Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday's Top Ten

Top ten things writers are accused of:

10. Not really working

9. Staring out the window

8. Not paying attention

7. Too picky

6. Always reading

5. Forgetfulness

4. Daydreaming

3. Wasting time

2. Being nosy

And the number one thing writers are accused of:

1. "You're out of paper again?"

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Furry Children with Paws

I haven't written about my babies in a while.

Like human children, they have good days and bad.

Unlike human children, they don't talk back.

Yesterday, both needed to go to the vet for bordetella vaccinations. That's for kennel cough. The place is large and offers multiple services. It was hopping but we found a little out-of-the-way spot so Shiner wouldn't think everyone was waiting to play with him.

When it was our turn, the vet tech took each one back separately, since all they needed was to be weighed and the vaccine squirted up their noses.
She took Wrangler first, and returned with him about three minutes later. He was so proud - like See what a good boy I was!


Then she took Shiner back. A different tech brought him out.


"Did you know he can open doors?" she asked.

"Huh?"

"You didn't teach him?"

"No."

"These are smart dogs." She nodded and smiled. "The doors have lever handles. We finished and set him on the floor. He went to the door, opened it, and started down the hall."

Now, Wrangler is a border collie. He's a whiz-kid. But his smarts are in a different area. He's extremely intuitive. Shiner is a blue heeler, also known as an Australian cattle dog. His smarts are more in the practical and physical areas. Human-wise, one is an academic and one is an engineer.

On the doggie scale of overall intelligence by breed, border collies are #1. Blue heelers are #10. Many days, both are smarter than I am.

I'm so thankful we don't have lever door handles at home.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Double Dribble

You know . . . that's a basketball term.

I probably connected with basketball today because I just read an article about San Antonio Spurs player Tony Parker getting injured last night in a game in Europe. A thigh bruise and a sprained ankle. So in the way my brain works, here's today's writing article.

Dribble is what a player does with the basketball while he runs or jogs or walks down the court. He or she bounces the ball. That bounce is called a dribble. If you hold the ball and move, it's illegal. The ball must stay in motion.

Think about a dribble while you write. It will do you double duty. But not a double dribble. That's illegal, too.

Dribble One

Think of your story as a basketball. During a game, the ball bounces thousands of times. Each bounce moves the game - and your story - forward.

Sometimes it will be a plot bounce, sometimes a character bounce, but each bounce is necessary for the ball to reach the destination the player wants.

When a player is blocked by the opposing team or when one of the player's teammates becomes open or when the player has a shot at the basket, he will stop dribbling and pass the ball or shoot for the basket. Think of this as a complication (blocked by opposition) or plot twist (pass to teammate) or major plot point (shoot for the basket).

Then it's back to the dribble - keep your story moving.

Dribble Two

Another definition of dribble has nothing to do with basketball. It's a trickle, a drop, a small quantity.

Think about Dribble Two when you're giving the reader information they need to know, but that doesn't move the story forward - such as backstory. Don't dump it all like a truckload of mulch. Use a spoon. Dribble it in. A spoonful here, a drop there. A little goes a long way.

Here's a short example from one of my published stories titled "Champagne
for One." This is the opening paragraph:
The aroma of fresh coffee opened my eyes and pulled me into the kitchen [all dribble]. I filled my favorite Galveston Wild Life [Dribble Two - the story is set in Galveston] mug with the fragrant brew, then stepped onto the patio and settled in the swing with the morning paper [more dribble]. The three-column headline made me shiver, and my mouth went bone dry:
JULIE MILLINGTON MURDERED AT LAFITTE PLAZA
[SWISH! We have a score. The ball went through the basket.]

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday's Top Ten

Top ten diet foods:

10. Rice Cakes - topped with PB&J

9. Green Salads - drenched in creamy ranch dressing

8. Raw Veggies - loaded with onion dip

7. Green Beans - in a casserole with mushroom soup and onion rings

6. Fish - breaded and deep fried

5. Chicken Breasts - southern fried

4. Fresh Fruit - served with sugar and cream

3. Popcorn - movie style with butter and salt

2. Skim Milk - blended with ice cream

And the number one diet food:

1. Light Beer - of course!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Follow Directions

There's been some discussion on a writer's list I'm on about the many different guidelines for submission required by editors of print magazines and e-zines. And by extrapolation, this transfers to agents and editors for book-length manuscripts as well.

