Thursday, December 30, 2010

Completing a Novel

I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one. Flannery O’Connor

This post is kinda related to the previous one. Has it happened to you? You have a great premise. Novel (Ha!). Unique. Unknown to the known world. Yeah, right.

How quickly can the idea devolve into the mundane? Been done? Ordinary? Prosaic? Pretty fast.

There’s something about sustaining a great idea across 75-90,000 words that makes 90% of us who start writing a book, quit. 90%. Don’t you think that’s high? Someone in some workshop tossed the number out. I have no idea how anyone could know that much less check it out. Still. You know it’s a lot of folks.

Let’s say the number is less. I know that I personally have started about two dozen books. Five are completed. So my personal percent is 21% finished. That doesn’t mean, btw, that 79% I quit. I just delayed the re-start. I’ll get back to them. Later. After I finish the new one I just jotted down an idea for.

Here’s my new idea—I volunteer at our community library, so it occurred to me last Monday that I could have my heroine volunteer at a retirement community library. This curmudgeonly fellow starts coming in on her shift. She tries to help him find books, but he is difficult, bordering on rude. But they get together in the end after she shows him the power of unconditional love. Sweet mature lovers romance, yes?

So, I may start it. Or not. Maybe it will join the others in the incubator I call computer files.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

On Being a Novelist

Pat, my decades-long friend and writing partner from my previous professional life is a natural storyteller. She tells of happenings in the lives of family and friends. While doing so, she embellishes with rich details, she paces the information flow, and she reveals the climax at just the right time.

But Pat says she can’t write fiction. She is the most vivid dreamer I know, and retells her dreams fluently. But she doesn’t see the connect to writing fiction. Of course she could write fiction. Why do some of us think we can write fiction and others do not? And what does she mean by that?

By nature, we are a story-telling creature. However, she doesn’t see that the stories she tells me are ones that others would want to read. Or she doesn’t think there’s enough detail to sustain a novel. And maybe there isn’t. Because she doesn’t like reading short stories, she would never write short stories. I write full-length and short, myself.

Maybe that is the disconnect. She doesn’t see how to stretch the dream into a feature-length film. Is that a difference between those who claim fiction author as an identity? Do we see all stories as potential novels? I know I do. Ah, but the execution!

How many novels have I started in my computer files only to abandon them because, as Gertrude Stein wrote, “There’s no there there.”? Great premise, but thin on the development. Maybe a short story, but not enough engaging stuff to sustain a novel.

See, I believe Pat could indeed write a novel. She is an avid reader who knows what makes a good story. But she has to believe she could do it, and more importantly, she would need to want to be a novelist. It’s a hard enough job when you want to and think you can.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Red Chair, Red Hair

I got my desk! And, the coolest red chair ever. It doesn’t match my hair, but I am toying with the idea of dyeing it this fire-engine color. What do you think? I couldn't save it to this post, so I put it in place of my picture.

I just know I’ll be more productive with more space to spread out rather than just stacking up. My work desk has been like an apartment building with levels and layers, the top being the “best” level (meaning “most recent”). But now I am a ranch house, sprawled out all over the room so I can allocate one part of the “L” to the computer and WiP, and the other part of the “L” to revisions and other paperwork. Love it!

One’s workspace does say something to others about how seriously you are taking your profession. But, it also sends subliminal messages to your internal work engine. My desk says this is a writer’s area. Someone is writing great stuff here.

I no longer have to go on an archaeological dig when I want a resource I used two days ago. Everything is at hand and easily accessed. I estimate I have saved a couple of hours for extra writing time just by getting organized better!

Already I see more productivity. I started another blog, this one on food and recipes, Parsley, Sage, and Rosemary Time ( I am tweeting recipes, food facts, and/or cooking tips daily (follow me on Twitter @good2tweat).

Now to fulfill the rest of the promise of the dark desk and red chair. New year. New space. New book published?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Blogging Sandra K. Bremser

Let’s all give a big Write Away welcome to Sandra Bremser. (applause) You can find her website and blog at Check it out! Sandy is a member of my Pens Afire critique group, and I am engrossed by her novel.

Good Morning, Sandy. Thanks for dropping by to talk about your novel. I know lots of my readers will be interested in this Southwest historical fiction. Could you tell us a little about House of the Earth?

SANDY: Alison Cabot becomes an archeologist in 1916 when society doesn’t exactly welcome women into the profession. When she builds her adobe home, Jokake, near the Hopi mesas and Basque sheepherders of northern Arizona, Alison attempts to make a name for herself professionally while dodging bullets and solving the murders of two local women.

SHARON: I understand this is just book one. What is coming up after you publish House of the Earth? You have two other titles, right? What are they about?

SANDY: Book two, Devil Dance in Talum, finds Alison spying for the US government during World War I while on an archeology dig. In the third book, called Basque Bones, Alison travels to the Basque country of Spain to solve a mystery threatening her own home in northern Arizona.

SHARON: I know you have been working on historical fiction for years. Why do you write what you write?

