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

Thursday, March 11, 2010

So what's on your nightstand?

Show me an eager writer, and I'll show you an avid reader.

And chances are, I'll also show you a nightstand stacked high with titles just too interesting to put away. In fact, if your nightstand area looks anything like mine, you probably hope you don't have to make too many late-night bathroom trips, because it's a dangerously cluttered trail.

I wish I could tell you that the area around my bed is rife with the classics; everything from Homer's Odyssey to Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift.

Um, no. I'm hardly that scholarly. In fact, confession time: I had to read Gulliver's Travels in high school and I found it so boring, I nearly cried. Now, before you condemn me for my lowbrow appraisal, let me just say that since then, at the urging of my far more literary sister, I have read more Swift, specifically his satirical essay, "A Modest Proposal," in which he suggests eating children as a way to eliminate them from becoming an economic burden.

Okay, that was pretty funny. Though it was obviously satire, it apparently shocked all his compatriots and almost made me forgive him for the whole Gulliver debacle.

So no, my literary mix usually doesn't include the classics. But to make up for it, I do try to be eclectic. And I am most definitely prolific. I keep a little bit of everything going so when I do sit down to write, I'm inspired by all types of genres, voices and views.

Here's a sampling of what pages I've been turning before I click off the lights. How about you?

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. I'm a little behind the times on this one; it got a lot of hype awhile ago after Kingsolver wrote about how she and her family decided to go rural for a whole year. They'd either raise it, grow it, buy it locally, or do without. I just started it, and so far, it's a pretty entertaining read.

Fifty Acres and a Poodle (A story of Love, Livestock and Finding Myself on a Farm) by Jeanne Marie Laskas. What can I say? I must be having some rural fantasy life going - which is ironic because even my mother would tell you I can barely keep a single plant alive. But Laskas has been a columnist for the Washington Post Magazine, she's a great writer, and when I saw this, I just couldn't resist. Maybe this will be the spring my garden will actually grow.

Dare to Die by Carolyn Hart. You knew there'd be a murder mystery in there somewhere, right? Hart is a superb storyteller, and I actually thought I'd read all the offerings in her Death on Demand series. But this is a new one, and I know it will be great.

Lust, Loathing and a Little Lip Gloss by Kyra Davis. Yes, it's chick lit. But I'm a chick, so that's okay. And Davis is a fun writer - I've read a few other books of hers, starting with Sex, Murder and a Double Latte, and it was was a fast-paced, good read.

Haunted by Heather Graham. Heather, where have you been all my life? You've been in the romance section, that's where, and I never go there. But Graham's paranormal mystery/romances are like literary popcorn; I read them one after another, and they never disappoint. And lucky for me, she is an extremely prolific writer. (She's not the actress, by the way - it's a different Heather, surprise, surprise). I love her. I envy her. I can't wait to start reading this one - right now.

Can't choose? Blinded by choices? Let me help!! After all, I don't call this blog Death on Deadline for nothing. (

Monday, March 8, 2010

Remember: A rejection isn't a death knell

I have a very close relative who is a wonderful writer. She's written a book - no, she's poured her heart and soul into writing a book. And it's good. I've read it.

Yesterday, it was rejected by a publisher. Again. We all know how that feels. Well, maybe not all of us, but a lot of us. It's frustrating, maddening. We feel helpless, useless, like Sisyphus charged with our own personal, impossible task.

We know the publishing industry is in chaos. We know there's a glut of writers out there. But reading that rejection letter, none of it matters. It still hurts like hell.

Yes, I know, we're writers, and writers need to have thick skins. We need to square our shoulders and toss our heads and know we're better than all that. We need to remember there's a lot of dreck out there, and publishers have to wade through it every day. We know it's a tough industry, and we chose it.

But some days, it's hard not to take it personally. Sooooo . .. .

There is a book by Andre Bernard titled Rotten Rejections: A Literary Companion . I found a few excerpts on a variety of places on the Web, including a nifty little Web site,, which offers a lot more than solace.

But still, a little bit never hurts. This book shows that publishers aren't always right. They've made a few mistakes, passed on some pretty big hits. And they haven't always been terribly polite about it.

So here are a few favorites for those of us - including my relative - who may still be licking our wounds. Remember, a rejection isn't a death knell. It isn't a fact. It's one person's opinion.

Someday, she'll be famous. And then they'll be sorry:

Jack Kerouac: "His frenetic and scrambled prose perfectly expresses the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don't think so."

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame: "An irresponsible holiday story."

Lord of the Flies by William Golding: "An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull."

Watership Down by Richard Adams: "Older children wouldn't like it because its language is too difficult."

The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman: "If you insist on rewriting this, get rid of all that Indian stuff."

Animal Farm by George Orwell: "It's impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A."

The Diary of Anne Frank: "The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the 'curiosity' level."

Carrie by Stephen King: "We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell."

