Thursday, November 25, 2010

Patience is a virtue - currently remodeling

Oh my patient Death on Deadline readers - I must tell you this. We are temporarily renovating this site. That's why I haven't had any posts lately. And I should have had something on here sooner. So I do apologize.

No, no, it's not like the Dunkin Donuts down the street, which said it was renovating and then never opened up again. (So annoying). I'm just rethinking the format - you know, what I want this site to include, and what I want it to be.

So if you have any ideas, please let me know. (I always read the comments.)And in the meantime, please feel free to mosey over to my newest site,, where I'm trying to add lots of fun content all the time. (And still welcome advice, since I am a newbie blogger, trying to create things fun to write and interesting to read).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It's NaNoWriMo time - start writing!

This year, I swore I'd do it. And I'm already running behind. But that's okay ... I'm pretty good on deadline.

I'm talking about NaNoWriMo, of course - National Novel Writing Month. It runs from Nov. 1 to Nov. 30, and the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel by the time you're through. The deadline is the impetus here - by writing as much as you can as fast as you can, you don't have time to tweak or second-guess yourself. You don't have time to listen to that little voice in your head that tells you that you can't do it.

You just write. And write and write. Will you write a bunch of crap? Maybe. But you're setting your imagination free. And you'll be creating - instead of just thinking about creating. That's a pretty big accomplishment. Who knows where it could lead?

I have a lot of friends who participate happily every year in NaNoWriMo. They gleefully tell me how horrible their creations are. Until one year ... they weren't that bad. Then last year, well, one was pretty good. And sometimes, a few of those friends can't stop writing once they start.

You can even sign up officially at and get a word count widget, check word counts all over the world, and get motivation from other writers tearing their hair out all in the name of literature on demand.

I think it sounds like pretty crazy fun. So what are we waiting for?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Say it proud, say those words out loud

If you really want to know if you've written something that resonates, try this little test: Read it out loud. Sure, you might feel a little silly, but do it anyway. It works.

We all know that the written word has its own cadence, its own rhythm and flow. But when we're caught up in the moment, in the drama or comedy of storytelling, we sometimes forget. We're so busy thinking about the story, we forget about the sound. And if our words trip up our readers, they'll never make it through the first few paragraphs.

Or we'll sound ridiculous.

Case in point: When I was writing one of the first drafts of Death on Deadline, (I cleaned out the basement recently and only then realized how many times I rewrote the thing), I had put in this scene where two of the main characters were in an area of the newspaper that used to be called the morgue. They were discussing their mean-as-a-snake editor, who'd just been taken from his office on a stretcher. They didn't know that a third character was standing in the dark, listening, until he spoke. They exchanged a few sentences, and then - caught up in the drama - I had the third character say this doozy:

"He's dead," he said instead.

I thought it sounded terse and dramatic - until I read it out loud. Only then did I realize it sounded like a morbid Dr. Seuss couplet. Naturally, I changed it.

Give it a try. You may be surprised what your words sound like coming from your own mouth.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Not everyone will love your writing (it's ok)

There comes a time in writing when you wonder, quite bluntly, if you suck.

Maybe you've received two or three rejection letters. Maybe your editor has done a hatchet job on your piece. Maybe you've just been uninspired lately, and you're contemplating entering the field of retail.

Let me share, then, this story: I entered a short story contest recently. (I'll end the suspense for you now and tell you I didn't win). But part of the entry fee was a critique by two judges. Well, okay, I thought. That sounds pretty good. Usually, I only force relatives to give their opinion, and since they pretty much know I want their opinion to be "I love it!" I figured it might be nice to get an unbiased view.

I sent in 10 pages of a story. I received my critiques.

I was rated on a scale of 1 to 10 - higher being better, naturally. The first judge gave me 5s across the board. I think my highest score was a mere 7, for my spelling and grammar. (On this I had to quibble. I may not be able to write, dear judge, but I am a fine speller).

She had one comment: "Use a different font." I don't think I wowed her.

As a matter of fact, after reading her critique, I double-checked to make sure she read my story. It was good!!! Wasn't it?? Or ... maybe not.

Then I read the second critique. It scored 9s across the board. At the bottom, the second judge had scrawled, "I love this!!! I would buy this!!!"

I love this judge!! Me and this judge should be best friends!!! Now here is someone who understands me.

This story provides a perfect example of why you probably don't suck on those days when you think you do. Writing and publishing is rife with subjectivity. What one person hates another may love. So what's a writer to do?

Just keep writing. You'll find that second judge.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Look to books for some humor therapy

Love may be the universal language, but laughter surely has to come in a close second.

When I'm stressed or feeling blue, I head straight for the bookshelves and a little humor therapy, courtesy of some of my favorite authors. If you haven't tried it, I heartily recommend it. When everything seems to be going wrong, a good belly laugh or even a few stifled giggles can make all the difference.

I started reading Laurie Notaro's I Love Everybody (and Other Atrocious Lies) while I was sitting on a bench at a very hoity-toity dance studio waiting for my daughter to finish her overpriced ballet lessons that she ended up hating. I tried, really tried, to contain myself, but I burst out laughing several times. The other mother's glares told me how inappropriate it was, and I suppose I could have stopped reading, but it was too good and I couldn't help myself.

Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent was another tome that had me giggling through my hand. I felt surprise - and relief - that there was someone else out there who sees all the strangeness in the world and doesn't mind getting a little snarky about it.

There's lots of other, of course - and not just non-fiction. I love it when fiction makes me laugh. Sarah Shankman, who wrote I Still Miss My Man (but my aim is getting better) is hilarious, and I love the Southern Sisters mysteries of the late Anne George.

But surprises - finding someone new and funny (or new to you and funny) - are the best. Consider this: Shirley Jackson, the author of the haunting short story The Lottery and uber-creepy The Haunting of Hill House, wrote a really funny memoir titled Life Among The Savages about her life with her husband, her "twenty children and half a million books." And a friend of mine recently loaned to me a little off-beat book called "Apathy," by Paul Neilan that she insists is "disturbingly funny."

I can't wait to find out.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Smile, lady - you're in chapter three

There's this woman where I work who drives me crazy.

Oh, I don't know her name. I don't even know what department she works in. I just know that I have already cast her as a character in my next book.

Sometimes, I can't help it. I see a person in real life and I know - I just know - that they're a perfect character for one of my stories. One time I was sipping on a mocha in a Barnes & Noble cafe in Springfield, Mo., and I saw America Miles, the protagonist in my novel, Death on Deadline.

Yep, that woman sitting two tables across from me, flipping through a magazine and minding her own business, had come straight from my imagination. She had the hair. She had the bone structure. She even had that little worry line between her eyebrows. I couldn't stop staring. I was mesmerized. She finally looked up and gave me one of those little polite smiles - you know, the kind you give when some weirdo is looking at you - and I had to look away. But it was very exciting.

Not so much with this lady. I see her nearly every time I go to the cafeteria. Our cafeteria is big and it's busy and to my eyes, it looks a bit understaffed. So the men and women serving behind the counters are basically working at full tilt to keep everything running smoothly.

So this lady - whom I have cast as perhaps a pretentious, uncooperative clerk - usually minces in with a self-important swagger and then proceeds to bluster and bitch constantly in line, complaining about anything and everything until the person behind her is about ready to crack.

Unfortunately that person is usually me.

"Geez, these chicken nuggets are taking forever!!" she sighs after two minutes.
"No curly fries today? You'd think there'd be curly fries today," she pouts after three.
"I just don't see what the holdup is in these lines," she whines after four, shifting her considerable weight.
"I'm still here - it's just taking forever!!" she calls to her friend after five.

For the record, her meal is usually ready in about five minutes. Not that I'm counting.

Aaargh. It's so annoying. But I just stand quietly, practicing my calming zen breaths, studying her petulant red face and overly mascaraed eyes so I can describe them perfectly in my next story.

Meanwhile, the poor woman behind the counter is smiling politely, sweating profusely, just busting her butt trying to move everyone's orders through. Maybe I have it all wrong, though. Maybe I should be telling her story - perhaps a tale of revenge against annoying, unappreciative customers.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Psst. Hey, buddy, wanna buy a book?

I thought writing the book would be the hard part. I never even thought about selling it. But that was long ago, before this brave new world that empowered authors to write, edit, publish and sell their own novels.

Don't get me wrong. I think it's great - it feeds my instant gratification gene. Being in newspapers for so long, I'm spoiled. I'm used to seeing my words in print practically the day after I write them. The time-honored tradition of query letters, agent meetings and ego-bruising rejection letters sounded not only frustrating but a little bit terrifying.

Ebooks are a great alternative. It's a simple, cost-effective format for a starving artist. And according to Amazon, sales are brisk - it sells about 180 ebooks a month compared to 100 hardcovers.

Of course, agents and publishers tend to know what they're doing. I'm flying blind. But here's the most challenging thing - I'm not a salesman. Not at all.

Remember that 1980s John Cusack movie, "Say Anything?" Well, there's this part where he's trying to explain to his soon-to-be-girlfriend's dad about his career motivations, and he says:

"I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that."

I feel for him. Because deep down, I just want to write. But I know I have to promote, or I might as well be writing in my diary. So I'm learning. I'm learning to tell people I wrote a book - and even add that they should read it - without blushing or squirming. I'm putting together my own press release. I'm watching. I'm reading. I'm figuring out how to market, to "brand." But it still feels strange.

"You have to make a decision," my husband tells me. "Do you want to be an author or don't you?"

