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