SANDY: As a kid growing up on an apple orchard, my chores were often solitary, so I entertained myself by making up stories. For instance, I’d pretend the strawberry patch I was weeding was the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” and wonder who I’d run into at the end of the row. Maybe it would be a harem girl who’d want to escape into the desert. I’d make up a whole big story, then research facts about the era and setting and write about it. I still think writing stories is hugely entertaining.

SHARON: What is the best writing advice someone gave you—in person or from a book?

SANDY: Between the act of writing and then researching the historical aspects, I sometimes get overwhelmed. At times I want to abandon the whole endeavor. When I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, I realized that by taking it one step at a time, I can actually write the books that run around inside my head.

SHARON: What advice do you have for those who write?

SANDY: Put your seat in the chair and type. Schedule writing into your calendar or time will be gobbled up by things we won’t remember a year from now. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t do laundry. You owe it to yourself.

SHARON: What do you do to get “unstuck” when you write and hit a wall?

SANDY: It’s unusual for me to get stuck but if I do, I might read an excerpt from a well-written book or a couple pages of Billy Collins’ poetry. If that doesn’t inspire me, I contact a critique partner and ask to discuss the scene I’m working on.

SHARON: What is the number one writing “rule” you think people break?

SANDY: We talk about writing instead of writing.

SHARON: What does your writing schedule look like? Do you write every day?

SANDY: I write beginning about 6:00 A.M. until other obligations crowd in around lunchtime. I can edit most any time of day, but first thing in the morning is my best time to create. I hope sometime soon to be able to write every day, but currently I don’t.

SHARON: Is there anything else you’d like to address?

SANDY: What I haven’t said yet is that writing helps me process my own life. It’s no accident that my character, Alison, is an independent woman who wants to balance a career and love life. Someone who wants to find a way sometimes to just “be” and not always “do.” These are lessons she learns in the desert watching the red-tailed hawk circling above her house of the earth. I have had many “aha’s” writing the scenes where she learns these kinds of lessons. It’s kind of like the realizations we have when reading a good book only much more intimate because you’re the author.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tweet Me Well: @good2tweat

You met Alli Wesson, my personal chef character (from the “Dinner is Served” culinary mystery series I am writing) when she dropped by for an interview. She is quite a character, so to speak!

Anyway, Alli and I were talking about how we’re going to develop a marketing plan for the “Dinner is Served” series. One thing that occurred to me, and Alli just loved it, was to start a Twitter following of her recipes. That is such the hot thing these days among foodies.

So I set up a Twitter account. Follow me there @good2tweat. I promise some cooking tips, food facts, and recipes in miniature. Additionally, I have a food blog, "Parsley, Sage, and Rosemary Time" at If you go to the food blog, take the garlic quiz.

I ordered Eat Tweet: 1,020 Recipe Gems (Maureen Evans), and I follow Maureen on Twitter. She is amazing! She does unusual stuff, complicated recipes, even ethnic ones and she does it in 140 characters or fewer. That includes spaces and punctuation by the way. To show you what I mean, here is a recipe from Alli that appears in Prime Rib and Punishment, the book I am currently writing:

Savory Butter: Pulse n mini fd proc .5cbutter/3T bell pep/1grn onion/1clv garlic.

Sprd bread or Portobello shrooms n grill. Srv 1T on cookd meat.

Alli and I are going to tweet some recipes to those of you who like word puzzles AND cooking! Look for me on Twitter now @good2tweat and you will find cooking tips, recipes, and food facts accumulating.

Whether you like to cook or not, you may have friends who do. Let them in on Twitter recipes. Build up my traffic for that Twitter account! Retweet me to all your friends.

I gotta admit that I am having trouble with getting my head around how much marketing we are expected to do for our books. I get it that budgets are tight, and I get it that NO ONE cares more about my books doing well than I do. Still. More on marketing in a later column.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Book Marketing Plan

I am submitting my “naughty novel”, Streetwalker, to Eternal Press early next week. I went on their website to find out the submission guidelines and discovered, for the first time since I have been looking at submission guidelines for fiction, that they require a marketing plan.

It shouldn’t have shocked me the way it did. I’ve written about this before. Every conference I go to, every class I take, someone, sometime mentions that you are in large part responsible for marketing your book. If you don’t care the most, who does?

In all my years of publishing non-fiction books, I was expected to know the target consumers and the competitive texts. My reputation in the field (based on presentations, articles, and other books) was part of the marketing plan. When I submitted a book proposal, I had to include sample chapters, an outline, and a skeletal marketing plan.

I get it.

But, fiction has been shielded from the worst of this for so long. Now, it is endemic. You must promote yourself and your works. At minimum, I learned at one conference agents/editors expect you to have a following through your blog, website, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. That’s the minimum.

So what does one do when one encounters this expectation for the first time, in real life, with consequences? The message I took away from the Eternal Press info re submissions was that my marketing plan was part of their consideration for whether to offer a contract. Hmm.

What did I do? I sent out a distress call to my two critique groups. They came through dutifully and beautifully. One critique partner in particular has a business background and her suggestions were amazing. Learn more about Sandra Evans and her many books with business applications at

In a later blog, I am going to share what I send to Eternal Press in hopes it will help some of you who are facing the same thing.

