Friday, June 26, 2009


Have you ever heard the writing advice, “Start with the day that’s different?” Accidents, arguments, mishaps, and other assorted life incidents can give a writer a foothold into that different day.

For instance, what makes a person snap? Have you ever written a scene (or story) in which the character looses control of his actions, words, and/or emotions? What motivates him, and how can you show it to the reader? Readers want characters who are interesting and complex. Real people lose their tempers and do rash things; the consequences can make an interesting story.

The “day that’s different” strategy also works in non-fiction. True crime stories depend upon a steady stream of logic-defying murders, thefts, and assaults. If we ask the question, “What were they thinking?”, it’s rhetorical. We know they weren’t thinking at all.

Are your characters always calm, or do readers also see them become impatient or angry? Do their actions cause them grief--or relief? What happens on that day, that different day?
Picture courtesy of David Ritter at

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Social Networking: Helpful or Distracting?

In the past six months, I’ve done a lot of research into online social networking: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace. Writers are increasingly called upon to understand this environment. Clients are looking for writers who know how to set up and maintain an online presence on today’s popular networking sites. Additionally, these sites are often places for writers to meet clients and other writers. In pre-Internet days, socializing meant getting out of the house. Now you can chit-chat and network in your pj's.

The good thing about social networking sites (let’s shorten that to SNS) is that those of us who work alone can feel like we belong to a community. I haven't met face-to-face with most of the online writers I know, but I feel comfortable asking them questions and participating in online discussions with them. At Twitter, which I like the most out of the current SNS offerings, you can even join a Twibe—I’m with the writers and the journalers. Twitter’s 140-word limit on entries (a.k.a. micro-blogging) forces you to get to the point, which I really like. Subscribing to other people’s feeds, known as following, is an easy process. I found the learning curve a bit higher at Twitter than at other sites—they use lots of acronyms and symbols, and there’s Twitter etiquette on how to use them all.

I probably under-utilize LinkedIn, which is a great SNS for professionals. I appreciate being able to send e-mails to potential clients/editors with a link to my profile, which includes my resume and references. The site also offers some job postings.

Facebook feels like a cyberspace watering hole to me: chit-chat, silly quizzes and games, lots of fun pictures, flirting. After I set up my Facebook page, I had to admit I was stumped. What on earth was I supposed to do with it? Twitter and LinkedIn had an easy, business-related purpose to grasp, but Facebook mystified me. Was it for friends or business acquaintances? It looked more like an environment for friends and family to me, so that’s how I decided to use it (although there's no escaping some cross-over between friends and business on these sites). My Twitter feed publishes to my Facebook page, and I do my best to spruce up Facebook with pictures. The benefits of staying in touch with people are obvious, but I don't want to spend too many hours on these applications.

Any of these sites can turn into serious time wasters. You can fritter away hours posting witty 140-word blogettes on Twitter, taking quizzes like “What Kind of Storm Are You?” on Facebook, and requesting recommendations from former clients and colleagues on LinkedIn. Online social networking is here to stay, and writers especially should have online presence, but you’ve got to set some limits. Sure, now we can socialize in our pajamas from the comfort of our home offices, but is that always a good use of our time? I remember being in an office when the boss walked through and everyone stopped socializing. Maybe we need a virtual manager to march past our cyber-water cooler and tell everyone to stop talking and get back to work. Now, that would be useful.
Picture courtesy of A B (aprilbell) at

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Mowing the Lawn & Other Writing Prompts

Take ten minutes to freewrite about....

--Richard was sick and tired of mowing the lawn, so he decided….
--My favorite vacation escape….
--Anna didn’t mean to hurt Nancy, but….
--What’s one article of summer clothing that you can’t do without?
--Jack was sure he was in love with Lisa because….
Picture courtesy of Steve Woods at

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bad Cat

Oh sure, I know he looks all sweet and loving in this picture. This morning, however, was another story.

Anyone who works at home must learn how to set boundaries while still remaining flexible. Unexpected things happen to everyone. If you work in an office outside of your home, you must deal with meetings, visitors, bosses, and other routine interruptions. At home, your interruptions come in other forms. Furry, misbehaving forms, in this case.

Baby Cat is this deceptively sweet-looking feline's name. Well, that wasn't his name this morning, but I try to keep things family-friendly around here. Baby was my late mother's cat, and one of the last things I promised her before she passed away was that I would take care of him. That was before he started spraying in my house a couple of months ago.

