Friday, July 30, 2010

Review: Homer Price

I read Homer Price over and over when I was just a wee bairn. Now, about 40 years later, I picked it up again. The stories are still delightful and funny, told in an engaging, childlike manner. They are everything I remember.

But wait, there's more. Where did all that social satire come from? I don't remember that being there when I was nine. "The Case of the Cosmic Comic" is dark, showing the shattering of a young boy's dream of his hero. "Wheels of Progress" is still as pointed a commentary on the demise of craftsmanship in a mass-produced world as it was in 1943, when the book was published. This ranks up there with the brilliant political satire hidden in Oliver Butterworth's The Enormous Egg.

If you haven't read this since you were a kid, pick it up. It'll bring back great memories of your childhood reading, but will be much more than just a nostalgic trip back to your old bookshelf. These stories are fun and imaginative, but they also have teeth.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mark Twain's Ten Rules for Writing: A Reader's Manifesto

Writing Wednesday

I came across Mark Twain's Ten Rules for Writing on Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project some time ago. I recommend "the rules" to all writers, not on Mark Twain's authority as a great writer, but on Samuel Clemen's ability to understand and articulate things that frustrate readers.
"Mark Twain divides his rules into large rules and little rules—all violated by James Fenimore Cooper:"
Large Rules
  1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
  2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.
  3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
  4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
  5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
  6. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
Little Rules
  1. An author should say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
  2. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
  3. Eschew surplusage.
  4. Not omit necessary details.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Monday, July 26, 2010

Imagery: Beyond the Simile

I recently read a book laden with abrupt and belabored simile. The author constantly used the phrases seemed as if it was, and it was as if. You might say, “Ah, a newbie writer!” Not so. It was a Pulitzer Prize winning author. She’s the exception. For the rest of us, we might need help digging our way out of the simile rut.

So I want to talk about other forms of imagery besides the overused simile.

Metaphor: Quick review—the difference between metaphor and simile is that simile states the comparison overtly. In metaphor, the comparison is absent and the similarity of the two elements is simply implied.

Simile: He had a mouth like a leech. Or, Morning fog covered the city like a blanket.

Metaphor: He had a leech’s mouth. Or, A blanket of morning fog covered the city.

In both examples fog is compared to a blanket. But in the second, the likeness is implied and morning fog simply is a blanket.

Watch out for mixed metaphors. Shakespeare got away with it: To take arms against a sea of troubles (Hamlet). But for us lesser geniuses, editors don’t really like it. For a funny list of mixed metaphors, go here:

Analogy: When the metaphor or simile is explained or drawn out. This example begins with a metaphor: She was the sun, then continues to explain, brightening everyone’s existence and dazzling them with her radiance. But she’d burn anyone who came too close.

It could also begin with a simile, She was like the sun.

Synecdoche: This is one of my favorites because it can be very powerful, but must be used sparingly. This is when a part of something stands in place for the whole. Here is an example: The Commandant gave the signal, and a circle of dark helmets closed in around me.

Everyone knows that helmets can’t move by themselves, they must be attached to a body. But the meaning is clear; the helmets stand in place for the soldiers. Using this kind of imagery creates an added dimension of fear and tension.

The opposite is also a form of synecdoche—when a whole stands in for a part.

Personification: Everyone knows this one and we use it without even thinking about it. It’s when human characteristics are given to non-human elements. Example, The morning chill wrapped a blanket of fog over the city.

The morning can’t really wrap anything, but this sounds much better than The morning chill caused the moisture in the air to condense and form into fog that affected the entire city.

Metonymy: When the name of one thing is replaced by something else closely associated with it. This is a useful way to avoid repetition. Example, The students anxiously awaited the outcome of the voting. When the winner was announced, the entire campus breathed a sigh of relief.

The campus can’t sigh, but readers understand that it is used in place of students, which would have sounded awkward and repetitious (and boring).

Oxymoron and Paradox: Images that are so contradictory they stick in our minds. Examples: painfully beautiful, deafening silence, alive with emptiness, visible darkness.

That’s probably enough for one post. Just keep in mind that by using these devices, it allows us to go beyond the real and draw in those things that are thousands of years old or as present as anthrax in your mailbox. (The Creative Writer’s Style Guide) It creates in the reader an intense connection that ignites their imagination.

So, my suggestion is, whenever we, as writers, include a simile in our work, stop and think. Ask yourself, would this be better as a metaphor? Is there another type of imagery I can use to enhance my meaning in this instance besides the haggard simile?

Julie Daines

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Query and Cover Letters with VS Grenier

We all have written at least one version of a query letter or cover letter. In my opinion, there isn’t much of a difference between the two; except one is sent with your manuscript and the other is sent before a manuscript is sent to an editor. Either way, what you write on that one page will make a big statement about who you are as a writer.

With this in mind, let’s talk a little about what is important to list on your one page selling sheet (i.e. Cover letter or Query Letter).

I call cover and query letters a sales sheet because . . . basically we as writers are trying not only to sell our manuscript, but the fact we are the best person to be writing about this particular subject matter or concept.

There is no magic formula on how you should format your letter, but you do want it to look professional. One of the best books I read about query letters was, You Can Write Children’s Books by Tracey E. Dils. In chapter 7 Give Your Manuscript a Fighting Chance, Tracey says, “A query letter describes your project and your credentials and asks an editor if she would like to see the rest of the manuscript.”

I do not think I could put it any better than Tracey on this one when she says, “Your credentials.” That right there should tell you . . . you’re not just selling your manuscript, but you as the writer as well. Your background in writing is very important when it comes to selling your skills as a writer to an editor. I know we all start off with no writing credits, but does that mean we don’t have experience?

Think of your letter as your interview with an editor. When I first started writing for children’s magazines a little over two years ago, I had no writing credits to my name. Instead of saying this on my sales sheet (cover letter), I listed what experience I did have as a Cub Scout Leader in putting together the Pack Newsletter each month, my background in catalog copy, my help in writing training manuals, etc. These things showed that I had experience in writing and editing. It showed I was able to learn different writing styles and I had some writing background. I also listed all the writing courses I have taken and workshops I’ve attended.

Your sales sheet (query or cover letter) also needs to be engaging, you want to hook the editor just like you need to hook your reader in the first couple of sentences of your manuscript. An editor when reading a query or cover letter will only skim over it. If you can’t grab their attention in the first line or two . . . then how can they expect you to grab a reader’s attention?

The Writer’s Institute Publication says in their Children’s Market Guide, “A good query letter is short and to the point. If you can’t get your idea across in one page or less, your manuscript may not be as tightly focused as it should be.”

I know it is hard to write everything wonderful about your manuscript and you on one page, but think of a sales sheet (query or cover letter) as a test on how tightly you can write.