It doesn’t even matter that we resent having to invest our time this way. It just is. So do it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Setting as Character

In a horror story, setting is the unnamed character. The spooky house that you know she should not enter. The door he shouldn’t open. Movies show you what that setting is like replete with drippy candles and wax puddles and wind blowing the lace curtain. In novels, we have to create those pictures with our words. (That helps the director of my books see my vision so the movie will turn out exactly the same way I imagined it—NOT!)

I don’t write horror, but I do write mystery. And sometimes setting is the unnamed character there because these events couldn’t happen if the story were not set where it is. The walk-in refrigerator freezer plays a role in my WiP novel as does the setting of a culinary arts school. What I have planned requires those two (and other) settings.

But, that is not my strength, describing where my characters are. I am in awe of my critique partners who make me feel I am there in their books. I can smell the creosote after a desert rainstorm. I see the gleam of the cherry wood cabinets. I feel the fabric wales on the blanket. They do that so well.

Not I.

“I’d like to know more about the kitchen in this house. Is it messy? Upscale? Is it a show kitchen or one the owner uses?” asks Annie at our last critique meeting.

“I don’t know where we are,” says Sandy in reference to a page or paragraph opening sentence.

How easy to say, “Oh, I’ll put that stuff in when I revise.” Why do I not put it in as naturally as I do plot points? Why do I rarely call them out on setting descriptions. I am the most likely violator in our group.

Because setting is really important in mystery, sometimes providing clues to help solve the puzzle, it is necessary that I get better at thinking setting. I do believe that awareness, what’s around me at all times, is what is at root of this.

You’ve played the game, I’m sure, where you are asked to close your eyes and describe the room you are in. I do not do well with this game. I am better at the memory one, you know, the tray of stuff you study and then remember after it is removed. I focus. I pay attention when I am told to do so.

Left to my own devices, apparently I don’t focus or attend to surroundings enough. I believe that is why, when writing, I don’t focus or attend to surroundings. I don’t do it in real life, so why would anyone think I could do it in fictional life?

But, can I change? What if I consciously focus on setting at the beginning of every scene? What if I don’t let myself write plot or dialogue until I can picture where the characters are and do a word picture of that scene’s setting?

Hallie Ephron’s book (Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, reviewed in an earlier blog) has a worksheet for doing that. But I am talking about more. Writing a page or more on the setting for a scene would be work, most of which would never show up in the book. But, it would for sure help me know where my characters are right down to the gnat’s derrière.

Worth a try, eh? Or, I could just let my critique partners find the holes that I can patch later.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Stephen King and (Writing) Target Practice

So okay - there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You've blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Stephen King (On Writing)

I can do that! Write 1000 words a day, seven days a week? That’s only 4-5 pages a day. Shoot. I get up early. I can do this. That means 90,000 words can be completed in 90 days. Now THAT is motivation. I could be done with this sucker in three months?

Anyone as prolific as Stephen King has been and continues to be, has to have the discipline to keep putting down words, over and over and over. And he writes more than 90K books.

Here’s another Stephen King quote from On Writing: “ . . . I believe the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.” King’s writing goal is 2000 words a day, and he doesn’t quit until he does it.

I shared with my critique partners in Desert Flowers and Pens Afire that I set 1000 words per day (wpd) as my target for this new book I’m working on, Prime Rib and Punishment. Some were taken aback. I was reminded how differently we all write.

DH and I are very different writers. He spends forever crafting his sentences and then, in the editing phase, he changes them all anyway. He is a ruthless editor of his own and others’ work (a great guy to have in my bed, eh?). I, on the other hand, call my writing style “the blat syndrome”. I blat it out, all over the page. What a mess to have to clean up, but first drafts go pretty fast for me. Hmm. Maybe I am like Stephen King (see earlier blog on comparing writing styles)! Don’t I wish!

Sort of to my amazement, I am easily meeting my target of 1000 wpd, and I even got up to 2200 one day, so I am going to up the ante (not being a poker player, I have only a vague idea what this means). My new plan is to write 1500 wpd or about 10,000 words per week (wpw). I am writing 1000 wpd in just a few hours. I can add a couple of more hours and meet my target. That means I can write 80,000 word novel in 8 weeks. First draft. And, hey, I didn’t promise it would be good. Just done.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Website to Boost Your Ego

Need a break from your book? Want to keep thinking about writing rather than doing writing? Have I got the spot for you!

My oldest son sent me this website (“I Write Like”) a while back, and I have shared it with various writer-friends of mine. Everyone has enjoyed it thoroughly. You will probably bookmark it, too. It’s pretty addictive.

This website categorizes your writing style by comparing your prose to that of published authors. Here’s how it works.

Go to one of your manuscripts and choose a segment. I don’t know the limitation for number of words, but I know I have put in quite a few paragraphs. Select by highlighting. Click on “copy” from your “edit” menu.

Log in to and “paste” your text in the box provided. Then click on “Analyze” at the bottom. Presto bingo! The site matches your writing style to an author and names the author you write like. I was pretty pleased that one of my manuscripts matched Stephen King. Wahoo! (Can I put that in a query letter? Hmm. Probably not.)

