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Monday, July 11, 2016

The Story of Bruce Bird

The story of Bruce Bird must now be told. I see him aging and having difficulty moving around his cage. He has stopped eating the spinach he used to devour as soon as I put it in his cage. Parakeets can live up to ten or thirteen years, according to my resources, and Bruce is at least ten and maybe much older. I don’t know, and here’s why:

On June 14, 2006, my phone rang much too early in the morning, the kind of call that makes me know in my gut that something is wrong. When I answered, a sobbing Roy Pfiester blurted, “Bruce is gone. Bruce died this morning.”

What? Bruce Brown, a travel agent for American Express, was my good buddy with whom I’d not only shared years of friendship but who also had been my travel mate to Morocco. Wherever Bruce went, his raucous laughter filled the room. Bruce and Roy’s cockatoo even mimicked Bruce’s laugh. In the time I knew Bruce he and Roy had a cat, a dog, and several exotic birds. We sometimes took care of other’s dogs, when one of us traveled.

Roy, Bruce’s partner, was the quiet half of the couple. He always grinned and quietly found humor in Bruce’s antics and unfiltered comments.

Bruce was young, in his fifties. I was in my sixties at the time. How could Bruce have left this earth before me? Why? He had been perfectly healthy. Nothing made sense.

As best we could eventually determine, Bruce had some sort of medical episode upon landing in Banff, Canada, on a Fam tour—one agents use to become familiar with destinations they may later recommend to clients. The doctors weren’t sure if Bruce had altitude sickness or a heart problem, so they transferred him to a larger hospital in Calgary, where he finally felt well enough and had time to call Roy. Roy said Bruce’s last words to him were, “This isn’t good-bye.”

It was.

I was distraught, but I could only imagine how devastated Roy was, because their partnership had been strong for more than twenty years. Bruce’s memorial service overflowed with people giving heartfelt testimony to the witty, loving man.

After Bruce’s death, I could not get a handle on my depression. About two weeks later, I was on the phone when something caught my eye. On a chair back outside my window sat a colorful bird, looking in the window. I thought at first it might be a painted bunting, which I’d seen only in photos, but when I stepped closer, I saw that it was a blue parakeet. Parakeets should not be flying around loose in Atlanta, Georgia, so I told the person on the phone that I’d call back. I opened the back door gently, for fear the bird would take off. It didn’t.

I walked over slowly, one step at a time.

The bird held its ground.

I slipped my hand over the bird, fearing it would try to fly away. It didn’t. I gingerly walked back into my house holding a quaking, skinny parakeet.

Now what?

My humane trap for catching squirrels and mice was small, but it was safe and the closest thing I had to a cage. I put the bird in the humane trap and brought it into my kitchen. I found a bag of seeds I had intended to put into my feeder outside and put some seeds in the bird’s temporary cage. The little budgie dug in, eating like it had been starving. It probably had been.

I tried to find its rightful owner. I put up signs around the neighborhood and posted notices on the Internet, but every call I received was for a lost parrot, not a parakeet. Someone had lost a beautiful parakeet, and I wanted to find its rightful home, because I had no interest in owning a bird. While I waited to find its owner, though, I watched the colorful creature eat, drink, and even sing, and I felt in awe.

After a few days I recalled that when my friend Ruth’s husband died suddenly, she started finding feathers everywhere she went. She told me Robert was sending her feathers to tell her everything was all right. Feathers? My friend Bruce, animal lover that he was, had sent me an entire bird! I knew the bird had come to the right place.

I gladly invested in a proper cage and all the other equipment one buys for a parakeet, and Bruce Bird had a name and a home.

The story doesn’t end there, though.

In my research I learned how to tell the sex of a parakeet. I learned that an adult male has a blue or purple cere, the little crest above its beak. Adult females have a brown, crusty cere. Bruce Bird, with his brown, crusty cere, was not a male, but a female. I had to chuckle with my new knowledge, because I knew Bruce Brown wouldn’t have minded having a feathered female namesake; he was totally out of the closet himself.

