Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day: Remembering the Fallen

Today is Memorial Day, a day to honor soldiers who died in war.

I had two brothers in the U. S. Military. One served during a time of peace, and the other served in Vietnam. I remember the family worry while my brother was overseas, how my mother couldn’t bear hearing the reported body counts on the nightly news, how she was so fearful of seeing a Marine Chaplin pull into our driveway. Luckily her son, my brother, returned safely home. Many, many sons and brothers did not.

Memorial Day was established in 1868 as the national day to decorate the graves of the Civil War soldiers with flowers. Arlington National Cemetery, which housed graves of over 20,000 soldiers, held the first observance of the day on a grand scale. Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant presided over the event near the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion. Speeches were followed by a march of soldiers' children and orphans and members of the army through the cemetery strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves. They recited prayers and sang hymns for the dead. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by Congress, who designated the last Monday in May as the day for its observance.

Many writers and poets have been voices for war, some who experienced war first hand. Often referred to as the war poet, Wilfred Owen was a British soldier and poet who wrote shockingly honest poetry about war in the trenches during World War I. But John McCrae and his poem In Flanders Fields is likely one of the most recognized. McCrae was a Canadian poet, surgeon, artist, and Lieutenant Colonel during World War I. McCrae wrote the poem in 1915 after witnessing the death of his friend on the battlefield. The poppies referred to in the poem grew profusely in the disturbed soil of battlefields and cemeteries of Flanders where casualties of war were buried.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poem In Flanders Fields inspired the poppy movement promoted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) of the United States. Selling replicas of the original Flanders' poppy originated in some of the allied countries immediately after the Armistice. The VFW was the first veteran organization to promote a nationally organized campaign for the annual distribution of poppies assembled by disabled and needy veterans.

Have a peaceful Memorial Day.

Memorial Day
In Flanders Fields
Wilfred Owen
Veterans of Foreign Wars

Friday, May 27, 2011


From the dawn of time our speech has been peppered with idioms. Sage advice, on any given topic, seemed to spring unbidden to those who had the raising of us. Words of wisdom were such a fixture in our daily lives. A stitch in time saves nine.

Where did they come from? What was their history and purpose?

To narrow the field on this vast topic, I decided to give myself a head start by taking a gander at idioms having their origins in the sport of Kings, namely, horse racing.

Not wanting to jump the gun on all other sports, I chose the races because they seemed a safe bet. I got the inside track on how these phrases found their way into the language.

In my family of origin, the baton was passed on to us from our paternal grandfather whose entire life could be described as a race against time; it was his stated mission to become a breeder of some renown. Not hoisted on his own petard, he paid his dues, put in his time and had to make many a difficult decision. Scratching the odds on favorite from the race, if the trainer declared the horse to be unsound, often put him between a rock and a hard place. He put us all through our paces, teaching us, not only the sport, but the sayings associated with it. My sisters both really hit their stride; they had the whip hand over me when it came to placing bets. I was always the dark horse in the field, given to day dreaming and hands down, never slated to either win, place or show. While I may have gotten off to less than a running start, we are not down to the wire yet. I would never consider myself to be a neck and neck competitor with either of my sisters, in any endeavor. However, now that I am a bit long in the tooth, I may be heading into the home stretch in terms of gaining confidence in my own abilities. Either I am riding for a fall, or may surprise everyone and win by a nose. Time will have to tell the tale.

As you may have ascertained from this exercise, one does not set out deliberately to use idioms in common speech. They will spring, unbidden to our minds, and we would be the poorer, as a culture if they were to fall by the wayside altogether. I tend to see them as a rich part of our heritage: in for a penny, in for a pound, but do not, by any means, set out to gild the lily. That would be a crying shame which I would rather avoid like the plague.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fiction / Figure Skating

As writers, we are all too familiar with the wall. The work may be flying along at a healthy clip and then suddenly, one tends to hit a wall. This depressing, all too frequent occurrence has a nasty little friend that comes along side it: fear.

