So we read, but do we write?

I woke up early (whoops not supposed to start with waking up!), I made coffee and looked out the window at the woods – birds making their racket or cheerful songs depending on your mood, I turned on my computer.

This is where I’m supposed to say that I’ve already put in three hours of writing. But no, I didn’t write even though I’m late sending my sample for a critique session in July. I read email, I read Twitter, I read Facebook and focused on Jay Gatsby and my niece’s wedding pictures. And I can’t say that I don’t have any ideas, I’m full of them. So, what am I doing updating my blog?????  Talk to you later…

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What’s the one thing that makes everybody a better writer?

It’s not a trick question!  The first book I remember reading had stories about Little Red Hen and the later boycotted Little Black Sambo. Grimm’s fairy tales gave me nightmares for many years.  The first book I checked out of the library was one of the Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy tales. I remember reading everything in the children’s library (my librarian wouldn’t give me the okay to check books out of the adult library until I did). Because of her rules, I read a lot of biographies which were my favorites for a while and I also read nonfiction including the very dry History of Mankind. I also read comic books and all of the Nancy Drew mysteries. The books that I read over and over again, included Shakespeare’s plays, Great Expectations, Kidnapped, and later, Mahabharata and Herodotus’ Histories.

I’m not sure how much any of these books influenced me but I am glad that at least part of the time I read “good literature”.  My plots might be stronger if Nancy Drew books had influenced my writing the most, but I don’t think I could say the same for my prose. The other day while I was reading twitter posts, I ran across an article, I think it was in The Guardian, where once again an author was reminding writers to read. The advice is so obvious that I think we sometimes forget how important it is. Here’s a list that I like from a few years ago that includes many of my “postmodern” favorites.  Enjoy!

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Teaching Basics of Creative Writing – #2

By the way, I ended up not liking that Gardner book.  Just not my thing, is it too weird to say that it was too down? Even if we’re hearing about something terrible which wasn’t really the case with his book, I think that an author’s (uh-oh) voice influences us a lot. Margot Livesey’s The House on Fortune Street has disturbing things in the book but it is readable. If you’ve ever met her you would know that there is a certain sparkle in her eye that can always put you in a good mood. I imagine the author’s outlook on life probably has a lot to do with how they handle such topics. Choice of point of view is probably critical. If someone is committing a heinous crime and the story is told in first person, I don’t think I would be able to finish the book. Third person might provide the necessary distance to let us read about something very disturbing like child abuse without totally turning us off.

Quite a while ago, I went to a reading by some mystery authors at Johns Hopkins where one of the presenters had written a book with child abuse in it. Having children of my own, I couldn’t even begin to read his book after his talk. Not surprisingly, many “how-to” books discourage writing about such topics even if the actual acts appear off stage.

I guess that this little discussion is a reminder for my class notes that when you’re trying to talk about creative writing topics, it’s very hard to separate them.  I usually do tell my little classes that everything works together, so feel free to go back and change your character, plot, whatever, when you see that it doesn’t all fit together. I’ve written a number of draft novels and I can tell you that when it becomes “whole” you can tell. That’s when I have been known to do my Dr. Frankenstein act!

More tomorrow when I talk about what I intended to talk about today – how to teach characterization.

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Teaching Basics of Creative Writing

Once again it’s time for my little winter/spring writing classes. I have a basic writing course and an editing course. I have a few people who repeat the courses so I always try to vary my examples and how I present the information. Lately, I’ve been reading about voice in preparation for those classes.

Years ago someone at a course in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival said that it sounded like I had discovered my voice. I didn’t respond because I liked the person. The fact is, I don’t like the idea of voice which is what I later told my teacher. I wanted to be able to write different types of stories that deserve to be written in different ways. I remember that then he didn’t say anything to me which might have meant that he thought I was wrong. I don’t really know for sure except when I think about his published novels, they do sound like they are by the same author which is, I’m sure,  an example of his personal style or voice. These days, I do understand this kind of style but I’m not sure this is good topic for beginning or intermediate writers.

