and other creative types. After I tossed that pearl of wisdom onto the trash heap of my former job, I discovered that I had taken this advice all wrong. When I read “don’t quit your day job,” what I really thought they were saying was, “Of course you haven’t got enough talent to succeed in such a cut-throat, over-crowded, underpaid profession! And how will you get health insurance?! Stick to what you know or you’ll go broke and embarrass yourself.” In the six years since making the leap into full-time writing, I’ve found that one of the quickest way to smother your creativity is by using your talents solely for a paycheck. A day job allows you to pay the bills without spending all your writing time working on projects that leave you brain dead and frustrated.

Early this month, two-thirds of my writing business dried up. It’s a pretty common thing for businesses in Las Vegas to be struggling right now. “Slow” is only the tip of the economic iceberg here in the Foreclosure Capital of America. When I got the news that two of the magazines I was writing for were about to fail, my first thought was that I would finally get to finish my book proposal, one of those “unpaid” things that had fallen to the bottom of my project list. For this entire month, I’ve been working off-line, away from the temptations of the Internet. Bliss. Pure Bliss.

Then the e-mail arrived yesterday - an e-mail with an assignment. Shouldn’t we all be happy to see our editor’s name in our in-box? Shouldn’t we?

Now the challenge becomes how to balance the demands of dollars against my creative desires. Do you think it’s too late to get a day job?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A Plethora of Prompts

Okay, I admit it. I’ve neglected the blog over the past month. A whole host of writing projects and assignments landed on my desk at about the same time my husband went to a night shift… and the result has been barely controlled chaos. However, as so often happens with writing work, all that work left as quickly as it came. The stories and projects were researched and written, the deadlines were met, and now I’m back here to post a big old fat collection of prompts. So pour yourself a cup or glass of your favorite beverage, pick a prompt, and write for ten minutes without stopping. Don’t even think about picking up a dictionary.

Ahhh, it feels so good to be back!

--Holidays like Labor Day meant nothing to Carrie. She worked every day at the….
--Here’s the headline – you write the story: “Missile launcher given in trade for sneakers.”
--Do remember the route you walked (or biked, or were driven) to school?
--Giselle aimed the gun at Lewis. “I just want you to know that I’m not shooting you because of Lulu. I’m shooting you because….”
--When I really feel like living dangerously, I….
--Paul fell ten feet….
--Cathleen didn’t believe in ghosts, yet she could clearly see….
--Combine a paper weight, an angel statuette, and a clock in a story.
--Eddy had seen everything in his pawn shop from wedding rings to hand guns, but he had never seen anything like this before. The woman standing in front of him wanted to pawn….
--Martin knew he shouldn’t read Janie’s diary, but he couldn’t resist. The shock of the first sentence made his heart thud. He couldn’t believe she had written….
--Tell us a story about a piece of jewelry you lost.
--Have you ever visited an observatory?
--The red rose….
--The sleeping dog….
--He remembered her perfume….
--Being responsible means….
--The knife blade….

Happy writing!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

One In Four

If you're a writer, than means you're a reader -- well, it should mean that, but that's another discussion -- so I know you aren't a part of this sobering statistic: One in four Americans read no books at all last year. Nary a one. Read the story here:

Photo courtesy of Sanja Gjenero at

Friday, August 10, 2007

Writing Prompts

For our last writing group, I went with a “less is more” approach on prompts. Take ten minutes to see what you can construct from these snippets:

~Leann’s purple dress….
~Under a full moon….
~The weeds took over the garden….
~Blood dripped from….
~An open door….
~Her green eyes sparkled….
~The dog’s silky coat….
~Screams erupted….

(Note to Writing Group Members: Regular Wednesday meetings will resume on September 5, 2007.)
Photo courtesy of EMiN OZKAN at

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Courage of Writers

If you’re a writer, you’ve been blessed with courage. Oh, not me, I can hear you saying. I’m not brave at all sitting here behind my computer typing my (fill in the blank). You may believe that the courageous writers are only those found on the frontlines of wars, or going undercover for a little muckraking. Dear writer friend, I hate to tell you this, but you’re wrong. You may not be dodging literal bullets or interviewing felons (yet), but you’re brave. Anyone willing to commit his thoughts to paper is taking a courageous step. Why?