One more thing, DO NOT forget to read, read, read, and read out loud your letter. As writers, we spend so much time revising, reading, revising, reading aloud, and revising our manuscripts that sometimes we forget to do the same thing with our sales sheets. Remember this is your interview and you want to put the best foot forward and make a good lasting impression.

Below are the key steps in writing this one page sales sheet:

  • Direct your letter to a specific editor (if you can)
  • Lead with a paragraph that grabs the interest of the editor and conveys your slant.
  • Give a brief description of your manuscript and its central idea.
  • Show how your idea fits with this publisher or editor’s needs.
  • Give approx word length and readership age (if writing for children).
  • Cite sources, research, and/or interviews.
  • List your publishing credits, refer to resume, writing clips or samples (if requested in guidelines from publisher), and writing workshops and/or experience. Make sure to emphasize relevant or unique writing experiences you may have in regard to the subject.
  • Note any published titles you have read by this publisher and why you chose them.
  • Close by letting the editor know if this is a simultaneous submission and that you look forward to hearing from them.

I feel writing a sales sheet is the hardest part of writing. I would rather write 20 short stories, articles, or even five books in a month over a query/cover letter. But the fact remains . . . it's part of process to becoming a published writer. So what do I do when I've finished writing my manuscript and it's time to write that dreaded letter? I do a couple of things:

1st- I find at least three different publishers I think my manuscript fits with.

2nd- I write a letter for each one and read them over a couple of times. Then I have my critique group look my letters over. This helps because they always ask me questions as to why this publisher or these publishers. Why do I feel this really fits with them, etc. These questions allow me to go back and relook at my letters to see which publisher is the best fit.

3rd- I revise my letter to reflect the new questions I asked myself or my critique group asked.

4th- I let the letter sit a day or two before reading it over again.

5th- I make final revisions and send the letter with or without the manuscript based on the publishers guidelines.

Okay, now it's your turn to sit down and write your sales sheet using this tips.

To learn more about VS Grenier visit her sites at or

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Writing Site Analyzes your Style

by T. Lynn Adams

Sachiko, another blogger here, connected me with a fun site called “I Write Like...”

It is a simple site for a simple purpose. You paste or type in an excerpt of your writing, hit “Analyze” and the site tells you, in seconds, the name of a famous author who shares your writing style. (You will have to scroll down a bit to find the name.) There is nothing to buy and no information required. (You can close the information box that pops up and still do the analysis.)

It is fun and fast. I would recommend doing it with as many different excerpts as you like, until you find a pattern emerging.

For my pattern, I found myself writing like men-the same three men: Arthur C. Clarke, the scientist-author who is best known for writing 2001: A Space Odyssey; James Fenimore Cooper; and Jack London.

I don’t mind writing like a man since most of my characters are men and I tend to hang out with the men at family reunions and social events. However, try as I might, I couldn’t get the site to compare me to Anthony Horowitz. He knows how to keep action flowing across the pages in YA novels.

Then an unlady-like thought crossed my mind (probably because I do tend to hang out with men at family reunions and social events). I decided to see what would happen if I typed in an excerpt from an Anthony Horowitz novel. Would it say he writes like Anthony Horowitz?

So, I typed in two pages from his YA novel, The Skeleton Key.

Guess what? The site says he writes like--Rudyard Kipling!

If you want to have some fun and maybe a name or two to brag about with your writing style, just go to

And if one of you writes like Anthony Horowitz or Rudyard Kipling, you probably have a fast adventure style I would like.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Celebrations: The Lord of the Rings

The first volume of The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, was first published on July 21, 1954. It's difficult to think of a more influential book in the last 60 years, one that completely transformed (reinvented?) its genre.

Love it or hate it, it's hard to imagine a world with no Lord of the Rings. Without it, there'd likely be no fantasy genre as we know it, no Star Wars, no a lot of things.

(Note: This is the first of a series of Celebrations that will be posted on this blog over the next several months, marking birthdays or death days of favorite children's writers, or the publication date of important books. Other UCW bloggers are welcome to write their own Celebrations of their own favorites.)

Clever References

Writing Wednesday

I once heard of a study which claimed to show that modern children were much smarter than their ancestors because of The Simpsons. Okay, it wasn't simply because of that one program. The study tracked the number of reference to things, ideas, or events outside of the immediate story. They found that number increased over time. In other words, what the average viewer was expected to "get" moved in the direction of more and briefer references to a broader background of common knowledge.

Working references to popular culture into MG and YA work is tempting because it shows that you're oh so clever. But it's difficult enough to do that you should probably avoid the temptation.

First, there's the practical matter that most references will date your story. [Don't believe me? Find a picture of yourself twenty years ago--the trendier the better. How proudly would you display that picture now?]

Second, and more importantly, references to popular culture will almost always pull your reader out of the story, either to shake their heads if it's clumsy or in admiration if it's clever.

Consider the following lines from Phillip Reeve's Starcross. Together with Larklight and Mothstorm, the three MG books tell rollicking tales of daring-do in the space-ways of the solar system in a steampunk world where Isaac Newton's discovery of the alchemical secrets of spaceflight propel the British Empire across the stars. In that world, the American Revolution was only the American Rebellion (thanks to the Royal Navy's aether ships). In the midst of a series of adventures, a French agent, who has just revealed her plans to relaunch the Liberty (the one American aether ship from the rebellion) says,

"My grandfather hoped that he might capture a British warship or two, and set up a free American settlement upon one of the outer worlds ... He dreamed of founding a Rebel Alliance which would strike at your empire from a hidden base ..."

This is perhaps the best embedded reference to popular culture I've ever read: every single word in the sentence is both completely consistent with and fully motivated by the story. It's beautiful because it works on so many levels. And yet when I read it, I dropped right out of the story in admiration.

You're probably on less shaky ground if, like Reeve, you're working with comic material. That said, I still think the best advice is to minimize your references.

What do you think?

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Using the Senses in Writing

I'm currently reading, "Make a Scene" by Jodan E. Rosenfeld, and in one chapter, she describes the importance, and effectiveness of using the senses in writing. I'm going to summarize some of her points here, which I found immensely helpful.

"...the senses are a part of everyday life, so they should, in fact, be blended into your scenes as an integral part of the stage you set."

Sight: "The more you can place the readers inside the vision and point of view of your characters and remove the Iof them seeing, the more directly the reader will interact with sights, smells and other senses in the scene."

For example, rather than saying:
"Celeste saw..."

You say:
"The romantic, red field was blanketed with yellow-centered poppies."

So, rather than using the act of seeing, you just get straight to the point!

Touch: "In fact, a character won't get more than a couple of minutes into the day before he begins to interact with the world by touching things."

Touch should be one of the most often used senses. There are many ways of touching--nervous, fidgeting, practical and strategic touch, and, of course, personal touch. I know very few people who don't do something with their hands when nervous or excited. Touch will help reveal a lot about your characters.