Cough! Look over here! Oh, hi. Have you read Death on Deadline yet? It's on sale at for only $2.99. You should check it out.

Monday, September 20, 2010

I'll take some instant inspiration, please

My daughter and I had just enjoyed a wonderful morning. We went to church, then visited the local farmers' market. On the way home, I came to some construction where the road narrowed down to one lane. I hit my left turn signal, the light turned green, and I pulled forward a little, waiting for the oncoming traffic to pass.

Behind me, a driver hit his horn as though his life depended on it. Long and loud that horn sounded, as the driver angrily waited for me to make my left turn.

My daughter was startled. "What's wrong with him?" she said anxiously.

I bit back the first reply that came to mind, which likely would have been along the lines of, "He's a jackass." Instead I just shrugged. "I guess he's just impatient."

We turned, he zipped forward, and life went on. But I kept thinking about that guy - and others like him - as the day went on. Coincidentally, or maybe not, I heard a lot of horns that day. Maybe I was just around a lot of impatient drivers. Or maybe we've all just lost the virtue of patience.

Oh, not just in driving. That's just part of it. But everything arrives in seconds these days - we expect it. We feel we're entitled to it. I've read several books lately by authors I used to really like, and I was sorely disappointed by their last works. I have to wonder - were they forced to work faster? Did they feel they had to? Did their contract require it? Or did they feel like their readers would forget them if they took too long?

I sat down to write the other night, hoping to put together a short story. I had an idea in my head, a vague outline, but I just couldn't figure out where it would take me. I tapped the keys a few times, created a tentative lead and put together a few paragraphs. But I quickly grew frustrated, impatient with my sluggish pace. I decided to do a few chores and come back later.

A glance at the kitchen clock surprised me. I'd given myself just over a half hour. It felt so much longer. With today's constantly frenetic pace, it's so hard to slow down and give our imaginations a chance. Some days, it's nearly impossible.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Yo, are your slang terms totally tubular?

Let's talk slang. Current slang, old slang and the dreaded middle-aged slang.

I started thinking about slang recently when I found myself wandering the halls of the local middle school last week looking for my daughter who'd forgotten her new schedule. (Quick aside: if you'd ever like to feel about 110 years old, visit a middle school first thing in the morning in sweat pants with no makeup).

Slang is tough. We're talking about terms that are always changing and technically might not exist. If you write it wrong, your piece is automatically dated. It's like writing a character who has a dialect; you can't overdo it, and you have to do it right.

I found a term on just the other day that made me giggle: middle-aged slang. This is a term apparently used by young people when some fossil comes to their school to offer a motivational speech or promote a book, and peppers the talk with out-of-date terms that are supposed to draw in the crowd: ("What's up, Verne? You're looking totally tubular today!") Naturally, it just makes the audience snicker with youthful derision.

It reminded me of a newspaper I worked at years ago that decided to put out a weekly college insert. They titled it "Yo." I wasn't that many years out of college, but even I knew that was a big mistake.

Bad, out-of-date slang can be fatal in writing. When I do use it, I usually check it out with someone surrounded by it every day - like a student or teacher. Then I modify and modernize.

And as my daughter would say, I try not to get all emo about it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

500 words a night - can you do it?

I think I may have finally found a way to kick my ever-present writing procrastination, and it's pretty simple - 500 words a night.

I'd love to take credit for it, but I can't. If it were up to me, I'd be up to my old tricks. I'd sit at the computer, determined to finish my chapter or story or essay. But then I'd answer some e-mail. And log onto Facebook. Then maybe I'd check into Twitter - just for a few minutes, I swear. But of course, by then, I'd be a little tired, or maybe somewhat restless. I could put off writing for another night, right?

Sure. Until those nights turned into weeks, or worse yet, months. Left untreated, procrastination is a nasty little habit.

Luckily, I have a friend in Sara Bennett Wealer. Wealer is a former reporter turned YA author whose first novel, "Rival," published by HarperTeen, is coming out in February and has already been creating quite a buzz. But Wealer's not resting on her laurels. She's already working on another book, writing 500 words a night whether the muse moves her or not. "Finishing a novel," she told me, "is sometimes akin to an endurance sport."

Don't let that pretty face fool you - Wealer is a dynamo. Her path to publishing is detailed on her Web site,, and believe me, that book contract didn't just fall into her lap.

So I figured she knew a little something about perseverance. And after all, how hard could 500 words be? Not hard at all, it turns out. Or really hard. It just depends on the night. But setting that goal, and keeping that goal, seems to make all the difference in the world to me.

Maybe it's all those years of working on deadline.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Bookworms, you are cool (again)

Bookworms, check it out. You are it, my friends.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, (in the Fashion & Style section, no less!), the rising popularity of E-Books is completely changing the way people read.

Not only are more and more people reading this way, but even more folks are watching them read.

See, everyone is so intrigued with the mobile gadgetry used, reading is no longer a solitary sport. When you're using your e-reader (according to those interviewed) people tend to stop by and check it out, ask you questions, see if you like it and enquire what you're reading.

We're talking Kindles, sure - but it's the new and different iPads (also capable of holding E-Books) that are really turning heads.

"Buying literature has become cool again," said Professor Paul Levinson of Fordham University, quoted in the article.

Go figure. I never knew it was uncool. But if that's what it takes to get folks reading, then I'm all for it.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Publishing newbie appreciates the help

I wasn't going to spend the day worrying about writing, blogging and selling my book. I wasn't. I had the day off. It was a beautiful morning. I thought I'd clean the house, watch the end of that romantic comedy I kept missing, and maybe go shoe shopping. I want to check out some of those new winter shoe-boot things, you know?

But then a couple of things happened. First, I checked my e-mail, because no matter what, you have to check your e-mail, right? But before I even got there, I was distracted. I noticed that on Yahoo, one of the trending topics was E-Books.

And since Death on Deadline, the aforementioned tome that I wouldn't be worrying about today, happens to be an E-Book, I felt somewhat obligated just to take a peek.

That's where it all started. You know, one article leads to two, and that leads you to something else interesting, and then before you know it, you're sitting at the computer typing up a blog entry when you really should be shoe shopping. But this time, I think it was worth it.

Because all my E-Book research - more on that later, since I've been told my posts are too long - led me to the blog of author JA Konrath, who, if you don't know, is the author of the best-selling Lt. Jacqueline Daniels "Jack Daniels" thrillers.

Well, he was writing about the rise of E-Books and the uncertainty they were causing in the publishing industry, and he mentioned that he sold 100 books a day on Kindle. I paused when I read that. I thought, "I'd walk across broken glass to sell 100 books a day on Kindle." But my book isn't even on Kindle yet. Oh, it will be - but I'm still figuring out how to put it there. Sure, it's other places -, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc. - but I want it on Kindle. I want it everywhere. But I'm still learning. And it's hard. So when I realized Konrath had a blog called A Newbie's Guide To Publishing, I about jumped for joy. (

I'm sure I'm not the only newbie who feels lost most of the time and has no idea where to turn for help. I can't wait to start reading. Mr. Konrath, thanks for the help.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dark, gloomy weather perfect for writing

It's gray and grim outside, and I'm starting to accept that summer will truly soon be over.

But there is one bright side - I find these gloomy days particularly inspiring when it comes to writing. Somehow, when the sun is shining and the garden is calling and the pool is open ... it seems my motivation falls to the wayside.

Now I know there are some writers - well, I don't know them, but I've heard of them -who are bountiful, bottomless fonts of energy who never run out of ideas or lose their focus. Their ideas flow effortlessly from their fingertips to the page, no matter what's happening in the real world.

Unfortunately, that's not me. I must be far more easily distracted. The cooler, darker weather calms me, helps me focus somehow.

So today, as I ran out to do errands and saw the dark clouds piling up in the distance, I had to smile.

Bring it on. I could feel a few good ideas percolating already.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Judging this book by its cover paid off

So how do you choose what you'll read next? Now, I'm not talking about the sure thing - a favorite author you've been reading for years, or that bestseller you've been waiting for weeks to open. That's too easy.

I'm talking about those days when you're a bit at loose ends, and you find yourself either at the library or the bookstore, trying to decide what next to place on your nightstand. Maybe you've finished all your favorites; maybe you're just in the mood to try something new. How do you decide?

I have to admit - the other day, I most definitely judged a book by its cover. Most of the time, I'm probably like you. I have my favorite authors, my favorite topics, and I tend to get a little set in my ways. But this past weekend, I was trolling the aisles at the local bookstore, and ... I just couldn't decide. I knew I wanted a mystery, but I really wasn't in the mood for anything in particular. But I wasn't not in the mood for anything in particular, if that makes sense.

So I just walked slowly, taking my time, studying all the titles. One book was a little askew, and the sky-blue spine caught my eye. I picked it up. The title was "A Timely Vision," and the authors were Joyce and Jim Lavene. Hmmm. I'd never read anything by them before. But the book cover was so ...beguiling. In the forefront were the reeds of a sandy bluff, and in the background, atop a hill, was a Victorian mansion. In the distance was a deep blue ocean, touching a nearly cloudless sky. And down by the authors' names, in front, nearly buried in the sand, was a woman's diamond watch.

I couldn't stop looking at it. Maybe because it looked so cool and comfortable, and it was a steamy, sticky 89 degrees outside the bookstore doors. Or maybe it's because I've always loved Victorians. Or heck, maybe it was just a pretty watch.