Many articles are written about the wall. How to kick through it and keep going, may be a matter of individual preference, but I can only attest to what seems to work for me, and I have tried everything.
Sometimes it is the association of words that set off the trigger. When spell check came along, I think I found my best friend, not for the obvious reason. The list of words with similar sounds does something to my brain. When searching for names, or seeing names come up in spell check, it never ceases to astound me that a list of verbs, so characteristic to that person, pop up on my screen. In the process of writing a memoir, I changed the surname of my family, but the original, namely Smythe, brings up smother, smite and smote. These words have an eerie similarity with the theme of my early life.
Casting about for a topic sent me searching and brought up the word association of fiction/figure skating. Pop goes the weasel. To understand the labyrinth of my thought process, I will part the mists of time and take you back to the early days of the sport. Long before television executives were astounded by the number of viewers tuned in to the skating portion of the winter Olympics, it was a curious, obscure and often weird pursuit, full of excruciating pain and boundless effort. The yield came to almost nothing, but the title of champion for the best, and an annual show involving copious sequins for the rest. The marks consisted of a compilation of school figures at sixty per cent, and the estimable beauty of the free skate at forty. Learning the school figures began early, at the age of six, with the simple figure eight.
Time spent in this endeavor meant the rink had to be divided into patches, with each student designated to their own square. We had to take to the ice in silence and remain quiet for the hour devoted to practicing our figure eights. Like monks, we dutifully obeyed the rule of silence as the penalty for speaking was severe.
You set out from the center skating on the right foot. The art of tracing a perfect circle in the gleaming and pristeen square meant your blade would carve a tracing on the ice. The task seemed impossible, but lessons taught that you had to concentrate with every fiber of your scatterbrained mind in order to get it just right. At the top of the first circle, you slowly moved your left leg forward while reversing the position of your arms. If you did this too quickly, it would throw you off and the tracing would start to wobble. It was the scale, the perfection and the wavering upon which you would be judged. Severe, much older, sour looking people wearing Russian hats would sometimes get down on their knees with magnifying glasses to score the perfection, or lack thereof for the school figures.
What does this have to do with writing? It was there that I began. In the silence, on the cold ice, with my body taught, my skates locked into the task of drawing with my foot, the tracing of a perfect circle, one on top of another, that my creativity was born. I began to make up stories and long conversations with imaginary friends in order to cope with the torture of remaining silent.
Doris Lessing said that when she wrote, she had to make herself still and then search for that underwater feeling. I go for the early training. Patch. Silence. Contemplating, and concentrating on two perfect circles the top drawn with my right foot, the bottom with my left. Get enough speed to get around, but not too much so that you wobble, control the change from right to left, look to the center at all times and then wait for the judges to come in.

Monday, May 23, 2011


How on earth would a writer go about obtaining a style? If you set out to change your style, or to improve upon it, would such a thing be possible?

After reading a few classic essays on the topic, I concluded that it is a decidedly difficult question.

I would say my maternal grandmother, by all accounts, had great style. When out with her in public, she would be given a nod; in restaurants, a drink would be sent to our table, or a bottle of champagne and this went on well into her eighties. If we stayed in hotels, there would be a knock on the door and a gift would arrive from someone she met the day before. It was not that she spent a great deal, or was given to flashy looks. On the contrary, she dressed in black and white prints; she chose her garments simply and with great care. Her costume, inevitably would be topped off with powerful millinery, and as a young child, she often gave me the advice to go out and get a new hat if a frown were to appear on my five year old face. We know it when we see it, but where does it come from?

Translated to the literary world, the same phenomenon is true. It jumps right out at us, is distinctive and recognizable. In some cases, it may be ground breaking. In others, it has the ability to transport the reader to any place, or mood the author envisions. It is what agents and editors spot too, and so we must conclude that it does matter; it matters very much indeed.

