Saturday, August 28, 2010


BY Ruby Johnson

I've read many books on the craft of writing, but James Scott Bell's books are permanently a part of my library. His  book, The Art of War for Writers, is one I’ve recently added. If you don’t have this book, you may want to pick it up. The thing I love most about The Art of War for Writers is that the new writer, as well as, the professional, can benefit from its information. You can open the book at any point and find useful and new ways on navigating the writing and publishing field. It inspires even as it spurs you on in your writing career. And that’s really the focus of this book—how to develop a career in writing.

His pyramid of writers brings home the level of the individual writer. From wannabe’s at the bottom of the pyramid to breakout hit at the very top requires the writer to determine which level he is at and work to move up the pyramid. Says Bell, “The writer needs to develop a plan for his or her career.” What does that take? The book is divided into three sections; reconnaissance, tactics, and strategy. The short, chapters share real answers to these questions. The book is full of how-to topics on the craft such as:

  • Develop the mental discipline to produce 6 days a week.

  • Don’t give up.Writing requires a good deal of self-motivation.

  • Develop a writing improvement program.

  • Use a notebook.

  • Read the books written in your genre that you like. Find passages that you like and put them in your notebook.

  • Read and reread how-to books.

  • Attend conferences to increase your knowledge

  • Actively participate in a writer’s group

  •  Learn to accept criticism, dust yourself off and keep writing.

Want more, go buy his book!

The Art of War For Writers

Monday, August 23, 2010


Wendy Watson was our guest lecturer in the spring and also ran an online workshop for our group. Today she's going to talk about strenghtening writing skills. Welcome back Wendy!
Wendy Lyn Watson

by Wendy Lyn Watson

According to the calendar, the new year begins on January 1. But I teach, and I think those of us who live in the classroom (as teachers or students) follow a different annual rhythm. I mark time in semesters rather than months, my year begins in late August, and the school bell signals the time for resolutions and recommitments.

This year, I’ve got a whole mess of aspirations for the upcoming year: bike to work, drink more water, spend more time off-line, learn to relax . . . . And, of course, some of my resolutions are writing-related.

For the past few years, I’ve lived and breathed cozy mysteries. That’s no hardship: I love them! I’d like to grow as a writer, develop new skills. So this year I’ve resolved to spend one day a week working outside the cozy genre. In addition, I’m going to take a step back from story-telling to work on my fundamental writing skills. That means practicing what I preach and doing morning writing exercises to stretch and strengthen my writing voice.

For those who might like to play along at home, let me share a few of my favorite writing exercises:

1. The easiest is probably the best. Pick a word (any word). Write it at the top of a sheet of paper. Set your kitchen timer for three to five minutes. Put pen to paper and write … don’t use a computer for this exercise (the timing between mind and hand works better if you’re writing longhand), don’t edit, and don’t stop. Even if you spend a bit of time writing gibberish, that’s o.k. The key is to remove your filter and let your subconscious drive. You never know what you’ll spill onto the paper.

2. To work on developing richer images, buy a box of crayons. Every day, pull a crayon out and write about that color. What does the color make you think of? For example, a white crayon might make you
think of crisp linens drying on a line, the voluptuous viscosity of heavy cream, or the impenetrable cold of a gravestone

                                                                                           3. To develop your descriptive muscles, play the differences game. Pick two things that are similar (a lemon and a lime) and describe them so that someone can tell them apart. How can you describe the taste of lemon so that it is distinct from the taste of lime? (See, that’s tough, because our usual go-to descriptors—such as tart or sour—don’t distinguish between the two.)

Even if you’re not a teacher or student, there’s no reason to wait until January 1 to recommit to your craft. This is my plan to develop my skills and broaden my horizons. What about you? What are your writing resolutions moving forward into the future?

Wendy Lyn Watson writes deliciously funny cozy mysteries with a dollop of romance. Her Mysteries a la Mode (I Scream, You Scream (October, 2009) and Scoop to Kill (September, 2010))
 feature amateur sleuth Tallulah Jones, who solves murders in between scooping sundaes. While she does not commit--or solve--murders in real life, Wendy can kill a pint of ice cream in nothing flat. She's also passionately devoted to 80s music, Asian horror films, and reality TV. ( :

Wendy's books may be purchased from 

Barnes & Noble
Penguin Group

Thursday, August 19, 2010


It is our pleasure to welcome Arlene Miller to our blog. She'll make you take a closer look at your grammar for sure!

