Friday, December 31, 2010

The Wedding Was Her Last Wish

A writer feeds off of inspiration. Every writer should explore, be adventurous, learn, and eventually come to the same conclusion: the world is an incredible place.

Katie Kirkpatrick was engaged to Nick, her high school sweetheart, when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She had to spend hours a day receiving medication, she experienced organ failures, and she lost a frightening amount of weight, but she and her fiance decided to get married all the same. They had a lovely ceremony and she looked beautiful.

Katie died five days after the wedding. 

This story means different things to different people. This is what it means to me.

We often have the opportunity to do something wonderful but we turn it down because it seems pointless. To some, it would seem futile to have a huge, expensive ceremony for a marriage that would only last a few days. To some, it would seem futile for writers to put so much work into books when the odds of getting published are so slim. But no one would look at these pictures and say that what Kate and her husband did was pointless. It was worth it.

What fantastic dream do you have that just might be worth it?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

My New Years Resolution: Books!

I don’t like making New Years resolutions that I have no intention of keeping. I’m not going to resolve to lose weight or finish a novel or pay off debt, because I always do that and I always disappoint myself. This year, I’m going to do something that I’m guaranteed to succeed at, but that’s still meaningful and will make a difference in my life.

My resolution this year is to read more.

This might not sound like a big deal, but it could be life-changing for me. As you can tell from yesterday’s post, I’m pretty passionate about reading. I know that making it a habit to read more will make me a better writer and a better person.

But it’s more than that for me. I hate when I go to bed knowing the only thing I did that day was go to work at a meaningless job and then come home and watch TV. It feels lame and pointless and icky. When I spend my evening reading – or spend even just an hour reading – I feel purposeful, stimulated, intelligent, and interesting. I want to feel that more often.

This challenge will also mean a lot to me because one of my life goals is to read 1,000 books, and how many of us actually accomplish our life goals? Let’s be honest, usually life goals are pretty little ideas we only write down in a notebook. Making progress on a life goal is pretty exhilarating.

For 2011, I will read twice as many books as I read in 2010. Since I’ve been keeping up with my Goodreads account, it was easy to find out that I read 22 books. So, 44 books it is. I feel really good about this number because I know I can do it, but it will still be a fun challenge.

Would you like to make a resolution to read more? If enough people are interested, we could do this as a group. I'll call it the Double Book Challenge. Each of us would read twice as many books as we read last year, and you could email me when you finish a book and I'd post it on a list.

Let me know in the comments if this is something you’d like to do and/or send me an email at I hope you decide to join in. This could be so much fun!

Whatever your resolution is this year, I encourage you to pick something meaningful but do-able, make a plan, and attack it with fervor. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Read Like Your Life Depends On It

If I had one piece of advice for new authors, it’s read, read, read.

It’s just like “You are what you eat.” You write what you read. Reading teaches you about the patterns of literature, the limits of words, the methods you can use, the styles you can explore, rules to keep, and rules to break. It molds your brain into patterns that you will follow when you write.

Reading teaches you how to think. Our experiences as individuals are astoundingly limited, and the only way to see the world is to listen, to pay attention, and, of course, to read.

Isaac Newton said he was successful because he stood on the shoulders of giants. If it weren't for the work of other scientists and if he hadn't been familiar with their work  he wouldn't have made his revolutionary discoveries. When we learn about literature, we also stand on the shoulders of giants.

A professor once told me a story about a student who wanted to be a poet. The professor read his poems and was shocked by how awful they were. He asked him what he was reading, and the student proudly announced he didn’t read poetry because he didn’t want to be influenced by other authors. He prefered to be individual and unique.

The professor wasn’t surprised by his answer. If the student never read a poem, how could he possibly know how to write one?

I understand the student’s concern. If a writer only read one author, or only one genre, he’d probably regurgitate old ideas. The key is to read so many authors from so many genres that you are influenced by hundreds of people. When you read widely, you develop a unique mix of your own style.

I can’t stress this enough: read, read, read.

But read good books. Don’t read trash.

Unless you want to write trash. Then you can read as much trash as you want.

My favorite website in the world is It’s like Facebook, but with a focus on books. It’s easy to find good books, you can post and rate books on your profile, you can read updates on published authors, and you can swap your books with other readers for free. You’re welcome to add me as a friend; I’d love to see what you’re reading and to share books I like with you.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Word is Never "Just a Word"

In a persuasive writing class, my professor asked us to make a list on the board of all the words that meant “loose woman” and all the words that meant “loose man.” This is what we came up with:

Loose Woman                                     Loose Man
Slut                                                   Pimp
Whore                                              Player
Tramp                                              Hustler
Hussy                                               Man-whore

Notice anything interesting? All the words for women are extremely offensive. The words for men, on the other hand, are positive and even desirable. The only one that’s negative is man-whore, and not only is that a recently created word, but it only makes sense in relation to women. And it doesn’t pack the same punch when you use it on men.