First of all, tackling a blank page is daunting. I once had a lovely lady working as my assistant who was terrified to write a single sentence on her own. I discovered this when I asked her to write a two-sentence memo. After a week had passed, I asked her where the memo was. She blushed a little when she admitted, “I couldn’t think of what to say.” She was deeply embarrassed to confess that she’d tried and failed to complete the memo. Now, this was as simple as a writing assignment can get. We had an employee who had failed to show up for a training class, and we needed a memo that said something to effect of: “Sally Smith was absent from XYZ class on Tuesday due to being sick. We will reschedule as soon as possible.” As simple as it sounds, my assistant was defeated by that blank page and blinking cursor. Her terror paralyzed her. Writers must overcome the terror of a totally white Word screen on a regular basis. If the sight of a blank page makes your heart pound, take a deep breath and remember that you are courageous. You are ready to translate your thoughts into words, and no blank page should stand in your way.

I have no problems with blank pages, you may say, and I still don’t see how sitting here writing my family history constitutes courage. Do you think that everyone who reads your work will agree with you? Are you sure that your memories will match those of your family? I suspect the answer to both questions is “no,” in which case I maintain that spilling your mental beans on paper, for all to challenge, contradict, and criticize, is quite brave.

In my own case, I’ve had to learn to steady my nerves when I must call people to ask any kind of questions. Asking questions is a routine part of journalism – even mundane news stories need correct facts and a few quotes – and not everyone responds to e-mail. When I have to call someone to get information, my palms sweat and my mouth goes dry. For some bizarre reason, phone calls are worse for me than talking to people in person. I worry that I’ll sound like an idiot, or even worse, an imposter. In the back of my mind, I’m worried that someone will challenge my right to talk to them: “Who are you!? You’re not a real writer! Why should I tell you what our entry fee at the children’s zoo is?” Even if you’re not doing news stories, you still may have to call or interview people. Trust me – I can verify from years of personal experience that most people are happy to talk to a writer. I find people either are thrilled to hear from me – what I call the “Thank God you called” reaction – or they act like I’m on assignment for 60 Minutes. (Those in the 60 Minutes group are a topic for another day.)

A friend of mine sent me a one-line e-mail last week: This is hard. He’s working on a book and has run into the doldrums of an extended project. This illustrates another form of writerly courage – the courage of perseverance. This type of courage is the most important for writers to cultivate. Even if you love the blank screen and aren’t afraid to ask people for intimate details, you must be brave enough to keep writing even when it feels like your project is the equivalent of jamming bamboo shoots under your nails. You must be brave enough to keep writing when your internal critic is screaming at you that what you’ve done sucks, that you’ll never finish, that you’re a hopeless pipe dreamer to ever think you could succeed. Every writer has been at this point, and this is when you must summon your courage, banish your internal critic, and get back to work.

Still think you won’t be dodging any bullets? I say grab a flak vest and a notepad, and let’s go!
Note: I originally included a great photo of a danger-loving person on a line ride, undoubtedly a writer facing his inner courage issues, but for some strange reason Blogger won't fully display any images I upload. Dealing with Blogger.... grrrr.... yet more grist for future blog entries!

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Challenge With Blogs

If it feels like everyone in the known universe has a blog, then that’s because they do – at least that’s the way it feels when you’re a writer. Whether you’re writing for fun or profit, blogs have now passed fad status and have acquired a kind of Internet stodginess.

But I like blogs. I like my blogs, and that’s where the challenge emerges. Amid everything else I do – facilitate a writers’ group, writing for local publications, working on my book proposal – my blogs just don’t get updated as often as I would like. In actuality, this probably isn’t anything I should lose sleep over. I doubt that people are standing around the water cooler in the morning saying, “Did you check Just Write today? She still hasn’t posted anything new!” I recently read that the average blog has one reader, which comforts or frustrates me, depending upon my mood.

Should writers bother with blogs? This debate, while nowhere near intensity of the “should writers ever write for free” question, is on the rise. It's a question that applies to all writers, not just those writing professionally. Blogs can serve many purposes – an online portfolio, a way to reach out to readers, a way to stay in touch with friends, a way to express your creativity. Instantaneously self-publishing our own work carries a whole host of pros and cons, but I think it boils down to a question central to all writing practices: does it work for you?

