Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Barbed Wire & Other Writing Prompts

Did you know that barbed wire was once called The Devil's Rope? Perhaps that will help you attack the first prompt; if not, don't fence yourself in - move on to a different prompt. Take ten minutes to write without interruption on:
--Combine the following items in a story or poem: barbed wire, an empty beer bottle, and a smoke alarm.
--Claudia didn’t like snakes….
--The house was empty, except for….
--What are your first memories of using a dictionary?
--“You can bring a hundred red roses,” Diana said. “Nothing can make up for….”
Photo courtesy of Jamie Woods at

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Pardon Me, But Your Blog Is Showing

If you’re a writer, especially one who has embraced blogs, I have a warning for you. Despite your worst fears to the contrary, people are reading your articles, stories, and poems. People you will never meet will read your writing and form an opinion about your work, and possibly about you. Occasionally, you’ll hear from some of them, and this is both good and bad news. Take, for instance, an e-mail I received recently.

The writer (whom I won’t identify for fear that the Google Gods will once again bring my name to the Writer’s attention) sent me an e-mail about a post I had written on one of the Writer’s books. Yes, “Writer” with a capital “W” – someone published in a big way. Someone with an agent and reviews in large, national newspapers. Someone who gives interviews.

I marvel any time someone finds one of my blogs and takes the time to write. To me, it’s this incredible bonus because I enjoy writing so much, whether or not anyone reads my work. Honesty is a key ingredient in my writing, and I’m opinionated. I do my best to be tactful, but sometimes I’ve hit the “publish” button and felt my heart pound. A few months ago I wrote about a media panel here in Las Vegas, and I had a funny feeling when my post went up. I had given my very honest opinion about all the panelists, and I didn’t like all of them. Who will read this, anyway? I reasoned. Surely, even if they found my blog, the official Las Vegas media would regard me as nothing more than a speck on the windshield of the Internet, right? Just another irksome “citizen journalist.” Then I got an e-mail from one of the panelists – thankfully, he had given the presentation I liked – and I had to face the unpleasant thought that if one panelist had found my blog, then chances were good the rest of them had also.

Not until I got the e-mail from the Writer did I stop to re-examine my assumptions about who might be reading my work. The funny thing about the post that attracted the Writer’s attention is that I had labored long and hard over it, but not because I had concerns over what I’d written about the Writer. My concerns were over a segment about a local man, and I spent a day making sure that my words were fair and appropriate. The Writer’s e-mail was a surprise. Thankfully, it was a friendly counter-point to what I had written, one that gave me a chance to respond.

After the e-mail, I realized that making assumptions about who was reading my blog was foolish. Anyone might be reading my words – people from the other side of the world, famous people, angry people. Yikes. Talk about something that makes your heart pound! I had unwittingly envisioned walls and barriers that do not exist.

What about you? Have you heard from a surprising reader? Do you make assumptions about who reads your work?
Photo courtesy of Georgios Wollbrecht at

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Clippings Box

Maybe I love to read newspapers because my love of writing began with journalism. Maybe it’s because I still think newspapers are the best source of information, or because papers like The New York Times are an excellent source of good writing. Perhaps the real reason is that a newspaper is rich with writing fertilizer. Tragedy, irony, absurdity, comedy – a newspaper has it all, every day.

I’ve got an old cardboard box in my office that holds my clippings collection. The papers multiply so rapidly that sorting through them yields forgotten treasures – everything from an article about the school crossing guard shortage in Las Vegas to a story about labyrinths. Here are some of the other things I found in my clippings box:

Drunken Lemurs
Score one for the First Amendment. Here’s the headline: “Judge sides with man fired over Dilbert comic.’” Seems that the Catfish Bend Casino in Iowa didn’t care for David Steward’s sense of humor. Steward posted a Dilbert comic in which the dialog states, in part: “Why does it seem as if most of the decisions in my workplace are made by drunken lemurs?” The judge characterized Steward’s action as an error in judgment as opposed to intentional. Drunken lemurs everywhere are outraged.

Mystical Book Experiences
Read Michelle Slatalla’s account of her attempts to find synchronicity in anonymous book exchanges (via in this NYT Article: “Love That Book? Then Set It Free.”