Morale of the story: Just one word can mean a lot more than you think.

We made a few more lists of synonyms to see what meanings we could notice behind the words we used. One of the lists was for “a person who doesn’t weight much.” We wrote:

Skinny, thin, petite, slender, lean, bony, anorexic, emaciated, malnourished, scrawny, skeletal, twiggy

These words might be synonyms, but they do not mean the same thing. Everyone wants to be slender, but no one wants to be emaciated.

A writer needs to be conscious of word use. Whenever I write, I have a thesaurus open on my desktop. It's like Mark Twain said: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

I have a few more things to say about words associated with “loose.” I searched for some words on, and while a ton of words came up for women, none came up for men. I tried running a search on Google of “synonyms for loose men,” and the site asked me, “Did you mean to say synonyms for loose woman?”

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Child's Attempt at Being Santa Claus

When my husband was in second grade, he found out his parents didn't believe in Santa Claus. He decided to give Santa a little help and convince them he was real. Andrew went to his toy bin and gathered some things he thought an adult might like -- a globe, a yoyo, a plastic Garfield, things like that -- and put them in ziplock bags labeled "Mike" and "Wendy." 

On Christmas morning, he slipped them under the tree before they woke up. He planned on taking the cookies and hot cocoa they left out to make them think Santa ate them, but they were already gone.

He also gave them a letter with a picture of a snow man:

Dear Mike and Wendy:

I hope you like the things I got you. And under the Christmas tree there will be a presant for you. I heard from Andrew and Mandy that you had been good. So I got you a presant. And I liked the Christmas tree you and the kids put up. And by the way my elves were watching you put up the tree. You had better tell the kids that I'm true. And next time don't drink up all the Hot choclat and the coikes ether ok. Cause I realy like those cockies and the Hot choclat. Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas. p.s. Hope you like the picture I drawd you on the front.

Love, Santa

His mom looked at the gifts, read the letter, and gave Andrew a huge hug. "Thanks, honey! That was really sweet." Alas, his plan to make his parents believe in Santa was foiled.

I hope you all have a great holiday season! I'm going to take a break from blogging for the rest of the week, but I'll be back next Tuesday. Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Tragic Rejection of My First Partial

Well, I got a response from the second agent who requested a part of my manuscript. He said no.

A partial rejection is a million times worse than a query rejection. When people don’t like a query, it could be for a million different reasons: the agent has too many clients, he’s not into historical fiction right now, he’s not into my time period, etc. It's cool because not everyone is going to like my story. When an agent rejects a partial, on the other hand, it means he would have liked my story if only I had written it well enough.

This agent gave me specific feedback. I thought agent feedback would be wonderful and helpful, but I don’t yet know if I agree with him. Usually when I get negative criticism, it’s like a revelation. Someone will point out a flaw and I'll think, “How did I miss this?” When I disagree with criticism, it means people might not like the same things I like, and that’s scary.

Here’s what he said:

There was a lot I liked about this, especially how you took the Roman religions at face value, instead of with a modern, dismissive attitude. My guess is that Romans took their religion at least as seriously as moderns take theirs.

The problem for me was in the set-up in the story. The first chapter is superfluous and the second doesn't pull it's weight. Your book really starts in chapter three. I know it seems that you should give us the setting before introducing the problem (that being Tuccia's selection among the other children), but this is backwards. Give us a problem from the first page, resist the urge to stop and explain the world, and let the details come out as the character falls deeper and deeper into it.

Of course these are only my opinions, and you will find others out there. If, by any chance, you find yourself still looking for representation down the road, I'd be happy to take a look at whatever novel you write next.

This rejection is a little frustrating because his complaint is the easiest problem in the world to fix. Just cut the first two chapters. I understand his reasoning, though; if I’m superfluous now, I’ll probably be superfluous later. He doesn’t want to sift through a whole book of irrelevant information.

Like I’ve said before, negative feedback is a blessing. I’m going to post the first three chapters online and see what other writers think. If everyone unanimously agrees that the first two chapters need to be cut, that means I’ve blown my chance with over 100 agents. If that's the reason I'm getting rejected, it's good to know.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Seinfeld Moment

Before a creative writing class, I was talking to some friends about where they bought their books. Most of them bought them used on Amazon.

