Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Resolutions for Writers

1. Read more. Set a goal for a number of books a week, a month, all year.

2. Write more. Set a schedule or resolve to write X many hours or words a day, week or month. Vow to finish a first draft, a revision, or X number of short stories. Maybe you do your writing on a blog, set a schedule to post weekly or biweekly.

3. Share more. Join a critique group to share your work and help others as well. Read pages at open mike night. Send queries to agents or editors. Attend conferences. Get the word out more about what you are doing.

4. Learn more about the craft. Take a class in writing or read a book about craft. Some good books that will make you look at the meat in your stories include, "Writing the Breakout Novel" by Donald Maass and "Save the Cat" by Blake Snyder.

5. Experience more. New experiences and observations are the heart of creativity. Don't be afraid to explore, try something new, attempt another form of art, stretch yourself.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Christmas List

When you are a kid, the Christmas list includes all the things you wish to receive, the hottest toys, a pony, a jetpack. Now that I am older, my Christmas list is something different, it is all the things I have to do before the December 25 deadline. One is as far fetched as the other.

I typically like to do lists. I make them all the time to help me remember to do things, like pay a bill or renew my library card. Sometimes they get pretty long. And sometimes I forget to put things on them, and then I have to add to the list. I also like deadlines rather than leaving a task open ended. Deadlines fuel the fire to get projects done. Since to do lists and deadlines, and the variations that can happen to them, are commonplace in my life, my adult version of the Christmas list should be no problem. So why am I feeling so nervous 9 days before Christmas?

The answer is probably in the expectations. Although I am not sure how giving someone a promise note that a gift has not yet been delivered by Amazon is worse than telling my boss I can't get a project done on time is a mystery to me. I blame Santa, and all his miracles and doing the impossible in one night and having only gifts handmade by elves under his supervision that he personally delivers for millions of children all over the world. That is a hard act to follow, being a normal adult. I don't have magic elves!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

National Novel Writing Month Fail? Maybe Not.

I used to participate in National Novel Writing Month. I didn't always seek to write 50,000 words, but I did set other goals (revising a novel, focusing on a project, or writing every day). I liked the momentum of NaNo, and followed a lot of participants.

This year was a little different. I started thinking about it in October. I even logged into the National Novel Writing Month website and peeked at the forums. I had a project I wanted to get done, and then things got in the way.

The funny thing is, the things that got in the way were other writing projects that needed attention. Somewhere in the years since I took first notice of NaNoWriMo, it became a way of life.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Hats off to Big Nate

My children are not voracious readers, much to my chagrin. There is one son who appreciates some of the classics. Freshman year in high school he was blown away by The Odyssey. Reading that book sparked a light in his eyes and led to a lot of dinner table conversations. That said, I cannot confidently say he would suggest that is his favorite book. It is likely he would instead mention the graphic novel "Bones" or "Diary of a Wimpy Kid."

My sons tell me that they sometimes forget that reading is fun. It becomes a chore at school. Then they get a good book and they remember.

People were always suggesting books to me that would appeal to reluctant readers. Books that offer series where the kids could come back for more and get the same kind of story that they loved. The Magic Tree House stories is one. As great as those stories are, they did not excite my reluctant readers. For the last two kids, it has been Big Nate.

The Big Nate books remind me a bit of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. The Big Nate series appears to be a comic strip made into a novel. It may be this generation's comic book.

I have all sons, and they love graphics in their books. They often flip through a book to see how many pictures there are in an effort to determine if they would like this book. While picking out the newest Big Nate from the book fair, my youngest son noted it looked different than the other books. There were fewer comics. I noticed he hasn't devoured it in 24 hours.

Anyways, I wanted to take a moment to commend Lincoln Peirce for his creation. It has to be a lot of pressure to put out a lot of books very quickly when kids are devouring them and begging for more. Keep it up, and keep the comic strips, the kids like them.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Why Being Creative Counts

Imagine a childhood without cartoons, picture books, music. A world without books, paintings, sculpture, dance. A life without imagination.