Ah, but there’s  more.

When Bruce Bird stopped eating and singing, I worried about his health and found an avian vet who put the bird through many tests. She explained that the bird was indeed a male, but because it had underdeveloped testicles—two tiny dots on the x-rays—it had become feminized. By then I knew my friend Bruce must have been rolling in laughter in heaven. Although Bruce was gay, he wasn’t transgender, but leave it to Bruce to send me a transgender bird. Yes, my friend always had a great sense of humor.

My sister guffawed at me for spending hundreds of dollars on veterinary bills for a bird that could be replaced for ten or fifteen dollars, but Bruce Bird was irreplaceable. Bruce Brown sent him to me from beyond. I believe it, and it is so.

Anyway, after a course of antibiotics and weighing the bird daily to ensure he was not losing weight (Yes, I had to buy a special scale), Bruce Bird recuperated and returned to his cheerful demeanor. What I found fascinating was that he never allowed me to hold him again without trying to bite me, so that first time I picked him up on the deck, he must have been near death from starvation.

Ten years I’ve enjoyed the parakeet I never thought I’d own. It’s been ten years of buying seeds, apples, spinach, cuttlebones, toys, and cages. Ten years of having to arrange for bird sitters whenever I traveled. Ten years of having him greet me each morning with a happy twitter. Ten wonderful years.

A few weeks ago, though, I found Bruce Bird on the floor of his cage, unable to get back on his perch. He squawked and fought me when I put him back on his perch, but eventually he held onto the perch and then ate. Ever since then he’s had trouble moving around. He has stopped singing. He refuses to eat his greens or apple slices, but at least he still eats his seeds and drinks his water.

I know he’s aging, and it’s a natural process over which I have no control. I don’t know how old he was when he came to me, but he was already a mature bird. He’s given me ten great years of enjoyment with his songs, mimicking sounds, and warbling to the TV. I know I will lose him one day, but at least I’m being given some warning. He’s going to entertain Bruce Brown in heaven one day. I don’t want to think about it, but I do thank Bruce Brown for sending me a little blue bundle of joy to get me through my original sadness. Maybe he’ll send another parakeet to rescue if this one flies over the rainbow bridge.



Friday, July 1, 2016

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

I’m always impressed with fiction writers. Not only must their word choice and word order be correct, but they must also conjure up stories with conflict and suspense as well as good characterization, lively dialogue, and an alluring beginning, strong middle, and satisfying end. After decades of getting paid for my writing, I accept that I am a nonfiction writer, not a fiction writer. The two novels I’ve attempted to write were so clearly based on my life that I quit the first one and never tried to find a publisher for the second one. As an editor I have studied fiction and can tell a writer what’s wrong with a novel and even make suggestions on how to repair it, but I cannot magically summon a story out of thin air myself.
As a nonfiction writer, though, I still have the same challenge to come up with ideas, and where are those ideas? For example, I needed to write a creative writing exercise for my monthly newsletter, The Writers Network News. I had no idea what I would write for that exercise, but I had a few weeks before it was due. I trusted that ideas abound, and one would come to me.

Sure enough, one day I read the following quotation from philosopher and author Jean Jacques Rousseau: “What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” Ding! The quotation triggered some deep thoughts, and an idea slowly formed in my head.

If I asked writers to write about kindness, though, how would the topic make a good story? Because strong stories employ conflict, how can kindness result in conflict? Aha! The answer came to me, and I wrote the following creative writing exercise:

Random Acts of Kindness

We’ve all heard of random acts of kindness and how surprising yet appreciated they always seem to be. We’re writers, though, and we know the best stories involve conflict. No one wants to read about everything going hunky dory.

For this exercise, create a character that performs a random act of kindness. To introduce conflict, have his or her act backfire into something not so kind. For example, what if your character noticed that the person ahead of him in the checkout line could not find enough money to pay for his purchase? What if your Good Samaritan character pulled out his billfold and peeled off a couple of dollars to complete the stranger’s purchase? What if that stranger then stood in wait for your character to emerge from the store so he could rob him of the remaining money in his wallet?

