Friday, March 16th, 2012

Writing Prompt: Check Your Morgue or Trunked Files

Virginia Pilot Ledger Newspaper MorgueMy background is journalism, so naturally I have my own morgue.

The “morgue” in newspaper parlance are the file cabinets holding all the research materials, notes and photos that went into producing a news story. All the pieces are usually filed together in a single folder by year or story. Sometimes the photos have their own morgue. Depends on the newspaper.

Pretty inefficient, really. While a lot of those records are filed electronically now, most of it still goes down the same way because who has the time to turn scribbled notes and library research into electronic documents when you’ve got to write the next news story?

And really, that stuff almost never gets looked at again unless it’s a really big story that has repercussions years later and needs to be referenced again. Or, the newspaper runs one of those “Five years ago, Ten years ago, etc. columns.

Writers tend to have ideas folders (stuff where they put ideas they’ve had, but aren’t ready to be written yet, snippets of overhead conversations, inspiring photos, etc.) and “trunked” files: a place for those stories that were written, but never got sold for whatever reason.

I have another file I keep, my “Culled from ‘XX Manuscript'” file: this is the place where I copy and paste the stuff edited out of my manuscripts. It contains idle scenes, verbose paragraphs, misplaced character thoughts in long and short phrases.

It’s a file that makes me feel better when I’m editing: I can take all that “hard work” which should never see the light of day, and keep a record of having written it. I tell myself I’ll go back there one day and make use of it.

I’ve never, ever done so (unlike my morgue or ideas folders…)

But this past week while I was doing some major edits, I realized that that file contains a lot of good stuff even if it wasn’t polished enough — or well thought out enough — to use in the current manuscript.

It’s plenty good for inspiring ideas when you need a kick.

Here’s Your Prompt:

  • Raid your ideas folder or junked stories for a snippet, phrase, paragraph, description, etc. to get your juices flowing: we’re not looking for an old idea to use here, we’re reading until you find a phrase that sparks a new idea. Find it and write.
  • Kill two birds with one stone: edit something that needs to be polished. Take all those words and phrases you cut away and save them into another file. Likely, they won’t be ‘sparkers’ this early: they’re too fresh in your mind. Set them aside for a few weeks and then revisit. In the meantime: you’ve polished up some writing. Send it out!
  • If you don’t have ideas folders, trunked files, or writing that needs some editing (Welcome, beginner!) pick a book off your shelf — something you haven’t read in a long time, or something you’ve never read — and open it to a random page. Read until an idea is sparked.
  • If none of these ideas appeal, here area a few very short phrases from my latest edits. Feel free to use them for your own stories:
    • “I’m damn tired of not getting my money’s worth.”
    • So, what did he want me to do about this?
    • It didn’t matter why the old man told him the story: he didn’t want to hear it.
    • …stiff and away from the window…
    • Chasing women was something he’d never had to do
    • Convinced he could do no more for the creature than make her comfortable, he…
    • The priestesses had long controlled the northern parts of the continent because of…

Good luck!

Photo Credit: A story about the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch newspaper morgue.

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

Review: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is one of those ‘famous’ books on writing that writer-type folks talk about whenever the subject of good-books-to-learn-writing-skills comes up. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time.

However, I found it very difficult to get through.

The premise of the book is based on a wonderful 30-year-old memory: Faced with the insurmountable problem of writing a book report on birds, Lamott’s 10-year-old brother is in tears and wondering how he’s going to get it all done. Their father puts an arm around his shoulder and says, “Bird by bird, Buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Fabulous advice.

But I realized after reading the introduction the book was not for me. It’s written in a literary style, a bit verbose for my tastes, and the takeaways aren’t what I need in my writing life right now. In my mind, Lamott spends a lot of time rambling about she thinks about things, rather than adding any concrete “how to” to the information. And there are a few chapters where she talks about something that happened to her, and you’re sort of left to wonder what she wanted you to get from the aside.

In the first chapter, “Getting Started,” Lamott talks about writing the truth and writing what’s real. She advocates starting with writing down everything you remember from school and kindergarten and holidays and such, along with your feelings and what you knew at the time. If you keep hacking at it, you’ll find the truth, or what’s real to write about. And that’s where you should start writing.