My son is a fan of zombie apocalypse stories. We are binge watching a very popular tv show about zombies. While watching this bleak, gray world the characters are living in, trying to survive the next attack, someone starts to sing. Her song brings hope, beauty and entertainment to the situation. People have something else to think about than destroying the brains of zombies before they eat you.

She changed every person in the room with her song.

Art can change the world. It can inspire. It can bring people together. It can start a conversation. It can make someone happy.

There are many ways to be creative. You can paint a picture, write a song, create a website, host a YouTube channel. The choice is yours, and what you feel comfortable with doing to share your vision, your point of view, your story, your humor.

It might not look good at first. You might be embarrassed with what you produce. There is a reason for this. Ira Glass would say it is about taste, and it is a reason to keep trying until your taste meets what you are creating.  

With time and practice, your work will improve, and grow, and change. Malcolm Gladwell said it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. Be an expert. Keep creating. Without new ideas, the world remains the same. Without song, the zombie apocalypse is always gray and hope slips away. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Book Review: Go Set A Watchman

Jean Louise (Scout) is all grown up and contemplating marriage in the onset of Harper Lee's subsequent novel to "To Kill a Mockingbird." This book does not sound interesting to children, unless they grew up reading TKAM and want to read more from Lee.

Jean Louise has been living in New York and returns to Maycomb and her aging father, Atticus Finch. She is disheartened to see how things have changed with her father and her home town. Set in Alabama in 1955, Scout is seeing the changes in the world reflected in her beloved home town.

The story plods along to a long winded conclusion. The best parts are the flashbacks that let the reader catch up with what has happened in the last 10-15 years. Jean Louise's relationship with Henry is sweet, but there is a distance that may be intentional as Jean Louise is comfortable with the idea of being alone. Or maybe the distance is because he is new to the reader, but an old friend to Jean Louise. The long simmering romance between the two is revealed in playful memories.

The more important relationship is between Jean Louise and her father, the much admired Atticus Finch.  Her disappointment in what she learns of him is palpable. Fans of Lee's iconic novel may share that sentiment.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

What We Can Learn from the Pope's Visit

I am ridiculously excited about the pope visiting the US, almost to the point of Royal baby watching days of yore. I don't live in an area Pope Francis will visit, and while I am a lifelong Catholic, I don't agree with half the stuff he says.

Love him, hate him, or feel indifferent about him, he is kind of like a superstar. Everyone knows who he is. If they can't recognize him as a man, they can certainly recognize him by how he dresses. He is the leader of the oldest church (or so I am told by my priest). And, Pope Francis is cool.

He reminds me of Pope John Paul II. He was instrumental in bringing change to the Catholic church with the Vatican II, but he also brought something else....public interest. Like Pope Francis, Pope John Paul II had an air to him, a charisma, that people liked. It made people like the church.

The Catholic church has been losing numbers in droves as new generations lose faith in organized religion and scandal marks the church. Pope Francis breathes new life into the church. Nothing major has changed (there still aren't women priests and that contraception thing continues to be ignored by most of the people attending mass), but the perception has. Pope Francis is likable, and the twitter hashtags and emojis make him feel current.

Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis prove that it isn't so much the message you bring, but the feeling people have with your presence/message. If you bring a feeling of hope, you may be elected president. If you bring a feeling of love and liberation from rigid practices and evil secrets of the past, people may like you as a pope.

I hope he enjoys his stay in the US. I will be following on Twitter. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Book Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

More than 50 years after it was first published, "To Kill a Mockingbird" is getting a lot of interest with the release of a new book by author Harper Lee.  This interest is only a reminder that this classic novel is as relevant today as the day it was published with its warmth and delicate handling of racial inequality.  This one is a must read.

The story follows Scout Finch going to school for the first time in Maycolm, Alabama during the Great Depression. This moment in history is captured in perfect detail in the classroom with children with no shoes, no lunches and no baths. Scout and her brother, Jem, become fascinated with a spooky house in the neighborhood and "Boo" Radley, who supposedly has lived inside for years with no one seeing him. Their fascination turns into a friendship of sorts as Jem loses his pants sneaking around the Radley place, only to find them mended on the fence when he comes back for them later and the pair find treasures tucked inside a tree outside the Radley place.