One More Reason To Persevere
Did you know that Elie Wiesel’s classic Night was rejected by 15 publishers? Read Rachel Donadio's NYT story: “The Story of ‘Night’

A Battle of Statistics
An NYT article by John Markoff said Steve Jobs (of Apple) feels Amazon’s new book reading device, Kindle, is DOA because 40% of Americans read one book (or fewer) every year. I took heart from an AP article by Anick Jesdaniun that says 62% of 18-30 year-old Americans use the library. Further proof that statistics couldn’t be more flexible if they practiced yoga.

Personal History

On November 23, 2007, USA Today (along with most papers) reported on the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assignation. In USA Today, the article was just a side-bar blurb. The brief story took me back to the 70s, to a car ride with my Uncle Newman and Aunt Thelma from the airport in Dallas-Fort Worth to their farm, just outside Ballinger, Texas. Uncle Newman pointed out the infamous book repository to me as we drove past it. I was maybe ten, and although I had heard of the assignation, at that time I had no idea what a powder keg of history it was. I was more interested in hearing about Bonnie Parker, of Bonnie and Clyde gangster fame, who was born in Rowena, a town in Runnels County not far from Ballinger. I suspect Uncle Newman knew that I’d appreciate his observation about the book repository later; he was a historian and writer. Now I understand that personal history intertwined with public events enriches both narratives.
Photo courtesy of Oláh Zoltán at Presumably, all these lemurs are completely sober.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Door Bell At Dawn & Other Writing Prompts

Think back to a time when someone unexpectedly appeared on your doorstep at an odd hour. Did your visitor bring good news or bad? Perhaps that memory can help you with the first writing prompt. If door bells leave you cold, pick another prompt for inspiration. Remember, this is a ten-minute free-writing exercise, so write quickly and limit your self-correction.
--The doorbell rang just before dawn….
--Write a story in which one of the characters has lost at least one of his/her five senses.
--Ryan paid for the three-karat ring before he discovered….
--An explosion shattered the night….
--Spicy food….
Photo courtesy of Lisandra Barros Mendonça at

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Endless Edit

"When do you know you're done?" is one of the most common questions I get about writing books. I always tell people that you don't know when you're done. You decide. Does that mean you should send out half-baked work? Of course not. But here's what I've found: rarely will you be 100% happy with your work, not today, not when you see it in print. Without fail, I find things I would change in my published work.

But what happens before publication, when you're stuck in what feels like an Endless Edit? I'm not talking about the perfectionistic editing that is only an avoidance strategy. I'm talking about necessary work. Over the weekend, I printed out the first three chapters of my book. I just finished the proposal package. When I read Chapter One, I realized a few unpleasant things. First, it needed significant work. Second, my proposal package was now more thorough and well-written than the book. Third, I was going to have to tell my husband that my book required more work before it met the world. He didn't look particularly happy to hear that.

I'm not happy to be in the limbo of the Endless Edit, but I am grateful for the opportunity it presents. Someday, when I pick up my published book, I'm sure I will find things I would like to change. With the persistence and hard work an Endless Edit requires, however, I believe my chances of being published are much higher. This is the phase that separates many writers from their final dreams. It's easy to run out of patience during editing. To avoid the feelings that the Endless Edit brings, writers may declare their work is finished when it isn't. I refuse to let the Endless Edit defeat me. Patience and perseverance are what is required. Well, and a little bit of stubbornness, but we'll talk about that another day.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Make the Time to Write

From H. Jackson Brown, author of Life’s Little Instruction Book: “Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”

When I had a day job and writing was strictly my passion instead of my work, I fantasized about what life would be like as a full-time writer. We all know this scene, right? The afternoons at the coffee shop, the blissful hours of contemplation and reading. Uninterrupted hours of time would replace the constant struggle to find enough time after work, dinner, homework, housework, a husband, a kid, and life in general. Then I made the leap into freelance writing and found that it was like moving to your favorite vacation city. I no longer had time to do all the fun stuff I had visualized in my happy little writing fantasy. Suddenly, I was writing all day, but it wasn’t the paradise I had envisioned. I didn’t always have control of what topics I wrote on, or even when I worked (deadlines do not care about holidays or weekends). I enjoyed everything I was doing, but my days were often filled with research, interviews, and clients. I faced an odd situation: I was a full-time writer, but I still felt I didn’t have enough time to write.

