Feed Me

My cell phone rang yesterday at work and I dived for it, sure it was word on my latest query. Turned out to be my doctor’s office with a question.  Nuts!

I wanted to write a post about feedback.  A lot of people join writer’s groups in order to present material, discuss writing problems and get feedback from other writers, published or not.  I’ve not done this yet; there is one I’m interested in but it meets when I have another commitment.  It’s intimidating to put your work out there for public consumption, but even more so to ask for someone’s opinion.

With the popularity of shows such as American Idol, criticism and schadenfreude are big right now.  It’s fun to watch people fall flat on their faces, unless it’s you.  Anyone presenting work or performance in public is bound to have a few critics, but the harshness of unfettered vitriol can make some people quit.  From what I understand, many writers’ groups have rules about criticism; one I looked at recently and ultimately dismissed said it didn’t accept any criticism, only encouragement.  That’s another side to the coin.

Receiving no feedback won’t help you grow as an artist.  Neither will being unable to accept it.  On the very first audition show for American Idol, one of only two times I ever watched it, a young woman performed.  She had a pretty good voice, but as a trained singer myself, I could tell by her lack of breath control and phrasing mistakes she had had no formal study in voice. With training she had a real shot at making it, as the judges told her with great enthusiasm.

Was she excited to hear it?

No.  She thought her voice was perfect and needed no training or improvement of any kind.  I could see she had probably received empty praise and indulgence rather than genuine support and advice.  Her attitude condemned her to obscurity. The writer who can’t bear to change a word of his/her masterpiece because the first draft is perfect will quickly follow her.

There are some kinds of feedback it’s best to ignore.

  • “Oh this is brilliant; you don’t need to do a thing to it!” Yes, you do.
  • Remarks that stem from jealousy, competitiveness, or spite. You’ll know it when you hear it.  In between two projects, I was noodling around with something for fun and was told I should get over that and write something saleable. I knew at that moment I could never trust that person’s opinion again.

Same goes for reviews or comments. Don’t take these to heart. A good review or comment will give you honest observations that can improve your work.

  • Feedback targeted at you personally, not your work. Agenda time, anyone?
  • Feedback that is vague, or offers nothing beyond “I don’t like it.” That’s a personal opinion and should be respected. But unless concrete reasons are articulated, it is not useful to you.

What you want is constructive feedback. In my grad school education program, we learned how to give a criticism sandwich.  It’s just what the name implies. Put the suggestion between two positive statements. Start by finding something encouraging about the work, to put the person in a receptive frame of mind.  Then slip the suggestion in the middle, and end on a positive note to maintain that encouragement.

Example: “This is a great premise. Start with the action, not the exposition, and watch the head-hopping [shifts in point-of-view in the middle of a scene].  Good use of metaphor.”

Ideally, the person will listen to the suggestion and focus on improvement, not shortcomings. It works much better than “This blows” or “Go study POV, moron.” Seek out people you trust to look at your work.  My beta reader for the book is also one of my skating coaches. She herself writes, and she knows me and knows how to instruct me without tearing me down or giving me false praise. I believe her input made my book better.

If you’re submitting and your story is returned with specific critiques, pay attention to them. You want this kind of attention.  It shows that someone thinks you’re worth encouraging.

Don’t let feedback define you.  It’s just a tool you can use to make your writing better.

Jealousy Isn’t Green; It’s Black

In the Era of Man, which compared to geological time is merely a nanosecond, is there any doubt that early humans would have envied each other? Jealousy is as old as time.

Watching an excellently-written film this evening (Doubt), I had my own doubts about my material.  I felt mediocre, trite.  Who wants to read my dreck when there is quality like this out there? Granted, Doubt was a play, not a novel, but hey. It had to be written first.  A friend said my ability to see how to improve my own writing is my ticket to a career.  Is it? The truth is, writing is awesome, but moments like this suck.  People, you think you want to do this? Think again.