Their father, Atticus Finch is a lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape. There isn't much hope for his client in the atmosphere of time and place, although Atticus provides some convincing testimony of his innocence. The very act of defending Tom Robinson brings repercussions for the Robinson family as well as the Finches.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" has been so successful, winning a Pulitzer Prize and topping the best seller list for many reasons. It is very readable, with relevant topics that are made palpable to children through a very relatable and lovable Scout.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Why Stars Matter

I spent much of August on a lounge chair at midnight, staring at the sky. News reports promised the Perseids meteor shower, which peaked during a new moon phase, would be more visible and more amazing than ever.

Well, they weren't. I saw a meteor or two, but then there were several cloudy nights in a row where I couldn't see a single star. Then I gave up.

Still, it was the best writing time I had in awhile. Perhaps it was the fresh air, perhaps it was being alone with my thoughts staring at nothing for a chunk of time. It reminded me that as important as it is to get the butt in the chair to do the work, it is equally important to stare into space with the promise of seeing something incredible to fuel the brain and get creativity in motion.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Family Vacation

It has been a few years since we took our family of three sons (ages 16, 13 and 8) on vacation. It was time to brave the open road again. It is expensive to fly five people anywhere, so we packed up the family car for an old fashioned road trip.

Riding in a car with a week's worth of luggage and five people for dozens of hours doesn't sound fun. We were in denial that we would actually do this until the morning we left. We didn't leave until the afternoon to give us time to pack our bags and book some hotels at the last minute.

Traffic was terrible. Maybe it always is, or maybe it is because getting on the road in the afternoon makes it more likely to hit rush hour. The weather was hot and humid, making us wonder why we left the north.

But something happened along the way. As miserable as the trip was at times, we were doing it together, which was the point. All those endless hours in the car led us to create playlists (I didn't even know my car could DO that!) Cramped hotel quarters informed us our oldest son still suffers night terrors. Hokey touristy things led to the greatest jokes.

Sometimes it wasn't so miserable. Sometimes it was great. We were together for that, too.

The family vacation, with its frequent bathroom breaks and questionable food, was a bonding experience. It was us against the elements of long hours in the car without a radio station, traffic, tourists, summer heat on concrete, fast food. We made it out alive, and we wouldn't want to do it with anyone else.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas

Where I get my ideas is the second most common question I get as a writer. The most common, curiously, is, "How many pages is your book?" 

I thought I would poll other, more famous authors, who have surely heard this question one million times. 

Stephen King (from

I get my ideas from everywhere. But what all of my ideas boil down to is seeing maybe one thing, but in a lot of cases, it's seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question, "What if?" "What if" is always the key question. 

JK Rowling (from

“It was 1990. My then boyfriend and I had decided to move up to Manchester together. After a weekend's flat-hunting, I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head.

I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before. To my immense frustration, I didn't have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one…
I did not have a functioning pen with me, but I do think that this was probably a good thing. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn't know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.
Perhaps, if I had slowed down the ideas to capture them on paper, I might have stifled some of them (although sometimes I do wonder, idly, how much of what I imagined on that journey I had forgotten by the time I actually got my hands on a pen). I began to write 'Philosopher's Stone' that very evening, although those first few pages bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book.”
Jerry Spinelli (from 
Jerry gets his ideas from everyday life, memories, his imagination.

Linda Sue Park, (from

From the idea store, of course! 
Just kidding. I get ideas from reading books and articles, listening to people talk, watching TV and movies; from things I see and hear; from sitting around daydreaming. Ideas are everywhere: important thing is to find the ones that interest you. 
What Linda Sue Park does not say is her husband is a journalist. She got her idea for "A Long Walk To Water" from a young man her husband introduced her to. 

