Wednesday, February 29, 2012


A couple years ago one of my favorite historical romance writers, Shana Galen, talked at a WestHouston RWA  meeting about the writing life and making it work. She mentioned a writing productivity application from Dr. Wicked called WRITE OR DIE that forces you to write by providing consequences for distraction and procrastination. In short, slow down or stop typing and screen turns red and your computer starts yelling and making rude noises at you. 
I love this software! Not everyone does. 
At one time I was national marketing director for commercial architecture and interior design firms.  Much of my job was generating multiple, complex proposals on very short deadlines. Simultaneously. Without adequate staff. Many a night I cranked out page after page of persuasive prose in the interest of landing highly competitive, multi-million dollar contracts projects. I learned a secret about myself—I’m at my most creative late at night and under intense pressure. During the day with plenty of time  think, re-think, strategize and consider, I could produce a darn good product. Eleven o’clock at night with one day left to Fed-Ex that sucker off—my mind came alive and the results were brilliant. Those were the times, we rarely lost. 
I’ve tried to analyze why turning to WRITE OR DIE works for me. Most of the time I’m a fairly slow writer, considering every word and sentence, every nuance of character and scene as I go. As soon as I click the Write icon on the WRITE OR DIE screen, my conscious brain checks out in protest and my subconscious kicks in. Words pour out, stampeding in typo-ridden lines across the screen to keep the dreaded shift to red at bay. Every time the flow falters, panic inspires a desperate effort to drive on and up my game. Another twist, a hook, a character rebellion that proves my subconscious does indeed have a clue about how this writing thing works. And when the time is finally up or my word goal achieved, I cut and paste the lines into the WIP and begin to edit. 
Oddly enough, most of this writing is surprising good. Editing is required, but not as much as I’d expect. And if I’m stuck, WRITE OR DIE is always the kick my butt needs to get back on track. Maybe NaNoWriMo works the same way for some people. I’ve never had the time or motivation to attempt the grueling schedule, nor could I sustain the pace over so many weeks. Instead, I love the adrenaline rush of kamikaze writing one productive hour at a time. 
When are you your most creative? Do you have any tools or secrets that take your writing to a next level?

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Sandwich Generation Keeps Secrets

A friend's mother is sick. My friend sleeps in her mom's apartment and crosses a no-longer-familiar city via public transportation every morning and late afternoon to sit at her mom's bedside during twice-a-day hospital visiting times.

My friend is doing what we'd do in her shoes. Her behavior is expected, except one of her organs is failing—and she's pretending to be just fine so her mother won't suspect.

Would you put on a hale-and-hearty act to keep your sick mother from worrying?

Yeah, me, too.

I've written about how mothers-of-grown-children don't warn new moms their children will face illness, bullying, drugs, and heartbreak. Instead, we distill what we know into advice like, "Enjoy every minute you spend rocking your baby."

We're called the "sandwich" generation. In fact, we were the "don't ask; don't tell" generation before the military adopted the phrase. In our defense, no new mother has ever asked an old one: "Tell me what to expect during the teen-age years. I want to know everything."

And we haven't asked our parents what it's like—really like—to navigate old age. We fuss at them if we catch them eating Pop Tarts for lunch, and we'll bug them to schedule medical check-ups, but we're reluctant to discomfit the people who taught us to ride bikes and drive. How many times have we tried to make sure our parents are okay financially only to back off when our dads glare and our moms get huffy-puffy?

Until her mother is out of the woods, my friend will blame her own fatigue on worry and jet-lag.

Send positive thoughts her way, won't you?

This week, tell a child, parent, spouse, or significant other you love him/her. Ask if there's anything that person wants to talk about.