To listen to exquisitely-rendered dialogue gives me something to aspire to.  That’s what I keep telling myself.  In the meantime, I want to rip out my brand-new flattering haircut, set it on fire and roast weenies over it.  Or, failing that, baldly schlep on up to the corner gas station, buy a pack of Doral Menthol Light 100s and smoke ‘em ‘til I puke.  Never mind that I’ve been smoke-free for nearly two years.  Whaddya think of that, you perverted, fickle Muse? No wonder so many writers, actors and artists are substance abusers.  I could shred my book and drown myself in the River of Despair.  No one but another creative mind could understand.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, how does a person deal with jealousy? In skating, often two skaters at the same rink will end up competing in the same level, sometimes directly against each other.  This doesn’t make for congenial relations, I can tell you.

Once two young skaters came separately to me and complained about this very thing. The two skaters were both very talented, but it was apples and oranges.  One had a very light and airy presence on the ice, like a butterfly flitting about.  The other was as elegant as a lady in a ball gown descending a staircase.  Anyone watching one after the other wouldn’t think “Oh, Hortense is better than Agatha.” They were just completely different.

I told them to stop worrying about what the other skater was doing; they had no control over that.  I said, “Don’t waste your energy on her. Concentrate on what you yourself need to improve.”

Should I be taking my own advice? Well, yes.

A long time ago, someone told me that envy was when someone had something and you wanted it too.  Jealousy was when you wanted it instead.  A fine distinction, but an important one.  There’s nothing wrong with desire; it can motivate you to create and to better your craft.  But wanting to take it away from the one who has it is only destructive.  Should you keep it inside and not mention it, swallow your seemingly petty thoughts and remarks for the sake of peace, they will fester inside you.

When I put plastic on my old single-paned windows this year, I made the unpleasant discovery that a piece of glass stop that had been hidden behind the curtain on the front window for most of the year was black with rot.  The window is doomed.  That’s what happens when you nurture jealousy and resentment.  It becomes as black and slimy as the little piece of wood on that window frame.  In the dark, in the cold of that inner place where we all store our unpleasant feelings because they’re not polite, the mold eats that little stack of thoughts, leaving nothing but garbage behind.

Someone else told me once that people don’t make you jealous, you make yourself jealous.  That’s very true, but what to do when you’re suffused with it and you can’t think of anything else?

For me, if I’m to vanquish any unpleasant or painful feeling, first I must experience it.  I can’t thrust it away; it has to run its course.  If it doesn’t, it will simply resurface later, that mold creeping up and blackening everything else I try to do.  The curtain won’t hide it.

You have to feel it to discharge it.  While you’re at it, make note of how you feel.  What parts of your body harbor sensation with this feeling? Is your stomach in knots? Is your head aching?  Do your teeth clench? Use your own emotions as material. Step outside yourself and clinically study your reaction.  Since your feeling is authentic and real, so too will be your description of it.  Write it down if you have to, or tuck it away for later.  But don’t sit on it, or shove it behind the curtain.  Better out than in, as Shrek says.

When you’ve allowed yourself the feeling, let it go.  You don’t need it.  So someone got what you wanted.  You can get it too.  If the good-looking person you had your eye on just started dating your fellow nerd in the back of the class, great.  Means a good-looking person could fall for you too.  Or the new writer who just got a book deal could be you next.

You can’t copy the other person; you have to concentrate on your strengths and your ideas.  What is successful today is not what will be tomorrow.  Trends change.  Focus shifts.  What you are working on now may or may not be the next big thing, but it’s certain you’ll be left far behind if you try to jump on someone else’s bandwagon.  You might start your own trend if you can focus your energy where it belongs, on your writing.

Did I just lecture myself? I think so.  My most pedantic English teacher would be proud.

Poaste Toasties

The title comes from a funny error someone in my chat room made; now “poaste” is a favorite word.  There is humor in mistakes, and we should laugh at ourselves, before someone else does!