However, another manuscript matched me with an author I had to google to find out who he was and what he wrote. Still. I did match a published author with each manuscript segment I entered, and no surprise, since I write in a variety of genres, I had a bunch of different authors I matched.

It is better to match an author unfamiliar to me than to have the website come back and say, “Sorry. We could not find a match for your search query.” What could be a better boost for your ego than to say, "My writing is in the style of James Joyce"?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dilettante is as Dilettante Does

I have accused myself of being a dilettante because I write in so many genres. It surely helps with writer’s block to have so many different projects going—plays to children’s books to culinary mystery to erotica to historical fiction to . . . well, you get the idea.

But, this time, I think I out-dilettante-d myself!

I started book two in my “Dinner is Served” series about two personal chefs and the murders they solve. Good you say? Not so fast. It’s not like book one is done. That’s the one I dumped and had to start over. But I can’t. Not yet.

It’s like there is static in my head. I want to “re-purpose” parts of book one, but I have to have a new killer and motivation. The red herrings change. Nope—can’t do book one right now. I can’t get a handle on the new story because part of my brain is still working on the old one.

Fortunately, long ago I planned out multiple books in the series. So, I moved on to book 2 to get back into the series. The hardest question was do I make Cooks in the Can book two or should it be Prime Rib and Punishment? After a suggestion from one of my critique group partners, I began Prime Rib and Punishment, set in a cooking school.

Interesting to me, anyway, is that I am not writing it episodically as I wrote book one. I used Hallie Ephron’s planning guide then wrote first two chapters. Then I wrote part of last chapter because I read somewhere that when writing plays, if you write the last act first, you know where you are headed and can plant seeds throughout that ripen and come to harvest in the last act. Okay, so that’s make some sense. Then, I started getting scenes in my head, so I wrote two other scenes that will appear someplace, not sure where.

Have I planned my novel? Yep, but my pantser stepped in. I don’t know if that is good or bad. I just know I have no control over the flashes. This has happened to me before with other novels. When I get the scene flashes, I know to write them down. Even if they end up on the cutting room floor, the more I write about my characters and my story line, the better it will be for the final book.

I took the first two chapters to my Pens Afire critique group yesterday. There were multiple problems to fix (as is always the case, eh?), but the biggest one harkened to Sue Grafton’s comment re writing a series. How do you keep the recurring characters fresh? How do you introduce them to a new audience while not boring your fan base?

Writing Alli Wesson and Gina Smithson or Gina’s mom Maria and her pal, Pearl—pretty easy. I know these women! I like them, and I can tell you what they are likely to have for breakfast whether at home or when they go out to IHop.

But therein lies the problem. I am not reading this with the eyes of a reader new to my series. So Pens Afire (Sandra Bremser and Annie Weissman) called me on it. Good for them. Even though I knew of the danger, I skated right past the warning signs onto the thin ice. It’s cracking around me, but I now know, early in this book, to skate away. Thanks, Pens Afire.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


I’ve been meaning to get to this, and given the time-sensitive nature of the exhibit, I better do it now. I recently visited the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, TX and spent almost all my time in their special exhibit, Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea (until January 2, 2011). Not only were the pieces of Pre-Columbian art amazing, but the recorded Mayan language was an archaeological and linguistic puzzle for hundreds of years.

We all know about hieroglyphics, the Egyptian writing form. But the Mayan was much more complex, including both stylized pictorial and phonics elements within a glyph. The language researchers had to figure that out and then break the glyphs into their components.

And just what is a glyph, you might be asking. It is a relatively new word (18th century) from Greek to French to English. The Greek word meant “carving.” A glyph is a sculptured character or symbol, a form of pictograph.

The Mayans carved these symbols into stone and painted them on pottery and walls. A few hundred years before the Spanish arrived, the Mayan culture was in decline. The people spread away from their cultural centers, so there were fewer who could read the old glyphs. The invading Spanish and their accompanying priests did a pretty good job of finishing the dispersal and trying to wipe the Mayan culture out. Those factors made translating more than a few of the enormous trove of glyphs an impossible task until late in the last century. Yes, the 1980’s!

An early-arriving priest had left a kind of Rosetta Stone that recorded some glyphs the Mayans of the time told him, but archaeologists still couldn’t “read” the panels of glyphs. There is a history of the small insights and understandings linguists had over the years you can read on Wikipedia. For example, they figured the numbers out pretty early.

The big breakthrough came with figuring out the word “water” and in realizing there were phonetic elements. Once linguists had decoded the glyph for “water”, they began to identify glyphs for sea creatures and others who lived by the sea. Somehow, amazingly they were able to go from those early glyphs to being able to read whole selections. Not all Mayan writing has been translated; it is on-going. But the major breakthroughs and the amount that can be read bodes well for the completion of the task.

I just love archaeology stuff in general, and being a language person, the idea that a written language has only been created a few times in history is intriguing. What motivated some cultures to figure out a way to document and pass along their stories and information? Who conceptualized the glyph system? How did he (or she) convince others to use it? Who taught the thousands of Mayans to read the glyphs? How universal was literacy? Well, youth wants to know (and so does old age, by the way).