Friday, February 24, 2012


I got an email this week from my wonderful agent which began “Just a quick update to let you know that Editor X passed on SHADES.” SHADES is the manuscript we have out on submission. She named the editor, of course, and kindly used the phrase passed on rather than rejected. I was disappointed but the email included a nice note from the editor complimenting voice, premise and characters, and explaining why it didn’t quite work for her. In other words, she sent a lovely decline.
I’m no novice at handling rejection although I was lucky enough to connect with my agent before the “didn’t love it” letters piled too high. Still, sending your baby out into the world for a thumbs up or thumbs down from professionals who see hundreds of submissions a week is scary. And the funny thing is, the more you understand publishing, the clearer it is that the competition is steep for those book contracts and nothing happens quickly.

Which is why I love this clip called REJECTION from BLACK BOOKS. Bernard is so wonderfully arrogant and clueless, and yet his reaction to rejection isn’t totally foreign to those of us who have gotten one of “Those Letters.” And Dylan Moran is marvelous.

So what do you do when you get "a pass?" Rant & rave? Make a martini? Use naughty words? Confess. We're all friends here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What Old Moms Know--and Don't Tell

At a recent baby shower, the guests—young moms and the young moms' mothers--were asked to write a few sentences of advice for the mama-to-be. A pretty, pastel memory book was produced and slowly passed from hand to hand.

The young moms seemed to eager to share what they'd learned on parenting's front lines. They specified brands of baby food and listed infant-friendly restaurants. They wrote with authority about food mills, BPA-free bottles, and baby-safe detergents.

The women my age jotted down a sentence or two, no more. When my turn came, I peeked at what my friend Hannah--another woman old enough to be a grandmother--had written: Let the housework wait while you rock your baby.

Hannah could have filled pages with what she's learned over three decades of child-rearing, but she didn't because no new mama wants to hear that BPA-free bottles won't protect kids from bullying, drugs, or heartbreak.

When my children were little, I believed a car seat rated tops by Consumer Reports would keep them safe on the road-- and protect them from life's hard knocks. If only.

I didn't think I had all the answers but was pretty sure I had eighty percent of them. Now I know that number was closer to fifteen—or ten. At the time, could anyone have told me differently? No.

So what did I write in that pretty pastel book? I chose a tip I'd received from my mother many, many years ago: Nap when your baby is napping.

It's good advice. I wish I’d followed it.

Monday, February 20, 2012


I’ve been struggling to finish reading a thriller by a very successful and popular author. The premise is brilliant, the plotline suspenseful and intriguing at every turn and yet I’ve read four other books since I started this one. Why? I’m curious about how the catastrophic situation is resolved but I couldn’t care less if the good guys win or not. For that matter, I don’t care who lives or dies. The characters, as noble as they may be, are secondary to a clever plot.

In contrast, the television series DEXTER takes a serial killer working for the police in forensics and creates a highly flawed character that we care about. We know Dexter kills his victims in a gruesome ritual and yet his personal struggle to function within society given his damaged personality touches a chord. No one would condone what he does, but as his past and present unfold, we care about him because he has a code of ethics—screwed up as it is—and something in him touches a universal apartness. 

Some of my favorite characters from literature are the ambiguous heroes—Jean Valjean, Heathcliff, Mr. Rochester—those tortured souls we don’t know whether to admire or hate. I’ll take Rhett Butler over Ashley Wilks any day. Scarlett O’Hara over the saintly Melanie. Flaws are interesting, human. And most people read to take a journey through someone else's eyes. "Witnessing" interesting events without the emotional connection never has the same impact.

Sometimes a story is told on too grand a scale to be interesting. Sometimes a disaster is too massive to be comprehended. As a writer, getting the balance between personal and universal is never easy. Too small and a story is dull, too big and it becomes overwhelming. The difference between the successful and not-so-successful book always comes back to the characters for me. Give me characters I love, and I can overlook a hole or two in the plot.

Who are your favorite literary characters? What makes them unforgettable for you?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Re-imagine, Reconstruct, Revise

"Books aren't written- they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it." Michael Crichton

Some writers enjoy revising, but most view it as a necessary evil. Who, after all, writes a perfect first draft?