One side of the argument is the writer has to do all the work and the time spent on reformatting a short story manuscript for each zine eats up valuable writing time. It would be so much simpler to have universal guidelines all the way around.

The flip side is each venue is different and the editors - for whatever reason that is unique to each one - need the manuscript in the format they ask for. And that some editors ask for a laundry list of items to see how well the writer follows directions. This, in turn, gives the editor an idea of how easy the writer will be able to work with during the editing process.

As you might guess, the discussion died a natural death because the proponents of each side stuck to their guns.

My own personal opinion is it's sometimes a pain in the neck, especially for the more unusual requests, but part of the process. Get over it.

We learn early in life to follow directions. At least most of us do. Some of us never learn. Or we choose to ignore them for one reason or another. Or we want to do it our way no matter what.

I didn't plan to write about any of this here, but a real-life situation occured a few minutes ago that exemplifies the importance of following directions.

My niece is staying with us here for three weeks to go to driving school. She lives in a tiny town and her parents wanted her to learn to drive in an urban environment. They completed all the necessary forms and returned home. Today, my niece went to take the test to get her driving permit.

Neither my live-in handyman nor I looked at the forms. Her parents are adults. She's 17 and soon going to be driving a hunk of metal and fiberglass on our roadways. There wasn't a need to check the homework.

But maybe there was.

A prominent line on the form said all information must be typewritten or printed in black ink. No ifs, ands, or buts. Her father completed it in blue ink.

Request for testing denied.

Simple as that.

The State of Texas has its reasons for requiring black ink just as the zine editors who require single spacing and no paragraph indentions have their reasons. The same as agents have reasons for requiring the first 2-3 pages of the manuscript be pasted at the bottom of a query.

Accept it. Deal with it. Get over it.

Remember . . . you also have reasons for the things you ask for in your life. And some of those things might seem just as preposterous to others as black ink sounded to my niece's father.

So, now we'll meet Mom on the road, have lunch, and get everything taken care of. Tomorrow, my niece will go back for the test. It was an unnecessary complication that could have been easily avoided if her dad had read and followed the directions.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Betty Crocker's Quick Writing Class

Sorry today's writing post is so late. Plenty of excuses . . . if I'd climbed out of bed at four this morning, maybe it would've been on time. But I woke up at my regular time. It's been one of "those" days.

All the things I've thought to write about, before I actually got over here to write about them, seemed to require more thought than my brain is capable of today. So I tried to think of something quick and easy - like the Betty Crocker Quick Writing Rules - 15-Minutes from Start to Finish.

So here you go.

Before you begin, have these items handy:
Idea
Basic knowlege of grammar and punctuation

Mix together:
Characters
Plot
Setting
Conflict
Tension
Stir until blended thoroughly.

Edit for:
Overused words
Redundancy
Pacing
Flow
Plot holes
Character motivation

Bake for at least one day.

Re-read as it cools.

Serve.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Friday's Top Ten

Top ten things to do in the rain:

10. Use your umbrella

9. Dance

8. Use your windshield wipers

7. Sing

6. Wear galoshes

5. Run barefoot

4. Drive with your headlights on

3. Splash in puddles

2. Wear a slicker

And the number one thing to do in the rain:

1. Make love

- - - - - - - - - -

Today's Top Ten brought to you by both my left brain and my right.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

No Whining Allowed

My live-in handyman is retired from the military. As such, we have access to on-base amenitites. The other day, I was in the commissary - for non-military types, the commissary is the on-base food market.

The store wasn't particularly crowded. One of the shoppers was a man and his two kids - a boy and a girl - both in their early teens. The three of them laughed and carried on just the same as a civilian family in the local supermarket. The kids wanted Product X, but the dad told them they already had Product Y. They didn't give him any mouth, but his daughter did give him 'the look.'

We all know 'the look.'