Smell: "If you need to go back in time to a scene from your character's plast and you can use the smell of peaches at a grocery store to drop Becky into the peach orchard where she first met Eduardo, the love of her life, by all means use it."

Smell should also be used often, in nearly every scene. It can be used to identify the presence of another character, reveal the difference between hero (smells like roses) and villain (smells like sewer), and evoke memory.

Taste: "Taste provides a fabulous opportunity for feelings and interactions between your characters to arise. Through the simple act of lifting a fork to mouth, your characters can come to epiphanies, exalt in simple pleasures, and enact conflicts that enliven your scenes."

Food is an important part of our lives and it can reveal much about your character. Don't skip meals or you miss out on an opportunity to show us something about your character and their relationships with others. For example, depressed characters can't finish meals, a lover might spend hours preparing meals for their loved one, or a mother's dinner might fail because she has a lot on her mind.

How do you use the senses in your writing? What is your favorite example of using senses in writing?

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Peek into Joanne Rowling’s Genius

Despite the current Twilight franchise many of us believe that J.K. Rowling still wears that crown; today I’m going to do some analyzing of what got her the amazing product she has today.

First of all we know how amazingly well her characters were done; the first step in a great novel. They each had their own personalities born from their pasts even though some of the specific information didn’t make it into the book. Their strengths and weaknesses were very well defined and easy for readers to relate to. A great thing that helped her bring them to life was relating them to people she knew; for example Hermione was based off of herself as a teenager and though I don’t know for sure but I believe that some of Harry’s traits came from his namesake; her childhood friend.

The thing that really hit me about her characters was Harry’s significance. We all know that in the end the hero has to showdown with the villain; I often have trouble giving my villains reasons to confront my main characters. Rowling did a wonderful job giving Voldemort reason to hate Harry in particular--not just attacking him for being a person on the opposing team--; which also rose the danger for Harry.

Another great aspect I have personally had problems with is the audience analysis. Everyone wants to read about people their age. Even when watching a movie I find myself searching for someone my age; they then become my favorite character—it really sucks when that character happens to be the villain in disguise though… Harry Potter was written for the MG community but I see people of every age reading it. That’s partly because there are the teens like Harry and his friends, the still important middle aged characters like Hagrid, and the seniors like Dumbledore. Taking that to the next level Rowling gave certain characters the type of adventure that audience is looking for. Older fantasy readers are usually more into intrigue and mystery—Dumbledore got the largest share of that--, on average teenagers more into adventure and romance—Plenty of both for the teens in the story.

Just these little things helped a lot in forming the successful series.

The other thing is merely just the great story and writing. It was very well done and the characters are whisked into a world that I’m sure barely anyone hasn’t wished they could visit. I find myself wishing all the time for someone to take me away from the muggle world and educate me in magic.

I believe it is nearly impossible to become as great a writer as she was but we should keep working and not get discouraged. It helps me to know that even that amazing book was rejected about 150 times. It’s saddening to see writers giving up after a single rejection; especially knowing the possibility that the book is wonderful and just needs a different publishing company or more critique.

As you can probably see; I also have problems dragging on and on after the manuscript should be done; I’m doing that here too and am just going to stop…now.

I’m The Personality Type That Likes Reading About Personality Types

I blame Dialogue. It’s one of the How To Write Great Fiction series. In it, the author explains that dialogue needs to not only move the plot but also reveal character, and different characters speak and act differently because they are innately different people.

Then the book summarized an ancient personality typing system called Enneagrams. There are 9 types: Perfectionist, Helper, Achiever, Romantic, Observer, Questioner, Adventurer, Asserter, and Peacemaker.

(and Grumpy, Sneezy, Doc, the Indian chief, the construction worker--oh, wait, wrong lists.)

Since I’m of the famously narcissistic Facebook generation (of course you’ve heard of us), this intrigued me.

First I typed myself: I’m an Enthusiast, which means I’m having a lot of fun writing this blog post but we’ll all be lucky if I actually finish it. Oh, and, can I have that lollipop?

Then I typed my WIP’s main characters and noted what they want and fear.

What do you know? It helped me a lot in getting to know them better. There were some personality traits I had always suspected of a few of them—particular kinds of selfishness, innate talents with people or ideas—but having things articulated in detail helped me immensely.

Even when I didn’t agree with the type descriptions, then I was able to see where my characters diverged from type and were unique.

I also took another test on my characters’ behalf—behalfs? behalves?—the 4-letter personality test sometimes call the Jung 16-type test. This test measures extroversion/introversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, and perceiving/judging. (this is an enneagram + Jung test)

My husband is an introverted sensing thinking judger, or an ISTJ. I always test these personality tests on real people to calibrate my gullibility; this system pretty much nailed my husband on his innate ability with information systems, detail, and dislike of crowds and personal, emotional demands.

Again, this told me a lot about my main characters, especially when I cross-referenced the information with their Enneagram results. This took a bit of time, but I don’t have TV so I have to come up with other ways to waste my time.

My dear dear friend T. Lynn Adams (aka The Amazing Sister T) gave me this linky to personality-specific advice on how to fight writer’s block.

I read it, and once I stopped laughing at myself copy/pasted some sections for my writer friends to read.

Then they laughed, too, because the descriptions of my personality type’s common writing pitfalls were like a summary of all my writing ailments over the past year.

So what’s your personality type?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Review - Write from the Heart

Many people are very private in their personal lives, and so developing details of conflict that engage the reader is difficult for them because who would ever admit that life is full of serious problems? Especially people who only show their most proper side in public. For example, would you publicly admit that you have ever had a mental melt down and gone completely nuts, yelling at your spouse or your kids, or that you may have possibly done anything sneaky or subversive or in any way unflattering or immoral? Like stealing extra napkins and hot sauce packets from Taco Bell, or acting smug and superior about something and then realizing later you were wrong, but then still refusing to admit it? Ok, maybe you would admit that you have done some of these things, but would you actually want other people to be there to witness the scene as you are experiencing what could possibly be your worst Rumpelstiltskin moment ever?

It may feel like your characters' behaviors and attitudes are a reflection on who you are as a person. This isn't really true though, because I can tell you from personal experience that characters take on a life entirely their own and do or say things that you would NEVER do! (Either that, or maybe I'm just a tad schizophrenic.)

I once edited for a woman who wanted to write a YA novel about a young girl who ended up pregnant after date rape, but she was unwilling to make her character do or say anything that would be inappropriate in any way, or make her experience anything that would have led up to the conflict that she wanted to portray in her story. This could have been done very effectively without even taking the reader into the actual date rape scene, just by developing the story that unfolded around it, but this writer had a very hard time dealing with some of the events that would have led a girl into this situation, and she would not allow herself to take her character through the necessary pain. This left a lot of unanswered questions, for example, how did her character, who was a good girl with high moral standards, put herself into a situation where this could happen? How did she end up dating that kind of boy in the first place? Did her character do anything, even something small and seemingly innocent, in a moment of weakness that may have started a chain of events that took her down this path? How did she break the news to the boy, and how did he react? How did she break the news to her parents, and how did they react? I find it ironic that writing this kind of heartbreaking prose in a sensitive way requires a certain amount emotional toughness that if done without, your writing falls flat.

