Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Family Memoirs: Preserving Herstory

The gathering and sharing of the rag-rug remnants of our family’s lives gives a gift to the next generation. - Linda Lawrence Hunt
Bold Spirit, Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America, by local author Linda Lawrence Hunt, is the tale of Helga Estby, a Norwegian immigrant and mother of eight living children, who walked 3500 miles across the U.S. in 1896 in an attempt to win a $10,000 bet. She and her eldest daughter, Clara, set out upon the journey in order to pay the back taxes and mortgage threatening the family’s Mica Creek farm and home.
Family stories are silenced when strong pressures converge to deny a real experience. – Linda Lawrence Hunt
The journey of thirteen months did not have a happy ending. Despite successfully meeting every requirement of the wager, the unknown promoter reneged on paying the $10,000; and Helga and Clara spent months earning the train fare home.

More disappointment and heartache lay in store for Helga upon her return. During her long absence two of her children had died and the deprivation suffered by the others turned them against their mother forever. Her husband and children never forgave her for what they felt was her abandonment.

Helga had planned on giving speeches and writing a book after her journey, however those plans changed when she returned home to such disapproval. Depressed and heartsick, Helga never wrote her book, never gave talks about her adventures, and never spoke of her journey again; honoring the silence imposed by her family.
Throughout history, silencing has been the fate of most women. - Sue Armitage, Washington State University
Although she never spoke of the journey, years later she secretly chronicled her journey, writing hundreds of pages she kept hidden in her bedroom. She told her granddaughter Thelma, to “take care of this story,” but never shared what the story was about.

Upon discovering her manuscript after her death, two of Helga's daughters burned it...destroying her words in retribution for the losses the family had suffered.
…the loss of her story, destroyed forever with the flick of a match, is a great misfortune, not only for her family but for all persons interested in understanding more of American life during a significant transitional time in history. – Linda Lawrence Hunt
Silenced by her family, her story would have been lost forever except for one daughter-in-law who recognized the immensity of Helga’s daring unescorted walk across America, and secreted away two Minnesota news clippings chronicling the journey. She kept them hidden from her husband, another of Helga’s sons who never forgave her, then handed them to Thelma 26 years later.

Astounded to learn the grandmother she loved had never shared her story, Thelma resolved to honor her grandmother’s request to her decades earlier, “to tell the story,” and began sharing the legacy of Helga's courageous journey with her family.
Her (Helga’s) erasure should prompt us all to think about how little of the past we really know and encourage us to think about how to preserve more of our present-day lives and concerns (tomorrow’s historical record.) – Sue Armitage, Washington State University
In 1984 a young farm boy, Doug Bahr, wrote an essay for the Washington State History Day Contest, “Grandma Walks from Coast to Coast.” Linda Lawrence Hunt read that essay and began research on her book.

Learn more about Helga's journey at Bold Spirit Across America.

The publication of Bold Spirit inspired award-winning author, Jane Kirkpatrick's latest novel, The Daughter's Walk, based on Clara's point of view. Read more about Kirkpatrick's inspiration for the novel at JK Books.

A second novel, The Year We Were Famous, written by an Estby descendant, Carole Estby Dagg, won the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators' Sue Alexander Award for most promising new manuscript. Read more about Carole's dedication to share history with the next generation at Carole Estby Dagg.

All three books can be purchase online at Amazon and at bookstores in the area.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Grandmother's Legacy: A Painful Memoir

During a conference consultation, I once asked Jane Kirkpatrick, noted speaker and author who is known for creating strong, worthy characters who have human flaws, whether or not I should write a memoir about a grandmother for whom I have ambivalent feelings. She thought the story fascinating and said I should determine why I was writing the memoir, who I was writing the memoir for, and then write it “when the time was right.”

My Grandma Dewey never played an important part in my life, but I occasionally read of her exploits on postcards sent from across the U.S. While growing up, I admired her as sort of a free spirit, and thought her life quite exotic and exciting. Born in 1910, my grandmother came of age during the Roaring 20s. Perhaps that is why she ran off with a saxophone player in the Jimmy Dorsey Band (later to become my grandfather) while still a teenager.

She loved to hunt and fish and ride horses and motorcycles. She divorced my grandfather and later lived with a man for nearly forty years before marrying – which we didn’t discover until her death. In her later years the two purchased a motor home and criss-crossed the U.S., only bothering to visit us twice during 10 years of travel.

Grandma Dewey appeared to be self-actualized thirty years before it became popular. She was spontaneous, unfrightened by the unknown, unhampered by convention, and able to enjoy herself with neither regret nor apology.