We’re looking at a white Christmas, but first must endure flash flooding.  In January there is usually a warm-up accompanied by tornadoes, at least the last few years.  I always dread this time of year for the weather.  Since a terrible ice storm in 2007, I’m pretty much done with winter.  Summer used to be a downer for me, since I don’t do well in hot weather.  But a stand-up pool helped considerably. Now I’m chomping at the bit for warm weather again so I can power walk and throw my steaming body into the pool afterward.

The lovely Christmas snow will cheer it up a bit, I wager.

This post (or poaste) doesn’t have much to say except that I wish everyone and theirs a very happy holiday, be it Christmas, Solstice (already over), Festivus, Hanukah, Kwaanza, etc.  The Toasties are the holiday cheer brought by friends and family (if you get along with them, that is; I know many who don’t) and the sheer joy of lazing around the house on those precious days off.  I’m not going to the fam this year, but staying home to prepare for a guest, work a little, and watch “A Christmas Story” in my flannel snowman footie pajamas.  I wish for everyone and for myself continued health and success in whatever endeavors you passionately pursue!


The Most Annoying Online Errors

Even with a degree in English (which I always say makes me a professional bullshitter– ha!), I can’t paint myself as a grammar or punctuation expert, but people, please.  If you’re going to have a career as a writer or even just blog for fun, please, PLEASE take the time to learn the basic, fundamental rules of English.

I have read so many blog posts where it was obvious the writer didn’t take the time to proof his or her copy that it makes me want to scream.  Every single thing you put out there, an email or a blog post, a business card or a query letter, is a writing sample.  Everything.  Everyone will see your mistakes, and if they’re online, that’s a lot of eyes.

The immediacy of blogs makes it tempting to write a post directly into the page and then publish it.   I can understand typos; we all make them.  Hence the admonitions to read your manuscripts over and over, and print them out and look at them on the page, to give your eyes the chance to catch something you didn’t see on the computer screen.

Errors happen.  No one is perfect, and if you mess up, that’s an opportunity to learn something. I would not squeal if I made a mistake and someone pointed it out to me.  (In fact, if I do, please let me know.  If it’s a factual one, especially I want to know, so I can correct it. I don’t want to be the bearer of erroneous information.)

In certain venues, it’s easier not to properly punctuate and proof what you write; in my chat room, for example, the chat often moves faster than I can type, especially if I’ve been working particularly hard.  I often talk to my online buddies without capitalization and in abbreviations and shortened phrases.  My meaning comes across perfectly clear, because everyone else is doing the same.  And I’m sure you’re familiar with textspeak, even if you don’t like it and refuse to use it.  Personally, I’d rather just talk to someone than text him/her, since I’m on the phone already.

Anyone who reads blogs knows there are a ton of grammar Nazis out there making their little corrections in the comments.  To avoid them, write your blog entries in your word processor, so that you can check your spelling and edit a little. No one is too busy to properly present him/herself.

Here is a list of the most annoying things I see online.  Feel free to add your own pet peeves in the comments.

Loose for lose

Loose means something is coming apart, like your sentence.  Lose means to be unable to find something.

It’s vs. its 

It’s is a contraction, short for it is.

It’s not going to snow.

Its is possessive.

He picked up the dead frog by its leg.

The Comma Splice!

Here is what it looks like:

Tom went to the store, the family was out of bread and he wanted a frog sandwich.

NO NO NO NO. Use a semicolon or a period and make it two sentences.  It IS two sentences.

Their, there and they’re 

Their is possessive.

Mom took their coats to the hall closet.

There indicates placement.

Put the coats there next to the body in the closet.

And they’re is another contraction, for they are:

They’re not going to need their coats any more.

Affect vs. effect

Affect is a verb.  You can affect the TV by hitting it with a hammer.  Or, you can affect a British accent while you hit the TV, to make yourself seem like an expert.

Effect is a noun.  The hammer has an effect on the TV.  Your fake accent gives the effect that you are a phony, pretentious douchebag.