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: "I haven’t really the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say… Apparently the author intends it to be funny – possibly even satire – but it is really not funny on any intellectual level … From your long publishing experience you will know that it is less disastrous to turn down a work of genius than to turn down talented mediocrities."

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The perfect poem for Saturday

Remember when you were a kid, and you'd wake up Monday morning, so tired, just absolutely, positively sure that there was no way you could make it through school that day? In fact, you were pretty sure you were deathly ill? But then, on the weekend, you were suddenly, miraculously, recovered??!!

I used to think that was just me, but the late poet Shel Silverstein, one of my faves, has showed me that maybe, just maybe, it wasn't.

by Shel Silverstein

"I cannot go to school today,"
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
"I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.

My mouth is wet, my throat is dry,
I'm going blind in my right eye.
My tonsils are as big as rocks,
I've counted sixteen chicken pox
And there's one more--that's seventeen,
And don't you think my face looks green?

My leg is cut--my eyes are blue--
It might be instamatic flu.
I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke,
I'm sure that my left leg is broke--
My hip hurts when I move my chin,
My belly button's caving in,
My back is wrenched, my ankle's sprained,
My 'pendix pains each time it rains.
My nose is cold, my toes are numb.
I have a sliver in my thumb.

My neck is stiff, my voice is weak,
I hardly whisper when I speak.
My tongue is filling up my mouth,
I think my hair is falling out.

My elbow's bent, my spine ain't straight,
My temperature is one-o-eight.
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,
There is a hole inside my ear.
I have a hangnail, and my heart is--what?

What's that? What's that you say?
You say today is. . .Saturday?

G'bye, I'm going out to play!"

Have a wonderful weekend, everybody!! I actually see some sunshine out there!!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Right word, right time, big difference

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
Mark Twain

I was perusing the latest celebrity headlines, making sure I got my fix of the lives of the rich and famous, when I came upon this headline:

"Bruce Willis Not Fussed About Starting a Family."

The gist of the story - which, okay, yes, I read - was that the newly married movie star wasn't terribly concerned over whether he had more kids or not. Fine. Cool. Way to be laid back, Bruce.

But as for that weird headline, I had to read it twice. Fussed? Seriously? I knew what the headline writer meant, but surely that wasn't the word he was looking for. But it offered another perfect example of how just one wrong word can ruin otherwise fine prose.

Words, as we all know, can be confusing. Not to oversimplify here, but there are an awful lot of words out there that sound incredibly alike. And writers have to think very carefully when they're painting their visuals, lest they lead their readers astray.

For instance:
Your main character. Is she trembling or tremulous?
That detective? Is he foundering or floundering?
And the wealthy aunt: complacent or complaisant?

All things to consider. That Mark Twain quote, above? Probably overused, yes, but it's so good, I just couldn't resist. Because he makes his point so succinctly and wonderfully. Lightning crackles and sparkles in the sky - it's memorable, unforgettable, sometimes even talked about for weeks. A lightning bug? Well, that's a different story; just a charming little thing you point at and move on.

I edited a piece of copy once where the reporter was writing about a group of community leaders checking out a landfill for the first time. The day was dark, cold and rainy, and if you've ever visited a landfill, you know it's not exactly a visit to Candyland. But one of her sentences read: "They traipsed through the mud." I read it twice. Traipsed? I brought it back to her. It was an error, plain and simple. She meant to write: "They trudged through the mud."

Lightning. Lightning bug.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!

"So the writer who breeds more words than he needs is making a chore for the writer who reads."
Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss)

By now, every Who down in Whoville has surely heard of the amazing Dr. Seuss, the man who twisted and turned words this way and that, making reading fun again. His books, from Horton Hears a Who to Green Eggs and Ham to How the Grinch Stole Christmas are perennial favorites.

But I didn't know until I read his biography page that there are a few grown-up tales behind these children's stories. It seems the late Theodor Geisel wasn't just a children's writer. He was a writer's writer. He took on issues and challenges. He worked hard to make his writing look effortless.

Green Eggs and Ham, for instance, was written on a bet that he couldn't write a book using only 50 words. (He succeeded). He wrote Cat in the Hat after there was there was outcry that kids didn't read because books were boring.

Other books take on world issues - The Lorax, obviously, is about environmentalism, and the Grinch, most could guess, is about anti-materialism. But I didn't know that The Butter Battle was about the arms race - although thinking back, I can see it, and Yertle the Turtle is a tale about anti-authoritarianism.(I may have to reread that one).

Reading Dr. Seuss as a child (and an adult) I never knew all that. I just knew I loved his books. I still do. They're fun to listen to, and they're actually hilarious to read out loud. My kids love them, and I love reading them. Horton, that crazy elephant, has actually brought me to tears more than once with his loyalty to that silly egg, and I don't cry about just anything, you know.

So here's one more bit of trivia about Dr. Seuss - and this might be the one thing that surprised me the most. His first book, And to Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, was rejected by publishers 27 times.