Total Pageviews

Monday, July 20, 2015

Sleep Deprivation, Jet Lag, and Writing

On the good side, I recently took a lengthy vacation and flew across the pond to Greece for the first time. On the bad side, the trip required that I get up early one morning, travel all day, and arrive where the time zone was eight hours ahead. As a result, I did not get to go to bed for almost a full twenty-four hours. I thought I felt fairly good under the circumstances. I could sense my excitement rising while I attended an orientation session followed by an evening bus ride into the city center of Athens and then a long walk deep into the old town for my first authentic Greek dinner, accompanied by Greek music and dancing. The fact that it was noon on my body clock and I had been up for nearly twenty-four hours did not seem to affect me. After dinner our group trekked back down through the steep, winding cobblestone streets to climb aboard our bus for a return to our hotel around ten thirty at night for what I thought would be blessed sleep. Wide awake (I thought) from the excitement and exercise, I sat down in my room to write an e-mail or two and play Scrabble and another a word game called Ruzzle, which I find addictive.

To my surprise I discovered myself making huge errors and also being far too slow at the Ruzzle game, losing round after round, until I realized I was a victim of exhaustion, even though I felt fine. The Ruzzle game became my gauge. As my exhaustion and jet lag abated over the next few days, I saw my Ruzzle scores rising back to normal, an interesting phenomenon indeed.

Upon my return to America two weeks later, I went through the same process, after being up for twenty-three hours and once again out of the time zone I had grown acclimated to.

I wondered about how exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and jet lag can affect our writing skills. I’m sure that it affects my reflexes and logic. I know I work best in the mornings, but by evening my enthusiasm, concentration, and logic go on vacation, and I need to rest and revive myself. Obviously the same holds true if I get too much excitement and not enough sleep.

We writers need to stay aware of exhaustion levels and our best times to write, and we must schedule time accordingly. Vacations are great, and I’m filled with terrific memories and more than 600 new photographs, but I was in no way a worthy writer after climbing hills and steps and cobblestone streets in southern Europe. No, I had to get home, get my sleep, and return to my routine before my writing passion and ability returned.

Fellow writers, to sum up my observations in a groaner of a simile, like a good pencil, we writers must all stay sharp.

Oh, and here's some terrific news: the second edition of Write In Style is finally available. After the first edition sold out, writers across America, Canada, and Australia begged me to re-release the book, but I needed first to update the old 2004 version. The 2015 edition is bigger, better, up to date, and indexed, as well. Find your fresh voice with the advice in Write In Style: How to Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing. Just click here:


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Falling Prey to a Commercial

I fell prey to a commercial that made my mouth water, and I have learned my lesson. Little Caesar's bacon-encrusted deep dish pizza spoke to me yesterday when dinnertime came, not only because of the mouth-watering image on TV, but also because I had nothing prepared to eat.
A red flag rose when I called in my order and was told it would be ready in only ten minutes. By then I had already committed and even given the unenthusiastic phone operator my name, so despite my misgivings and my concern about how a good pizza could possibly be prepared, baked, and boxed in ten minutes, I drove about a mile to pick up my order.
I rarely eat pizza, so I don't know why the urge overcame me, but bacon. Really. Bacon, and also deep dish. I remember marvelous deep-dish Chicago-style pizzas when I was living in Charlotte. Back in the 1970s I would drive across town to Liberty Pizza to get a deep-dish pizza crammed full of tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, and pepperoni piled atop a deep-red sauce and crowned with thick, gooey, tasty cheese. I had that image in mind when I went to Little Caesar's for the first time in about 25 years. Yes, I had a vague recollection that the chain’s pizza 25 years ago was edible, but that was about it. Now, though, those commercials enticed me. Crispy-bacon-encrusted deep-dish pizza. My mouth couldn't wait to taste it.

