Sunday, February 28, 2010

You don't need a Kindle to read an Ebook

So you can't afford one of those fancy, portable Ebook reading devices? Don't worry. You can still get in on the Ebook craze.

Ebooks are cheap (sometimes free), they're portable (you can put them onto a USB stick and carry them on your keychain), and all you need to read them is your computer. You can download them into the format of your choice.

Many people (me, too) believed for a long time that Ebooks could only be downloaded onto a Kindle or a Reader or a Nook or any of those devices. And I'm not knocking those - I think they're great. But they're also pricey, at least right now. In fact, at this point, I think I could either afford the device or the books, and I'm choosing the books.

The truth is when you buy an Ebook on a site like, you can choose your format. Smashwords, for instance, will even guide you if you're not sure what you're looking for. If you just want to download a PDF file, save it to your desktop and read it off your computer - or print it off chapter by chapter and take it work - no problem. There's even a version for those little Palm devices that so many of us are addicted to. And on most sites, you only have to buy once. So if you do opt for a Kindle mid-chapter, you can download another format for free.

Give it a try. There are lots of digital bookstores out there; you might find a new, affordable addiction. Now, ahem, at Smashwords, I've heard good things about that Death on Deadline book for a mere $4.99, but there are actually thousands of titles to choose from. More are added every day.

Happy Reading!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

So print is dead? I beg to differ

It was snowing. Big, fat, white flakes were falling hard and fast.

It was early, too, and I was driving carefully, on the lookout for those errant icy patches that can send your car into a tailspin before you know it. But so far, so good - although the snow was relentless, it didn't really seem to be sticking.

That's why the erratic behavior of the driver in front of me was so puzzling. He was in a late-model Saturn, and was weaving, just now and then, from side to side. If it hadn't been early morning, I would have thought I was behind a driver who was just a wee bit tipsy.

He'd straddle the left lane just a little bit, then over correct himself, then drive normally for a few blocks. Going over a bridge, he made a scary trip to the right side, way too close to the edge, spitting dirty snow and ice onto the cars and trucks traveling the freeway below.

I couldn't imagine he was hitting icy patches. If so, he was having quite a spell of bad luck. Because I hadn't hit any at all. I kept watching him - at a safe distance behind. And he kept up his strange little pattern.

Then it came time for me to make a right turn, while he continued on straight ahead. I pulled up alongside him at the light, and ventured a look inside his car. Instantly, I discovered the cause of his imbalance.

He was reading. Yep, reading. Not text messages, not a map, but a real book. Well, it looked like a book, at least - although I couldn't see the title from my viewpoint. As I stared through my driver's window, my mouth quite literally agog, he looked over at me. His expression was hard to decipher. He didn't look embarrassed or chagrined. No, it was actually more like the look a deep-in-thought library patron gives you when you accidentally bump the table. Distracted, maybe, or perhaps a little puzzled.

I hope my thoughts were written all over my face. I hope he could see that while I was incredibly happy he loved to read, I was extremely unhappy and surprised he had chosen this time to do so. And I hoped, above all, that he would close his book and focus on getting to his destination without hurting himself or anyone else.

But I had to smile the rest of the way to work. So they say print is dead, huh? I beg to differ.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

'This is a pen!'

Sitting in the darkened movie theater, I felt goosebumps travel down my arms as I watched the movie trailer.

On the screen, a teacher turns to his frightened student, placing a tool in his hands. "Take this to defend yourself," he tells him. "It's a powerful weapon. Use it only in times of great distress."

The teen looks down at the gift, disbelief written all over his face "This is a pen!" he says, somewhat frantically. "This is a pen!"

It is, of course, the preview for "Percy Jones and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief," and I won't be giving anything away if I tell you that the pen, in this case, is more than a pen - it's a magic sword.

But I thought it clever nonetheless. Any writer worth his ink knows pens don't need to turn into swords. Their power is within. Of course, a pen wouldn't protect Percy against Medusa in this mythological adventure, but who knows, maybe it was a few jagged barbs from one's ink that made her that mean and unforgiving in the first place. (Okay, okay, that and the fact she was changed into a hideous creature with writhing snakes for hair.)

