Writers’ Family Reunion

photo of welcome table at Writers' Family ReunionI had the opportunity yesterday to participate as a faculty member at Writespace’s   Writers’ Family Reunion. Writers of all stripes from all over Houston (and beyond) gathered at Silver Street Studios to meet, greet, and learn about the writing process — from how to get started, through how to keep going and included the multiple paths now available for publication.

Favorite things?

Meeting a writer new to Writespace, who was warm and wonderful. So glad to know you Hilda Davis!

Writerly foods!

Speed Dating for Writers: I am sorry I did not climb up on something to get an arial view of this activity. Michael put down a masking tape map of Houston on the floor of the warehouse, handed out a survey for everyone to fill out that would help them network. He first grouped writers by their home location to say “Howdy, what do you write? Wanna meet up sometime? Here’s my contact info.” Then he moved them to about five different groupings, including genre, experience level, and several other fun options, leaving them enough time to say again, “Howdy, what do you write? Wanna meet up sometime? Here’s my contact info.” Brilliantly done — and fun to boot.

Then on to browse the sponsor tables and play writerly games.

The neverending story was hilarious. Pull a slip out of a hat and write a sentence  inspired by your slip that builds on the previous line in the story. Try working “fern” into an intergallactic story that includes a squished alien caterpillar.

Poetry building included meg-size magnet words on a sliding metal door. Pretty soon we were scavenging each others’ haiku for enough words to complete our own verse.

First page critiques were a lot of fun. The energy of a new writer is something that fuels my fire for writing. Pam and Richard at our table both had so much going on that I really wanted to read more!  (There was one other woman whose name I didn’t catch who wrote a wonderfully evocative scene!)  K.J. Russell and I combined forces to provide critiques for these three aspiring writers.

Then on to breakout sessions. Over the next two hours, panels of local published writers discussed:

  • My Journey as a Writer: What I Wish I Knew When I Started
  • Writing Your First Novel
  • How to Create (Or Join!) a Great Critique Group
  • Publishing 101: An Overview of Options for New Writers
  • Reading Like a Writer
  • The Benefits of Promiscuous Art-Making: How Exploring New Creative Mediums Can Vitalize Your Writing

Now I can’t wait for Writefest the first weekend in May when I get to gather more fuel for my writing engine.

 

Process

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Roughing It

Photo of feet, Mysterygarden dot com
Feet First

When writing a rough draft, I find it easiest to jump in and write a few chapters to see what the characters have in mind. Which works well for me – except when it doesn’t.

 

Ten chapters into my latest work in progress I stumbled upon a major problem. I didn’t know how it ended. Worse, I found that I couldn’t see where this story began. This is a stumbling block of insurmountable proportions, so I quickly stopped to take stock to see what I could do to get over, around or through it.

 

I hauled out every book I own on plot. (Amazingly enough, I own tons of books about writing. I must love to read or something.)

  • Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham
  • Save the Cat  by Blake Snyder
  • The Weekend Novelist by Robert J Ray
  • The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field
  • Plot by Ansen Dibell
  • Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress
  • and No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, or how to pretend to write a novel in 30 days.

 

Surely these fine authors could help me plow through this challenge easily.

 

Alas.

 

After spending an inordinate amount of time looking at these books – and a multitude of blogs – I came to the harsh conclusion that these folks are not me. Their solutions are not mine. I needed to look at this from my own perspective.

 

I filled out index cards. (Actually, I let Scrivener print the index cards — love this program.)

I plotted the fifteen point solution to plotting that so many children’s writers use.

I looked at inciting incidents and plot points and character motivations. And still had the front end problem.

 

So I took it to the mat, AKA my critique group.

 

They didn’t tell me what to do; They asked me questions. And I found my answer. I still have to do the work, but my critique group helped me find it. (Have I mentioned lately why I love critique partners?)

 

So what were the questions they asked?

What is her motivation? (She had two conflicting ones, which explains a lot about why I was sitting there treading water with her instead of moving forward.)

What does she want?

Why does she take the job that is central to the book’s action?

What scares her about the job?

What are the stakes for her if she fails?

 

None of these were new-to-me questions. I had done an extensive character sketch that includes these questions before starting this book.

 

But remember that duality I was dealing with. I hadn’t decided if she was inherently light or if she had a slight streak of larceny running through her veins. Turns out the duality makes sense for this character. One of her main motivations is to reunite with her family. She’s been cast out for getting arrested for grand larceny. Made sense if her family was on the good-guy side of the art world, but things kept cropping up in the chapters  that indicated her family were criminal masterminds. (Which I was loving.)

 

Then came  a follow-up question, the perfect question.

 

What if it was the character’s family of origin had a split-personality?

 

One branch are law-biding, fine upright member of society kind of people. The other branch of the family are highly organized thieves. Main Character’s got to make a decision which path to take incidentally deciding which side of the family are “her” people.

 

That sounds like something I can work with.

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!

 

 

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!

 

 

Writing That Makes Sense – Part Six — the Mystery Sense

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.

A Picture (Book) is Worth A Thousand Words

You gotta wonder if editors didn’t have that in mind with their suggestion that one thousand words or fewer would be the ideal word count for a modern picture book. New goal for word counts between 700 to 1,000 words, according to Liz Scanlon, author of, among other books, A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes. Liz (If I may be so informal after just six hours of lapping up your wisdom about the world of picture book creation.) spoke during a special day-long session this last Saturday at the Houston Chapter of SCBWI.

I am not a Picture Book writer, but I have never attended a session where writing was a topic and not come away with Pearls. This was no different. Thank you, thank you, thank you to all who organized and participated in the day. I so enjoyed sharing your writing energy!

The following are my notes from the session, which culminated in my paying not one whit of attention during the end of the lecture because I was diverted by a truly pitiful (but oh-so welcome) inspiration for a Picture Book.

Picture books. The purpose

Meant to be read aloud…always adult and child or children…

Provides multilayered and multilevel experience. Textual, visual, adult/child

Offers exposure to new vocab, the concept of story and literacy in general

Provides a platform for connection, intimacy, and love

Picture books. The form

Usually 32 pages long

Less than 1000 words, most less than 700

Perfect marriage of text and art

Often contains tradition narrative arc

Ends on a note of hope.

First the words.

Writing

Revising

Look up Picture Book Dummy for a notion of what to expect your words to wind up looking like on the page — plan for this. You have X=~25 pages and Y=12-14 scenes. (Which are picture opportunities) Make the most of them.

If you look at the grid on the Dummy, you notice that the first and fourth lines are short, about 4 – 5 pages, vs 8 pages on the middle two lines. Story blocking goes thus: First line: intro characters and problem Second line and third lines are the middle of the book, develop characters, action and story. (try and fail, try and fail, try and fail.) The fourth line is Crisis and Resolution. Voila!

I hate a closed heart. I know that when I have an unsuccessful day at my desk it is because I simply have not loved people and books and pictures enough…Ursula Nordstrom, editor

(Please, please rise from the dead and be my editor! -j-)

Interview with Maurice Sendak on fresh air last week. Listen!!!

Picture books are just a new way of looking at things…a childlike way of looking at things.

Coloring in the lines quiet…crayon escaping the lines energy…pb concept?

A sock is a pocket for your toes… Concept book

If want a successful PB explore a new perspective about…friendship, pockets, gardens, dogs, clouds…

Ask yourself: What is my fresh angle on the subject?

Two frogs down at the pond. Does one want to be a fish? A bird? Tell from pov of the fish under the lily pad…

Traditional narrative arc, aka plot pyramid aka Aristotle’s incline

  • Inciting incident, rising action, falling action, resolution

The Hero’s journey

  • Departure, initiation, return

Seven basic plots

  • The quest, voyage and return, rebirth, tragedy, comedy, overcoming the monster, rags to riches

Rules of threes

  • Try and fail, tray and fail, tray and succeed

12 – 14 illustratable moments

Page turns are the chapter breaks of picture books..dont miss the opportunity to tempt, satisfy, and keep ’em reading.