We were around the dairy and frozen food sections. It was a little cooler there, and a lot of shoppers lingered over selections. It's hotter than a blast furnace here in San Antonio - temps over 100 for several hours each afternoon - and has been for a month or more. People wear the least amount of clothing they can get by with and not be arrested for indecent exposure. Everyone I saw wore shorts.

This family was no exception.

The dad walked over to fetch milk. And that's when I noticed.

He walked on two prosthetic legs.

Had he worn jeans, I wouldn't have known.

Not by his gait, any of his mannerisms. Not by a hanging of his head because he felt sorry for himself or any embarrassment. Nothing. This was a normal dad going about the business of providing food for his family, who obviously loved him.

A man who had, literally, given part of himself for his country.

The next time you think you can't do something or you think life is unfair to you or you think you have it too hard . . . remember this man.

He got up. He fought back. He got on with his life and played the hand that was dealt him.

You can, too.

Let him be your inspiration.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A New Start

My goal is to improve the editing job on this writing post over the one from last Monday. I know that's a convoluted sentence, but scroll down to last Monday's post and follow the comment trail. That whole thing was convoluted, so why should this opening be different?

Anyway . . . onward to the meat of today's post. Substitute soy if you're vegan.

Starts.

We start a story or a novel with some idea that's new and fresh to us. Sometimes we don't get too far along before we change that first sentence. I've only written one first sentence in a short story or novel that I didn't go back and change.

That sentence was: It was Charlie Merrill's turn to die.

The title of the story was "Tom, Dick, and Charlie," and it was published in the now-defunct HandHeldCrime. I remember it because it's been the only time so far I haven't changed the opening line once I wrote it.

Why?

The opening line is the most important one in the entire piece. For that reason, I try to make it the best I can. Sometimes I finish a piece and still go back and tinker with the opening. When I get it right, bells ring, lights go off and there's do doubt. I know that's the line.

Does that happen with every opening line for me? Every FINISHED opening line?

Sadly, no. But I try to make it happen. I try to make every opening line the best one yet.

Why?

Because for every word, every sentence that doesn't grab the reader the chances multiply that you'll receive a pass from an agent or editor. When that happens, no one will read your work.

Your opening line may not be the the best one you've ever written, but it needs to be the best you can write for that particular story. It needs to hold intrigue and promise. It needs to set the stage. It needs to propel the reader to the next sentence.

"Good enough" isn't good enough for opening lines. Opening lines need all the spark and sizzle you can give them. All the pizzazz you can muster. And still fit the story.

Nobody said this writing gig was easy. But this is what we do. Writers write.

- - - - - - - - - -
Disclaimer:
Yes, I know that last week I wrote about the pitfalls of using the 'it was' construction.
Yes, I know the only opening line I've never changed is an 'it was' construction.
I also said be aware of when you use it. Don't overuse it. Sometimes, it works.
And the same with 'it.'

That's my story and I'm sticking to it :)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Friday's Top Ten

Top ten ways to beat the heat this summer:

10. Air conditioning

9. Swimming pools

8. Cold drinks

7. Salads

6. Cold showers

5. Lightweight and light-colored clothing

4. Read a book about people having fun in the summer

3. Think how good the heat would feel if it was cold and snowy

2. Vacation in the southern hemisphere

And the number one way to beat the heat this summer:

1. Skinny dip in the moonlight

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Gift for Writers

Yesterday I was in Corpus Christi and ate lunch at Taco Cabana.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the chain, it's Mexican fast food. More authentic than Taco Bell. I got my food and sat down. The place wasn't packed. A family left right after I sat down. An older man was midway through his meal. A woman with two kids was writing.

This post is about the woman. She was attractive, clean, wearing shorts, and in her early 20s.

She had a baby in a stroller. An infant no older than 3-4 months, probably more like 2 months. Her little boy was no more than two years, probably closer to 18-20 months. He kept turning around in his highchair and looking at me. So we waved and made silly faces at each other for a few minutes.

His mom continued to write and had finished her lunch. She had a Cabana Bowl and a beer. Every so often she'd spoon up some of the rice from the bowl for her little boy.

