Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Micro Maunscript

I finally got around to making a Shrunken Manuscript as invented by Darcy Pattison and recommended by Sarah Miller.

I used 8-point Arabic Typesetting which shrunk my 61,000 word manuscript to 52 pages. I know I’m supposed to shrink it to 30 pages, and 52 > 30, but it was the best I could do.

I assigned each major character a color and made a big colored square around every scene involving that character. Obviously, some scenes have more than one color. I shouldn't have used highlighters because:
1. The yellow and the green are too similar. (Ruth, if you’re reading this, I know you’re feeling my pain.)
2. I didn’t have enough colors.
3. After I’d used all the colors I realized I’d forgotten to give my protagonist a color. How could that happen? Poor Lia ended up with purple colored pencil which doesn’t show up in the photos.

I always prefer a quantitative approach to a qualitative one, so I devised a tension ranking scheme for scribbling on the micro manuscript.
This allowed me to track the emotional dynamics of each scene. For example, as the squirminess increased, I could make the horizontal lines closer together before I resorted to vertical lines. I could visualize the ebb and flow of tension.

At this point Sarah Miller suggests vacuuming. This I did, with enthusiasm. I even moved the furniture which resulted in a wide open space to display my 52 pages.

I spread out my manuscript and analyzed it. What did I learn?
1. Chapters 2-3 need work.
2. Chapters 6-7 sag a bit.
3. Chapters 19-25 could use tightening.

Then I counted pages with some type of marking.
Stripes (horizontal lines) – 100% of the pages
Checks (horizontal + vertical) – 15% of the pages
Plaid (horizontal + vertical + diagonal) – 8% of the pages

Next time, I’ll leave the chapter numbering in 12-point, so it will be easier to locate problems when the manuscript is spread on the floor.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

My Books of the Year

Here are some stats from my 2008 book list:
1. I read only 53 books. (2008 was a tough year.)
2. I didn't read, or at least record, any pictures books.
3. I gave 19 books 4 stars, but only 4 books received 5 stars.
The Underneath by Kathi Appelt
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Last Night of Hanukkah

Photo by Z.F. Burton
The little row of lights behind the menorah is the reflection in the window.

Overheard #37

"If the Hanukkah miracle happened today, my car would get 300 miles per gallon."


Photo by Z.F. Burton

The world outside is mostly gray and brown. The snow is melting. I thought about searching my files for a bright flower picture from last summer, but I decided to go for photographic realism.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

In Vino Veritas

In wine is truth, or at least in wine is calculus.

Johannes Kepler* helped invent calculus while calculating the volume of wine kegs. In 1612, wine came in kegs, not 750 ml bottles, and Kepler was concerned because the method used to estimate the volume of these kegs was inaccurate.

The volume of a cylinder is simply the area of the base times the height. (V = πrrh)** This formula can’t be used to determine the volume of a keg because of the bulgy parts on the sides. Kepler imagined slicing the kegs into infinitely thin sections. He calculated the volumes of the sections and added them up. Not only did he get a pretty good answer, he devised the precursor to taking an integral.

This story and many others about the history of mathematics can be found in Zero: the biography of a dangerous idea by Charles Seife. (Penguin Books, 2000)

*In case you think Kepler was just an old sot, he also figured out that the planets move in elliptical paths.

** I couldn't make the "r squared" notation with a superscript 2 in Blogger.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Overheard #36

"If you teach a teenager to drive, you’ll learn a lot about yourself."

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

My family celebrates a bit of Christmas and Hanukkah. We light a menorah and we put up a Christmas tree. The presents are reserved for Christmas morning.

Here it is 6:03 AM and the boys are still asnooze in their beds. They must be growing up. I recall past years when my husband and I were awakened by serenades of trumpets and guitars in the very wee hours.

I have much to be thankful for: my wonderful family, my cherished friends. This year I have been haunted more than usual by ghosts of Christmas pasts, but that too is part of living.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Going Green for Christmas?

This morning on NPR, I heard that Black and Decker is going green. They developed a Heat Leak Detector. Apparently this device will detect small cracks and crannies in houses where heat escapes.

I could use this tool to great advantage. Imagine a scene where I demonstrate to the burly repairman why I think heat is escaping from a certain spot in this house. "See, you point the ray gun at the wall, and if the light turns red, there's a leak."

I wonder if The Detector could be used to find the place where mice enter our house. Yes, 'tis the season for small rodent visitors. My husband catches them in live traps, then lets them go in the woods. He leaves a muffin for their first meal away from home.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Baby, It's Cold Outside

We have a wind chill of -1º degree. When I lived in Madison, WI, that would have seemed like a balmy winter day, but times change, and I've become wimpier.

I hope to finish off the last of the holiday flurries and spend the rest of the week ... r e l a x i n g.

And doing a read through of my WIP.
And shrinking it to micro-print and marking the exciting parts.
And fixing whatever problems I encounter in the above two steps.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Happy Hanukkah

And Happy Solstice too.
I'll take another picture on day 8 and try using the flash.