But as I matured, I became more in touch with the damage this tiny dynamo had done to my mother. My grandmother showed no maternal feelings, abandoning the only child she would ever have shortly after her birth. Uncaring, selfish, and extremely prejudiced; she was unable and/or unwilling to interact with others except on a superficial level throughout her life.

No cookies at grandma’s house from this grandma. During the one time myself and four siblings went to visit her in Cheyenne, Wyoming, I remember she barely knew what to do with us; feeding us mostly dry cereal, and on one special night, charred hamburgers. Meanwhile, she prepared a perfectly broiled medium-rare steak for her dog each evening.

In the end, though, it was to her only daughter she turned, spending her final years in a nursing home near my mother. My mother worried about her welfare and cared for her every need until the day of her death.

Taking Kirkpatrick’s advice to heart, I’ve given a lot of thought to why I want to write about my grandmother, and whether or not I should do it.

In “Ethics in Biographical Writing", Inga Simpson writes, “At times, the desire to be accurate can conflict with the desire to be ethical. Negative or potentially scandalous revelations may well be true, but writers and biographers need to consider the impact of this information on friends and family: to weigh up the ‘public interest’ or relevance of the information against the private damage it may cause.”

She stresses the importance of comprehensive research and double-checking of facts; and advises figuring out delicate subjects before writing and negotiating how to handle them with those involved.

I've recently decided I am going to write this memoir. My motive is neither to destroy my grandmother’s remembrance, nor to cause painful memories to resurface for my mother; but to bring to light the emotional tug-of-war this woman created within my family. I want to write my grandmother’s story because it demonstrates that our actions, whether well intentioned or not, affect others; and it reveals the power of forgiveness.

I will write it when I know "the time is right."

Read more about The Ethics of Biographical Writing at

Friday, August 26, 2011

Events: North Idaho Authors at North Idaho Fair

Filling every corner of the spacious Kootenai County Fairgrounds in Coeur d’Alene, the North Idaho Fair is underway this weekend. Not only will you find live music, carnival rides and games, delicious food, arts and crafts, livestock, contests and community exhibits, but you will also find a booth displaying the work of some of our North Idaho authors.

The booth was coordinated by Michael Marsden (The North Idaho Ghost Writer) and B. J. Campbell (author of Close Calls). Because fair rules require vendors to keep their booths open for business from 10 am to 10 pm, authors will rotate throughout the weekend tending the booth. Nine authors will have books on display and share time greeting people at the fair. They include: B.J. Campbell, C.K. Crigger, Gary Edwards, Anna Goodwin, Michael Marsden, Carol Muzik, Joyce Nowacki, John Thamm, and me. This group represents authors from the Idaho Writers League, Spokane Authors and Self Publishers, and this Writing North Idaho blog.

Books displayed and sold at the booth include both nonfiction and fiction. There are children’s stories, love stories, women’s fiction, murder mysteries, memoir and even ghost stories.

Come to the fair and meet some of the authors who wish to share their books with the people of north Idaho.  In a sense that is what the fair is about---friends sharing what they have accomplished with their neighbors.

Other author events coming up within the next couple of weeks at Auntie’s Bookstore include:

Robert Donnelly presents his book Dark Rose: Organized Crime and Corruption in Portland.

Caryl Sherpa narrates a Powerpoint presentation of her memoir, I Taste Fire, Earth, Rain: Elements of Life with a Sherpa.

Niki Anderson signs copies of her book, Whiskers, Wit, and Wisdom: True Cat Tales and the Lessons They Teach.

Check the Events page of this blog for dates and times.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tips for Writers: Taking Advantage of the Ebook Market

The image above, stating "Books Aren't Dead. (They're Just Going Digital)"  is the November 2007 cover of Newsweek before the release of the first Amazon Kindle reader. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos told Newsweek Senior Editor Steven Levy, "This is the most important thing we've ever done. It's so ambitious to take something as highly evolved as the book and improve on it. And maybe even change the way people read."

He was right: E-readers are definitely changing the way people read.

According to a recent report by the organization BookStats---who recently completed an 18-month study surveying nearly 2000 publishers---ebook sales soared 1,274.1% in the 2008-2010 period (203% in 2010), representing 6.4% of trade revenue. This is a huge growth spurt for ebooks and an opportunity for writers.

To highlight this fact, I am including this article from Jerry Simmons’ July 2011 Tips for Writers Newsletter, which discusses the importance of the current ebook market as a marketing and bookselling strategy for authors.


Old is New Again
Over the past year I have written many times about the fact that authors need to move quickly in order to take advantage of the window of opportunity left by major publisher's slow acceptance of eBooks and the digital marketplace. That window is beginning to close as more major publishers combat rapidly declining print sales by aggressively moving into eBooks.