There is still so much to learn about the glyphs and the Mayans. But think what a great historical novel you could do with chapters on translating the tale on panel glyphs alternating with the ‘real’ story behind the writing. I would have a woman creating the glyphs, of course! Why not? Maybe she has to pretend to be a male in order to be a priest. That could be a good story! Does she have a happy ending? Not in my tale. I’d have her unmasked and killed as a warning to other women not to try to enter the world of men. But her secret daughter carries on her mother’s work until the value is recognized and her mother’s contributions are acknowledged. Great story, eh?

I tried to paste in the glyph that means “scribe”. It didn't work, unfortunately. But check it out on a search for Mayan glyphs. Look at it and tell me you could have figured that out! And what about the syntax? However did they know that part of the glyph is a syllabary? Doesn’t this just sound like the most exciting job ever (except for author, of course)?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Five Ways to Use On-Line Lists

I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for on-line quizzes. Love to take them! But even more fun are the lists. You know the ones. “10 ways to Tell He’s Lying” “8 Reasons Your BFF Isn’t” “5 Things to Ask Before Taking It to the Next Level”

Just yesterday, I saved to my electronic file, “What is Your Body Language Saying” from the Dec. 7th issue of Real Simple Magazine. How to read faces, bodies, hands, and even, get this, how to read feet! You gotta love it!

I have a huge file of them I collected. Why, you might ask. No, I am not searching for love or trying to detect infidelity in my spouse. I am an author. These lists are all about human relationships. When I write my novels, I am trying really hard to develop characters my readers can relate to and know on some level.

Other than a weird sort of interest in these lists, what value can they have to an author? Let me share how I use material from some of my collected lists.

1) I have a character, a nervous type. So I say that. Big whoop! If I go to my lists, I find that I can have the character doing things to show nervousness. Like this:

Rita was nervous.


Rita nibbled on her lower lip. Her body rocked forward and back, fingers picking at her broken cuticles.

Okay, so maybe you don’t want Rita to be quite so obvious in her nervous signs, but I think you can see the benefit of showing the nervousness over telling she’s nervous. As a place holder I can write “Rita was nervous” and put it in bold font to stand out. During revisions, I can find the bolded spots and describe her (and other characters) better.

2) Another way to use on-line lists of character traits and behaviors is to give them distinctive actions so you distinguish one character from another for your reader. Perhaps you want one character to be a fidgeter, so you describe how his toe is always tapping when he sits and that he must get up often to walk around, then sits back down and taps his right toe again. Or another character might be excitable, so you have her flailing her arms and blinking a lot.

3) One article I pasted in from Sheer Balance last January is “6 Personality Traits to Admire and Acquire.” When you are working on the beginning stages of your book, you make choices about the protagonist, supporting characters, and the antagonist. Knowing that you will create tension with opposites, if you want your protagonist to be selfless, then the antagonist might become selfish. So you read what selfless people do (give time to others, listen, demonstrate patience, give love, generous, make others feel loved and appreciated), and those are the behaviors you give your protagonist. As a foil, you make your antagonist: emotionally unavailable to others, impatient while listening, impatient in general, ignore others’ needs, brusque and self-absorbed.

4) On-line lists give suggestions for how to keep the romance going. For example, dating coach David Wygant posted “Dating Advice: 7 Ways to Keep the Fire in your Relationship Burning.” You have a couple of characters romantically involved. Have one of your characters leave surprise notes in her husband’s lunch bag. (And just imagine what could happen if her husband’s mistress found it!). Or do as Wygant suggests and show how the characters respond by carrying their kiss deeper and longer.’s article, “Master This Habit to Keep Your Relationship Healthy”, focuses on a single behavior: being supportive during good times may be more important than during the bad ones. You can have a character demonstrate aspects of supportive behavior by celebrating the good performance review, getting a new job, handling a touchy situation well and that recognition and support will strengthen the relationship.

5) Read the extras. Almost all of these on-line lists are linked to other lists. In the article on being supportive of good news happenings is a link to “5 Surprising Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Relationship.” Now that can be fun. Collect even more to expand your repertoire of traits and behaviors.

Keep collecting these lists, and pretty soon, you could set up an illegal counseling practice, you’ll know so much. Or not. Maybe instead you could demonstrate research-based behaviors in your novels so your characters ring true.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Making of the OED

Have you read The Professor and the Madman (Simon Winchester)? What a fabulous book. That is, if you love words and dictionaries, as I do. It’s full title, just to hook you into reading this is: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

When we were culling books prior to downsizing our home, I had hard choices to make. I kept The Professor and the Madman. I may read it again. I may not. But I want to hold onto it because I loved it so much. You know that feeling. Also, I see it as a set with my OED.

I mentioned in yesterday’s blog that the compact version of the OED was my favorite Christmas present from DH. What kind of guy is that, you might ask, who gets his wife a dictionary? The same kind of guy she married when their favorite wedding present was a dictionary!

Maybe we’re weird.

Anyway, the compact OED (about 15” tall and 4” wide) has 9 pages of print on each page and comes with a magnifying glass. Friends, knowing how much I love the dictionary, gave me a fancy magnifying glass worthy of the OED. Love them both! The un-compact version, by the way, is a dictionary spanning 20 volumes.

