December 5, 2009

10 Holiday Writing Prompts

It's that time again when our schedules are overflowing with holiday tasks. Writing can be a great stress reliever, so don't let it slip to the bottom of your list. Here are ten creative writing prompts with a Christmas theme. You might want to try some of these with your children as well.

1. Write a Christmas story to read to your family on Christmas Eve.

2. Choose a favorite book character, and make a Christmas wishlist from his or her point of view.

3. Take the last line of your favorite Christmas carol and use it as the first line of a poem.

4. Write haiku poems based on the gifts in "The Twelve Days of Christmas."

5. Imagine yourself at age 10. Then write a letter to the 10-year-old you explaining why celebrating Christmas is important.

6. Create a detailed character description for someone named Hermione Christmas.

7. Write about how this picture makes you feel.

8. Describe in detail your favorite Christmas decoration.

9. Choose the most challenging thing about the holidays and write about it.

10. Write a 500-word piece beginning with: If I had the power to change Christmas, I would….

Do you have a holiday writing prompt? Add it in the Comments section.

Available for Christmas at your favorite bookstore, or order online:

December 2, 2009

Sydney Lincoln Knows a Secret, Hint: Contest Involved

I miss Sydney Lincoln. We met early in 2008 and became best friends. It wasn't long before I knew everything about her; she was an open book eager to share her most intimate secrets. I found her to be a loyal friend, fearless and brave to the point of risking her own life to save the lives of others. She was fiercely competitive and humble, traits not often mentioned in the same sentence, and athletic and strong. Sydney ran faster than anyone I've ever known. In fact, she aspired to run in the Olympics someday. Our backgrounds and personalities were very different, yet we connected heart-to-heart, especially when sharing our Christian faith – but that was months ago. Last spring, my friendship with Sydney grew cold. Today it's nothing more than memories frozen in time. Sydney Lincoln moved on and so did I.

If you haven't already guessed, Sydney is the main character in four mystery books that I wrote for Barbour Publishing's new Camp Club Girls series. The first two books are available now at your favorite bookstore. In Camp Club Girls & the Mystery at Discovery Lake, the series begins with six girls meeting at Camp Discovery and learning they all share one thing in common: an aptitude for intrigue! They form a super sleuth ring, call themselves the Camp Club Girls, and are soon embroiled in a search for lost jewels. After the first book, each of the 24 titles focuses on one girl, though the other characters are involved in each story and use their special skills to help the whole team stump adversaries and master the mysteries they encounter. In the second book, Sydney’s D.C. Discovery, Sydney and her friend Elizabeth are in the nation’s capital when odd happenings occur at the Vietnam Memorial.

When Barbour assigned the books to me, they gave me a brief character sketch for Sydney. She was 12 years old, African-American, and lived in Washington D.C. She was to be the athletic one in the group and also the nature expert. Armed with that information and a few suggestions from the editor, I was left alone to create Sydney's character. I don't know about you, but I build my characters from the outside in. I begin with where they live. I learn as much as I can about the neighborhood and its surroundings. Then I move inward to relationships with family and friends, then to my character's physical description, and finally I connect with my character's soul. That's when I start to write.

Sydney and I formed a solid friendship, but when I finished writing the fourth book last May, she abandoned me. My adventures with Sydney are done, and I still haven't gotten over it. I'm jealous of my readers. They get to meet Sydney for the first time in Washington D.C. and then follow her escapades to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the whispering woods of northern Wisconsin, and the Great Smokey Mountains. I've already been to those places. I know what Sydney did, what she thought, and how the stories end. Sydney Lincoln was my best friend. Past tense. But there's hope! If the series catches on, there might be even more adventures for Sydney and the Camp Club Girls. That's where you come in.

I know one secret that Sydney hasn’t shared with anyone until now:
To kick off the new Camp Club Girls series, Barbour Publishing will be holding a contest. Readers will be offered a chance to win the “Kate’s Gadget Girl” grand prize gift basket worth over $2,000. Named after one of the Camp Club Girls characters who loves gadgets, the grand prize includes a MacBook computer, Nintendo Wii, iPod Nano, Canon digital camera, video journal, and many more cool gadgets. Running from January to August 2010, the readers’ contest also offers twenty-five monthly winners a Camp Club Girls backpack full of goodies. To sign up, readers can fill out a form found inside the books or enter online after the books release. The Camp Club Girls web site goes live sometime next week, so keep checking back, enter to win, and buy the books. Let's get the Camp Club Girls series off to a great start and keep it growing!

Book #1 Mystery at Discovery Lake by Renae Brumbaugh
Click here to read an excerpt and learn more.

Book #2 Sydney's D.C. Discovery by Jean Fischer
Click here to read an excerpt and learn more.

November 18, 2009

Kreativ Blogger Award

I was flattered this week to receive a Kreativ Blogger Award from one of my favorite bloggers, Caroline Pointer. Thank you, Caroline! Now, before you read on, head over to Caroline's blog, Family Stories. She blogs there about genealogy and shares heartwarming stories guaranteed to inspire you. It's a friendly place where you'll feel right at home.

When a blog receives a Kreativ Blogger Award, the blogger, in turn, recommends seven other blogs. It's a great way to spread the word about blogs that you otherwise might miss So, here are my seven recommendations. Some are about writing and others reflect my hobbies and interests. There are so many more blogs that I could recommend, but these should keep you busy for a while. Enjoy!