Photo by Z.F. Burton

We found this decorated branch while walking in the woods. You can see us reflected in the ornament.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Correction on Snow Day

Yesterday I said it never snows in Southern California. Well, it does snow in the mountains, and sometimes in the foothills where my brother lives. He had a ton of snow with 40 mph winds that blew the snow into the vents in his attic. The snow then melted and water ran down through the ceilings.

They don't have much snow removal equipment in LA County, so my brother had to spend the night in a motel because he couldn't get home from work. His wife missed four days of work because the roads were impassible.

All the shoveling I did yesterday doesn't seem so bad now.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Fa La La La La

I just learned the origin of Fa La La La La in Deck the Halls. The song began as a tavern song with some off-color words and phrases. When it was performed for the king, singers had to delete those parts, so they substituted Fa La La La La. Wasn't that a dainty song to sing before the king!

(Like the king didn't know those words already.)

Snow Day!

A winter storm has closed the schools. We are celebrating. I try to get as much fun out of snow days as I can because I never had one as a kid. Snow doesn't fall in Southern California, and there was never an occasion when the schools had to close.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Coin a Phrase

Last night, I brought the exercise to Write Night. Here's what we did.

1. Make a list of 10-15 things that can be detected with one of the five senses. (At first I planned to list objects, then I remembered expressions like, cool, sweet, hottie and twitter.)

2. Next to each item in your list, write what it could mean. Remember you’re making up a new phrase, so don’t use standard connotations.

3. Read the lists out loud. Feel free to borrow ideas from others. Feel free to change the meanings.

4. Pick an expression and consider what kind of person would use that expression. Write a short description of that character. Repeat with another expression and another character. Continue for ten minutes. Read them aloud.

5. Write a scene that puts two or more characters in conflict. They can be your characters or those invented by others. Each character must use his or her expression in the scene. Remember to develop the voices of your characters.

6. Write a scene in which a character misunderstands the meaning of one of our new expressions. Focus on the conflict or tension that ensues. Concentrate on voice.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Since Time Began

I am reading Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife. I'll review it when I finish, but last night I encountered a factoid that I couldn't wait to share.

Most early number systems were base-5, base-10 or occasionally base-20 because they were handy. The early Babylonians used base-60! That means if a Babylonian wanted to count on his fingers, he needed the help of two friends, and none of them could wear shoes.

I have been wondering for a long time why time is base-60. I remember, as a kid, asking my dad why hours and minutes were divided into 60 not 100 parts. He didn't know. He told me people had tried to institute a time system based on 100, but it didn't catch on. Now I know why there are 60 minutes in an hour. We can blame the Babylonians.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Miniature Horse

Today when I was at the pet store buying crickets for our gecko, three women came in leading a miniature horse. I got to pet him. He was very sweet, sort of like a big friendly dog that didn't drool. His name is Bruiser, and he is being trained as a service horse for women and children who have been abused.

The women and Bruiser are from Sierra Rose Farms. You can see an enlarged picture of the little horses here.

Overheard #35

"Air horns stopped being fun last summer."

Monday, December 15, 2008

First Paragraph Woes

If you read this blog last week, you saw me complain about my woefully inadequate first paragraph. Then I had my own brainstorming/hair pulling contest to try to improve my paragraph. More woe - I gave up too easily.

Today, Nathan Bransford explains what is great about the six paragraphs that made the finals. Then - here's the woe part - he describes the most common losing paragraphs. Mine falls securely in class #2. Yep, I have a lot of details and too much setting. My shocking sentence is only eyebrow raising. Woe is me!

I find it very easy to write an intriguing first paragraph for novel ideas that are merely shadows and moonlight in my head. Once the novel solidifies, the first paragraph dies a dull death.

Back to the drawing board.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Overheard #34

"This is something you will come to regret, dear brother."


Photo by Z.F. Burton

Remember how much color there was in June?

(If you click on the picture, it will enlarge. The black dots near the center of the flower are ants.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Tilting at Windmills

Last night I watched Man of La Mancha. I highly recommend it to anyone who is trying to peddle creativity in a time of economic free fall.

When I was a freshman, my high school performed this musical. I didn't get it - at all. Perhaps the appreciation of idealism requires a background of cynicism.

Friday, December 12, 2008


City Forester

In the town where my mom used to live, there is a government official with this title. He or she oversees the trimming of trees that belong to the city.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Contest

I decided to run my own first paragraph contest. I was the only person to enter and the only judge. I wrote 5 more versions of my first paragraph. I'll spare you the paragraphs, but here are the critiques:

My current first paragraph: Sets the scene. Feels spooky. No hook.
Try #2: Gag.
Try #3: Pretentious.
Try #4: The last sentence might make a good first sentence.
Try #5: Nothing special.
Try #6: Small changes make all the difference.

First Paragraph Contest

I did not enter Nathan Bransford's contest for first paragraphs for a variety of reasons. Right at the top were:
1. I'm not fond of contests.
2. My first paragraph isn't ready.