As a writer of speculative fiction, this isn’t what I needed (or wanted) to hear. I make things up. And while my stories might contain a kernel of something that happened to me (or someone else I know) it’s not going to resemble anything in the way of this exercise. The feelings, the emotions, yes – else how could you identify with my characters? – but the rest doesn’t make sense for me.

(From a genealogical perspective, on the other hand, I find this chapter fascinating. And, I might have to give it a whirl when I find the time.)

Other chapters in the book offer sound advice for beginners:

  • Start small. (Especially if you are easily overwhelmed by large projects.)
  • It’s okay to write terrible first drafts.
  • Stop being a perfectionist. Perfectionism is “the voice of the oppressor,” according to Lamott.
  • Plot grows out of character.
  • Care passionately about what you write.
  • Trust what your inner voice – your intuition — is telling you about your writing.

Then there’s a chapter called, “School lunches,” where Lamottt talks about a writing exercise she uses in her classes. Everyone writes down what they remember about school lunches and then they compare. She says when they discuss the differences of lunches throughout the states, it’s where they “see in bolder relief what we have in common.”

She gives some examples of what she wrote, which seem over dramatic. I think they’re supposed to be funny, but aren’t to me. It’s like she’s trying too hard.

One section of the book is called, “Help Along the Way,” where I suspect Lamott meant to suggest some useful tools for writers. But she spends an entire chapter discussing index cards, where the advice amounts to “Always carry something to write on.”

In another chapter, “Calling Around,” Lamott advises, “There are an enormous number of people out there with invaluable information to share with you, and all you have to do is pick up the phone.” Again, good, but we don’t need entire chapters to get the point across.

Two chapters, “Writing Groups” and “Someone to Read Your Drafts” are all about finding critique partners and getting feedback on your work. These are the two best chapters in the book. They contain good information, especially for beginning writers, and I agree with most of what she says.

(Unlike Lamott, I don’t advocate getting feedback from relatives, because in most instances they’re too afraid to hurt your feelings to tell you what you need to hear.)

The chapter on writers block is encouraging, but not instructional. There are no suggestions for how to overcome it (although an earlier chapter on writing letters could be useful. Lamott does not tie the two together.)

If you want to learn more about the author Anne Lamott, read this book. There are long passages about what she thinks about the writing process and how she handles it. She’s admittedly neurotic about it, and makes the assumption that most writers are as well. I disagree.

If you’re looking for concrete examples on how to write, new tools for your toolbox, or tricks of the trade, I’d look elsewhere.

Two chewed pencils.

Friday, May 20th, 2011

Writing Prompt: What’s Happening Here?

I’ve hesitated to toss up a photo to use as a prompt because it’s just too easy to get into the habit of doing something lazy, but I just couldn’t pass this up.

The most recent edition of Imker Freunde Magazin (Bee Keeper’s Friend) from Germany wafted pass my day-job desk this week and the cover photo caught my eye.

The object on the right in the photo is some kind of beekeeper’s post, covered all over in bees. The swarm is so large, that the bees have even pooled on the ground around the post. The little girl on the left has attracted the bees’ attention, and some have come to investigate her. One looks like it’s trying to crawl into her pocket. A few are close to landing on her.

The second photo is from inside the magazine, taken from another point of view. The bees are closer, and the child looks…excited? Frightened?

Here’s your prompt: What’s happening in this picture? Write a poem, a song, an essay, a news story. Anything. Just tell us what’s happening.

Bee Keeper's Friend Magazine Cover
Bee Keeper's Friend Magazine  - Inside Photo
Friday, April 29th, 2011

Writing Prompt – Hands That Tell a Story

Pictures of HandsI got sucked into the whole Royal Wedding Thing this morning, prompted by the fact that I wanted to see Kate Middleton’s dress.

As I was watching, I got to thinking about hands.

Kate’s hands were in the focus of the camera a lot, because she was waving, of course, and then there was that wedding ring bit. I was quite surprised to see how plain they were. Like the dress and the jewels and the tiara, I expected a little more pomp.