This month our book club discussed The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. Much of the conversation became devoted to his style. Would it be read a hundred years from now? The answer came without hesitation. It was a resounding yes. His style transformed fiction and became part of the American stamp. We discussed his spare prose, his ability to depict a scene that would linger in the memory. Reading it for the fourth time this month, I found there was much more to discover. I was in my salad days, green in judgment, and thought of myself as part of a lost generation during earlier encounters. In high school, I was captivated by the concept of freedom. To be adrift, released from conventional society- oh what a worthy goal that seemed to my teenage self. Then later, after seeing the charm of my attempt at a bohemian existence begin to fade and take on a rather tawdry cast, I too, had to agree that yes, the sun does also rise and concluded that a change was in order. Then to read the book again in the settled, thick of family life, I thought of how silly I had been to dream of whiling away the hours in a coffee house with others all up to no good; has that lifestyle ever produced great art? Now, at this more mature reading, it had a feel of nostalgia as well as allowing me to realize that the strides made in the last century were worth it. The world changes: style remains.

Once, a guest in my living room said, “What kind of style is this?”

“Its just my house,” I replied.

Never given to going out and trying to have a style, it seems more preferable to look at the directions in which I am drawn. Given to comfort everywhere, home, food, dress and books, my style may be best likened to a favorite, worn armchair, placed by a fire, well lit and furnished with an ottoman. At the end of the day, it has to be mine and it has to possess a certain ease. If it is to change or improve, it would not be conscious, just examined, and sculpted to suit me.

From The Sun Also Rises, p.228.

“ I got up and went to the balcony and looked out at the dancing in the square. The world was not wheeling anymore. It was just very clear and bright, and inclined to blur at the edges. I washed, brushed my hair. I looked strange to myself in the glass, and went down to the dining room.”

Friday, May 20, 2011

Three Authors, Three Plays

Long before Harry Potter, Twilight and The Chronicles of Narnia, L. Frank Baum  ( 1856– 1919) entranced young readers with his stories  of  witches—good and bad,  a yellow brick road ,  lions, tigers and bears, flying monkey’s , munchkins and a little girl named Dorothy ,  and her adventures with a scarecrow, cowardly lion and tin man  in a place called Oz. While Baum made his debut as a novelist with Mother Goose in Prose (1897), a book based on stories he told his own children,  it is  Wizard of Oz, and the Oz series  (titles that include: The Emerald City of Oz, The Marvelous Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz)  Baum is most noted for. 

Mark Twain (1835—1910) lauded as the greatest American humorist of his age , is most recognized today for his novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and its sequel Huckleberry Finn.  Both  novels are about young boys,  and the challenges they face growing up on the Mississippi River, and reflect  stories of Twain’s childhood memory of  growing up in Hannibal, Missouri.  In Chapter Two  Tom  appears on the sidewalk with  a bucket of paint and a long handled brush to paint  a board fence 30 yards long and nine feet high.  Drawn into Tom’s punishment, what kid doesn’t feel sad for him learning  all the gladness left him, and a deep melancholy settled upon his spirit.  As children we   easily identify with Tom as we recall our own  punishment for some misdeed we did, and know what it feels like to have the gladness leave us (at least for a time).

William Faulkner called Twain  the Father of American  literature. 

The Miracle Worker is  a 3 act play by William Gibson  about Helen Keller (1880– 1968) and  her teacher,  Annie Sullivan (1866—1936).   Gibson adapted his play from Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life.  The play depicts the relationship  between the child, Helen Keller who was deaf and blind,  and Sullivan who instilled in her a desire for learning and knowledge. 

The  title originates in Mark Twain’s  description of Sullivan as a “miracle worker”.  Twain was a great admirer of both women, and  even helped arrange funding of Keller’s Radcliffe College.

While you might find the above tidbits  about The Wizard of  Oz, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Miracle Worker interesting, you  also might be wondering  why I chose these particular three, and what , if anything do they have in common.  It’s this.   In the next few weeks, all three  will be represented on stage   right here in the Coeur d Alene/Spokane area !