Other examples of voice are. My early experimentation with voice included a large number of different characters in different locales. Writing dialogue is an obvious way that we can change our “voice” by acting out how we think a particular character would speak. Even when I’m writing from a third person limited point of view, I tend to write in what I would assume to be a proper voice for my chosen character and their background and setting. This kind of voice is a form of characterization and description. Although I’m not one of those writers that always starts with a character, there’s no denying (at least in my opinion!) that characters are the core around which any book revolves. Many have said that plot is primary for genres such as mysteries and thrillers but even these rely on their characters’ motivations to propel their plots forward and the point of view chosesn will rely in great part on our characters as well. 

So far we have writing style which can be somewhat described as choices consistently made regarding sentence structure, vocabulary, etc. Then, we have voice associated with specific characters which can be in the way a character speaks and how they see the world in which they live. The slant or prejudice of the narrator is another way that voice is used in a novel. The ironic or humorous novels will rely a great deal on their narrator whether it is actually the voice of  a character or an observing party. If we’re writing a humorous piece, we’ll probably going to use exaggeration, simile, and other tools of the trade to create a different type of style.

Now these are all very intellectual ways of looking at how we should write and I am far too inexperienced to not think about how I write. Maybe none of us are ever beyond evaluating and calculating how our writing works. But I do know that you have to relate emotionally to your writing. If you don’t think something you’ve written is funny, then it won’t be to other people. If you don’t feel sad when your character is sad, then that emotion won’t be passed on to your readers. So, I imagine that when I talk about voice with my next class, I’ll be asking them to remember when they felt sad, happy, or afraid and to use the memory of their emotions when they work on a character’s voice or the overall tone of a book or story. Their personal writing style will develop over time.  


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Gardner’s October Light

Okay, so I’m trying to ease myself out of the doldrums I’ve been in all month and doing my usual reading about writing and my to-read list. If you’ve read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction then you probably know that he was a famous writing teacher. Art was written for beginning writers but it has some great points or reminders for everyone, just skip over the parts about talent. Those passages always make me want to throw the book across the room and I have an old copy that must be coddled so I try not to look.

The book from my to-read list is one of Gardner’s, called October Light. I haven’t finished the book yet because like my writing, I stop and then I go and then I stop again. I’ll be glad when this phase passes. My little note to you today is about the fascinating introduction by Tom Bissell in the New Directions edition (2005) where he discusses how popular Gardner and others were during their peak and how Gardner’s books are mainly read by writers today.

Will we also conquer the mountain and later become passe? Some egos I’ve met would never be able to withstand the fall but I don’t think Gardner would have splattered on the pavement. His view of the world was very opinionated (like most writers) yet he had a certain contrariness that I think would have made his writing evolve whether he wanted it to or not. We’ll never know for sure since he died at age 49 in a motorcycle accident.

When someone stops writing (I guess we could say, he had the best reason), the remembrance of a person or an era, or maybe even that corner store where the author’s mother sent them to buy milk, is gone.  That’s a good enough reason to keep writing even if you never make it to the top of your own personal mountain. More later on October Light which is available at,, and many other places.

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Down But Not Out

I see that my followers on Twitter (which is how I usually judge what’s happening) have been a small but steady group in my absence. The family issues I mentioned earlier became much more serious at the end of November. No matter how old your mother is, I imagine no one is ready to say goodbye.  I’m a bit of an old fart and my mother was pretty old, eighty-eight, when she passed away.  I know I will just have to live through feeling bad but its pretty tough right now and writing, almost impossible. This actually is my first little trip back into the writing world. So I’ll write a little bit a day and we’ll see how it goes. I will try not to become too moribund.

Happy Holidays to everyone and remember to listen to those funny quips from your relatives or the all too often told sagas that might contain the seed of a great story!   