Here’s a close up of the ring ceremony. The angle’s not great, but you can see that Kate’s got blunt nails and little polish on them if any. I had an earlier impression of her having bit them down to nubs, but I think this disproves me. Still, her nails are short and to the point, yes?

Kate Middleton's Wedding Ring

Here’s a close-up of my own hands the morning of my wedding – those talons are real, btw, no fakes for me. (I couldn’t bear to waste my time in a salon – and besides, I think typing makes them stronger.)

Kate Middleton's Wedding Ring

So, what do Kate’s hands say about her? That she can’t be bothered at all? That she’d rather spend her time doing something else? That she can’t bear to spend her time in salon?

What about the photos to the left? Old hands at the top surely evoke a story. Robot hands must make something come to mind. My favorite are those working on the engine. When I get my hands dirty, I take off my rings. Not these fellows. What does that say about them?

Here’s Your Prompt: Study the hands around you. Look at the hands of mothers and policemen and construction workers. Peer at artists’ hands and those of teachers and nurses. Look at your own hands!

Do these hands reveal the vocation or hobby of their owners or not? Does the mechanic you know carefully remove any hint of grease from his nails before he comes home from the shop? Does the artist strip all the paint off or leave it on? Whose hands are dry and cracked, old and worn, nicked and cut?

Now, write a scene or memoir or even non-fiction about a person who’s interesting feature is his hands. Describe them, and why they’re significant — but don’t keep all the description in a large single paragraph. Work in bits of description and significance between the story: show us how these hands are important without telling us all at once. Keep the tension by gradually revealing the story bit by bit.

Friday, March 4th, 2011

Writing Prompt – Write Your Own Obituary

When you get hired at a newspaper, one of the first things you’re asked to do is write your own obituary.

This serves two purposes: while your co-workers are grieving, they’ve got a story in hand which should need little editing and can be run immediately. It also gives you something to do if there’s no immediate news to go chasing after.

Writing your own obituary also saves your family members the trouble…and you get to say the things you want to be remembered for, instead of what someone else thinks. (Mom’s proudest moment of you, might not jive with your own.)

Your obituary should be accurate, lively and memorable. It is, after all, the story of your life.

At a minimum, an obituary serves only as a death notice, containing the barest of facts: your full name and birth date, your age at death, where you lived and your place of death. It may or may not include how you died. It may or may not include information about a service.

A longer obituary (still, really, a death notice) will include service information. It may include the name of your spouse and children, your parents (noting if they predeceased you) and perhaps information about a memorial fund, scholarship or donation to a cause you support.

A true obituary will contain much more, and that’s what we’re striving for here. It will include all of the above information, as well as the details of your schooling; degrees, awards and other recognition; your marriage(s); military service; employment; and life note: stories, satisfactions, hobbies, interests, charity, fraternal/political/other affiliations, positions held, achievements, etc.

Here’s a good obituary template. Note the information included, but re-write it in a style that suits your life.

Tips for Writing Your Obituary:

  1. Make Sure the Document is Accurate – check your dates against official records, if possible. Make certain names (including those of schools attended and home towns) are spelled accurately.
  2. Celebrate the Life, Not the Death – even though an obituary is a death notice, focus on what you accomplished, rather than on how you died.
  3. An Obituary Can Be Humorous – Death is sad, but don’t let grief overshadow life, especially if you’re a funny person. Let us in on the joke.
  4. Show, Don’t Tell – (I’ll bet you weren’t expecting to see this on the list.) Were you a strong supporter of your community? Don’t tell us that. Show us by describing that you knitted hats for preemies for all the local hospitals, picked up trash on Main Street every summer weekend and still coached little league, even though your kids have moved away and have kids of their own.
  5. Avoid cliches and abbreviations.
  6. A Quick Note About Identity Theft – This is less of an issue for the deceased than it is the living, even though it’s possible to be scammed after death. If you’re writing your own obit (or that of someone else who is still alive) don’t publish it on the internet. Maiden names, birth dates, hometowns and team mascots are among the most often chosen for passwords. Be safe.
  7. Here’s Your Prompt: Write your obit. If you’re uncomfortable seeing your own death notice, write the obit of a fictional character, but use your own life’s information. If you still can’t do it, write the obituary of a deceased relative or friend.