Whatever the reason, I read the first page. Then the second. By the third, I knew I'd buy the book, and by the end of the first chapter I knew I'd be looking to find out a little more about the authors. (You can, too, at

I know, not very scientific, right? But in this case, it paid off. I love finding new authors, and it was a great read. Sometimes, you just have to go by instinct.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Is writer a title we should have to earn?

Are great writers born or made? And is there such a thing as a "true" writer?

I started thinking about these questions recently after I read a heartfelt essay in a literary magazine from a woman bemoaning the fact there were so many so-called writers around today. Just writing, she countered, simply stringing words together, doesn't necessarily make you a writer.

You only deserve the title if you truly understand the craft.

True writers had great passion, she said, a desire that shone through in their work. They loved words; they harnessed the power of language. They couldn't not write. In fact, she went so far to say that true writers (and I'm presuming she was talking about herself in this instance) actually felt pain when they were kept from writing.

I wasn't so sure about that last bit, but the rest of her words gave me pause.

I wonder about the inherent skills needed to become a writer. Do you have to be born with them, or can your desire to succeed overcome any obstacles you might encounter? And at what point can you bestow the title of "writer" upon yourself?

I once worked with a reporter who went through such agony every time he put together a story, I wondered why in the world he did it. Writing was truly work - physically and mentally. He'd squirm and sweat, mutter and swear. Ironically, he was a great reporter and an excellent interviewer. But when it came time to putting those words together and telling a story, he just didn't have that rhythm, that understanding, that lyrical cadence inside to make his stories sing.

He tried, but his end results didn't deliver. The words were there, but not the writing.

But he was a writer, was he not? He had the passion and drive - did his end results matter? Does a lack of skill negate the title? Is writer a title we should have to earn?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The quest of finding childhood favorites

Years ago, I began trying to find my all-time favorite childhood books.

I'm such a hoarder, I'm surprised they ever got away from me in the first place. But somehow, over the years, they did. I guess I just stopped reading them. Maybe they ended up in one of those dreaded basement boxes. Maybe I gave them away. Somehow... they just disappeared.

A few years ago, I decided to find them. There was no real reason for my quest. My kids weren't particularly interested. I just wanted them. For comfort, maybe. Nostalgia, perhaps. Or maybe I just needed a good challenge.

Some of them were easy. Those "Misty of Chincoteague" books by Marguerite Henry? Piece of cake.

"Ghosts Who Went to School," by Judith Spearing? Well, my sister found that for me online. She tried to find a few others, like "The Nine Lives of Opalina," by Peggy Bacon, one of my favorite tales, about a ghost cat, and she succeeded - but it cost $250. "I wouldn't pay that for a real ghost cat," she informed me. "Sorry." So for that, we're still looking.

On other obscure favorites, we were lucky. "Go to the Room of the Eyes," by Betty K. Erwin? That was a toughie. But I found it, just lying on the floor of the bookstore section in my hometown library. I practically jumped up and down. The cashier was hardly as excited as I was - and I was never so happy to fork over 50 cents.

But one of my very favorite books comes with one of my favorite stories. The book is called "Mine for Keeps," by Jean Little, and I loved, loved, loved it when I was growing up. My obsession with it drove my family crazy. It was about a little girl who was handicapped who bravely made her way through a regular school. Something about that book just caught my imagination - I was that little girl. I made up imaginary games about her with me in the starring role. One time, I even took off with my grandmother's crutches for about an hour, completely forgetting she, um, really did need them. Mom lectured me. Grandma forgave me. But I still loved that story.

But the book was out of print - not even the libraries had it.

So when I was a reporter, a few years ago, I was doing a story on the expansion of a homeless shelter. I was waiting for my contact to meet me, and I was just nosing around the shelter's main area, a children's play area and social room. Naturally drawn to the bookshelves, I started reading the titles. And there it was, right in front of me: "Mine for Keeps." Oh, my goodness. What to do?? Offer to buy it?? And take a book from a homeless shelter? Um, no way. So I just stood there, holding it, lost in memories. The director walked up behind me and looked at me questioningly.

"This was my favorite book growing up," I said, my face turning red. I put it back on the shelf.

He took it out and looked at it. "Take it," he said. I stared at him, horrified.

"Um, I really couldn't," I said, and I meant it. He just laughed.

"It's pretty old," he said. "I don't think any of the kids here read it. They prefer 'Clifford' and 'Blues Clues' and 'Pokemon.'"

So we made a deal. I left my beloved book - and bought a few more modern favorites. I came back, and then we traded. Now "Mine for Keeps" is just that.

But I haven't made off with anyone's crutches lately, I swear.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

So, do you write like a famous author?

I couldn't resist. In fact, as soon as I heard about the Web site, I knew I'd have to try it out.

The site is called I Write Like, and it will analyze your writing style to determine (supposedly) which famous author your writing style most resembles. It's only been up a few days, and it already has analyzed 1.5 million pieces of text, so apparently I'm not the only curious one. It's easy. You visit the site, paste in a paragraph or two of your writing, press a button, and ta da! The comparison is made.

But don't take it too seriously. It was developed by Russian software developer Dmitry Chestnykh, who already told news outlets he's not particularly qualified to analyze literature - the site is really just a learning experiment for him.

Maybe that's why when CNN pasted in Kim Kardashian's blog entries, they were said to resemble the writings of James Joyce. Or maybe they do. I don't know; I'm not familiar with the blog, so who am I to judge?

But who cares, right? It still sounded fun. So I went to the site, and cut and pasted a paragraph of text from this blog. I hit the "Analyze" button. Guess who?

Stephenie Meyer. Yep. Of Twilight fame. Now I really need to get around to finishing that book.

Because I'm greedy, I decided to try again. I cut and pasted a paragraph from a news story I'd written years ago about a center that helped children deal with grief. I always liked how that story turned out. I pressed "Analyze."

Chuck Palahniuk - the author of Fight Club.

Wow. Those are pretty different. Really, really different.

All right then. Well, I'm nothing if not flexible.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Would time travel change your career?

I've been thinking a lot about the movie Hot Tub Time Machine. No, I haven't gone over the edge - I haven't even seen the flick, although I hear it's pretty funny. What I've been thinking about, specifically, is the aspect of time travel.

I think the whole thing started earlier this week when my former employee, the Gannett Corp., announced in a fairly bloodless memo that it would be creating regional hubs to take on their papers' design work. It's efficient, they say. It's necessary. And it's going to eliminate about 500 more jobs in an industry - an industry I still think of mine - that's reeling from uncertainty and job loss.

Gannett's been slicing and dicing for years, but I guess this move, more than any other, solidified the notion for me that journalism isn't really my industry anymore. I left. I can't go back. Now, would I ever really want to? I mean, c'mon - low pay, bad hours, crazy editors - it's not exactly a glamour industry. Any overworked reporter or editor will tell you that.

Who knows? But I never felt the door slam so hard in my face as it did this past week. There's no going home again, as they say. And that's where my time travel thoughts wandered in - spurred, of course, by the comedy advertised on cable.

If I could go back in time and talk to my college self (I'm sure I could find her in a campus tavern) and tell her that the industry she'd chosen - one that she would eventually allow to practically define her - would hit such hard times by the time she hit (ahem) nearly middle age, would she listen? Would she care? Would it make a difference?

Would I have given up all that I got out of newspapers if I'd known that one day, just when I was comfortable with all that I knew and learned, I'd have to leave and start over again on another career path? Would it be worth it?

Or would I change course, take another route entirely, save myself some time?

It's hard to say, of course. Revisionist history steps in. Today's work is hard, yesterday's work was fabulous. Then I remember the nutty editors, the newsroom job shuffle, the time I was forced to call a woman who's daughter was just mauled by a bear, for God's sake.

But I'm proud of what I did while I was there. And I'm learning, step by step, the rules of the new career I'm in now. Would I have changed the past if I knew the future? Hard to say. Would you?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Do you have the time to be a writer?

For the longest time, I had a great list of excuses why I didn't have time to write. Well, okay - they weren't really excuses, per se, because they were all true. So I guess you could call them reasons.

I had a full-time job. I just had a baby. I had a toddler. My computer was slow. My computer was broken. I was a volunteer. I had to cook dinner. I was exhausted. I just ...couldn't. Not today.

Whenever I heard about an author doing particularly well, I would immediately read his or her biography. "Well, sure," I'd tell myself. "I could write a masterpiece if I didn't have to (fill in the blank) or if I had a (fill in the blank)."

I would be envious. And unhappy. Because no one's life was as hard as mine. I just couldn't manage to find the time to write. Could I?

Then I realized something. I don't think it came to me with a bolt of lightning or in any impressive Oprah-like 'Ah-ha!' style. But suddenly, it was there.

I could make all the excuses I wanted. I could find every valid reason in the world not to write. They could be true. They could be worthy. But in the end, it didn't matter. Time would pass, and my stories still wouldn't be written. And no one would care but me.

In the end, only I could know whether I had the passion and drive to be a writer.

I decided I did - that maybe my life wasn't the hardest after all. And suddenly, those success stories I found myself reading proved me out.

Stephen King was a schoolteacher when he wrote Christine - he wrote in a tiny closet he revamped into a writing area. Debbie Macomber wrote her first stories on a rented typewriter, dyslexic and the mother of four young children, typing up manuscripts that were rejected for five years. Scott Turow wrote his blockbuster Presumed Innocent on the train on the way to work, in longhand, starting in his daughter's Strawberry Shortcake notebook - the only one he could find.

