Archive for October, 2013

Come to a haunted tea party!

October 22, 2013

I will be hosting a supernatural tea party at the Barnes & Noble in Clackamas (Oregon) at 7;00 p.m. on Tuesday, October 29, 2013.

haunted mansion dining room

Free scones, cookies, and tea. Storyteller Julie Strozyk will be sharing a spooky tale. Actor & magician Don Stewart Burns will be doing an eerie trick or two. And Fantasy writer Miriam Forster (City of a Thousand Dolls) and I will be reading creepy bits from our novels. We will exchange “true” ghost stories and Halloweeny book recommendations so DO PLEASE COME! It should be frighteningly fabulous!


Ten Writing Books That Have Helped Me

October 13, 2013

(At the risk of repeating myself, this is reprinted from a Willamette Writers newsletter column I wrote in fall 2012.)used books


There are so many great books on writing out there that I haven’t read yet, and many that I’ve read and enjoyed but didn’t have time to mention below, but here are a few that have made a difference in my writing life.

On craft:

“To write a breakout novel is to run free from the pack . . . to say “no” to merely being good enough to be published.” –Writing the Breakout Novel  (Donald Maass) This book startled me, at first made me nervous, then fired me up. The author’s advice on heightening tension to create a fast-paced story was the clearest I’d ever heard.  He taught me that for my novel to touch and thrill readers, and to render them unable to forget my story, I needed to create characters (especially my protagonists) with vivid desires and wounds and quirks. My characters need to be heartbreaking, heroic, and charming. And they must be believable as well as larger than life. A proverbial light bulb snapped on in my brain.  (There’s also a workbook for this one that I found helpful to use on a couple of projects.)

“This is not a book of theory. It is a book of usable solutions.” –Stein on Writing (Sol Stein) This one fascinated me—the author talks about advice (increasing tension, establishing credibility, composing dialogue) that lots of other writing teachers discuss, but Stein makes these topics fresh. He uses an acting exercise to illustrate the heightening of drama in a two person scene. He calls his method for fast revision “Triage.” And he gives some effective (often amusing) advice about the art of the love scene. This book is packed with wisdom you forgot you already knew. Sometimes you need someone to give you a little shake and wake you up.

“When a character believably shifts to a higher level of consciousness, energy is released. A surge of emotion is generated in the audience.” The Writers Guide to Writing Your Screenplay (Cynthia Whitcomb) This writing manual works not just for screenwriters but for novelists, playwrights, poets, all of us.  The sections on Set Ups and Pay Offs and on Character Evolution are particularly great. I know, she’s my sister, but that’s not why I love this book. I love it because it works and it’s written in an endearing and accessible voice—feels like having a long lunch with a brilliant friend who talks fast which is awesome because you listen fast!

“The quickest and easiest way to reject a manuscript is to look for the overuse, or misuse, of adjectives and adverbs.” –The First Five Pages  (Noah Lukeman) Here’s a book I found useful in unexpected ways. The title implies it’s all about refining the first 1000 words or so of your manuscript, but it is the seemingly simplistic advice on cutting and replacing words that worked the best for me on any page of my novel. In one of Lukeman’s exercises he has you remove all the adverbs and adjectives on one page of your manuscript, list them, cross out the cliché ones, change the strongest ones to less expected choices, put these new ones back in and then reread the new version of the page. Then do the same with nouns—list them and find replacements that are more unusual. Once, while teaching a workshop for the Oregon Writers Colony, I had each student take a paragraph or page of his/her manuscript and change every noun, verb, adverb, and adjective. One woman was working on a first-person story and when she read back the original followed by the rewritten version, people in the room actually gasped. The narrator’s voice came to life in a startling way. Seriously, even if you end up keeping just one improved sentence on the page, I think you’ll find Lukeman’s exercises are worth it.

“It’s not a question of gimmicks to personalize the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.” – On Writing Well  (William Zinsser) Here is some very effective instruction on refining descriptions (of settings and characters) and on narrowing your story’s scope (why it’s better to tell a story by focusing on one year, or even one summer, instead of years of plot, for example.) One of my favorite chapters is about crafting a memoir, but it’s applicable to all writers.



“Writing this way is a little like milking a cow: the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it.”  –Bird By Bird  (Anne Lamott) There is some great advice on craft in this book (looking at a character through a one inch frame, for instance) but for me it was all about inspiration. Lamott’s writing is all heart—her pages are filled with quirky passages that make you want to write and make you proud to be in her authors’ club.

“You make a path boldly and follow it fearfully . . . the path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over. I hope birds ate the crumbs.”–The Writing Life (Annie Dillard) There are a couple of life experiences that the author relates in this book, metaphors for understanding and overcoming writing obstacles, that still resonate with me almost a decade later. The wood chopping scene, when she realizes how to get farther by aiming at the block instead of the piece of wood, struck home.

“My earliest memory is of imagining I was someone else—imagining that I was, in fact, the Ringling Brothers Circus Strongman.” –On Writing (Stephen King) It was fascinating not only to hear how King went from broke to bestselling author, but how certain life experiences steered him toward his genre: a recurring ear infection, dropping a bee-infested cinder block on his foot, observing an awkward girl at school who later became the model for Carrie. And the book also includes plenty of down-to-earth advice. I especially loved the section about a mentor advising him to cut out half the words on each page.


On career strategy:

“Your agent’s job is to hold on to your belief in your work so he can get you the most favorable possible contracts and relationships with publishers.” –Your First Novel (Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb) Ok, I know, this is my own book, but hearing about the business side of things from my agent’s (and co-author’s) half of the book (how Ann gets an editor interested in your novel, her most common reason for rejecting a project, advice on writing a great query letter) is fascinating and her writing style is charming. The section on how a book auction works is thrilling.

“You will probably work with your agent for a long time. You owe it to yourself to choose one you like and enjoy, one who lets you feel free.” –The Career Novelist  (also Donald Maass) Again Mr. Maass taught me things I didn’t realize I needed to know but was grateful to learn. Like what kinds of agents there are out there so I’d know how to focus my search. And when to give up one’s day job. Wonderfully straight forward and easy to grasp.

October Give-Away

October 13, 2013

The winner of the September Give-Away was Alexandria of Greenfield, MA . The October Give-Away is a signed (softcover) copy of The Fetch and, in an act of shameful self-promotion, here is a bit of praise for this novel:

TF papberback cover

The Fetch is one of those rare books that took me completely by surprise. An inspired combination of history, religion and the supernatural . . . pushes at the boundaries of teen literature, nudging the field in a startling new direction . . . gorgeous descriptions of the afterlife are comforting and original, and my heart lifted as almost never before when I read the final few pages . . . this strange bird of a novel is quite a start to the 2009 year in YA lit. – Reading Rants