Whether your manuscript needs its first or eighth rewrite--and whether you're a pantser or a plotter, it's smart to approach revision with a plan.

Lynette Burrows, who prefers the term "re-visioning" to revising, focuses on the big picture . Her five-part series, "Revisioning Your Story," starts here. In part two, she turns her attention to characters' goals. Third, she looks at conflict.
Fourth, she stresses characterization. Fifth, she examines plot. Finally, she looks at setting.

Jami Gold turned to Blake Snyder's Save the Cat--and a spreadsheet—to revise a manuscript she "pantsed." Gold shares her experience here , and it's so intriguing, I downloaded a copy of the spreadsheet she followed. Even if Excel may makes your eyes cross, give this technique a try.

Once revisions are past the big-picture stage, we must make sure our words have the desired effect. At Jenny Hansen's blog, writing teacher Margie Lawson gives a lesson in writing fresh and eliciting emotion.

At edittorrent, writer and editor Alicia Rasley offers insight into pacing that inspired me to tear apart scenes.

That's it for now, but I've got lots of revising to do—and will pass along nuggets of inspiration and advice as I need and find them.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

When Editing Hurts

Reading, Writing & Rambling proudly introduces guest blogger Amy Rosen, whose employer-issued business card reads, "Writer." She's smart, savvy, and shares DNA with Pat O'Dea Rosen, her mom.

Fiction writers dread revision letters and the copy editor's blue pencil, but writers who work for corporations or non-profits face editing five days a week, fifty weeks a year. It's not a job for the faint-hearted or egocentric.

Whether one writes fiction or non-fiction, some editorial changes hurt more than others. Here's Amy's take on a cut that sliced deep.

I fancy myself a writer by nature. But, I also make my living as a writer. And, after working for a newspaper, a lifestyle website, and a handful of clients and organizations, I’ve gotten used to being edited.

In fact, I appreciate being edited. I *need* to be edited. I have blind spots. I often read through my own mistakes; sometimes, I fail to see bias in my writing; and, I admit to being a little wordy from time to time. In years of seeing my work marked up daily (we’re talking hundreds of thousands of edits. At least), there have been a few times when I’ve thought an editor was unequivocally wrong and made changes that truly weakened the writing.

But, my job is to produce content that is right for my client or employer. And, if they choose to cut My Favorite Sentence to promote one of their priorities, as much as I may not agree, I cannot let the intrinsic writer get the better of the one drawing a paycheck.

Because, ultimately, it is not my name that appears on my work, but the name of the client or organization for which I’m working. My words are theirs. And, they’re not paying me to write The Great American Novel; they’re paying me to write material that furthers their mission.

The rational part of my brain really does understand that, but emotions have always trumped logic for this girl.

And so, when I see a line through a darling sentence or read a butchered, err, restructured version of a once carefully-crafted paragraph, I huff a little. And then, I fire off an e-mail to my mother, who always makes a very reasonable argument for the changes, and who never fails to remind me that few people get to see their words go out unchanged.

She’s right. And, I don’t think I’m such an ace writer that I expect my words to go out unchanged. But, I am a thoughtful writer. I’m a writer who wishes every sentence to be perfectly-strung and who struggles every time she loses a good one.

Steinbeck lobbied Twentieth Century Fox to remove his name from the credits of Lifeboat after learning of unapproved edits to his screenplay. Producer David Selznick made a passionate case for keeping the word “damn” in the script of Gone With the Wind when industry regulators cut it. I, obviously, whine to my mother. How do you handle edits you don’t agree with?