By Arlene Miller
Although I was excited and flattered when I was asked to be a guest blogger, I didn’t know what to write about. I just wrote a grammar book…and grammar, well, it can be a tough thing to write about! I figured I could either inform or entertain, or, ideally, I could do both. So I will. I will leave the most common mistakes people make and the parts of speech and the punctuation rules for another time.
Today, I will talk about: (drum roll, please) – putting words where they belong, so you don’t make anyone laugh….unless you want them to, of course!

In the English language, words are assumed to belong with the words they are written next to. When words are put in the wrong place, the writing may be difficult to understand, or it might even be unintentionally ridiculous. This grammatical error is sometimes known as the “dangling participle” or just the “misplaced modifier.” Let’s look at some examples.

Here is one I like to show to my students:

“While still in diapers, my mother remarried.”

Well, you might just skip by it, whether you have written it or are reading it….and assume it means what it should….but it doesn’t. The way it is written says that my mother was still in diapers when she remarried. Probably not what the writer meant?? Since “my mother” comes right after the participial phrase “while still in diapers,” it is assumed that they go together. There are usually many ways to fix a sentence. Here is the most logical fix:

“While I was still in diapers, my mother remarried.”

Here is another one:

"The girl walked her dog wearing a bikini.”

Once again, you might go right by this one and not notice that anything is amiss. However, since the phrase (participial again) “wearing a bikini” comes right after dog, it really means that the dog is wearing a bikini. Now, even my Chihuahua didn’t wear a bikini! Here’s a possible fix (there are many):

“Wearing a bikini, the girl walked her dog.”

Here is one that is hard to pick out, but it may actually make the meaning of the sentence confusing:

“The audience members congratulated him on his speech at the end of the meeting and promised their support.”

Have you found the problem? You really cannot tell what it was that happened at the end of the meeting. In all likelihood, the audience members congratulated him at the end of the meeting. However, the sentence says that his speech was at the end of the meeting.

Here is one possible fix:

“At the end of the meeting, the audience members congratulated him and pledged their support.”

One of the most commonly misplaced words is the word only. It seems as if it is put in the incorrect place most of the time, and while you can usually still understand the sentence correctly, look at how important its placement is. Read these five sentences. They are the same except for the placement of the word only.

1. Only she hit her husband in the eye.

2. She only hit her husband in the eye.

3. She hit her only husband in the eye.

4. She hit her husband only in the eye.

5. She hit her husband in his only eye.

Each sentence has a different meaning, depending on which word only is placed near. Here are the different meanings:

1. No one else hit her husband – just she did.

2. She hit him in the eye; she didn’t shoot him in the eye or anything.

3. She has no other husbands.

4. She didn’t hit him anywhere else, just his eye.

5. He has one eye.

Well, I think my space is about up….but here are a few things that made me chuckle this past week or two: I was looking up a certain school on the Internet, a very good private school. On the page about Language Arts, they claimed they taught “grammer” – with an er. I also saw on the internet that a girl wanted to forget about her “sorted” past! I hope the sordid parts were sorted out! And what about those important tenants that you live your life by -- aren’t they the people living in the house you own?

I will close with something true and serious. This is no laughing matter. The word that means “fear of long words” is (are you ready?)


Arlene Miller was a writer and editor for many years (newspapers, books, technical manuals) before becoming an English teacher several years ago. She has a degree in Journalism, a graduate degree (it look seven years!) in Humanities, and a teaching credential. Originally from Boston (Bahston), she has two young adult children, no Boston accent, and lives just a bit north of the Golden Gate Bridge in California. In her former life (until about 8 years ago), she was also a tap dancer.

Arlene's website is 
Her grammar book may be purchased from
A recent radio interview with Arlene Miller:

Monday, August 16, 2010


By Anne Johnson

Have you ever read a novel where the character meets a wild horse in the forest? The horse looks at the character. The character looks into the eyes of the horse. Then he jumps on its back and gallops away. Did you think that was logical? If you said no, you’re correct.

Accuracy is important in fiction. Getting the little details right are just as important as the big ones. Little errors can undermine the believability of the entire novel.