(Let’s just digress for a second and say that those who blog for a living and thus pay their rent by blogging have already answered this question. This is for everyone else.)

Does your commitment to a blog make you write? Is it something you enjoy writing, whether you have one reader, no readers, or a million? Are you happy with your blog – the way it looks, the way it reads? Then keep writing.

On the other hand, if keeping up a blog – be it once a month or once a day – has become a way to avoid other projects, or nothing more that the route posting of whatever crosses your mind, perhaps you should re-think blogging, at least as a way to aid your writing. We all know that the Internet can distract as well as aid us, and that includes blogs. Put your blog in perspective. And remember that when you publish your work on a blog, anyone can read what you’ve posted. Anyone. Make sure your blog is a positive reflection on you.

In my own case, I intend to keep blogging. I wish I knew how the successful writers I know manage to juggle all their projects and do daily blog updates. I suspect it’s a combination of writing shorter posts and writing faster. For me, blogging is a great way to exercise those writing muscles.

Do you blog? How has it helped or hindered your writing?

Monday, July 09, 2007

You Lucky Writer

Local author Jack Sheehan had me laughing out loud with his column in Sunday’s Sun, “How this getting words down on paper gig isn’t really all that bad, once you get past the first line.” For some reason, I assumed that authors of his standing – his list of published works is beyond impressive – didn’t get approached by literary panhandlers.

In case you’re a writer who hasn’t experienced this phenomena, let me just assure you that it’s only a matter of time before someone corners you with his Incredible Idea for a Bestseller that you, you lucky writer, can write for him, so that you can then share in the bountiful sales that his Truly Amazing story will generate. All you, you lucky writer, have to do is to agree to donate your time and talent for an unspecified amount of time to accurately transcribe the genius idea that the non-writer is just dying to share with you. Take my advice on this one and RUN AWAY. Make something up – if you’re a writer, this shouldn’t be too challenging. Tell the non-writer that you suffer from a highly contagious disease. Tell him that you eschew modern devices like computers in favor of writing everything by hand with an authentic quill pen. Tell him anything, but make sure that you are leaving the area when you toss off your pearls of wisdom. He won’t notice, anyway, because he’ll be scouting for the next Lucky Writer to corner.

Two major problems generally plague the arrangement that the non-writer seeks. First, the non-writer doesn’t want to pay you anything. Why should he put any money up front when his book is a certain bestseller? Aren’t you willing to eat dirt for a couple of years and live in a cardboard box so the non-writer can fulfill his dreams? You must not be visionary enough to see that his book will top every best seller list and make you both gazillionaires. Second, the non-writer hasn’t a clue as to how much time and work goes into a book. Once they’ve finished a first draft, these are the people who are appalled to hear that you must then edit your work. They’re also the same people who’ve never heard of writer’s guidelines, word counts, line editing, or any other detail associated with the business of writing. These are the pesky details that you, you lucky writer, will be handling. Telling this non-writer he needs 80,000 words for a novel is like me explaining trigonometry to my dogs: useless and frustrating.

What if you find the non-writer’s idea irresistible? If you do decide that you want in on his Incredible Idea, make sure to address a few key points:

--Insist on a deposit or some sort of up-front payment, even if it’s minimal. People rarely value anything they get for free, and that includes writing services. Agreeing to work for free on a project that can go on for years is a mistake you’ll regret.

--Get an agreement in writing that specifies EXACTLY what you’re going to do. Are you ghostwriting or co-writing? How will you be credited on the book’s cover? Will you be doing promotional work?

--Who makes the creative decisions? If your partner decides he wants three chapters in his children’s picture book devoted to his theories about JFK’s assassination, how will you handle it?

--What will happen if the author chooses to self-publish? Make sure to address this in your written contract. Since the whole idea is that you’re working for a share of revenue, what will happen if Putnam isn’t interested?

--Google your prospective writing partner. This can uncover all sorts of interesting details that he may have forgotten to tell you. You may discover that you’re not the first writer he’s approached.