The world's largest trade publisher recently announced their once popular mass market romance series, Love Swept, will be re-launched in eBook beginning early next year. This highly successful series once demanded a large market share and shelf space in both bookstores and retail mass merchants and was a darling to booksellers. Over time as the mass market paperback fell from grace and sales declined, Random House stopped publishing.

With the rise in eBook sales and the fact that romance is the number two selling category behind non-fiction, the publisher made the obvious decision it was time to resurrect this series. Those authors still under contract will get new life and new authors hoping to land a contract will see opportunities open for your agent. Prices for the new re-launch in eBook will be between $2.99 and $4.99 which is the perfect range for eBook romance even though some of the titles are very old backlist. 

If the Love Swept announcement wasn't enough, Random House also made news with another announcement indicating they were teaming up with the highly popular web site Politico to produce instant eBooks. In years past at the height of the mass market paperback, instant books were very successful. Publishers with ties to media such as Time Inc. had the contacts to produce books of a topical nature in a timely manner.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was one such example, the book division worked in concert with magazine writers to produce a quick mass market paperback which provided more depth and insight than the magazine. Priced right and packaged with the help of photo journalists, these books sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Instant books then became successful as crime stories, political reports or any number of topics. With the drop in mass market sales the instant book was all but abandoned. Now with eBooks, that publishing model appears to be back in play.

So why is this important? History is beginning to repeat itself in book publishing as the majors begin testing more product in the digital marketplace. This of course takes attention away from other writers and their content because these newly launched eBooks will be supported by lots of marketing and a nice marketing budget.

On the flip side, this marketing push does nothing but bring attention to eBooks and the large cache of available product. With only 1 in 600 manuscript submissions getting published, this will open opportunities for writers. Research Firm Emarketer predicts that by the end of this year there will be around 21 million eReaders in use and another 24 million computer tablets available. That is a dramatic increase over 2010 and again bodes well for the future of eBooks. If in fact old is new again then perhaps these will create more opportunities for new and emerging writers to gain recognition.
This article was provided with permission by author, Jerry D. Simmons of Copyright 2011 Jerry D. Simmons.

If you’re an author, you may want to consider turning your work into an ebook, if you haven’t already done so. According to a February Bloomberg report, 58 percent of ebook sales are generated by Amazon, and the Amazon Kindle holds 67 percent of the ebook reader market share. Here’s the link to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing site:

Monday, August 22, 2011

Nature Writing: A Hornet's Nest

Last weekend bald-faced hornets—those large black hornets with the white spots and stripes—kept buzzing past me each time I tried to relax on our deck. I eventually found their nest hanging from the far end of the second story eve. I grabbed the trusty can of wasp and hornet spray from the garage, aimed it at the target hanging fifteen feet above my head, and soaked the nest. With a long pole I then knocked the gray, funnel-shaped nest to the ground where it broke open. After checking to make sure no hornets remained to attack me, I picked up a piece of the nest.

I was, once again, amazed at the architecture of nature. What had appeared from a distance to be a tough compound to raise young hornets to maturity—was a bluff. The nest walls, looking similar to paper mache, consisted of fine layer upon fine layer of a feather-light soft, paper-like substance—a fluff of almost nothingness that easily disintegrated as I handled it, which the hornets make themselves by chewing on tiny slivers of wood. Inside the fragile outer shell, stood a sturdy core of tubular hexagon cells where the young were raised, lined in perfect rows in a perfect grid. We humans would need an engineering degree to achieve the same. Like ashes from a campfire, bits and pieces of the nest drifted and disappeared across the yard in the breeze.

I enjoy the small miracles of nature that surround us. I love reading nature writing. I love the science, the research. And I love writing about nature.

But in recent years views on “nature writing” have become a small hornet’s nest of its own, of sorts, as academics and others urge writers to move beyond writing about the simple beauty of nature and into environmental journalism, advocacy, and activism.

Columnist Chris Boning wrote this about nature writers in an article titled Emerson Draws Yawns:

The type of writing to which I refer is that of Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, Leopold and others like them—those individuals to whom the death of a passenger pigeon, a thousand-mile walk or a life lived deliberately was intimately important, and those writers who could expound at length about the beauty of a single wildflower or a forest of redwoods. Those kinds of writers are dying out because that kind of writing doesn’t sell.

Novelist Joyce Carol Oates once referred to nature writing as a "painfully limited set of responses: reverence, awe, piety, mystical oneness."

I don’t possess the knowledge base and standing to debate old-school nature writing and modern environmental journalism with university professors and famous authors, but I do know what I like: When I take a close look at the natural world I am moved to express my thoughts and feelings about what I find. And, likewise, I want to read the same from others.