The Miracle Worker  at  Interplayers Theater , Spokane, WA  May 5 thru May 29. Directed by Patty Duke. In 1962 Duke won an Academy Award for her performance as Helen Keller in the movie, The Miracle Worker.   For more information visit 


The Christian  Youth Theater will present The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at the KROC Center May 20— May 29.

The Wizard of Oz , part of the Coeur d Alene Summer Theater series , will run  June 9—June 19 at Boswell Hall, North Idaho College.   Ellen Travolta (John's sister), will portray the wicked witch. My  young cousin Mallory  Cooney King will  star as Dorothy. How special is that! Wizard of Oz has always been my favorite movie, now  I can hardly wait to see   Mal skipping down the yellow brick road,  and hear her sing Somewhere OVER THE RAINBOW skies are blue, And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true .  Somehow, I think Mr. L. Frank Baum would be pleased too, knowing his fairy tale continues to bring wonderment and joy to so many. 

  Tickets available at the Box Office or on line at








Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Writing North Idaho

I  spent several hours  yesterday trekking back and forth across pine covered trails, and wooded land thinking about Writing North Idaho and what to write for todays blog.

I was blank, my thought process dry, nothing came to mind.  Over and over I kept asking myself,  what to write?  What to write?

 Let’s see. Maybe something about lyrics, limericks ,  or long form letters. While those topics interest me, they didn’t inspire me. No, not this day.  So I  continued my trek and walked some more, closer to the lake view, and our old log swing.  I sat for awhile and rested , while continuing to think about   Writing North Idaho,   until  Writing North Idaho   became  just north  Idaho, the bountiful and beautiful land all about me:

The majesty of age old trees
tall and upright,  like
guardians around the lake;
The soft, pale blue  sky
prettier than any pastel
painted by Renoir or Vermeer
and the quiet of peaceful
earth, unclaimed and free.

I began to contemplate the design of  nature,  and the acclaimed nature writers; John Muir and his Yosemite, Thoreau and his pond, Gifford Pinchot and his love for the forest,  and how their feel for words  bring the perfect  description  of flowers, and mountains and fields and streams to  enrich and elevate the reader to a place of peaceful reverie.

 Nature writing is about the environment, the care and respect of the land, it is also about the shear beauty and awesome creation of our Creator; a royal gift  to all of us to enjoy,  and cherish. Walking, and sitting in the company of so many big pines and white firs,  Joyce Kilmer’s most famous poem , Trees came to mind:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair; 

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

If you have an interest in nature writing,  you might want to check out the two internet sites listed below. Both are filled with valuable information,  including how to keep a nature journal.  (Web resources on nature writing)

Postscript:  Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918) was an American journalist, poet, literary critic.  To learn more about Kilmer and his poetry visit :

Monday, May 16, 2011

On Writing Memoir, and a Mule

Of all the different writing genres to choose from, I don’t know why I’ve chosen memoir.  No great talent do I have, or claim to fame for being inventor, designer, architect ,actor, composer or radio star.  Nor am I an award winning chef, renowned athlete or prosperous philanthropist . I’m just your average 60 year old woman who has enjoyed the times of my life, and want to write about them. I think the description I wrote for my  blog ( sums up my reason for wanting to write memoir best, One woman’s reflections of past and present—people, places and things that contribute to the joy and sweetness; the sorrow and hurt of an everyday, ordinary life.

A few weeks ago my mother and I were travelling from my house  to hers,  and stopped  at The Sage Bakery in Union Town  for an afternoon Cappuccino and cinnamon roll treat.  In the corner of the store was a double sized shelf lined with books for sale.  To my delight I found one title  that  peeked my interest, and I quickly purchased it:  The Autobiographer’s Handbook , The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir,   edited by Jennifer Traig.