I found Leslea Newman's book, Writing from the Heart: Inspiration and Exercises for Women Who Want to Write, on one of my regular visits to the library. In the front section there is a quote:
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open. ~Muriel Rukeyser
My question is, what would happen if all of us began to tell the truth about our lives? I think that the world would figuratively 'split open.' We would have to face the truth and realities of our lives in a way that would be life changing. The writing exercises in this book are mostly geared toward women, but could really be useful to anyone who wants to write about the details of life in a heartfelt and honest way.

This book has warm up exercises, exercises for writing setting, action, character, monologue, dialogue, point of view, the "elusive plot," and poetry. In the back there are appendices that have information on publishing, additional writing resources, and recommendations for further reading. Each exercise has a short example that you can read through to see how she handled each aspect in her own writing. And each exercise is directed at making an emotional connection between your characters and your reader.

I can't help but think that this book would have been a very helpful tool to the writer I spoke of earlier, and may have helped her to progress from an unpublished hopeful to the novelist that she wanted to be. I know these will definitely help me.

Friday, July 16, 2010

One Useful Editing Technique

By Scott Rhoades

I do most of my writing and editing on my computers. I use the computer when I'm planning, and stay on the computer clear to the submission process, which is also mostly done on the computer these days.

But at some point, usually as I near completion, I print out the entire manuscript. The text looks and feels different on a printed page than it does on the screen, and I can use a little technique that I have found works well for me.

Here's what I do. I get some markers, at least three different colors. You might want more, if you need to look for more things. Then, with the manuscript printed out, I choose one marker and start skimming the manuscript, looking for one thing, and only one thing. For example, on the first pass I might look for either adjectives or adverbs (but not both). If I have noticed another frequent flaw, such as a word I use too often, like maybe a character's name, or dialogue tags, or filters like "felt," "thought," "saw," "heard," and so on. (I'll blog more about those some other time. Maybe I'll look for typographical errors, but I've probably found most of those with spellcheck. The key is, I only look for one of those problems in a single pass, and use one color to mark every place where one of those words appears.

It's important that I don't actually read, or I'll get caught up in the story. For this edit, the writing doesn't matter. I'm looking for a single thing. If I find myself wanting to read, I'll skim the page from bottom to top, right to left.

I take a separate pass over the manuscript for each thing I want to look for. For example, I'll make one pass, marking adjectives in yellow, then a second pass, marking adverbs in blue, and so on.

Focus is the key. I avoid reading, and if I see something other than what I'm looking for, I ignore it. If I'm making an adjectives pass, nothing else on the page matters but adjectives. After that pass, I have a bunch of yellow marks that clearly show me whether I used too many.

But I don't fix them yet, or even go back and try to figure out whether they even need to be fixed. It's not time for that. It's time to skim through the whole piece again, looking for the next thing I want to identify, such as adverbs.

Sure, I could do this on the screen, using my word processor's marker tool. However, because I usually work on the screen, I'll see the same words and sentences I always see. Printing it out forces me to look at each page a different way than I usually do, so I'll find things I might skip over on the screen. If you use the familiar view, you'll see what you think is there, or what you meant to say, rather than what's really there. And, you'll be tempted to read because you haven't changed your process.

I can't say this too often: it's critical that I don't read, and that I look for only one thing. If I lose focus, I can guarantee that I'll miss stuff. I'll probably miss a few anyway, but if I stay focused, I'll catch nearly all of the instances of whatever I'm marking this pass. It sounds time consuming to make so many passes, but it's really not that bad. Because you're not reading, you'll find that you spot whatever you're looking for pretty quickly and it won't take long to finish a pass.

When you've finished all of your passes and your manuscript is loaded with colors, you'll be able to quickly identify anything that's a problem for you. If you're anything like me, you'll think you used a few well-placed adjectives, but when you've marked them all, you'll see that the story is drowning in them. There's nothing wrong with an adjective, but if you've used a lot of them, and especially if you've stacked them two or three deep on a single noun, it's an indication that your nouns might not be as strong as they can be.

Next, you go back to the 'puter to make your changes. Again, change only one thing at a time and avoid reading. Look at each adverb carefully and decide whether it can be eliminated by using a stronger verb. Can "Jack said softly" be replaced by "Jack whispered" or "Jack mumbled"? Can you replace "the green grass" with "the grass" or "the lawn"? After all, "grass" usually is green, so the color is only important if it's not green. Can you say "the well-manicured, soft green grass" another way that shows it better than any chain of adjectives can?

You don't have to change everything you've marked. There's nothing wrong with adjectives is they are the best way to show what you want to show. But you should consider each one and decide what to keep and what to change, and stay aware of how many you use.

This is my technique. Try it. It might work for you, or you might discover something better for the way you work. But if you look at the pages a different way than you usually do, and if you mark potential problem items in a way that they jump off the page and flick you on the tip of your nose, you're much more likely to find problems you might otherwise miss. Or, you might happily discover that you really don't have any problem with adjectives. Either way, you win and you can feel more confident in your work.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Start A Book Club

Its summertime and I have a big pile of books to read. It helps me when I belong to a book group or on a blog tour because it forces me to read (not that I need much motivation!).
There are many book clubs that are going on right now and my favorite one meets by the pool.

There are a number of different ways to start a book club. Book Clubs shouldn’t be hard or stressful. It’s a way to get together and discuss books and ideas! Above all else, have fun!

Some Ideas to Get Started:

* Number of people to invite-Too small of a group stifles discussion; groups that are too big can become chaotic and members can feel they can’t contribute.
* Day and time- Try to hold your book club the same day and time every month. Once a month is usually good. Some book clubs have found summer is too hard and busy to hold book clubs.
* Place- Home or library or somewhere everyone can sit comfortably and hear well. Also, a place that allows food is a good idea! Everyone can take a turn hosting as well. The host can pick the book and be in charge of the treats.
* Book- Give everyone a chance to choose a book. The first meeting could be to discuss rules, ideas and make a list of the books everyone wants to read.
* On time award- This gets everyone there on time so there are fewer interruptions. Everyone likes to win something!
* Review Author- Find a picture and short biography of the author. Authors’ stories of how they started writing and why they wrote the particular book are usually very interesting.
* Review and discuss book-Find questions and trivia on internet or the back of the book. There are many sites devoted to understanding books better.
* Treats- Have book related game and treats if possible. It’s a fun way to wrap up your book club!