Regardless, the power of words is breathtaking. Everyone has words that have changed their life - from "I love you" to "Go away,' to "Never again." Words can transform, lift, wound and cut. Most of us learned long ago to wield our pens wisely.

I can't wait to see the Percy Jackson movie this weekend, get lost in his adventure and take it all with a sense of good fun. And I hope more than one person smiles, at least on the inside, when Percy realizes just how powerful a pen can be.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Good advice never hurts

Sometimes I write a little. Sometimes I write a lot. And other times, I'm ashamed to say, I just don't write at all. Oh, I think about it. I reprimand and reproach myself. But even while the creativity simmers, that spark just doesn't fan into a flame of productivity.

I become frustrated with myself. And it's at that time I look for a little motivation and advice from writers far more successful than I:

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two thing above all others: Read a lot, and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut." - Stephen King

"Writer's block is a lot like a head cold. You feel all stuffed up. Nobody seems to be able to help you. And you'll probably get well pretty soon all by yourself." - Marshall Cook

"Remember to get the weather in your god damned book. Weather is very important."
- Ernest Hemingway.

"When you write, don't say, 'I'm going to write a poem.' That attitude will freeze you right away. Sit down with the least expectation of yourself. Say, "I am free to write the worst junk in the world."If every time you sat down, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. And that expectation would keep you from writing." - Natalie Goldberg

"Look for clutter in your work. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Re-examine each sentence that you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious? Are you hanging onto something useless just because you think it's beautiful? Simplify, simplify." William Zinsser

"Faire et se taire." (Shut up and get on with it.) - Flaubert

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Capturing emotion through words

"Show, don't tell." That's the advice all writers get, isn't it? Whether you're writing fiction or non-fiction, the best stories come from description borne of narrative. But finding the right words to illustrate emotion can be tough, I know.

There are some interviews, though, that make it easy.

In early December, 2001, I was doing a series on local folks who had volunteered with the Red Cross in New York City, going where they were needed, doing what they were asked, assisting with the aftermath of Sept. 11. Thinking back, it was a confusing, depressing time. But these volunteers were amazing. They were sincere. They were dedicated. And most of them had done simple, administrative work. But not the last woman I interviewed.

She didn't want to talk to me at first. She almost canceled, she told me. Nothing personal - she was just nervous.

She had been assigned to the Fresh Kills landfill, where they were taking the tons of scrap metal from the Twin Towers. Day after day, she told me, the barges would come in, loaded down with twisted, gnarled steel. She didn't know what was on the metal, or under it, and she didn't want to look.

"The smell," she told me, grasping my wrist, "was indescribable."

She had short red hair, and her eyes were bloodshot. Sometimes when she was talking, her hands shook, and when I looked down at them, I saw the nails had been chewed down past the quick - bitten so low they bled. When she saw me looking, she curled her fingertips under.

While she was on assignment, she said, she made coffee for exhausted workers. She fed their dogs. She washed their clothes and made their lunches. She wanted to cry nearly every day she was there, she said, thinking about those endless piles of smoking metal. But she didn't, she said. She didn't think she should. But when she got home, she said, she almost couldn't stop.

She ran her hand through her hair over and over again throughout the interview, and she burst into tears twice. At the end, she thanked me for listening.

"She's having a hard time," the Red Cross facilitator told me after she left. She didn't need to tell me. I'd already been shown.

Nearly two weeks later, the volunteer showed up at my newsroom with an envelope she'd made for me - for my little daughter, actually. She'd put it together herself. It was a letter from Santa, along with some reindeer "food" and some fake snow - in case we didn't get any that year, she said, and she smiled.

"It made me feel good to be able to do something for someone," she told me. "Even something small." I looked down at her hands as she handed me the envelope. Her fingertips were just starting to heal.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Death on Deadline - excerpt

"...I wandered over to my computer desk. On top of it sat an old, portable manual typewriter – a relic that belonged to my dad, a leftover from his early days as a writer. I never used it, of course; I couldn't imagine pounding those heavy keys every day, but there was something about it I really liked. It was inspiring. It reminded me of my journalistic roots. I ran my hands over the smooth keys and thought of the hands that had painstakingly typed out words, letters and stories before me. These days, I’d take all the inspiration I could get.