You can read the finalists here. There is much to learn. Now I'm back to revising. Maybe I'll bring a couple versions of my first paragraph to the next critique group.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thursday Summary

On the holidays:
Nothing dampens the holiday spirit like trying to figure out the bells and whistles in the mail merge function of Microsoft Word. That said, the holiday cards are now addressed – most of them legibly.

On winter:
I left California almost 30 years ago. Ice and snow have lost their novelty. But, in just 10 days, we’ll reach the shortest day of the year. Then, little by little, each day will gain daylight. Hurray!

On writing:
Draft 7 is nearly finished. Chapters 1-23 and 29-32 have been revised. I cut a lot, and I’m not sure what's left. One way to find out.

On reading:
I just finished Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. Wonderful! The wait for its sequel (Forge) will seem soooooo long.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tangent to the Curve

My husband and I grew up in costal towns in Southern California where picturesque roads wind around the hills above the ocean. When we moved to Michigan, we thought nothing of buying a house located on a curve. We neglected to consider snow and ice.

Even though we live in a quiet subdivision where snowplows seldom venture, people tend to drive too fast, and when they skid, their trajectory intersects with our mailbox. Last Friday, a car skated around the corner, hopped the curb, leaped the sidewalk and landed on our front lawn. Fortunately, our mailbox lived to fight another day.

Lori, here’s a link for tangent.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Saving the Publishing Industry One Book At a Time

Maybe this started with a blog entry by Moonrat in which she suggested that the publishing industry would be in better shape if we'd all buy a book.

Then it became a facebook group called Buy a Book and Save the World. I joined and promised to buy a book.

Then Karen Dionne started this cool blog where people can list the books they've bought recently. We're trying to get to a million.

I bought 3 books today so I could do my part AND have something to enjoy over the holidays.

Still There at 9:00

Photo by me.

Sleeping In

Photo by Z.F. Burton (out the back window at 8:00 this morning)

Meager Blog Week

This week, I managed to post a couple of pictures and fewer than 50 words. Maybe I should take up Haiku or Twittering.

I have been revising, though. My WIP has been sliced and diced, folded, spindled and mutilated so many times, there is no telling what it will look like when I'm done. The only way to find out is to finish the darn thing. (A lot of restraint was required to type darn.)

Later this morning, my critique group meets. They are my best pals and I can't wait to see them. I'll come back energized and ready to mangle my WIP. We meet at a bookstore so I'll have the opportunity to Buy a Book and Save the World.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


If my characters don't stop nodding and shrugging, I'm going to rename them Fidget, Squirm and Twitch.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Photo by me. (from the front steps, before the sun was all the way up)

Enough to shovel? -- yes
Enough for a snow day? -- no
Enough to ski on? -- maybe soon.

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Photo by me.

This is a different view of the icy crab apples I posted last Sunday.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Upcoming Holidays

Many of the teens on my list are getting animals this year, in the form of symbolic adoptions from World Wildlife Fund.

Do any of these kids really need more stuff?

Don't they all need a good cause to support?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

In this momentary lull in a day of cooking, I'm thinking of friends and family, remembering past Thanksgivings and counting my blessings.

On Twilight, Vampires and General Creepiness

I have no plans to read any of the Twilight series or see the movie. Vampires are creepy. Here are my random (4:00 AM) thoughts on vampires.

I liked the Sherlock Holmes vampire story.

Zombie is a better Scrabble word than vampire.

The bats in Michigan eat the local vampires (mosquitoes).

Vampire bats don't suck blood. They cut the skin with their teeth, and lick the blood that flows from the cut. Their saliva contains an anticoagulant.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Sarah Miller got me thinking about inertia.

A body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion until they are acted upon by an external force.

This is the story of my writing life!

When writing is moving along, it feeds itself. I get new ideas all the time, even (especially) when I'm supposed to be doing something else. When my revising stalls, a huge force is required to get it going again.

Another Colorful Expression

My dad was a great storyteller who often began with the phrase, "back in the olden days." I just checked. Olden is a real word.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Odds and Ends

The paperwork mountain has become a mountain range. Each time I think I've created a plateau, another peak erupts. Perhaps instead, I should focus on lava cake.

Thanksgiving is in two days. Today, absolutely today, I will buy groceries.

The holiday decor in my living room includes the awards podium from my sons' Tae Kwon Do studio. I offered to give it a ride home after last Saturday's tournament, but by the time we got to the studio, it was closed. For lots of reasonable reasons, the studio will not open again until next week. Maybe we'll have our own Thanksgiving Olympics right here.

I joined facebook, sort of by accident. One day, I'll even put my face on facebook.

My novel? What novel? After reading Barbara O'Conner's blog today, I'm contemplating cutting yet another character.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Photo by me.
I need to think of a new name for this series.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Colorful Expression

Today at a Tae Kwon Do tournament, one of the elder black belts said, "I remember how little your boys were when they started. Now they're big drinks of water."

All A Twitter

The kidlit blogosphere has been buzzing about twittering. This and this were posted yesterday.

The bane of writing contemporary YA is keeping up to date on the technologies teen characters and readers use, and I was dismayed to learn of another new thing.

So I asked Jeremy, "Do you twitter?"