Friday, February 18th, 2011

Writing Prompt: Road Trip!

Sandia Park Tramway, New Mexico
Sandia Park Tramway, New Mexico

Some years ago I flew to Denver, Colorado with my soon-to-be Husband of Awesome™ and my in-laws. We were going to hike, see the sights, and take a train ride up to Pike’s Peak.

It was all planned.

The plane landed in cold, rainy fog.

We were up early the next morning, watching the national weather report, and saw this huge storm system stalled over Denver. It could take a week to clear, said the weatherman.

My soon-to-be father-in-law joked, “Well, there’s sunshine in Albuquerque!”

I joked back, “Roadtrip!” only to be met by dead silence, save for the drone of the TV, and then slow-appearing smiles.

We reached for our luggage, checked out, and drove six-and-a-half hours to New Mexico.

I have about a half a million photographs of mountains taken from inside the car on the road between Denver and Albuquerque. (Funny, each appeared different when I took it. Now all these mountain pictures look the same.)

I hiked in the Cibola National Forest in 80-degree weather, then rode the “double reversible jigback aerial tramway” at the top of the Sandia Peak where a squall dumped an inch of snow on us the same day.

And I still managed to do a few things in Colorado, like walk across the Royal Gorge Bridge and dip my feet in the Colorado River.

To this day, it remains one of my most favorite vacations.

Here’s Your Prompt: This prompt can go two ways:

1 – Write about towns and cities you’ve passed through or have stayed less than a week. Or, pick a specific moment from a longer vacation and focus on that. Write about a car trip, a train ride or a flight. (Choose one you really liked, or one that made you so miserable, you’re still angry about it to this day.) Write about a hotel you’ve stayed in or a campground or a motor home. Or, write about a vacation you’ve planned for later.

— or —

2 – Write about making a split-second decision to do something. Were you better off for it, or worse? Why? Are you still affected by the decision now? Or, is it all in the past? What did you think of the decision when you made it? How do you feel about it now, any regrets? Any ‘should have dones’?

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Of Me, Advice for Writers and Pajamas…

I’m flattered that Annette Bowman from the blog The Stars are Not Made of Fire was interested enough to ask me a few questions about me, my writing process, and advice for beginners.

I find Annette to be a fascinating person who likes to live in her pajamas — since they’re the most comfortable clothes in the world. (Of course!) I heartily agree, and if I could, I’d spend my days in pajamas just like Annette. Alas, the working world frowns on this.

PJs not withstanding, Annette’s blog is an interesting read. Visit just for that, even if you’re not interested in hearing me blather on.

On the other hand, if you’d like to read the interview, please visit Annette’s blog for the scoop.

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Having Serious Focus Issues… ?

Not much action on the blog lately. Are you feeling it? My fiction production has taken a downturn, too.

Spring is in the air, and despite the length of my to-do list, (or maybe because of it) I’m having a hard time staying focused.

Anyone else having that problem? I’d rather be hiking than writing these days (hell,  after all the snow we’ve had this season, just sitting in a sunbeam is enough to make me giddy. I have a feeling it’s only going to get worse.)

Knowing I can be such a slacker when the weather gets nice, I’ve put together some strategies to help maintain productivity:

  1. Make a “Must Do” List. I usually keep two running “to do” lists. Today, I have 27 items on my “writing” to do list and 26 on my “other.” I’m going to choose the top five writing items I absolutely have to get done in the next week or so and concentrate on those. I’ll put the list on a sticky note and attach it right to my monitor.
  2. Break Up the Work This probably seems counter-productive, especially if you work full-time as I do: I get little time to write during the week days: not enough to break up. But during the weekend it’s my usual M.O. to spend hours at the keyboard to make up for lost time. If I set finite goals, and a deadline, I might be able to accomplish just as much as if I’d been staring at the monitor all day.
  3. Work on the “Bad Stuff” First. For me, that mean’s tackling the non-fiction items on my list. I’d rather be working on my novel. With that goal in mind, I’m hoping I can whip out the non-fiction faster and move on to fiction.  (I’m fairly confident I can accomplish this since I used to be a reporter…) Afterward, writing fiction should feel like a reward.
  4. And Speaking of Rewards… If I get everything done on my list before the deadline, I plan to reward myself with something.  Something outdoor-sy like a a hike or a long walk or even a long drive…something out. 
  5. How do you stay focused?