And way back in the day, Louisa May Alcott knew that if she didn't sell her short stories - never mind Little Women - her family would be destitute. So she wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

Are there tricks and tips that can help you find time to write? Sure. Google the phrase and dozens of articles come up. But deep down, I think it comes down to more than any tip or trick - it's a question: Do you have the time to be a writer?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Introducing the Freelancer from Hell

I've been hearing a lot about freelancing lately - it's getting more and more popular as staffs are cut but copy is still needed. It makes sense. I freelance. You probably freelance, too.

But I hear a lot of authors offer advice to newbie freelancers. Be tenacious, they say. Don't give up. Don't give in.

Solid advice to a point, I believe, but I have to wonder if any of these authors have ever worked the other side of the fence - you know, as editors. I have. And I have a few freelancers who still appear in my nightmares occasionally. I doubt anyone would duplicate their behavior, but I swear I'm not making these stories up.

So let me introduce you to one of my favorite Freelancers From Hell. I'll call her "The Diamond in the Rough."

This freelancer was tenacious. She called me every single day, usually with story ideas that were borderline interesting. She sent in story samples that were not that great, and when I told her, politely, that she didn't really seem to know a lot about journalism and AP style, she informed me she was a "diamond in the rough" and that she was hoping I could help her improve.

Yeah. About that. Not to be mean, but I kind of had my own staffers to worry about. I really didn't have time for stone polishing. But she kept calling. And I gave in. She wrote a few small stories. They weren't that great. But frankly, I needed the copy.

Eventually, I let her do one of her own stories - a simple human interest piece about a woman who had an extensive herb garden.

She turned it in. It was okay. Not great, but okay. The woman had 220 herbs in her garden, according to the story. That seemed like a hell of an herb garden, so I read it back to her.

The garden was amazing, she told me. So we printed the story. Two days later, the herb lady herself called. She had 22 types of herbs in her garden. So I called the freelancer. "How could that happen?" I asked her. "Did you not notice the difference in the size of garden?" She was defensive, and swore that was what the subject told her. But then she hemmed and hawed. "Well, I didn't actually see it," she eventually told me. "I just talked to her by phone. I guess I could have misheard."

So annoying. She hadn't lied to me, per se, but I still felt like I'd been had. That was that, I thought. Bye bye, freelancer.

But she kept calling. She was very sorry, she said. She'd do better. Writing was her life. Would I please give her another chance? Please? Please? She called about art exhibits. About Branson shows. Finally, after weeks of daily torture, I gave in.

I know - stupid, stupid me. Editors today probably know better. But I was a sucker.

One more chance, I told her. That's it. She told me she would be interviewing this Branson entertainer after his show, to do a little human interest piece on him. So when the phone rang soon after, I assumed it would be her. It wasn't. It was the entertainer's assistant. She was very worried. It seems the entertainer didn't have time to talk to my freelancer, and the freelancer lost it. Just lost it.

My freelancer allegedly said that if the entertainer didn't talk to her, then the paper was going to essentially run a hatchet piece on the show. The assistant was very upset. Was this true? It was just that he was very tired - he would be happy to reschedule.

I was speechless. I was horrified. As a matter of fact, I was in disbelief. I had the woman describe my freelancer, to make sure it wasn't somebody pretending to be her. But it was her. So I assured the assistant that no hatchet piece was planned, and that was not the way we did business.

Then I politely called said freelancer and made an appointment for her to come into my office. I put a stickie note on my computer reminding myself not to kill her.

When she came in, I didn't mince words. "I heard you threatened (so and so) in Branson with a negative article if he wouldn't talk to you," I said evenly. "Can you tell me what happened there?"

She burst into tears. "I'm so sorry," she said. Stupidly, I thought the apology was directed at me. But she continued. "I'm so sorry, Jesus," she said, and she dropped to her knees.

Um, what?

Then she looked at me. "I know this isn't the way Jesus wants me to act. I know he's not proud of me now." I didn't know if that was directed to me or not. I really didn't want to be accused of talking for Jesus. I just wanted out of of that office, and out of this freelance relationship pretty much more than anything in the world.

Eventually, I got out. I didn't kill her. I hope I didn't speak for Jesus. I did sever our relationship. And I did have my assistant answer the phone for the next two weeks - you know, just in case.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Snakes, stories and those big bylines

As professional writers, we all know the importance of having a steady flow of killer ideas.

But what, exactly, is a good idea? You know, an idea that will hold an editor's attention, make a reader look twice, keep our bylines out there and our mortgages paid.

To me, it comes down to the grapevine. But wait - I'm getting ahead of myself.

See, when I think of a good story idea - an unlikely good story idea - I tend to think of "Snakes on a Plane." Really. I do. And here's why. When that movie was coming out, I was a features writer at a paper, and it was my job to come up with interesting story ideas each week. Now, I wasn't a film reviewer. And our own reviewer had basically ignored the movie, which was opening that weekend, over other, more highbrow offerings.

But to me, a story idea is simply this - it's what people are talking about. Sure, what you choose depends on the publication you're targeting, but what you're looking for is what people are chatting about or doing.

That will lead you to your stories. You'll find trends. Happenings. Interesting people, places and things that will pique your interest - whether they're fun things like how crowded your local farmer's market is getting, or disturbing things like how dirty and littered your local lakeshore has become.

And that week, I realized that people were talking about snakes. And planes. No, it wasn't the most highbrow movie out there, but it had gained a following long before it hit the screen. I found out there were entire blogs dedicated to the title. Special midnight showings scheduled. And ringtones where you could download Samuel Jackson saying he had "had it with these MF-ing snakes on this MF-ing plane!"

I thought it would would make a great feature - all this hype over a movie title. But the higher-ups at the paper were not convinced. The movie was silly, they said.

Whatever. I'm not particularly wild about snakes or planes, but here's the wonderful thing about ideas. You don't have to think it's a great trend. You just have to recognize it as one. I didn't want to stand in line to see the movie. But I wanted to talk to the people who did.

The editors were finally convinced. So I talked to would-be fans. I talked to a psychologist about why this movie title was so appealing. I talked to a herpetologist, who was dismayed at the hype. The story went over extremely well. Several of my editors were mystified. They shouldn't have been.

Stay interested. Find out what people are talking about. Chances are you'll find your next byline close by.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

That book obsession? It's a good thing

A few years ago, my husband and I were shopping for a new home. We'd visited house after house, and we couldn't figure out why so many of them looked so odd inside to us. Then we realized it - there were no books.

No books. Can you imagine? But it's true. Many of the houses we visited had absolutely no bookshelves. Now, to be fair, they could have packed them away before the house went on the market, or even because the house was on the market, but regardless, a house with no books feels empty and cold.

Not surprisingly, my house is filled with books. Books I've read a dozen times. Books I'm planning on reading. Books I've borrowed from the library and need to hurry and read before I rack up another overdue fine. I apparently suffer from what author Nicholas Basbanes calls in his fascinating tome about book collecting, "A Gentle Madness."

(In fact, he says only somewhat tongue in cheek, obsessive book collecting remains the only hobby to have a disease named after it.)

I'll take it. I love my books. I'll let people borrow them, sure - I want people to borrow them and enjoy them - but I do have a tendency to inquire after them like an over-eager parent: ("Have you started reading it yet?" "I know the first chapter is slow, but it gets better really fast." "Did you like it?" "Did you think the third chapter was funny? Because I thought the third chapter was funny.")

My books are my friends, even though when you pack them up and move, they tend to be heavy, expensive friends. But that's okay. Because I've learned that having those books lying around serves yet another purpose. It's helping my kids - even if they're not reading them. Seriously.

I was reading this great blog written by Jane Heitman Healy called Healy is the Electronic Resources Coordinator for the South Dakota State Library, and an obvious book lover after my own heart. (It's a really interesting blog, by the way; you should check it out).

Anyway, her latest post offers this link to a study done by a professor at the University of Reno, Nevada, that apparently shows parents who have books in the home increase the level of education their children will attain.

Now, I've always known that reading to your children is a wonderful thing, but this study takes a love of literature one step further - it makes my book obsession beneficial.

Now when I spend a bundle at the bookstore and get that dirty look from my husband, I can just gaze at him soulfully and say, "But honey - it's for the children."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Tell me a story in just six words

Can you tell me about your life in six words? How about just a piece of it? I know, even that sounds daunting. But writers everywhere are giving it a try through an addicting storytelling platform known as six-word memoirs.

These six-word stories were actually started years ago by Ernest Hemingway, who created one, allegedly on a bet (For sale: baby shoes, never worn). They were brought back to life in 2006 by online storytelling magazine Smith Magazine, which still welcomes them at its site, (

They were brought to my attention by my former colleague Steve Koehler, who decided to use them on the first night of a writing course he teaches as a way to get to know his students.

I thought that was a great idea. Six-word memoirs, besides being absolutely addicting once you've tried writing them, offer an intriguing snapshot into a person's life - often hilarious, sometimes tragic, occasionally mysterious.

Take these disparate examples that stick in my memory from Smith's current online collection: "No more flushing tampons. Homeowner now." And "I hardly ever lied to you." Or "Screw this novel. Start another one."

Six-word memoirs run the gamut - that's why they're such an excellent writing tool, says Beth Carter, whose six-word memoirs are featured in the newly published book, "It All Changed In An Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs By Writers Famous & Obscure," available through Amazon as well as at Borders and Barnes & Noble for about $10.