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Well. this has been a strange month and may have even more disrruptions coming! People in and out of the hospital – ruffled feathers- not a good month for writing! To add to the jumble, I picked up a nasty flu at the conference. It has been hard to be out and about without hearing someone cough and now it’s me! But Nanowriters pull themselves up and see what can be done and that’s what I’ll be doing today. Having literally been asleep for almost a week, I’m fresh and ready to go and also with a clear head, it’s time to reassess what I expect to do over the next couple of months. Finishing projects is always a good idea but which project? The answer is probably the YA/middlegrade project. So we shall see how that goes in December – maybe into January. And I still haven’t decided which conference to go to Chicago or New York. Conundrums! I should decide soon. Back to writing!

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Tri-Regional SCBWI

Wow! This was a great conference – congratulations to the Western PA, Eastern PA, and Maryland/Delaware/West Virginia SCBWI (Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators) for the wonderful conference. I do hope that other regions will give this a try because it was so much fun meeting everyone from Pennsylvania. Would really like to attend some other regional events! 


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Tri-Regional SCBWI

Patricia MacLachlan was inspiring, witty, amazing. If you ever have a chance to see her in person you won’t want to miss her. She’s personable and charming in addition to being a great writer and very generous with her insights into writing – I guess you could say the perfect keynote speaker. In fact, I haven’t gone to a workshop or heard a speaker that wasn’t well worth the trip to Gettysburg. John Rudolph, well let’s just say that I didn’t like him and leave it at that. As usual though, I always get ideas when I’m around writers so I know where to begin on my middle grade/YA novel when I start revisions after Nanowrimo.

Let’s not forget Jim Murphy, the Rodney Dangerfield of writing who was the keynote speaker on Saturday. People are still talking about his story about when he took a bunch of book manuscripts out to the garbage truck and had no other copies.  Everybody loved him.

First pages and first looks with a panel of illustrator/editors reviewing first pages and illustrations. That is one of best looks at how first pages/first impressions that I’ve ever heard and an especially great help in understanding how my own book should start. Let’s not forget Sarah Davies an agent from the D.C. area who obviously knows a lot about the craft of writing and I think my favorite, Marcia Wernick who also spent a lot of time on beginnings in her workshop session although Lin Oliver is up this morning and she may win out over Marcia. She definitely did win out over some pretty amazing authors last winter when I attended the national SCBWI meeting in New York.

All in all – except for the strange session with John Rudolph – extremely helpful and fun conference. I love all the SCBWI organizers – they go to great lengths to make everyone at home and I especially love meeting new writing friends.

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SCBWI Tri-Regional Gettysburg Conference

I’ve been to SCBWI (Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators) regional conferences and local events before in addition to the National Conference last January in New York. I’m anxious to see how this one will play out. They have three agents attending plus an assortment of published authors and editors. Tomorrow, I have a critique meeting with John Rudolph from Dystel and Goderich Literary Management. You only get to submit ten pages and I’m woefully aware that my beginning could be much stronger for my formerly YA novel that I now believe is a middle-grade novel. I did do some research on-line and this agent does seem to be a good fit for me so wish me luck. Sarah Davies  of Greenhouse Literary Agency and Marcia Wernick of the Wernick & Pratt Agency are also attending.

It was a bit of a stretch making it up to Gettysburg for the Friday nite session but I know that even though I have several agents that have told me they would like to see Sir Gawain of Baltimore when I’m ready, you never know who might be the best fit and there’s no telling if they will like the book when they read it! I am confident that someone will take it on since it is very original and fits well into a fantasy/science fiction type of category that seems to do well these days. I also have the second book in the series drafted. But when these opportunities do come up and I’m not absolutely ready to submit the book ( I did just finish my year long revision of my literary/mainstream novel – Infidelity) I worry that my timing is going to get me into trouble. I don’t like the idea that I might be burning bridges because I won’t be able to send out the manuscript until mid-December because now of course, I’m in the middle of drafting a new novel during Nanowrimo!

I will hold on to this manuscript until I’m really ready to have them look at the book. I think I sent out Infidelity too soon when I did a preliminary test last year to see if people would be responsive to the book.  We shall see!

Tonight is the agents panel which may be useful. That’s why I drove up today so I’ll give you a report on that tomorrow.

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