Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Great Writing Advice on Plot, Tone, and How to Begin

Monday, November 14th, 2011

Jessica Barksdale Inclan led a fabulous workshop this past Saturday at the Mt. Diablo Branch’s California Writers Club. Here are a few great ideas she shared: 

 If your work is too dark throughout?   Toni Morrison had this problem in her acclaimed novel, Beloved. The author said she “engineered moments of lightness.”

Don’t know where to start?   “Write little pieces and they’ll start talking to each other.”

Why would anyone want to write in second person? It’s good for hiding pain. Read the poem “House of Horrors” by Tom Sayars.

Her best words on plot?  Plot is tension. It’s developed by presenting a promise and then dropping bits and pieces in along the way. Your writing should be like a mystery. Don’t show everything at once.

Current trend: Editors hate prologues.  Call it chapter one!  They hate introductions.  Call it chapter one!

 Writing Prompt:

1.  Read your current project or a piece you have written.  Does the tone provide different feelings/emotions?   There should be a balance of light and dark, highs and lows.  Use Toni Morrison’s advice if there isn’t.

2.  Try writing a poem, essay or short story in second person.  Or take one of the pieces you have written or a character you have developed and try this point of view here.

3.  Read a work you have written and check to see you haven’t told too much too soon.  Is there enough suspense and tension in your writing?  You may have to take away or drop in more hints of mystery to create a better plot.

Writing an Anthology & Saving Independent Bookstores

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

Victoria Zackheim gave an outstanding talk at the California Writers Club on Saturday.  Although she spoke on creating anthologies, much of  what she said applies to all writing. 

Which is why it’s so wonderful to attend many genres of authors speak.  Their advice and vision help all writers in ways we don’t realize until we hear them.

Regarding nonfiction books:  “Write the proposal first.  This is a clear idea of what the book is about.  It becomes an outline for you.” 

About any kind of writing:  “Dig deeper.  There’s more to the story.  There’s something  you don’t want to talk about.” 

“Describe your book in thirty words or less. Brevity works.”

Regarding anthologies:  “A community of writers is formed around each book. Now they’re creating their own communities of friends.” 

And when she wrote her introduction for the proposal of the book, 90% became the introduction of the book itself. 

What are editors looking for in an anthology? 

*originality in concept

*new ideas for fiction

*established and up-in coming authors (Not widely published so they can create a platform for them.  This gives hope for everyone!)

*provocative subjects

*ensemble that sparks interest and inspires

Writing Prompt:

1.  Write thirty words on about your book. 

2.  Come up with an idea for an anthology.  You can even do one for fun within your writing group or writing community. 

3.  Read a good anthology, such as He Said What? Women Write About Moments When Everything Changed, edited by Victoria Zackheim.


There’s an article in The New Yorker about saving independent bookstores.  The question is this:  should we?  The point has been made that video stores have disappeared.  There’s no longer a need. Why should there be one for the small  bookstore? 

I’ve had this theory since Amazon and the big chain stores popped up in our towns, closing independent bookstores.  The prices on Amazon (and their unfair no-tax system) can’t be beat.  And today’s society likes to press buttons.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out they’d win over the brick and mortar chain stores.


You know what people thrive on?

A sense of belonging.  Community. 

I sense the time of independent bookstores will be right around the corner.  A few have started popping up here and there.   And many cities have never let theirs die off in the first place.  They still have author readings, book clubs and great book selections. 

So hope, pray, and visit your nearest independent bookstore.

Let Writing Make You a Better Person

Monday, July 11th, 2011

When my husband, Bob and I squeeze into the San Francisco airport, we wiggle between lines and lines of people.  Although we’re there two hours before take-off, we wonder if we’ll make our flight with all of these people. 

I haven’t seen so many people since . . . this airport at Christmas.   Maybe this means it’s good news for the economy? 

Fortunately, even with our terminal case of waiting, we do make our flight.  It’s  filled with parents and their children of many ages.  We’re pleasantly surprised to discover that all of the babies and toddlers are well-behaved. 