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

Publication is Nigh…

I just heard from my editor for “The Complete Guide to Writing Paranormal” and it looks like the ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies) are complete. That means publication isn’t too far off!

The project had been slated for publication last fall, so I’m tickled to see it finally coming together.

Apparently, there was too much information by authors for a single book, so the one volume has been split it into two:

  • The Complete Guide to Writing Paranormal: Spirits, Sprites and Spooks
  • The Complete Guide to Writing Paranormal: Undead, Cursed and Inhuman

I have a chapter in the second volume: Undead, Cursed and Inhuman.  (I have to admit, I like that title much better than Spirits, Sprites and Spooks. I think it sounds “tougher.” I didn’t get a choice, of course, but I’m pleased.) And, judging from the TOC (table of contents), mine’s the last chapter in the book: “Critique Groups: One Spark to Better Writing.”

I’ll post cover art when I receive it.

Saturday, December 26th, 2009


House iwth Too Many Decorations -

I took this photo on Christmas day.

I call it, “Overkill.” At least twenty-four blow-up decorations can be counted from this angle.

I love it, because it shows so much energy and excitement for the season. The exuberance behind it just makes me laugh. At the same time, I realize it’s just too much.

The theory can be applied to writing, especially journalistic writing. (Remember, “Just the facts, ma’am.” ?)

A news story answers only the whos, whats, when’s and wheres. Follow-up news stories might contain the hows. If it’s more in depth, the whys might be explored.

Whatever you do, don’t offer your own opinion or theory (although you might quote someone else’s) and don’t resort to language greater than one-syllable words unless the word you’re using has no alternative.

In other words, use “red” and not “vermillion”. Do use the word cytosol  instead of saying, “that jelly-like substance between cells.”

More on how to write a news story in another post.

There’s plenty of overkill in fiction, too. It’s best to “kill your darlings” if you find yourself writing too much.

Spare, elegant writing is usually better than ornate, dazzling words. When I see writing like that, all I can think is that the writer cared more about showing off his knowledge (“Look at how many big words I  know!”) than about telling a good story.

I find in my own writing it’s the prose that seemed to flow so freely — when it feels like my muse is sitting on my shoulder and whispering the words right into my brain — that I’ve got to review it for probable “overwriting.”

I’m getting good at not allowing it to appear on the page at all, but sometimes it sneaks in. New writers are especially fond of overwriting…especially if they are aspiring literary artists.

Here’s an example. Start with a perfectly good sentence:

Jane walked through the park, pushing the stroller.

But what about the park? We haven’t really described it in any detail…

Jane walked through the 250-acre, half-wooded park, past the duck pond where children and old men alike paused to throw breadcrumbs, where July sunshine beamed down on the water bouncing light around, pushing the stroller.

It’s getting there, (if a bit awkward) but we don’t know anything about the situation from Jane’s point of view, do we? This sentence is about her, after all. Her and the baby, right? Let’s put some emotion into it. And when you’re done, you’ve got a fantastically overwritten  sentence.

Jane happily walked through the 250-acre, half-wooded park, past the duck pond where children and old men alike paused to throw breadcrumbs, where July sunshine beamed down on the water bouncing light around, pushing the stroller containing a smiling, gurgling infant.

There’s a lot of rich detail in the final product, but it’s hard to determine who the sentence is about. Is it about Jane and the baby? Or is it about the old men and children feeding the ducks at the pond? Worse, could it be about the park?

All the extraneous clauses, adverbs and adjectives conceal the point of the original sentence.

Don’t feel like you’ve got to pack every bit of detail into a single sentence. If you want to say more, write another sentence. But beware, sentences in a paragraph can be just as cluttering as words and clauses in a single sentence.

When in doubt, leave it out. 😉