To the side of the computer desk, in the kitchen, is the back wall of the apartment, with three parallel windows. In the daytime, they flood the place with natural light and now, at night, the lights in the surrounding homes twinkle, reminding me I’m not alone. It’s a good feeling.

Because, even though I rarely admit it, living alone can be a little daunting. Oh, it’s not the X, it’s not anybody. It’s just good to know sometimes that others are around. That’s why I like Yowza – it’s nice to have another heartbeat in the house.

I stretched. Good night. After a quick brush and a floss that would leave my dentist frowning, I slid under the covers and let my head fall against the pillow. I almost reached for a book on the nightstand, but I knew I’d never make it through the prologue.

I ran through tomorrow’s agenda in my head; it seemed like it would be pretty quiet. That was the last thing I thought before I dozed off.

I couldn't have been more wrong...."

From Death on Deadline, Chapter One. Available at

Monday, February 15, 2010

Don't bet it all on SpellCheck

It seems so easy. You simply press a button, and - ta da!! - those spelling woes are over. But don't do it. Please. Don't trust SpellCheck. SpellCheck is like that bad boy (or girl) your parents always warned you about - it's impossible to stay away completely, but it's better for you if you try.

SpellCheck is, of course, that online dictionary that so many of us know and love. And I have no problem using it as a backup - I use it myself. It's a great tool when you know what you're looking for. And when you're typing fast or on deadline, it's wonderful to be able to double-check yourself.

But writers need to know how to spell; it's just that simple. And if we don't, we need to have a real dictionary by our side. I know some people find grammar boring and tedious and confusing, but it's all part of the game. We can't expect someone else to catch our errors - especially not overworked editors. That's just playing with fire. These words that we work so hard to find and develop and massage - they have our names above them. We want to be proud of them.

SpellCheck doesn't understand homonyms like their and there, or two, to and too. SpellCheck won't save us from the embarrassment of using it's and its incorrectly.

And sometimes (gasp!) SpellCheck works against us. SpellCheck offers suggestions, ones that can make "Obama" Osama, or change a "public" servant to someone far more risque. SpellCheck relies on us. We can't rely on SpellCheck. One wrong click, and ...

True horror story: At a tiny paper where I used to work, a reporter was chatting to her friend while she used SpellCheck on her story about a local bank robbery trial. This was awhile ago, so I'm sure the version she was using was extremely primitive. Regardless, her helpful SpellCheck suggested she change "testimony" to "testicle" throughout the copy. Engrossed in her phone conversation, she made the fateful wrong click. A very confused copy editor caught the errors and sent it back to her. The reporter was horrified and very angry - until she figured out what had happened, she assumed she was the victim of a mean-spirited prank.

And I'm betting she never offered SpellCheck the same level of trust again.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Read a little, write a lot

There are hundreds of books out there that are designed to hone your skills as a writer. I know this because I think I own half of them. Some of them are wonderful. Others, not so much.

The best ones are the ones that are motivating, that really infuse in you the desire to devour the information in the pages and then create your own magic. Others are ponderous; the authors get caught up in their own hype, promoting their own offerings until you decide, reluctantly, that it just might be time for a nap.

A few of my favorites: "Writing Down the Bones," by the extremely motivational Natalie Goldberg; "On Writing," by Stephen King, (No, he's not scary - he's actually quite funny); "Bird by Bird," by Anne Lamott, which speaks more to the whole philosophy of writing; and "The Artist's Way," by Julia Cameron, a classic for would-be writers that is really a workbook. It forces you, with daily writing exercises, to get off your butt and get creative.

Oh, and about that - a little cautionary tale. I love to read. Almost too much, if there is such a thing. So, for a while, I pretty much collected writing books. And while I became quite schooled in all the nuances and motivations of other writers, I wasn't really getting anything done. I was employing a very specialized type of writer's procrastination, I guess. I highly recommend not falling into that trap.

Read a little, write a lot.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Just write something - anything!

We all have great story ideas, words we want to get from our heads to our hands to the screens in front of us. But too many times, they never make it.

