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Prompt me?

Last night’s SCBWI meeting was great fun. Pat Miller brought writing exercises from her favorite writing books. She sure can pick ‘em – both the books and the exercises were terrific.

Her handout featured a neat quote:

Being a real writer means being able to do the work on a bad day.
– Norman Mailer

Her choices of Books for Writers?

30 Steps to Becoming a Writer by Scott Edelstein, Running Press, 2005

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, Little, Brown, 2006

The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises by James Scott Bell. Writers Digest Books, 2009

The Write-Brain Workhook: 366 Exercises to Liberate Your Writing by Bonnie Neubauer. Writer’s Digest Books, 2006

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. Harper Collins, 1990

Pat started her talk by sharing her favorite tip from book number one: keep a writing journal.

I carry a slim one in my purse at all times. Useful for longer pieces of writing, notes at meetings, musings, and stray ideas knocking at the door of my imagination. I also use 750words.com to do my Morning Pages. (Anyone who knows Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way knows all about these.)

Then we carried on with a writing exercise: Write a scene totally in dialogue:

“It must have been really hot in here for that to melt. I know, hand me that spatula.”
“You can’t use that.”
“What would you use?”
“A knife?”
“That would scratch the paint.”
“A spatula will scrape it too.”
“Not if you hand me the plastic one.”
“It’s a bookshelf, not a non-stick pan.”
“Fine, give me the knife. To hell with the paint.”

What does this sound like to you? (I meant it to be two people bickering about how to get a melted candle off a bookshelf.)

Book Two brought the exercise:

Take a character and outline three expected outcomes from the scene in question. Now outline three unexpected outcomes.

Pat suggested taking a groundhog and having him fall ill the day before Groundhog’s Day, and then the doctor tells him he has to stay in bed for two days.

Expected: stands up and falls down
Gives clothes to friend to have him imitate him
Goes under the covers and won’t come out.
Unexpected:
Dies (Okay, so I am a mystery writer. Deal.) As a ghost no shadow so winter goes on.
Pops up and is promptly sick all over the place. “Groundhogs aren’t green. Impostor!”
Hires a Honey Badger to take his place.

The room was really into it by this time, so exercise three was warmly received. (Frankly, this may be exercise four, but think of me kindly as I sit here typing madly away when the doc says I ought to be in bed resting my neck.)

Write the worst paragraph you possibly can.

We met by the tamborine band so I know you couldn’t have heard me when I told you about my book so I thought I’s write it all down and mail it to you cause this is the best idea I’ve ever had and I’ve had a few. I want you to be the one to discover me. The groundhog dies. Really. Dead as a doornail. So they can’t see him. Or his shadow. Get it? Anyway, read the book.

Pat showed us her No Thank You book, a wonderful compilation of Rejection or “No Thank You” letters received over the years. She filed them immediately into a folder (With page protectors no less!) That way when she got rejections she could feel like she was building a future prop to share with classrooms when she did school visits. Great hint: She files the version of the story with the rejection so that she can keep track of the changes as it goes along.

Fourth – or third, remember I was working on scratch paper because I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been and left my slim little book at home. Plus, see previous note about neck.

Write about a sunny May morning…..merged with slinky. Begin with: When I

When I hit the floor that morning, I found ricocheting back into bed. That had never happened to me before, but then I’d never turned 13 before either. Later, when I went to slapsh my face in the bathroom, the water bounced off my skin onto the mirror.
“Oh no,” Mom said when she saw me bounce my way across the kitchen to clutch at the chair by the table. “that spell must have ricocheted when I shot it at your father last night. Hold on,” she said, rummaging in the spice drawer. “Aha. Now hold still” and she blew ginger….

The last exercise was about putting a familiar character in an unfamiliar place:

The prompt she gave us was Goldilocks

Goldilocks stared in the mirror, green eyes stared back at her, a little white showing all around. Her gaze darted upward and another moan escaped her throat. Snow White would sure crow when she saw this. Who went to the Prince’s Ball with green hair?

 

It was hard to come down from the high of all those exercises to the mundane business of the chapter, but that has its place in the order of things and there was plenty of great news. Lots of new folks in attendance, so that was a nice thing to see as well. Welcome!

 

 

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Pay Dirt

Picture of CheckI did an interview today. Don’t get me wrong, this is not my first rodeo. I’ve done loads of interviews, but this time, I’m getting paid.

Reminds me of when royalty statements came with a check.

It feels good to have income coming in. It is amazing how many writers I know who write for pennies per grueling hour upon hour creating and then revising their prose just so someone can come up to them at a conference and say, “Gee, I downloaded your book from ElRippoffSite.com and loved it.” Notice they did not say they paid for it. Many readers think that writers write simply for the satisfaction of having someone they don’t know read their work. Don’t get me wrong, that’s kinda cool, but the whole work for getting paid thing works for me too. Especially when I get my electric bill.

