While I Was Out

My plan was to disappear for the month of February.

Not disappear as in I created a new identity, or I found a real invisibility cloak, or I ran off with Blond Bond, or I decided income tax was illegal so I quit filing, built a hut in some remote location, and lived off the grid.

No, I just wanted to disappear for a little work vacation.

I’ve already posted (twice) about the residency at the artist colony that led to my February decision to disconnect from home, work and the Internet. What I discovered was, the decision to disconnect is a lot easier than actually disconnecting. Here are a few reasons why. Continue reading “While I Was Out”


What is Voice?

For a writer, voice is defined as how you tell a story. Sometimes it seems to come out of the mouth of a particular character. Other times it is a more distant narrator who uses the writer like a puppet to tell the story. A strong, distinct voice can be a magic ingredient that makes a not terribly dynamic plot engaging because it’s so beautifully written.

For a writer, voice can also be literal. On a good, good writing day, a voice delivers a single line of dialogue or an opening sentence, usually when you are someplace inconvenient, and then it demands, “Write me!”

A while back, I wrote about a voice experience in a post called Liars and Tablecloths. The voice that delivered that opening line took me down a path that included teenagers, a Ferris Wheel, unreliable narrators, the complicated relationship between sisters, and a twig that looked like a human finger.

The story that came from that voice is called “Evie.

Yesterday, I donated “Evie” to the Billtown Blue Lit online literary journal. It was a Wednesday Free Short, a weekly offering by the journal to promote the writing and reading of literary fiction.

I’m glad Evie found a good and welcoming home. Heaven knows, she needed one.


Courage and Authenticity

I work with a lot of mystery and thriller writers. Often our discussions about a manuscript include writerly terms like “escalating fear” and “a pervasive sense of dread” and “an authentic voice.”  Getting fear and dread on the page using a believable voice is what a writer tries to do to craft a suspenseful story.

Authenticity, or writing with authority, is what makes a reader believe the writer’s words.

There are many good examples of stories that effectively combine fear, dread, and authenticity. What follows is a masterful one–perhaps because it is non-fiction, though it could work just as well as a fictional piece. I am glad it is not; it is good to know that there have been people in the world with this kind of necessary courage.

Every Sunday, I receive a short story by email through a project of the Library of America called Story of the Week. Sign up is available through their website.

Yesterday’s story was A Negro Tourist in Dixie written by Bettye Rice Hughes. It appeared in a magazine called The Reporter in April, 1962. This story is an account of Miss Hughes’ experiences when she toured the South as a woman traveling alone. Her goal was to record the reception she received in public restaurants and bus stations, but also to compare that reception to the hostile and violent encounters experienced by the Freedom Riders.

This is not a mystery or thriller story. It was real. I am humbled not only by Miss Hughes’ courage, which is great, but also by the beauty of her simple, elegant prose.

Here is her story, in her own words full of fear, dread, authenticity–and courage.

A Negro Tourist in Dixie  by Bettye Rice Hughes, January 16, 2012, Story of the Week.

The Basics, in 3’s

In a few weeks I will be teaching a workshop on the basics of creative writing to a group of young people. The workshop is expected to cover story, structure, character, plot and theme–you know, the basics of creative writing.

I will have one hour.

Cramming years of acquired knowledge and experience into a mere 60 minutes is a daunting task, but I did pick up a thing or two in my years of volunteering in schools and hanging around children.

When trying to teach a broad topic, use a number.

People like–and remember–numbers. This is why you see so many articles titled “Six Ways to Make Your Garden Grow,” or “Four Secrets to Conquering Belly Fat.” Notice how those are nice low numbers. If I have to do more than six things to make my garden grow, I’m throwing in the trowel. And four secrets? How many people can keep even one secret? Four is plenty. A person has to be motivated to keep four secrets.

So, not only do I need a number, I need a low number. Luckily, the basics of creative writing has a built-in appropriate number: the number three.

Why three? Why is three so special to creative writing?