You’re and your

When you see an apostrophe, look very hard at what follows it.  “re” looks kind of like part of “are,” doesn’t it?

“You’re not going in there,” Bob said to Karen, right before the killer smashed his head in with an axe.

Your is possessive.

Your axe is over there, Charlie.

Too, two and to

Two is a number. Must I point this out?

Karen ran two blocks before she flagged down a police car.

Too and to could easily be messed up due to sloppy typing; that’s understandable, but if you take time to proof, chances are you’ll catch that one.

Too = means also, and an excess of something.

Sanjay had some chicken too.

The chicken was too spicy and now Sanjay has heartburn.

To = usually indicates going toward something, i.e. to the movies, to the second level.

And finally, the one that bugs me the most, the misplaced apostrophe!

The apostrophe stands in for omitted letters, as in a contraction.

“I’m [I am] not getting in your car,” Karen told the cop, seeing the zombie crouched in the back seat.

It also indicates possession, both for plural and singular nouns.


“That zombie’s bite is deadly!” shouted the cop.

Plural – make the noun plural before you add the apostrophe.  If the plural noun ends in s, add the apostrophe after it.

Zombies’ hands are usually covered in rotting flesh and gore.

If the plural noun does not have an s at the end, don’t add one before the apostrophe.  Put it after.

She wiped the zombie children’s faces.


She wiped the zombie childrens’s faces.

For more help, see the following websites and books.  They helped me.  Now go, and sin no more, little bloggers.

Grammar Slammer – help with grammar and punctuation.


The OWL at Purdue – a great resource for all kinds of writing problems


Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss – an often hilarious approach to proper punctuation, complete with stickers one may use to correct improper signage!


The Chicago Manual of Style -University of Chicago Press Staff (Editor)


I want this one.  My little pocket guide is sadly outdated.  It’s online but requires a paid subscription.  Check your local library.  If you have a college near you, see if you can get a pass to use their library.  They may have it.  If you are an alumnus, you might even still have library privileges.

Okay It’s Not Me

I’m currently reworking the old blog.  After only three posts (which I actually like), I’m looking at the layout and thinking it’s not really me.  It’s very Rachel Dawes classy and I’m more flamboyantly Jokerish.  Can you tell what my favorite film is?  :)

Keep checking back for a new title as soon as I think of it.


Graphomania (n) a passion or urge to write.  I think it fits me. :)

It’s In the Details

Last night I saw a movie that made me think about how important good writing and attention to detail is, and how little of it you see in Hollywood these days.

Netflix has been a godsend to someone as behind on movies as me, and they have a huge selection of older films.  The movie was 1981’s Quest for Fire, with Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, Nameer El-Kadi and Rae Dawn Chong. I wasn’t allowed to see it when it came out because of the adult material (my parents were such squares!) and I knew few people who had.  I wasn’t sure what to expect.

What I found was an underrated gem.  The film is based on a French novel from the turn of the century.  The Ulam are attacked by marauders and their fire extinguished.  Without the fire, they are doomed; they have no defense against either the elements or predators.  The group is not sufficiently advanced yet to make fire themselves, so three of the males, Naoh (McGill), Gaw (El-Kadi)  and Amoukar (Perlman) set out to find a new source of fire.

Along the way, they encounter the cannibalistic Kzamm, who have two blue-painted captives.  The three raid their camp and steal a chunk of fire.  The captives break free during the melee and the young female captive Ika (Chong)  follows them.  They can’t understand her speech and shoo her away.  When she heals an injury Naoh sustained during the raid, they grudgingly accept her and she and Naoh become lovers.

I don’t want to describe their return journey, because you need to see this movie for yourself.   There was very little spoken dialogue. There were no subtitles.  Despite this, it was easy to follow the story.  The acting was phenomenal and that helped.