The following are just a few things you should know if you’re writing a story where horses play an integral role.

Know the difference between stallions, mares, geldings, colts, and fillies. Stallion=male, Mare=female, Gelding=male, colt=young male under the age of 4, filly=young female under the age of 4.

Geldings cannot reproduce. They have been castrated.

When a mare (female horse) foals (has a baby), the baby is called a foal. A foal can refer to either sex. If it is male, it’s called a colt and if it’s a female, it’s called a filly. Colts don’t change into fillies. Their color and sex don’t change from page to page even though some authors think so.

Foaling (birthing) is a very messy procedure. Mares do not need help birthing the foal unless there’s a problem. Grabbing the foal’s legs and pulling it out can be very dangerous to both animals if you don’t know what you’re doing. Seeing it in a movie is for dramatic effect, and not realistic.

Know the breeds of horses and differences. For instance, you would never see a huge Clydesdale on a race track.

Food basics are water, hay, grass and grain. Horses like routine. They know when it’s time for their feed. The character can’t suddenly remember that the horses need feed the day after they should have been fed. Well, he could, but that would be animal abuse.

Training is necessary. They need breaking and need to get accustomed to a rider. All horses need training for the safety of the rider and the horse.

Riding. Someone who has never been on a horse, can’t mount the horse, gallop away, and expect to stay on. This is a common error seen in novels and movies.

Clothes: Boots are more appropriate in a stable and /or stall than $800 Ferragamo shoes with four inch heels.

Do your homework. There are many books at every level on horses and horse care in bookstores or your local library. And, finally, use the internet for research. There are numerous sites devoted to horses and horse care.

If you have questions, I will be happy to try and answer them.

Anne Johnson has a BA degree in English and minors in History and Journalism. She is the owner of two thoroughbreds.

Friday, August 13, 2010


The winner of the Richard Mabry M.D. book is SusanWilson44. Please contact me with your address and  the book will be on its way to you.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Trip To Two Laredos

by Jeff Turner

This piece is from Mr. Turner's upcoming book "Notes To Stephanie: Days Remembered".  His web site is

Laredo, Texas seemed to be your favorite place on earth. For most of your adult years you visited it and the border town, Nuevo Laredo (New Laredo), across the Rio Grande. You were enthralled with the city and its Mexican sister. However, I was not so enthralled with it but I went there with you because you liked the atmosphere.

 I should not be critical of the place because, like all cities and towns, it had something that drew folks. Some natives had been there for their entire lives. Some returned at some point to live there again. Like many border areas it certainly had a split personality. One side of the river, was a pretty typical American town with an interstate, green well-cared for road medians, flowers, a mall, well-stocked grocery stores, churches, and nice homes. However, across the Rio Grande, which is not so big or grand, you had the usual squalor of a Mexican border town. It was filled with sidewalk merchants, small jewelry and rock shops, butcher shops with window displays of newly butchered goats and typical tourist shops trying to sell souvenirs. There were also many pharmacies most of which preyed on the unwary Gringos who went looking for cheap medicine or medical treatments. Thus, the area truly had two opposite sides.

Preferring the American way of doing things,  comfortable was not something I felt across the river and certainly did not enjoy being over there. You were bilingual and certainly were able to communicate there. But you, too, were wary of possible miscreants around us.

But what really made me think about never going there again was the day the Ejercito Mexicana lined the main street. Do you remember me asking the soldier in my bad Spanish if he was regular army or not? He said he was, as he had his assault rifle slung over his shoulder. The Mexican Army was there, with Hummers and “Deuce and a Half’s”, as a result of the drug cartel wars. Murder and mayhem had spilled into the streets of Nuevo Laredo. The Mexican government brought in their Army and Federal Police, the Federales, to calm down the situation. Gunfire, or the threat of it, is bad for tourism. Regardless of the effects,  if Mexicans wanted business on the mercado, light infantry forces on Main Street was not a good thing for “Norte Americanos” to see.

As we wandered through the streets shopping, do you remember looking at the US Army OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopter hovering on the US side with its front pointed to the Mexican side? That was not some helo that just flew around, but was the type with a “spy ball” on top of the rotor with targeting lasers that would have been used to paint a vehicle so it could be blasted by some guided munitions like a 155MM Copperhead artillery round or Hellfire missile. It seemed the US was sending an unofficial message to the folks on the Mexican side by its presence. Their military knew what was hovering across the river, don’t think they didn’t.