By now you are getting a theme. Writers do not have any secrets about where the ideas come from. They come from observations of everyday life, people, experiences. You don’t have to live an extraordinary life to write a great story. You just have to use your imagination and ask yourself, "What if?"  

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Book Review: How to Make Your Cat an Internet Celebrity: A Guide to Financial Freedom

I am reviewing a different kind of book this month, mostly because I think it was hilarious and must be shared. My sister pointed me toward this book, by Patricia Carlin (Quirk Books, 2014). I read it in a couple hours and laughed more than I do watching an episode of Seinfeld. Carlin is clever and funny and captures pop culture purrfectly.

I am pretty sure my sis found this book looking for actual advice, as she has a cat cuter than the Grumpy Cat. There are some poignant thoughts about cats as internet sensations in the book, and a lot of silliness that is fun for cat owners and YouTube browsers alike. I could not identify my cat in her analyses of celebrity cat types, but perhaps my cats are not destined for internet fame. Alas my financial freedom will have to be found elsewhere.

Although I have some gems, trying to outdo the Grumpy Cat with my annoyed meezer. Here she is in a party hat!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Don't Forget the Fun

It seems the last couple years I have had my eyes on the screen and fingers moving on the keyboard. I have written, revised, rewritten, studied craft, studied the industry. I've gone to conferences, written pitches, synopses, queries and done all the things we writers are supposed to do.

I forgot to have fun. OK, there was a little bit of fun. When you make up imaginary worlds on a regular basis and move made up people through them, it is a lot like playing with Strawberry Shortcake dolls, except this is serious work with character development and a plot that makes sense and moves at a good pace and don't forget to have tension on every page.

Yeah, I forgot the fun. It is the reason writers get into this business. It certainly isn't for the money. I was reminded of this by the main character in the brand new novel I am writing. She has a huge obstacles to overcome, and sees the sad underside of life, but has the cheeriest, most optimistic outlook I have ever met. She wants me to play, and so I must.

Perfect timing for her to come along as we start summer 2015. Get out and play! This is supposed to be FUN!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Power of the Critique

As a writer, showing someone else my work can bring feelings of terror and pride. I may be second guessing what I wrote, frustrated with the storyline, or proud of my brilliant phrasing. As an introvert, it is stepping outside my comfort zone to share my work, even after years of writing and in a comfortable and familiar critique group. So much of writing comes from within, revealing corners of ourselves. We work in solitude, but writers can be egotistical enough to think their thoughts deserve an audience.

A first audience should be a critique group. The first time submitting to a critique group can be devastating. Writers want to tell their tales in the way they want to tell them. Hearing this or that isn't working can feel like bullets to the chest. We writers can feel indignation, shame, horror, we wonder why we put up with this abuse. We hate these people who cannot grasp our vision and may insist these people are wrong.

Three, Faces, Creatures, Angry, Aliens

The thing is, those people who are picking apart your chapter are doing you a huge favor.  These are other eyes on your pages, assessing what speaks to them, what isn't working, what is. It can hurt. Hearing something is missing when you poured your entire heart out on a page is hard, but it can also be valuable feedback to dig deeper, write better, get to the meat of the story and grab the reader.

Writing is from the heart, but there is a myriad of ways to execute it, and some are definitely better than others. If you want to be better, you have to be critiqued.

Be brave. Be strong. Get critiques and let them simmer past the emotional reaction.

And keep going. Write better.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Book Review: Orphan Train

I just finished "Orphan Train" by Christina Baker Kline. It was the Fox Cities Read this year, and although I missed her talk during the Fox Cities Book Festival (, I could tell why this story was chosen.

It was a compelling story of a new immigrant child semi-orphaned and sent to the west on an orphan train. There weren't enough details on the train, except for Dutchy, who we get to love again and again.

The book had a dual POV style, set in the past to show the orphan adventure against a modern day foster teen. I didn't much care about one in the beginning, but it became important in the end and worth sticking through it.