Since the flight is so crowded we have to sit a few rows apart from each other.  Next to me, in the window seat, sits a middle-school boy reading The Blind Side by Michael Lewis.  He’s looking forward to staying the summer with his father in Boston.  On the other side  of me a man reads his Kindle.  I’m reading  The Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, which, as a greatly used book, is literally falling apart in my hands. 

Right after take-off, the drama one row ahead of us and to the right, begins.   Shortly after the turn-off-seat-belt sign blinks off, rocky weather causes it to light up again and the intercom voice requests everyone to buckle-up. 

I don’t hear the nearby attendant’s request, but I hear the woman’s loud retort.  “Naw.  The light’s gonna go off soon anyway.” 

The boy next to me and I share a glance.  It says, “Who does she think she is?”

 We return to our reading in spite of the bumpy flight.  Barely a paragraph later, we hear  the attendant say, “Ma’am, you’ll have to wait.  We all need to return to our seats now.”

“I’M GONNA PEE IN MY PANTS!”  yells the woman. 

We’ve only just begun our flight.  I can tell we’re in for a bumpy ride in more ways than one.  I’m very grateful for my quiet seat companions. 

I take a moment to study the woman.  Middle-aged and overweight, her frizzy dyed red hair frames her pasty-white face.  When she gets up from her window seat frequently, she grabs the seats in front of her, forcing those people to sit forward. And of course the people beside her must rise to get out of her way. 

The man who sits on the aisle is pure gentleman.  He is truly polite. No trace of irritation exists on his face when she asks to get out to walk, to use the bathroom, to seek out an attendant.  The entire time she is moving around, she talks loudly, and screams for a soda.  “It keeps me occupied,” she says so that her aircraft audience can hear her.

My irritation starts my thoughts on another path.  What if she were a character in a book?  What has made her become this way?  Was she ignored as a child?  Why does she crave this attention?  As I build her imaginary back story, I’m filled with sorrow for the real person in front of me.   If she is like this all the time, imagine how lonely she must be. 

She needs my positive thoughts, not my judgement.

Of Tom Hanks, Publishing, and Your Summer Must List

Monday, June 6th, 2011

In a recent issue of a Entertainment Weekly, celebrities were asked to name MY SUMMER MUST LIST.  Bravo for Tom, in listing BOOKS, BOOKs, BOOKS as one of his.

  Here’s what he wrote:  “I still carry a bag of books around all summer, as I am not enamored with the tactile experience of reading books on Kindles or iPads.  (Magazines, scripts, and newspapers, sure, but my policy on books is: Buy, Read, Keep.)  Waiting for a plane?  Book it.  Kids frolicking safely in the surf?  Check on them as you turn the page.  Fried clams taking forever to hit the table?  Finish a chapter.”

I have lovely memories of my son receiving gifts of books as a child.  What’s the first thing he’d do?  Crack it open, press his nose into the middle and inhale deeply.   The euphoria on his face said it all.

I love the smell of books too.  So does my dog.  At least the ones that come from used bookstores and the library, where many hands have touched them. 

Upon coming home, books in my arms, I’ll call to her. “Zoie!  I’ve got library books!”  She’ll zoom from her bed and bound over to the stack I’ve placed on the floor, like I’ve presented her a T-bone steak. 

Our favorite activity?  While I read these very books, after she thoroughly checks them out with her good sniffs, Zoie will curl up in my lap for a snooze.  

And what about the touch of the book itself?  The feel of the crisp paper, the joy of completion upon reading page after page.  The weight of the book in your hands; running your hands over the cover to feel its texture. Does it feel smooth?  Are the letters of the title raised? 

I will agree that for some huge weighty books, like the book recently released containing Mark Twain’s wonderful words and wit,  an electronic device would have been more convenient than setting it upon a pillow.  But then it would have deprived me of bragging rights.  Oh, poor me . . . (cue violin music) . . . holding up that huge book . . .