A student in the back shuddered. “I could never buy a used book. You never know if someone read it in the bathroom.” 
This guy was obsessive compulsive, and I don’t mean in a funny way. I mean in a need-to-see-a-doctor way. Once in class a few students said they had colds, and he covered his mouth and dragged his desk out of the room so he could listen to the lecture from the hallway. I wasn’t surprised he couldn’t read a book that had been in a bathroom. 

Seinfeld moment:
[sahyn-feld moh-muh nt] –noun
1. A situation in which the stars
perfectly align to create the most
ridiculous scenario possible.
That very same day, the teacher asked us to use our books for an assignment. I finished early and noticed he didn’t have his book, so I let him use mine.

As soon as I handed it to him, I wanted to grab it back. I had used a piece of toilet paper as a bookmark after reading it in the bathroom.

I hid my face in embarrassment and prayed he wouldn’t see the toilet paper and throw the book across the room. Luckily, he didn’t notice it and he thanked me after class for letting him use the book. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Real Meaning of Words in Pictures

A writer feeds off of inspiration. Every writer should explore, be adventurous, learn, and eventually come to the same conclusion: the world is an incredible place.

Photographs express things that cannot be expressed any other way. They capture the uncapturable. Being able to preserve a stunning moment in time is incredible to me. Ergo, I'm a sucker for great photographs. They are definitely sources of inspiration for me.

I'm obviously a lover of writing, but below is a series of photographs that express an idea better than words ever could.

I also wanted to share these because it's the time of the year for warm fuzzies. I hope they touch you as much as they touched me.











Best Friends


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Meteor Shower Tonight

A writer feeds off of inspiration. Every writer should explore, be adventurous, learn, and eventually come to the same conclusion: the world is an incredible place.

A meteor shower is one of nature's most fantastic miracles. Tonight there's going to be a one of the biggest showers of the year. It'll be most visible around midnight, after the moon sets and its light stops blocking the view. I'm not going to miss it for the world.

This shower will have dozens of meteors per hour. It'll peak to 100 an hour at around 5 a.m. CST. The America's will get the best view, so my dear international readers should find out whether they can see the shower in their area before they bundle up and stay awake until five in the morning.

The meteors are going to fall around the constelation Gemini. Click here to find a map.

You'll want to keep away from light pollution. If you live near a city, you won't see nearly as much as you would in the country. People in Las Vegas are out of luck. I went there once, and I saw maybe five stars. Any light in the area (cars, street lamps, etc.) will make it harder to see.

If you get the chance to see it, I'd love to hear what you thought.

Monday, December 13, 2010

An Unexpected Surprise from an Agent

Discovering Absolute Write Water Cooler was one of the best moves of my writing career. As I’ve said before, the forum participants helped me fix my query letter and the first few chapters of my novel, and without their help, I don’t think any agents would have been interested in me.

On the forum, I post and answer questions about novels, I critique excerpts of other people’s work, and I read about agents. I’ve posted first chapters as well as my query, and in my signature at the bottom of my posts, I wrote, “Author of Sacred Fire, novel of the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome.” I don’t know what of that caught his interest, but an agent sent me this private message:

I am an associate agent with **** Literary. I have an interest in Roman stuff. If you'd like, I'll be happy to take a look at your submission as soon as you feel it is ready for wider distribution.If you're interested, please send me your query letter and the first three chapters as a Word attachment with REQUESTED MATERIAL in the subject line. I try to reply within three to four weeks.My personal email is ****** We generally take subscriptions through the submission form on the web site, where they are first screened by the intern, so please do not distribute this email.

I knew agents went on the forum occasionally, but I never expected that I’d catch someone’s eye. My only complaint is that he, like the other agent, only asked for three chapters. I’m eager to get the whole thing read!

This is how I will reply: I am writing in response to your message in Absolute Write Water Cooler. You expressed an interest in my novel Sacred Fire, a historical fiction complete at 88,000 words. I appreciate your request. I have attached the first three chapters to this email. Then I'll include the body of the query.