The whole situation that day did not make me feel like returning there for another visit. You did not think it was that major especially since your family friend, Dr. Rubio, told us it was not that big of a deal. Well regardless of what the good and respected doctor said, having military on the streets to help police a town was not a good thing. And don’t forget the “Federales”, in their grey uniforms, were riding around in black pickups with their military grade rifles visible.

In short, there were some interesting and good things about Laredo and even Nuevo Laredo but I never felt at ease when we were across the river. Certainly that shows that a place can be interesting and even beautiful to one person but the complete opposite to someone else. This proves the old saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Indeed the Laredo/Nuevo Laredo area, called El Dos Laredos by some there, was a place that you thought had beauty and art. You saw this in its streets, neighborhoods, and people. Even the poverty and squalor on the Mexican side had some intrinsic quality that appealed to you. I, of course, had mostly the opposite view, even though Laredo, Texas itself is not a bad place to visit.

I guess that told the story of who we both were didn’t it? You saw one thing in a place and I saw something totally different. You saw something positive in the decay and poverty and I saw the squalor itself without some redeeming, artistic quality. In other words, you saw a rainbow and I saw the black and white.

This dichotomy also confirms another old saying. The one that says it takes all kinds of people to make the world go around. And so it does and so it was with us on the streets of Laredo that spring day.  

Sunday, August 8, 2010


It is our pleasure to welcome Richard Mabry MD to our blog. Talk about making a dream happen, he did. Welcome!
Posted by Ruby Johnson

Richard Mabry, M.D.
Richard L. Mabry, MD

Writing is a tough business. But, I guess that if it were easy everyone would be doing it. If you've ever sat down and drafted a novel of 80, 100, 120 thousand words, you’re to be congratulated. Lots of people have thought about writing a book. Few have actually done it.

Code Blue is my debut novel, the first of a three-book series, and I'm thrilled at this opportunity, but there are bound to be some of you who are thinking, "Why him? Why not me?" Honestly, I've thought that many times as well. Let me offer a bit of explanation and a word of encouragement.

First, the explanation. I've paid my dues and done my homework. I've been to conferences and been mentored by some of the best writers around, including James Scott Bell. I've read book after book on writing--right now I'm looking at a bookshelf that contains more than twenty-five books on the craft, and there's no dust on any of them. I've practiced the art of what Anne Lamott calls keeping your butt in the chair and your hands on the keyboard, even when I didn't want to.

That brings me to the second point. I persisted. It might interest you that it's taken me a bit less than five years to become an "overnight success" and sign this contract. I submitted the initial query for my first novel in the summer of 2004. That first novel garnered ten rejections. I revised it extensively, reworked it meticulously, and tried again. This time I got thirteen rejections. My second novel was rejected seven times, including a couple of revisions. My third novel was so bad that my (then) agent rejected it as not good enough to send out. My fourth novel was rejected ten times, and I figured that was enough. By that time I'd been writing for almost four years and, although I'd had a non-fiction book published and my work had appeared numerous times in periodicals, I felt like I wasn't cut out to be a novelist. So I ended my representation agreement with my agent and stopped writing.

Then editor-turned-agent Rachelle Gardner had a contest on her blog, offering a prize for the best first line for a novel. I dashed off one and was totally surprised when I saw that I'd won with the line “Things were going along just fine until the miracle fouled up everything.” The prize was a critique of the first several pages of a work-in-progress, so I sent Rachelle the first scene of my latest novel--the one that had been rejected ten times. Her comment was, "Send me something that needs editing." One thing led to another, and I submitted a query about representation. She accepted me, and I got back to writing.

But the happy ending didn't come yet. There were three rejections before Rachelle pitched the work to Barbara Scott, the new chief fiction editor for Abingdon Press. About six weeks later I got the call from Rachelle: "You've sold your first novel." It was wonderful, but the point of all this is that, before that call came, I'd written four novels (five counting totally reworking number one) over a period of over four years, been rejected more than forty times, and completely quit writing once!