  • Q.a format
  • Complete verse forms
  • Mid.sentence splits…maruice sendek, where the wild things are
  • Build and thrill…one dark night, Lisa Wheeler…use of meanwhile…

The process

  • Write, revise, repeat
  • Write, revise, repeat
  • Write, revise, repeat

Special topics.

  • Tension and conflict
  • Characterization
  • Animal characters
  • Setting
  • Language, rhyme and rhythm
  • Revision

Non-fiction picture books are out there, wonderful, and creative. Gendre = creative non-fiction, written in the form of story…everything from here applies…tension and wonder. exceptions for length, can be, but not always, a bit longer…maybe 1200 words max.

Tension and Conflict:

  • illustration of the pyramid inciting incident, climax, resolution
    • The Carrot Seed, Ruth Kraus
    • Tension pulls you through the book, discovery process
  • Even in a picture book, we need:
    • Multiple uh-ohs
    • dream, frustration, resolution
    • who wants what from whom what’s standing in the way? what is the character willing to risk to get what he/she wants. how will the character, under his or her own power, solve the problem?

Characterization:

  • Memorable
  • Authentic
  • Sympathetic
  • Complex
  • Detailed

How do you achieve all that?

  • Character Backstories
  • Meaningful Names
  • Deep Desires
  • Flaws
  • Character tags and catch phrases

animal characters:

  • why is my character a worm or a bird?

Use the essential animalness of your animals — or play against type

  • Puns and animal-appropriate language
  • it’s your universe, but your universe has rules
  • look for the perfect balance between humor and tenderness

Setting:

no Headless Horsemen – Anchor your story in time and space!

Inside all of us is a wild thing.”

–where the wild things are

“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short easy words like ‘how about lunch?'” — Winnie the Pooh

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant.” — Horton Hears and Who

Rhyming Dictionary: rhymezone.com

“This is not cheating. You know all the words in there, you just forgot it for a little bit” – Liz

The Synonym Finder — great thesaurus. edit Rodale

Language:

Watch out for too many adverbs and adjectives

Activate Verbs

Avoid crazy dialogue tags

Show don’t tell

Wordplay?

Rhyme, Rhythm and Reading Aloud

The story is the queen, the rhyme is her pawn

the story is the driver, the rhyme is his carriage

the story is the house, the rhyme is the wood

the story is the soup, the rhyme is the pot

(You are the boss of the story, not the rhyme)

  • Do not sacrifice the story for the rhyme!!
    • is there a reason to write it in rhyme?
    • could you use internal rhyme, repetition and rhythm instead?
    • Use natural syntax
    • don’t forget syllabics and meter
    • Read it aloud
    • Ask someone else to read it aloud.

Revision:

“The most important quality in writers is the ability to be dissatisfied with what we have written. Dissatisfaction creates the essential discomfort that will eventually lead us back to the manuscript to attempt yet again to craft our work to perfection. The least effective writers are the most immediately satisfied writers.” Mem Fox, Author

Revising is…

  • making decisions to improve your writing
  • looking at your work from a different point of view
  • identifying places where your writing could be clearer, more interesting, more informative or more convincing
  • Revising IS NOT copy editing

Potluck of Pointers:

  • Read, read, read ,read ,read
  • Read Aloud, read aloud, read aloud
  • Emphasize truth over fact
  • Use rhyme with caution and reason
  • Use verbs instead of adverbs, nouns instead of adjectives
  • don’t preach — or dumb down
  • submit manuscripts without artwork — unless you’re an author-illustrator

All Strays Apply Here

Cats in a crate
Peaches and Minnie on their way to Austin

I miss the redhead from Chapter Three. She was a dynamo in riding tights, whose dialogue sparkled and forceful nature promised much in the way of future interesting conflict.

Pity she didn’t fit the story line.