But I agree with Tom.  The actual book itself is an experience to be enjoyed.

My Summer Must List: 

1. Books: 

Besides reading a pile of books for research on a current project I’m writing, I’d love to take a break and read Betty White’s book, If You Ask Me:  (And of Course You Won’t) because I’ve always admired her work with animals and her work as a comedic actress.

Countdown, by Deborah Wiles, is about the 1960s Cold War era, and everything by this incredible author is terrific so I can’t wait to read this one.   This probably will be my first reward after I get some of my research done.

Modoc, The True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived by Ralph Helfer.  A biography set at the turn of the century, I’ve heard wonderful things about this story and can’t wait to read it. 

2.  Movies

My goal is to see more old movies, because the scripts are delightful.  As I watch them, I pay attention to the story and character development just as I do when I read a book.

Movies I need to re-watch . . . Born Yesterday, Bringing up Baby, It Happened One Night,  Strangers on a Train,  oh my gosh. I shouldn’t get started.

I suppose I should actually go OUT to see a movie too.  Locally, we have a marvelous old theater with a huge screen that we adore.  A couple of weekends ago we saw Midnight in Paris, a must for anyone who loves literature and/or art.  If you can get past Owen Wilson always acting like Owen Wilson, it’s a terrific lose-yourself-in-the-film time.  I especially enjoyed Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein.

3.  Spend time in nature.  In WARM nature. 

I love the warm weather, and I’m hoping our Northern California’s cold rainy May and early June will soon change.  But even if it doesn’t, long walks and communing with our natural parks and trails is on my must-do this summer. 

4.  Visit historical sites.  Local history in small towns is everywhere and it’s fascinating.    Talking with locals who have lived in one place forever are not only entertaining but the anecdotes and details may flavor one’s writing in the future.


Check out this great blog about writing and publishing:

 The Passive Voice.

Ice Cream For Breakfast! Harry Potter, Wacky Doodles and More!

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011
JULY 7   8:00am – 9:00am

Ice cream for breakfast!  

Treat yourself one morning this summer and start the day off with vanilla or chocolate! 


JULY 14   8:00pm




Come watch Harry Potter #7 part 1 before you go to a midnight screening of part 2!

Harry Potter trivia and prizes! Costumes optional. 


JULY 19   3:00pm – 4:00pm
Fancy Nancy Afternoon Tea
dress in your fanciest clothes and have fancy cookies, fancy tea, and learn the fanciest manners, dahling!


July 26   2:00pm – 3:00pm

Wacky Doodles!

Create all sorts of kooky characters in this super-fun doodle workshop!

*With artist Michael Slack!*

August 1   5:00pm – 6:00pm

Pet Parade!

Bring your pet and meet others–prizes for best dressed pet, largest pet, smallest pet, and many more categories!


August ??


August 16   7:00pm – 8:00pm
Karaoke for Kids!
Come rock out with us.


August 25   4:00pm – 5:00pm
Bring a book you’d recommend (or two, or three…) and leave with something new (or two, or three…)! 


The Storyteller | 925 284 3480 | 30 Lafayette Circle | Lafayette | CA | 94549


Writing Prompts:

1.  You have a very funny pet.  What is it?  Create the most unique pet in the world.  Describe it.  What does it do, that no other pet in the world can do?  Take it to the Peculiar Pet Parade!  What other pets march and perform?   Be wacky and wild!

2.  Use the characters in Harry Potter to write a new chapter of your own.

3.  Create Wacky Doodle art!

4.  The fire alarm just rang.  Write a story from the 

a.  fire’s point of view  

b. the fire engine’s point of view   

c.  a person trapped in the fire  

d.  a rescuer going into the fire

Writing Conference Quotes

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

I attended a writing conference this past weekend.  Here are some quotes, tips and techniques I feel anyone any age may appreciate:

Caldecott winner author-illustrator David Wiesner:  

 (quoting someone’s name I didn’t get – – sorry!)