Book Club and Book Ideas:

* Mother/daughter book club: Stargirl, Ella Enchanted, Princess Academy, Frog Princess, Yellow Star, Wednesday Wars
* Teens: It’s a Mall World After All, My Fair Godmother, Fairest, Keturah and Lord Death, Princess of the Midnight Ball
* Women: Austenland, These is My Words, The Guernsey and Potato Peel Pie Society, Scriptures, Host, Pride & Prejudice
* Father/son: Fablehaven, 13th Reality, No Talking, Rangers Apprentice, Farworld, Alcatraz and the Evil Librarians, Thief of Attolia, Wednesday Wars, Harry Potter, Dangerous Book for Boys

Do you belong to a book club?
What has been your favorite book club read?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Me-too vs. Something New

Reading thuRsday

I finished a recently published YA paranormal and was underwhelmed. The twist I thought I saw coming never materialized and instead I was left with a me-too after taste. It's not that the book was bad--far from it. It's that the story followed well-trodden paths and felt like more of the same.

In contrast, I also recently read The Cabinet of Wonders, by Marie Rutkoski. The world, the magic, and the characters all felt fresh. It's a charming story whose Bohemian setting and sensibility take you off the beaten path.

Moonrat, the blogging editorial assistant,  posted a recent note about Laura Miller's "The Magician's Book." She wrote:
"Laura Miller says that, for us, you know, us kids who read constantly and obsessively when we were kids, we've spent our entire lives trying, like Lucy, to resuscitate that feeling of total immersion we felt when we read our Magician's Books when we were kids. We read things and like or enjoy them based on to what degree they can recall that ancient, complete escapism"
As a reader, I love the idea of "comfort" books--books we go back to again and again because they've become old friends.

As writers, I think we need to take care that we're producing something new instead of a "me-too." There's nothing wrong with loving a book and wanting to do something like it, but before you take the trouble to draft an entire novel, ask yourself whether you have something to add to the conversation.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Grr and Other Writing Angst

I like to refer to anything that causes me to pause in my writing as causing me to "Grr." (I also like to make up verbs.)

So, let me go through some things that have caused me some writing angst in the last year (shoot, am I even using 'angst' properly? Let's pretend I am.)

I've been working on my current WIP for the last 5 years. I'm still not satisfied with it. Yeah, that's going to cause some angst. But that isn't even my biggest problem lately with writing.

Let's go back to last September. The ever awesome, dude-tacular James Dashner spoke at UVU's The Book Academy. After the first section of classes, I went up to James and introduced myself. Why? Because he's cool and most people who follow my other blog know I hero worship (modern phrase is 'man crush' but that sounds worse to me for some reason) James. Anyway, the thing is, he gave me some advice, which was kind of him. The rest of the day was spent trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. So, what did I do? I begun rewriting.

I finished the draft and was basically told that it was kinda anti-climatic (blogger thinks that needs to be hyphenated, so it is.) So I started rethinking the story...again.

When I went to LDS Storymakers in April, I had an awesome boot camp critique group, including the ever awesome Julie Daines. The advice I received from the writers, along with Kirk Shaw, was very useful. But, that meant redoing my beginning, which led to me redoing my entire book for the fourth or fifth time. Shoot, it took over 3 years just to finish the first draft. I'm impressed when I can do a new draft in a few months. How Brandon Sanderson writes his novels in such a short period of time, I haven't any clue?

Well, I got past a certain point in my book recently and I felt like something was wrong. When I do that, I back up to the last spot that felt right. So, I proceeded to erase some things and start a section over again in my latest chapter. It still felt wrong. I backed up further...again, it felt wrong. I backed up again and realized that if I continued how I was going, my story would once again become anti-climatic. Noooooooooooooooooo!!!!!

So today, I get to (yes, get to) figure out what I really need to do. Well, I take that back. I know what I need to do, it's the 'how to do it' that I'm debating. Why can't the computer link to my brain and create the changes that I need?


But please remember, as I always say, that...

Alien abductions are involuntary, but probings are scheduled.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Symbolism in Literature: 2

This is part two of my Symbolism in Literature posts. I recently read a book that heightened my awareness of the symbolism I read in other books, and, more importantly, the symbolism—of lack thereof—in my own writing. Here is a brief summary of two concepts from the book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster.

Eating Together: The act of taking food into our bodies is so personal that we really only want to do it with people we feel comfortable with. For that reason when we, or our characters, choose to eat with others it says, “I’m with you, I like you, we form a community together.” We sense that without having to really think about it.

But reading about meals is not that interesting. We've all eaten great food, and unless we are reading Bon Appetit, we probably don't care that much about the delicious marinara sauce or the aroma of roasted turkey--we've all been there. So, to put characters in this mundane, overused, fairly boring situation, something more has to be happening than simply beef, forks, and goblets.

Consider then the deeper meanings inherent in different meal situations. A third person arrives unexpectedly and someone throws down a napkin and leaves the table. A slick villain invites an enemy to dine with him and then has him killed. Two men from opposing camps join up to share their skimpy rations.

The providing of food by one person to another is symbolic in itself: I care about you, I want to protect you. Which is why "I'm feeding you to keep you alive so I can kill you later" feels so wrong.

Weather: I think we all have a good grasp behind the symbolism of weather, but a quick review can’t hurt. Rain is probably the most common symbolic weather element. It is used as a plot device to force people together, seeking shelter, who might not otherwise come together or choose to be together. Rain is mysterious, isolating, and causes miserable conditions. Rain has a paradoxical side, it cleanses the earth and brings re-birth and new life (literally and symbolically) while at the same time creating mud, muck and disasters, and ushering in chills, colds, pneumonia and death. It is an equalizer, falling on both the just and the unjust.

Fog is used to symbolize confusion, a mental barrier, stoppage of time, an omen. Wind, snow, fire, clouds, no clouds, sunshine, darkness…there is no limit to the imagery weather can conjure up in our minds.

As writers, we can use symbolism to make our stories more effective and engage our readers imaginations on a more meaningful level

Julie Daines

Sunday, July 11, 2010

What Does It Mean to Sell Yourself

Before I jump in and start sharing my thoughts on the various topics I listed two weeks ago, I thought I should talk about what it means to sell yourself. In my past career in fashion this was a term I heard used a lot in motivational speeches my employers sent me to. Most of the time I rolled my eyes thinking this is such a waste, but then finally towards the end of my buying career I heard a speaker I related to. His name . . . Ron Martin.

Ron was one of the few speakers who really understood what he was trying to teach our sales team. He did not just talk a bunch of hype to get them excited about selling whatever product the company was selling. No, he taught our sales force how to sell and why it is important to not only sell the product, but yourself and the company as well. Many of the tips I heard Ron talking about can not be applied to a writer trying to sell their work, but some of them can be or can be changed a bit to help you get your foot through the publishing door. These I have sprinkled throughout each topic we will be covering over the next few Sundays.