One of my favorite books on nature writing is a series of essays by Annie Dillard titled Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

What I like about Dillard’s writing is how she carries the smallest encounter into the broad realm of life, such as this passage from her essay Living Like Weasels after her encounter with a weasel:

Could two live that way? Could two live under the wild rose, and explore by the pond, so that the smooth mind of each is as everywhere present to the other, and as received and as unchallenged, as falling snow?

We could, you know. We can live anyway we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—even of silence—by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t “attack” anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity. 

One of my favorite poets is Pulitzer Prize for Poetry winner, Mary Oliver. Here is her poem, August, from her National Book Award winner, New and Selected Poems:


When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend
all day among the high
branches, reaching
my ripped arms, thinking
of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body
accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among
the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.

There are several books for those interested in nature writing. Here are two from my bookshelf that have been helpful:

Writing Naturally by David Petersen
The Sierra Club Nature Writing Handbook by John Murray.

These books provide guidance for nature writers from writing journals, essays and poetry, to the craft of figurative language and storytelling.

As the hornets continue their cycle and return to build new nests in the spring, and as the blur of disagreements and politics between nature writing and environmental journalism continue, I believe these simple words of John Muir get to the heart of this topic:

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. ---John Muir

Friday, August 19, 2011

Conflict and Tension

We read stories and we watch films and plays because we need to find out how the conflict will be resolved. Alfred Hitchcock said that drama depicts real life with the boring bits taken out. Lately, I have discovered that in my writing, I need to take conflict to a new level. It is very uncomfortable for me to do so. As I am in the process of turning my early life into fiction, I have discovered that I must put words into my character's dialogue that they would not have said in real life. Pushing harder and going deeper into the conflict goes against the grain with me and I have had to ask myself why.

Writing coaches will say, conflict, conflict, conflict. What family does not have a person in their midst who likes to stir things up? Why do they do it? It makes me anxious just thinking about it. Drama dictates that the conflict be designated as quickly as you can present it. If you set out to create it where would you start?

The path of least resistance for me is to look at the word itself. Conflict is both a noun and a verb. Not having thought of it as such before today, I found this interesting. To fight or contend, says the dictionary, to do battle. To be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition to. It comes from the Latin confictus, meaning, a striking together. Not being totally drawn to a slug fest, the trick it seems is to show the contrast and then dance in and out of it. What is the antonym? Accord. What setting smacks of such an atmosphere? A wedding. Where is the conflict inherent in the setting? War. When you think of it, if you go looking for conflict, it certainly is not hard to find. As humans, one could argue that we may be slightly, or maybe even totally, addicted to it. Books about peace, or pacifists do not seem to climb to the top of the best seller list.

What device can create conflict? Interference. It always makes me smile to think that interference is a penalty in hockey. I often wish it were in real life. Take a character set on a path in pursuit of a goal and have another character interfere with that pursuit and you have conflict.

“Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It shocks us out of sleeplike passivity and sets us at noting and contriving.”

John Dewey

Could conflict be part of our evolution? Perish the thought. Yet if we lived without it, if we were truly a Utopian society without the merest shred of conflict anywhere, what would our lives be like? Wouldn't we be defenseless? Perhaps conflict is a process of sharpening our wits, girding our loins, testing our battle readiness in order to be prepared for whatever may come our way. Whatever the reason, no good story can exist without it. Therefore, as Dylan Thomas said,

"Do not go gentle into that good night,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Writing your World