1. Robin at All Things Heart and Home has lots of tips for home decorating and mouth-watering recipes. Stop by daily to see what's new. She's getting ready for the holidays, and she has some great ideas to share.

2. At the Christian Writer/Reader Connection, Susan J. Reinhardt blogs about writing and the books she is reading. Her posts are always interesting and insightful. She posts there on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I love it that she always responds to her readers' comments.

3. If you're a shy writer, like me, check out Shrinking Violet Promotions, a blog about…well….introverted writers!

4. At 19th Century Historical Tidbits, Lynn Coleman offers fascinating bits of information about life in the 19th century. This is a must-read blog for historical fiction writers.

5. Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day, is the place to read about the best educational websites. This is a good reference stop for kids' writers and one that I visit often.

6. Renae Brumbaugh blogs Christian devotions with a humorous twist on her blog, Funny Coffee Girl. Her posts are always thought-provoking and fun.

7. Carolyn, from Prince Edward Island, offers a feast for the eyes at her Aiken House and Gardens blog. Log on to see the amazing things she's done with her home and garden. Her photos are spectacular.

Now, according to the Kreativ Blogger Award rules, I am also supposed to share with you seven interesting facts about me:

1. With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I'll begin with the fact that I am a descendant of Edward Doty who was a passenger on the Mayflower. Does that make me a pilgrim?

2. I once built a miniature replica (1 inch = 1 foot) of my great-grandparents' 19th-century parlor. I've also built a mini general store and several other miniature rooms.

3. I'm a nature nut, passionate about flower gardening, bird watching and animals. My love of animals led to a stint as a volunteer veterinary assistant at the local animal shelter's spay/neuter clinic.

4. My idea of heaven is writing in a quiet woodland cabin on the shore of an inland lake. I love being near the water and live within walking distance of Lake Michigan.

5. I played the flute and piccolo in my high school marching band and won the John Philip Sousa Band Award in my senior year. I aspired to be a band director but then got sidetracked by kid lit.

6. I sometimes wish I could step into a time capsule and see what 's happened in this very spot from now all the way back to the beginning of time.

7. I am owned by (and I mean that literally) two independent and cantankerous cats, Pepper and Ben, and an ancient ring-necked turtle dove named Lucky.

So there you have it, seven little-known facts about me.

I hope that you enjoy visiting the blogs that I've mentioned, and while you're there, please leave a comment or two. Bloggers always love to hear from their readers.

Thanks again, Caroline! I appreciate the award.

November 10, 2009

Who Wrote "Over the River and Through the Woods"?

Pop Quiz: Who wrote the words to the classic Thanksgiving song "Over the River and Through the Woods"?

Answer: Lydia Maria Child, one of the earliest American women to earn her living as a writer.

Lydia was the youngest of six children. Born Lydia Francis in Medford, Massachusetts in 1802, she added the name "Maria" when she was rebaptized at age 19. She preferred to be called Maria. Her father was a baker famous for his "Medford Crackers." Her mother, described as a somewhat distant woman, died when Maria was twelve.

Maria's education was unconventional. In Noted Women of Europe and America, author James Parton wrote: "She received the best part of her education from circumstances, rather than from schools. Her first teacher was a certain Ma'am Betty of local celebrity, who was extremely untidy in her habits, kept her school in her bedroom, chewed tobacco, and continually lamented, as the never-to-be-forgotten catastrophe of her life, that Governor Brooks had once seen her drinking from the nose of her tea-kettle. Whatever may have been the other qualities that fitted this amiable lady for the position she occupied, it is at least certain that her pupils became attached to her, and it was their unfailing habit to carry to her a Sunday dinner. At Thanksgiving, too, she shared the wide charity of the Francis household, where it was the custom at this genial season to summon to a preliminary feast in the large kitchen all the workmen, besides some of the obscurer friends and dependents of the family. Pumpkin pies of vast extent baked in milk-pans were there served to them; a chicken pie of immense size graced the center of the table, surrounded by large dishes containing a profusion of doughnuts, turnovers, and other like delicacies. The little girl was of course present on these occasions to enjoy the pleasure of the guests, and doubtless, also, for she was a healthy, hungry child, to appropriate a few stray cakes and tarts to her own use. Besides receiving instruction from Ma'am Betty, she attended the public school for a short period, and later spent a year in a young ladies' seminary. Her education was then considered complete…It was at the age of twelve, while visiting her married sister in Skowhegan, Maine, that the idea of adopting literature as a pursuit first occurred to her."

Maria went on to write a popular series of advice books for women, historical novels, and anti-slavery literature and edited an early American magazine for children for which she earned a steady income of $300 per year.

Her poem entitled "A Boy's Thanksgiving Day," is what is commonly known today as "Over the River and Through the Woods." It appeared in one of Child's later books called Flowers for Children, published in 1844. In the poem, she celebrates her childhood memories of visiting her grandfather's house on Thanksgiving Day. Here is the poem in its entirety:

A Boy's Thanksgiving Day

Over the river, and through the wood, 
to Grandfather's house we go; 
the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh 
through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river, and through the wood, 
to Grandfather's house away! 
We would not stop for doll or top, 
for 'tis Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river, and through the wood- 
oh, how the wind does blow! 
It stings the toes and bites the nose, 
as over the ground we go.

Over the river, and through the wood. 
with a clear blue winter sky, 
The dogs do bark and the children hark, 
as we go jingling by.

Over the river, and through the wood, 
to have a first-rate play. 
Hear the bells ring, "Ting a ling ding!" 
Hurray for Thanskgiving Day!

Over the river, and through the wood- 
no matter for winds that blow; 
Or if we get the sleigh upset 
into a bank of snow.

Over the river, and through the wood, 
to see little John and Ann; 
We will kiss them all, and play snowball 
and stay as long as we can.

Over the river, and through the wood, 
trot fast my dapple gray! 
Spring over the ground like a hunting-hound! 
For 'tis Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river, and through the wood 
and straight through the barnyard gate. 
We seem to go extremely slow- 
it is so hard to wait!

Over the river, and through the wood- 
Old Jowler hears our bells; 
He shakes his paw with a loud bow-wow, 
and thus the news he tells.

Over the river, and through the wood- 
when Grandmother sees us come, 
She will say, "O, dear, the children are here, 
bring pie for everyone."

Over the river, and through the wood- 
now Grandmothers cap I spy! 
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done? 
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

The real Grandfather's house still exists in Medford, Massachusetts near the Mystic River. The woods have long since disappeared.

Surprisingly, no one seems to know who wrote the melody for the Thanksgiving song.

About Lydia Maria Child's passing, James Parton wrote: "She died in 1880, tranquilly and unexpectedly. Her funeral took place on a half-clouded October day when the ground was strown [sic] with the red and gold of fallen autumn leaves. Her pall-bearers were chosen from among the farmers of the neighborhood, who were all her friends, and as her coffin was lowered into the grave the sun burst forth, and a perfect rainbow spanned the eastern sky."

October 31, 2009

Nine Months of Social Media – an Evaluation

Where does the time go? It's November already, and that marks nine months since I began using social media. It started with this blog, then I added a Twitter account, and more recently I joined Facebook. It's time to take a break and look back. This week, I'm sharing my thoughts about these three forms of social media, and I hope that you'll react by posting your comments and suggestions.

When I started the Walrus and the Carpenter blog, I wanted to do something other than a daily blog featuring short posts. My plan was to update monthly with an essay to interest other writers. Then, after learning more about blogging and reading more blogs, I decided that I should be posting more often. Since May, I've been trying to write weekly.

I haven't decided yet where this blog is going, or where I want it to go, so don't be surprised if you see some changes. I might return to posting here monthly, or I might give in and write shorter posts more often. Whatever I do, I want my readers to take something away when they leave here: an attention-grabbing link, a creative exercise, or something interesting to think about.

I'm still on the fence about blogs. Reading them and writing mine takes up a lot more time than I had planned for. I find it overwhelming at times; yet I see value in blogging, and for now I plan to continue.

I joined Twitter never expecting to find worth in sending or reading 140-character messages. I joined only because other writers were doing it, and I wanted to stay current with fresh trends. Surprisingly, of the three forms of media discussed here, Twitter has been the most rewarding.

I've written a previous post about Twitter, so I won't repeat what's there. I'll add to it by saying that I've been wise about whom I follow on Twitter, and I think that's what makes it work for me. My list is limited to people who share my interests. I don't automatically follow back, I block spammers, and I'm less likely to read tweets from people who only use Twitter to promote their books. I reply to posts that get my attention, and I retweet those that I find interesting. In other words, I participate in my Twitter community.

There are two things that keep me coming back to Twitter. First, the people I follow often post links to blog posts and articles. If I take a few seconds to visit those links, I'm exposed to much more information about what interests me than I would find on my own. That alone makes Twitter worth it. Twitter also offers the support of a real-time community. If you read my other blog, you might remember that I wrote a post about how "followers" pulled together in real time as a young woman experienced a life-changing tragedy. I see that kind of support consistently among the people I follow. It intrigues me that a caring community can be built on brief, 140-character messages called "tweets."

The jury is in on Twitter. I'm staying. It's quick, it's informative, and I like the people I've met there.

I'm still new to Facebook. I signed up in August purely for business. It was another way to network with writers, especially those not using Twitter. I'm still not comfortable enough with the media to give it an adequate evaluation, but let's look at a couple of positives and negatives.

On the positive side, Facebook allows me to create longer posts than Twitter does. I like that. I can also add images to posts on my profile page, and that's a plus. I have control over who "friends" me, and I like that, too. (On Twitter, followers don't ask for permission to follow.)

One of the things I dislike about Facebook is the interface. I wish that I could change the appearance of my Profile page by changing the background and/or layout. I also find it clunky that the Friends list is alphabetized by first name and that I can't resort it by last name. The Home page looks cluttered, and I think the "Poke" and "Like" options are a bit strange, but I understand that they're there for the social and fun aspect of the media. I don't know if it's a visual perception on my part, or what, but the whole interface just leaves me cold.