"I'm just not a writer," we say, shaking our heads. Or, "I wouldn't know how to begin." Sometimes, we get so close - we actually sit down, pencil and notebook in hand or laptop at the ready, and we ... stop. Those ideas? They stay just that - ideas. And regretfully, they never go any further.

I want to share with you what a clever editor once told me. She said, "Write something. Anything. Even if it's bad. Because if it's not down on paper, you can't fix it."

Her words have helped me dozens of times. I have written absolutely cringe-worthy leads. I've started stories with cliches. I've rifled through my notes, hemmed and hawed, and finally just picked a place to start. But once I had something down on paper, I could start editing. I could fix things. I could change a verb, add an adjective, take out some silly melodrama. I could write.

Not everybody is a terrific writer, not right off the bat. But we all have great ideas. And you get better at writing by reading great writing, and then creating some of your own. Don't let your great ideas go to waste. Put them down on paper - and then worry about the tough stuff.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Writing for your health

I write because I like to, because it's fun for me. But did you know that it's good for you? Seriously. Turns out that journaling, or writing down your thoughts and feelings, actually has a multitude of health benefits.

Writing about the stresses of your day, the problems in your life, and figuring it all out on on paper is supposed to not only increase your cognitive function but strengthen your immune system and help you handle stress better. The only caveat is that you can't just write and write about how awful your life is and end it there - not that you would. Jeez, how depressing. You need to come up with a plan to make it better, or at least work through your feelings.

And for heaven's sake, please don't decide to write an angry letter to your boss or your mother-in-law, have a few drinks, and then mail it in a flurry of drunken rightousness. (Although, note to self: That could be a funny short story . . .)

I have a friend - and I swear this is a true story - who used to deal with her anger and stress by going out for a drive. Can you imagine?? In the ranking of bad choices, how high is that??? After a few near-misses on the highway, I think she began to realize the error of her ways. Journaling is at least a healthy, safe outlet for our feelings.

So will you be instantly happier once you start journaling? Maybe. Maybe not. But hey, I say it's like chicken soup when you have a cold: It can't hurt.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Poetry for winter weather

Sometimes you have the perfect words to describe what you're seeing and feeling. And sometimes somebody else does.

This poem by Ogden Nash perfectly describes the beauty and exhilaration of today's snowstorm in my adopted state of Michigan:

Winter Morning

Winter is the king of showmen
Turning tree stumps into snowmen
And houses into birthday cakes
And sprinkling sugar over lakes
Smooth and clean and frosty white
The world looks good enough to bite
That's the season to be young
Catching snowflakes on your tongue

Monday, February 8, 2010

Quirky Moments Provide Story Ideas

Whenever I talk about writing, the question I get the most often is this: "Where do you find your story ideas?" And luckily, the answer is fairly easy. From freelance to fiction, ideas are borne of those quirky little moments that make up a life.

For instance, where I work, there's a little man who always faces me when we ride the elevator together. That's all. He just faces me. But think about it - that's not elevator protocol. Elevator protocol dictates you face front, looking at the numbers. But no, this little guy looks toward the back, at me, with a big smile on his face, making the trip a surreal, somewhat hilarious three- to five-minute ride. There's a story in there somewhere - probably more than one.

And sometimes, on the way to work, I'll take a circuitious route that takes me past this little take-out chicken place. In the morning, early, I'll see their mascot, this giant chicken (naturally) walking back and forth on the sidwalk, flapping his wings, looking bored to tears and like he's yearning for a smoke. When I drive by and stop at the light, he waves to me, somewhat frantically, it seems. I've taken to waving tentatively back. I have to wonder what that job is like - along with all the other dress-up jobs we see, like the Statue of Liberty who'll do your taxes or the iconic Chuck E. Cheese.

If we pay attention to life's quirky moments, our writing notebooks will never be empty.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Writing from the heart

Valentine's Day is right around the corner, and with it comes the classic quandary: Finding that perfect gift. This year, why not try something new? Instead of - or better yet, along with - the classic chocolates and flowers, why not try writing down what's in your heart?