You, you lucky writer, will feel much luckier if you’ve done your homework on these points. Better yet, why not just work on your own stories? I know you’ve got a bunch of them. Or how about writing about the non-writer and his idea? Sometimes these folks make great profiles or human interest stories. How about going for a different kind of relationship? You could tell him you’ll give him your best hourly rate for your services as a personal writing coach or editor. Or you could just smile and run away. Sometimes that’s the luckiest move of all.
Photo courtesy of Steve Woods at

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

In Memory Of Jim Freund

I’m sad to report that one of my writing group’s former members has passed away. Over the weekend, I got the news that Jim Freund had a fatal heart attack and stroke this past May.

When I first met Jim in 2002, he had an idea for a novel – a very detailed, well-plotted idea. During our writer’s group meetings, Jim was brash but polite, keeping discussions lively with his feisty opinions. He always gave us a warning before reading any piece with blue language, which for Jim was most of his work. He had an innate sense of dialogue, and Jim’s characters talked like the truckers, soldiers, and con men they were. Jim completed his book, Tripwire, and opted to self-publish because he said he didn’t have time to mess around with the waiting game of conventional publishing. A born salesman, Jim was a tireless promoter of Tripwire, attending book conferences and calling up Norm Clark at the Las Vegas Review Journal to pitch his book.

Besides being a good writer, Jim was also an artist, a former car salesman, an avid golfer, and an incredibly proud grandfather – and that only scratches the surface. He had a wealth of great stories guaranteed to make you laugh, and a sharp mind that he used to beat the casinos’ games. I’m grateful I got the chance to know him, and saddened that he’s no longer with us. I hope that when he got to the pearly gates the angel said, “Jim, I hope you’re ready to tee off, because we have hundreds of golf courses just waiting for you!” That, I think, is a welcome he would enjoy.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A New Blog For Lifestory Writers

Sharon Lippincott, author of the blog (and now book) The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, e-mailed me recently. She also works with seniors and was searching for blogs discussing life story writing, which through Internet serendipity led her to me. I facilitate the writing group at the City of Las Vegas' Northwest Senior Center, and although I didn’t set out to learn as much as I have about memoir, biography, and personal writing of all kinds, my group has taught me a thing or two about all these subjects. The most important lesson sounds simple – if you want to write, then sit down and do it – no excuses, and never mind what the kids, the spouse, or the family say.

Sharon's book of the same name, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, has just come out. It’s great to see more information coming out for this segment of writers. Many writers are more interested in writing strictly for the enjoyment of the craft instead of as a means for publication, and this type of book speaks to them. Sharon has done her homework to cover all the practical points, including sections on using computers – often a bugaboo for the inexperienced user.

If you’re thinking about writing your story, both Sharon’s book and blog are a great resource.

Photo courtesy of Stancu Alexandru at


Time again to turn the TV off, unplug the phone, and barricade the door – at least for ten minutes. Pick a prompt and write the story without backspacing, crossing out, or otherwise censoring yourself. Think of it as brain yoga – get in the writing position, and hold for ten minutes.

~As Mary fell from the ladder, all she could think was….
~Do you have a favorite restaurant?
~The wooden stairs wound to the top of….
~Have you ever seen a sequoia or a red wood tree?
~Alice didn’t know she was allergic to caviar….
~Where were you in 1976? What do you remember about that year?
~Spencer was a handsome man, but he didn’t know it. When Mitzy Batten propositioned him….
~The robbery went all wrong when….
~The fluffy, furry ball of hair….
~My favorite summer vacation….
~What do you think of the City’s fight with the car dealership over the size of the dealership’s flag? (See the story at:
~Danny watched the car flip over the median into oncoming traffic….
Picture courtesy of Martin Louis at

Las Vegas Writers

Las Vegas is both a great place to write about, and a great place to meet other writers. I’m fortunate enough to know local author Cathy Scott, who recently profiled Matt O’Brien’s new book, Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas. Those who know Las Vegas know that one of the heartbreaks of our city is that the brutality and desperation of our street life is so at odds with the decadent consumerism of the casinos. O’Brien, a CityLife editor, first became interested in the tunnels when a murder suspect escaped into the flood culverts and tunnels that criss-cross the city. He eluded police for a week; but the story captivated O’Brien.