The Old Mill Inn and Spa, Toronto

According to James Scott Bell, in his book entitled, “Plot and Structure,” the power inherent in describing the world in which your characters inhabit is paramount. He uses this example from Dennis Lehane's “Mystic River.”
“After work that night Jimmy Marcus had a beer with his brother-in-law, Kevin Savage, at the Warren Tap, the two of them sitting at the window and watching some kids play hockey. There were six kids and they were fighting in the dark, their faces gone featureless with it. The Warren Tap was tucked away on a side street in the old stockyard district.”
In a few short sentences, we know exactly where we are; we can picture it. No back story is necessary here.
A character does not exist outside of a culture. If you describe a traveler you must identify, not only where they came from, but also the strange new world in which they find themselves. If you are writing about a period in history, the clothes, the method of transportation, or the way the enter a building, will give necessary clues.
Taken to memoir, it means the place and culture of which you are the most familiar, your first home, must now be examined with a new eye. In order to understand the essence of a place, the best way to grasp its meaning can be found in peeling back the layers of civilization. Who was there first? Who was driven out and by whom? Who fought for this land? Who won and who lost? Is a suburb built on what was once farmland and if so, what remnants of that rural community still exist? Is there an Inn that was once a Blacksmith's Forge, or a Mill? It may still be the focal point of the region.
I used to describe the neighborhood of my youth as a typical, Leave it to Beaver suburb in the west end of Toronto. That may have sufficed for conversation, but in order to create the setting for a novel, it had to be fleshed out more fully and put through the writer's lens.
We lived on the banks of a river called the Humber. In 1615, the explorer Etienne Brule, traveling with Champlain, became the first European to enter the happy hunting grounds that once were home to the Seneca tribe. A plaque outside an old mill, now converted to a restaurant, and Inn, commemorates this event. As a child, it would give me chills to think about it. 1615! What was our world like then?
More research led me to new discoveries about my former home. The Seneca tribe inhabited those shores for over five thousand years. Then in the 1920's, a development company bought a vast track of land and created a neighborhood with a theme. Anglia pars, anglia procal. A little bit of England, far from England. They set out to duplicate a setting reminiscent of a fine borough in London. Winding streets, stone houses, leaded paned windows, oh we looked English all right. Did we in any way take on this sensibility? We did indeed, until more groups came and great diversity toppled this little enclave. The buildings remain, remarkably and beautifully preserved; now the inhabitants are different. Nothing stays exactly the same, yet the character of the place is unchanged, immovable and stalwart. As a writer, a place can be the fabric from which we cut the cloth of our characters. The style of the setting, sets the tone, and puts the characters on their initial footing.
Where do they go from there? Do they want to stay, or are they desperate to get out? If they do want to remain, will they be able to ride all the changes in store? Very few of us in modern times live in the places we inhabited in our youth. Given this, the coating of nostalgia can be draped over the past and we can look at it from a distance and through rose colored glasses. If home is where the heart is, does the allegiance we feel for our first home remain with us forever, or do we shed it as a reptile leaves it skin? If so, do we not still see the outline of the former inhabitant if we happen upon that skin?
While I am not sure who said it first, the old adage of write what you know is apt. If your character is set in a place entirely foreign, then read as much as you can of its history. If writing fantasy, a place still will needs its nouns. It needs something indigenous. It must have its rocks and trees.
" Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration." Charles Dickens

Monday, August 15, 2011


A few years ago, I attended a corporate meeting where we were handed out two cards. One had the word tangent written in black ink, the other had the word brainstorm, written in red. In order to help the technical wizards develop a new operating system for the company, we had been called in to become a think tank of sorts.

Being a thinker by nature, I was very excited to be a part of the process. The man running the meeting went on to say that most brainstorming sessions were continually derailed by tangents. He then turned to me, pointed a finger and said, “I can tell you will be going off on tangents all over the place.”

I felt my cheeks burn and my stomach tighten. This man did not even know me! Why had he singled me out like that and how was I to disguise the boiling sense of outrage threatening to send me running from the room? One of my friends quickly said, “She will not.” Her kind words meant a lot to me, but had no effect on him. Every time someone said something beside the point, trailing off to a dead end, or raising a red herring, his ruse was to have us hold up the tangent card in order to make the person embarrassed enough to shut their trap. We have all been in interminable meetings with tedious types who when sensing they are failing to get their point across, neglect to abandon their stance. Rather regrettably, they step up their efforts to persuade everyone that their half baked ideas are actually sound.

Even though I understood the method this facilitator was employing, my upbringing was such that I had been thoroughly schooled in the unwritten law that one simply had to endure insufferable types until a polite, but scathing quip might be lobbed in their direction. Holding up a tangent card seemed unspeakably rude to me, but in my position, I was not able to voice my objections. Did any great ideas come out of that meeting? No. Instead, it turned into a free for all, where anyone who longed to be able to take a shot at a co-worker could, and nothing by the way of good ideas came out of it at all.

As my book club is reading Victor Hugo's masterpiece, “Les Miserables” this summer, and as I am ensconced in it for the second time, it has put the subject of tangents back in my thoughts. When asked at a recent gathering, how the reading is going so far, I said that absolutely no one is allowed to write like that any more. When asked for specifics, I expressed that we have been trained, schooled and edited out of tangents with great discipline. Victor Hugo, free to do what he does best, went happily off on any bunny trail he saw fit to explore. Les Mis is 1,232 pages long. Even a recent translation, wisely, did not shorten the book by much. Thank goodness too, because all the details are absolutely fascinating.

In modern times, we still go off in different directions, but any sidetracking inevitably ends up on the cutting room floor. Why do we waste our time? For anyone born and raised in the protestant work ethic, it is a painful process to destroy work that took many hours to create. If it ends up edited out, angst over the wasted time and effort, starts nipping at the heels of any doggedly determined writer. Yet we have to do it. This is the question we must pose over all those tricky passages: What does this have to do with the story? Did we not hear that in school and do we not continue to hear it from editors, critique groups or well meaning spouses? One cannot say, “It was the way I got there.” Yet, I believe that may be the case.