My to-do list remains long, but I do my best to keep things in perspective with this quote. It inspires me to turn off the TV, and helps me think about my priorities. It’s hard to sit down at the computer at 9:00, just when Larry King is coming on and my mind is shifting into low gear. It’s all too easy to fall asleep on the sofa, laptop on but unused, CNN turned down to allow dozing. Is this a waste of time, or a necessary break at the end of the day? I ask myself that question constantly. I’m not unraveling the space and time continuum, or creating timeless masterpieces of artwork, or tending to the sick and poor. I’m just a writer. But everything, on whatever scale, requires time and attention. We have to make the time to write; if we wait to find the time, we’ll always be searching.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Crime and Other Writing Prompts

--The crime (or criminal) I remember most vividly is….
--For one moment, Dale thought he would reach the summit. When he lost his hold on the rock and started to fall….
--“Everyone is happy at Kathy’s Kindercare,” said Kathy, who both owned and operated the day care. “So your daughter obviously….”
--My favorite time of day….
--Comment on this Van Gough quote: “Your life would be very empty if you had nothing to regret.”
Photo courtesy of scol22 at stock.xchng;

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Photography and Writing

Those of us who like to write are often also involved in other creative pursuits - painting, dancing, acting, and so on. I love photography. It's an art form in its own right, and it's also a wonderful way to take visual notes. Take my photos from Friday, for instance, at the Clark County Heritage Museum. What stories do these pictures tell?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Striving for Clarity

Last spring, my family spent a night in Flagstaff, Arizona. One of the places we visited was the Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was discovered. The evening we were there, overcast skies prevented any stargazing. It was May, but it was snowing. We were still able to see the Clark Telescope, the first telescope installed in 1896. Inside the unheated, domed building, we saw the huge, historic telescope and learned how men at the turn of the century developed systems to easily re-position the six-ton instrument. A few lucky kids got to come down and see how easy it was to move the telescope, and my son was one of them. The lighting was low and I was shivering, but the photo I got of him is remarkable.

The dim lighting looks other-wordly, and Cameron’s clothing is blurred with the motion of his steps down three wooden stairs. The docent’s back is to us, but Cameron’s upturned face has a ghostly clarity, caught in a moment of true awe. To the left, the historic telescope is in focus just enough for you to recognize its antiquity. I love looking at this photo every day, but it didn’t start out this way.

When I first printed the picture, the lighting was purple (a bad printer cartridge). Everything but Cameron’s face was blurry. Because nothing stood out clearly, it had a blunted feel to it. Through the miracle of photo editing software, I corrected all those things. I sharpened the interesting points around Cameron’s face, changed the color, and installed a fresh printer cartridge. A frame is all I need now.

The process of writing is similar. Within the rough idea, one thought is in focus. It’s up to us to clarify the details. When we edit, we’re sharpening the view to focus on our most interesting points. We give texture with the background, but it shouldn’t be distracting. One focused idea takes center stage, where it blossoms.

Fortunately, no one has created software to automate this process for writers. Can you imagine? One click to replace passive verbs with active ones, another to red-flag flat characters. Yikes! Considering what nutty suggestions Word’s grammar check gives, can you imagine? I’ll stick to my old-fashioned methods here at my desk. Maybe this is why photography is my hobby. I love that a few easy clicks gave me a wonderful picture of my handsome little boy experiencing the thrill of discovery; clear writing is much harder.
Photo information: My photo of the telescope Clyde Tombaugh used to discover Pluto, on display at Lowell.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Joe’s Resolution and Other Writing Prompts

I’m sure you’re familiar with the success statistics on New Year’s Resolutions. If you have a gym membership, you can actually watch the resolutions dissolving. On January 1, you’re waiting to use the equipment. By the end of the month, you can have your treadmill all to yourself. Who knows what Joe, in my first prompt, has resolved to do? It’s your job to find out.

Take ten minutes to write without interruption on one of these prompts. Turn off your inner critic, forget about a dictionary, and just write!