When I reached the store in less than ten minutes, the pizza was ready already. How could it be? They must really throw those things together, I decided, until I saw a worker behind the counter pull another pizza out of a microwavable dish, and the realization hit me. Of course! No wonder I couldn’t order anything extra on my pizza that wasn’t listed on the menu on the Internet. These things are not made to order; they are premade and warmed a microwave, Ugh.

Again, I had already committed. They had my name, and I was standing in the store, so I asked for my pizza. A clerk who looked everywhere but at me mumbled some price I could barely hear and stared over my head while I dug out my money. Expressionlessly she pulled my change from the cash register and counted it out to herself, not me. She was someplace else entirely, possibly gaming on a yacht in Monaco, but certainly not counting change at a counter at Little Caesar’s Pizza. She turned to a warming shelf, pulled out a box that held my pizza, opened the box for my inspection, and looked over my shoulder while I viewed something that looked more like a burned sponge than a luscious bacon-encrusted deep dish pizza. I had committed to it, though, so I nodded, she closed the box, and I drove home. The worst was yet to come.

When I bit into the pizza, I felt texture--crispy bacon, soft bread-like deep-dish crust, and that was about it. Where was the sauce? Where was the cheese? Where was the taste?
It had pepperoni and some shards of things that were a bit tangy but unrecognizable scattered on top, little chips that mostly fell off when I lifted the pizza slice (if you can call a rectangle a slice).

The pizza had texture but no taste, no moisture, and no appeal. Even the crispy bacon that surrounded the pizza had very little bacon taste, probably the result of having been cooked much earlier and simply reheated when I placed my order.
Will it be another 25 years before I again buy a Little Caesar’s pizza? No, I think it will be more like never again. I will fast-forward past the pizza commercials when I see them again. Meanwhile, I still have a box full of pizza left over. Maybe if I add tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, ground beef, real cheese, and red sauce, the pizza will become edible.
Maybe not.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Words and Music

I feel moved by Truman Capote's quote, "To me the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the music the words make." I often listen to the music of words and revel in their rhythm. Last night, for instance, I fell asleep thinking of Little Orphan Annie. That's it, just the title, Little Orphan Annie. Three words, six syllables, with the accent on the first syllable of each word. Such rhythm! No wonder the title was catchy.

 Titles with rhythm stay in readers' minds. We need to think in terms of rhythm when we title our stories, books, and plays. Prose writers who keep rhythm in mind add a subtle creativity to their writing that does not stand out, but quietly, in the background, forms a masterful, musical composition of words.

 As an example of an extreme, however, years ago a woman attended one of my workshops, and afterward she handed me a sheet of paper and said, "I don't know what I've written. What would you call this?"

 The page consisted of about six paragraphs that described the author's feeling about life. The piece had such inherent rhythm that I said, "This is pretty prose, but break this into lines, and you've written an outstanding poem."

 "I'm a poet?" She looked surprised, startled, and proud.

 Instead of being consciously concerned about the accents on syllables, strong prose writers add rhythm to their work by adding a little alliteration here and there, plus changing up the lengths of words, sentences, and paragraphs. With a combination of lengths, the prose forms a natural rhythm. An occasional one- or two-word sentence adds spunk to writing. The infrequent long sentence adds intrigue and sometimes mystery, in the same way. Rats! I wish I could write that way.

Friday, January 30, 2015

A New Year, a New Plan

Many folks make resolutions for the new year, and for a few weeks they may even try to fulfill those resolutions. I see the results at the gym in January, when the parking lot is filled with automobiles driven by people who have resolved to work out more, for example. By the end of February, the lot is back to its usual status of only half full.

I watch while the TV features ads in January aimed at all those folks who resolve to lose weight and quit smoking, too. Those ads wean down to only a few, once February arrives.

 A good friend of mine writes intentions for the new year, rather than resolutions, which is a good idea. Someone who has the intention of finishing her book in 2015 is less likely to feel frustrated by February if she hasn't written as much as she had hoped. She has, after all, the remainder of the year to fulfill her intentions. What motive does she have to meet her intentions, though? As writers, we all know that characters must have the motivation to change, or nothing happens.

