Archive for August, 2011

When Death Happens in Your Writing Group

August 28, 2011

 You’re never really prepared for death, are you?  But when it strikes someone who isn’t elderly or sick, it’s particularly difficult. 

Last week a friend and member of our writing group emailed us for suggestions on titles for her current book.  She needed them by the weekend for her agent.  Emails flew back and forth, so on Friday afternoon when I logged on, I wasn’t surprised to see another email from her. 

But this time it was from her husband stating she passed away that very day from a routine hospital procedure – an endoscopy.  He couldn’t find her phone numbers, and he was in a hurry . . .

You know those emails you get from what LOOKS like it’s your friend’s email telling you she’s in London and stranded and please send her money immediately? 

My first reaction is someone hacked their way into her account and this guy was pretending to be her husband.  Who had a vendetta against them?  This just could not be. 

I called David’s cell.

But it was all too true.  

Once people were called, we realized we needed to create a scrapbook of thoughts, pictures, illustrations and memories for her.  People sent me amazing poems, anecdotes, thoughts, feelings and art.  (Thank you all!) 

And then I realized after I put it together, it was as much for US as it was for her.  It expressed Marisa’s joy and love of life, words, books, animals and the color pink!  It showed her strength and her determination.  She never let the pain of her rheumatoid arthritis stop her.  If she couldn’t make it work one way, she figured out another. 

Born in Puerto Rico, Marisa Montes moved at the age of four to Missouri, and then to France when she was seven, because her father was in the army.  She had the thrill of living in Toul, France, which she loved, for a few years before moving to the Monterey Peninsula in California when she was in the sixth grade.  

 Diagnosed at age 16 with the painful RA, she didn’t let that stop her. She was a member of her high school’s drill team, a cheer leader, AND a competitive roller skater! 

She went on to become a family and immigration lawyer for a few years before turning to writing law materials. After ten years of writing for the legal world, she found her home in children’s books, where she published many award-winning books for children, including the wonderful picture book, Los Gatos Black on Halloween which won the Pura Belpre Award and the Tomas Rivera Award.   

Interviewed by Patricia Newman, Marisa said, “I was happier writing every day in pain than at all my other jobs.  Physically, I was in agony, but emotionally and mentally I was in Shangri-La!” 

Thank you, Marisa for showing the rest of us how determination, passion and creativity shined through you. 

May all of you feel the joy in writing that she did.  To learn more about Marisa, visit her website at

McSweeney’s Become a Columnist Contest!

August 26, 2011

So you want to be a columnist?  Here’s your chance!   

From McSweeney’s: 

It’s that time. New columnist time. Column contest time. We’ve done it each year for the past two, so we’re doing it again, basically the same way:

1. Form and content is open. We are looking for writing that is engaging and interesting, in a “we know it when we see it” way. It would probably be a mistake to look at our current columns and try to replicate them. We love those columns, but they came about by authors simply following their own paths. Write about subject matter you’re interested in, in the way you find most compelling. Our site is primarily known for printing funny things, but columns need not be comic in nature. They just need to be good reading. Please take your time to make your submission as good as possible. One of the criteria we’re looking for is a writer who is reliable and obsessive over their own work.

2. Length is also open. In general, we find anything over 2000 words begins to be taxing on readers when read on the Internet, but if the length is justified, we’re the last ones to complain.

3. Submissions should contain the following: •a brief description of the proposed column (keep it short; just tell us where you’re coming from) •one full example column •brief descriptions of three additional installments of your column •a short biographical note

4. Submitting your submissions. All submissions should be both pasted into the body of an email and sent as a .doc or .rtf attachment. Please arrange the material in the order outlined in #3 above. Any submissions that fail to provide all the requested information will be ineligible for consideration. All material should be previously unpublished, including personal blogs, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever thing is invented between now and the end of the contest. There is no fee for contest submission. Submissions should be sent to

5. Previous winners and current or past columnists. Are not eligible for the column contest this time around. 6. Please submit only one entry per author. Pick the idea that’s most compelling to you and run with it.

7. Deadline. Submissions will be accepted until the end of the day Friday, September 9th at 10 pm Eastern time. Winners will be announced no later than September 23rd. Please include a phone number where you can be reached in case of e-mail failure.

8. Prizes. We have prizes. Cash prizes. The top five selections will each receive $500 and a one-year contract to write your column (twice a month or thereabouts) for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. We do reserve the right to choose fewer (or more) winners than our planned number of five.

9. Responses to submissions. You will receive notice of receipt of your entry; however, because of the volume of submissions we will not be able to respond personally to each entry if they are not advancing in the contest.

10. If you have any questions that aren’t answered here, please feel free to send them to

For more information visit

Of Writing Retreats and Relaxation

August 17, 2011

This past weekend I spent a luxurious time at Westminster House in Alamo, California, participating in a writing retreat that produced words, wisdom, friendship, great dining and lots of peace in nature.  We communed with deer, a fox, quail, and even a Labradoodle who wandered into our open door to share his friendly attitude. 

Built in the 1920s, Westminster’s main house’s lovely redwood-walled rooms and cozy fireplace charm reminded me of  a Julia Morgan design, with cheerful flowered wallpaper in the bedrooms invoking a time when life was slow-paced and reflective. 