I recently asked her about the inspiration and thoughts behind those quick hits she crafts:

"I definitely feel that six-word memoirs help with my writing," she said. "Writers always have to edit excess words from their manuscripts or short stories. With six-word memoirs, you're forced to only use relevant words so I believe I write more concisely in other genres.

"Sometimes I want to convey a powerful message, like my memoir on page 186: "He left. Sparked my personal D-Day." That's a true story about the time my ex left me. He just packed his bags and walked out. I stood there with our toddler daughter watching my world fall apart."

And if you're lacking for ideas, six-word memoirs might provide that tiny jolt of inspiration you need, she adds.

"They're great writers' prompts. I always tell writers to pick up the book, open a page, and write a short story based on one of the six-word memoirs. And it's fun to think of a timely topic, like Father's Day or summer, for example, and come up with creative, brief thoughts."

I've been putting them together in my head during my long commute home, and I have to say she's right. Learn more about Beth at her blog,

Give it a try. You might find you're a master.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Meeting a bookworm is a wonderful thing

After years of working as a reporter, I rarely feel any trepidation about starting conversations with strangers. And when I saw the woman at Borders with a basket of at least 30 paperback books, I had to know more.

So, after a little surreptitious stalking, I threw out an opening line.

"Wow," I said, looking into her basket. "Are those all for you?"

"Yep,"' she said. "I read all the time."


Now I wasn't only curious. I was truly envious - of her reading time and her bold purchases. I would love to buy that many books, but I always seem to find that other items, not-so-fun items, have eaten up much of my book money.

But regardless, I was absolutely delighted at finding another avid reader. And just like most readers I know, the woman was more than happy to tell me about her purchases.

"I just read a bunch, and then my husband has a fit so I give them away," she said, laughing. "And then I come out and buy a bunch more."

We were chatting in the romance section, and I noticed a few Janet Daileys in the basket, so I asked her about her preferences. Just romance?

"Nope," she said. "I read everything." And then she reached in her purse to prove it. She took out a tattered little notebook, and leaned over to show me its contents. Written within were lines and lines, titles after titles, some peppered with notations like "Great!" or "Good ending!" or even "Recommend to (so and so)."

"This is the only way to keep them all straight," she said. "Otherwise, you forget what you've read. And if you're reading a series, you can forget which ones you have and which ones you don't.

I agree - I do the same thing. And I learned it from my mom, who does it as well.

Soon we were kneeling on the floor together, comparing notes on books we'd read, and all too soon, it was time for me to go. Not for the first time, I wished I had business cards, or even "blog cards," so handy to give out when you meet unexpectedly cool people at random. But I didn't. So I left her to her enjoyable task.

"Happy reading," I said to her with a wave. She waved back distractedly.

She already had her nose inside a book.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Daughter's project raises the bar for mom

My daughter, at the tender age of 11, has just written a book and had it published. It's very good. She's had some practice - it's her second one.

Okay, these aren't the types of books you'll see in Borders or Barnes & Noble, true - they're classroom projects. But they're pretty cool, nonetheless. And the end result is a real book, with their name on the cover listed as author.

For the project, the students write a story (or short stories) and draw illustrations, improving their vocabulary, polishing their writing skills, and learning about the publishing process along the way.

Then the teachers send the finished projects off to a company called Nationwide Learning, Inc., in Topeka, Kansas. What comes back is a very professional-looking hard-bound book.

I think it's a great idea; I love it. It raises the kids' self-esteem, spurs their creativity, and keeps them interested in books. Yes, you are kind of expected to buy one in the end - although you don't have to - but I think it's well worth it.

Of course, it raises the bar for mom. My daughter wonders why it's taking me so long to write my second book, and why she can't hold my first book like I can hold hers. (Death on Deadline is an e-book, for now). And I do have to endure ribbing from other family members who make "funny" comments like, "Better hurry up! Looks like there's another author in the family taking over!"

But when it's bedtime, and my daughter picks up her book and says, "Will you read this one to me?" with a big, excited grin, I have to laugh. And the first thing I read, of course, is the dedication - to me, her dad and her brother:

"They fill my life with stories. Now I fill theirs!"

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

'Personalitrees' book lets nature shine

To be honest, I’ve kind of taken trees for granted. I like them, sure. I appreciate them, of course. I notice when they’re not there, and I very much enjoy them when they are. But that’s really about as far as I’ve taken it. Now, after hearing about an intriguing new book by Iowa resident Joan Klostermann-Ketels, I feel quite unimaginative.

Klostermann-Ketels, a poet, musician and corporate exec to boot, has recently authored a book titled PersonaliTrees, and I think it’s just fascinating. It’s a photo album, really, of … trees. But it’s more than that. It’s an exercise in creativity, a thoughtful appreciation of nature and, well ― I’ll let her tell you, by quoting from her Web site:

“I have dedicated myself to photographing trees in the winter, early spring and late fall—after most have lost their leaves. At those times, they are exposed and vulnerable and yet willing to show us their innermost spirits. Trees are perhaps the most honest expressions of life on earth. In their bare bones, messages of great angst and extreme pain are expressed with the greatest dignity. Their sense of humor is always present. They love life and accept every stage and condition of their experience. They love to tell stories.

"Trees bear an uncanny resemblance to human forms. Eyes, noses and mouths laugh out loud with surprise, delight and sometimes even horror. Appendages reach to the sky, frozen in a fit of life that would be as animated as any cartoon if only we could perceive time in the same way they do. Instead, we can only stand and imagine the forces that created the shapes we see in the snapshot of the moment. It is up to us to slow ourselves to a tempo that allows us to interpret their messages.”

In her photos, trees offer their versions of human emotions. She gives them names and personal characteristics, and when you put name and photo together, it's worthy of a double-take. I was a doubter, but really, you should check it out - the site offers plenty of sample pictures.

Now I find myself walking down my block, studying many of the trees as I pass by. It really is a way to stretch those creative muscles ― and appreciate nature along the way. You may never look at a tree the same way again.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Nobody's perfect, not even in fiction

Usually, you can tell early on how you feel about the main characters in a book you're reading. You know if you identify with them, if you like them, if you want them to succeed.

But you may not know - not at first, at least - if they'll stick with you. You know the ones I mean; the ones you can't get out of your head. You think about them after the book has ended; you're eager to read about them again. Or maybe years later, you still remember their names - and why you liked them so much.

What is it, then, that makes a fictional character memorable?

When I was first created America Miles, my main character in Death on Deadline, I went in a few different directions. I knew she was a journalist, sure, and on that point I never wavered. But somehow, in the first draft, I realized I had created an uber-journalist. She never made a wrong move, or asked the wrong question, or said the wrong thing. But something was wrong. She just didn't seem ...real. So I started over. I recreated her. Several times.

Eventually, I realized my mistake - my fictional creation didn't have any non-fictional flaws. After all, nobody's perfect. Few pretend to be. And for me, it's those human elements, those foibles, that make a character resonate.

Think Jo in Little Women, or maybe Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. They're outspoken, forthright. But not perfect. They made mistakes, just like you and me. So we root for them. Feel for them. Even cringe for them. And we think more about them.

Or for a more modern take, consider Sookie Stackhouse, the popular telepathic barmaid of Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire (True Blood) series. Is she memorable? Most definitely. Perfect? Hardly. She talks when it would be better to stay quiet, goes when it's better to stay, and tends to fall for the wrong (undead) men. And like her or not, you still think about her long after you've finished the last page.

It's so tempting, (for me, at least), to bequeath onto our protagonists those better, stronger, faster traits we wish we possessed. But our flaws, our quirks, are what make us interesting, make us who we are.

A few years ago, the USA Network adopted the slogan, "Characters Welcome." Writers more than anyone know exactly what it means.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Could a writer be too organized?

The comment took me by surprise.

I was at a meeting of my writers' group, and we were discussing ways that writers put together stories. There are some writers who simply begin with a nugget of an idea, and then go for broke - typing furiously as the ideas come, and then clearing a path of logic later. And there are others who know exactly how their story will start, have a pretty good idea of how it will end, and then spontaneously develop the path of action somewhere in the middle.

Then there are writers like me.

"I like to pretty much have stories plotted out in my head before I write," I told the group. A woman looked back at me and shook her head.

"You're too organized," she said. "You're not letting yourself be creative."

And then she turned, and started a conversation with someone else.

Apparently, she was unaware of the bombshell she had just dropped. I was too what? That was impossible. First of all, I barely made it out of my house fully dressed each morning. Secondly, how in the world could a writer be too organized? That was just crazy talk. Wasn't it?

Although there were plenty of other conversations that night, I thought about that comment long after the meeting ended. I was surprised. Annoyed. I even argued my points later to my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Then I realized something. If I was this defensive, there was probably a reason why.

Maybe she was right. Maybe all those years of journalism, of not starting a story before all the facts were gathered, before all the sources were interviewed, were working against me now. I did find it hard to begin new fiction projects - I was overwhelmed until I had every plot point worked out just so. It was exhausting. And maybe,just maybe, it was stifling my creativity.

But to sit down and just write, without having a solid direction plotted and planned? That's completely out of character for me. Frankly, it's a daunting thought.

Then again, to try something new and different - even scary? Maybe that's where true creativity is born.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bookstores provide the perfect de-stressor

I had one of those weeks. You know the ones - where the work piles up with the stress and the days stretch on and even when you're finished and everything's okay, you still can't calm down.