Think of your own scenario of a random act of kindness turning into something sinister, unkind, or otherwise unexpected in a negative way.

* * *

Where do ideas come from? Ideas are everywhere, if we but open our eyes. Read headlines in the news. Be in the moment, wherever you are, and observe everything around you; something may come to mind. Read voraciously. Be a neutral witness to things happening to you. Keep your eyes and your mind open. Sometimes you’ll get ideas from writing exercises such as the one I just told you about. You’ll see that exercise in the August 2016 issue of The Writers Network News. If you’d like a monthly creative writing exercise, something that gives you ideas that compel you to start, complete, or continue a story, subscribe to The Writers Network News for free. You’ll also get news, tips, markets, contests, and much more for writers. Simply go to and click on Free Newsletter to sign up.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Ask the Book Doctor about Radio Promotions

Questions from real writers, just like you; answers from Book Doctor Bobbie Christmas
Q: I haven’t a clue about how to promote my book on radio, yet I’ve heard other writers have been successful doing so. What’s the secret?

 A: Because I am a book editor, my expertise usually ends when a book gets published; however, I can tell you what a highly successful client of mine did.

He wrote a touching novel about a soldier in the Civil War, and he based it on information he found in an old family bible. He labeled the book fiction, because he added dialogue and concocted details necessary to pull the story together, but he inserted photographs of the decapitated house where the real family had lived as well as marriage records and other documents to back up his story. After I edited the book and he self-published it, he and his wife loaded up their motor home and took off. They stopped in small towns along the routes mentioned in his book, found bookstores or other venues that would allow him to hold book signings, and then called local radio stations and landed on-air interviews to promote his book and book signings. Perhaps because the towns were small and had few competing events, he managed to get large crowds at most of his events. After he sold out of the first printing, he told me he and his wife had planned to tour the South anyway, and much of his book-promotion journey turned out to be tax deductible, while he and his wife had a delightful trip and sold many books. They planned another tour for the second printing.

Q: I just noticed that you had a radio interview on self-publishing. I missed the interview; however, I would like to contribute some firsthand info about self-publishing. If you are a senior (I am 87), think twice about self-publishing. I self-published a Christmas book for children, and although I had several reliable distributors, I discovered that I still was expected to do signings, make appearances all over the country, and do much of my own marketing. I am too old to be traveling all over the country, and besides, it was Christmas. Who wants to be away from home around Christmas?

A: Thank you for your opinion on self-publishing. In truth, though, even if a traditional publisher buys your book, nowadays you're expected to market it yourself, and unless you're prepared to spend a great deal of time marketing, the book may not sell well. Read some good books or websites about book promotions and find a few tips you can use to promote your book without traveling too much. Sometimes you can get radio interviews or give seminars and events while working from home. Telephone lines and the Internet reach the world over, so personal appearances are not as vital as they used to be.

Q: I'm a stay-at-home mom of a two-year-old, and I have a book that I would like to try to have published, but I keep putting off sending in my manuscript because I'm afraid that if I ever do get published, I'll have to leave my son for a publicity tour. Could you please let me know what, if anything, I can do?

A: I am amazed at the obstacles we writers put in our own way. “I won't try to get my book published, because I don't want to leave my son” is like saying, "I won't buy a new outfit, because I’d have to wash it." Rather than thinking of a negative result, we must think of the positive outcomes from selling our books. In addition, we writers have options open to us that we may not yet know about.

Here's the truth about the publishing business: The chances of selling a manuscript are slim. If you beat those odds and sell your manuscript to a publisher, you may have to attend a book release party, give interviews, or attend a few book signings, but few publishers plan or finance publicity tours anymore. Most promotions are handled over the radio or Internet these days. The books that result in national TV and radio interviews are typically written by celebrities. Every time I see a celebrity on a talk show, I know he or she is pushing a new book or movie, and I'm usually right.