It is understood, that the first thing you will need is a marketable manuscript. Next, my suggests are to help you make your own journey toward publication a bit easier. However, none of the tips, suggestions, or steps given are a guarantee for success. You will have to adopt them to your own situations, genre of writing, and style. But my hope is after these discussions, you will be closer to getting yourself published or your writing platform closer to more book sales; if you are already published.

So just what is "selling yourself"? Getting out there and talking about yourself, your work, and anything else that has to do with your manuscript. Because of obstacles and high rewards, many people become pro-active using 'high pressure' in their approach. I am sure you have all met at least one high-pressure salesperson in your lifetime. They do not take no for an answer and they follow you around like a hawk while you shop. This is not the best way to sell anything. Including yourself, but you should be eager to talk about yourself and your work. Finding the balance is key when selling.

Let's ask ourselves a question, "What is the definition of selling?" Now think about this for a moment, and then write your definition on a piece of paper. Look at it and analyze your words. This is important because your personal definition of selling creates your behavior and attitude towards the action. The most common definition that people give to selling is "Convincing people to buy something." Others might say, "Talking people into buying something."

The dictionary definition according to Webster is "To transfer property in return for money or something else of value." For a writer this would be your talent, skill, and knowledge in this business. How you see yourself as a writer determines how well you will do in presenting your work to a publisher. Therefore, you must see yourself not only as a professional writer, but also as a salesperson and expert in the subject you have written about.

Look at the first word in your definition of selling. Is it a taking word or a giving word? If your goal is to take a publisher’s/people’s money and to become a best-seller, you will not be as successful as someone whose goal is to give something.

To sell is to give. Those who give . . . get in return most of the time. Giving a service and/or information is what salesperson do. I know because I was one of them long ago. Selling is giving the customer sufficient information so they can make an intelligent buying decision, be it a yes or no. This means as a writer we need to be talking about our credentials in a non-arrogant way and sharing what our work is about.

Those who set goals to share information will succeed. You can always give information without hurting your writing business and that my friends is what marketing is all about. Sharing information with the customers builds trust, loyalty and many times a sale. It's human nature. If you trust the salesperson, you trust what he or she sells, and vice versa. Think about why you pick certain publishers to submit your work to. It does not matter if it is a book publisher or a magazine publisher; the reasons are usually the same. You have always liked books from them or you have been getting their magazine for however long. As a customer, you have trust in what they publish. You feel they only publish good material, etc.

This same trust is what you need to build, not only with your readers, but with the publisher, editor, and/or agent as well. So how do you go about doing this? Let us first go back to what I said before about needing a marketable manuscript. Speaking as an editor, I would say a fiction manuscript that stands out from among a host of very good manuscripts, will be by virtue of its lively writing style, sharply created characters, and involving plot. For nonfiction, the elements would make an editor respond positively because of the different or interesting way the information was presented. The article would be engaging as well. It would also have an appropriate subject for its audience and supported bibliographical references, showing the writer knows the subject or did their best to learn everything before writing.

My last comment about selling yourself is this . . . make sure you stay up to date with what is going on in the world around you and in your writing genre. I know many writers who lock themselves away and do not follow the world around them while working on a manuscript. In my opinion, this can hurt your chances on becoming published. Now please note that just because a popular book or magazine has everyone talking does not mean in the next two to four years everyone will still want to read this same subject matter. But you can get an idea of where the reading market is turning by the types of events currently happening. Reading, publishing and library trade magazines will give you reference to what publishers are looking for and what they are not. I also strongly suggest you keep a file of newspaper or other articles that apply or could apply to the business of writing. This can later give you much needed subject matter or places to contact to help promote your work. Finally, you will want to spend time with your target audience. Knowing whom you write for will make you not only a better writer, but also better at marketing and relating to those who will hopefully buy your work and help build your fan base.

To learn more about VS Grenier visit her website at or her blog The Writing Mama.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Teenagers are NOT the Enemy!

By T. Lynn Adams

Teenagers are not the enemy. Remember that when you sit down to write tonight. Instead of costing you a fortune in groceries, teenagers just may start paying for a few of those items in your shopping cart!

Thanks almost entirely to series like Harry Potter or Twilight, YA publishing is experiencing its biggest surge in decades and the wave of popularity is still growing. Published writers and those still typing up manuscripts may all be able to catch that wave and ride it in to the bank. I’m not talking sand banks, either. Sales of YA fiction are up by almost 25 percent in the last decade and publishers are scrambling to fill that demand with quality fiction for teenagers. They are looking for more YA manuscripts than ever before.

Another interesting reason for the boom is that YA fiction crosses age barriers easier than any other age category in fiction. Everyone wants to read it! (Be honest, you probably know an adult who waited in midnight lines to buy Harry Potter. You may have even had a conversation with them while you waited, too! Furthermore, if you asked at work, I am sure you would hear grownups break into an animated debate over the merits of Edward or Jacob.)

That, according to one bookstore owner, is because adults are busier now than they have ever been. Between jobs, family and other demands, they don’t always have time to read heavy, involved novels—typical in the adult categories. They want something they can read in a couple of evenings or on the weekend. Young adult fiction is that kind of a fast read.

So what, exactly, is this popular category known as YA fiction? The technical definition is any book targeted at readers between the ages of 14 and 21. Another growing niche, middle-grade fiction, caters to readers between the ages 10 to 13.

In YA fiction, the hero is typically reluctant, forced into that role through outside forces. Rarely does an adult play a main character in YA fiction; they receive secondary positions. This allows the teenager heroes to identify, plan and conquer the problem on their own.

Over the last hundred years, YA fiction has always faced social issues and teen trauma head on. Some say it is too edgy while others claim it helps teens learn about real issues without having to experience them personally. Whatever you feel about the social role of teen fiction, just remember the most popular YA stories make the teenager the center of the story, not the issue.

So what are the hottest YA books out there right now? A walk through the YA section of your local bookstore will show you that the fantasy genre is claiming shelf after shelf of teen literature. Whether that fantasy is set in a modern high school or a mythical land, vampires, dragons and magical powers push tight against each other on YA shelves. And, just like the adults around them, teenage boys like more adventure in their novels while teenage girls like more romance. So pick your audience before you pick your plot.

Another YA genre with lots of growth and opportunity right now is graphic novels. These are not novels filled with explicit scenes of sex, murder or mayhem. Instead, they are original novels written and illustrated like a comic book. (And you just about choked on your sugar cookie when the neighbor’s daughter said she read graphic novels, huh?)

So, don’t think of teenagers as the enemy (even if you live with a few of them). Instead, think of them as the hero of your hope. Teenagers are opening doors at libraries and bookstores--and that is opening doors for you at publishing houses across the nation!

