Monday, June 30, 2008

Poetry and Prose

It’s easy to identify certain writers by their work without so much as a glance at the book cover. A reader knows that writer’s style, and comes to expect it. It’s more than style, though. Yes, Hemingway’s spare verse brought his stories to life in a stark, yet vivid, manner. Readers have to intuit the characters’ emotions by their actions – or lack thereof. Divine the driving force of the story by its overarching flow, making even minimalist writing a kind of poetry.
I have to admit, I am more a fan of lush descriptions, poetic sentences that embroider an extra layer onto a story. Not padding a story for the sake of extra words, mind you, but strengthening the fabric of a story by weaving in additional threads of scenery or emotion to make a story real.
Much has been written about the writer’s voice. How to find it? Oh, if there only were some secret, magical formula. It seems the harder we try to find it, the more out of reach it can become, especially factoring in the market, or your editor’s style, or whatever.
Forget them all. Listen to your gut instinct, and go with it.
I think a writer can find her voice by sinking into the moment, and drifting away with it, pen in hand. By calling up a three-dimensional scene in her head, and describing it so succinctly, the reader will be drawn into it. People buy books for many reasons – to broaden their horizons, to lose themselves, to be awed by an amazing story, told in a unique way.
This last appeals to me the most. Authors such as Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood, T.C. Boyle, Charles D’Ambrosio and Tom Robbins (to name a few of my favorites) are inimitable in their style. Michael Chabon’s prose is so lyrical, I take my time reading, or re-reading, because frankly, he knocks my socks off, to borrow a cliché. Within a moment of opening any of his books, I am there with his characters, part of their world, turning each page to find out what happens next and next and next. His latest book – nonfiction – lays out his view of storytelling in such a compelling manner it’s equally as hard to put down.
I know I’ll never reach the literary heights of these authors, but as (hopefully) illustrated by the poem below, oh, I love the ride.

Writing Under the Influence

Off to a slow start, I swerve and weave across the lines
of my pages, feeling stalled, but wanting
to hit the highway. I decide to pick up a few
hitchhikers, luminous transients that will lend
atmosphere to my dull ride, maybe give me
some direction, help me steer clear of the adverb-ridden gutter.
I throw open the door to Michael Chabon’s sad, elegant cartoonist hero,
then to Tom Robbin’s long-thumbed cowgirl (how could I not
offer her a ride?) We glide down streets, look into windows of
houses inhabited by Anne Tyler’s forlorn, love-worn couples.
We coax Sylvia Plath from the oven and her feisty recitations charm
the roadside cows, who gather to listen. We pass
Margaret Atwood’s forests – inviting, with
hidden paths throughout. John Irving’s stoic New England
landscapes slow us down, but we pick up speed
with Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen.
This road feels like mine now, and I’m burnin’ ink. When I stop
for Stacey Richter and Charles D’Ambrosio, the road
falls away, we’re propelled into the night sky, dazzled by fireworks
and the infinite universe beyond,
wide open and waiting.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A small tribute to George Carlin, who will be sadly missed

I had forgotten I'd written this...

Words and Music
(inspired by George Carlin)

Words have power, like music.
One word, unlike one note, can invoke
a feeling or a memory.
Words have greater power, in that way.
Notes must be strung along in
succession to form a musical
But words are strong enough to make an
impression on their own, or in
groups of two or three.
A phrase can convey an attitude or
a platitude, without needing the support of
an entire structured sentence, like a note needs
a song. But oh, when
sentences are constructed well, they are, in fact,
musical – lyrical
in their cadence and rhythm. In good working order, words
can sway entire nations. Words have the power to calm or
inflame or inspire or infuse hope, or –
at their best – tell truths.
That’s why language was invented – for truths.
Communication’s machination is truth. Skewing the words,
spinning the meaning, erodes the inner workings of
communication. Words that convey
the purest form of truth
fill our souls, like music.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mythology and Storytelling