Years ago I resolved to have no New Year's resolutions. I don't write intentions, either. I know what works for me. Instead of resolutions or intentions, I get to the nitty-gritty and write goals. Once I have written a goal, I give it a deadline and break it into smaller deadlines. Goals and deadlines motivate me much more than resolutions or other methods.

My goal for 2015 is to re-release my award-winning book on creative writing titled Write In Style. People have been begging for me to get that book back on the market, and a business acquaintance has promised to work with me to get it printed and ready for sale in the summer. Because I wrote the original book near the turn of the century, though, I have to update and expand much of the information, which requires a great deal of rewriting. I broke the process down by dates by which I will get each portion complete, so that I can get the completed manuscript to the printer in time for a summer release. Now that I have written goals, I know I will get the project done, barring unforeseen circumstances.

I have declared my goal for 2015 and made it known to the multitudes, now, which is also a great motivator. Watch for the release date for the second edition of Write In Style! I know I will meet my goal.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Horror of the Blank Page, Blank Mind

Have you ever stared at a blank page and wondered what the heck you were going to write? That's what I faced today when I realized I had not written a blog entry in a while, so it was time to reconnect with my fellow writers.

Many writers face the dreaded blank page with a blank mind, especially those who want to write a book and do not know where to start. I teach writers a terrific technique for never having to face a blank page with a blank mind. Here's my secret: Before you begin writing a book, make a list of all the major points you want to make. You may add to, subtract from, change, revise, reorganize, or even ignore the list later, if you want, but if you have a book in mind, start with a list of main points.

The best memoirs feature events and vignettes, rather than a litany of highlights. If writing a memoir, rather than listing a birth date, important dates, names of schools attended, or awards received, your memoir list might go like this:

Mother nearly dies giving birth to me in 1945

First day at grammar school in 1951, got lost in hallway

What I was doing when I heard I won the Lictersphincter Award

The day I met my spouse

The time I broke my leg

The events that led to my being fired from Jonston Company

Each event can then be written as a scene with action, dialogue, setting, setup, story, and resolution, which makes for much more exciting memoirs.

If you plan to write a how-to book, your list might go like this:

Skills needed to make a wingding

Tools needed

How to prepare to make a wingding

Problems to avoid

Possible solutions to issues that might arise

How to help the community with your new wingding

The same formula works for fiction. You could write a list of scenes or plot twists you plan to cover. Here's an example:

John meets Dorothy

Dorothy ends her relationship with Alfred

Alfred lies in wait for John

John hires a bodyguard who turns out to have his own agenda

Many people hate to outline projects before starting, but a list is not an outline. It is simply a bendable, moldable, changeable list to help writers avoid facing a blank page with a blank mind. After you have made such a list, whenever you sit down to write, you simply have to peruse the list and decide which of the subjects speaks to you that day. As a result, you are off and writing with ease.

No one ever said your book has to be written in the order that it appears. With today's technology you can start anywhere and later move things around to your liking.
I faced a blank page this morning when I wanted to write my blog, but I think I'll now make a list of subjects I want to cover in future blogs. Wouldn't that be a clever idea? Why didn't I think of it?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Giving Thanks for Open Minds and Happiness

As I write this, I am still swooning with love for my family and thankful for all my blessings. After a huge family wedding a few days before, when our cousin Bryan married Michael, his partner of eighteen years, some of us gathered again to celebrate Thanksgiving. There is a Yiddish word, kvell, which means to swell with pride and happiness. It's the only word that describes how I felt, looking from face to face over the table at our Thanksgiving dinner.  

Our family is, as my brother describes it, a modern family. My sister and her husband have shared forty years of the happiest marriage anyone can ever hope to imagine. They found each other, however, while they both were married to others, and it took them a long time to admit their love for each other and disentangle from their first marriages. It took them very little time after that, however, to marry each other.  