Think about it.

How many basic story types are there?  Three: Man versus Himself. Man versus. Man. Man versus Nature. These break down into smaller parts, but every story can fit into one of these broad categories.

How many story lengths are there? Three: Novel, Novella, Short Story.

How many short story types are there? Three: Short, Flash, Micro.

How many acts in the Three Act Structure? Act One is the beginning, when the author needs to set up the story and hook the reader; Act Two is the middle, when the author has to dig in to make the story complex, logical and suspenseful enough to hold the reader’s interest; Act Three is the end, when the author provides a climax and resolution so the reader feels satisfied and entertained.

How many Point of View options are there for a writer to tell a story? Three. First Person, where “I” tells the story; Second Person, where “you” tells the story; and Third Person, where “He/She/It” tells the story.

How many dimensions in a well-drawn character? Three: Physical, which tells us about his outside appearance; Sociological, which tells us about his background and current life situation; Psychological, which tells us what’s happening inside his head and heart.

How many parts of a story? Three: Conflict, Crisis, Resolution.

Looking at stories in terms of three wrangles it into manageable pieces. Basics. If a young writer walks out of my workshop holding up three fingers and muttering, “Conflict, Crisis, Resolution,” I’ll be thrilled.

I only wish I had three hours.

Did I forget anything? If you were taking a course in the basics of creative writing, what three things would you like to know?

Tell me about it.


Dew on the Kudzu

This week, my semi-memoir, semi-fiction piece called “Dead Horse, Live Daddy” was published in Dew On The Kudzu, an online magazine that celebrates the Southern Written Word.

Most of my written words are Southern in origin. This story is one of them.


Short Story Outtakes

outtake (n.): A section or scene, as of a movie, that is filmed but not used in the final version.

In the current issue of inSinC Quarterly, the national newsletter of Sisters in Crime, I contributed a hopefully fun, and hopefully helpful, article about short story writing. “The FOSS Cure” addressed the pesky mental blocks that give writers a Fear Of Short Story.

I was fortunate to have the help of three short story artists who left their day jobs writing mysteries to offer quotes for my piece. However, as often happens with short articles, some wonderful bits had to be trimmed from their contributions to fit the newsletter’s word count. 

Those of us who are film fans know that some of the best stuff ends up on the cutting room floor. Below, with a big Bien Merci to the three talented colleagues and generous friends who shared their thoughts on short story writing, are the extended versions of their comments.

Roberta Isleib,* whose short story “Disturbance in the Field,” published in SEASMOKE by Level Best Books, was nominated for Agatha and Macavity awards, shared these thoughts:

In my experience, there is good reason to be afraid of short stories
as their brevity requires a neatness of plot and character that I find
quite challenging. Every once in a while, I come upon a plot twist
that I can imagine fitting into a short story. What if a patient
became obsessed with the dental office’s whitening system? (Mental
Hygiene, published in RIPTIDE, Level Best Books.) What if a cruise
ship passenger disembarked in Key West and did not return–The
Itinerary, selected for THE RICH AND THE DEAD, edited by Nelson

My biggest challenge has been writing short stories featuring my home
town and its local characters for the “Murder Mystery Night” sponsored
by Habitat for Humanity.

In a very short story, the writer doesn’t have time to develop
characters or describe the setting extensively.  It all happens
quickly.  I could only take a few words to anchor the readers in
Madison and introduce our colorful local characters.  And I had to
figure out the “story behind the story”–that is, why someone would
feel desperate enough to resort to murder.  So I guess I’m saying the
basic structure is quite similar–crime, motive, suspects, detectives,
clues, murder weapon–but all squeezed into 1000 words.  A challenge!
But it was nice to be able to wrap the whole project up within a
month, rather than spending a year on it.

*Check out Roberta’s new writing persona, Lucy Burdette!