I had already found this agency in my search, but their website lists genres they’re interested in and it says nothing about historical fiction. While I think you should research your agents before you submit, it just goes to show that you never know what an agent will like.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Stereotypes Are Essential

Let’s play Guess the Gender of this Character. It’s from an excerpt written by Annie D. Shirley:

                 My apartment burned down several weeks ago.
                 I had fallen asleep in the leather recliner in my living room with a
          burning cigarette in my hand. When I awoke, there were white flames
          lapping at my pant leg. Adonis, my miniature pug, was running around
          yipping. I could barely breathe; there was thick smoke all over the place,
          and it was all I could do to drop to the carpeted floor and roll like they
          had taught me in grade school. Everything became a gray and white hot
          blur, and I lost consciousness before I could make it to the door.
                I survived, of course; I regained consciousness outside on a stretcher.
         One of my neighbors had called the fire department. Lying with the oxygen
         mask over my face, the metal roof of the ambulance and the faces of helpful
         strangers hovering above me, I felt uncomfortable, being out in the open and 
        surrounded by unfamiliar men. I remember trying to mumble to them, “Put
        me back…put me back.”

I assumed the character was male. It took me a while to figure out why I felt that way, and after a lot of thought, I realized it was for these reasons:

  1. He has a cigarette, which I think is gross and unfeminine
  2. He has a pug, which is an ugly dog, and I'd picture a girl with a poodle
  3. He's sitting in a recliner
  4. He burns down his house by being negligent, and I assumed his apartment was messy and their were flammable things nearby
  5. He's alone, so I pictured an old and lonely bachelor
That’s a lot of offensive stereotypes, but it turns out I was right. Nailed it! The author was able to communicate to me who this man was without specifically coming out and saying, "I'm a male, I'm 30 years old, and I'm a bachelor." Most people thought he was a woman, though, because he was uncomfortable being around unfamiliar men.

I read a story in a critique group about a character who can take away other people’s guilt. For the intro, the character listed all the sins he/she carried. The character said things like, “I’ve cheated on my spouse 50 times. I’ve dealt drugs. I’ve robbed dozens of stores and homes. I even killed someone.”

We all assumed the character was male, but she was a woman. We made this mistake because crimes are masculine. In order to keep readers from getting confused, we brainstormed feminine things that would cause guilt. We decided on strip dancing and porn movies.

A brilliant short story I read in college (and I can’t for the life of me remember the title) was about a black girl and a white girl who were friends in the 60’s. After reading the story, the teacher asked us which girl was black and which one was white.

I was confused because the answer was so obvious. I discovered that everyone thought they knew the races of these girls, but they all thought differently. The whole point of the story was to challenge racial stereotypes. We made a list of all the things that indicated their race, and this is what we came up with:

Girl A:
Initially skeptical about the friendship
Against segregation
Narrator of the story
Lives in the suburbs

Girl B:
Frizzy, afro hair
Supports segregation
Had a huge mother who wore a cross

Everyone in my class was white, including me. I thought Girl A was black because she was the narrator and only black people talk about race, and that Girl B was white because she was stuck-up. Most of the people in my class thought Girl B was black because she had frizzy hair and because Girl A lived in the suburbs.

These stereotypes are enormously offensive, but we didn’t use them consciously. How we felt about race was already programmed into our brains. We came to conclusions without even thinking about it.

In writing, we need to consider stereotypes – sometimes even use them to our advantage – to help readers understand our characters. Otherwise, it’s easy for readers to get confused. It's also important to understand stereotypes because writers have these ideas programmed into their brains too, so we can unconsciously give in to stereotypes we disagree with.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Slam Poetry is Fierce

A writer feeds off of inspiration. Every writer should explore, be adventurous, learn, and eventually come to the same conclusion: the world is an incredible place.

I first discovered slam poetry at a high school beauty pageant, of all places. Instead of a speech, one of the contestants got on stage and started spewing angry words with a rhythmic pulse into the microphone. I was confused, but entranced.

I learned later that slam poetry is a competition where people read their word on stage. Their work is often fiery and passionate and takes on any number of forms. I absolutely love it. Slam poetry is one of those things that make you aware of the blood pumping in your veins as it increases in speed.

YouTube has a multitude of great slam poems, so it was hard for me to pick my favorites. If you find any you love that I haven't posted, feel free to post the link in the comments. I'm always on the lookout for inspiring slam poems.

Taylor Mali, "What Teachers Make"

Eric Darby, Untitled
The slam poet won the beauty contest, by the way. That's the kind of thing you would only see in Portland, Oregon.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Time Isn't the Problem

 Everyone complains about not having enough time. I used to do it too, until I realized I wasted large portions of my day. I vowed to utilize my time wisely from thence forth. This didn’t solve my problems.

When I tried to motivate myself to do something useful with my time, I discovered my problem had nothing to do with the hours of the day. It had everything to do with my energy. When I get home from my full-time job, all I want to do is sit and not think for the rest of the day.