The beginning half of this book is extremely promising and engaging, and may propel readers to the end, which is satisfying in a way that makes you glad to shut the pages of the book.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Fox Cities Book Festival - Linda Sue Park

In the years I was away from the Fox Cities, they started an annual book festival in April. This year's events kicked off a week or so early with a visit from Linda Sue Park, Newbery medal winner and author of many children's books, including "The Single Shard" and the fascinating book she was promoting, "A Long Walk To Water."

Image from

The book is based on the true story of a boy who ran from war in Sudan, becoming one of the "lost boys." He trekked hundreds of miles to Ethiopia, where he lived in a refugee camp for 10 years before going to America. 

Now he is going back with a purpose, to bring water to South Sudan. He chose to go back to his country and live in a hut with no electricity and miles from an iffy water source to bring machinery to drill for clean, safe water. 

I always admired Linda Sue Park's ability to make other countries and cultures accessible with her books. Turns out her presentations are even better. I only wish I had $15K to buy one of these wells to bring clean water to the people of South Sudan. Although if you visit her website, she describes ways to help with The Iron Giraffe Challenge.

Like most authors, she set aside time for questions, describing how it felt to win the Newbery Medal. She explained how every book was special to her and she couldn't pick a favorite. She talked about her inspirations and her passions, like sports. 

Being a Cubs fan helped prepare her for the life of a writer, she said. Following a losing team inspires great confidence and hopefulness at the beginning of the season, only to get your heart broken every year. She compared it to getting rejections after writing a book, then poor sales after first publication, then even poorer sales after second publication. 

These days she is faring better than the Cubs, but she is putting money where her mouth is. Linda Sue Park and her husband sponsored one of those wells in South Sudan. 

I am thankful the Appleton Library arranged this visit, but wish they had arranged for book sales on site. I would have bought "A Long Walk to Water" and had it signed in this rare opportunity with a medal winning novelist. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Walking Old Paths, Seeing Those Same Old Trees

For several years, I was doing a lot of freelance writing. I wrote articles and blog posts for various companies, and I made a pretty good hourly wage that was directed into my PayPal account. I mostly used that money to buy plane tickets and shoes. One of my clients paid for me to attend an international writing conference. It was a good life, but it also had its frustrations.

I got tired of the hustle of finding new work all the time and wanted to spend more of my creative energies on writing fiction, so I accepted an editing position at a local company that hired remote workers. It was a bit of a paycut if you look at hourly wage, but the work was steady and I still worked at home. I have a 401K, vacation time and a paycheck that goes to my checking account, which unfortunately goes to groceries and bills rather than Zappos and airlines. 

I had thought I would freelance on the side, but I haven't, until now. 

I've been getting emails from one of my old haunts. They are making changes for writers. I wonder if they are making things easier, better, taking out the hustle, perhaps. I still have accounts at several hubs for work, and picked up an article that I was particularly passionate about. 

I spent a Saturday afternoon writing this article that should have taken me less than an hour. The actual writing and research was easy, it was a subject I know well and had a lot to say. I had to check guidelines that changed in the last two years and find the format for references. I felt completely drained after sending it off, and remembered feeling like that every single day. I waited weeks for that article to be reviewed, which was new. That company used to have a quick turnaround time. After three weeks, I nearly gave up, and then I got an email with a lengthy rewrite request, one that would compromise the integrity of the article. And then I remembered that annoyance too. 

I don't like to burn bridges. I like to keep all doors of opportunity open, in case I need an escape route, but I am pretty certain I won't be opening the freelance writing door again unless an amazing new opportunity falls into my lap. Those old clients were great for me once, but they are not a fit anymore. I've seen those trees, I've walked that path, I remember now why I moved on. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Book Review: Thirteen Reasons Why

I have seen some of my writerly friends complaining about not having a book that grabs them lately. It is a perennial problem that happens with every reader. You go through ups and downs of reading quality.

"Thirteen Reasons Why," by Jay Asher cured that ill for me for about a week. This book grabbed me and demanded all of my free time.