It doesn't have to be perfect. In fact, it's sometimes even more powerful if it's flawed. Keep it simple - maybe it's a short story, a remembrance of your first date. Or maybe it's a poem. Give it a try. I'm hardly a poet. I'm not schooled in classic poetry, I confess I like things that rhyme, and getting all mushy kind of makes me uncomfortable. But when my husband and I were dating, I presented him with a poem as a Valentine's Day present. It was silly, really - more of an ode to how much he did for me, how he was always there when I needed him, and how much I loved him for it.

It had four stanzas. It rhymed. It was, in retrospect, classically bad poetry. I didn't care. It was for his eyes only. And when he read it, it was the first time I saw his eyes fill up with tears. It was only then, I think, that I realized just how powerful writing from the heart can be. Today, 17 years later, that poem is framed and still up on his dresser. It still makes me smile every time I pass by.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Judging a book by its cover

A little while ago, in the grocery store, I got in line behind an elderly man. He was kind of sweet looking, with oversized glasses and a careworn face. "Oh, a grandfather," I thought to myself, smiling slightly at him. Then grandpa let 'er rip.
"Young people have just gone to hell these days," he told the stoic-faced clerk. "I can't go anywhere without getting angry."
He continued in that vein for a good five minutes. He hated this thing, this other thing was terrible, and he couldn't believe how awful everything else was. At first I was surprised. Then I felt sorry for him. Finally, I really just wanted him to shut the hell up.
Compare that story to this one: A few nights after that, coming home from work, I was stopping off at Arby's. (Ok, yes, you caught me. I eat at Arby's. I know - I feel bad about it because I like cows. But those junior sandwiches are so dang tasty!) Anyway, the parking lot was very dark, and there weren't many cars. As I was pulling in, a car sped in behind me and pulled up a few spaces away. Two guys got out - big guys. They had a little bit of a swagger to their walk, and while I'm no wimp, I thought, "Why ask for trouble?" and hesitated a second, pretending to goof around with my car door so they could walk ahead and go in first. It was freezing out, (of course - it is Michigan, after all) and as I moved closer to the entrance, one of the big guys turned around. Even though I still had quite a bit of distance to cover, he waited - holding the door open for me and letting me go in ahead of him. "Thank you!" I said, honestly surprised and pleased.
He just smiled. "You're welcome," he said.
Yep, you guessed it. In both cases, I'd labeled these two books by their covers. And I realized later that not only was I doing it in life, I was doing it in literature, too.
I've been in a rut - reading the same type of fiction over and over, simply because I'd told myself at some point in time I didn't read "that type of book."
Romances? Ugh. No way. Non-fiction. Booooring. I just read mysteries, thank you very much. By my favorite authors. I knew their style, and I liked it. I just, um, hoped they could write fast enough, because I really like to read.
So I decided it was time to branch out. I chose a paranormal romance by Heather Graham called "Ghostwalk." It was great. Then I found out she's a prolific author who has written literally dozens more books. Non-fiction? I played it safe with the well-known "Julie and Julia" by Julie Powell. Excellent - and far funnier than I thought it would be. It actually made me want to read Julia Child's memoir. Emboldened by experience, I even decided to try a "dog book," long against my principles because something bad ALWAYS happens to the dog and leaves me horribly depressed. But I picked up a copy of Jon Katz' "Dog Days" and God bless him, right there, after the dedication, he stuck in a page saying, in part: "To my readers: No dogs die in this book." Love that!!
I'm embarrassed it's taken me this long to branch out. Oh, I still love mysteries - heck, I just WROTE one. But there are shelves and shelves of great reading material got there - it would be a shame to judge all those titles before I even read the first page.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Paralyzed by Word Perfection?