When thinking of a picture to illustrate tangents, I suddenly became overwhelmed by the idea of how the natural world is comprised. Roots, branches, tributaries of rivers: they are all tangential!

In geometry, the tangent to a curve at a given point is the straight line that "just touches." The word comes from the Latin tangens, which means touching.

What is so wrong with being beside the point? While geometry is for the most part, to me, utterly incomprehensible, looking at the graph charts illustrating tangents, it seemed to me that they come so close to the mark that they are at least heading in the right direction. I have concluded that I will no longer consider them as a literary version of casting about in the dark; I will not view discarded thoughts or pages as waste, but instead, I will just see them as flights of fancy. Besides, any time spent writing is not squandered.

"Time is the only critic without ambition." John Steinbeck

Friday, August 12, 2011

What Books Influenced You ?

In  his book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart  The Craft and Art of Writing, Roger Rosenblatt tells about asking his students , “Where was it for you ?  Every one of you has read something at an early age that made you want to become a writer. Who was it, and why ?”

The response was wide and varied, some recalled  a first book at the library, another said no specific book , but she found stories extremely one sided, and only told stories of the heroes. That after reading books she found the anti-heroes more interesting , and wanted to know more about them, and because of that was inspired to become a writer.

 Rosenblatt posed a good question, I thought,  and like his students ,  pondered  how I might  answer it.  Who was it for me? Which author, which book made me want to become a writer. The  Bobbsey Twins, The Happy Hollisters, Blaze, and Toby Tyler all came to mind.  As did The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Little Women, and Nancy Drew. I recall  that  during my grade school years  some of those  early Whitman books had been birthday  gifts  from childhood friends, and how happy I was to get them.

 I don’t ever remember when books weren't  an important  part of my life.  Authors like Victoria Holt, Taylor Caldwell, Michener, and Rumer Godden filled my imagination with their stories of other places, and people. I think about the  great poets—Eugene Field, James Whitcomb Riley, Kipling and Longfellow , and how my mother read  me  their poems from the time I was a very little girl, and the positive  impact they still have on me. 

While  contemplating  Rosenblatt’s question, I was about to conclude  it was  impossible to name just one,  there are so many books that have held me captive  late at night,   with just a small reading light to  guide my way across the page.  However, there is one book  , “Pentimento”, and in particular the chapter titled, Julia   that still catches my breath, and causes me to say, I want to write like that.  On the opening page, Lillian Hellman immediately draws me in when she writes,

Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent.  When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large  boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented”, changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.

That is all I mean about the people in this book. The paint has aged now and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now. 

While set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany, and its evilness,  Julia is really the story of friendship, and what  one  is willing to do  for the other  in time of need. Without ever saying it, Hellman is writing about loyalty and trust. Her memoir ,  perfectly woven,  easily moves along between narration and dialogue, so much so that  when  Julia was made into an award winning movie in 1977, the scriptwriters job was made easy as very little was changed from Hellman's original  written word. 

When first reading Pentimento , I was only in my twenties, and  even then Hellman’s  reflection about  how ‘the paint has aged’  caused  me to think   about my  own age, and the people and events in my life,  and how I wanted to write about them.  But more so  now, when with each day, I move closer to 61, and recall with affection  those times as I remember them to be, but also,  perhaps,   with a slightly new, and different perspective; sometimes seeing them through  crystal clear eyes, other times as  through  misty sky. 


Keeping  in mind Roger Rosenblatt's theory,  every one (aspiring writers)  has read  something at an early age that makes them want to become a writer, you might find it helpful, and fun in answering his  question, too , “ Where was it for you ? Who was it , and why?”

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

More, Reading Like a Writer

Francine Prose says she, like most writers, maybe all, learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.  This should be very encouraging for all of us who want to become better writers - we must read  books - especially literature,  and write, write, write. 

Referring again  to Prose’s  book, Reading Like a Writer A Guide For People Who Love Books And For Those Who Want to Write Them (Monday’s blog,  The Right Word),  she writes,  “In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and re-read the authors I most loved. I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style , of diction, and of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring  a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. And as I wrote, I discovered  that writing, like reading was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what  a friend calls “putting every word on trial for its life”: cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.”

Now, there’s the challenge,  isn’t it?   To put  every word on trial for its life. Then,  like a high court   judge making a ruling , the writer  alone must  decide which phrase  or punctuation mark is sent to the scrap pile, and which one gets a reprieve.     And while pondering the judgment to be made , should it go,  or should it stay — must ask the questions Prose  presents, “ Is this the best word I can find ? Is my  meaning clear? Can a word or phrase be cut  from this without sacrificing  anything essential ?  - perhaps the most important question is : Is this grammatical?” 