 In the introduction  David Eggers writes: The reasons for writing a memoir are many, but one reason in particular, because it trumps all others, I think, and it will, I hope,  give fuel to would-be memoirists  of any stripe: You should write your story because you will someday die, and without your story on paper, most of it will be forgotten.

Grim as it may sound, I must admit, that’s a good reason, too for writing memoir.  So our  own , personal story  won’t be forgotten after our demise.

I’ve written other blogs and essays about everybody having a story  to tell. It might be something sad or funny, unique, unusual, memorable or mundane; Extraordinary, and yes, even ordinary.  Whatever our story  is, it’s part of who we are, what we are and why we are.  Stories help us learn about life, and one another. Stories are meant to be shared.

 I don’t believe lack of desire  is the reason we don’t  write our story, I think it’s because we don’t  know how to get started . Perhaps we’re intimated by what we perceive to be such a lofty goal, or  maybe we procrastinate, and continually put off putting words to paper. Or maybe we’re afraid someone will mock our efforts.  I know, because I’ve been there—and sometimes still am.  Afraid the story I have to share , what I write won’t be good enough, won’t be interesting to someone else.

One way to overcome  such obstacles is to  join a writers group.  Another is to read what other storytellers write, and what published authors have to say.

Frank McCourt , quoted in The Autobiographer’s Handbook,  encourages  writers  to get started  with writing their memoir this way : Scribble. That’s what I tell all the writers I meet. Don’t sit down to write a book, just start to scribble. Get your material down on paper. Then something will emerge. It will demand to be told. Then you get going. It’s like a sculptor chipping away at a block of granite—something emerges.

You don’t just sit and write. You have to scribble. You have to sketch if you’re a painter. I think there’s great value in scribbling. I scribbled for years, and I would listen to my high school students tell me, you should  write a book, you should write a book.  I always had the itch to write; I didn’t have the itch to write a memoir until my students started telling me to.

I didn’t procrastinate. Once I started Angela’s Ashes, I finished in thirteen months. ‘Tis took a little longer.  Teacher Man took the longest. It was harder to write about teaching than about a miserable childhood.

Maxine Hong Kingston offers this: I always begin writing by jotting down notes about feelings and happenings which matter a lot to me. I am gathering clay. Then in about twenty drafts, shape and form become clear. An emotion , an image, a sound takes place in a scene. A scene is the basic unit of drama. Write a series of scenes, connect them with transitions—viola !  You have your book. For me , this process works writing both fiction and nonfiction.

For me ,  Elizabeth Gilbert’s reason  why we procrastinate strikes a cord; Because we judge our work too much – we write one sentence and think, “This is horrible”, and then we quit in frustration.  I think procrastination is not laziness, but disappointment.  We wish we wrote better, and our inability to translate our dreams to the page can be crushing.  But mules ( I like this analogy) - when they are plowing  fields—do not stop, turn their heads, and contemplate whether or not they’re doing a good job.  When you’re working on your first draft, you should no more look backwards at a sentence you’ve just written than a mule would wonder, “ Gee, am I doing a good enough job plowing this field?” Later when the first draft is finished , you can come back and mess around with your work, but not until you’ve got the field plowed completely—whether the job was done well or not. That model is the only way I’ve ever been able to  get my work done. And when the inevitable voices rise , as I’m writing, saying, “This isn’t good enough, “ I just answer back in my mule’s voice: “That’s  not my problem.  I was only hired to plow the field.”

So, dear reader, next time you get an  itching to tell your story, do some scribbling or  write a series of scenes,  just remember that mule !

*** Postscript: 826 National  is a network of youth tutoring, writng and publishing centers around the country. Once a month at 826 Valencia a panel of published authors gather before an audience of aspiring writers and for three hours answer questions about their work.  The  Autobiographer's Handbook referenced  in this blog is an outcome of those meetings.  For more information visit

Friday, May 13, 2011

Say It Loud: Tips on Reading Aloud

Every once in a while, an opportunity comes along to read our writing out loud. For those of us who are not professional speakers or performers, this can be a daunting task. But reading aloud, when it's done well, taps into the ancient part of us that likes to hear a story, whether whether we're being tucked into bed or sitting around a campfire or gathered with others at a book signing or open mic event.