So how do you go about paying for someone’s work? You can do it the old fashioned way and go into a bookstore and look for the books that leap off the shelf into your hands and beg you to read them. Or you could ask for my books specifically, and, when they don’t carry them, you could – gasp – order them. I know. Delayed gratification doesn’t play well in my house either. The truth is that most authors’ hard work is not carried in all bookstores. Even when the author works hard, play by the industry’s rules and rewrite until their eyeballs bleed, submit to agent after agent and collect enough rejection slips to paper their garret – learning a little about what works on the page and what doesn’t over a period of years – and then, finally, get that contract promising a tiny check upon submission of the completely revised novel. You get paid more if and only if you earn our your advance. Which is what the pittance is called. Don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to pay my electric bill for the year with $2000. (Notice I didn’t even mention rent or water or gas or…you get the idea.)

Back to how to pay for a writer’s work. You can order the book online from any number of places, my favorite being Murder by the Book in Houston. Yeah, you’ll have to pay shipping, but if you order it from your local bookstore, then you don’t. (Plus, then the bookseller in your town will have heard of my books and might, just might, order more than one.)

Then there’s the e-version. Mine are not quite out in that format yet, but machinations have begun to make it so. Once it is accomplished, here’s what you do: Go to Indiebound.com , search for Murder by the Book in Houston, then look me up. (Again, not yet, cause hey, I’m not quite there.) But once I am, then you’d download the book through Indiebound.com and read it on your e-reader. (Yes, even KindleFire can read books from Indiebound.org and you can even set this device to order from stores other than Amazon.

So pick an author, say Miranda James, whose excellent new book just came out. Click on over to Indiebound.org and take a gander through Murder by the Book’s stock. Chances are you’ll find James’ latest book there – plus a whole lot more.

Happy Reading.

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I planted the oddest little seeds I’ve ever seen last fall. They looked like tiny little asteroids. When dropped from my hand into the dirt, they disappeared as if into thin air (or outer space.)

Lo and behold, bright green tips arose where the asteroids had collided with my planting beds and voila! instant root vegetables.

Well, not instant. It took another couple of months, during which time I enjoyed baby beet greens – but then I had them. Creamy sweetness coming out of my oven.

 

My favorite new start this year was Chioggia Beets.They come out of the ground looking quite normal and then, once you cut them open, you get a beet that has white and red rings like it ran away to the circus and came home as the tent. Of course once they are truly cooked the difference between the rings is not as noticeable, but boy are they tasty.

 

 

 

Beet Salad

I first had this salad at a trendy little place in New York. (Okay, so I define trendy as on the nearest corner, but still…)

Ingredients:

Beets, both root and greens
Garlic, 2 – 3 cloves
Olive oil
S&P to taste (I use sea salt because it’s just better.)
Blue Cheese
Lightly roasted Walnuts

Clean your beets, reserving the beet greens.

Put the beets in a 325 degree oven to roast

  • drizzle with olive oil, salt lightly
  • wrap in foil
  • bake 30 minutes for a beet fist size or smaller, longer for those larger.
  • Don’t eat them if they’re old. Tough. Tough. Tough. MUCH better when you get them from your farmer’s market.

T-Minus 15 minutes ’til the beets are done: Roast walnuts in your skillet by turning up the flame and pushing them around, or, if you prefer, use your toaster oven.

When the beets have about ten minutes left to cook, chop your garlic to the desired choppiness and put in a skillet with some olive oil. Turn up the heat and sauté.

Once they’re tender (=not totally brown) dump your cleaned beet greens in and sauté until tender. Don’t overcook them, a little crunch is good. Remove from stovetop.

Pull beets out of the oven. Pull the skins off. (I tend to just cut in as if quartering. The skin peels easily.) Cut into smallish pieces.

Arrange greens on the plate. 
Sprinkle with walnuts.
Arrange cut beets on top.
Add about a Tablespoon or two of blue cheese.

Enjoy!

 

 

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BLACKOUT

I am attempting to join the BLACKOUT protesting the SOPA and PIPA. Please see sopastrike.com for more information. As soon as the code kicks in, this page will go dark for 24 hours.

 

Click on the black tab at the right of the screen.

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Rejuvenation

Despite an injury, I attended a Darcy Pattison revision workshop this weekend. It was outstanding.

Near the beginning of the workshop, Darcy read us the Stages of Learning.

 

First is Unconscious Incompetence: You don’t know that you don’t know.

Second is Conscious Incompetence: You know that you don’t know.

Third is Conscious Competence: You know that you know.

Fourth is Unconscious Competence: You know, but you don’t have to remember that you know every minute of every day.