While Prose  recommends  writers have  a grammar manual, and  favors  Strunk and White’s  The Elements  of Style , she also points out, “ One essential and telling difference  between learning from a style manual and learning from literature is that  any how -to- book will, almost by definition, tell you how not to write.  In that way, manuals of style are a little like writing workshops, and have the same disadvantage—a pedagogy that involves warnings about what might be broken and directions on how to fix it—as opposed to learning from literature, which teaches by positive model.”

The example Prose directs us to is Virginia Woolf :  “We can thank our lucky stars that no one told Virginia Woolf that a sentence as long as the one with which she begins “On Being Ill” might turn out to be hopelessly clumsy or unclear. The marvel , of course, is not how long the sentence is-  181 words!- but how perfectly comprehensible, graceful, witty, intelligent,   and pleasurable we find it to  read.  It’s not the sentence’s gigantism but rather its lucidity that makes it so worth studying and breaking down its component parts. “

I read  (and re-read) Woolf’s sentence for the first  time  today,   and can understand why  Prose  describes the reading of it as she does:  “Pausing  to breathe at each comma, we find ourselves amid a series of  dependent clauses that break over us like waves, clauses that increase in length, complexity, and intensity as the aspects of illness that we are invited to consider grow more elaborate and imaginative, whisking us from undiscovered countries to deserts to flowered lawns and down into the abyss from which we are lifted by the voice of the dentist whom we mistake for God welcoming us into heaven. Until at last it all comes together in a single word, this: when we think of this.”

For those of you who have never read Woolf’s introductory sentence to her twenty - five page essay "On Being Ill" —what Prose calls ‘one of the most complex and virtuosic sentences in all of literature’, I  include it now for you to  read, and  consider the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another, and how it captivates and holds our attention, drawing us further into the topic she writes of.

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient  and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above  our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-in-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth– rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping  from  the floor of  Heaven to welcome us– when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced  to think of it , it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

** Note: For more information about Virginia Woolf, and her writing visit

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Right Word

Roger Rosenblatt writes in his recent book, Unless It Moves the Human Heart The Craft and Art of Writing, “You need to remind yourself continually that every word counts, and to take Twain’s dictum to heart—that the difference between the word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning”. Rosenblatt tells aspiring writers they are in the lightning business, “You need to remind yourself what not to do, as well as to recognize when you’ve done something effectively for the first time, so as not to say it again, poorly." The right word is often the unmodified word, and that the adornment of adjectives may suffocate the body under the clothes. Most nouns contain their own modifiers, what Emerson called, the speaking language of things, “ they will not be improved by a writer who wants to show off by making them any taller, fatter, happier, or prettier than they are.”

I find the example Francine Prose gives in Reading Like a Writer (a Guide for People Who Love Books And For Those Who Want to Write Them) to be helpful. Prose points to the first paragraph of Flannery O’ Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, and in particular the first sentence: The Grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. “The first declarative sentence could hardly be more plain: subject, verb, infinitive, preposition,” says Prose. “ There is not one adjective or adverb to distract us from the central fact. But how much is contained in these eight little words!”

As teacher, Prose further instructs, The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. The first sentence is a refusal, which in its very simplicity, emphasizes the force with which the old woman is digging in her heels. It’s a concentrated act of negative will, which we will come to understand in all its tragic folly—that is the foolishness of attempting to exert one’s will when fate or destiny (or as O’Connor would argue God) has other plans for us. And finally, the no nonsense austerity of the sentence’s construction gives it a kind of authority that—like Moby Dick’s first sentence , “ Call me Ishmael” - makes us feel that the author is in control, an authority that draws us farther into the story.

As writers, where do we find help in choosing the right word ? In becoming lightning, not just the lightning bug. The dictionary and a good thesaurus, of course. And by constant reading, both the classics and contemporary books. Compile a word list. You might consider keeping a small notepad nearby the book you’re reading to write down new, and interesting words you come across. Also by listening to others, and the words they use in describing an event, or person in their life. And as Prose suggests, to simplify, by using words that give a kind of authority.

Here is an easy exercise for you to consider, read through some favorite books and underline the type of sentences Prose and Rosenblatt highlight, or for practice, write several of your own first sentences by using words that give a kind of authority.

Referring again to Unless It Moves the Human Heart The Craft and Art of Writing, “If you’re going to write, you must think about words more seriously than you ever have. Learn to pick your spots, to chose when to use ordinary language, and special heightened language. But every word must be the only one for its place, and it must function in every way, not just adequately.”

Thursday, August 4, 2011

How Users Read Web Sites

Readers decipher web sites differently than they read hard copy. Only fourteen per cent read word-for-word. The other seventy-nine per cent scan web sites, taking in chunks of information that catch their eyes. A Nielsen study showed that on-screen reading is twenty-four per cent slower than reading hard copy. If you are writing for a blog, you may want to consider the following tips.