By Friday afternoon, my stomach was knotted like a necklace at the bottom of an old jewelry box. I could feel myself growing snappish. So my daughter and I took off to the one place where I knew I could relax - the bookstore.

I love bookstores - any bookstores. It doesn't matter if they're filled with dusty, used tomes housed in hundred-year-old buildings, or if they're bright, shiny titles in chains with coffee shops in the back. There's something about being around books that changes me; it's like I'm meeting a room full of friends. I actually think I get friendlier.

Sure, I love online bookstores and I admire the accessibility of e-books - of course I do. I consistently and persistently hawk my own offering (see blatant plug for Death on Deadline at top of page) on But sometimes, I need that tangibility of seeing print on pages. Maybe it's all those years working at newspapers.

So this weekend, off we went. While my daughter made a beeline for manga (which, I'll admit, I'm still trying to embrace) I trolled the aisles, seeing what my friends were up to.

I explored. I found out that John Grisham has a detective book for kids, which looks pretty interesting. And I read a few pages from the new book "Sh*t my Dad Says," by Justin Halpern, which, if you follow Twitter, you'll know is one of the funniest accounts ever, and if you don't, then Google it and you'll see why it's now a book.

Then, I found it. A new fiction offering by Laurie Notaro. My stress disappeared like it had never arrived, and I could feel my excitement mounting. Notaro is one of my favorite writers(she usually writes hilarious, biographical non-fiction), and I couldn't believe I'd missed the arrival of one of her books.

It's called "Spooky Little Girl," and I snatched it up like one of the grabby ladies you see fighting over the last designer bra at a New York fashion sale. I was so excited; it was like an old pal had arrived in town unexpectedly and now we had the weekend together to catch up.

I started it last night. I didn't mean to - I was in the middle of another book I need to finish. But I couldn't help it. And just as I expected, it's really good.

Oh, and that stress ... what was that even about? I can barely remember.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Little mistakes can make a big impact

I was reading a book recently, a non-fiction offering, and it was pretty compelling. I was a few chapters in when I came to this sentence:

"I left the house, children in toe."

I read it twice. What? Oh ... I see. Toe. Tow. Okay, okay, somebody screwed up. But boy, that's a pretty bad one. And I have to admit, I started reading a little closer. And then I read this:

"He was to close to the picture."

What? Oh, I get it. Too. To. Ugh. I was becoming an editor, not a reader, and I didn't want to be. But little mistakes in the copy were ruining the story for me. And after I found a few more, I have to admit, I flipped to the back to find out the background of the author. I was frustrated and becoming a little judgmental. But why, I wondered, didn't anyone check this? What happened here?

Because these little mistakes? They add up, they really do. People notice. It's distracting, and it ruins the flow of the story. That's why editing is so essential, and why guessing just doesn't work. Don't assume an editor will find your mistakes. Find them yourself. Better yet, try not to make them at all. It sounds simplistic, I know, but it's something writers, caught up in the excitement of the storyline, easily can forget. So it's worth a reminder.

If you're iffy on the difference between its and it's, look it up. If you don't remember why and when you use an apostrophe, it's worth the extra time to read the rules. I know, I know, writing is about ideas, it's about creativity, but if your reader is slowed down by bad grammar, those ideas will never get through.

I always think about this one episode of Family Guy, when Peter was opening up his own bar and grill. He couldn't decide where to put the "e" on the sign. First he wrote "Ye Olde Pub." He looked, pondered, and changed it. "Ye Old Pube." Then he changed it back. And then... well, you can guess how it ended up. Yes, I know, a little tacky - but it makes its point.

Little mistakes can make a big difference.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Poetry that converted a 'non-poetry' type

There are poems that you find, and then there are poems that find you.

Recently, a poet has been popping up in my life. A friend sent me a quote from her; then not one but two of my favorite blogs quoted her the next week. While different poems were quoted, they were all from the same author. With all the poets in the world, this seemed quite coincidental.

And the oddest thing of all was the fact that I - not a poetry person in the slightest - really, really liked what I was reading. The poet? Mary Oliver. Have you heard of her? I highly recommend giving her a read. She writes about the beauty of nature and the strength of faith, and her poems have haunting, introspective lines, like this one, from "Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches":

"Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?"

And as an animal lover, I found this one particularly struck a chord:

Making the House Ready for the Lord

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice — it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances — but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.

Now I think I know why so many people love poems - certain words, certain ways, have the power to stir your soul. And sometimes nothing does that more succinctly than poetry.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sometimes it's best to simply walk away

You've finished it - that essay, the story, the article. You've worked on it forever, you've sweat blood and tears, and you're finally ready to turn it in. Wait - do one last thing.

Walk away.

Seriously. If you can, if you're not on deadline, save your file and take a walk. Get away for a few minutes, for a few hours, even, if you can swing it. You might be surprised at what you find when you return.

There's this great quote by artist Paul Gauguin: "I close my eyes in order to see." Now, Gauguin was actually speaking about painting, of course, but I think his words can apply to writing, as well.

When we're so close to something, we lose perspective. We know what we want to say, but are we really making our meaning clear to the reader? And when we're self-editing, over and over again, are we finding those little mistakes? We can't be sure. So walk away. Take a break. Clear your head.

And then come back. Read. Maybe your words will be perfect, and you can feel proud and relieved you took the time to make that one last safety check. But maybe you'll find some things you never expected - garbled sentences, repeated words, dropped punctuation. Maybe you're conveying something you didn't mean to; maybe your point isn't getting across as strongly as it should.

Time is one of our most valuable commodities - if you have it, by all means, use it. Close your eyes, open them, and really see.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Looking for that great idea? Just relax

I haven't been blogging lately, so I apologize. But see, I've been thinking. I've been trying to come up with a great idea. And as we all know, nothing is as stifling as having to have a great idea.

See, I decided to enter a literary contest - something I've never done before. You know the ones, where you enter a short story by a certain date. Well, the date was looming. And tumbleweeds have been blowing through my brain.

Nothing. I was in an idea dead zone.

It was so strange. Usually, I consider myself an idea person. I don't freak on deadlines, I'm pretty good with word association, and if someone is stuck for a new plot line or twist, I can usually offer a cogent thought or two.

But this time, I think I just tried too hard. Coming up with a great story idea can sometimes be like trying to fall asleep - you just have to let it happen. If you think about it, concentrate on it, wonder and worry about it, you'll be left lying in bed with your eyes wide open, trying to figure out what went wrong.

And that's where I was in my story idea process. So I stopped. I just stopped trying so hard. If I didn't have an idea, if I couldn't enter this contest, would it really be the end of the world? It wouldn't, of course. I started to relax.

And sure enough, just before the weekend, the clouds literally parted while I was stuck in traffic. I looked up, toward the sun, and something clicked. Finally. An idea. Not a complete one, not a perfect one, but a pretty good one. I worked it out in my head all the way home, thinking of the logistics. And it just might work.

Sometimes, the best things happen when we simply let them.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Imagination on vacation? Try these tips

So you've finally carved out some writing time for yourself, locked the door, placed your hands on the keyboard and ... nothing. Your imagination is on vacation, and you simply can't get inspired.

I think we've all been there, in that temporary rut that zaps our creativity and leaves us in a funk.

Here are a few time-honored methods to get yourself back on track.

1. Clean up your workspace. Even if you work on a tiny desk in the corner of the room, clearing out the clutter surrounding you can make an amazing difference. A clean, inviting writing area can be surprisingly inspiring.

2. Change your writing environment. Yes, most of us write on computers. But we don't have to. Take your notebook out hiking with you on the weekend and jot down a few ideas - you might be surprised at what you come up with. No hiking trails in sight? Go people-watching at the mall, or just take your laptop to the back deck. Sometimes, simply changing your point of view is all it takes to get that idea factory back in peak form.

3. Be a kid again. Pick up a one of those childhood favorites that made you fall in love with reading and writing in the first place. I have a battered old book titled Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield (first copyright 1917), that I absolutely love. It's the story of this little city girl who goes to live on a farm, and every time I read a few pages it lifts my mood. You probably have your own favorites. Ride with Black Beauty, fly with Harry Potter - curl up on the couch and indulge.

4. Enjoy another form of art. Yes, we love writing, but it isn't the only art form to enjoy. Watch someone make pottery, visit an art museum, see a play, learn to sew, listen to music. With all that creative energy flowing around you, surely some will rub off!

5. Buy fresh flowers. Yes, it seems simple, but I recently read a summary of a university study that showed fresh flowers in a room actually increased productivity. Now, in feng shui, purple is a color of creativity and prosperity - so find a few violet blooms, and you'll surely be set for success!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Does a main character have to be likable?

A friend shared with me recently her manuscript, and while I liked her story, I didn't find her main character particularly endearing. This bothered her - more than it bothered me.

What is likable, after all? Yes, I know that one of the first tenets a writer is taught in creative writing class is that the protagonist should be likable - lovable, even. But I think that's easier said than done. We're an extremely diverse society now, filled with a wide variety of lifestyles, opinions and social mores. While I might admire a heroine who is sweet and good and docile, you could find her an intolerable doormat.

My point? Likability is subjective. However, character development is not. And that, I think, is the key. No one's perfect - we shouldn't expect our characters to be. But if they're learning, changing and growing as the story progresses, readers can't help but relate. Will they be perfect - or at least more likable - in the end? That's for you to decide.