Should you find yourself with an opportunity to read aloud from your work, here are some tips that might help:

*Practice reading your selection out loud. See if there are words or sentences that cause you to stumble. If you can, make an audio or video recording of yourself. Do you mumble, or speak in a monotone, or swallow the ends of your sentences? Are your words pronounced clearly?

*Take your time, and remember to breathe.

*Be familiar with the passage. You don't have to memorize it, but know it well enough so that you don't have to stare at the paper and can glance up and have some eye contact with your audience.

*Let your vocal tone and facial expression match what you're reading. If the story is funny, smile. If it's sad or angry, let your face reflect that.

*Have a glass of water handy. Some readers like to suck on a cough drop before the reading, but it's probably best to be finished with it by the time you start, lest it fly out of your mouth or down your windpipe in a dramatic moment.

*If you make a mistake, stumble, drop your paper, etc. don't apologize profusely. Just calmly pick up where you left off.

If you're in the Sandpoint area on May 18 (third Wednesday of the month), try out your verbal skills at Five Minutes of Fame, held at Cafe Bodega at Foster's Crossing, 504 Oak Street. 6:30 p.m., 208-263-5911

Also on tap this weekend:

Eric Greitens, a Rhodes scholar who became a U.S. Navy SEAL, will narrate a Powerpoint presentation of his book, The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL at Auntie's Bookstore in Spokane on Saturday, 5/14 at 1:00 p.m.

Also at Auntie's, Science fiction author Larry Correia will sign copies of his books, including his latest, Hard Magic: Book I of the Grimnoir Chronicles, from 3 to 5 on Saturday, 5/14.

And remember that Booker's Dozen is now on display at the Coeur d'Alene Library through May 27.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Plot Versus Character: A Book Review

If you're a fiction writer, chances are you fall into one of two camps: those who find it easier to come up with characters than plots, and those who find it easier to come up with plots than characters.

I sit firmly in the first category. I love to create characters, but it's harder for me to come up with things for them to do that build a cohesive (and hopefully page-turning) story that someone might actually want to read. I tend to have a number of fascinating personalities who sit around drinking tea and exchanging wisecracks and verbal volleys. But--as has been pointed out to me by more than one editor--nothing actually happens. It's only with great effort that I get my characters up and moving and into the kinds of scrapes and jams that make for good fiction.

You might have the opposite problem. You might be a whiz with car chases, explosions, shocking surprises, spine-tingling suspense, and all manner of derring-do. But this exciting world might be populated by cardboard characters with no depth of personality, or any qualities to make the reader sympathize with them or be emotionally affected by the story.

If your fiction writing tends to lean too heavily one way or the other, I recommend the book Plot Versus Character by Jeff Gerke (Writer's Digest Books). Gerke writes as a plot-first novelist who developed a method for creating characters using, among other things, the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Index. As a character-first writer, I found tremendous help in how to develop characters in such a way that intriguing plot lines naturally follow. I no longer have to try so hard to dream up situations to put them in, or worry whether or not a particular action seems "out of character"--unless I want it to be.

If your writing is already well-balanced between an absorbing plotline and intriguing characters, then you probably don't need this book. But if you need help with one or the other, it provides a fresh approach that might just work for you.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Let's Give 'Em Something to Write About: Finding Your Topic

Have you ever had a hankering to write but were stuck with a blank page, trying to figure out what to write about? Those of you with a project in progress, or those blessed with a zillion ideas flying through your heads at warp speed, might not know what I’m talking about. How could anyone not know what to write about? Well, it happens.