The OED is remarkable in itself. The original dictionary defined 414,825 words. The intent was to show the development of vocabulary over time. 1,827,306 quotes were gleaned from literature by volunteers to show how the definition the words had developed over time with pejoration, amelioration, or simply multiple meanings. You can trace the etymology not just through language of origin, but the changing meanings over time. It is great fun to read!

What an accomplishment! Professor James Murray spent 40 years of his life on the project that was completed after his death. That factoid gives you a sense of the scope of this work.

The book on the making of the OED was two stories in one. Professor Murray sent out the call across England for volunteers to read literature from as far back as they could up to present day (late 19th century) and write on slips of paper the word and a quote from a book using the word with a different definition than they had found before. All the little slips were sent to a warehouse at Oxford University where they had to be sorted and catalogued. THERE WERE NO COMPUTERS TO HELP WITH THIS! It was an astounding feat.

Just as a note of interest, do you know which English word has the largest number of definitions in the OED? “Set” has 464 definitions. Care to know the rest of the top ten? Run—396; go—368; take—343; stand—334; get—289; turn—288; put—268; fall—264; and, strike—250.

The story of the OED development was gripping enough, but we get a two-fer with the book. One of the volunteers, Dr. W.C. Minor, was especially prolific, so Murray wanted to meet him and involve him more. After being put off time and again by Minor, Murray finally showed up at his residence, an asylum for the criminally insane. With money, things could be different then as now. Minor had a suite of rooms with bookshelves everywhere loaded with rare volumes. Minor had been a surgeon during the American Civil War and that experience probably tipped the scale on sanity. He killed a man in England and was committed. But from that tragedy came the enormous help he provided on the massive OED project.

I could go on, but that would take time away from you finding this book or a copy of the OED and reading for yourself. This is a word lovers duo!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Words are the Bane of My Existence

Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. Stephen King

Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite. C. S. Lewis

Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words or he will certainly misunderstand them. John Ruskin

Word choice. Which words do I choose and use? Why?

I’ve had mixed reviews from critique partners about vocabulary level in my various works. The range is from “I had to look up words. That interrupts the story. Lose the big words.” to “I love that you don’t insult my intelligence by talking down to me. Keep using vocabulary that challenges me.”

Truly, it is not that I am trying to demonstrate my facility with logo-gymnastics, but that’s the way I talk. The first word that comes to mind is what I type. I don’t sit with the thesaurus open and at the ready to insert an arcane word in place of a pedestrian one. Rather, why use a phrase when a single word would do?

Unless that language level is inconsistent with the character. Well, duh! That elusive characteristic of "voice" is, in part, signaled by word choice. Language identifies us.

When I have a character with education, why not have her use the language level she would use in real life? Oh, I know that if she sprinkles too many high-vocabulary words in, she will distract. But where is the line between voice illustrated through language level and interrupting the reader. I hate to think that readers’ vocabulary levels are so low they would avoid my great (!) books just because I have a character using less common words.

I would also hate to think that good vocabularies belong only to literary fiction. Genre fiction, commercial fiction—why can’t those characters be literate as well?

Okay. I do have a good vocabulary. I admit to being proud of that. But demonstrating language facility is not, should not be, tantamount to bragging or driving away readers. I remember the first time I read Sophie’s Choice (William Styron). Not only did the story fully engage me, but I had to look up a couple of words in the dictionary. Me! I loved it!

I am a word game nut. I read the dictionary for fun. My favorite all-time Christmas present from DH was the compact version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Etymologies make me swoon.

I LOVE WORDS! That passion showed through in my work with kids over 39 years. What a legacy to pass on, that words are cool. Why can’t I do that in my writing as well. In my WiP, I have a character obsessed with words even though she is not educated.

So, Dear Reader, hang on for the ride. The vocabulary level in my works may be higher than some. But when I write, the right word comes to mind. I don’t go “dictionary diving” to find an obtuse way to say the same thing. If you might need a dictionary once or twice, enjoy the joy of words and the way they roll around on your tongue and mind.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

In the Beginning . . .

Given the difficulties inherent in creating a great book opening, you can see how the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest draws out so many entrants each year.

The classic opening sentence Bulwer-Lytton used in his 1830 book, Paul Cifford, is the icon of bad openings. “It was a dark and stormy night . . .” is so endemic that it became the ridiculed opening of Snoopy’s opus---over and over and over. People who don’t know a thing about Bulwer-Lytton’s florid and over-wrought writing may well have heard the phrase. Aren’t Shakespeare, the Bible, or Ben Franklin the source for everything we quote anyway??? (Okay, I know there are a lot of contenders for this category. Write your own blog on it and invite me over to read.)

But, you know, I have some sympathy for the Bulwer-Lytton. In case you only know the opening of the opening, here it is in toto:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Whew! Does that sound at all familiar to you who have struggled, as have I, with the exigencies of creating, in the quest in which we seek agented representation, the perfect, engaging opening to a novel which may not countenance a grand entrance, but for which we nevertheless strive?

At writing conferences, they tell us to dump the first 50 pages if that’s where the action is, where the book really begins. Are you kidding me? If I knew how to open in the middle of the action rather than giving you all the nitty gritty you’re going to need to understand my book, I would have done that in the first place. That’s why I’m at your session (my 17th session) on writing an engaging opening.

So here’s what I’ve done to build my awareness of openings, in media res, where the action is blah blah blah. I have deconstructed several book beginnings in the genre of my current WIP. I ask myself, “What question(s) does this raise? Do I want to know more? How does this propel the story forward?”

I also play the “First Lines” game (taught to me by my daughter-in-law and described in a blog last February). The game let’s me practice some first lines and compare them with the actual author’s first lines. An interesting intellectual task. Because of the distance, it’s easy. You don’t necessarily know the book characters or plot lines, so there is no pressure to “set up” the book. Distance is good for an academic exercise.

But being able to deconstruct or construct for someone else’s work doesn’t necessarily transfer to the original problem: my book. I can appreciate the beauty of a great opening in others’ works. I can see the problem soooo clearly in someone else’s work. Why not mine?

Or as is more often the case, I can tell easily that my opening isn’t up to snuff. But how can I make it better? I didn’t set out to write mediocre. Honest. I am open to comments here. Please write about your struggles. Share successes in writing great openings, and tell us all how you got there.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel

I love having a library of resources about writing. Sure, I could check them out of the library, but no library in my neighborhood is open when I get up at 3 a.m. When I need to understand a craft element, get a character interview form, jumpstart my engine with writing insights, I want to go right over to my bookshelf and find what I need. Besides all those books distract me, and I end up spending hours when I meant to spend a few minutes.

Sure I go on-line for help. Sure I get some books from the library. But, there is nothing like having a text in your hand you can mark up and put stickies on. How many how-to books do you own? See? We can’t help ourselves.

I ordered a book this summer that I am just getting around to reading. OMG! What took me so long to find this thing, and why didn’t I devour it the day it came in the mail???

Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron is the most powerful book on how-to write I have ever read. I’m a pretty good skimmer, looking for the good stuff when I “read” a book on writing. Not this time. I am READING this book, every word, and some parts more than once.

What Ephron does so brilliantly is to break the book into four segments: Planning, Writing, Revising, and Selling. These are not equal parts. Planning takes up more than a third of her pages. An even larger segment is “Writing”. “Revising” and “Selling” are the smallest segments.

I know, that sounds just like all the others. But her planning section, for example, really does help you plan. It is not generic, plain vanilla. She is specific!

She breaks planning into manageable bits, explains the bit, shows examples of the bit, has you practice the bit, and then you transfer that bit-ness to your own novel and commit to paper that bit in your book. It is superb teaching without ever meeting us. Each section allows ample opportunities to grasp the concepts presented because she comes at each from more than one angle.

She writes in a practical, workshop kind of way without being demeaning or condescending. Her tone is one of helpful, insightful, supportive guide. She makes you think you can do this thing called mystery writing; it’s just of matter of stringing the bits together. Of course, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but I am talking about the attitude here.

Maybe it is because I dumped my almost-done mystery and am trying to figure out how to start it all over again. That book is percolating in my mind, waiting to be poured onto the page when it is dark and strong enough. Maybe that is why I am so taken with the book.

I am seeing so clearly why the dumped book failed. I understand everything Ephron is explaining, modeling, and demonstrating. I am even encouraged by her to believe that I can write a mystery.

But understanding is still such the long way from actualization. I know what good writing is when I read it. The challenge, as always, is not just in understanding but in translating that understanding to an engaging and challenging mystery of my own. Hallie is doing her part. Now it’s my turn to step up to the plate.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Gift-Getting/Giving Occasions

I create lists for my family of gift ideas for gift-giving occasions. And while I like the surprise of receiving something I didn’t even know I wanted or needed until the moment of the reveal (as they say on home decorating TV shows), DH likes a list. He doesn’t like to leave it to chance. So I oblige. And the earrings are always different, never seen before, and even wearable, some more than others.

Books are a big deal in our family. One year when our youngest son was still a little guy, he posted his Christmas list on the refrigerator. I looked it over and said, “What? No books?”

He replied, “Duh, Mama. I always get books. I don’t have to write that I want them.” That was meant to be a compliment, btw, not a snarky comment.

So, what writing-related gifts would I like this year (since I already got my MacBook Pro, and I don’t think the new desk will fit under the tree)?

Here is some of what’s on my list (with prices from Amazon). Can you tell where my interests lie in the immediate future?


Scriptwriting software like Final Draft Version 8 ($170.99) or

Movie Magic Screenwriter Version 6 ($125.99)

Art and Craft of Playwriting, Jeffrey Hatcher, $10.19

How to Read a Play, Ronald Hayman, $11.05

The Art of the Playwright, William Packard, $13.95

The Playwright’s Workbook, Jean-Claude Van Italie. $12.89

Mystery Writing:

The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery. Robert J. Ray

and Jack Remick, $10.55

The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing the Modern Whodunit,

William Tapply, $11.53

The Crime Writer’s Reference Guide: 1001 Tips for Writing the

Perfect Murder, $14.25

Police Procedure and Investigation: A Guide for Writers, Lee

Lofland, $13.59

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Patricia Highsmith, $10.19

Marketing and Social Networking:

Get Known Before the Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths to

Grow an Author Platform, Christina Katz, $11.55

Off the Wall Marketing Ideas: Jumpstart Your Sales without

Busting Your Budget, Nancy Michaels and Debbi J.