The thing that struck me the most, however, was the strength of both the story itself and the research.  Nothing was extraneous.  Everything either showed character or was central to the story, from the slapstick antics of the leader’s two sidekicks to the scenes showing how difficult and dangerous life in those times could be.

In one scene Naoh attempts in vain to breathe life into the single spark of fire saved from the marauders, housed in a small portable carrier.  In the frigid and misty expanse of the swamp where the tribe has fled, everything is in blues and greys, the dying spark a bright glow of orange in the center of the frame before it finally goes out.

Good writing should have intense images like this, strong and memorable.

The body movements and gestures were choreographed by noted zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris and the author of The Naked Ape, a book about Man from an anthropological viewpoint.  The female’s group had atl-atls (a throwing device invented by prehistoric people), and the fire-making technique was spot-on.  I know this last because I learned it myself at a primitive skills workshop.  Novelist-linguist Anthony Burgess helped develop the languages.  Although the story took dramatic license with different types of early humans appearing together, the attention to detail drew me in and made the prehistoric world come alive.

When a writer invents a world, he or she can make the rules and if the world is consistently rendered, the reader will suspend disbelief. Realistic settings must be rendered as close to life as possible, to avoid booting the reader out of the story with some detail that feels wrong.  No writer wants to do that.  For example, in Rose’s Hostage, I wanted to make sure the law enforcement details were right, so I consulted with FBI and police sources.  Authentic details can breathe life into scenes and bring the reader into the characters’ world.

The lack of dialogue might be a sticking point for some viewers; in books, unbroken narrative or “grey pages” are difficult to read.  I haven’t read the book, but I suspect there isn’t much in there either.  A novel that ignored this effectively was Patrick Suskind’s 1985 Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.  The protagonist has no scent of his own and experiences an emotional world through his extraordinary sense of smell.  Like Quest for Fire, it has almost no dialogue and in 2006 became a movie.  Unlike Fire, the film version of Perfume relied on narration to propel the story, a device that usually works better on the page.

Check this movie out, if you haven’t seen it. If you have, I invite you to give your opinion in the comments.

Capturing the Butterfly

How does a novel, story or poem come out of someone’s head and make it to the paper or the computer screen?  How does an artist face a blank canvas each day and find the will and the vision to daub pigment on it until a masterpiece emerges?  How does the composer know which notes will become a symphony or simply noise?

It’s the universal problem that all writers face: what to do when the muse deserts you. How do you catch that fickle butterfly of creativity and harness its iridescent beauty into your work?

If you Google writer’s block, you’ll find a host of suggestions. Some of them, like “begin in the middle,” offer concrete solutions.  Simply skip that bugaboo opening scene and write another.  You can always go back, and the middle might be where you need to begin anyway.

Others are vague.  “Meditate,” or “Right a social wrong.” How does that help with writer’s block?  I think the intent is to clear your mind, or distract yourself.   But meditation takes practice, and writers with families and day jobs don’t always have time to play Batman or Mother Teresa.  It can be difficult to find time to write even when you’re on a roll, if your life is full.  Easier not to, especially if you’re stuck.

Ralph Keyes, in his excellent book The Courage to Write, makes a great case for writer’s block stemming from plain, ordinary fear.  Fear of offending someone, fear of failure (that’s a big one for a lot of people), even fear of success.  I must admit, I’m no stranger to shifting perceptions of my own efficacy.  Sometimes I feel brilliant; other times, completely mediocre and trite. When inadequacy squeezes the breath from me, I can’t seem to focus on anything other than how much I suck.

Writers who get a break can sometimes choke on their next project.  They second-guess themselves: What if it’s not as good? What if everyone hates it?  What if nobody buys it and my promising career goes down the crapper? Some writers are afraid that success will bring criticism; Mom and Uncle Bob may love their writing, but if other people don’t like it, does that mean they are bad?  Not necessarily.  It may only mean that Neighbor Jake or Online Critic Susy doesn’t care for allegorical stories about giant interstellar ants ravaging the world, or whatever the subject might be. To them I say, buck up, little camper.  Obviously, someone thought your work was good enough to publish, for money, contributors’ copies or both.