Harley Jane Kozak has contributed to a number of short story anthologies, including Crimes By Moonlight: Mysteries from the Dark Side.  In “Madeeda,” nominated for an Agatha Award, an expectant mother is concerned over her two-year-old twins’ visions of a bad witch.

Here is Harley’s take on inspiration:

My short story ideas occur in little intuitive flashes, like headlines out of National Enquirer — “Bride Flees Wedding When Fiancé Insists on 4-Tined Forks!” or “Twins See Purple Ghost Asleep in Master Bedroom!” or “Drunken Man Mistakes Soccer Mom for Lamborghini!” Most often it’s some small, strange incident from my own life that I file away, knowing I don’t have the time or perspective to write about it just then. But it’ll hang around in the file cabinet of my psyche and one day, when I least expect it, I’ll understand what realm it’s in, literary fiction or crime fiction or horror, or I’ll just feel the need to start writing it, or else someone will ask me to write a story and I’ll think, “Yes, now’s my chance to write about the guy who thought he was Jesus and tried to kill me.” I start to deviate from real life soon after the initial premise, and I never know how the story’s going to end, and once I figure it out, I go back and revise, revise, revise, making the story shorter, shorter, shorter. It takes me forever to make it short enough. That’s one of life’s cruel jokes, how long it takes to write a short story. 

Kaye George’s short works have appeared in print, online, and in anthologies, including her recently recently A PATCHWORK OF STORIES (and FISH TALES!)  In 2009, her short story “Handbaskets, Drawers and a Killer Cold” received an  Agatha nomination.

Like the seasoned short story pro I know Kaye to be, her advice was direct, brief and infinitely helpful:

Short stories are easier for me. I think that’s because I can hold a whole short story plot in my mind at once. Also, my long pieces tend  to turn out too short. All you really need for a short story are a protagonist, a problem, and a solution. Anything else is optional. I prefer a twist at the end, too. Even better, a double twist.

Many thanks for sharing your thoughts. If anyone reading would like to share as well, please do!

Advice Among the Accolades

Last week, in jest, I posted about Helena Bonham Carter’s  mismatched shoes at the Golden Globe Awards.  This week I invoke HBC again, because her daring choices remind me of a nugget of writing advice that has both bothered and benefited me. It came via an anonymous judge for a writing fellowship, and I keep it posted on a yellow sticky note stuck to the side of my desktop:

“This writer should resist clichéd thinking that forces a story into a contained shape.”

Continue reading “Advice Among the Accolades”

The Agony and the Ecstacy of an Anthology

Last week, the Sisters in Crime Great Unpublished (Guppies) Chapter hit the airwaves with an exciting announcement: Fish Tales, a collection of stories by 22 Guppy authors,  was accepted for publication by Wildside Press. The aftermath of this announcement was a cyber let-the-wild-rumpus begin.  The 22 authors were happy. The Guppy Chapter was happy. SinC National was happy.

I was happy, too. I had the honor of editing the twenty-two stories that will appear as Fish Tales and working with the authors. Some of them were seasoned writers and well published. Others were newbies who submitted a first-time-out story. The stories that came to me reflected the mix of experience. It was my job to help the writers, whatever their level of experience, create the strongest story possible.

The stories were great. I had a blast.

For Fish Tales, a theme was provided: each tale had to include fish or water. The twenty-two interpretations of that make for a couple of surprises in the collection. That’s one of the joys of working with creative, inventive type folks. When faced with a seemingly innocuous theme like fish, or water, creative and inventive people come up with some really creative and inventive stuff. But that’s all I can say about that. To understand what I mean, you’ll have to buy the book.

Themed anthologies are, in my opinion, overlooked gems. They are certainly out there; some are collections put out by professional organizations like Sisters in Crime. Some are by individual writers. Here’s a sampling:

Sherman Alexie‘s Ten Little Indians shares experiences and trials of Native Americans.

In Cold Feet, Elise Juska and four other writers explore the tenuous, and sometimes terrifying, time between engagement and marriage.