T. Lynn Adams is the author of Tombs of Terror by Cedar Fort Books

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Interesting TV Show for Historical Fiction Writers

Twice last night I watched the first half of an interesting show on the History channel. The first time, I turned away because something else was on, and the second time I fell asleep at about the same point where I had turned away.

The show is called "Afraid of the Dark." It went into detail about life used to be like after dark and why we are wired to be afraid of the dark. We historical fiction writers often forget or don't understand how dark night used to be, and how long night was because of how dark it was. It's an older show, from 2009 or earlier, so you might have seen it before.

If you write historical fiction, you might want to watch for this to come on again. I don't see it listed as coming on again soon on the channel's Web site, but it is available on DVD at

I wish I had written down the title of a book by an author who was one of the commentators. It might be an interesting addition to my reference shelf.

Finishing Your Manucript: Scrutinize Overused Words

Writing Wednesday

I came across a note about "Writing Words to Avoid." The note attributed the following list to 10 Easy Steps To Strong Writing, by Linda George, The Writer, Jan 2004.

Either the note writer or Linda said, "When writing that first draft, let 'em fly... then throw 'em from the train."

Here's the list:

  • a little
  • almost
  • anyway
  • began to
  • certainly
  • definitely
  • even
  • exactly
  • fairly
  • just
  • perhaps
  • probably
  • proceeded to
  • quite
  • rather
  • real
  • really
  • seem
  • slightly
  • so
  • some
  • somewhat
  • sort of
  • started to
  • such that
  • usually
  • very
  • which

I find this list useful not because these words should never be used, but because they need to earn their place in my manuscript. These are words we tend to use often in normal conversation and so they creep into our writing and dilute the ideas we're trying to convey.

For example, "almost" is occasionally useful to describing a degree of completion but it muddies the meaning when we use it to imply "a little less than." I kept the phrase, "... they had almost reached the trees when ..." (degree of completion) but removed the "almost" in the phrase "... he said, almost too brightly." The problem with the second, more common usage is that by saying what it almost is we're not saying what it is.

Similarly, "began to," and "started to," are occasionally useful when it's important to know that something happened in the context of starting some action, as in, "he started to run and then tripped." Often, in our writing, we use "began to" and say what a character started to do when it would be clearer and more concise to say what they did.

And that's what it really comes down to: overused words like the ones in the list are suspect because they blur the meaning. They still have their places, but those places are almost always fewer than you thought in your first draft.

What other words you would add to this list?

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Writer Bashing

I've attended several writing conferences, funtions, subscribed to writing newsletters and listserves and here is my burning question:

Is it okay, feng-shui, protocol or whatever to bash on other authors?

Here are my assumptions, which I think are pretty reasonable:
1.  Writers are people.  Tough people, sure, but we still have feelings and emotions, just like any other professionals.
2.  Writing is a profession.  Authors should and can be professional about their competition.  Even NBA, NFL, etc. athletes will talk about how they'll dominate, but when they're interviewed, they are very careful not to say anything mean or derrogatory about any one person in particular.
3.  Most writing has flaws.  When I read a book, I find myself editing as I go along.  Kind of spoils the experience in some ways.  However, I often also find delight in the characters, the descriptions, the situations and (personally) the romance.

Based on these assumptions, I find it unprofessional to bash on other authors.

Yes, I get wildly jealous sometimes of other authors (that means anyone who is published since I'm not yet).  And yes, I find value in critiquing others' writing--learning from their strengths and weaknesses.

As a community, we do a great job of teaching, encouraging and reaching out to each other.  Why not also set an example and resolve to say and write positive things about other authors?

Have you experienced writer bashing?  Leave us a comment and let us know your opinion.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Time Management and Inevitably Large Rocks

First, I’ll recap my favorite time-management object lesson:

Object Lesson About Priorities of Life
"Okay, time for a quiz."

A large jar set on a table.

About a dozen fist-sized rocks - carefully place them, one at a time, into the jar.
When the jar is filled to the top and no more rocks will fit inside…

"Is this jar full?"

Reach under the table and pull out a bucket of gravel. Dump some gravel in and shake the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.

"Is this jar full?"

Reach under the table and bring out a bucket of sand. Dump the sand in.

"Is this jar full?"

Grab a pitcher of water and pour it in until the jar is filled to the brim.

"What is the point of this illustration?"

The truth this illustration teaches us: If you don't put the big rocks in first, you'll never get them in at all."

What are the 'big rocks' in your life?
· A project you want to accomplish?
· Time with your loved ones?
· Your faith?
· Your education?
· Your dreams?
· A worthy cause?

Remember to put these BIG ROCKS in first, or you'll fill your life with the little things that don't really matter and you'll never have time to spend on the big, important things.

Put the BIG ROCKS first or you'll never fit them in at all.
What are the 'big rocks' in my life?
Put those in your jar first.

Does that sound familiar?

The lesson tells us how to manage the rocks, but leaves to us to decide which ones are big, and which little.

I’ve read umpteen books on How To Write. Most of them have a section on Finding Time To Write. (Finding, making, begging, borrowing, stealing, etc.)

I always pay close attention when I read those sections, because by nature (I have a forgetful, laid-back personality) and circumstances (I homeschool my five little kids) I don’t have a lot of “free” time. Practically none, as it happens.

Usually the advice leads out with a redefining of “free time” and a Get Real pep talk that includes points like Stop Watching TV, Quit Knitting Afghans, and You’re Sleeping Too Much; Get Up Early And Write Then.

Well, I wasn’t going to let a couple of hours of sleep come between me and success at a lifetime goal! I happily set my alarm, humming to myself.

The first few days were great! As it turns out, lots of motivated motivators agreed that I slept far too much and told me that early morning is best for reaching all sorts of personal goals. Every day began with 45 minutes of exercise, a personal devotional, and an hour of writing.

Yeah, it was all great, until I started falling asleep at the wheel.

One of the problems with falling asleep while driving—besides the obvious ones, I mean—is that only the first few shocking mid-drive wake-ups send adrenaline shooting through your body, doing for free what most people have to pay good money to Red Bull for. After that, human adaptability soothed me into thinking “This is the new normal.” Which is more shocking, just not in the immediate, biological sense.

This was how I learned that deciding which rocks were big and which were little was not entirely up to my conscious self. Oh, sure, I could say I didn’t need to sleep, and tell myself "Pain is weakness leaving my body!", but my body got the last laugh and took the sleep when it needed it.

How much sleep I needed (63 hours a week, give or take) wasn’t up to me. Where the sleep happened, that was up to me.

I’ve been finding more examples of rocks that I thought were little that are actually big. My husband and I need at least 4 hours together a week. That’s a weekly Big Rock and non-negotiable. Either we plan a date and have fun, or we forget about the date because something is “more important” and end up fighting for at least four hours, usually on Sunday morning right before church. How much time: Inevitable. How we take that time: up to us.