Any writing keeps the machine oiled.  Blog posts, homework, tweets, emails, everything counts.  If I can’t get to work (did you guess yet why I’m writing this particular post?), then I turn to a different project.  It’s a trick I learned in college.  Take a break from the subject or element that has bogged you down.  Do something else for a little while.  When you return to your assignment, you’ll be lubed up and ready to go.  That’s the idea, anyway.  Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.  You might have to stop and tackle it another day.  But that’s okay, as long as you recognize that it’s a problem with the work, and not with you.

I’m sure people in other media have the same issues.  Creativity can be fleeting for anyone attempting to spin something from the air.  When I asked a very talented artist friend of mine what she did when she got stuck, she said ” Sometimes I’ll get re-energized by looking at my old work, and find new energy to drag the [unfinished] things out and bring it to a good stopping point.” (While you’re here, check the Blogroll for Playing with Crayons and see her beautiful illustrations.)

I can get behind her concept.  An old story or essay might be good enough to remind me that I don’t really suck, or show me how far I’ve come if it’s not.   Something in it might spark a new idea.

What helps you break through that wall of despair and capture the butterfly?  Leave a comment and let us know.

Introduction – A Blog? Surely You Jest

Until I began to put my completed novel out for consideration, I couldn’t see any reason why I should have a blog.  One geared toward other writers and artists making the long climb to the top of the slush pile made sense.  A personal blog? No one would be interested in my day-to-day doings; hell, even I wasn’t interested.  Buy a train ticket to Boringtown instead; it would be more exciting.

The process of writing seems to fascinate people, however.  Nearly everyone I know, when I tell them I’m a writer, or they ask how something is going, or when they see me set up my computer at lunchtime, gives me that bird-on-a-wire bright stare, the appraising glance that says “She’s writing.  What is she writing? A book?  Is it any good? Anyone can write, can’t they?”

Well, no, they can’t. So many people tell me “I thought about writing a book, but I never had the time.”  Every writer on earth has heard this at least once.  Maybe they have something inside them worth sharing; maybe it should stay there.  It’s certain that it won’t come out if they don’t plant their behinds in the chair and write.  And that’s where so many people fall down on that dream.  They simply don’t do it.  Those who do soon find out that it is work and hard work at that.  I like to describe it like this: during those times when the words are flowing effortlessly, faster than you can get them down, it’s almost better than sex.  Other times, it’s more like homework.  In the class you hate the most.

Even on homework days, you must write.  Everyone has time; you just have to find those bits here and there that offer themselves to you.  I’m working on my lunch hour as we speak.  The guys in the manufacturing plant where I work at my receptionist day job are used to me setting up my laptop in the lunchroom.  They even sometimes move to give me my preferred seat (near the plug, out of the glare of the window, but close to it).  They know about the book; they know the basic plot.  They’re a great bunch of people.  They tease me, but they also encourage me.  When I tell them I’ve been rejected again, they say “Keep trying! We know you’ll make it someday!”

Maybe no one will ever agree to represent me based on this first novel alone, but as writers we need that kind of encouragement.  It keeps us going in the face of one of the most dauntingly competitive fields out there.  That’s the key, to keep going.  For example, I figure skate on weekends.  I’m not great at it, but I’m making progress.  Because of that, and because of the encouragement of my club’s small group of fans who come to see us skate, I keep going. And besides, I love it.

I love writing too.  I’ve been doing it in one form or another since I was a child, but never more seriously than now.  I want to share it with you.  I want you to feel what I feel when I write it, as you read it.  That’s my challenge, and a big part of my reward.

The word “ephemera,” the title of this blog, is defined as something designed to only be useful for a short period of time, like that  train ticket.  It’s a perfect description of blog entries.  I hope you can take something for yourself from my journey that will stay with you.  Let’s go together, shall we?