I learned my lesson about topic choice the hard way, in fifth grade. The assignment was my First Major Research Paper Ever—outline, bibliography, the whole shebang. The teacher gave us leeway to write about any topic we wanted. Anything at all.

Giddy with unaccustomed freedom, I chose Tropical Fish as my topic, because there were beautiful shiny full-color photographs of them in the Encyclopedia Britannica (remember the pre-Internet Encyclopedia Britannica? With pages and a spine and everything?). I thought that anything so brilliantly, shimmeringly colorful as those fish had to be interesting to write about.

Big mistake. With apologies to any ichthyologists in the crowd, I spent several miserable weeks learning that tropical fish are lovely to look at, not so lovely as a fifth-grade writing project.

The point is, writing projects go a lot more smoothly when we’re interested in what we’re writing about. Of course, we don’t always have a choice. If our favorite editor assigns us to write about the local hog-calling contest, we clothespin our noses and get to work. But when we can, we want to write about things that appeal to us. If you’re truly interested in something, then even if you never show the final written piece to another living soul, you will still have enjoyed writing it. Here are some things to consider when choosing a topic:

*What are your most cherished dreams, wishes, fantasies? What have you always wanted to see or do, visit or experience?

*What do you feel passionate about? When you watch the news or read a magazine, which stories capture your attention? Which ones make your blood pressure spike?

*What do you feel qualified to write about based on education, job, or life experience?

*What are you not qualified to write about, but would love to learn about?

*What do you think is most important to tell the world?

Somewhere in there is the topic you’ve been waiting for. And if yours happens to be tropical fish, well—Tropical Fish Hobbyist just called, and they’re waiting to hear from you.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fast writing: what is it?

What is fast writing? Is it shorthand or is it a way to write my blogs quicker? It takes me forever to compose my blog posts. I have never worked for a newspaper or had hard deadlines. I am a “tourist” writer rather than a “worker” writer. I can amble along, write a bit here and a bit there on this subject and that subject. I do research because I like doing research and file many tidbits for future articles, blogs or book ideas.

However, tourist writing is time consuming and becoming frustrating. I thought when I became a better writer, I would write more quickly. Either I haven’t improved or the theory is flawed. My personality tends to the organized spirit rather than the go-with-the-flow. I like detailed outlines. I like research as complete as possible before I start writing. I like my notes in the same file, on a clean part of my desk when I begin to write. After reading about fast writing, I decided I must give it a try. Will be a marriage made by love or the arranged marriage from hell?

Several resources gave me tips that I pass along to you if you wish to try "fast writing":

1. Get into your writing mode ritual (cup of coffee and lit candles, walk the dog, yoga, or cleaning your desk.) Many authors benefit from a routine build up to writing.

2. Know the basics of what you want to say before you start.

3. Some find it helpful to set a timer the theory being you will relax knowing you have given xxx minutes to write and can forget how much time it is taking to write.

4. Choose a format for your writing: question and answer; tips like this one; story; lists (great web sites, books, resources) or a quiz (pose a question and offer a check list that readers can use to figure out the answer.)

5. Turn off your internal editor. You will throw aside all inbred tendencies to back space, spell check, stop to research that one tidbit needed in the second paragraph or rethink a point. Just write and edit later. Use brackets or all capitals if something needs qualifying and fix it after you are done with the first draft.

6. Begin to write fast; write without stopping and write until you think you have said all you want to say.

7. Read and edit.

8. Read aloud several times.

9. Post it!

Fast writing is neither for all writers nor for all circumstances. I wanted to give it a try and I liked it. It worked for me. Have you tried fast writing? Do you have any tips to share that may help the rest of us? Do you fast write often? Do you fast write for certain assignments or stories? We would love to hear your thoughts on this.

P.S. Tuesday’s Coeur d’Alene Press had a brief side bar on how long it took to write six famous books: Lord of the Rings: 12 months; Interview with A Vampire: 3 weeks; A Time to Kill, 3 years; The Pelican Brief: 14+ weeks and Fahrenheit 451: 9 days.