I was getting ready to go to work today, and since my office is at home, this includes a quick tidying of the house. I was in mid-tidy in my bedroom when Baby ran out of the room. Animals are a lot like children; I could tell he had done something wrong just from the wacky way he ran out of my room. That's when I smelled urine. Mr. Baby had backed up to my bedroom curtains and drenched them with pee. While I am normally an animal lover, at that moment all I wanted to do was catch him and tie his peeing parts into knots. He picked up on my angry vibe, and the chase was on.

My 11-year-old son was soon running after me as I chased Baby through the house. Luckily for Baby, he is fast, fat, and strong. I caught him once but he used his feline heft to break my grip and run away again. I was soon cursing and sweating. All I could think of (outside of cat homicide) was, "I haven't got time for this! I'm supposed to be working!" (Add curse words liberally for a more verbatim version.)

I share my office with this bad cat. When he moved in with us after Mom died, that's where he lived until he got used to our family. In an attempt to avert sure death, after ten or fifteen laps around the house, he dashed into the office and hid in "The Baby Cave," a portion of the closet that was created just for Mr. Spoiled. He hissed at me when I poked my head in and told him, "You're out of here! You are going to live someplace else! I will not have an animal pissing in my house!"

My son was aghast. He immediately laid down in front of the office door and announced he was on a hunger strike until I commuted Baby's sentence. "No, Mom, no! You cannot give Baby away! He was Nana's cat!"

All the while, there was the clock... ticking away my Thursday.

I explained to my sobbing child that he would feel quite differently about Baby if the spraying continued. I explained that I would never take Baby to the pound, but that I was going to be calling the no-kill shelters and putting him on a waiting list. I explained that I could understand the spraying in the garage, and I could understand the spraying in a cat toy that another cat had used, but I could not understand spraying in my bedroom on my drapes. "I hate you," was his response. Baby Cat felt pretty much the same way.

I left a message at the shelter and waited for them to call me back. "Come downstairs so I can fix you something to eat," I called up the stairs.

"No! I'm not moving or eating until you let Baby stay." Great. That's what I get for teaching him about civil disobedience.

The lady from Heaven Can Wait called me back and broke the bad news to me about my bad cat. When I asked her about a waiting list, she said, "Oh, I'm afraid we're beyond that. We're not even taking names." They are overwhelmed with unwanted and abandoned cats. I asked her if the other shelters in town are in the same boat, and she sadly answered, "Pretty much."

I went back upstairs to tell Gandhi and Baby the Spraying Devil Cat that a reprieve had been issued. I put Baby Cat on house arrest in the office until further notice, and then I fed his valiant protector.

When I worked a 9-5 in an office outside the house, I regularly groused about stupid meetings, talkative visitors, and other office time wasters. As annoying as those things were, I never, ever had to deal with a cat pee interruption, nor did any of my employees lie down and refuse to eat until I changed my mind about a decision. All of which is why working in a home office will prepare you to handle just about any kind of interruption or delay. And, what the heck, I got a good story out of it after all.

BAD CAT UPDATE: Baby is still restricted to one room while I research his spraying problem. So far, I haven't found much information that I did not already know--namely, that spraying can be a notoriously difficult habit to break once it's started. The behavior may be a result of health issues, like urinary tract problems, which I read are more common in big fellas (15+ pounds) like Baby. I think it's also possible that his behavior may be jealously over our other cat, who has been sick recently. (Or maybe he and my dog who has colitis are in collusion; the dog has ruined all my carpeting, so maybe Baby offered to chip and and ruin the furniture and drapery.) I removed anything in his room that smelled like the other cat and have been giving Baby extra attention and affection. I'm going to try Feliway next, and we may be visiting the vet to rule out health issues. Fortunately, he has forgiven me for chasing him through the house. As I type, he's stretched out on the floor, purring.

Proofreading: The Blogger’s Bugaboo

The only thing that gives me comfort about typos and other icky errors in my blog posts is the knowledge that I am not alone. In this new age of blogs (and other types of self-publishing), mistakes like typos and misspelling can easily slip through the proofreading gaps to mess up a writer's perfectly brilliant post.

Murphy’s Law comes into play for me, because whenever I’m sending out loads of proposals and queries (all with links to my blogs), that’s when I find big, fat, embarrassing mistakes that ruin my punch lines or points. Yesterday I fixed some whoppers, and if a friend hadn't e-mailed me about my garbled words, my mistakes might have gone uncorrected for a long time. What’s a writer to do? How can a blogger keep her work clean and error free?