"You can't do that on a tuba," he said.

That seals it. My WIP will not include twittering.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Today’s forecast predicts a high of 29° F. Does that mean the thermometer is half full or half empty?

2008 Writing Goals

Around Thanksgiving, I check my yearly writing goals in hopes that with a big push, I can accomplish a few more before the New Year's Eve deadline. This year, with a gargantuan effort, I may be able to complete one more.

That brings me to a record low of 5 goals accomplished out of 11. (45.45%)

At least I won't have to write a new list for 2009.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Overheard #33

"Controversy is a dead issue."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lost In The Translation?

One of my brother's employees translated the pronunciation of our last name into Kanji.

Isn't it beautiful?

F: 富
L: 瑠
S: 主

Our dad used to say Finkelstein meant sparkling stone.

Conflct: Making It Worse

Tim Bogar invented a good Write Night exercise designed to crank up conflict. We started by compiling a list of twenty characters. We did this as a group with each person suggesting a few general characters. (For example, a milk toast or the most popular girl in high school.) Next, each person chose two or more characters to put in conflict, and wrote the scene. After we read each scene out loud, we brainstormed ideas to make the conflict worse. (Okay, we got a little silly sometimes.) Then we rewrote the scene with heightened conflict.

Try it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Conflict: Hidden or Missing

Recently I've read two books that are similar in concept, but to my mind, only one works. In both books, a young female protagonist is rescued from poverty and abandonment by a wealthy, apparently beneficent woman. At the start of these novels, the protagonists believe this is a huge stroke of luck, they idolize their saviors and are eager to do their bidding.

In the effective novel, the reader quickly realizes the benefactor has some mysterious ulterior motive, even though the protagonist skips along (for a time) thinking everything is peachy. This creepy sensation of hidden secrets makes for gripping writing.

In the ineffective story, Lady Bountiful seems too good to believe. She may eventually turn into the conniving witch the reader hopes for, but the first 40 pages are nothing but sweetness, light and golden auras. I couldn't stomach any more than that.

Perhaps this is a long, dull post to point out that conflict is essential, especially when it bubbles just below the surface.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Photo by me.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Overheard #32

"If I were within the range of normal, you never would have married me."

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bad Pigeon

Here’s the latest, coolest discovery in the world of feathered dinosaurs. Epidexipteryx hui was a pigeon-sized dinosaur that lived in what is now Daohugou, Inner Mongolia during the Mid-Late Jurassic (152-168 million years ago). This animal could not fly, but its body was covered with downy feathers. Check out that tail!

The tail is made up of four feathers that extend beyond the end of the tail bones. The feathers are not as sophisticated as the feathers of modern birds, but they do consist of a central shaft and un-branched vanes. The October 23, 2008 issue of the journal Nature has exquisite photographs of the tail feather fossils. I’m sorry I can’t include those pictures or a link on this blog. Scientists speculate the tail may have been used in courtship rituals.

Don’t let this pigeon drive the bus.

The scientific article is:
F. Zhang, Z. Zhou, X. Xu, S. Wang and C. Sulllivan, A Bizarre Jurassic Maniraptoran from China, Nature, 455:1105 (2008).
Also see Live Science.

Overheard #31

"A quarter of a waffle in one bite. What do you suppose the record is?"

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why I Do This

Today, I drove to Calvin College to speak at the Youth Writing Festival - Middle school edition. I fussed a bit beforehand about the long drive, lousy weather and the work involved in compiling talk.

Okay, I admit it. I had fun. I was reminded why I write novels for teens. I had a terrific group of enthusiastic kids, and their writing skills are AMAZING.

My talk is on How To Write Fight Scenes, always a popular topic with the middle school crowd. The talk begins with general instructions on good writing geared toward fight scenes. I discuss the Fight or Flight reaction. (I'm a former scientist; I can hardly help myself.) After explaining 11 rules for writing fights, I give them time for them to write a fight scene. Then they read their scenes aloud and I make positive (gushing) comments on their writing.

Trust me. It is not difficult to compliment these kids' writing skills.

Here are a few shining moments:

One boy had some behavior issues. He had a hard time listening without speaking out. He announced his writing was horrible and he wouldn't read it out loud. He did read, eventually, a gripping scene from the point of view of a dog with a cruel master.

One boy was only in 4th grade. He was in a gifted and talented program, that allowed him to participate in the festival. He was too shy to volunteer, but teacher who accompanied him asked me if he could read. The boy's well-executed scene employed enough technical language to show me he trained in martial arts. He asked me to autograph his essay.

A girl read a a fast-paced scene involving both a sword fight and a wrestling match. After the session she asked my name, because if my books are ever published, she wants to buy them.

Does it get any better than that?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Books, Videogames and Pacing

Publishers Weekly ran an article by 13-year old Max Leone about what teen boys want to read. Max is both eloquent and perceptive, and I found his article fascinating because I have had similar discussions with my sons. Max gives much quality information in his article, and I am commenting on just one aspect.