The book starts out with good guy Clay receiving a set of tapes from post-suicidal classmate Hannah Baker. It seems Hannah has arranged a list of people who get these tapes, and they are instructed to then pass them along to the next person. The details of this arrangement are sketchy and sometimes test the limits of what kids would actually do, but the compelling desire to understand why Hannah chose to take her life, and how this all snowballed together overrides.

Details are handed out like treats, with associations coming together and the interconnection of people and events mimicking the "snowball" event Hannah speaks of in her narrative. Although we all know how it ends for Hannah, Asher manages a satisfactorily hopeful leave to this novel.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Nothing makes a Wisconsinite happier than 
sunshine, blue skies, and melting snowbanks 
at the end of another long, dark winter.

Hello Spring. 
It's about time you got here. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Book Review: Crossover

Crossover, by Kwame Alexander is the winner of the 2015 Newbery Book Award. Like last year’s winner, it is written in verse. It seems kids like reading books in verse these days. I think they like reading short chapters and few words….like text messages.

It isn’t true poetry, or verse, but the text is definitely interesting. The reader is engaged in real time with what is happening, sometimes in staccato during basketball games. I love this book for its energy and its diversity. The main character, Josh, is black, the son of a famous basketball player.

The story is about competition between the twins (seems to be a theme with this year’s ALA award winners. The Printz Award was given to a book about twins being divided by life.) One twin gets a girlfriend and becomes distracted. The other is jealous. There are also serious health problems going on with the father.

This is heavy stuff for middle school readers, but it is handled with finesse, with words bouncing like a basketball on the court. This was an enjoyable read for me, and one I think my reluctant middle school reader would embrace. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Book Review: The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner

Bree Tanner has a brief role as one member of a newborn vampire army in Eclipse, the third installment in Stephenie Meyer's runaway hit Twilight series. "The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner" is a novella that fleshes out the makings of this newborn army and gives this character dimension.

While the novella lacks the compelling readability of the series, it shows another side of the story and humanizes a handful of the vampires created to kill. It is a brief read at around 175 pages and the end is understandably disappointing as the reader knows what is coming whether or not Eclipse was read beforehand, which is likely as this novella's audience are Twilight fans who want to read more.

Meyer has skill in creating interesting characters that stick with the reader, and she does not fail in doing so in the novella. Unfortunately, it isn't the ill fated Bree that leaves an impression. It is the curiously talented Fred, also a newborn vampire, and the only character to leave the story with a sense of hope. People and vampire alike can't stand to look at Fred, but I enjoyed reading about him.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Feeling of Accomplishment and Loss

Yesterday, I finished another revision on a novel in progress for the last year or three. I lost count at which revision this is, perhaps the sixth, or probably the twelfth. Whichever it is, I think it is the one that makes the novel complete and ready for the market. This is huge.

There are many markers in the process of writing a novel. Finishing the first draft is a big one, and one to celebrate, but the writer knows there is work to do in revisions. It can be hard to understand what those changes are in the flush of giving birth to this new novel, or the flaws may be glaringly apparent or even overwhelming.

Then there is the hard work of revisions. It can be a rocky trail that makes one doubt the entire idea. For me, there is a point in revisions where I start to fall in love with the novel. It starts to resemble what I envisioned at the concept point.

Finishing a novel, in that I polished it and feel it is ready for readers, is one of the big milestones. It is one that fills me with elation, relief, and a feeling that the world is not quite right. At this point, I have spent months, probably years thinking about these characters. I have carefully built a world filled with vivid scenes and tangible emotions. I have delved into the depths of character consciousness, thinking about why each one did this and that, putting words in their mouths, sometimes destroying their worlds. Plot has been executed.

And then I am done. I write, "the end." I will not be digging into the character's head or motivations tonight.  It feels like a loss, like being exiled from the world that no longer needs my hand. I am not sure how to spend my time anymore. I am not sure about my own reality, having spent so much time with my head in two worlds, and suddenly missing the one of my own creation.

I haven't written enough novels to know how long this feeling lasts, but read of plenty of authors who deal with it by reading a lot. I can get down with that. I have been neglecting my "to read" piles of late.