Myths provided the basis for many bestsellers. Shakespeare supposedly based many of his plays on myths. And many current writers then adapted Shakespeare’s works into novels and movies.
Professor Joseph Campbell wrote a number of books about mythology. Anyone interested in mythology or spirituality should look him up. Myths to Live By, Pathways to Bliss delve into spirtuality in a unique way. Your library may also have Professor Campbell’s DVDs, such as Mythos I and II, or The Power of Myth.
Some of his books are useful to writers. In particular, his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces launched a new generation of storytellers to produce bestsellers such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Godfather. Christopher Vogler adapted Professor Campbell’s ideas into a text specifically aimed at writers called The Writer’s Journey, which others then adapted into writers’ workshops and texts.
The Hero’s Journey, or Monomyth involves many steps. Writers are advised to adapt these loosely in their own stories, not to base their story structure too strictly upon this framework. The individual steps are for later blogs.
The most important concept behind this framework is the Journey. That single word implies the protagonist will begin at one point and end up at an entirely new point, and along the way, will have encountered some challenges that will cause the protagonist to come out a new person at the end.
Screenwriters must adhere to a strict structure in this regard, and break everything down into three acts: the Setup, the Confrontation (about half the content) and the Resolution. Novelists and short story writers have some latitude, but should still follow a basic structure:
1. the Setup/Hook
2. the Inciting Incident
3. the Turning Point
4. the Midpoint/Raising the Stakes
5. the Swivel/Second Turning Point
6. the Crisis Point/Dark Moment
7. the Resolution.
Billy Mernit’s Writing the Romantic Comedy breaks these seven steps down in detail, but if you Google story arc, or character development, or romance writing, you’ll come up with tons of web sites with information.
Happy writing!

Busting Writer's Block

You sit down in front of your computer, and the cursor is blinking on the screen, as if tapping its little foot, waiting impatiently for you to begin. But you're stuck. You'd started with great ideas and had been typing the words as fast as they flowed from your brain to your fingertips, but then--you became blocked. When one of the characters in the book I am currently writing bogged me down by rooting herself squarely in my path, I cowered at first. I had an image of her, but it was unclear and one-dimensional. And cardboard cutouts don't work well in novels.
I tried writing around her. This worked for a little while, but I still had to deal with her, finally, after I'd written all the other characters. She was stubborn, but I forced her into submission with a few tricks.
I tried calling her profane names, to loosen her up a little, but this only made me feel better for a short while. I tried forcing myself to write her, but this resulted in stiff, boring paragraphs that even I didn't want to read. I thought about why this character was such a problem. I decided that I couldn't get inside her head because I couldn't relate to her and just downright didn't even like her.
Writer's block, I believe, happens for a reason. Perhaps you don't know your character well enough to write about her. So you must use writer's block as a tool -- recognize that your subconscious is trying to tell you that you're not quite ready to commit to writing this character's story just yet. You need to get to better know some element of your story or a certain character before you can even begin it, let alone finish it.
That's what I did. Because my novel spans 30-odd years, I had already researched what happened during those years and created a timeline. But on the timeline, I made notations: what music the character might have liked, what current trends or fads the character may have followed, how she might have been impacted by the major events that occurred in the world. Next to each year, I noted her age -- obviously, a 5-year-old will perceive and react differently to any given situation than a 20-year-old would -- as well as what grade she would have been in, noting graduations and post-graduation events like marriages and pregnancies. I also jotted down notes about other events that may have occurred in this character's personal life. Even if I only used a fraction of this work, it still provided a framework that helped me to more fully construct the character and to get to know her better.This exercise was useful for not only this specific character, but for all the characters, giving better perspective and, in general, making the novel richer in detail and authenticity.
Next, I conducted an "interview" with the problem character. I asked her questions like what was important to her in her life, how she really felt about the people, situations and events in her life.
I did the same with the character's sister, her parents, her husband. Again, most of this was set aside, used mostly as a foundation from which I could write the character's real story.
After I had done all of this, I felt more ready to approach this character. She still was the least cooperative, but this character evolved into one of the most complex and interesting in the novel. I never did get to like her much, but I understood her much better. I was able to make her less of an outright bitch and show her faults, her fears --in other words, she became human. To me, it's fine to portray a character as a villain, but also convey to the reader the underlying issues that cause that character to react to the world in a certain way. This enriches the reading experience for them, and the writing experience for you.
Don't let writer's block paralyze you! It's always a good practice to walk away from your story for a little while, so you can approach it again with fresh perspective, and fill in any holes or flesh out characters or descriptions later that might seem a little thin upon a new reading. Recognize that writer's block is sometimes a necessity, a signal that your work needs refinement. Don't fear it-- use it to your advantage.
The above first appeared in The Writer’s online edition at