Monday, May 2, 2011

100 Books in 365 Days

A year ago I was thinking about how many books I read in any given year. “I bet I average about 100 books a year,” I said to myself. After some soft calculations, I realized I average 70 or so books. “Easy to challenge myself to read 100 books,” I thought without studied insight.

My efforts got off to a great start. I began with Rutherford’s New York, an 800+ page history-by-the-pound, Micheneresque novel of New York City. My kind of book: historical fiction, long, well written and educationally entertaining. It took until book 11 to dawn on me that at my current rate, I would never complete my goal. The books became shorter in length and remained true to my preferred genres of historical fiction and mysteries.

The exercise brought to focus what I was reading and what I should be reading. Wasn’t this the time to broaden my reading habits and peruse other genres? Not a good idea. I kept track of the number of books (unfortunately not the titles) I started but did not finish. Twenty-nine, of which I took no credit of any kind in the climb to 100 or the page count read. It was like the cannibal adding slaughtered cow to the human boiling in his kettle. Spoiled the enjoyment of the meal.

It was around book 25 that I stopped to analyze the entire challenge. Did I think I could do it? (Yes.) Did I realize at what pace I needed to read to reach 100? (2.5/week.) Was this realistic? (Maybe.) Worth it? (Probably.) How would this project impact my life and my husband? (Unknown.) Did I have other goals like reading all of one author’s works? (No.) Should the list include books on subjects like garden plants and things to do in Christchurch, New Zealand? (Yes.) I wondered out loud if reading “board” books to my grandchildren counted and a friend responded with, “Only if they are able to discuss the book afterwards.”

From April 21, 2010 to April 21, 2011, I read 104 books, 29,366 pages plus two audio books and 25 hours on CDs of a course on opera (the latter not in the book count.) I started another 29 books and was accused of working too much overtime at the library when a lady in the grocery store commented that she saw me “in there all the time carrying a big stack of books that I must be shelving.” I don’t work at any library and tend to check out six books and complete maybe three of them, all of them looking interesting at first blush. I am not compelled to finish books I do not like.

Bob saw me much less often, the house was quieter but not as clean, I resented people who interfered with my reading time, meals became less sophisticated or absent, I did not write much, the number of colas and snacks I consumed increased, and I surmounted the obstacle of two-and-a-half months of travel into this challenge.

Of the 104 books completed, I circled 53 as recommendable to others. I liked or tolerated the remaining 51 books enough to finish them but would not recommend them for one reason or another. It was a good topic of conversation. People looked at me with anywhere from awe to bewilderment. A few said they had read 100 books in 12 months. The project was different (more self-imposed pressure) and more difficult than I imagined at the outset. Only once around book 75 did I think about quitting. By book # 88, I thought, “I am going to do this!”

Many people ask for my book list. I wonder why. My reading tastes are mine, not yours. If you want book recommendations, tell me what genre you prefer and I may have some of the circled 53 titles to recommend. Better sources of recommendations are reviews, the NYT book reviews and top-ten-books-of-the-week lists.

To put things in perspective, according to USA Today, 8/21/2007, polls by Gallup, Associated Press-Ipsos and the National Endowment for the Arts stated that 53% of Americans do not read one book in a year. Of those who do read, the number of books read per year is four or nine depending upon the poll. More women read than men, more readers are college graduates and more are over the age of 50. The most popular genres are mystery and suspense. E-book readers polled revealed that 40% said they read more books than before using their e-books. Kindle readers reported they were reading 10.7% slower than reading a print book while iPad users said their rate was down 6.2%. (Wall Street Journal, 8/2/2010) One article reported that a man gloated to himself while reading on an airplane. The traveler next to him had to turn off his e-reader during take off and landing while he could continue to read his print book.

I will continue to read voraciously. I like to be transported to other countries, other times, other views of the world and others talents for writing. Reading 100 book in twelve months? Been there, done that.