“Inspiration is for amateurs.  The rest of us just show up and get to work . . . All of the best ideas come out of the process.  Something will occur to you, and then another thing will occur to you . . .”    

Agent Josh Adams made some distinctions between award winners and bestsellers.  (Some of them fall into the same categories.)

 Award Winning Books:  beautifully crafted, indelible voice, lingers in your memory, creates emotional connections, are life-changing 

The White Darkness, Bad News for Outlaws, and Rules are some titles that fit in this category.

 Best Selling Books:  high concept, thought-provoking, page-turning, suspenseful, a fun read         

Charlie Bone and the Red Knight, Sabotaged, and Kiss are high concept sellers.

 Author Alexandria LaFaye 

 If you have a better access to your subconscious, you are a better writer. 

(See!  Me here.  What do I keep telling you about dreams and using the moments as you wake from sleep?)

Triple D:  Every time you use a detail it needs to develop setting, character and plot.  

Center ourselves in the world our characters inhabit.  Our characters should have a distinctive world view.  It should sound if they are describing their world.   Not us describing it.  Figure out how to explain things from the view of the main character.  The character talks about it in relationship to what else is going on in his life. 

Characters can only draw figurative language from their own personal experience.

 How can you write more metaphors and figurative language in your writing?  Read poetry.  Good poets she suggested were Nancy Willard, Cynthia Rylant, Gary Soto, Pat Mora, Janet Wong.  Poets who write adult poetry:  Gary Snyder, Louise Glook, Emily Dickenson, Sylvia Plath. 

 Poetry is about what’s not on the page. 

 Cynthia Lord

 Newbery Honor Winner Cynthia Lord’s words were so powerful the audience gave her a standing ovation and many of us had tears in her eyes when she talked about the story behind the story of Rules.

 What happens when you write a book based on your life? 

What should you write about?

Write a book on challenging personal experiences.   She said that every message in the book, Rules,  is a message for her. 

What to consider as you write your book:

  1. What do I owe the other people whose lives are also tied up in this moment?  (Minimize the impact on their lives.)
  2. Am I willing to “go there” on schedule?  And for years?
  3. Am I ready to be honest? 
  4. Any important moment will have a contrasting emotion in it.
  5. Write what you know.  
  6. If you don’t know, ask yourself, when have I ever felt the same way as that character?
  7. Details don’t have to match, just the feelings.   To help herself remember, she surrounded herself with objects from that town and she saw her handwriting from that time.

Description:   Write what you know through settings and objects using your senses.  Set places where you can visit.  Go and see real things.  What does the air feel like? 

***What surprises you?  This question is gold in the description.

 She acted out a scene in rules where the main character pushes a boy in a wheelchair in a parking lot.  She pushed her suitcase in a parking lot.!   Lord realized there’d be pinecones, holes, cracks, etc and this made her write with more depth.

Find the one feeling of the story and everything revolves around this feeling.


Writing for Teens Website

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

If you are a teen and like to read and write, visit this site!

Writing Advice for winning contests, getting published, and earning a million dollars. . .

Friday, February 4th, 2011

I just read a lovely, fantastic, fabulous book called AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD by Barbara Brown Taylor.  It’s a book for adults who are looking to deepen their spirituality, but everything she says applies to writing. 

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished.  That will be the beginning.”  Louis L’Amour  

This quote from the western author headed one of  Taylor’s chapters.  It’s true of our soul work as well as our writing.  If you are entering our California Writers Club Young Writers Contest, or you’re writing a book for a publisher, or crafting a poem for your self, after you put down your pen or print out your copy and feel pleased with yourself for finishing your draft, put your creative work away for a while. 

What?  You mean you don’t mail it to the California Writers Club, or send it to your publisher, or frame it for your wall right away?

No.  Don’t.  Refrain yourself.  Please. 

Take your dog for a walk.   Read a book.    Watch a really good movie.  Eat ice cream. 

“But Mom, my writing teacher told me I’m supposed to eat ice cream!  Really!” 