Monday, June 23, 2008

Have a magical Midsummer Night’s Eve

From today’s Writer’s Almanac:
Tonight is Midsummer Night's Eve, also called St. John's Eve. St. John is the patron saint of beekeepers. It's a time when the hives are full of honey. The full moon that occurs this month was called the Mead Moon, because honey was fermented to make mead. That's where the word "honeymoon" comes from. Midsummer dew was said to have special healing powers. Women washed their faces in it to make themselves beautiful and young. They skipped naked through the dew to make themselves more fertile. It's a time for lovers. An old Swedish proverb says, "Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking." Midsummer Eve is also known as Herb Evening. Legend says that this is the best night for gathering magical herbs. Supposedly, a special plant flowers only on this night, and the person who picks it can understand the language of the trees. Flowers were placed under a pillow with the hope of important dreams about future lovers. Shakespeare set his play A Midsummer Night's Dream on this night. It tells the story of two young couples who wander into a magical forest outside Athens. In the play, Shakespeare wrote, "The course of true love never did run smooth."
The Writer's Almanac is produced by Prairie Home Productions and presented by American Public Media.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Happy Summer Solstice!

Yay! It's Summer Solstice Day, the longest day of the year, the beginning of summer and apparently a cause for celebration around the world:

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Misperceptions and Stereotypes

Yesterday, bestselling author Danielle Steele appeared on the Today show to promote her new book, Rogue.

The Today show team had managed to find a rare typewriter used by Ms. Steele for first drafts (a feat in itself!). Their online survey’s question asked whether readers would pick up a “bodice-ripper” this summer. This archaic notion doesn’t begin to accurately represent the genre today. I’m surprised at MSNBC’s shoddy journalism in not researching the subject beforehand, and for promoting an outdated stereotype.

Bestselling romance author Leigh Michaels said in an article titled, Introduction to the Romance Novel: “Romance novels--contemporary and historical--are the best-selling segment of the paperback book market in North America. According to the Book Industry Study Group, almost 49 per cent of mass market paperbacks sold in the United States each year are romances. It's a market that totals well over half a billion dollars each year in North America. One publisher, Harlequin Books, publishes in 25 languages, and their product is available in 120 countries from Abu Dhabi to Zimbabwe. In its history, Harlequin has shipped more than three billion books, and the company sells about six books a second, around the clock.”

That only relates to romance novels. Screenwriters have equally impressive success. According to Michael Hauge’s Writing Romantic Comedies, “Since the release of Sleepless in Seattle in 1993, there hasn’t been a single year in which at least one romantic comedy didn’t surpass the $100 million dollar mark.”

Ms. Michaels’ research showed that the average reader was a 39-year-old female, but went on to say: “A good many men read romances, too, but few of them talk about it. (Some even subscribe to by-mail book clubs in their wives' names, to keep their secret from the mailman.) The youngest reader I've heard from is ten and the oldest is 95.”

These statistics provide a more accurate view than MSNBC’s online survey ever could.

If the Today show’s writers had looked at The Wild Rose Press Web site at, they would have found the genre has evolved far beyond the “bodice-ripper” stereotype. Contemporary romance writers, and readers, have fourteen sub-genres from which to choose: Mystery and Suspense, Light Paranormal, Erotic Romance, Non-American Historical, Western Historical, Cowboy Contemporary, Sweet Contemporary, Classic Romance (Vintage), Dark Paranormal, Contemporary, Inspirational and Young Adult. This last is a critical component because today’s youth needs a literary outlet other than Harry Potter to pique their interests. Beyond that, the YA Romance provides young readers with positive role models. Ms. Michaels said: “Some of my teenage fans write that reading the books has helped them to believe that there are special men in the world and they don't have to settle for the first one who comes along.” Many writers do an incredible amount of research to provide accurate setting details to stage their stories in a realistic context.

A follow-up by the Today show is warranted. Give your viewers the real story, Matt.

Survey Update: As of 9:30 on June 19, the Today survey indicated 46% read romance novels, 31% purported they “didn’t touch” them, and 23% said sometimes.

Falling (or dancing?) under the heading of “Why Didn’t I Think of That?”