I hadn't planned to connect on Facebook with family and friends, but I have, and that creates a bit of a challenge as I try to figure out how to mix business with pleasure. So far, I've kept personal posts off my page altogether. I set up my account so that no one can post to my wall. This gives me control over what gets posted on my Profile page, but it also makes my page impersonal. I'm still pondering whether I want a separate page for family and friends, or maybe to set up a fan page for my writing business. (If you use Facebook and have an opinion, please post a comment. I'd love to hear if you've experienced this issue and how you've resolved it.)

I haven't been on Facebook long enough to decide whether I will continue. Like Twitter, it provides a good place to network with other writers, but I don’t find it as user friendly. For now, I'm eager to see how it evolves.

Overall, I view social media as an essential tool for the business of writing. It provides a great way to network with other writers and also to stay current with publishing news and trends. Still, I wonder if that is enough to justify the time I spend on social media sites. The jury is still out.

Now it's your turn. What do you think about social media?

October 20, 2009

10 Questions for Aspiring Writers

As an aspiring writer, you probably have lots of questions about the business of writing. You might wonder if you need an agent, or how to write a great query letter, or what your odds are of getting published. The business of writing can leave you feeling tired and lacking in enthusiasm. That's why it's important to work on your soul.

The American poet Edgar Lee Masters said it best when he wrote:

“Only after many trials for strength,
Only when all stimulants fail,

Does the aspiring soul
By its own sheer power
Find the divine
By resting upon itself.”

How about it? Is your writer's soul powerful enough to rest upon itself? Last week, I challenged you with an exercise to write very specifically. This week, I challenge you to think very specifically about the following ten questions.

1. Why do you want to be a writer?
I know. You've been asked this question a million times, but don't skip to #2. This time, think about what drives your writer's soul, then write down your best answer.

2. What are your writing strengths and weaknesses?
Be honest with yourself. Your soul becomes stronger when you acknowledge imperfection.

3. What are you doing to become an even better writer?
Did you notice that I said "even better?"

4. Are you able to write just to please yourself?
If you write only to please a specific audience, you might want to change that. It can take the soul right out of your writing.

5. How much time are you willing to spend writing every day?
Your blood pressure just shot up, didn't it? It's okay if you don't have time to write every single day. What's important is that you make time to write.

6. If your work is rejected multiple times, will you continue to write?
Again, be very honest. Think of your soul as needing a coat of armor. With what will you build it?

7. What are you doing to learn about the publishing industry?
Writing is fun and creative, but publishing is big business. Learning about the business side of writing is the key that unlocks doors.

8. How do you network with other writers?
Writing requires a solitary soul, but the business of writing needs company.

9. When you read, do you think about the writer's style? Do you read outside of your favorite genres?
(Okay, I added an extra question here.) Read, read, and read. Books are like vitamins that fire your soul. If you read between the lines, you'll learn the business of writing.

10. As a writer, you'll leave a legacy. What do you want your legacy to be?
This is a tough one. With a lot of hard work and some luck, someday you'll have a book on the bestseller list. But if that doesn't happen, will your legacy be one of failure or of success. That's entirely up to you.

Now, go back and answer the first question again:

Why do you want to be a writer?

October 10, 2009

Does Your Story Have Soul?

This week, we begin with a think-about-it question:

When you sit down to write a story,
do you always have a clearly formed main idea?

We writers are a driven and enthusiastic bunch who likes to plunge right into our writing. I'm guilty of it, and most likely you are too. When we get an idea, we don't consciously ponder that a really good story has a soul -- a story within a story hidden deep inside the cache of words. We don't stop to think that the soul is the essence, the seed from which a story grows, and most importantly, that it is the place that evokes feeling among readers. Instead, we just sit down and write.

Remember when you were a kid in school and the teacher asked you to find a writing selection's main idea? He or she probably taught you to state it in a single sentence. The American playwright David Belasco encouraged this, too. He said, "If you can't write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don't have a clear idea." (Calling cards in Belasco's day were quite small, often smaller than a business card.) The poet Robert Southey understood the concept of brevity/soul/feelings, too. He said, "It is with words as with sunbeams. The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn."

Last week, I was listening to author Jerry Apps as he was interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio. He spoke about a writing exercise he uses with his students. You might be familiar with it. It is the six-word story, a popular writing prompt often introduced using a six-word story written by Ernest Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

How do those six words make you feel? Hemingway is said to have called it his best work. I don't know if he ever turned it into a full-length story, but the essence is there. He created the story within the story, the part that stirs up feelings.

Jerry told about an intriguing assignment that he gave to his writing class. He asked them to write personal narratives, stories from their lives, using just six words. It sounds easy, but it's not. The six words have to be well chosen. They have to tell a good true story, one that touches readers' hearts and makes them want to know more. If you would like to read some of the responses to Jerry's assignment, you can find them on his blog.

Here are a few more examples:

Someone else lived out my dreams.

I'm the fool who rushed in.

My lover arrived in a box.

That last one really makes you wonder!

So, can you do it? Can you write a six-word personal narrative? Give it a try. Who knows, maybe you'll come up with a great story idea.
But remember, you're not writing a haiku poem which usually relies on counted syllables. In this exercise, you count only words. If you want an even more challenging exercise, choose your favorite novel and try to write its main idea as a six-word story.

Good luck, and have fun!

Listen to a webcast of Jerry Apps' interview with Wisconsin Public radio by going here. Then search for Tuesday 10/6/2009 11:00 AM.