 

Naturally as writers we would like our writing skills to be in the fourth category. But I was delighted to find (although it really stung a bit at the time) that there were some basic writing skills in which I am unconsciously incompetent. It stung because, well, I am human, and we don’t much like to be wrong. But the marvelous thing about this is that I now know I’m wrong – and can fix it.

 

That em-dash for example. (I picked the smallest example, sorry, don’t wish to really immolate myself just for a blog post.) When I had a character trail into silence, or another character interrupted them. I used ellipsis… because that looked right to me. And, if it looks right, it must surely be right.

Right?

Not.

So now I am in the third category, at least with those pesky em dashes (although still making mistakes…) and just as helpful, how to get my computer to make them.

Option + Minus = Em dash on the Mac.

 

If you have the occasion to take one of Darcy’s many workshops — GO FOR IT. Well worth the time, the money and the sting of learning that you don’t know everything you think you know.

 

Happy Writing!

 

 

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I had a marvelous post on New Year’s resolutions that went pfffft into the either. I think it was a gift, really, because in frustration I went looking for a way to work on the negative feelings. Found the following video which shows a lovely way to recycle your old newspapers into pots to use as starters for spring planting. A few hours with my Baker Seed catalogue — Et Voila — a need for pots emerges!

Just remember to plant your tomato seed with only about an inch to an inch and a half in the bottom of your paper pot, then, as the plant grows, cover the bottom on the stem with soil, leaving a pair of leaves in the air for growth. Makes for a stupendous root.

Happy New Year!

Julie

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If you ever checked a book out of your school library and found a whole new world in which to indulge yourself, please visit the following link and get in touch with your Senators, Congressmen, anyone you can to let them know that funding for school libraries MUST be included in the legislation now under consideration.

http://www.ilovelibraries.org/takeaction

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What Lies InsideThe last post on this topic is the one that has taken the most time for me to write. (Obviously, since there is such a long break in the postings!)

The Mystery Sense is, for me, the one that involves the heart. It’s one that makes us sigh when we read a beautiful piece of prose, or laugh out loud when the character’s voice rings so true that we are right there with them as they sail through their adventures.

I am currently reading DEAD END IN NORVELT, by Jack Gantos. This writer has the mystery sense dead to rights. Fell in love with the voice right from the start. The moment when I lost my heart to this novel was when Jack was standing on a picnic table about three miles away from the drive in movie theater, watching a WW II movie with his father’s old war binoculars. His mother catches him playing with the war souvenirs and scolds him…and then literary magic happens…

“Jack!” my mom called, and reached forward to poke my kneecap. “Jack! Are you listening? Come into the house soon. You’ll have to get to bed early now that you have morning plans.”

“Okay,” I said, and felt my fun evening leap off a cliff and she walked back toward the kitchen door. I knew she was still soaking the dishes in the sink so I had a little more time. Once she was out of sight I turned back to what I had been planning all along. I lifted the binoculars and focused in on the movie screen. The Japanese hadn’t quite finished off al the marines and I figured I’d be a marine too and help defend them. I knew we wouldn’t be fighting the Japanese anymore because they were now our friends, but it was good to use movie enemies for target practice because Dad said I had to get ready to fight off the Russian Commies who had already sneaking into the country and were planning to launch a surprise attack. I put down the binoculars and removed the ammo clip on the sniper rifle then aimed it toward the screen where I could just make out the small images. There was no scope on the rifle so I had to use the regular sight — the kind where you lined up a little metal ball not the far end of the barrel with the V-notch above the trigger where you pressed your cheek and eye to the cool wooden stock. The rifle weighted a ton. I hoisted it up and tried to aim at the movie screen, but the barrel shook back and forth so wildly I couldn’t get the ball to line up inside the V. I lowered the rifle and took a deep breath. I knew I didn’t have all night to play because of Mom, so I gave it another try and the Japanese made their final “Banzai!” assault.

I lifted the rifle again andwhen I saw a tiny Japanese soldier leap out of a bush I quickly pulled the trigger and let him have it.” — DEAD END IN NOVELT, Jack Gantos, 2011 Farrar Straus Giroux

And, you guessed it, there was a round still in the firing chamber. And then an ambulance pulls up to the next door neighbor’s house and Jack is sure he’s killed her. Did he? Go read the book — you’ll love it.

Why I fell in love with Jack has something to do with the fact that he reminded me of a favorite great-uncle who, as a child about Jack’s age, once blew out the windows on the undertaker’s barn with a homemade cannon. More importantly, however, it also had to do with how the writer has drawn Jack’s thought processes. He has not only shown us how Jack misbehaves and justifies his actions, but he provides the means for us to LIVE it as we read.