Ellen Gilchrist presents a character’s life through stories in Nora Jane.

Insanity and obsession populate The Breaking P0int by Daphne DuMaurier.

It will be another year or so before Fish Tales will be a book in hand. It took twice that long, at least, to put it together from start to finish. That’s not unusual, but there is one element in the history of this anthology that is unusual.

The Guppies refer to their chapter as “The Pond.” When plans for the anthology were announced, it was decided that it would be a total Pond effort. Each author who submitted a story agreed, in turn, to read and critique other submitted stories. Each story was scored. The stories that scored the highest by the submitting authors were granted inclusion into the anthology.

In short, I edited the stories but I did not select them. The Guppies did that part themselves. Hence, The Pond as a whole shares in this joyful development through their democratic process of story selection. It’s not how every anthology is put together, but it certainly makes this one, in my mind, all the more special.

Do you have a favorite story collection? Or have written one?

Tell me about it.




Ever Changing Hats

wherein I explore the various ways a reader/writer/editor reads, while still attempting to enjoy a story.

Yesterday I attended a terrific workshop, “Writing for Young Adults,” taught by Elizabeth Mosier and sponsored by the Delaware Literary Connection. Libby teaches writing at Bryn Mawr College and is the author of My Life as a Girl and a contributor to the soon to be released, Prompted, an anthology that explores the human condition via poetry, personal essays, and fiction. Prompted was put together by Philadelphia Stories magazine, in partnership with the Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio, and will be out on May 22.

In speaking about the anthology experience, Libby made a comment that stuck with me. She contrasted how she reads as an editor to how she reads as a teacher. She said that while reading as an editor she had to look for problems in the piece, whereas as an instructor, she reads for potential within a piece.

I quickly wrote down this comment because it so clearly states my own feelings. How I read a manuscript I critique as an editor is different from how I read as a writer, which is different from how I read as a reader. I’ve heard many writers talk about this. I think of it as different reading hats.

Wearing my Editor Hat, I read for potential, as Libby said. I look for what is working in a story, what I think the author is trying to say or show, as well as for what needs work. I also look for what the author may have unconsciously missed—elements of theme that may be overlooked or underplayed; missed opportunities that would allow a character to reveal more; intriguing narrative questions that may be understated or missed altogether.

As an editor, I call in all three readers—editor, writer and reader. The editor in me tells the writer in the author how to best reach the reader in me. It’s a little mind-bending to read on paper like this, but it works perfectly well in practice.

When I’m reading as a writer, I look at things differently. Under my Writer Hat, I generally read work in one of my working genres. In my case, that’s usually literary short stories or mysteries. While I read to enjoy the story, I’m also mentally deconstructing the plot and analyzing the characters from a writerly point of view. I read with an internal ticker-tape parade of questions: “Ooh, how did the author come up with that method of murder?” “Why did the author choose to tell me this background instead of putting it into a scene?” “Hmm. Is what this character just said supported by what this character does in the story?” “Whoa! Where heck did that come from?”

Reading as a writer means I’m trying to put myself in author’s head. It’s fun but sometimes frustrating, because I can’t always figure out why the author did this, that or the other. Before I was a writer, I never questioned why something happened in a story. I accepted the course of events as I would expert testimony in a trial—irrefutable. Now that I write, I know that there is nothing irrefutable in an author’s decisions. Knowing this makes me work harder to get things right in my own stories, to shore up why and how characters act with background and traits that make what they do make sense. I don’t want another writer, or reader, or anyone, to be reading one of my stories and say, “Whoa! Where did that come from?” unless I actually intended there to be a big surprise.

Finally, I read as a reader. Or, maybe more accurately, as a fan. The Reader Hat is the best to wear. This is the best kind of reading, to just pick up the book and get lost in a story. No pressure to change, no desire to question. Just read. This can only happen, I believe, if a writer first reads the story as a writer, and then an editor reads the story as an editor, and together they create a work for the reader. Editor-writer-read. It’s a process. They’re a team. Hopefully a winning one.