September 28, 2009

Ten Things I've Learned from 10 Years of Freelancing

OCTOBER 1 marks my ten-year anniversary as a full-time freelance writer. There have been highs and lows along the way. It hasn't always been easy, but somehow it's always worked out. I've made a lot of adjustments on my journey, and this week I'd like to share some of the things I've learned.

1. I own and maintain a business.
I think of myself not only as a freelance writer but also as a business owner. As a business owner, it's my job to attract clients and keep them satisfied. As a freelance writer, I'm the employee as well as the product. Everything I write serves to maintain and build the business. In the beginning, I felt a bit schizophrenic, but now I'm used to wearing all those caps.

2. A marketing plan is essential.
Every successful business has a marketing plan, and freelancing is no exception. It's crucial to create and implement a plan to interest potential clients and persuade them to use my services.

3. An online portfolio is mandatory.
When I started freelancing, few writers had online portfolios. Today, there's no excuse not to have one. An online portfolio can be part of a web page, or it can be writing samples on a blog. I have both. My web page includes covers of some of the books I've written, and my blog showcases my writing skills. I promote both as part of my marketing strategy, and they are critical extensions of my resume.

4. Solid relationships lead to work.
It's vital to build relationships with potential clients. After my initial contact, I follow up every other month about the possibility of freelance assignments, and I try to offer something new about my work or myself. This is effective on two levels: it keeps my name on the list for new projects, and it establishes an ongoing relationship. With both new and customary clients, I've found that a solid relationship pays off.

5. It's important to maintain a routine.
Every day is a workday. Freelancing doesn't mean sleeping in on mornings when I don't have a project. I get up at a set time and "go to the office." If I don't have a writing assignment, my job is to find one.

6. Nothing is a sure thing.
One of the toughest lessons I've learned is not to count on anything until it actually happens. As a person of faith, that's hard for me to do. Many times, I've had a client tell me that an exciting new project is on the horizon only to have it not materialize. In these hard economic times publishers are tightening their belts and postponing projects. That means fewer jobs for freelancers.

7. It's necessary to look toward the future.
A few years ago, I had a great freelance job writing 30 hours a week for a client. It was a job that came with healthcare benefits, a 401k plan and the opportunity to write for a leading educational textbook company. My only regret is that I didn't look beyond the present. When their business slowed, I was let go. I had few other clients to rely on, and it took a long time to rebuild my client list. Lesson learned: Always look to the future and plan for the unexpected.

8. It's imperative to save for a rainy day.
I've had some lean times this year. The publishing industry is feeling the economic crunch along with everyone else. As a freelancer, I pay for my own health insurance and other benefits that often come with working for someone else. I've learned not to splurge on anything unless I have several months of living expenses saved in the bank.

9. It's good to be positive.
There are days when I wish that I had a weekly paycheck and the benefits that come with it. Then I think of all the great things about freelancing: I'm doing something that I absolutely love, I can work from home and create my own schedule, I can take time off to run errands, and I can wear shorts or sweats. On days when I wish for more work, I remember that I've earned my living doing this for ten years, and that's something to celebrate!

10. Everything is better with coffee.
Last, but not least, I've learned a lot about coffee during these ten years. I've become a coffee snob who often starts her day with a little something special. No plain, ordinary joe for me. I've graduated from Sanka to pumpkin spice lattes and hazelnut cappuccinos. I bought a French press coffee maker, a milk frother and enough flavored syrups to last a lifetime. I think I'll celebrate my ten-year anniversary with a morning jaunt to one of my favorite coffee houses…

What else can I say? The freelance life is good.

September 22, 2009

Three Great Reasons for Writers to Blog

Do you blog? If you're reading this post you probably do, or at least you're thinking about blogging.

It seems that the whole world is blogging these days. How many blogs are there? The most recent statistics I found are from 2008. In April of last year, there were approximately 110 million blogs with another 175,000 new blogs added each day. Tally the number of days since April 08, multiply that number by 175,000, add it to 110 million, and you'll have a pretty good idea of how many people are currently blogging. (If you read "The Walrus and the Carpenter" regularly, you know how math challenged I am. So, YOU do the math.)

Apart from following the crowd why should writers blog? There are many good reasons, and here are a few of the best:

1. Writers should blog to practice writing.

A writer's blog can be much more than a journal of everyday life. It can show off a writer's unique style and expertise. A well-planned blog serves as a collection of solid writing samples. Don't be afraid to mix things up a little. Along with personal narratives, throw in an essay once in a while, a review, or even a short piece of fiction or a poem.

2. Writers should blog to market themselves and their work.

A blog is a valuable marketing tool. I often direct potential freelance clients to my blog so they can see samples of my writing and also learn more about me. Sometimes, if I know that specific clients will be reading my blog I include a few posts tailored to their interests. One of the biggest mistakes a blogger can make is forgetting that the whole world is watching. Once you blog something, you can't take it back. Everything on your blog should be well crafted and work toward promoting you and your writing skills. Think of the blog as an extension of your resume and make it work for you.

3. Writers should blog to practice deadlines and stay motivated.

Working writers always face deadlines. Turning in work on schedule is an important part of the job. There will be times when you don't feel like posting on your blog, but again I remind you that the world is watching. Posting on a regular basis, whether daily or weekly, shows potential employers that you are self-disciplined. Setting writing deadlines also helps unpublished writers to stay motivated. Think of the blog as an editor assigning you a due date.