Don't let the fear of success or the reluctance to travel stop your forward movement. Trust that if the book sells, you will work out arrangements that suit you and your family, even if you do help with publicity. When the traditionally published first edition of my book Write In Style was released in 2004, the publicity "whirlwind" included a few newspaper and radio interviews that I handled by telephone. I love to be invited to speak at writers gatherings, where I can also sell the book, but it's my choice to accept those invitations, and it was never a requirement from my publisher.

Every time you think of a reason why you aren't moving forward with your book, study the logic behind your thinking and decide whether it's just another way to block yourself. Writer's block comes in many forms. Don't fall prey to it.

On a personal note, I’m thrilled to announce that the updated and expanded second edition of Write In Style, my book on how to use any computer to improve your writing, just won First Place in the How-To category in the 2016 Florida Book Festival winter competition, won a Bronze IPPY from Independent Publishers in the category of Writing, and was one of only five finalists in the Writing/Publishing Category of the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Purchase the book at or

Send your questions to Bobbie Christmas, book editor and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions quickly. Read more “Ask the Book Doctor” questions and answers at


Sunday, March 27, 2016

About Writing in Venacular versus Dialect

What is the difference between dialect and vernacular? Mostly it is readability, but also the decision to write in dialect versus vernacular can reflect poorly on a writer's skill. Here are some definitions:

Dialect: nonstandard spoken language; a regional variety of a language, with differences in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation

Vernacular: the distinctive vocabulary or language of a profession, group, or class

Conventional wisdom and today’s creative writing instructors discourage the use of dialect, yet creative writing has few absolute rules. Some writers get away with using a little dialect here and there. As writers we must remember, however, that dialect is substandard English. Do we want our writing to be substandard?

If we must, we can sprinkle one dialectical word here and there in dialogue, but I have a better suggestion. Instead of writing in dialect, the wiser choice is to write in vernacular. Vernacular uses word choices and word order to show that a speaker is not speaking standard English. When we write dialogue in vernacular, readers clearly see the shift and understand when someone is speaking with a foreign accent or a regional twist. 

As an example of vernacular rather than dialect, you might write this: "She wasn't no angel, if you ask me." Write in vernacular, and readers know the speaker is not speaking in standard English. In contrast, the same sentence written as "Sha warn't no anjel, iffen you ass me" would make readers stop and reread, to understand the sentence. We never want readers to have to back up and reread something, to understand it. When I read dialect, I often have to stop and read it aloud to understand it, and I'm therefore not a happy reader immersed in a story. Dialect loses readers, and we don't want to lose our readers.

If writers feel the urge to write a character’s dialogue in dialect, here’s the one immutable rule they absolutely must follow. They must not misspell words that would be pronounced the same if spelled correctly. In a one manuscript I edited, among some somewhat acceptable dialect, I also saw several misspelled words. For example, and I'm changing this entire sentence, so the author's work is protected, I might have seen a sentence that went like this: "I ain't cleer on whut choo want frum de sto, cos I cain't remember nothin'." As an editor, I repaired the incorrect spelling, but I left the use of the word "ain't," because that word is considered vernacular. The corrected sentence then went like this: "I ain't clear on what you want from the store, 'cause I can't remember nothing." As a reader, don't you still get the complete idea of how the reader spoke? Of course you did, and without a bunch of misspelled words.

Incorrect spelling does not equal dialect; it equals incorrect spelling. Period.

If you decide to use dialect, which is difficult to write well and even harder to read, at least remember to spell words correctly that have the same pronunciation whether spelled either correctly or incorrectly.

When we write in vernacular, however, readers have an easier time reading our books while still hearing the dialect in our heads.

How do you feel about writing in dialect? Do you like to read books with dialogue written in dialect? Do you have tips for other writers about dialect versus vernacular? Let me know. I may share them with other readers.

For more editing and creative writing tips, order Purge Your Prose of Problems here: