learning more about “steering” the writing craft

In her book on writing, Steering The Craft, Ursula Le Guin says:

The chief duty of a narrative sentence is to lead to the next sentence. Beyond this basic, invisible job, the narrative sentence can do an infinite number of beautiful, surprising, powerful, audible, visible things. But the basic function of the narrative sentence is to keep the story going and keep the reader going with it.

If you aren’t interested in the craft of writing, then today’s post will definitely leave you disappointed. As for me, there’s no longer any pressure to publish after I decided I should only write for myself because I like doing it (most of the time). It’s become a fun but  sometimes challenging hobby and I’d like to think I’m in the driver’s seat and steering the best I can. I’ve just come from a meeting with my some of my writing friends who enjoy working together, though I must admit sometimes it feels more like an afternoon party since we have too much fun to call what we’re doing “work.” Once again I’m all revved up with new vigor to keep on trying sharpen my own writing skills.

The advantage of assigned writing exercises, which our group decided to do using Ms. Le Guin’s book, is that I’m constantly being challenged to try different writing techniques that I probably would never have tried on my own. I confess that for some of them, I groaned inwardly–at first. My thinking was that it would be too easy, or I’d already tried something like that. But each time I’d buckle down whether I thought I’d like it or not. Some of the work it produced turned out better than others. But I always learned something. Overall, I’m left feeling pretty psyched. Especially when/if I get a positive reaction from others in the group when I read. It’s also interesting to see the many different approaches there are within the group using with the same instructions.

Today’s exercise, in two parts, was coined the SHORT and LONG of it. It involved writing a paragraph or narrative of ~100-150 words in sentences limited to seven words–no sentence fragments–each with a subject and verb. Here’s a paragraph I constructed from a longer story I wrote long ago. To set it up, you should know the protagonist is J.J. McMahon, a 50-something grandmother who’s car-napped in her Honda (named Fenry) waiting at a traffic light. She’s just dropped her grandson off at nursery school and is sitting there contemplating how she really ought to have gone to the bathroom at the school, while there are valid reasons why she didn’t, and she’s praying she can make it in time to the bathroom in her office in.

I’m in the restroom at last! Relief is just a button and zipper away. Thank God for McDonald’s on Kingston Pike. But I am I shaking so. Not a single other person here today. I decide I’ll write on the mirror. Please help me! I’ve been kidnapped! My kidnapper’s that teenager with angel eyes. I poke around my purse for a lipstick. Nothing that marks is in my purse. I hear a voice through the door. “Are you all right, Mother?” It’s him! I can’t believe it. Disconcerted, my body stiffens and shifts. The toilet flushes. Damn those automatic flushers anyway! What nerve this kid has. Does he really have a gun? He’s invading the women’s room  after me! I hear him explaining. “She wasn’t feeling well. I was worried.” The woman behind him smiles. I know what she’s thinking. “What a wonderful son.” No, oh no, my mind screams. He’s NOT my son, he’s my kidnapper!” Too soon we’re back on Kingston Pike. I grip Fenry’s steering wheel tightly. I-40 is so close. “So where are we going,” I ask. “Do I keep driving?” “East,” he says. Take I-40, then north on 75.

In Part two, we were to presented a half-page to a page of narrative, up to ~350 words, all written in one sentence. I hoped this narrative serves sufficiently–as Flash Fiction perhaps–so as not to need no set-up for the reader to interpret or understand the plot.

They tricked her into going to the funeral so it’s no wonder the first thing she notices is the tiny rip in the netting draped over Meemaw’s face in the coffin and I am reminded how we always planned to go back fishing for minnows one day, and all of a sudden I feel my stomach pitch; my heart swells up like it will bust out of my body when the McFadden sisters who sing at all the funerals around here stand around the pulpit in their hats and high heels to sing sadly about gathering at the river where angels’ feet have trod, all while Reverend Martin’s weepy voice rises to a deafening pitch in order to be heard over the singing and the drone of the electric fan and the muffled sounds of sobbing, and I’m trying so hard not to cry myself that I’m not sure if I actually saw but I’m pretty sure I did see a soft fluttering of Meemaw’s pale eyelids and then her blinking like she has just spent a long night in somebody else’s bed and can’t at first recognize where she is, that I almost miss the miracle him–the preacher–and all the brethren have talked about so many times before at so many other funerals: verily I say unto you, the hour is coming…and now is…when he that heareth my word and believeth in Him that sent me…have everlasting life…and shall not come into condemnation…but is passed from death into life,” and just like that, and that quick, Meemaw rises, turns to look right at me and it’s like nobody else can see or hear her but me, but I hear as plain as day, “come on baby Junebug, while these people sit here crying and blubbering, let’s you and me go fishing for minnows, and in a flash she’s gone and quick as lightning I run and grab the white netting that separated her from me and then I follow her out of the side door of the dark church as quick as I can into the waiting sunshine.

For critiquing, and I’m inviting any reader to do so if so inclined, it is important–to me–that the short or long sentences fit the story being told. That’s the criteria of assignments like these. In spite of breaking all the rules of grammar, does it still work? Do the short sentences in Part one read naturally? Would it hold a reader’s attention? Is the language of the longer piece (Part two) clear enough so the reader doesn’t get lost or have to go back and start over for clarification.

If you like to write, either seriously or as a hobby like me, and you also author a blog, I hope you’ll let me know, or better yet, give me a link and I’ll try to come ’round to see what you’ve done.

hook beginnings and learning what to leave out

Two more very important facets of writing skills were covered in Thursday’s writing class: “jump-starting imagination to capture the reader,” and that hook beginning I mentioned yesterday, and the importance of cutting the clutter. That is, getting rid of extraneous material that doesn’t contribute to the piece. If it doesn’t provide information relevant to the plot or help to establish the identify of your character, that extraneous material may end up as a boring read. Too often we new writers are too close to the material, dare I say in love with our words ❗ that we can’t really see what’s not needed, much less cut them out. It takes a lot of practice and may be one of the hardest things to learn, especially if–like me–you’re very very fond of words. (See how many words I included that aren’t really needed?!) But with practice it gets easier, and in time you can really see what a difference it makes. That’s what it takes to becoming your own editor. I try always to read my work as if I didn’t know who wrote it.

I once read pages from a book draft by another writer who asked me to read it and comment. He hadn’t grasped that concept yet. His characters, a man and a woman in this case, seemed to be working up to a crime of some sort. I never figured out what the writer’s intent was, whether it was a who-dunnit, a comedy, or a romance because unfortunately I, the reader, had to spend precious minutes with them going from one place to another and another and another in the draft. I followed every step from where they first met, to the car and the drive to the man’s apartment, then I had to suffer through a scene in the bedroom where he showed either his, or his protagonist’s, superior skill at sexual seduction and I don’t know what all. All this and then we had to get in the car (again!) and drive to another location, a lake or boatdock or something, and do a lot of swimming, before they got into a boat of some kind–or was it an island?–I forget. Anyway, when they got there they drank some more wine, which was described in detail, and made love again. That’s about the point at which I gave up. Puleeze! I have my own life to live, I can’t spend it following characters in a book! I’ve never been good at lying, and since he’d asked me to read and comment, I had to tell him how I felt, which was “sorry, but this needs a lot of work!” I tried to tell him gently, because it was clear that he was already convinced he had finished a best-seller. He knew how to write, he just didn’t know how to transition or sequence. If the extraneous material were cut, his book would deflate into novella or short story size. Maybe even a short-short story, I don’t think he appreciated my free advice because he never showed up in our class again. I share that only because it’s something I experienced again and again in reading new writers’ drafts, and why I eventually refused to read them any longer.

I’ve spoken to several editors from various book publishing houses over the years, so that eventually I realized that even then slush piles were fast becoming a thing of the past. I’m not sure it’s even possible today to submit anywhere without an agent. Now that old slush pile may exist only on an agent’s desk instead of a publishing house editor’s. Even if your work actually lands into one somewhere, the size of that pile is so huge that it may take months (or longer) for your story to make it to the top of the pile. When it does, editors far better than I cannot possible read entire manuscripts unless something in the beginning paragraph peaks their interest. Sometimes they never make it through the first sentence, so that first one is really important.

Our second in-class writing exercise was a five minute session to develop three beginning lines with a hook to make an editor want to find out what happens next. This assignment was actually fun, since one of goals the writing prof hopes to reach is that her students learn to relax, have fun, and enjoy the art. With only five minutes to come up with those three hooks, we didn’t have a lot of time to think about it or worry, and I decided to do free association writing. That means writing whatever pops into mind. Here are my three:

  1. When one-eyed Willie burst forth from his mama’s mottled thighs, the doctor plopped him into the nurse’s waiting hands and ran screaming from the room.
  2. “Don’t you dare eat another one of them worms, William, you gotta save’em for Grampa‘s magic potion.”
  3. Mabel thought she would puke, Aunt Willie was stinking so bad.

Which, if any, would hook you as a reader and make you want to find out what happened next?

For day two, I consider my assignment done with somewhere around 700 words, and several ideas for continuing Ellisville (offline). I just hope I can locate the associated word files. It would be painful to have to begin again. Have a restful weekend. Hope it’s spring weather where you are.


honing the writing: figuring out what to write

Let’s not regard this as a real post; let’s regard it as homework, since that’s what it is. That way, anyone who reads it is helping with my homework.

Our new season of classes began yesterday, and my first one–chosen specifically to unlock my mental writing block–is called “honing your writing,” or something like that. Just to be clear, Osher classes usually don’t require homework, but some Greek smartass a long time ago said If you wish to be a writer, then write!” and that’s more or less what the writing prof said too. So all of us promised to try to write a few words EVERY DAY for the six-week duration of the class. So here I go, with the idea of combining the two blocked areas of my life–writing/blogging–to see if I can overcome both.

Yesterday’s class included an in-class exercise of finding our stories by Bubbling. I remembered doing it long ago, but with the prof  standing over us with a bullwhip (I jest a little) I began with the note page you see below. (That’s my handwriting–lousy, huh?) For years I’ve wanted to do a long piece on the place where I grew up. Some of the people there, my family too, were real characters to say the least. And my life growing up on a farm in the 40’s and 50’s was so different from the lives of my children and grandchildren, I want to leave it as a legacy. That way, should they lean too heavily to self-importance, it will remind them my humble beginnings. Maybe someday they’ll be happy to have it. So here’s my first bubble. From there I bubbled whatever came to mind. I found I didn’t run out of ideas, but I did run out of time. Does this bubble look like a best seller to you?

bubbleWhat makes a book a best seller anyway? I suspect it happens when a book begins to sell well enough that suddenly everybody wants to be in on whatever the latest cool read is and goes out to buy the same book, especially if it has lots of explicit sex (Think: Fifty Shades Of Grey and Lady Chatterley’s Lover of my day).  I’m sure I’ve acquired books in that guise myself. If you can’t produce the cool stuff yourself, then be one of the first to read it. I think that’s how it works. Then there are the others that don’t need explanation (Think: The Book Thief and To Kill A Mockingbird). Anyhow, I’ve come to a good place in my writerly life. I still want to learn to write the very best that I can even if I’m too old, too lazy, or not smart or talented enough, because the older I get the harder it gets to organize my ideas.

So where do I begin? Nothing in class was new, I admit, though it’s good to be reminded. I know the best place to begin is not necessarily at the beginning, but in the middle of something. I think of it as putting the reader right there in the scene as an unseen observer. But I did learn a new Latin phrase In medias res! In the middle! Our next in-class exercise was to write without editing–for five minutes–a scene that begins in the middle, and see where it would take us. Here’s mine.

Look at her! Eighteen years old and she had never been to the circus, never done much of anything to tell the truth. Now she had a boyfriend who called her “Princess,” so when Barnum & Bailey came to town she asked him if he would take her. Now here they were, sitting in the bleachers up high enough to see all three rings at one time. The ring in the middle was empty, but in the first one she watched a man dressed in fancy britches coaxing a tiger through a series of hoops. But it was the high-flying trapeze artists that were lining up to enter the mid ring that intrigued her the most.

In my mind as I wrote I was seeing the net stockings the tired-looking performer was wearing, especially the hole in the back, on the thigh, that I was pretty sure she didn’t know was there. Suddenly the circus I’d always thought of as so glamorous looked a whole lot different than it did in my dreams. Did this circus portend her future, her life as an adult?  But five minutes didn’t allow me time to include those images.

There! That’s enough for one day!  I’ve done slightly less than 700 words already. Tomorrow, or should I say “next time,” I’m not sure where the muse will take me. Perhaps I’ll write about a few of the other questions a writer faces, such as a beginning hook (to snare the reader from the get-go). Or maybe I’ll write about things that bug me in general, like grey-haired 0ld men with flat-top haircuts.

Meanwhile, if anyone reading this aspires to be a writer themselves, then I refer them back to the opening paragraph and that Greek guy’s words: If you wish to be a writer, then write! Feel free to use the prompts that I’ve shared from my class.  And then let me read it.


granddaughter’s first book

THE POOP MISTAKE – a book in progress

by Vimmy (age 6 years old)

[final version to be] illustrated completely by Mom

















NO!  NO!  NO!  NO!  NO!  NO!  NO!











Notes from the editor:  Vimmy’s book was produced just as originally written. I didn’t have the opportunity to ask Klay (or Clay) how he preferred to spell his name, but Vimmy chose a K so I did it her way. She always like that. Exited means Klay was acting with “high energy.” Lesh is that thing attached to a dog’s collar, and Apachey (probably Apache) is an Airedale Terrior who lives in the neighborhood. I hope you enjoyed this “rough” draft  of Vimmy’s very first picture book as much as I’ve enjoyed posting it.

one day I wanna write a poem like this…

I’m currently reading a book, THE BOOK THIEF, where the author, Markus Zusak, uses Death as the narrator with an omniscient point of view. Rather than usual skull and bones swathed in a black cloak holding a grim reaper, Death is portrayed as a sympathetic character with the tendency to define moments by their color. It’s one of the most creative books I’ve come across in awhile, and I hope to write in more detail about it someday soon. Meanwhile, I came across this poem written by a one-time email friend of mine from Kentucky, Jim Peyton (the author of ZION’S CAUSE). I think Mr. Zusak’s and Mr. Peyton’s versions of the dark angel both enjoy color. Don’t mind me, I just like this poem and I hope you do too, and I don’t think Jim would mind my sharing it here.

GARDEN GO by Jim Peyton

When the dark angel comes for me, 
Don’t scatter my ashes beneath some tree, 
Or toss them out for the winds to blow.
No, let me again to my garden go:

My Eden of earthy delight,
Where Rose awaits with heavy hips,
And Iris laughs with lavender lips,
And wonton Ajuga romps in the night.

Potash pleases them all, you know.

PostscriptIt occurs to me that “wonton” might oughta be “wanton” in view of the other sensuous references in the piece, but whichever way it works for you is okay with me.

memories involving food without indulging in sentiment . . . is it possible?

For those who turn up their noses at fruitcake at Christmas, it’s only because you haven’t tasted my slightly altered version of Mama’s. I’m getting ready to make Mama’s Best Every Christmas Fruitcake at Hubby’s special request. (That’s not it, by the way, I’m just trying to jazz up the post a bit.)  So while I was looking through my self-produced memory cookbook locating the recipe, it reminded me how so many of our memories are associated with food. Particularly so around the holidays. Don’t you think so? Were I to ask readers to contribute their own food-associated memory, I expect it wouldn’t be difficult for any of you.

When Amanda Hesser became food editor of the New York Times Magazine in 2004, she asked well-known writers of all kinds–playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, poets, and journalists–to contribute essays about an important moment in their lives involving food. The only caveat was NOTHING SENTIMENTAL. She wasn’t so much interested in grandma’s corn bread as she was in why grandma always made it when she was lonely. In 2008, as a result of those special essays, she published EAT, MEMORY – Great Writers At The Table (W.W. Norton). Some of the selections are so creative that it’s easy to see why they are published.

After reading most of the Eat, Memory 2008 collection, I couldn’t help reviewing my cookbook a little differently. Sure enough, most if not all the reminiscences are of a sentimental nature: Mama’s Fruitcake, Grandma’s Clabber Biscuits, the funeral wake potluck dinners, etc, so I challenged myself. Could I write a food memory without being gushy in that special fifties I REMEMBER MAMA television series way? Were there even any food memories that affected me in ways other than sentimental? Sure, I can think of lots of food-associated things to write about that don’t involve emotion. Or can I?

I could write how Grandma Leona and Great-Grandma Nina ate Ritz crackers crumbled into a cereal bowl with warm milk for Sunday supper. After eons of lavish Sunday dinners prepared for extended family who usually showed up every Sunday, it must have been wonderful to finally take it easy in their later years. No pots or pans to scrub, only two dishes and two spoons to wash up, no one else to clean up after. Since they lived to be 84 and 92 respectively, they may have been on to something in those simple Sunday suppers.