Is blogging worth my time? This a question most writers ask. The answer is yes if you use the blog to your best advantage. If you blog just for the sake of blogging, you will most likely lose interest. But if you blog to grow as a writer and promote your work it can be well worth your time.

WIN a copy of The Kids' Bible Dictionary!

Thanks to Susan J. Reinhardt for interviewing me on her "Christian Writer/Reader Connection" blog. Visit her blog, read the interview, and enter a drawing to win a free copy of my latest book, The Kids' Bible Dictionary. Contest ends Saturday, September 26, 2009 at midnight. The winner will be announced on the "Christian Writer/Reader Connection" blog on Sunday, September 27, 2009.

September 12, 2009

Roald Dahl's Writing Hut

If you've been reading my other blog, "God is in the Compost Pile," you know that my favorite writing place is in my car at the lake. Where do other writers write? I wondered. I asked my Twitter friends to tell me about their favorite writing haunts. Here's what some of them had to say.

"I always work in a coffee shop -- same one, preferably same table."

"On my porch."

"I love to write in the evening and I usually write while sitting up in bed with a lot of pillows tucked all around me nice and comfy."

"At the museum near the dioramas."

" …notebooks always w/me. I usually write in (the) am and I get a lot done in the shower."

Wherever writers choose to write, their places inspire, motivate and encourage them.

Agatha Christie said the best time to plan a book is when you're doing the dishes. Virginia Woolf preferred to write in a quiet place by herself. She said, “In solitude we give passionate attention to our lives, to our memories, to the details around us.” Roald Dahl might have agreed. His favorite writing place was a shed in his garden.

Since September is Roald Dahl Month, I thought it would be fun to explore Roald Dahl's writing hut. It was his place to be alone to work on his books, and no one else was allowed inside. In fact, Dahl told children that wolves lived there so they wouldn't come and distract him.

Imagine having a little place like this tucked away in your garden. This is the hut, a shed really, where Dahl wrote his most popular books.

From the outside, it looks inviting with its rambling roses and bright yellow door.

But if you looked inside, you might be surprised. Today, it is exactly as Roald Dahl left it, and… well…let's just say that he wasn't the best housekeeper.

Here's a description of the hut's interior as written by Christopher Simon Sykes in Harper's and Queens magazine:

“A dirty plastic curtain covered the window. In the centre stood a faded wing-back armchair, inherited from his mother, and it was here that Dahl sat, his feet propped up on a chest, his legs covered by a tartan rug, supporting on his knees a thick roll of corrugated paper upon which was propped his writing board. Photographs, drawings and other mementoes were pinned to the walls, while a table on his right was covered with a collection of favourite curiosities such as one of his own arthritic hip bones, and a remarkably heavy ball made from the discarded silver paper of numerous chocolate bars consumed during his youth.”

I've also read that on that side table next to Dahl's hip bone, he kept a jar containing bits of his spine removed during an operation on his lower back. And according to those who have seen that ball of chocolate bar wrappers, it closely resembles a cannon ball. I can't help but wonder if it was Dahl's inspiration for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The hut was cold in winter, so Dahl tacked Styrofoam to the walls to try to keep the heat in. Over time, the foam yellowed from his cigarette smoke. He jury-rigged a heating system in the hut, and wires hung from the ceiling (a fire inspector's nightmare). If it got really cold inside, Dahl would climb into a sleeping bag to keep his legs warm while he wrote.

And then there's the story about the goat. Apparently, a goat wandered into the hut one day, and Dahl had to sweep out globs of goat droppings before he could get on with his writing….Like I said, he wasn't much of a housekeeper. But don't take my word for it. Thanks to the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, you can take an interactive tour of Dahl's hut online. Make a note, though, it's best viewed using Internet Explorer. I had trouble trying to navigate it using Safari and Firefox.

If you visited the garden that leads to Dahl's hut you would see a slate paving stone with this inscription: "...Watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it." Dahl's magic happened in a little hut tucked away in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, England. It was there that he wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach and The BFG.

Where does the magic happen for you?

(Note: Read more about Roald Dahl in this interesting interview with his wife, published this week 9-12-09 in The Times Online, London.)

Photographs courtesy of The Roald Dahl Museum.

August 31, 2009

"3's About Me" Author Style

There's a popular game on Facebook called "3's About Me." It's one of those fill-in-the-blank activities that's supposed to help you know your friends even better. It goes something like this:

Three names I go by:
Jeanner Beanner
Just Me (as in "Hi, it's Just Me.)
(And the elementary school favorite) Hygiene

Three places I've been:
Monkey's Eyebrow, Arizona
Fleatown, Ohio
Poop Creek, Oregon
(Yes, people, these are real places!)

Anyhow, you get the idea.

This week, I'd like to play a variation of this game with my blog readers. Here are the rules: Choose one of your favorite authors. Find three quotes from that person that best describe you and then tell why.

I'll start.

Erma Bombeck is one of my favorite authors. (Oh, how I miss her!)