Our group stayed at the carriage house, complete with upstairs bedrooms and bathrooms and  horse stall bedrooms downstairs, made comfortable  with its horse shoe western-theme.  I swear I heard a horse neigh  . . .

Our group focused on writing, while others who are there quilt, pray, hike or hold family reunions. 

Why seek a writing retreat?

A change of scenery can refresh your whole attitude and may spark your creativity.  Just being around other writers who are enthusiastic about the process, love reading, and think verbs are cool, does something to your inspiration.  

Then there’s the no phones or door bells ringing,  or messages you must deliver to family members.  No Internet (or hopefully not) and only a bell notifying you it’s meal time, which you don’t have to provide.  The laundry buzzer doesn’t go off, dusty tabletops don’t beckon you to clean, and nothing requires your attention but the manuscript in front of you. 

What more can a writer desire?

If you haven’t booked a writer’s retreat, I urge you to try it.  You can go at it alone, with a friend, or your writer’s group.  After one success, you’ll become addicted and you’ll return for others. 

What should you bring to a retreat?

For work, bring one or more of your projects and perhaps some writing exercises for fun.  A writing game or questions to inspire conversation during a group break could be good too.   Snacks and drinks are an option, although with the delicious array Westminster provided, we were never hungry.

I brought my favorite writing tool:  The Synonym Finder by J. I. Rodale, along with a book in case I decided to read. This particular retreat had the option of staying over night or just being there during the day.   Whatever and where ever  you choose,  you’ll appreciate the relaxation.   And with relaxing, comes the freeing sensation which allows you to write more deeply.  Go for it!     Westminster Retreat  

Photos show the carriage house

How to Write Deeper Without Losing Your Reader?

August 5, 2011

Joanne brings up an excellent point in her question and response:

When a writer makes a reader “wander around” and “go deeper,” is there a risk of losing the reader’s interest?

I suspect many hours are spent discussing the layout of a Target store to maximize product visibility without confounding shoppers to the point they leave empty-handed and frustrated. A writer needs to keep the same concern in mind when creating a sense of mystery and suspense.



You, as a writer, should wander around during the first drafts to discover ideas you may not have discovered originally. 

You may discover characters, symbols, deeper plot lines that you never would have found before.    In your final draft, of course, you will make sure that every word counts.  Every plot, symbol, and character relates to your main idea/theme.  And as long as you create suspense/conflict on every page, your reader will stay right along with you.


Organize your Writing like Target Shopping Center

August 2, 2011

Today visited Target to purchase ONE item, but of course we always check out the DVD section, in case they have a $5.00 one that might be a classic.   We waltzed in to discover a shiny remodeled store. 

Instead of placing the DVDs in the front like before, we had to meander through many other aisles before finding them at the back.  Of course winding our way through other brightly colored attractively arranged sections  reminded me those pretty blue placemats and bowls with clever tight-sealing lids I couldn’t live without.

Finally reaching the DVDs, I muttered, “I wonder why they put them all the way back here?”  My hands were full of this and that.  My husband’s hands were too. 

He looked down at our stuff and said, “Gee, I WONDER why?” 

Duh.  Target wanted us to wander around and take our time see what they had to offer.   

Do this in your writing, too. 

Make your reader go deeper in your novel to find what they are looking for.  The answers shouldn’t be out there right away, easily discovered.  That’s no fun!  It’s more intriguing if the reader has to dig, search, and wander around a bit to find out what is going on.

No matter if you are 9 or 90, writing for kids or adults, a short story or a novel, your first page should place a question in the reader’s mind, begging them to turn that page and wander on for more. 

I picked up a used copy of Mary E. Pearson’s young adult novel, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, flipped it open, and saw the previous owner’s name in the cover. 


Turning to the first page, I read the first several lines of the book.  (A book I’ve previously read and loved, btw.)

I used to be someone.

Someone named Jenna Fox.

That’s what they tell me.  But I am more than a name.  More than they tell me.  More than the facts and statistics they fill me with.  More than the video clips they make me watch. 

On the side of this paragraph, Nicole had written in pencil, Why do they make her watch them?

I love the way Nicole reads.  She has comments sprinkled throughout this book written in pencil.    Some are questions about what the character’s motivation is, what a word means (followed by the definition after she looks it up) and others are her personal predictions of where the story might be going.  If she likes a moment in the book, she’ll underline it and writes thought that was nice

The best part about Nicole is how she makes a personal connection to the story.  She’ll write:  connection:  My grandparents always try to get me to eat more, when Jenna’s parents try to get her to eat when she doesn’t want to. 

That’s what it’s all about, really.  Connecting with our readers.  Mary Pearson did that with her story and Nicole. 

It’s your turn.   You can do it yours and your readers too.

Point 1. Make sure you have a sense of mystery and suspense in your story.  Ask yourself, where can I take out some information and tease the reader with bits of clues instead?

Point 2.   Read like a writer.  Like Nicole!  If it’s YOUR book, write comments in the margins.  Critique it like a writer.  How did the writer get you to feel the way you do?  If it’s not your book, place a stack of post-its in the front of the book.  Post a note where you love the passage for later study.