Monday, February 13, 2012


On Saturday I had the good fortune to hear a presentation called The Marathoner’s Guide to Writing: Staying in it for the Long-Haul without Losing Your Perspective, your Patience, or your Mind. Two of my favorite authors, Colleen Thompson and Kerrelyn Sparks, talked about what it takes to be successful as a writer over the long haul. These two women have had long, enviable careers but both have overcome some serious setbacks over the years. So what advice hit home with me? 
  • ·         Keep a balance between the needs of the marketplace and the needs of your muse. Unless you enjoy what you’re writing, you won’t stay in the game long-term.
  • ·         Keep criticism in perspective. Some people will love you, some will hate you. Don’t let either have too much influence over you.
  • ·         Honor your own pace and talent. Colleen quoted Joni Rodgers on this one: “You’re an orchard not a factory.”
  • ·         Continually strive for improvement.
  • ·         Don’t be afraid to blaze a new trail.
  • ·         Don’t compare your journey to the careers of other writers. We’re all unique and our paths will be different.
As in any creative field, Kerri pointed out that it often takes years to be “an overnight success.” Talent alone isn’t enough if you don’t do the hard work. The writers who have stuck in the game for the long haul have regrouped and reinvented themselves when their market or publisher tanked—something that happened to both Colleen and Kerri early on. But they didn’t give up no matter how many curves the industry or life threw at them.

Some days it’s hard to keep perspective and keep believing in yourself and your talent. On those days, remember how far you’ve come, the lessons you’ve learned on your journey and the people who have offered you a hand. Keep trying—it doesn’t guarantee you’ll make the New York Times Bestseller list, but you’ll never know if you could if you quit. 

Pat passed this on--a bookish video to wish you a Happy Valentine's Day! Click here. (Sorry I couldn't manage to embed it.)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Not Your Grandma's Jam

Last Saturday, shortly after sunset, I pointed my car in the direction of Older Daughter's house. She'd gone out of town, and I'd promised to feed, water, and walk her pets. (Hubs was at a hockey game downtown.) As I zoomed along I-10 heading east, a Texas Department of Transportation sign overhead blinked into life to spell out, "Monster Jam I-10 to 610 South."

A jam so big "monster" describes it? OMG! I'll be stuck in the mother of all bottlenecks, and daughter's dog will be trapped in the house and desperate to relieve itself. (I had to keep my foot on the gas pedal; otherwise, I'd have crossed my legs in sympathy.)

Two cars angled across three or four lanes of traffic to exit at Beltway 8, but that's the "Whoops, almost missed my exit," behavior Houston parents teach driver-permit-carrying kids to respond to without spilling their supersized Cokes. In other words, nothing out of the ordinary.

My fellow drivers continued their forward momentum. Had they missed the sign? Heard something on the radio that assured them the jam would be cleared by the time we reached 610? Maybe they'd vowed not to exit the highway until they saw a sea of brake lights ahead.

Since the snafu was south of I-10 on 610, I had a chance of avoiding it by moving my bitty car into the far left lane—the lane of choice for pickup trucks and SUV's. No one shot me the bird—comforting. I increased my speed to keep up with the big boys—rattling.

To make an over-long story short, I sailed past 610, and the drivers exiting there barely tapped their brakes. Huh? The monster had dissipated.

If it had ever existed.

I fed daughter's animals and walked her dog. Then I texted Hubs: "Did u get stuck in monster jam on way to Toyota Center?"

He wrote back: "Monster Jam truck show at Reliant Stadium. That what u mean?"

Well, shoot.

I Googled Monster Jam the next day. In Houston, Wolverine defeated Gravedigger the Legend. Bold

Good to know.

Readers: August McLaughlin has organized a blogfest around the theme "The Beauty of a Woman." The posts are inspiring and heartfelt. (And there are prizes!) You'll see links to them at August's site, but I'd like to call your attention to Kara Flathouse's letter to her daughters. (Why, yes, I'm the mama of girls. ) Also, Tim O'Brien's posted this clip of Texas' own Ruthie Foster:

You'll find something that speaks to you among the blogfest's many posts. Happy reading.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Last summer I decided it was time to get serious about a slimming regime (aka a diet) that I could incorporate into my lifestyle and maintain long-term. Three years ago, my husband totally changed his diet from a horrorshow of unhealthy fare to low-carb, non-processed, sugar- and starch-free nutrition. As a result he lost 50 lbs and has kept if off ever since. Although I lost weight and gained energy on the same foods he ate, it wasn’t as much and I often let myself stray.