1. Erma said: “I am not a glutton - I am an explorer of food.”

The truth about me: My Achilles' heel is ice cream. I'm addicted to it. Last winter when there was a blizzard warning, I rushed to DQ to make sure I got mine. I've been known to eat a pint of Ben and Jerry's Coffee, Coffee, Buzz, Buzz, Buzz instead of drinking my morning coffee. My summer nights aren't complete without a dish of Kemp's Under the Stars. And I've tried all of Baskin--Robbins 31 flavors (in one sitting). I finally admitted that I had a problem. I checked myself into ice-cream rehab, and I did well with that until I got a job handing out frozen treat samples at Walmart. Thank goodness for Erma. She put it all in perspective. I am NOT a glutton. I am merely an explorer of food. Amen.

2. Erma said: “The bad times I can handle. It's the good times that drive me crazy. When is the other shoe going to drop?”

The truth about me: The last ten years have been a wild roller coaster ride. I was downsized out of my job and struggled to get my freelance writing business going. Then my mother died suddenly, and my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. For nine years, I made almost daily visits to the nursing home to join him in craft projects and sing-alongs. Dad died about the same time that my best freelance client went belly up taking with them my health insurance and a consistent paycheck. Through it all, I kept my level-headed sanity. I'm great in a crisis, but now that things are better I have chronic panic attacks. Like Erma said, the bad times I can handle. It's the good times that drive me crazy. When is the other shoe going to drop?

And what does that mean, anyway? Not knowing the origin of unusual words and phrases is another thing that drives me crazy. According to the Word Detective web site (Issue of May 23, 2001): Waiting for the other shoe to drop originated as the punchline to a very old joke in which a traveler arrives late at night in a small rooming house and is cautioned not to wake the other guests as he prepares for bed. Very tired, he accidentally allows one of his shoes to fall heavily to the floor, but is more careful with the other and places it quietly on the floor. He is sound asleep a few minutes later when he is awakened by the guest next door pounding on the wall and shouting, "For the love of Pete, drop the other shoe!" No one knows just how old that joke is, but etymological researcher Barry Popik has uncovered what is probably the earliest example yet found, an editorial cartoon in the New York World-Telegram from February 1943.

There, I feel better now.

3. Erma said: “As a graduate of the Zsa Zsa Gabor School of Creative Mathematics, I honestly do not know how old I am.”

The truth about me: When I was in third grade, I spent many evenings sitting at the kitchen table with Dad as he tried to help me with my math homework. Anything beyond basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division befuddled me. The problem was that Dad didn't understand the "new math" any better than I did. He had his own method of ciphering, and that further complicated things. In middle school, I was horrified to find the word "pi" in a math problem. Until then, I loved that word because it meant something good to eat. Algebra was as mysterious to me as 3.14159265358979323846, which of course is pi, the exact value of which cannot be defined. (See, I was paying attention to my math teachers.) My algebra homework looked like this:

Decades later, I'm still mathematically challenged. I rely on a credit-card size tip table to keep wait staff happy. Without my calculator I can't balance my checkbook or tally my invoices. Like Erma, I honestly do not know how old I am. My birth year ends in a 2. From there, I count on my fingers to 9 to figure it out.

So there you have it, the "3's About Me, Author Style." Now it's your turn. Through Erma's wise words, I have shared with you, my readers, three of my deepest, darkest secrets. What will your favorite author reveal about you?

August 24, 2009

Bust Your Writer's Block With These 7 Quotations

I love quotations, don't you? Those little sound bites, often from famous people, that make us sit up and take notice. From quotations we glean snippets of wisdom or recognize ourselves in the words. Then, too often and all too quickly, the quotations float away, forgotten, stuffed into the distant corners of our brains like last week's to-do list.

One thing I've discovered as a writer is that quotations can sometimes push me beyond my writer's blocks. This week, I'm challenging you to experiment with seven methods of busting through writer's block using seven quotations. Read them and reread them. Let the words soak into your soul. Then apply them to your writing. I've included some ideas for applying them, but go beyond what I've suggested and see where the quotations take you.

Ready? Here we go.

1. "The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Application: Look beyond yourself. What things in the universe inspire you? How can you incorporate those inspirations into your writing? Get back to the basics and ponder how your environment affects your senses.

2. "Wait until you are hungry to say something, until there is an aching in you to speak." -- Natalie Goldberg

Application: Take a guilt-free break. Find a quiet place where you can be alone with your thoughts, and don't forget to take along a notebook and a pen. Empty your mind, relax, enjoy the surroundings, and wait for a passionate thought to fill you. (It will; trust me.) Write it down before it creeps away. Revisit that thought and use it to fuel the fire of passion the next time you sit down to write.

Now consider these two diametrically opposed ways of breaking through your block.

3. "I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten - happily, absorbed, and quietly putting one bead on after another." -- Brenda Ueland

Application: Write slowly. Carefully consider each word, each sentence and each paragraph. Don't rewrite! Just be aware of each word and sentence as if stringing beads. Think of words in terms of sizes, shapes, colors and patterns. You might discover that your writing needs variety.

4. "The faster I write the better my output. If I'm going slow I'm in trouble. It means I'm pushing the words instead of being pulled by them."
-- Raymond Chandler

Application: Write like a maniac driving on the Autobahn at 100+ mph. Don't control the words; let them control you. Write without thinking. You may be surprised by the words and ideas that flow onto your paper or computer screen.