Max said he and his cohort like video game-style plots with lots of action and battles. I agree and add this caveat. Last summer when my sons and I happened to be home at lunchtime, we listened to an audio recording of a popular fantasy series. During a long and dull descriptive passage, Sam said, "This is where I would press Start." In other words, this is where Sam would move to an action sequence.

Teens are used to controlling the pacing of their entertainment. When the story gets boring, they expect to be able to jump ahead. If a novel drags, the reader can skip the offending passages or put the book down down and reach for the video game controller.

The bottom line is Keep The Story Moving.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Check Out Jacqui's Room Today

Jacqui Robbin's blog, Jacqui's Room, has a great series, No, Seriously. Just Try It. Today's challenge (Magic Objects) is involves the one object your protagonist always has with them.

My protagonist always has her cell phone with her. Perhaps you think that's mundane, but after all she is a normal teenager. Her cell allows her to communicate with her friends and even fantasize about contacting the guy of her dreams. Her cell also works as a music player, like an iPod. My younger son's phone is supposed to accept music downloads, but we could never make that function work. My protagonist is smarter than we are, certainly more electronically adept.

Anyone who has read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows knows that magical objects often have a dark side. The downside to Lia's cell is the antagonist can also call her. If you don't think that's a problem, you haven't met my antagonist.

While you're visiting Jacqui's Room, also check out the last No, Seriously, Just Try It.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Out the Living Room Window

Deer frequent our backyard, but we don't see a buck very often.

Photos by Z.F. Burton.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Under the Microscope

Click here for some beautiful and fascinating microscopic images. Thanks to the NY Times science page.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

If Only ...

Sam has a sore throat that was developing some scary symptoms, so I took him to the doctor. The doctor had a strep test done, then diagnosed a viral infection. He showed Sam a page of typed instructions, pointed to the top item and said, "Can you do that?"

Sam glanced at the page and said, "I don't smoke." His voice held the indignation of a serious athlete who has been accused of putting toxins in his body, the disdain of an intelligent person who is being treated like an idiot, and the irritation of a sick teen who is being badgered unnecessarily.

If only I could capture that on the page!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Fight Scenes

In merely seven days, I'm giving a talk called How to Write Fight Scenes. I've given this talk a few times before, but it's been a while.

The good news: I found the power point file containing my slides.

The bad news: I could not find the text of my talk or my backup overheads. I always bring transparencies when I give a power point presentation just in case the LCD projector doesn't work, or I can't find the right cords in a room containing 35 other computers, or the red bulb in the LCD projector has burned out so my lovely colorful slides show up as greenish yellow and off-tan. (Can you tell all these things have happened to me before?)

Today I took time off from the paperwork mountain to review my talk, write a new text and update my slides.

This talk is based on what I have picked up while sitting through my sons' Tae Kwon Do classes for the past 12 years.

This is not a political blog, but ...

I feel more optimistic this morning than I have in eight years.

It's time to pull up our socks and get to work.

Today, I feel anything is possible.

I'll admit I dozed off before the election results were assured. A combination of chronic nighttime insomnia, a vigorous afternoon bike ride and a long wait at the boys' Tae Kwon Do class made it impossible for me to stay awake.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Overheard #30

"Annuities are somehow different from perennials."

Election Day

Monday, November 3, 2008

Things I Have Done or Will Do Soon

Have Done:
1. Put away the flower garden for winter (This includes the rose bushes.)
2. Felt melancholy about all "the last times" happening this year
3. Chipped away at the monolith of mother-related paperwork
4. Recreated a set of short sports stories that was lost when I switched from an ancient Macintosh to a new PC with Vista.

Will Do:
1. Work on my How To Write Fight Scenes talk that I will give at the Youth Writing Festival at Calvin College in a couple weeks

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Things I'm Not Doing

1. NaNoWriMo
2. Devising a plan for my next manuscript revision
3. Writing much of anything
4. Settling my mother's accounts quickly
5. Gaining an understanding of my mother's filing system
6. Looking forward to winter


Photo by me.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Last Game

Last night, Sam's high school team played and lost the first playoff game of the season. It was his last game of organized football. He understands that a guy who is 6'2" and 150 lbs will never play on the D-line of the Big Ten and Pac Ten universities where he is applying. Football has been his life since he started playing Junior Pro in 3rd grade.

He came home distraught. I told him, "You played with all your heart and sometimes that is the most important thing." To someone who is nearly 18 and still believes in the realization of dreams, my words must sound hollow. Eventually playing with all your heart isn't the most important thing, it's the only thing.

Friday, October 31, 2008

School Spirit

The pumpkin on the left is my husband's university. The pumpkin on the right is my sons' high school.

The digital camera doesn't seem to be as good for photographing pumpkins as our old 35 mm. Maybe we haven't figured out the settings yet.

The Druid Suit Rides Again

When Jeremy was in 7th grade, he had to give a book report in costume. My little darling chose a book on Stonehenge. No one knows what the Druids wore, if anything. They didn’t even build Stonehenge, but we decided a Druid costume would fit the bill.