Or I could write how all the kids in my school lunch room scraped their beans into the hog slop barrel instead of eating them because they knew the more you eat the more you toot. Some of them liked to see who had NO beans to scrape so they would have a target to point a finger to should unpleasant balm or flatulent noises strike the classroom later. How I loved those beans, so what was I do to? I’d sneak in a few bites and rearrange those that were left with my fork, then dutifully scrape the rest away for the hogs.

But could I write about either of these in a non-sentimental essay? It certainly wouldn’t be easy.

In EAT, MEMORY are some wonderful stories: One about a couple who nearly break up over a dinner in Paris at a famous restaurant, another by an author who professes to hating ice cream, and my own personal favorite by a famous chef who needed a line cook. He found what he thought might be a perfect match. In the personal interview, he discovered the man was blind, his eyes wandered around in their sockets like tropical fish in the aquarium of a cheap lobby, yet the chef convinced himself that this blind man had evolved into such a higher species of line cook that HE would learn great things from him. Sometimes we see only what we want to see, after all. The rest of the story is both heart breaking and hilarious. I think I recognized myself in both characters.

I decided writing like this is a good challenge and I hope I can live up to it. So I invite any interested reader to write your own food-associated memory without being overly sentimental if you can! It might be harder than you think. I’m not even sure I can. If you’d like to try sometime–perhaps in a post on your own blog–please link to Wintersong or this post so that I’ll be sure to know and not miss your entry. Or–if you prefer–jot a short memory in the comment section. If the book I’ve talked about here sounds interesting to you, or you’d like to see it yourself, you can probably find it in your local library. You can also get it here real cheap.

Now, I published Mama’s Fruit Cake recipe, along with notes on my slight alteration, in December 2007. If you missed it then, you’ll find it here. It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas around me, and I’m not referring to the beans.

got anything you want painted?

Today I’ve resumed painting. So far I’ve finished two wooden picture frames, a hand-carved wooden dough bowl (bottom only), a small floor cabinet, my fingers, my nose, elbows and forearm, two small wooden blocks and the Pottery Barn cabinet I mentioned yesterday. And I still have about a third of a quart-sized can of flat black paint. Got anything you need painted black? If you hurry on over, I could probably get it done by suppertime.

I don’t know where all this creative energy has come from, but Hubby has caught it too–no doubt from me. While I’m painting and dreaming up more organization and cleaning projects, he’s helping out with sanding and other chores, and is generally grateful that I’m playing card games less this week.

All the while we’re working away, I’m hearing this poem going through my head, one I discovered years ago though I could remember neither the author nor where I read it. It’s hard to hide anything ever published these days, and sure enough I found it. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I learned it was written by a Utah poet. May Swenson, who I learned died in 1989, is considered–according to Wikipedia–one of the most important and original poets of the 20th century. She was the oldest of 10 children born to a Mormon immigrant couple. The family regularly spoke Swedish and English was a second language. May graduated from Utah State University in Logan in 1939 and taught poetry at several prestigious universities.

As I read this gem again, and especially as I ‘m still splotched with black paint as read and type, it seemed doubly appropriate to share with you here in Wintersong. If you don’t enjoy it, all I can say is what got YOU up on the wrong side of bed today?! All kidding aside, this is probably one of those times when I discover that almost everybody else already knew about her and, while I’ve known this one for years, I learn today that I have many more May Swenson discoveries ahead of me . . . as soon as I finish painting.

I painted the mailbox. That was fun.
I painted it postal blue.
Then I painted the gate.
I painted a spider that got on the gate.
I painted his mate.
I painted the ivy around the gate.
Some stones I painted blue,
and part of the cat as he rubbed by.
I painted my hair. I painted my shoe.
I painted the slats, both front and back,
all their beveled edges, too.
I painted the numbers on the gate–
I shouldn’t have, but it was too late.
I painted the posts, each side and top,
I painted the hinges, the handle, the lock,
several ants and a moth asleep in a crack.
At last I was through.
I’d painted the gate
shut, me out, with both hands dark blue,
as well as my nose, which,
early on, because of a sudden itch,
got painted. But wait!
I had painted the gate.