So how on earth does a writer draw what is in the character’s heart? The answer, sadly enough, is not found in Diane Ackerman’s wonderful book, A Natural History of the Senses, the book I used as a text for my class Writing That Makes Sense. She covers, Hearing, Smell, Sight, Touch, and Taste with abandon, but this last sense deserves to get the same coverage.

How to make your Point Of View character’s heart shine through?

1) Know your character. Backwards, forwards — and everything in between. Do a character sketch. Interview them. Have a conversation with them. Take them on trips (Grocery store: do they have a routine there? Are they OCD — or hopelessly forgetful when it comes to getting home with everything on their list? Going to bed routine: Do they brush their teeth while looking in the mirror or while sorting their mail?)

2) Discover their speech pattern. Do they have a trademark phrase that can tell the reader when they’re truly upset, startled, sad, angry? Winnie the Pooh uses “Oh, bother!” Jack’s is “Cheeze-us-crust!” Instructive difference between Pooh and Jack.

3) Look at your sentence structure. Long sentences usually mean slower action. Short sentences make the reader’s eye go faster. (I know. With Jack’s story, it’s the tumbling longevity of the sentence with so many thoughts pressed in between punctuation that makes for the hectic pace. He’s broken the rule. Once writers know the rules and can follow them, then and only then can they effectively break them and make it work.)

4) How do other character’s react to your Point of View character? Are they fully realized? Did you do steps 1 – 3 with them? You should with your main characters. (Just make sure that you don’t give too much air time to those characters who are so minor they don’t even have last names.)

5) Are you using speech tags to demonstrate emotions rather than having your action or dialogue convey that to the reader? Not a good idea. (An exercise you can use it to completely remove the tags from your dialogue and see if A. Can you tell who spoke and B. Does the dialogue convey the sense of emotion and the message you wanted to get across.)

6) How do you feel while writing the passage? A difficult scene may also be difficult to write. I’ve cried while writing scenes where the character feels despair and laughed out loud when the character has a good moment. This does not guarantee that the writing will convey what you want it to convey to a reader, but it’s a clue that you are headed in the right direction.

7) Do your word choices match the tone you want to convey? Do you use slithery, slimy, and slumpy words in a scene that is supposed to be about heartbreak? You might want to rethink. The disconnect between the words you use and the emotion you wish to evoke may sabotage your work. Contrast is one thing. (Think Irony or Sarcasm.) But having words come out of left field is another thing altogether.

8) Journal. I know. This is out of left field. Or is it? When you are in the grips of a particular emotion and journal about it, you are far more likely to capture the language of that emotion — and then you have a reference to use for your own writing.

9) Make lists. One of the exercises we did in my class was to come up with lists of verbs, nouns and adjectives associated with the different emotions. Corny, but effective. Once we had the lists it isn’t so much about going back and pulling Word 3 or Word 14 from the list like interchangeable cogs. It is more like recognizing and internalizing the vocabulary of the heart.

10) Practice. Yeah. I know. This one goes for all writing.

11) Read. There are some outstanding books out there — study them. Take your favorite stories apart and see how the author got you to buy in so completely that you were swept away.

Happy Writing.

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Holy Snow

red oak from scifun/chem/wisc/edu

red oak from http://scifun.chem.wisc.edu

I was recently back in Kentucky for a Pony Club Board meeting, and enjoyed something we don’t often see in Houston — frost.

Color is one of the beautiful effects that fall brings to the landscape. Kentucky trees have turned brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow, something we don’t get to enjoy along the Gulf Coast. All this is thanks to a substance called Carotenoids and Anthocyanins.

All tree have them, even those on the Gulf Coast. We just don’t get to enjoy them the way New Englanders and Kentuckians (and everyone in between) do. In Houston all I get to see is the fading of leaves from green to brown — and then all the leaves fall off. My childhood memories had me associating the brilliance of the fall color with the lowering temperatures. (Gulf Coast weather is still warm long into November.)

Turns out that the frost I was thinking necessary for fall color isn’t wholly responsible — it’s also the light.

 

According to http://scifun.chem.wisc.edu/chemweek/fallcolr/fallcolr.html

“The range and intensity of autumn colors is greatly influenced by the weather. Low temperatures destroy chlorophyll, and if they stay above freezing, promote the formation of anthocyanins. Bright sunshine also destroys chlorophyll and enhances anthocyanin production. Dry weather, by increasing sugar concentration in sap, also increases the amount of anthocyanin. So the brightest autumn colors are produced when dry, sunny days are followed by cool, dry nights.”

Who knew?

Does this mean if I take dry ice out and plunk it down in my woods I’ll get better fall color?

Yeah. I didn’t think so.

Happy gardening!

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Vacation?

You’ll have noticed the lack of recent posts. I’m wearing roller skates on the merry-go-round of life. In short: I’m on deadline.

See ya back here in November.

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