Karpowicz, $8.76

Plug Your Book: Online Book Marketing for Authors, Steve Weber,


Leave a comment today for others to see what you’re requesting from Santa to support your writing?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Blogging Annie Weissman

Give a warm welcome to Annie Weissman. You can follow her at and be sure to catch her blog, “The Single Senior” ( It is by turns funny, heartwarming, and reflective.

Sharon: Annie, you are a well-published woman! How many books do you have in print right now?

Annie: A is for Almanac: Complete Lessons to Teach Library Reference Sours Grades K-6, Transforming Storytimes Into Reading and Writing Lessons, and Do Tell! Storytelling for You and Your Students are all aimed at teachers and librarians and published by traditional publishers. As One Door Closes: A Memoir about the Plane Crash of Northwest Flight #255 is available from both Amazon and the POD publisher XLibris. Amazing Animals is available from Blurb, another POD publisher.

Sharon: When did you publish your first book? What was it about? Why did you write it?

Annie: My first book, The Castle of Chuchurumbel, el Castillo de Chuchurumbel, a bilingual picture book was published by Hispanic Books Distribultors in 1987. I was a school librarian and storyteller and had many bilingual manuscripts “in the drawer.” I had sent some retellings of folk tales to publishers, but this is the only one that was published. I did NOT do the illustrations. That isn’t my forte.

Sharon: What is your most recently completed work? What’s next?

Annie: I have just completed a novel, Our Mother’s Keeper. It’s the story of an eighty-year old woman whose dementia must be dealt with by her and her three daughters. It’s currently out with an editor and an agent and I have high hopes it will be accepted.

I’m completing a play for senior community theaters about a forty year high school reunion.

And lastly, I’m in the germination stage of a new novel about mothers and children.

Sharon: People always ask authors this: where do you get your ideas?

Annie: My nonfiction books were all based on my experience. The books for teachers and librarians are the culmination of a long career as a librarian and a principal. I wrote my memoir first as fiction in 1994 but it didn’t seem to work. In 2000 I changed it back to real life and it worked much better. The events were so painful I had wait until I could think about them in depth.

Some ideas for fiction come from my imagination with no basis in my life, like the play I’m writing. I went to my twentieth and twenty-fifth high school reunions, so I have an idea how they go, but this one is totally fabricated.

Some of my ideas for fiction come from life stories that other people tell me. That gives me the germ of an idea and I embroider it.

Some of my ideas for fiction are from my life experience. This is tricky. If it’s the truth, then it’s memoir. My latest novel is “true” in that my mother with dementia came to live with me so I had the experience to write about it. But many of the characters and incidents are from my imagination.

Sharon: When you are starting a new piece, how do you go about it? Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Annie: I am definitely a plotter. I have an analytic nature. I decide on plot points and make a time line of events and approximate pages for each section. However my characters take on a life of their own and I see my original timeline as a suggestion, not a strait jacket.

Sharon: It is difficult for an author to keep a character real, show the flaws as well as the positive traits for the heroine. How do you go about making your characters multi-dimensional?

Annie: I find it quite difficult to give flaws to my main character because I usually admire her so much. That’s where the critique group is a critical part of the writing process. My writing partners remind me to make the characters more flawed.

Sharon: How do you learn more about the craft of writing?

Annie: I’ve gone to the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival twice and taken full week classes on writing the novel and on writing for children. I’ve taken a class at Phoenix College on writing for children. I’ve taken courses on writing fiction from the Y that used to have a very active writing program. I‘ve taken novel writing at Scottsdale Community College.

I also attend writing conferences. The workshops there offer help on specific topics, such as Point of View, Setting, etc.

Sharon: What is the best writing advice you’ve learned?


1. Join a writing critique group.

2. Read dialogue aloud to see if it sounds natural.

Sharon: From your critique group experiences, what is the number one writing rule you see authors breaking?

Annie: Point of view. It’s so important to decide through whose eyes the story will be told and to stick with that point of view.

Sharon: I know you are in writing critique groups (which is how I know you). What role do you see critique groups playing in your own writing?

Annie: The weekly critique group is invaluable as a catalyst to make sure I keep writing regularly. The advice I get from my fellow writers helps me see what I’m too close to the work to see. The other members are bright, imaginative people who offer terrific suggestions.

Sharon: If you could sit down, one-on-one with a reader of this blog, what would you say to him/her?

Annie: There is no substitute for your time “in the chair.” No matter how good your idea is, or how brilliant the writing, if you don’t finish it, it won’t be read or appreciated.

Sharon: Anything else before we close up shop for the day?

Annie: Although it is difficult to get fiction published by the traditional system, today there are many other outlets: on line and print-on-demand. I would caution people to go through the traditional system first to see if your project needs improvement before rushing to publishing it yourself. There’s a lot of very bad writing being published by people who think no one should tell them how to write.

Taking a break for a few days. Come back next Monday to catch more blogging on the writing life.