(Yes, you can use me as an excuse.  Go ahead.  But then you’ll know I want you to use your senses to write about that experience.)

Why should you put it away and not send out your newly written work?  Because if you give yourself the gift of time, you will look at your work with fresh eyes another day.   No piece is done the first time one writes it.   You can always make it better.   If you think you are done you are teasing yourself. 

If you don’t know where to “slow-down-the-moment” give it to a good writing friend, read it at your writing group, show it to your teacher and ask for some comments on how you can make it more immediate. 

Is your short story seven pages instead of the required five?  Yes, it can be whittled down to five.  You may think it can’t be done but you can do it! 

Someone once said,  “I’ve written you a long letter.  It would be shorter but I didn’t have the time.”   I can’t recall who it was.  But  it takes time and a lot of thought to make every word count.  Does each word need to be there?  Can you use one good word instead of five less distinctive ones?

This is from Barbara Brown Taylor: 

“Reverence requires a certain pace.  It requires a willingness to take detours, even side trips, which are not part of the original plan.”

Paying attention takes time and effort.  

Taylor suggests taking twenty minutes for paying attention.  But if you can’t do that, try five. 

” . . . With any luck you will soon begin to see the souls in pebbles, ants, small mounds of moss, and the acorns on its way to becoming an oak tree.  You may feel some tenderness for the struggling mayfly the ants are carrying away.  If you can see the water, you may take time to wonder where it comes from and where it is going. You may even feel the beating of your own heart . . .”

Exercise for you:  Take five minutes of your day.  Pay attention to one thing.  It can be your pet.  It can be a tree outside.  Lie on your stomach.  What are your feelings from head to toe as you touch the tree or your pet?  What do you see?  Smell?  Hear? 

Next, take time to write all of your thoughts and emotions down.  Compare them to other things.  You may find similes and metaphors pouring out of you now where in a classroom or in your office in front of your computer they would be stifled. 

Enjoy your weekend by paying attention to the little details in your life. 

Waiting in line?  Think about the character standing next to you.  What is he/she wearing?   Perfume or after-shave?  What does this person do all day long?  Memorize the details and create a story in your head. 

You will never be bored.

Literary Zine for Girls Ages 7 – 12 and 13 – 17

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011
chixLIT is written by girls ages 13-17. chixLITtle is by girls 7-12.
Girls submit from all over the world–Trinidad, Japan, Russia, Germany, Canada… 
The ‘zines are ad-free, small, bimonthly, color.   Submissions are made via email. Accepted writers get a free copy of their issue.   Subscriptions are available for a very small fee.   Editors accept poems, short stories, essays, rants, raves, song lyrics, and reviews as long as they are original and authentic.  
More at or
Visit   submission information.

Enter A 90 Second Video Contest!

Friday, January 14th, 2011

Here are the rules quoted from James Kennedy’s blog:

1. Your video should be 90 seconds or less. (Okay, okay: if it’s three minutes long but absolute genius, we’ll bend the rules for you. But let’s try to keep them short.)

2. Your video has to be about a Newbery award-winning (or Newbery honor-winning) book.

3. Your video must condense the plot of the book in 90 seconds or less. Again, exceptions will be made for something really ingeniously bonkers, but it has to be related to a Newbery winning book.

4. Upload your videos to YouTube or Vimeo or whatever and send me the link at kennedyjames [at] gmail [dot] com. Make the subject line be “90 SECOND NEWBERY” and please tell me your name, age, where you’re from, and whatever other comments you’d like to include, including whether you’d like me to link to your personal site. You can give an alias if you want; I understand privacy concerns.

5. Sending the link to me grants me (James Kennedy) the right to post it on my blog and to other websites where I sometimes post content (like Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and to share at public readings, school visits—and hopefully the “90-Second Newbery” Film Festival at the New York Public Library in the Fall of 2011.

6. Deadline is September 15, 2011. 

Here’s his blog to see other information, and an example of a video for A WRINKLE IN TIME.