Prolific author M.C. Beaton has a series featuring a character named Agatha Raisin. Agatha is self-centered, short-tempered and somewhat foul-mouthed. I find her hilarious and quite likable, despite her flaws - Beaton gives you such insight into why she is the way she is that in my opinion, you can't help but relate. And she does learn from her missteps - kind of. She is clever, smart enough to solve a few murder mysteries. you find in the next novel, she can't stop bragging about it. And that makes me like her even more.

Consider Jennifer Weiner's best-seller, In Her Shoes. The younger sister, Maggie, is incredibly unlikable at the beginning of the novel. Not only does she seduce her sister's boyfriend, but she's selfish, manipulative and none too honest, to boot. But by the end of the novel, you're rooting for her to succeed. Why? Because she's grown, and we've been let in on the process.

Not every women in a damsel in distress; not every hero is a knight in shining armor. Some of my favorite people are quirky. And so are some of my most-loved characters.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

An evening with author Scott Turow

Those of you who admire the writing of Scott Turow might be surprised to know that some of those key scenes in his blockbuster novel Presumed Innocent were actually scribbled in a notebook with Strawberry Shortcake on the cover.

It's true. It wasn't his, of course - as he ran for his commuter train into Chicago each morning, he would grab whatever notebook was handy, and sometimes it happened to be one that belonged to his daughter. But still, not what you'd expect, is it?

But Turow is full of surprises. I discovered that when I won tickets to his appearance in Michigan, one sponsored by the Canton Public Library. I jumped at the chance to go, of course, even though I'd be sitting alone - always kind of a weird feeling. However, at literary events, I've found, it doesn't matter. Everyone is so excited to be there, so jazzed to hear the speaker, you could pretty much show up naked with your hair on fire and few would notice.

Turow didn't bring any props, any backdrops, any sound clips. He just stood behind a podium, refreshingly low-key. He was funny, self-deprecating. He talked about his past, how he went from wanting to become a novelist to falling in love with the law to later blending the two. He became fascinated at the stories that unfolded in courtrooms,he said, at the motivation for crime and the faces of evil.

He talked about his 1987 breakout hit, Presumed Innocent, a legal thriller, later a movie starring Harrison Ford, that many say defined the legal genre. He talked about how he'd write it in bits and pieces, in 20-minute bursts of inspiration as he commuted to his job as an attorney in Chicago. He says the fame it brought him changed his life. It was a writer's dream, he admits openly, and says it was probably due more to luck than skill.

Since then, however, he's kept the best-sellers coming, from The Burden of Proof to Pleading Guilty to Ordinary Heroes. In May, Innocent, a long-awaited sequel to Presumed Innocent, will be released.

The thread that tied all his topics together? His passion. It was obvious all through his speech. "I'm blessed," he said. "I have such a full life - I get out of bed in the morning and I can't wait to get started on what's going on that day. I have a very blessed life, and I know it."

What he might not know is how devoted his fans are - at least in Michigan. When he finished speaking - and then read from his new book - the women in the rows behind me were absolutely giddy.

They whispered together like middle school co-conspirators. "I'm going to write him a letter," said one.

"Well, I just can't wait til May," said the other. "We'll stand in line - just like the kids did for Harry Potter."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Learning to paint a picture with words

We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words. But when we're writing, we have a challenge. That picture? It's just in our heads.

So how do we make sure the image in our head is translated to our readers? Sometimes, it's not easy. Usually, when we develop our main characters, we know how they look. We know how they talk, how they move, what motivates them.

Sometimes, we know them so well we forget that that the reader doesn't know them at all.

I remember once having a friend read an early draft of Death on Deadline. He smiled at me when he was done with the first few pages. "Cool," he said. "I like how you've made it sound so sharp, so 1940s."

Great. Except the novel was set in modern day. What happened? Had I watched "My Girl Friday" too many times? Had I used too much old-time slang? Apparently, my protagonist, who was supposed to be matter-of-fact and funny, was just coming across as dated. What I saw in my imagination was not coming through in my words. So it was back to the drawing board, so to speak.

But with the help of a few wise editors and a lot of benevolent writer friends, I've learned a few tricks to help translate those images in your head to the page:

1. Think in pictures. When you're starting a scene or a chapter, imagine you have five or six photos in front of you, showing what will happen in those pages. What do you see? That's what you need your reader to see. When you can see the scene clearly in your head, it's easier for you to translate it to the blank page.

2. Don't assume. Sometimes, we've been working on a book or a chapter or a project so long, we get to know our characters like friends. (I know, it sounds weird. But if you write fiction, you know what I'm talking about). So when we're halfway through, we start forgetting to tell the reader important tidbits they really need to know. Like Joe can read the map because he was a Boy Scout. Or Vivian knew the tea was poisoned was because she always drank that type of tea for breakfast. Don't forget to add those little character details. You know them. We don't.

3. Be specific. Not only will it make for more interesting reading, but it draws a better picture for the reader. Does your character love the beautiful flowers in the garden? Or is she entranced by the vivid painted daisies, the delicate snapdragons and the bold peonies?

Have a good time with your writing. And let the reader in on the fun.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Live in the moment; write the same way

Live in the moment - how many times have you heard that phrase? A lot, I'd wager. And it makes sense. Why waste time dwelling on the past or anticipating the future when you have the present right here, right now, right in front of you?

The phrase pertains to writing as well, and it took me quite awhile to learn that. I'm an overthinker - maybe some of you are, too. You can't just write a story or a chapter or a freelance piece. You anticipate who's reading it, and when. You think about who it might offend, or who it might please. You think about where it will go after you write it, and what will happen to it then.

In small doses, those thoughts are great. It's important to know your audience, and to anticipate their likes and dislikes. And you certainly aren't going to be a successful freelancer if you're a writer who is consistently offensive. That just makes sense. But too much? That's just paralyzing.

In Anne Lamott's witty, wonderful book, Bird by Bird, she tells about trying to describe to a class of novice writers the process of writing - about the sometimes miraculous process of writing - about how a blank page becomes a line and a line becomes a paragraph and a paragraph becomes dialogue in a story that actually starts to flow. And how before you know it, the page is filled, and you've done it - you've written something.

And then, she says, her students will raise their hands and ask, "How do you get an agent?" Because they're not concerned about the process. They're interested in the profits. They're not in the present; they're way in the future.

When I was writing "Death on Deadline," I created a character named Wayne Grubbs, and I made him up simply for comic relief. I knew I wanted him to be a bane for my protagonist. I wanted him to be an awful journalist. I wanted him to be stupid, but not so dumb he was a caricature. I liked what he added to the tale. But then, I lost my focus. I stopped thinking of the story. I kept rewriting him over and over - afraid of who he would offend, afraid his remarks might rub someone the wrong way.

I wasn't writing in the moment. I had became a marketer, not an author. And it wasn't good. Because it wasn't the right time.

Pretty soon he wasn't even funny. I took him out. And then I missed him. So one night, I put him back in, and just wrote what I felt. I created him the way I thought a major corporation would - as a semi-trained "para" journalist that they wouldn't have to pay as much. I made him funny - well, my version of funny, at least. And then I left him alone. I think we were both happier.

We live our lives a moment at a time. Let's write the same way.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Writers should take those creative risks

It seems like at every job, there's that one task that's been done forever - and it's pointless. But if you question it, you get the inevitable response: "It's always been done that way." And it always will be.

Unfortunately, a lot of us can fall into the same trap with our writing. We always write in the first person. Or we always write mysteries. Or we always write poetry. And we always will. We fall into a rut. We become afraid to take chances, when in fact, as writers and artists, taking chances may be exactly what we need to expand our boundaries.

Years ago, I studied feng shui in a year-long affiliate course with Katherine Metz, who runs a practice called The Art of Placement. The course was wonderful, and at the end of the year, Katherine offered a workshop and get-together for all her affiliates in Redstone, Colorado, a remote little mountain town.

I excitedly signed up, expecting a few hands-on courses on feng shui. I got that and much, much more. In fact, Katherine had invited a whole collection of experts in different fields, all designed to help us get in touch with different parts of our artistic selves.

I fell in love with the beautiful mountain town. Katherine and the other guests were incredibly friendly and welcoming. But I took one look at the agenda and froze. There was a workshop that involved singing. Another, poetry. And for someone who still thought of herself as a reporter - a writer, sure, but one more comfortable interviewing others - it all seemed waaay too touchy-feely and introspective. I was somewhat frantic. I also was miles away from civilization, in a remote mountain town. I was trapped.

So I sang. And when the first note came out of my mouth, the instructor stopped me. "Dear," she said. "I can't hear you ... somehow, you've hit a note I can't hear."

Ahh, the fear note. So I sang another, one she could hear. And another. And I sang a song.

Then, in another workshop, I created poetry - that we then shared with the entire group. I remember at the beginning, I was so incredibly uncomfortable, standing there, with my horrible, crappy, poem, I nearly wept. But I was never so proud as when I finished my reading. And the group clapped.

By the last day, I was elated. I felt like I could do anything - write anything. And that, I think is the point of creative risk taking. Try something new. Learn something different. Empower yourself, and you might just be surprised where it leads.

And you don't even have to go to the mountains to try it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Finding a writing group that works

If you would have asked me a few years ago about my thoughts on writing groups, I likely would have just shuddered.

See, I tried a group once, awhile back, and didn't have the best of experiences, to say the least. I remember arriving, somewhat nervous and unsure of myself, only to have one of the members glare at me suspiciously and then announce to the others she thought I might be there to steal her erotic vampire poetry. (I wasn't, for the record).