About this time, a group of women came in and sat on the other side of the dining area from us. And two college-age guys sat near the woman and me. We formed a loose triangle.

After about five minutes, she gathered the papers and I could see it was an employment application . . . for Taco Cabana. She left the kids at the table and went to the counter to turn it in. In all, she was away from the table 2-3 minutes. The 2-yr old started to fuss, and I played with him again to distract him.

When the woman returned, she dug in her purse and pulled out some coins. She left again but came right back. She looked at the older man and the two college-age guys and said, "They don't have a pay phone. Can somebody call a taxi for me? I just moved here."

She didn't look at the group of women or at me.

The older man said his phone fell in the Gulf the day before. He gathered his trash and left.

One of the two guys said he didn't have a phone. The other one said he didn't know a number.

The woman went back to the counter to ask if anyone knew a number for a taxi. While she was gone, a woman who was wiping tables gave the guy a number. When she said it, I knew it was correct because the cabs are bright green and I had seen one not long before and recalled that number plastered on the trunk.

The woman came back, got her kids, and left. The guy never pulled out his phone.

I don't know the ending of this story or the beginning.

But I thought this was an interesting scene.

You're writers. It's my gift to you. Use it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Again and Again

Three weeks have past since I made a post about writing, and I had a difficult time deciding what to talk about. I'll blame my indecision on still recuperating from vacation - hey, works for me!

So I decided to talk about overusage of words. It's easy for us to get in the habit of using the same words over and over.

When you edit and find 20 justs in the first chapter, you put that word on your list of words to check. Pretty soon you'll become aware of anytime you type j-u-s-t, or even think it, and its use won't be a problem anymore. But another word will take its place, and your list will self-propagate.

Some words - it and there come to mind - probably won't make your list, but they should flash automatic signals to your fingers. We use them without much thought.

I've gone back and edited the first paragraph of this post. Originally, the first sentence began: It's been three weeks since. . . . And the second sentence read: I'll blame it on. . . .

The first is a variation of the it was/there was construction that signals weak, passive writing. The second usage was vague. Blame what? It is a pronoun and needs to have a noun to represent. In this case, there was nothing for it to refer to.

I'm not saying don't ever use these or any other words. I am saying to be judicious in their use. If any word on your list appears more than a few times in any chapter, that's your sign. Short story and article writers, adjust accordingly.

You'll see I've used it a few times in this post. Can you find the one I should have changed? How would you have changed it?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Friday's Top Ten is Back!

Update:
It just dawned on me that I made no mention of fireworks. Blame that on Texas weather. We've had no rain in 50 million years and for the past 30 days or so our high temperatures have topped 100 degrees. Fireworks never entered my nasty little brain until I read an article about them a few minutes ago.

- - - - - - - - - -

Top ten things to do on July 4:

10. Watch a parade - in your bathrobe

9. Attend a family reunion - of someone else's family

8. Go on a picnic - in the rain

7. Go to the beach, lake, or mountains - by parachute

6. Eat hamburgers and hot dogs - even if they're the veggie variety

5. Display the flag - with pride

4. Say the Pledge of Allegiance - and mean it

3. Play the Star Spangled Banner - and really listen to the words

2. Remember those who fought for our country - even if you protest against all war

And the number one thing to do on July 4:

1. Remember those who are still fighting today - for YOU!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Charleston Photos

With all the I'm-back-from-vacation hubbub around here, I forgot about posting vacation photos until last night when my head hit the pillow. Sorry, but I wasn't jumping up and coming back down here at midnight.



I don't want to bore you, so here are just a few, all from Charleston.


The Ravenel Bridge over the Cooper River.



View down a street showing original cobblestones from England and Palmetto palms.



A Charleston single house, named because it's one room wide with a long piazza on the south or west side to catch the evening breeze. Beautiful doors face the street and open onto the piazza.





Houses of the Three Sisters. The legend is their father built them in honor of his daughters, a blonde, brunette, and redhead. Fact or fiction?




These are just a few of the sights - enough to whet your appetite or refresh your memory. Either way, hope you enjoy.