Getting enough sleep helped, but I found the biggest cause of my energy problem was habit. My body was used to exerting a certain amount of mental and physical effort for X hours in the day, and bodies kick and scream if you try to get them to do something they aren't used to.

I found I had another problem we usually blame on time: focus.

If I had the time and the energy, there are a million things I would to do. I once told myself, “I’m going to write one hour a day. It’s important to me and I’m going to make it a priority.” Then I decided to clean half an hour a day. I thought, "That'll be easy. It's only half an hour." Then I decided to exercise 15 minutes a day, and to try and cook dinner at least every other day, and read my scriptures 10 minutes every night, and start a blog, and…. What was my original goal again?

It’s not too hard to find the time to write everyday. It’s possible to find the energy. How do you find the focus?

I couldn't find anything else for "focus"

I struggled with this for years, which is the biggest reason Sacred Fire took me so long to write. I broke free of my cycle when I participated in NaNoWriMo. Now, I feel pretty focused, though I still struggle with energy.

Everyone has their own battles, their own motivations, and their own solutions. We are not victims to the 24-hours-in-a-day tragedy. We can do anything with the right focus and energy.

Monday, December 6, 2010

We Have Eleven Senses - Who Knew?

We’ve all been told to invoke all five senses in our writing. A writer once told me to print out my work and underline descriptions in different colored pens to see how much I incorporate senses into my writing and which ones I focus on. (It was sight, duh).

But Marilyn Kelly wasn’t satisfied with only five senses. She found via Wikipedia, the fickle god of knowledge, that Aristotle believed there were eleven senses:

Sense of Time
Sense of Direction

You can read about her Eleven Senses Workshop by clicking here

I've tried using all eleven (I have the list taped to my computer to remind me) and I'm convinced that a writer should address all of these things in a scene whenever possible.

There are a few other things to focus on that I’d like to add to the list:


It’s a lot to focus on and it can feel like juggling, but the more you put into your writing, the more colorful and multi-dimensional it becomes.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Causes of Writer's Block

Some people treat writer’s block like a sickness, or something tragic and random that every author eventually goes through. Other writers try to seize control of their writer’s block by using force. I don’t look at it in either of those ways. I think writer’s block has preventable causes, and that (like a sickness), they can be cured if you treat it the right way.

Cause Number One: You don’t like what you’re writing

When I talk to an author who’s struggling to finish a project, more often than not I find out they hate what they’re working on. They loved it at first, but 10,000 words into it they lost interest and their creativity became as difficult to move as a stubborn mule.

Every project has its up and downs, but you should always be in love with your work. It’s like a marriage; you fight, but the love is still there. If the love isn’t there, it’s time to call it quits.

This is the worst type of writer’s block because while you’re focused on finishing a dead piece, you could be writing something spectacular. I knew a writer who hated her book and I tried to convince her to drop it. She did, and she immediately wrote the most fascinating series of short stories I’ve ever read. She just needed to fall in love again.

Cause Number Two: You’re emotionally unprepared to write

A huge reason Sacred Fire took me so long to write was I had a lot of unpleasant things to distract me. Not only is your emotional health more important than any book, but your book will suffer if you have other things to deal with. Take care of yourself first. The writing will come later.

Cause Number Three: You’re bored

You can have all the skill in the world, but it won’t matter if you don’t have something to write about. That’s why I’ve started posting my “World is Awesome” series. You have to have some kind of fire, some kind of inspiration or motive or message. It’s important to live an interesting life and learn interesting things.

I knew a writer who had writer’s block, then heard a story about someone buying Napoleon’s mummified penis. She thought that was hilarious (I did too), and for some reason it created a spark in her and she started a new book. I can only imagine what the book was about.

Writer’s block happens to everyone, but we aren’t victims. Writing is within our grasp; we just have to know how to reach for it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The World is Awesome – Revelation via a Stroke

A writer feeds off of inspiration. Every writer should explore, be adventurous, learn, and eventually come to the same conclusion: the world is an incredible place.

For this installment of “The World is Awesome,” I’d like to share a link with you of a YouTube video about a woman who discovered the pattern of existence when she had a stroke.

Most people lose conscious ability during a stroke, but this woman remembers everything that happened to her. When the left side of her brain stopped working, she was able to see herself without the constraints of left-side filters.

This is a truly fascinating look into how the human brain works. I saw this video years ago, and it was so amazing that I still remember it. I will always remember it.

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