I found a remnant of pseudo-suede on sale and sewed a garment that was cross between a graduation gown, Gandalf’s robe and a belt-less monk’s habit. The following Halloween, he added a rope belt, a fake sword and fuzzy dice to become a Dungeons and Dragons nerd.

Now Jeremy is in the high school marching band. Every year at Halloween, the band performs in costume at the three local elementary schools. For some of the larger instruments, costume creativity is limited by steric hindrance. Sometimes the base drum players get away with wearing rabbit ears and going as Energizer Bunnies. You might think the Sousaphone section would be similarly restrained. But no. They went as Renaissance characters, and my son managed to play his instrument while wearing The Druid Suit.

Note: When Jeremy was in 7th grade, the Druid Suit was floor length.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sheep Are Not Little Cows

The first half of my graduate education was spent in a laboratory on the top floor of the Animal Sciences Building at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. One day, I overheard a scientist say, “Sheep are not little cows.” Later, I asked my advisor if there was a deeper meaning to this apparently obvious statement. He explained that cattle are expensive to feed and house, even in America’s Dairyland, so some scientists study sheep and try to apply the results to cattle. But sheep differ from cattle in significant ways.

Teens differ from adults in significant ways. Although we persist in referring to teens as young adults, no writer in this genre should be lulled into complacency by that misnomer.

I almost always enjoy the mysteries of a well-known writer whose name I won’t mention. He is the author of over 60 books and more than 50 have been bestsellers. Recently he has written a couple books for the YA market. My first reaction was, “Can’t you stick to your own playground?” Breaking into the YA market is tough enough without competition like that. I tried to read his first YA novel, but couldn’t make much headway. I recently checked out the second and again had to put it down.


The teens in these books seem like adults who haven’t finished growing, filling out or going to high school. They have teenage bodies, but not teenage voices.

On the other hand, when I learned this author has a new mystery for adults, I raced to my library’s webpage to reserve it. The local library system bought 36 copies. All are checked out, and 20 holds have been placed ahead of me.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Blog, Blog, Blog

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Debbie Diesen put a blog list on Jumping the Candlestick, so I put one in my sidebar too.

I haven't been blogging much lately because ...

I've been doing tons of paperwork related to my mom.
I attended The Fall Festival of Bands. (Jeremy played Sousaphone.)
I cheered on Sam's football team as they won a spot in the playoffs!
I attended the Intermediate Choir Concert (Jeremy sang bass.)
I watched Jeremy earn a green stripe on his 2nd Degree Black Belt.
I helped Sam apply for college. (He's written the essays, but only one application is complete, so far.)
My brother came to visit. (This involved some pre-cleaning, shopping and cooking, plus the time he spent here.)

Except for the paperwork, life has been good.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Friday, October 24, 2008



by Jon Scieszka

Viking, 2008

Jon Scieszka’s “tall tales and mostly true stories” about growing up in a household with six boys made me laugh out loud. I adore my two sons, but if there were four more of them running around the house, life would be far less placid.

For a simple model for the current economic crisis, read chapter 17.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Overheard #29

"If they're really out to get you, you're not paranoid."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On Volunteering

When my term as Regional Co-Advisor of SCBWI-MI ended, I vowed to reduce the time I spent volunteering. I announced that I would still help out with my sons' activities. I'd endeavor to do my little jobs pretty well and never demonstrate a single organizational skill.

So far, it's working pretty well. This year's model is Jill of All Trades, Master of None. I wash band pants, serve football players breakfast and help out at Tae Kwon Do tournaments, but I will not be in charge. I achieve this by avoiding the planing meetings where they sign people up for the big jobs.

Many of the parents who devote their lives to these organizations also have full time jobs and families that are larger than mine, so I admit my attitude is unconscionably selfish.

So be it. I have a novel to finish.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Senior Photos

Okay, Jay Asher started it. He posted his senior photos on the Disco Mermaids blog and challenged other YA writers to post theirs. Elizabeth Bird posted hers on Fuse #8. Jackie Robbins posted a childhood picture.
I wanted to play too. Unfortunately, I couldn't find my senior portrait. Perhaps it was lost in the mists of time. A copy may exist at my mom's house, and maybe my brother will send it to me. Someday.
I did find a picture of me going to the senior prom. Is that good enough? My hair was down to my waist, but my parents always insisted I hide it behind my back for photos.

Back in the Saddle

Yesterday was a great writing day, topped off by Write Night in the evening. Right now, I'm feeling positive about this writing career/WIP/revision business.

That could, of course, change at any time.

On Revisions:
I now have a method to my madness. Taking time away from my project added insight. (duh)

On Writing Goals:
My October Goals are out the window. But hey, it's almost Halloween, and around Thanksgiving, I start thinking about my yearly writing goals. Perhaps I'll plug along with deadline-free revisions until Turkey Time.