Later, I tentatively read aloud from my then-fledgling newsroom mystery Death on Deadline manuscript as other writers sat in a circle around me, only to be interrupted by a young man with a very harsh voice. "Have you ever even worked in a newsroom?" He sounded so hostile, so Sopranos-like hostile, that I stopped, agog, in mid-sentence. "Yes," I said, somewhat confused. "I'm a reporter."

Still glaring, he sat back in his chair, arms crossed, just staring at me. But at least he was quiet. I decided then, in the back of my mind, that he either wanted to steal my purse or there was a hit out on me and I just didn't know it. I kept reading and nervously tripped over a word. Several people laughed.

"Mean," I thought to myself.

Later, in my car, after I stopped sweating, I decided for absolute sure that I just wasn't a writing group person. It's taken me quite a while to even consider changing my mind.

But writing can be a lonely profession. Sometimes it's nice to just bounce a sentence off someone, to question an idea, to realize that somewhere, somebody else in the world is trying to string together all these lines and squiggles and make sense of them, too.

So after I moved, after I hemmed and hawed for nearly a year, I visited another writers group. And guess what? I don't have a single horror story to tell you. Everyone has been good-natured and helpful. People are laid-back. Everyone is working on a different type of project - some fiction, some non-fiction. There's no reading circle. You can share a few pages, listen, or just ask for writing advice.

And I'm reminded why a good writing group can work.

Enthusiasm is contagious. I love to watch writers talk about their work, see their eyes light up as they explain their characters, their ideas, their plans for future chapters. It makes me happy being around writers who want to improve, who like give-and-take, who are brimming with imagination.

For me, being around other writers is like watching creativity become tangible.

If you're looking for a group, look for those kinds of people - people who inspire you, who make you feel like you can't wait to get started on your next piece. Look for people who make you laugh - or at least make you forget a little of the stress you came in with.

(For the record, if you're in my area, this latest group I've been referring to - the good one - is the Metro Detroit Creative Writers Group. I'm really enjoying it, and it's open to everyone. For more info, shoot an email to Keith at

Groups are personal; you'll know who you connect with and who you don't. But I think the right one can help you move forward, to lift creativity to new levels. And "group" can be a misnomer - even exchanging ideas with another writer over a cup of coffee can get you through a rough patch.

As for me, I think I'm becoming a little more open-minded. Of course, if someone ever starts accusing me of coveting their erotic vampire poetry, I'm gone.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spelling matters - even on license plates

I couldn't figure out why the driver in front of me was being so obnoxious.

My commute to work isn't terrible stressful. I'm going from the suburbs into the city, yes, but the route I take isn't terribly difficult, and unless there's construction, it isn't awfully complex. I usually spend my time just listening to the radio, planning my day, or even creating blog posts or working on writing projects in my head.

Yet the driver in front of me was acting like this was the Indy 500. She was driving too fast. She was moving from lane to lane, cutting off other drivers, tailgating and basically acting like a total jerk. As I pulled up next to her at a light, I could see she was talking on her cell phone and digging through her purse. As the light changed, it looked like she was putting on lipstick.

Normally, I would have just rolled my eyes and chalked up her erratic driving to multi-tasking. But I could tell by a few flashing brake lights around me that she was making some other drivers nervous, and being around nervous drivers tends to make my heart race.

So yes,I was more annoyed than I should have been. Maybe that's why I felt that teensy bit of mean-spirited smugness when I noticed her license plate.

It read: "Fiesty."

Oh, dear. It seems there are some exceptions to the old "i before e except after c" rule, after all. Never trust those old mnemonic devices completely, especially when you're under the stress of trying to be creative at the DMV.

I could be wrong, but I'm betting it was supposed to read "Feisty."

Spelling matters - even on license plates. Otherwise, it can so ruin your image.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Suffering from 'Shakespeare Syndrome?'

You're going to write, but first you want to take that storytelling course, right?

And you have an idea for a book, but right now, work is a little hectic, and you don't really know what you're doing anyway ... there's that great new how-to book out you want to read; then you'll definitely dive in.

Excuses, excuses - we all have them. And lots of us may be suffering from what author Marshall Cook calls "The Shakespeare Syndrome."

Not familiar? I wasn't either. But in his book, "Freeing Your Creativity," Cook explains: "The shadow of the Bard of Avon (or some other much-admired writer) may be shielding you from the light of your creative sun. 'I'll never write that well,' you lament. 'So why should I write at all?'"

Cook goes on to say - and I have to say I agree - that's an awfully harsh way to judge yourself. Every story, every vision, every viewpoint is original and worth being heard. Give yourself a chance. You don't have to knock it out of the park on your first try. But don't let fear stop you from trying before you even start.

Don't get me wrong. Writing courses can be wonderful. Books are terrific. But why wait? Write right now. If you learn something new, edit it in later.

My own personal "Shakespeare Syndrome" doesn't stop me from writing. It can however, discourage me from continuing. If I have a bad day, write an awkward graph or struggle with a chapter that just won't flow, I am, I admit, sometimes ready to throw in the towel. No, I won't give up writing, but I'll end up with a drawer full of unfinished projects - and that's not exactly the result I'm aiming for.

So I'll stop, take a walk, maybe read something inspirational, and then come back to the keyboard.

And I remember, then, the words of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "Ambition should be made of sterner stuff."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Never, never, never give up

It was one of those days. It was one of those days where I had overslept and the cat had thrown up and the very first thing I did was step in it. That set the tone for the day.

A boss was cranky and the computer crashed and I forgot to put my yogurt in the refrigerator so it went sour. Little things. Stupid things. But things that all together, by the end of the day, had managed to obliterate any and all sense of inspiration and creativity.

So by the time I sat down at my keyboard that night, after making lunches and loading laundry and singing lullabies and packing milk money and making sure that everyone and everything was as it should be, I was done. Finished. Sure, there were a few ideas I wanted to put together, but the well was dry.

I typed a paragraph. It was awful. I typed another. It was worse. "Why do I even put myself through this?" I thought to myself. My finger hovered over the delete key, and I contemplated simply going to bed.

Then I saw it. A slip of paper, black paper, sticking out from under the mouse pad. I pulled it out. It wasn't paper; it was a card. I'd received it weeks ago from a friend and put it on my desk. It must have fallen over, unnoticed.

I read it, and for the first time that day, I laughed. It read:

"Never, never, never give up."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Using weather as a storytelling tool

Today, I look outside, and it's grim and gray, rainy and cold.

But I don't mind. First of all, it isn't snowing, and in Michigan in March, that's something to celebrate. And secondly, just feeling that icy drizzle on my face made me start thinking how important a writing tool the weather can be in narrative storytelling.

It seems so simple, such a basic thing, right? Sun, rain, wind, snow. But weather is so evocative, so emotional. Weather makes our characters feel, makes them react. Sure, it can be overdone - we don't need the Channel 4 weather report in the middle of Chapter 3 (unless it's a book about hurricanes, of course), but a few sentences about a driving rain, a blinding snow or the insufferable heat can add an undeniable heft to what was once a bare-bones paragraph.

Not only can it provide a perfect sense of place for the reader,(think sultry mornings in the South) but it doesn't even necessarily have to be literal. It can offer plot foreshadowings - like danger on the horizon - or a quick insight into a character's mood. Woven skillfully into your storyline, it can add mystery, intrigue even tension. It can change the mood of the story as quickly as the weather changes here in Michigan.

For your reading pleasure, a few of my favorites:

"It was a dark and stormy night."

"The little log house was almost buried in snow. Great drifts were banked against the walls, and in the morning when Pa opened the door, there was a wall of snow as high as Laura's head ... The days were clear and bright. Snow was piled all along the bare, dark branches and it sparkled in the sunshine. Icicles hung from the great eaves of the house to the snowbanks, great icicles as large at the top as Laura's arm. They were like glass and full of sharp lights."

Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder

"Too wet to go out
Too cold to play ball
So we sat in the house
We did nothing at all."

Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss

"The sky ahead of me, as I walked home that evening, was a thing of sublime and awesome beauty. The sun was still high - it was the middle of summer - and the weather had for weeks been alternating between hot, dense, muggy days and twilight cloudbursts. Mountainous thunderheads towered all around me, some miraculously white, where the sunlight struck them, some - the lower clouds - glowering, oppressive. The sky in the glodes between masses of cloud was irenic blue, and down through some of them came shafts of light that transmuted the ripening wheatfields, the pastures, the plane trees, hedges and haycocks to images from a dream. Here and there on the horizon, sheet lightning flickered."
The Warden, John Gardner (from "The Literary Ghost" anthology)

"It is absolutely freezing outside today, and I feel so lethargic. I walked around the driveway, took one look at my icy, miserable nonblooming garden, and got depressed. All the summer blooms are gone. Everything is losing its color and its leaves. Winter is almost here, and it's getting on my nerves. Work is slow, the garden looks like hell, and it's almost time for the holidays. Where can I run and hide?"
Annie's Garden Journal, Annie Spiegelman

"The windows and front doors were thrown open to a fickle breeze, the creaking ceiling fan circled at full throttle. Here and there, an occasional pew bulletin lifted on a draft of moving air and went sailing. Peering loftward through a glass pane in the sacristy door, he couldn't help but notice the soprano had returned to the fold and was cooling herself with a battery-operated fan. He also saw that every pew in St. John's was filled to bursting. Air conditioning! he thought, running his finger around his collar. Next year's budget, and no two ways about it."
A New Song, Jan Karon