Here are a few of my strategies for avoiding (and correcting) those cringe-inducing mistakes:

1. If a post can wait overnight before it goes on your blog, let it sit before you give it a final proofing. This is the technique I use with all my print articles, and so far it's kept my print work very clean (and my editors happy). Unfortunately, the immediacy of blogging means it's not always possible/desirable to wait until tomorrow. If it can’t sit overnight, let it sit for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer. Your brain’s proofreading abilities work much better when you put some time between creating and correcting.

2. Proof from a hard-copy, if possible.

3. Read your work out loud.

4. Ask a writing (or English-savvy) friend to proofread your posts; this is what I do. Unless you ask for proofing help, some folks may be reluctant to tell you about your mistakes. (And we all know a few people who are just delighted to point out errors. Proceed with caution if you choose one of them to be your proofer. That’s a topic for another post.)

5. Re-read your own posts frequently. In fact, re-read large chunks of your blog on a regular basis to make corrections and/or post updates.

6. Know your weak points. In my case, if I become passionate about a topic and compose on the fly, right there on Blogger’s posting page instead of in Word, I tend to hyper-focus on the topic and miss errors. (My post on book banning became a grammar victim due to this hyper-focus.) I also have a tendency to leave words behind when I’m cutting and pasting in the throes of editing, which makes my sentences read like alphabet soup.

7. Accept that you will make mistakes. Put a good proofing system in place, and use it. I tell my writers that their work can be published or perfect, but rarely will it be both.
Picture courtesy of Piotr Lewandowski at

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Attention Las Vegas Crime and Mystery Writers

I almost overlooked the upcoming conference for crime and mystery writers because of its unassuming name. The Public Safety Writers Conference is hosted by the Public Safety Writers Association, which is a group of writers who share a background in emergency response, either as participants, writers, or both.

The PSWA Conference is scheduled for June 18-21 at the Suncoast. Writers may attend for one day, or for all three. Sunday only is $80 for PSWA members ($92 for non-members) and the full three-day conference is $300 (non-member price). Sessions range from "Writing for Trade Publications" to ""Putting Comedy in Your Mysteries." If you are a Las Vegas writer working in this genre, check out their web page for more information.
Picture courtesy of Julie Elliott-Abshire at

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Book Banning: Ignorance Hard At Work

Our democracy may come complete with free speech, but America has plenty of people who think that only applies to speech with which they agree. Writers everywhere should be concerned about censorship and book banning; these practices are just as troubling (and dangerous) as the collapse of the newspaper industry. In May, a Michigan high school teacher was directed to remove Toni Morrison's The Song of Solomon from her advanced placement English class. The protestors objected to the novel's profanity, sexual references, and violence. I don't know what's more absurd -- pretending that high school seniors somehow need to be protected from reality when America has some of the highest teen pregnancy rates of any industrialized nation, along with shocking levels of violence and incarcertaion -- or that in the name of "morality" it's a good idea to ban the very type of intelligent discourse that might prevent social ills.

Read this blog post from January Magazine for more details:
Picture courtesy of Johanna Ljungblom at

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Robert's Mother & Other Writing Prompts

Today was the last day before summer break for the Just Write Writing Group here in Las Vegas. In view of that, I wrote some extra prompts. If you’ve been here before, you know how this works, but if you haven’t tried a writing prompt, then prepare to pick your writing implement and take an idea for a test drive. Find a prompt that intrigues you and freewrite for ten minutes. No stopping, stalling, or second-guessing. Who knows where the prompt will lead you? Just write!
* * *

Robert’s mother’s voice blasted through the phone. “You’re a grown man! How many times do I have to tell you….”

--Would you consider having cosmetic surgery? Why or why not?
--Alice was baking cookies when she found out that Jason had decided to cut his own hair. Half of the child’s blonde curls were on the floor when she discovered him. “Good grief,” Alice said. “What are we going to tell your mother? I guess we’ll just have to….”
--How do you stay cool during a Las Vegas summer?
--You’re stranded on that proverbial desert island, and you can bring only three books with you. What do you bring?
--“I should have known better than to trust you,” Chad snarled at Lisa. “Now because of your big mouth, I’ve got trouble with….”
--Combine railroad tracks, a broken window, and a can of white paint in a story or poem.
--He was ready to file for bankruptcy on the day he got the call from….
Photo courtesy of Mateusz Atroszko at