She charged onto the page in Chapter Three, well into the action of the book. Bright, sparkling dialogue, an outspoken personality, and enough sass to intrigue. You’d think she was a gift I’d want to keep. Sadly though, once I got further along in the book, I realized that she was a one-scene character, and that having her spend that much time on the page during that one scene left a ghost behind. If I as the writer was still wondering about her, then the reader probably would too. Painfully, the truth is that she didn’t move the plot of this book along. So I whittled her part down to one line and moved the rest of the scene to a secret location.

Well, it was a secret, but now I’m telling you. I have a special file on my computer called Not_Now_Stuff.doc, a wonderful file filled with characters and scenes that didn’t fit the work-in-progress, but with which I was sufficiently intrigued not to simply delete them out of hand.

I think of it as a no-kill shelter for stray ideas. This way nothing is ever lost. If they keep bugging me, I already have something to start with when I pull them out of the file to play.

Who knows? Ms. Redhead might get a story of her own some day. She’ll still be all sparkly, conflicted and sassy, because I’ve got her tucked away safely.

Happy Writing!

Miss Spelling

When I was young, I would ask, “How do you spell, *****?” My Dad’s response, bless his little cotton socks, was always, “The Dictionary is in the  sunroom. Go use it.” Ungrateful wretch that I was, my first thought was always, “But I don’t know how to spell the darn thing. How CAN I look it up?”

I have typing dyslexia. In addition, my eye for spelling, and more importantly: misspelling, is horrid. (Although that sentence is demonstrating my lack of skill with punctuation.) Give me a word that looks like, sounds like, is even close to the word I wanted for that spot, and my eye thinks it’s okay, fine and wonderful. And to top that off, lately, when I begin a word that has more than four letters, it seems as though my fingers only get the first three right, and then substitute some alternate word in place of the one that would fit the bill.

I am stumped. No reasonable explanation explains the steady downhill slide of my spelling ability. How do I get past this affliction?

For now I’m using spell check and reading the piece out loud. Any suggestions will be gratefully received! (At least those not involving chalk and repetitive writing…)

Help!

How To

Our critique group had an interesting discussion on how you learn to write. I opened my browser to check my bookmarks and share them with the group, only to find that I hadn’t actually bookmarked the sites that I find most helpful. Time to fix that. As long as I’m out there looking, thought I’d share them here too.

Grammar:
My favorite site by far is the Grammar Girl site. Mignon Ballard has a good sense of humor and a way of explaining things that make the rules clear — and that stick with me. I subscribe to her podcasts and listen to them in the car during short trips. If I have a question about a particular rule, I can scroll to the correct podcast and, voilà, instant clarification.

Another site that comes up often when I do a search for a particular rule is the Purdue OWL site. This is more scholarly, but again, a solidly helpful site.

Spelling:

Hello? Spell check exists on most word processors. Just make sure you read it over to eliminate sound-alike/look-alike words.

Sentence Structure:

Nothing like knowing how to diagram a sentence. I cringed while typing that last. Never, ever thought I’d wish that I’d paid more attention during eighth grade English class.

Infoplease has a good basic page about structuring sentences.

VirtualLit has a series of good articles about writing, including one on sentence structure.

Plot:

Just found a video series by The Plot Whisperer. I must give these a viewing as the point she makes about reworking the beginning of a novel a hundred times while the end only getting a rough go through strikes horribly close to home with me.

You cannot write a novel without understanding the basic structure which underlies most of Western fiction: The Three Act Play.

Then there are classes. Nothing like taking a class — and doing the homework — to really get the understanding of the lesson firmly implanted in your fingers, heart and mind.

The Houston area is rich in opportunities:

InPrint – affiliated with the University of Houston’s outstanding English department

Houston Writer’s Guild – outstanding workshops!

Rice University Continuing Education

Leisure Learning – particularly Kathy Buck’s Grammar Class!

Women’s Institute of Houston — Chris Rogers is one of the best fiction teachers bar none.

While not styled as how-to, the Jung Center of Houston offers classes that bring insight to your writing.

And of course, you can always subscribe to my blog for more information about both gardening in Houston and writing.

Stay well — and send some wishes for rain in Texas this week. We have several large fires as yet uncontained. Rain would be most welcome!