On Write Night:
We worked on voice. Tim Bogar brought magazines with lots of photographs, and we each chose a picture and wrote something pertaining to the picture, keeping voice of the character in mind. This is a fine writing exercise and something that could be used as a warm up or in writing workshops.
I also learned that I cannot and never will be able to write anything at all in a Scottish brogue.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Watching from the Wings

One of my present revision problems is breathing life into a character who is often off stage in my story. I learned much from reading Hattie Big Sky. In this novel, Hattie has a friend who is fighting in WWI. Consequently, he never appears in Iowa or Montana where the story takes place. We meet him through Hattie's letters to him, a few of his letters to her and small memories (sometimes called back-flashes). Larson didn't have to resort to using two points of view or long flashbacks to get this character on the page.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


I wouldn't have guessed how many things need doing when a relative dies, but I'm glad for the opportunity to be so busy. I'm making progress with burial arrangements, my mom's little apartment is almost cleaned out and I've started chipping away at the mountains of paperwork. I've notified the experts (lawyers, accountants, financial advisers) who will explain the legal stuff.

Many people at my mom's assisted living place have told me what a great lady she was. It is amazing what an impact she made in just a year. Ironically, she probably wouldn't have remembered or recognized most of the people who speak so fondly of her.

I'm looking forward to Friday. I get up early to serve hugely hearty breakfasts to 50 high school football players at a local diner, then I go home to prepare "festively wrapped baked goods" for the band craft sale. We have a football game in the evening, and both my sons will play. Sam plays nose tackle; Jeremy plays Sousaphone. This week's game is also parent night when the football families are introduced, and the boys give their moms a flower. Life goes on.

On Monday, I hope to find some time to dive back into my novel revisions. The paperwork mountain will require my attention for a long time, but I have a new idea for Aunt Kath that I'm eager to experiment with.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Women and History

We Are Our Mothers' Daughters

by Cokie Roberts

Perennial (Harper Collins), 1998 & 2000

One morning last week, as I was about to dash off to the hospital, I stopped by our basement bookshelves to find a small paperback that could fit in my purse. This title had obvious appeal. The book is a history of women's advances, liberally sprinkled with personal anecdotes. The following quote came from Cokie Roberts' reminiscence about summers on a farm.

"It was the women we spent time with, it was from them that we learned about other generations, about how things used to be, and how things would forever be."

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Verna Christine Finkelstein

9-16-1916 - 10-12-2008

She was the best mom in the world.
I miss her.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Sunday on Thursday

Photo by me.

My Sunday Bouquet is late. Amy Huntley gave me these flowers on Sunday, but I didn't get the photo posted until now.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Novels have pacing and so does life. Sometimes life's pacing precludes working on a manuscript. I will probably have to strike all three of my October writing goals. Life is like that.

During my many hours of sitting in a hospital and not sleeping at night, I managed to finish Brisingr by Christopher Paolini (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008).

Publishers Weekly reported the first print run was 2.5 million, and 550,000 copies sold the first day.

I'm starting to think that everything I know (about pacing) is wrong.

In case my notions about plotting, pacing, tension etc. are on track, I plan to attempt Darcy Pattison's shrunken manuscript trick as soon as I finish the current draft. Sarah Miller has photos and a short video on her blog.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Positive Thinking

When the phone rings at 6:00 AM, it rarely brings good news. Yesterday morning, one of the nurses at my mom's assisted living facility called. I waited for her to say, "First of all, there's no emergency." She didn't. Instead, she explained my mother's medical condition, and said they'd sent her to a local hospital by ambulance.

As I drove to the emergency room through the predawn darkness and misting rain, I expected the worst. When I got to my mom's room, she didn't look great, but she wanted to know where she was, why she was in the hospital, and how she had gotten there. My mom wasn't unconscious for her diagnosis or the trip to the hospital, but her memory worsens in times of stress.

"I feel fine," she said. "They must have gotten the wrong person."

Nice try, Mom.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Strike Number Two

Yesterday was an amazing day when I drove my older son, Sam, to Jackson, MI (about an hour away) so he could take the SAT tests. The tests lasted five hours. I had a wonderful opportunity to visit with my friend and fellow writer, Vicky Lorencen. I spent the remainder of the time working on revisions.

During that writing time, I came to the conclusion that my October Writing Goals are off base. Perhaps I'll finish this draft in October. Perhaps I'll even do some market research. This manuscript will NEVER be ready to submit this year. There is still way too much to do. Strike goal #2.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Overheard #28

"Loaves make the squirrel grow round."

Yesterday's Insight

Last night at dinner, I asked my older son's advice about a scene in my WIP. (My younger son was away at a band event, so I couldn't ask him too.) I delivered a lengthy description of the plot up to that point and the scene in question. Then I asked his opinion of a line of interior monologue that might be too ambiguous.

"It's great," Sam said. "Use it to end the chapter."

End the chapter there? Lightning flashed in my head. The kid is brilliant!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

October Writing Goals

I like the beginning of October. Fall color is beginning yet my roses are still blooming. I start accumulating Halloween candy and shopping for pumpkins.

Yet this year, I feel a bit blue. Perhaps it is the aftermath of the conference or simply the realization that another year is almost over and I accomplished little. Sure I worked hard, thought hard and wrote/revised a ton. I submitted G&G (previous WIP) and eventually decided to abandon it. I revised CBL (current WIP) many times, but it isn't ready to submit.