Scott herself is an accomplished author with two more books on the way, one on the Hole in the Wall Gang and one on the animals rescued during Hurricane Katrina by The Best Friends Society, an animal resucue organization she works for. Check her web site at to read about her other books.


This post first appeared on my Vegas Girl blog.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


Grab your pen (or keyboard) and take ten minutes to write about....

· Do you speak a foreign language? How did you learn it?
· Nick didn’t want to cut down the oak tree, but it stood in the center of his property. By his estimates, it was smack in the middle of his living room to-be. As he pondered his options, inspiration struck him and he decided….
· Tell us about your first apartment.
· Denise thought river rafting would be the perfect vacation away from everything. She never thought that….
· Melinda was tired of snow. She was ready for spring, for grass and flowers and sunny skies. “As soon as it gets warmer,” she thought, “I’m going to….”
· Cynthia never imagined that the dance-a-thon would last so long. After fourteen hours of dancing, she wanted to stop, but her competitive nature kept her going. Abby Lerner, Cynthia’s rival since grade school, was smiling like she was on hour #1. Finally, Cynthia decided….
· Do you have a favorite television show? What do you like about it?
· What is your favorite desert?
· Zachary noticed the scattered papers before he saw the ransacked briefcase outside his open front door. Clearly, Christopher had arrived ahead of him. Zachary took a deep breath before stepping into the house and….
· The little boy’s smile was contagious….
· Mr. Paul was accustomed to complete and total obedience from his students. When Luke refused to follow directions….
· “I am the master of my own universe,” Toby announced before he….
· Combine a toy, an exit sign, and the color blue in a story.
· Tell us about the last call you received from a telemarketer.
· What do you think are the most important characteristics of a leader?
· Congratulations! You’ve just won your dream house. Price is no object, either for the building or the furnishings. What does it look like and where is it located? Will you live there full-time, or will you go there only for retreats? What item(s) will you splurge on?
· The stone bird bath under the privet tree….
· Gary was tired of waiting, so he….
· Have you ever undertaken your own home decorating/home improvement project? How did it turn out?
· Combine these three things in a story: bricks, a guard rail, and candles.

Happy Writing!

Photo courtesy of Davide Guglielmo, or

Bird by Bird

This is my second time reading Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott’s classic book of writing advice. Many consider it to be advice applicable to life in general, and her quotable writing makes it easy to see why:

“…thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’ ”

My favorite aspect of Lamott’s writing is that she advocates writing purely for the sake of writing. She points out that publication isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (she’s right) and that good writing springs from a desire to communicate, not to get a pay check. (Naturally, for those of us doing this as a living, the goal is to combine both.) Her descriptions of neurotic writerly behavior (checking the mailbox ten times a day, finding 101 things to do other than sit down to write) will make you laugh out loud. And when she’s profound – “Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious,” for instance – you’ll be thinking about her message long after you set down the book.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Time for Prompts!

Tell your internal editor to take a coffee break, then ask your muse to come in and chat for a little bit. Write for ten minutes without stopping, crossing out, backspacing, or otherwise editing yourself – and if no topics spring immediately to mind, try one of my prompts:

--Write about your favorite book store.
--What was your most memorable Valentine’s Day?
--Jackson didn’t think twice about walking down the alley. He took the smelly shortcut every day on his way to work. He was lost in thought when he heard the crash….
--If only I had ______, I would ______.
--Do your pets do anything odd or unusual?
--Write about your last shopping excursion.
--Tell us what you think of this quote about writing: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” ~Sylvia Plath
--Joshua couldn’t swim. He didn’t know the creek was only a foot deep, so when his brother pushed him into the water, Joshua thought….

Photo Courtesy of Dain Hubley at

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Dark Side

My writing group has been talking about “the dark side” – that place where death, depression, chaos, and tears live. Can writers become stuck in the dark side? Conversely, what if you want to tell a dark story, but just can’t get there?