5. "If I didn't know the ending of a story, I wouldn't begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph first, and then I go back and work towards it. I know where I'm going. I know what my goal is. And how I get there is God's grace." --Katherine Anne Porter

Application: Begin at the end. Maybe you already know how your story ends, but how about the chapter you're working on, or even the paragraph that you're writing? Before you write the next paragraph, write its ending. Then go back and write toward the end.

6. "The secret of good writing is to say an old thing a new way or to say a new thing an old way." -- Richard Harding Davis

Application: Choose a key idea from your story. Then make a list of various ways to present it. Come at it from different angles and see where it takes you.

7. "Try drawing or painting a scene you're working on. Often this will help free up your imagination." -- Kevin Henkes

Application: Try breaking your writer's block by doodling, drawing or painting. Often, a visual image prompts words. Remember that writing exercise your teacher made you do in elementary school: Choose a picture and write about it? Some things never change. Draw the essence of your paragraph, chapter or story. Then write about what you see.

So, there you have it – this week's challenge. Give it a try, and let me know if it inspired you to break through your block. And if you have any other great writers' quotes to share, please do.

August 15, 2009

Write What You Don't Know, Advice for Aspiring Writers

My writing career has led me to some fantastic places. For example, last summer I took a helicopter ride at dawn in the Great Smokey Mountains. We circled at the edge of night, west of a shimmering orange glow that crept along the horizon. An invisible hand painted streaks of peach, salmon and gold across the sky, and then, suddenly, the mountains appeared all around us shrouded in their smoky-blue mist. Breathtaking. The thrill ride of a lifetime.

Another jaunt took me to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Very late on a warm moonlit night, I lay in a hammock on the upper deck of a sprawling, white beach house. As I gazed out at the ocean, I saw something that made me shiver. The gentle waves washing up on the sand glowed an eerie iridescent blue. I'd heard of this thing bioluminescence -- simply defined, a phenomenon caused by phosphorous in the water. On moonlit nights, it makes the waves glow. Even the ghost crabs glowed that night as they skittered across the sand. The experience was out-of-this-world incredible.

On a visit to Washington D.C., I was in Union Station at rush hour. The white marble floors in the cavernous building echoed the footsteps of tourists, business people and government workers rushing to and from their trains. Along with that, music drifted down to me from stores on the upper level and blended with travelers' voices, an odd cacophony that jumbled my senses. I opened the big, glass doors leading out to the tracks and was struck by a blast of air soaked with the smell of diesel fuel. A few trains sat idle on the tracks. Another inched slowly into the station. Its silver, bullet-shaped engine pulled six cars, and its brakes squealed when it stopped at the platform. The car doors slid open, and I found myself trapped in the harried crowd, an unwilling tourist hustled back through the glass doors.

Okay, I'll come clean. I haven't REALLY been to these places, nor have I experienced the things that I've told you about. They existed first in my imagination and now in stories that I've written.

Have you anticipated traveling somewhere, imagined what it would be like, and then been disappointed when you got there? That's why I often prefer to write about places where I haven't been. That's not to say that I don't do my homework. The settings in my stories are realistic enough to convince my readers. I read travel guides and online travelers' blogs and reviews. I study detailed street maps and look at scores of pictures taken in different seasons by both professional and amateur photographers. I even search real estate ads and restaurant web sites. By the time I'm done researching, I have the skeleton of a place well formed in my head. Then it's up to me to bring it to life. Oh, how I love this way of traveling.

When it comes to setting a story, I take issue with the piece of advice given so often and freely to aspiring writers: "Write what you know." I say, write what you don't know. Here are several reasons why.

1. Writing what you don't know pulls you out of your comfort zone. It makes you look and write about a place with a fresh perspective. Don't get me wrong, having the geography correct is essential, but when writing fiction, you don't need to hang the leaves on every tree to match the photographs. Let your imagination tickle your readers by showing them hidden places that even the staunchest locals don't know about.

2. Experiencing a place can box you in. You come away with vivid images in your head, and those images can block your creativity. Say you want your main character to meet the girl of his dreams while he's strolling along the riverbank in Milwaukee. But when you visited Milwaukee, all you saw along the riverbanks were factories, parking lots and probably a brewery or two. The important thing is that a river really flows through Milwaukee. From there you can fill in the blanks with some basic research and a lot of creativity. I promise that if you walk a bit farther through your imagination, you'll find the perfect spot on the riverbank for strolling and meeting.

3. Writing about places you know can sometime make you lazy and complacent. It's what you don't know that fuels passion. When driven to explore a place, both through research and imagination, you become more interested in its nuances and nooks and crannies. It's the things that you wonder about that stretch your writer muscles and make for good writing. What you imagine is just over the crest of the hill is usually much more exciting than what you already know is there.

Remember Dr. Seuss? (Of course you do.) In his vast library of fiction, he took readers to some wonderful imaginary places. In his book "Oh the Places You'll Go" he penned some good advice for aspiring writers:

Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.

Got that? You are the one who'll decide where to go. I'm not suggesting that you never write about the places you've been, but only that you don't limit yourself to writing about them. The whole world is out there for you to explore. Do research until you understand the soul of a place and can make it believable. Then give the rest to your imagination. That's what makes good stories.

Oh the Places You'll Go
text ©1990 Random House Children's Books