Do other people read different stories in different ways? Does your internal editor kick in, or your internal writer interrupt to question the author? Does your internal reader tell everyone else to shut up and just let her read already!?!

Tell me about it.


You’re So Meh

wherein I discuss secrets characters keep, and also ask,  if you’re going to give up a long-held secret, can you please let it be a good one?

There was a little bit of a brouhaha in the music world this week, when some news outlets reported the identity of a mystery man.

The mystery man’s claim to fame? He was vain.

So vain, in fact, that Carly Simon wrote a song about him.

If you don’t know the background on this musical mystery, it’s this: Carly had a falling out with some vain dude, and she got payback by writing a song about his vanity.This has always been confusing to me. If she wanted to bug Mr. Vanity, wouldn’t a more successful approach have been to ignore him, rather than write the song and refuse to ID His Royal Vainness for 38 years? Didn’t that just give him more attention, and fueled his already overflowing vanity?

Of course, if she did that we would not have the song, which is an excellent one.  How many songs include “gavotte” in the lyrics? So I will back off on criticizing Carly’s expose’ on vanity, and just enjoy the music.

So, for all these years, speculation has been swirling around, and this week, some of that ended. Maybe. Supposedly, in a new version of the song on her new album, Carly finally reveals Vain Guy by…are you ready?..whispering his name in a song.


Wow. I wonder where she got that idea?


To the surprise of many (looking at you guys, Warren and Mick) the name she whispers is David.  Speculation is that David is David Geffen, and she was peeved at him because he promoted Joni Mitchell’s music more than hers. David’s people are denying this. Why…I’m not sure.

Why am I not sure? Because, after 38 years and about half of the news article, I quit caring after I read the name.

That’s the problem with secrets. Once they’re told, they’re just not any fun anymore.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’m working on a short story that revolves around a secret, but one of those “Do I want to know or not?” type of secrets. My story is about a troubled couple. Halfway through the story, the wife starts doing a new sexual thingy in bed. She doesn’t tell her partner how (or why or when or where) she learned this new sexual thingy, and he doesn’t ask. Maybe he doesn’t want to know. Maybe he thinks she learned it off the Internet, a la Leonard in The Big Bang Theory. I don’t know what he thinks because he’s not my Point Of View Character, but it’s obvious that he doesn’t ask because he really enjoys the new sexual thingy, and he doesn’t want to screw it up. As it were.

I’m not sure if he ever finds out, because I’m still writing the story. The sudden appearance of a new sexual thingy in a relationship is the kind of secret someone might want to  keep forever. Or it might be the kind that someone throws in the face of her lover, in a moment of anger. Or one that her lover, in a fit of jealousy, might demand an answer to, at long last. There may be other options. Whatever happens, my story is going to ultimately be about what this secret does to this couple.

Which brings me back to Carly and *whisper* Divad. After all these years, why’d she give up the secret? That, to me, is a lot more interesting than the identity of the vain man ever has been.

Which brings me to this. Was this what Carly planned all along? To wait until the opportune time to give up the guy, at a time that would make some buzz about her new album, in a Beatlesque manner that would draw attention to her?

So, really, it was all about her, the whole time?

Pretty sneaky, that Carly Simon.

While we’re on the topic, here are some secrets I think were well kept until, of course, they weren’t.

1. What really happened to Fox Mulder’s sister. It’s a good secret because I still don’t know, and I watched every episode of the show, including the one where the Lone Gunmen were blown up. (Oops. Hope I didn’t spoil that for anyone.)

2. Mrs. Rochester in the attic.  Poor Mr. R. Saddled with a mad wife, and he had to dress up like a gypsy, in the same book.

3. The identity of the Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow. The ending of the story points to Brom Bones, but it’s really

4. How, exactly, does one gavotte? That one is still a mystery to me.

How about you? Do your characters hold any deep dark secrets? If so, is telling more compelling than keeping quiet?