> Web readers do not move into "lucid reading" or reading for pleasure mode. When in lucid reading, readers slip into an almost hypnotic state; they become entranced and addicted to reading. Web sites do not generate the ambiance for lucid reading.
> Tests show that readers tend to ignore large bodies of text.
> Realistically, readers read about twenty per cent of a web page.
> Most do not read "below the fold", i.e., scroll down.

Eye Tracking Patterns for Web Site Readers
* Readers brains and eyes use an F pattern. They read the first two lines of a post from left to right (in most languages) forming the top, long bar of the F.
* Readers move down to the second paragraph then their eyes travel horizontally forming the second, shorter bar of the F.
* Following that, they scan the left side in a vertical pattern stopping only when a word or a different format is noticed, e.g., change in font, bullets, diagram, etc. completing the long, vertical leg of the letter F.

Engaging Readers
< Use bullets, bold type font, highlights, italics, or underline the most import part of the sentences.
< Write short sentences.
< Start subtitles, paragraphs and bullet points with information carrying words.
< The third word of a sentence is read less when compared to the first two words.
< One idea per paragraph is ideal..
< Use half the words of conventional writing.
< San serif font is more easily read on-line. The lines are crisper and more delineated.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Typeface, Fonts and Your Book

Que sera, sera. Sans serif, serif. Which is easier to read: an article or book with a font that has serifs or one that does not? To have feet or not to have feet that is the question.

Technically, serifs are small projections finishing off the end strokes of individual printing or computer generated press letters. Easier to understand is to say serifs are small lines on the tops and bottoms of each letter of the alphabet on some, not all, fonts.

ABCD abcd-sans serif ABCD abcd-serif

Some theorists say a font with serifs leads the eye along smoothly. Others say serifs make the individual letters more difficult to discertain versus the clean, simple lines of a sans (from French meaning ”without”) serif fonts. Potaytoe, potahtoe.

There is a difference between “typeface” and “font.” Typeface is a particular design of type. Font is a particular instance of type. You can have different fonts within one typeface (Arial bold, arial italic, arial black, arial rounded, etc.) Even each size is a different font.

Most studies show that typefaces with serif fonts are easier to read for a lengthy time. In 1932, Times New Roman was designated as THE typeface for newspapers. Our brains have been trained to expect serif letters. Web sites can simply respect the browser settings of the use or use sans serif type because sans serif typefaces have better resolutions on a computer screen.

If you are self-publishing here are some thoughts about choosing typeface and fonts Many authors do not think about it and use the default settings for their Word processors default setting.

1. The general rule is that newspapers and books often use two different fonts but no more than two. The fonts should be similar in look, e.g., Helvetica (headings) and Garamond (body of text); Verdana (headings) and Palatino Nova 189@ (body of text.) Work to find two that are compatible and not in juxtaposition.

2. Non-serif fonts can be used for titles, chapter headings, table of contents, and bibliographies for distinction and variety but not for the main body of your work. Sans serif fonts are thought to be not easily readable in large block of texts. Transposing from your computer to the printed book page changes the crispness and clarity of sans fonts. Suggested sans serif fonts are Gulliver, Helvetica, Verdana and Lucinda Grande.

3. Serif fonts may be used for all portions of your book: title, introduction, chapter titles, table of contents, body, and appendices. One article I read said to avoid using Times New Roman in self-publishing as it looks amateurish because it is too common. It is associated with newspapers that we read in short bursts and toss away. We want readers to linger, enjoy our words, and recommend our books to others. Some suggested fonts are: Baskerville, Cambria, Courier, Garamond and Lucida Fax, all 12 point.

4. Decorative fonts are as described: embellishments. They may be used, if at all, only as the beginning letter of a new chapter or chapter titles. They must be of good quality, easily readable, and close to the typeface and fonts used for main body of the chapters. Some fonts are so different from the body type that the eye fails to comprehend the letter and thus the reader gets confused.

5. Be leery of free font programs. Often they do not come with true bold and italics or all the characters you may need (no percentage sign or ampersand for example.) In choosing your typeface and fonts, check to see if you can click on the actual setting, e.g., Arial bold or Arial Italic. If you use “control” plus “bold”, you will be using a fake setting.

Some publishing houses will reject your work if they feel you have used a fake or free font program because they have to correct it. Microsoft invented Arial just for their programs. It contains different names on its control panel which allows you to chose, and receive, exactly what you want matching the quality of your other font letters.

Typeface and font selection is subjective. Choose yours wisely, remembering to go for the generally accepted and shine with the most important part, the writing.