It’s easy to get stuck in the dark side because a wealth of material lives there. Our writerly instincts tell us the material is interesting: newspapers are full of tragic stories and murder mysteries are bestsellers. Good writing connects us with the emotions of shared existence – and pitch-perfect description is necessary for that connection. Tragedy can burn events into our minds, giving us vivid memories to work with. Writing’s therapeutic value is well-known and can draw us towards certain topics (Stephen King, for instance, wrote The Shining while battling alcohol addiction). For these and many other reasons, writers may submerge themselves in sinister or sad material. This can be exhausting work. What should a writer do if she’s tired of death and disaster? If you’d like to lighten your work, look for humor – it’s always there just under the surface of tragedy. Try another genre. Study authors doing lighter topics. Too often we label ourselves narrowly and hesitate to venture into new territory.

If you want to write darker material but hesitate to drop into the back alleys of your mind, take it slowly. When writing fiction, sinister characters almost always show up wearing a black hat. Just let them be themselves. Non-fiction can give you the benefit of a more objective stance, although even journalists become deeply affected by the topics they cover. Personal experience/memoir can be painful because you relive the experience to a degree. Every writer deals with this in her own way – when I wrote my memoir, I tackled the hardest material in small doses. Many people say they had to give themselves permission to feel (and suffer) the emotions of the past.

Some of us write about funerals, some about weddings. Both events resonate with us on several levels. Look closely and you’ll find both comedy and tragedy in both.

Photo courtesy of Donna Louisa Mock at

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Grammar Police

One of the things that stymies the creative process is worrying about the grammar police. Early experiences can scar people. I assure you that your sixth grade English teacher will not look you up and chew you out because you misused an apostrophe or misspelled a word. Grammar is simply the mechanics of writing, and it can be fixed. But unless you put the words on the paper, nothing exists for you to fix – so banish grammar worries and forge ahead.

Give yourself permission to make mistakes. When you’re editing you can unleash your inner word maven. Until then, keep writing. If you’re writing longhand, limit your strikeouts. If you’re writing on the computer, leave the backspace and delete buttons alone. Ignore those squiggly red and green lines Word inserts under your grammatically offensive words (you can even turn the squiggles off). Let your thoughts sprawl across the paper. A few drafts later – after you’ve filled in the holes and patched up the roof of your story – it will be time for the finish work. That’s when you can stress about the commas and capitals.

While the grammar police won’t necessarily hunt you down and beat you with blunt punctuation marks, plenty of volunteer grammar policepeople are just waiting to give your work a thorough proofing. Don’t let these people see your early drafts, but be grateful for them on that last draft! After all, who would you rather catch your embarrassing error – your retired English teacher auntie, or the editor at a magazine?
Photo courtesy of Daniel Wildman,

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Writing Down the Bones

Natalie Goldberg's book, Writing Down the Bones, is a must-read for all writers. Goldberg is addressing the person who writes because she must, not because she dreams of publication. Each chapter stands alone and ends with a call to action or a writing prompt. Goldberg's theme is simple and powerful: Write because you want to; write because it gives you a way to relate to the world. Pick up a copy at your local bookstore or order one from the link on this page. Be sure to have a pencil and Post-It flags handy, because you'll want to mark such wisdom as "Writing is deeper than therapy. You write through your pain, and even your suffering must be written out and let go of." (p. 114)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Writing Prompts

Q: What is a writing prompt, and why would a writer use one? Is it like a shoe horn, only different?
A: Sometimes our minds go blank, or sometimes we become so focused on a project that we need a break. Sometimes it's just fun to flex your creative muscles. Try it for yourself: Pick a prompt, write without editing yourself for ten minutes, and see what happens!

· Describe the worst hair cut/hair style of which you were a victim.
· What’s the coldest weather you ever experienced? The hottest?
· Betty heard the floodwaters before she saw them. Instinctively, she picked up her tiny Pomeranians and began to run. She never expected….
· Take a piece of your work and change the genre or point of view – how does it change your piece?
· Harry hated New Year’s Day because he felt he should make a resolution, but he had stopped making resolutions the year that….
· Smoking, drinking, eating too much – everyone has a bad habit. What’s yours and why haven’t you given it up?
· “I ought to shoot you now,” Tammy said. Her Glock was pointed right at me. I thought quickly. One false move and I was toast.

“You don’t want to shoot me,” I said, “because….”