So, to my colleagues who haven't received that phone call yet, my hope is that you won't give up. Your time may come yet. I’m pulling for you.

Have a question about writing? Please ask under comments for a chance at winning a book by Richard. Don't forget to check back on Friday for the winner.

Richard is a retired physician, now writing full-time. You can learn more about him at and read his blog on writing and daily life at
Richard will be speaking to Greater Fort Worth Writers on August 29, 2010. If you're in the area, we'd love to have you as a guest.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


 By Jason Black

There’s an old adage among novelists that holds “when in doubt, make it worse.” When you as a writer have the feeling that a scene isn’t as dynamic or energetic as you’d like, when you’re concerned that there isn’t enough drama to keep the reader flipping those pages, or when you have the sneaking suspicion that the scene’s outcome is a bit too boringly predictable, there’s one strategy that almost invariably addresses these problems. Make it worse.

That is, make it worse for your characters.

Create obstacles and challenges

Creating obstacles and challenges is how you make things worse for your characters. In any scene, your protagonist should have some goals. Actually, all the characters should have goals and motivations that drive them, but we’ll focus on your main POV characters because their goals and motivations should be the ones most clearly presented to the reader, and should also be the ones readers are most sympathetic towards. In other words, readers ought to want to see your protagonists succeed.".
So, if you’re giving your protagonist a bad day, that implicitly means you’re creating situations which increase the difficulty the protagonist faces in reaching his or her goal. The situation—as in the picture accompanying this article—may even make the goal impossible. Those guys about to hit the track with their spandex-covered bodies had the same goal for the day: win the race. That ain’t happening now.

Let’s take a quick example. Imagine you have a newly engaged couple driving to an important dinner where the fellow is meeting lady’s parents for the first time. If they like him, they’ll agree to pay for the wedding, so the stakes for the couple are high. They have reservations at a nice restaurant. He is freshly shaved and showered and has even put on a suit for the evening. They’ve done their best to lay the groundwork for a successful evening.

This is a decent setup for the subsequent dinner scene with the parents, but the present moment—driving to the restaurant—is not particularly interesting. You could just cut the driving scene and skip straight to the restaurant. But, why not kick it up a notch by creating an obstacle? How about an accident on the freeway that leaves them stuck for an unanticipated half hour in traffic, making them horribly late and ruining the all-important first impression? That certainly ratchets the scene up considerably, and makes readers curious to know how the couple will cope with it.

We create problems for our protagonists in order to solve problems in our scenes. When scenes don’t feel dynamic and energetic, chances are it’s because the protagonists aren’t facing sufficient—or sufficiently compelling—problems. Watching our characters come up against those problems and struggle to solve them, that’s dynamic and energetic for the reader.

Problems create conflicts
You may have heard another old writers’ adage, “keep conflict in every scene.” When you have multiple characters in a scene—whether they are allies or antagonists—you have an opportunity to turn a problem situation for your protagonist into some kind of inter-personal conflict. With allies, they may have different ideas about how to deal with the problem. With antagonists, the conflict is more overt because the antagonist’s goals—bad guys have goals too—are in direct opposition to the protagonist’s goals.
Returning to our now stressed-out young couple, there isn’t much they can do about the traffic itself. Leaving them stuck in it is boring, because they are powerless and can’t make any real choices. You need to get them out of the traffic so they can again act. So, let’s say that after creeping along the freeway for half an hour, they gladly take the first exit they can even though it puts them into an unfamiliar part of town. Now you can create some conflict. “Go that way!” “No, this way!” “We’re already late. Just go that way. I’m sure Jefferson Avenue is over there.” “No, it isn’t. It’s up ahead!”

Watching the fur fly is dramatic and entertaining on its own. But notice what else the conflict does for you: it alleviates the predictability of the un-conflicted scene. Readers can’t know who’s going to win the argument unless they read on.

Solutions are characterization

One more adage—and surely it’s one you’ve heard—“show, don’t tell.” Making it worse for your characters tells us what kind of people they are, by showing us the manner in which they confront the problem. Does the prospective husband cede to his male pride and stubbornly drive how he will, hoping not to get them further lost? Does he suck up his pride and stop to ask directions? Or, perhaps, he simply “yes dears” his way through the ordeal, letting her direct the driving and thus letting any subsequent blame for getting them lost fall on her shoulders? Each of those, plus a world of other possibilities, shows us a lot about what kind of a guy he is.