I tried to analyze why I had a much harder time losing and maintaining than he did, besides his being a guy, and I concluded there was a major difference in how we respond emotionally to “diets.” For a slimming diet to work for me, I need hard, fast rules so I don’t have to make judgment calls. He, however, is miserable with rules and does better with an eating philosophy, especially if it’s one he formulated for himself. Once I discovered the right combination of rules and choices for me, I managed to get to my goal within a few months.

This epiphany got me thinking about writing. Over the years I’ve attended lots of how-to writing workshops—how to plot, how to add tension, how to market yourself, how to write a bestseller. The best instructors tell you upfront “This works for me. It may or may not work for you.” Others, however, are happy to inform their audience, “This is how you do it and it works if you do it this way.” And when it doesn’t work for me, does that make me a bad writer/person/student? Nope. Someone else’s rules will not make anyone a great writer. True, learning craft is essential, but without the je ne sais quoi of inspiration and hard work it only goes so far.

In my daily life I use rules to avoid spending mental energy on mundane decisions, but in my creative life I know I have to fashion my own path and not be afraid to try a bunny trail now and then. As craft becomes more automatic with experience, I try to focus on freshness, originality and emotional impact. At times I give myself permission to write crap knowing my laptop has a delete key that will be used liberally on the next draft. That's fine. To quote Nora Roberts, "You can't fix an empty page." And some of the very best writing breaks a whole lot of rules.

How about you? Do you like rules, guidelines, boundaries, or are you more comfortable with limitless freedom to do whatever strikes your fancy?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Friends 4 Ever?

The New York Times' Sunday Styles section recently ran an article. "It's Not Me, It's You" about ending friendships. I've been brooding about the article's contents ever since.

One woman interviewed revealed that she ended a friendship by using the "bad boyfriend approach." That is, she stopped calling her pal and spurned the pal's overtures. Eventually, the scorned friend took the hint.

According to the approach described above, I'm a bad boyfriend--although I'm not a boy and haven't dated since I fell in love with Hubs decades ago. Can't a person be absorbed in work, family, and the weeds choking her roses without being seen as a hater?

I think fond thoughts about buddies all the time. Do I pick up the phone and call them? No. Text them? Rarely. E-mail them? Once in a while.

I'm busy, absent-minded, and unconvinced anyone's happiness and well-being depend on hearing from me. I may intend to write a catch-up email, but the cat throws up. I plan to pen a newsy letter, but it's my turn to blog. I HAVE NOT CUT ANYONE FROM MY FRIEND LIST.

You, on the other hand, may have cut me. If so, I am totally, pathetically unaware.

Perhaps you've broken up with me and are taken aback when I bound up to you at a conference or neighborhood gathering like the most affectionate puppy in the litter. I DON'T KNOW ANYTHING'S CHANGED, YOU SEE. FRIENDS THEN; FRIENDS NOW.

If you want to break up, you'll have to put it in writing or tell me to my face.

But is a breakup really necessary? I mean, given my ability to maintain fond feelings in the absence of all communication?

Presumably, you want a friend to hang with on a weekly basis, and my hanging time seems limited to a hour Tuesday and Wednesday and the occasional Saturday night.

Looking for someone to shop with? Argh. I hate to shop.

Someone to whine to? Uh oh. I'm a recovering problem-solver. A friend (I think) likes to vent, and I used to exhaust myself offering suggestions and advice before I realized she just wanted someone to listen. Once in a while, I catch myself formulating a solution to her problem but keep my mouth zipped. Usually. Frequently. When I remember.


