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.