--Joe could see that keeping his New Year’s Resolution was going to be tough. Not ten minutes into 2008….
--When was the last time you saw a show on the Las Vegas Strip?
--During 2008, I want to write about….
--Greg decided to hunt ghosts as a hobby because….
--She looked down and saw the droplets of blood on the floor….
Photo courtesy of Laura Nubuck at

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Flashing Yellow Caution Sign of Writer's Block

Writer’s block is a popular topic. Visit any writing-relating web site and you’ll find something on the subject. Googling the term returns close to two million hits. Clearly, the inability to make our words behave properly is a common affliction. Sharon Lippincott at The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing recently wrote about it in her post, “Write On.” As I wrote in a comment on Sharon’s blog, I’ve learned that writer’s block is like a flashing yellow caution sign for me: writing danger ahead.

Writer’s block arrived in my life when I was on the second or third draft of my book, The Department, my account of 20 years behind the scenes with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Until that point, working on my book was consistently the most fun I had every day. If you’ve been swept away by the rush of a writing high, you know what a wonderful feeling it gives you. When my muse left town, I was in the middle of chapter seven. No more rush, no more joy, no more words. My muse left no forwarding address.

In my prior career in law enforcement, there’s only one answer to the question of an undone task: work harder, work faster, work longer. Cowgirl up. And this was how I attacked my first serious case of writer’s block. I no longer wanted to run to the computer in the evenings, but I sat down anyway and did my best to squeeze out a couple hundred words. This became an unpleasant exercise that involved lots of hair pulling, cursing, and backspacing. Eventually, I abandoned my full frontal assault and re-read my book from page one to try and unravel why my muse had left. I read somewhere that writing about your writing – or in my case, writing about not writing – can help you overcome obstacles in your work. I began journaling about the book and the mysterious block. By doing this, I began to understand why my writing had skidded to a stop. I realized that the events I described in chapter seven held serious underpinnings for the rest of my book, and that I had more emotional connections to that particular period of time than I’d realized. I also saw that the pacing of the book needed to pick up at that point to correspond to the spiraling, runaway train feeling that my career acquired. By slowing down and re-examining my direction, I realized I had to make changes.

After that, I thought I was done with writer’s block. When it returned as I was slogging through the proposal package, I was too embarrassed to tell anyone. Who gets writer’s block on a proposal package? Wasn’t that like getting writer’s block on a memo? When I sat down to work on it, I felt that I was drowning under the immensity of the proposal’s components. A synopsis, an overview, a chapter by chapter outline… the first three chapters as perfect as I could get them… it was almost as icky as doing my taxes, only it was taking much longer. As the months passed and I barely chipped away at the thing, I decided I had a good excuse to shelve it. I had too many pieces due right away to devote much time to the book, anyway, so I just accepted that I was stuck. I began to wonder if I would be one more person with a book manuscript moldering in a banker’s box stuffed in the back of a closet.

Months passed. Over the summer I sent my manuscript around to some friends and family, hoping to reinvigorate the project, and I got back a unanimous response: “We love it! But it needs more.” That was when I realized how valuable the writer’s block had been. I had learned a few things after the proposal muse went MIA, like how to ask people questions about their comments. More importantly, I understood what people meant when they gestured widely and said, “You know, more, just more of what you have here.” I’d read innumerable manuscripts from other writers who needed “more,” that extra texture that paints the three-dimensional world in your head. It’s a nebulous, hard-to-pin-down quality, but I knew what my friends were talking about. When the proposal first ground to a halt, I only had a glimmer of understanding about More. Writer’s block, it appeared, had once again prevented me from charging ahead before my book was ready.

Today, the proposal package is back on the front burner. I’m working on More and marveling at how perceptive my subconscious is. The flashing yellow lights of writer's block have sent me in a new direction, one I'm hoping is free of slow-downs. But if I see those flashing lights again, I know what I have to do: Hit the brakes. Pull over for a while. Find a new road.
Photo courtesy of Margan Zajdowicz at

Monday, January 07, 2008

Happy New Year!

I hope that everyone had a wonderful holiday season, and that 2008 sees every writer I know overflowing with creativity, free time, and spare dollars for treats at the coffee shop. This week I'm getting back into the swing of things after being off over the holidays -- a vacation I initially took rather unwillingly, I have to admit. This holiday season I had to learn first-hand (again) the wisdom of Stephen King's famous quote: "Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around."

Happy 2008!