I want to break up with myself, too.

Friday, February 3, 2012


Ice-fishing is not likely to make Lonely Planet's list of adventures for adrenaline junkies. Don’t get me wrong, I had a terrific time but thrilling excitement? Let’s just say my experience involved patience and beer punctuated with moments of triumph, not a long battle to reel in The Big One. Nope, nothing big was hauled up through a fishing hole like this:

Still, hiking across a frozen, snow-covered lake to sit with good people hopefully watching a lure, yeah, it was fun. The tent (or hut) was heated, the beer was cold and every few minutes a joyful shout would signal another catch. It was a catch and release crowd, happy to get a picture before slipping the walleye or perch back into the icy water.

Everyone at the Grand View Lodge told us how warm the weather was—20’s and low 30’s during the day—and that the group last year experienced minus 20 degrees the entire three days. It was plenty cold enough for me, though. Hiking the paths around the resort, trekking out on the lake to fish and climbing to the old fashioned lodge for breakfast and dinner made for an active and exhilarating retreat.

Winter with its ice and snow was lived with gusto for three shimmering days before returning to balmy Houston. Yep, seventy-two hours of winter was long enough for me! Hmmm. Hope I get invited back next year.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Mistakes, I Make 'Em

In my teaching days, I'd say to students, "No one's perfect. Why do you think pencils have erasers?" I'd remind them the only true failure was refusal to learn from mistakes. I'd chant that old chestnut, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try, again."

Obnoxious, huh? Yet, I spoke from the heart. I believe many of the lessons we're meant to learn appear in the form of mistakes.

But how I hate to make them.

Last weekend, I wildly underestimated the time it would take to prepare for a baby shower and greeted the mother-to-be, her mother, and the first few guests with rollers in my hair. (What woman uses rollers in this day and age? The kind who fried the innards of her hair dryer. Yup, another mistake.)

Although I correctly read the train schedules for an upcoming trip, I failed to notice that fares varied according to time of day, with the cheapest for departures at half past dawn or arrivals at the stroke of midnight. Sadly, I'm a cheap-fare gal who'll be traveling with at least two people who hate mornings. I guess I'll be buying the to-go coffee.

One of my cats recently had teeth extracted and required an antibiotic. Per the directions on the box, I diluted the medicine, only to discover later the vet tech had already done so. (I should have known this as the vet's office handed me three clipped pages of instructions.) Rather than waste the twice-diluted stuff, I doubled every dose. The cat's misery quadrupled, and he's still giving me the stink eye.

"Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life." - Sophia Loren

My life's full.

Many, many years ago, I invited a brand-new boyfriend to dinner. To impress him, I made moussaka. My boyfriend ate heartily—and then threw up. (Reader, I married him—and not just to ensure his silence.)

My cooking's improved since then. In fact, many praise it. What if I'd given up after my disastrous Greek dinner?

One day, when I was still learning to drive, my dad warned me the driver ahead was going to turn even though that driver hadn't slowed and certainly hadn't signaled. Sure enough, the guy hung a left, and I decided my father must possess psychic powers. "How did you know?"

My dad probably shrugged and said something like, "After a while, you get a feel for what the other guy's doing to do."

I didn't believe him then, but he was right. With experience, we develop a sixth sense for what other drivers are apt to do. In time, we become competent behind the wheel—even if we failed parallel parking our first try at the test..

A would-be writer may attend conferences, take online classes, and read dozens of how-to books, but nothing of significance happens until he or she begins typing, backs the story into a corner, self-corrects, and learns from that false start.

"Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to the error that counts." - Nikki Giovanni

I know better but am avoiding work on a project because I'm paralyzed with fear--of failure. This, despite the fact I learned to cook, drive, and give a cat many eyedroppers full of medicine.

It's time for me to step up the positive affirmations and pull out the schoolteacher's all-important question: Why do you think pencils have erasers?

What do you avoid because you're afraid of failure?