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