Maybe what I need is a short list of realizable goals to see me through 2008.

1. Finish current revision of CBL by Halloween. (This idea is not as scary as it seems.)
2. Query 5 agents before November 15. (Agents, like the rest of us, are over-scheduled at the end of the year, so I won't send anything during the holidays.)
3. Investigate nonfiction book markets. (At the conference, I realized that if I am to have success as a writer, it is more likely to be in nonfiction.)

Around January 1, I'll let you know how I did.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Insomnia has its advantages. Don’t get me wrong; I’d never recommend it. But interesting things happen in the quiet of the night.

Sometimes I see a raccoon visiting the birdbath on our deck. He or she appears unafraid of my reading light.

Sometimes I see deer licking seed from the bird feeder. They are visible only on winter nights when everything else is covered with snow.

Sometimes I figure out what ails my current revision plan.

My protagonist needs a specific reason to dislike/fear/hate my antagonist. My original idea was too wishy-washy. My new idea was too similar to a billion other YAs. I know what needs to be done, but I don’t yet know how.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Overheard #27

"I don’t know if this was supposed to come apart, but it does now."

The Fall Conference

I had second thoughts about attending the SCBWI-MI Fall Conference. Now that it's over, I'm not positive that I should have gone.

I didn't sign up for a paid critique or the first page panel. I chose not to read at open mike. Perhaps I should have.

I loved seeing old friends and meeting new people. I enjoyed hearing Paula Morrow and Barbara Seuling read inspirational excerpts from their favorite books. Matt Faulkner's art is amazing. Kate Sullivan's talk was full of useful information. I will follow her suggestions to plot tension vs. page number and to list the reason for every scene.

But, I left early - right after breakfast this morning. My younger son (Jeremy) turned 15 today and I was eager to hear from both boys about the parade, football game and dance.

Here are a few words of wisdom from the conference.

"Heart can't be taught, but it can be caught." -- Paula Morrow

"The one thing you have to put in a children's book is hope." -- Barbara Seuling

"Don't I have the right to tell an American story?" -- Matt Faulkner

"... Another amazing service provided by your librarian. I like librarians. I'm married to one." -- Bob Morrow

"The hard part is saying why I didn't like this part." -- Kate Sullivan

Friday, September 26, 2008

My Team

My older son (Sam) and I are reading the same book. We have one copy so we share. This isn't a problem because by the time he finishes school, football practice and homework, I gladly hand it over. I'm not going to mention the title, but I will say we've read two other books by this author.

Sam said, "This author needs a critique group, people who will say, 'You're better than this. Now go sit in the corner.'"

Sam has never accompanied me to a critique group meeting, but somehow he gleaned what goes on there. In The World's Greatest Critique Group, we bring out the best in each other by pointing out what needs improvement and recognizing strong points.

Perhaps having an excellent critique group is like being on a winning team.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Random Thoughts on Wednesday Morning

The SCBWI-MI fall conference begins in two days. I'm trying to drum up some enthusiasm, but mostly what I feel is congested. How long could this head cold possibly last?

My younger son wore a tuxedo to school today. They are taking pictures of the choir this morning. Don't worry, he brought normal clothes for the rest of the day.

One of the things I like about football is no one expects the boys to keep their uniforms clean. This is SO not true of band and choir.

The tempo of my revisions seems to be stuck on largo, but I'm hoping to accelerate to andante or allegro once my head clears.

The Through the Tollbooth Blog has some valuable information about character and plotting on the September 22 and 23, 2008 posts.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hit the Road

Hit the Road

by Caroline B. Cooney

Delacorte Press, 2006

This book is my life – except that it’s funny.

Teenage drivers, assisted living, the importance of cell phones, well-meaning adult children and the resentment of their aging parents, memory/vision/hearing loss, powdering noses, rain hats and first crushes. I suspect people who aren’t dealing with these issues will also find Hit the Road hilarious.

I had some quibbles with the plot. The protagonist’s boyfriend solves the problem for her, and this is another novel where the antagonist spills his guts in an unlikely confession at the end. That aside, I recommend it


Photo by Z.F. Burton

Saturday, September 20, 2008


Photo by Z.F. Burton

This was too good not to share. Let me know if it sparks a story.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Overheard #26

"Coconut is the celery that grows on trees."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Out in the Toolies

I was caught speaking Californian again. I left the Golden State a long time ago, but old habits and speech patterns die hard. In an email to The World’s Greatest Critique Group, I referred to the rural suburb where I live as “the toolies.” I was unsure of the spelling so I asked Tim Bogar, our resident spelling bee champ, to help me out. He looked it up and sent me this link.

Tules or toolies refers to bulrushes or the swampy area where they grow – in California. I took these photos 2.5 miles from my house.

Is this not a swamp?
Are these not bulrushes? Okay, the plants aren’t the same species that grow in California, let’s not split cattails.

I feel compelled to mention the tule fog. Once as a foolish young college student, I tried to drive from UC Davis to Los Angeles through a tule fog. I survived, but that was pure dumb luck.
Tule Fog photo from