Watching how characters overcome problems shows us what kind of people they are, which in turn is how you elicit sympathy for them from the reader.

Pile it on

Finally, pile it on. Why stop with one problem? Perhaps stopping to ask directions is too cliché for your taste, so add another problem: not only are they in an unfamiliar part of town, it’s a bad part of town, the kind of place where you don’t exactly want to stop for anything. Just because you’ve made a bad situation for your characters doesn’t mean you have to stop there. After all, you can always make it worse.

So make it worse to add energy, drama, and unpredictability, but also for one more reason: At the end of the day you need readers rooting for your protagonists, something they just can’t do when the characters have it too easy.

Jason Black is a freelance book doctor who helps aspiring novelists strengthen their craft from his home in the Seattle area. You can read his blog of practical, hands-on tips for character development, on his website at

Jason will return on a continuing basis to participate in our How Would You Fix This Paragraph/Scene.

Monday, August 2, 2010



Rachel Cutrer-Johnson says she has always had a passion for the arts and when not painting, or hacking wood with a saw, she writes. She has been writing  fiction, essays, and poetry since she was ten. This is her first blog for us.
Welcome Rachel!


By: Rachel Cutrer

Each piece of dinnerware has a specific partner; the salad fork for the salad, the soup spoon for the soup, gravy bowl for the gravy, and butter dish for the butter. The only time this pairing of utensil food mating is broken is when I suffer from a family contributed backload of household chores.

Wait. “Backload” would be the wrong term to use, because that’s assuming that laundry isn’t done every day or that dishes aren’t done every day, when they are. So I will call it the “Everyday-load”.

If each person in my family of four, took a shower for the day that would mean that the total number of dirty clothing items, removed and placed into the laundry basket, should equal one load, Wrong! By the time I get to the laundry room, I end up with six loads of dirty laundry, all because my thirteen year old son has two invisible laundry baskets in his room. He stockpiles dirty clothes in his room instead of easily dropping them off to the laundry room. It is located two feet across from his bathroom door. My six year old daughter, my son and their papa are what I call “Area Strippers” Whatever area either one happens to be standing in at the moment is where the dirty clothes fall off.

So every day, I play the game of hunt the dirty laundry. I am guilty of compulsively stalling the laundry production line due to my obsession with ironing their t-shirts. My partner and my son constantly tell me they don’t need their t-shirts ironed but I don’t want them walking out with wrinkles and having people think they are victims of a neglectful mother.

              Dishes! I remember the days when we started out with just a single set. That set of dinnerware was all we needed for family mealtime, until, that “one” guest came over and we didn’t have enough plates. Someone ended up with a bowl to hold a steak. To avoid this shortage from happening again, we purchased another set of dinnerware. This became the beginning of the never ending sink full of dirty dishes. My partner, Papa, will use the same glass all day long for his water, but my kids will use a new cup each time they take a trip to the kitchen. Heaven forbid the cups get mixed up and they get cooties. I wash all the dirty dishes just to cook dinner only to end up making dirty dishes again. This doesn’t include all the bowls and plates for snacks throughout the day, the utensils it took to cut the cheese, spread the peanut butter, cut a meat package open, or eat ice cream, They will use every clean piece of dinnerware until the cabinets and drawers are bare.

As I look at all the dirty plates in the sink, I wonder how all those plates got there, when there is a tall stack of useable paper plates on the counter! And then I open the pantry and see a stack of plastic cups!

Although, I end up doing all the household chores, I have to admit that my partner does offer to lend a helping hand. It’s not his fault I’m afraid of a new line of pink clothing after he does laundry or a plate with last night’s dinner still stuck on it after being run through the dishwasher.

After doing hours of cleaning, I walk into the kitchen. Taking the last clean bowl left in the pantry, I pack two scoops of chocolate mint cookie ice cream into it. Opening the utensil drawer, I look for a shiny, clean spoon. I don’t want to retrieve a  spoon from the bottom of a sink full of old dirty water so that I can enjoy a ten minute break from the monotony of household chores. But there is only a fork.

SCREW IT! ….I’m eating ice cream with a fork.                       

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