My niece and her husband are happily living in separate homes and still the best of friends, so both came up from Florida for Thanksgiving. The husband, stepfather to her son, is helping his stepson, my great nephew, repair and upgrade the new house that the twenty-three-year-old just bought in our area. My great nephew and his girlfriend plan to live together in that house as soon as she finishes nursing school. Remember when people used to gasp when told a couple was living together without benefit of marriage? I certainly heard it in my generation, but thankfully all that prejudice and condemnation never ruled our family.  

My great niece could not make it for Thanksgiving. She and her domestic partner live in California. Our family never blinked when my great niece admitted to being gay. So what? She was still the lovely, sweet woman we all loved, and now she has a partner we all love, as well. 

Another niece and her husband hosted the dinner, to which we all contributed. She is an artist and jeweler and he is a woodworker and a chiropractor. Their home is a gallery of artwork, with even more artistic and architectural touches everywhere. The couple, happily married for many years, met after the end of their bad first marriages. 

I brought my new boyfriend to the event, the first time I've introduced him to family, because he and I have been dating only two months. We met over the Internet and connected through his beautiful letters long before we met in person. By the time we met in person, we already liked each other, and after only a few months of dating, we are in a happy, committed monogamous relationship. We truly enjoy each other, even though (or maybe because) we're both in our seventies. It's never too late! My boyfriend is black, and not an eyelash was batted when I introduced him to my family members. Instead of prejudice, all my family cares about is happiness, and when I looked around the room, I saw happiness everywhere.   

Our family situation, however, is rare. I know families with rifts, estrangements, prejudices, and conditional love, rather than unconditional. What a shame! What a waste of time, when love is all that matters in this world. I am truly thankful for my family. Whenever we gather, I feel love swirling around the room in an almost tangible fashion.  

Obviously I have a great deal to be thankful for. I hope all my fellow writers feel the same way. Here's to happiness, health, and lots of love for all my readers, no matter what the season.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Query Letters: Do's and Don'ts

     While clearing out old papers, I ran across a few items I collected many years ago. For a time, I helped a literary agent sort through copious submissions. I evaluated submissions, passed only the best on to the agent, and returned the hopeless ones with an explanation and rejection. Sometimes I did not have to read past a few lines in the query letter to know the book would have no value. Here are a couple of direct excerpts from letters I found in that old pile, typos and other errors included:
     "I've created an interesting fictional story, titled [title deleted]. About a woman who must be true to herself and to everyone she loves …. If you are interested in my manuscript, do not hesitated in replying back to me."
     "With the most respectful manner in which you deserve I address myself to you, at the same time I most cordially salute you for your excellent and expidiant labor …. Without other undue motive present I remain most attentivelly appreciative to you for attention that it deserves."
     A query letter represents the author and the manuscript, so query letters must be perfect. If you want an agent or acquisitions editor to read your query, be sure it is a good reflection on you and your book.
     I attended a session called a Gong Pitch Fest at the 2014 Florida Writers Conference. During the gong fest, writers stood before a panel of seven or eight agents and publishers and pitched their books. If anything struck a panelist as a negative, the panelist struck a gong. After three gong strikes, the presenter had to stop. At the end of each pitch, panelists reviewed the good and the bad about the pitch. The event entertained and informed a large roomful of writers, and I learned a thing or two myself.
     Few of us get to pitch our books in person, so our query letter has to be our pitch. The mistake that brought the most gongs was what the panelists called "going into synopsis land." Although the query letter must give the gist or the hook of the story, it should not give the entire story.
The next thing that drew the most gongs was a pitch that failed to give the word count and genre of the manuscript. Some presenters even forgot to give the title of their book.  
     Like a pitch in person, a query letter must be short, tight, and to the point, yet entire books have been written on how to write a good query letter. If you're not sure about your query letter, read about query letters in any of the sources available in books and online, before you craft your query letter.         
     Once you have crafted the best query possible, have someone professionally edit the letter, to ensure that every comma, capitalization, word choice, and spelling is correct.
     If you have questions about your query letter, or if you want someone to edit it, contact me at