Yesterday I received a new discount book catalog in the mail. Oh, I love these catalogs. I skim through them at least a dozen times, until the new one arrives a few weeks later. I circle the books I would like to get – about a dozen, usually. I rarely send for them, but it’s fun to dream. (In fact, I am a catalog-aholic, but that is another story. In self-defense, I have been known to throw catalogs away before I open the cover. I’ve launched an offensive by registering on the Catalog Choice site at because the number of catalogs I receive in one year would easily overwhelm a municipal landfill.)
Veering back from the above tangent to the main point, a book on the front cover of my beloved discount catalog caught my eye. The title: Dancing with Cats. The description: “…thousands of people are rediscovering the ancient practice of cat dancing, tapping into this remarkable method of channeling exuberating, healing feline energy, and at the same time bonding with their pets.”
Hmm. The description begs the question, if cat dancing is an ancient practice, why has there been no mention of it before? Is it a secret cult? Or are the authors making fun of other ancient practices? In fact, I have heard of dancing cats – in Minamata, Japan, where mercury poisoning caused the cats to twirl in the streets before they dropped over dead.
My cat would not appreciate cat dancing. My cat, admittedly, is atypical. He does not like to be touched and many times, insists on a five-foot buffer between himself and any human, even those he lives with. (We suspect he may be autistic, actually, if not mildly brain damaged. He has no feline coordination whatsoever.) If I were to attempt to dance with him, I’m fairly certain my face would be shredded soon after the first twirl. It would not be a bonding experience, unless by bonding, they mean “your cat will hate you forever.” By its description, this book is filled with “amazing” photographs of “prancing humans and airborne felines.” Yes, airborne. Another feat which my cat will never master – landing on his four feet.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a huge fan of William Wegman and his Weimaraners, posed in unnatural positions for the benefit of toddlers learning the alphabet, or costumed in dresses finer than my own.
But the main question this book begs is: is it Photoshop, or is it true cat dancing? If it is, in fact, true cat dancing, what if your cat doesn’t know how? What if he has four left paws? Should you force your cat to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers videos until he masters Fred’s effortless glide? What if your cat prefers to dance with his own species? Are there cat dance instructors out there? Is this book a cover for the authors’ true professions – dance instructors? Perhaps the human side of the biz has been a bit slow and they need a new gimmick.
In any case, it’s $4.95 I will not be spending. Though it’s tempting.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

How to Begin

Simple. Begin by holding a pen to paper, or sitting at your computer, hands atop the keyboard.
Two of my favorite quotes are from authors, ancient and contemporary, who teach a no-excuses approach. The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “If you wish to be a writer, write.” Great advice. In modern terms, just do it. Contemporary author Barbara Kingsolver is even less forgiving: “Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.” In other words, don’t wait for inspiration to strike you. Begin writing and keep on writing. Even if you throw away half of what you write, it’s a starting point. There may be some raw gems in the mud. Once you polish them, they’re worth all the effort.
Keep a pen and pad in your briefcase or purse, and another in your nightstand by your bed. Some nights, I’ll be nearly asleep when an idea pops into my head. Annoying that it couldn’t come at a more convenient time, yes, but be thankful for ideas whenever they strike you.
At the Greater Lehigh Valley Writer’s Conference in Allentown, Pa., last year, writer Regina McBride advised us to meditate before a writing session. Not passive meditation, but actively imagine a setting from your story. Imagine the protagonist in that setting. What is s/he doing? Wearing? Is s/he with someone? What are they doing? Saying? Some vivid setting details can emerge, as well as dialogue and character traits.
Other writers say exercise helps get their creative juices flowing.
For writing practice, try John Vorhaus’ Creativity Rules! This workbook steps you through the phases of story development and provides exercises at each level. Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction is a classic. Specifically for romance writers, Leigh Michaels’ On Writing Romance is a great resource. David Michael Kaplan’s Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction is great for getting to that final draft. Writing teachers will tell you: the real story comes through in the revision.
For inspiration, I love Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is another classic.
Reading and writing go hand in hand. In addition to how-to texts, read as many novels and stories by authors you admire. 18 great Free Reads are available on the Wild Rose Press site:
I don’t believe there’s any set formula or practice. If there were, it would be for sale, and I’d be first in line.