I need at least 7 hours a week of time to myself, which I know sounds unaccountably self-indulgent. I realized I could either plan to spend an hour a day in meditation and writing, OR I could think I was being selfish, be tough and ignore it, then realize

1. I’d spent the last 20 minutes walking into every room in the house trying to remember what I’d gone in there for;
2. I couldn’t ask one of my kids if they knew what I was doing because I couldn’t remember their name, and
3. I wanted chocolate. I wanted it bad.

Also, there’s the spontaneous fits of crying, which unnerve dogs, husbands and the UPS man. Yup. Me-time is non-negotiable, if only because without it everyone else-time breaks down.

So how do we fit writing into all this?

If some of us find it hard to justify time spent on basic biological necessities like sleep, how do we find, make, beg-borrow-steal time to write?

Good question. And like most good questions, all I can tell you is how I found my answer and hope you'll find yours.

It’s true that we all do waste time we could spend writing, but what I’m calling for here is a redefinition of wasted time. Time to rest and goof off are not little rocks, though that’s how it works for some superpeople among us. (If you’re one of those superpeople who can schedule 16-hour days, every day, more power to you. You don’t need my advice. In fact, you're probably not even reading this, knowing that there are more profitable ways to spend your time.)

But for some of the rest of us, our minds need to rest, either while we’re asleep or awake. If we don’t allow for that, our minds will take the rest they need, usually -maddeningly- when we need our frontal lobes most. Minds are stinkers like that.

For me, the typing part of writing is half of Writing. The other half has me watching clouds and bugs and lying in corpse pose, though I don’t always admit that to actual productive human beings.

Fun is a Big Rock.

To recap: There are some rocks in our daily jar that we’d like to call little rocks, so that we can choose Writing as one of the Big Rocks. Well, some Big Rocks are involuntary and inevitable and can’t be renamed or cast out so easily.

Among those inevitably large Big Rocks is the need to feel mentally awake or spiritually fulfilled every day. If you use this time for writing, then out of necessity, writing will have to be an enjoyable thing. Not easy, enjoyable. It's different.

That’s a great thing, because when we enjoy something, we’re more likely to make a long-term or even lifetime habit of it. And isn’t that really the goal?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Uniquely American Writing

by Scott Rhoades

With July 4th just around the corner, it's time to wax philosophical about American writing and what our unique strengths are. This post will contain some vast generalizations for which there are plenty of exceptions, but I hope that the general ideas will be mostly true.

For the longest time, American writers were considered an extension of British literary tradition. Early short stories, poems, and novels written in the United States mostly borrowed their themes and styles from the Brits, expanding British Lit into English Lit, but not bringing a lot of new material. In literary circles, it was often claimed that writings about some of the uniquely American situations, like the wilds of our as-yet-undiscovered country, written with the loose adventurous spirit of the colonies, were as crude as our society. Much of the early fiction reflected Puritan values or British society, or tried to cast American heroes into a model considered acceptable among the literati in an attempt to prove that our new land could be just as cultured as the Mother Country.

It must have seemed like an exciting, maybe even scandalous, novelty when European forms were adapted by people like Longfellow, Emerson, and Cooper, using American material such as Native Americans or colonial life.

Of course, there was also a large body of writing dedicated to the political atmosphere in the colonies and then in the young country, a tradition that, for better or worse, is still very much alive today.

But by the second half of the 19th Century, a strange thing started to happen. We started to break away. People like Whitman and Twain turned the traditions on their head and not only stopped trying to be British but started making fun of those old traditions in a most American way. Whitman broke away from traditional forms and themes and wrote from and about an American way of looking at the world. Twain, of course, mastered the art of combining the American tall-tale tradition with stories of life on the edge of the frontier, along with hot-button issues of his time like slavery. America had found its voice.

Besides writing stories based in very American cities and laced with very American characters, Twain did something else to help break us away from our Brit-Lit past. His travel writings, especially A Tramp Abroad and Following the Equator, lampooned the Old World traditions while at the same time making fun of the rude American in a delightfully American way. Few people have shown the American in all his glory and with all his warts like Twain did.

In the century since Twain was alive, American literature has grown and developed. If you think of something uniquely American, whether positive or negative, you'll find it reflected in our writings and our attitude toward literature. Whether it's our world-altering (and sometimes bizarre) politics, our often priggish Puritanical sensibilities and the unusual spiritual lifestyles that have grown out of them, our sense of wild adventure, our wide-open vistas, or our melting-pot culture, it is all reflected in our literature in ways seldom, if ever, seen before.

Look at adventure novels. The Brits and other europeans might have invented the adventure story with stories like Ivanhoe and The Three Musketeers, but our American sense of adventure has transformed the genre to the point that, even in the old countries, it's not hard to claim that they are now following our lead. America was, and to some extent still is, the land of adventure, and our stories reflect it.

In recent decades, we've also seen an explosion of fascinating writing coming out of our mixed ethnic backgrounds. If there's an ethnic subculture in this country, it most likely has its own literary genre, beginning with Jewish-American and African-American lit and expanding into any hyphenation you can find, resulting in well-known works like The Joy Luck Club and The Kite Runner. This extends, of course, to our huge number of subcultures, ethnic or not, that make us richer because we have not fought as hard as other countries to subvert them, or at least we haven't succeeded, all because of our American brand of freedom. Freedom is certainly not unique to the United States, but I think it's fair to say that we have our own (if sometimes hypocritical) way of looking at it and we've been an example that others have followed in their own quests for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our attitudes spawn both stories and the conflicts that keep them moving.

To be certain, we still borrow extensively from our mother cultures. Modern writers are undeniably influenced by people like Austen, Tolkien, and modern writers like Rowling, but we usually bring something of our own to the genres. We didn't invent the horror story or ghost story, but where would the genre be without our Poe or King? Our influence on genres like Sci-Fi (arguably invented by the French writer Jules Verne) have been transformational.

Let's continue the tradition. Instead of trying, like early American writers often did, to write fine literature despite being American, let's write great stories because we ARE American. Let's take advantage of the story telling traditions that date back to stories told around the campfire or to pass time in the log cabin. And if you're new to this country, bring in your own cultural heritage and paint it with palette available only to those who have melded their traditional culture with ours. There are so many fascinating stories of the struggles to come to this new land and make a home in a land of dreams where the current inhabitants are not always very welcoming.

Because of the way American society is structured, we can break it down even more. Utah writers are different than New York writers. Utah County writers are different than Washington County writers. Those of us who are transplants to Utah, or transplants from Utah, have a different perspective than those who have stayed near their Salt Lake or Provo or Fillmore or Kanab birthplaces. We each bring those unique perspectives of the places where we've lived to the great American literary quilt.

We get to be a part--or create our own part--of the American experience. There are endless numbers of stories here, and we have the honor and responsibility of being the ones to tell them. That's kind of cool.