I'm not a perfectionist. I don't need things "just so." As a matter of fact, most of the time, I'm exceedingly laid back. Except when it comes to writing. There's something about finding the right word, that elusive adjective, the perfect verb, that can simply paralyze my fingers on the keyboard.
If you're a writer, you probably know the drill. It happens so suddenly, you hardly realize it. You're in a zone, typing out a scene or a quote or a sentence and suddenly - blank. You know there's a perfect word for what you're trying to describe, but you ... just ...can't... find And you stop. You think. You wait. You try to remember, and it's so close - but it's just out of your grasp. And then before you know it, your creative streak has ended. You're stuck. Over one stupid word.
That used to bother me, this obsession with word perfection. Then I met an editor who sliced and diced the English language as dramatically as those tableside chefs at Japanese restauants prepare your meal. Yes, come to think of it, she was the Benihana's of editors. It was amazing and terrifying to behold.
For instance, if she didn't know what word to use, one of her favorite tricks was to simply put an "ical" on the end of it. Like, "That description is too graphical," or "The photo isn't dramatical enough." She wasn't stupid - in fact, she had a master's degree. But she just didn't care. She wasn't a word perfectionist. And listening to her cringe-worthy sentences made me feel a little happier that I was.
So now, I try not to let my obsession paralyze me. If I'm writing a story and I can't think of the right word, I just put in whatever word I can think of - kind of like a placeholder. I mark it, highlight it, and come back - with a thesaurus and more patience. It's a pain in the butt. It slows me down. But as any word lover will tell you - it's worth it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Armadillo shortages and cold weather

So I had someone ask me today, "When are you going to start writing another book?" Ouch, baby!! Classic foul - like asking the mother of a newborn when she's going to get pregnant again. But I knew her intentions were good, and because of this, I resisted taking off my shoe and beating her with it.
But writers write. That's what they do. And I love writing. I even love the basics - choosing just the right word, putting the sentences together, working hard to make the language flow. So I do need to choose another project. I know that. But I want to choose just the right one.
When I was a newspaper reporter, it was so easy. Life was right there. There's a reason all those cop shows say their storylines are "ripped from the headlines." It's because they're really good headlines. (Thank you, copy editors). When I worked at a little paper in Logansport, Ind., the reporters would schlep in about 7:30 a.m. (I'd always be late, naturally), find a story, report it and have it written by 11:30 a.m. - noon if the copy desk was feeling generous. That was the deal - come in, find one, write one, and if you're lucky, use the afternoon to get a jumpstart on the next one. At the time, I thought it was just horribly unfair - my muse did not care for the operating schedule.
But truthfully, it was great training. After that gig, I rarely had trouble coming up with ideas. Of course, now and then, the head honcho would throw a crimp in your plans. You'd be all set to head out on a great story, and he (or she) would come over and lean in on your desk, saying conspiratorially, "You know, I haven't seen as many armadillos around this year. Don't you think that's odd?" Um, okay. You'd know what was coming, and soon the headline over your byline would boast the winning tale of "Armadillo shortages on tap this season?"
Or around, say, the end of September, you'd get another visit from above, when you learned that "It sure is cold outside. I wonder how cold it will get this winter?" And soon, under your byline would be the scintillating tale of "Cold weather on tap this winter?" You get the idea.
But those were exceptions. Usually, there were a multitude of interesting things to write about. So fiction, I'd think, would be even easier. Heck, it's pretend!! I don't even have to get the quotes right. But for some reason - maybe because I'm new - I'm very tentative about starting over, choosing the right storyline, making sure it fits. Or maybe, I think if I choose the wrong one, the editors will come back. With more story ideas.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

And we're up! (So do I want you to look?)

So it took awhile, but Death on Deadline is finally a reality. It's up on, with thousands of other self-published offerings. Of course, the cover isn't quite finished yet, so it looks a little naked, but it's up there. I'm delighted. And petrified.
My friend and business partner, the irreplaceble Traci Bauer, handled the uploading, the formatting, and all the tough stuff - all I had to do was check out the completed product. But truthfully, it took me a little while to screw up the courage to even take a look.
See, that book has been mine for so long, it's taking a little adjustment knowing that everybody and their brother can read it. I think most writers feel that way when they first share their work. Oh, it's not that I'm shy - far from it. Heck, I'm the one who gave out far too much information about every trip to the OB/GYN when I was pregnant. But a story - or any kind of writing - becomes part of you. Sharing can be tough. In fact, I told my friend today that publishng that book was actually like having a baby - I was so worried about the birth, I had no idea what to do with it once it arrived. So I'll just figure it out, step by step. And it won' throw up all over me, or keep me up nights, so that's a plus.