Reviving a love affair with reading

I haven’t read Tom Sawyer since, well…a really long time ago, but I’m reading it again now. The impetus for dusting off my copy is a community-wide reading affair based on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Our twin cities of Yuba City and Marysville are participating in the national Big Read project, which provides grants to communities to help inspire people to pick up a book, to fall in love with reading.

Our local arts council chose Mark Twain’s classic ‘bad boy’ book, in which Twain reminds adults that children are not angels, but fellow human beings, and perhaps all the more lovable for their imperfections and bad grooming. To get people familiar with the story, The Yuba Sutter Arts Council is having a Kick Off this Sunday (Jan. 31st) with ongoing readings of some of the more famous episodes.

There will be Aunt Polly’s Pie-Eating Contest, banjo playing with songs of the Tom Sawyer era. Free copies of the book, including a young reader’s version will be available, as well as the Teacher’s and Reader’s Guide for educators. There’s crafts, a pirate’s cove and a treasure chest for kids. Then folks can pose with our life-size cutout of Mark Twain, play hopscotch and marbles.

A truly old-fashioned community affair!

And that’s just the Kick Off! For six weeks, schools, libraries and book clubs will be reading and discussing the book. The will be storytimes, scrapbooking projects and a women’s history tea where the women in Mark Twain’s life have agreed to make a reappearance.

It’s a unique project, trying to get a whole community all focused on the same book and using elements within the story for such a wide variety of activities.  Since I love reading and would love to see it’s revival, I have become even more passionate about this project  in a town where the only two bookstores are going out of business. B. Dalton in the Mall and the lovely used bookstore, Amicus Books are both closing their doors.

According to the NEA report (2008), reading is on the rise again reversing two decades of downward trends. This is good news, but I’m not sure how we will revive reading without bookstores and with libraries strained with budget cuts.

But I’m forever an optimist. One of America’s greatest treasures is our ability to be innovate.  There must be more ways to strengthen the connection between kids and reading.

I’m hoping our Big Read project will be the start for our community.

What are your thoughts? What can we do to help revive the love of reading?

Character development: Daniel takes me on a tour

I wanted another interview with my main character, Daniel. (After five tries, he’s seems o.k. with this name.)

So how do I get in contact with him again? The first time I interviewed him, I was chopping onions and I thought about him just being there in my kitchen, like a real person. This time I’m sitting at the computer. Not always the best place for inspiration. So I got up to clear my head.

How can I call him up?

It felt a little eerie, like I was summoning supernatural forces.  I knew I was not trying to contact the dead or the unseen spirit world, but writing has gotten me into the business of creating people from bits and pieces of other people. What have I become? A literary Frankenstein? A character conjurer?

I don’t want to get creepy about this business of character building, but it’s an interesting ‘walk’ that I didn’t expect would be so challenging. I’m pretty grounded in reality, but I know there’s a fine line where we, as humans, can lose ourselves in the imaginary world.

But ‘call’ was the trigger word for me. How do I call him? On the phone, of course. No séance or candles needed.

It worked perfectly. I called Daniel and asked if he would take me on a tour of his mother’s house. This was the house she abandoned…the same way she had abandoned Daniel. It was an unloved, unkept house and I saw for myself what kind of life he’d had with her.

What I learned about my main character by this bit of role playing was very interesting. In spite of his neglect…having too little upbringing and too much exposure,  Daniel surprised me with a small, significant thing. After he struggled to get the door unlocked, he backed up and held it open to let me in first.

Daniel was a natural born gentleman.

Writing software or index cards? How about a storyboard!

I’ve been researching and testing fiction writing software for the last week or so.  The kind you need when your notes overtake your life and your dining table. Like so.

My new script is in the plot and character development stage and every time I get a brilliant flash I grab a sticky note, a scratch pad or any handy notebook, unless I’m actually sitting at my laptop. The story is starting to get unwieldy with subplots and characters and it was time to come up with a plan.

I used up all my giant yellow index cards on my last book and I thought my new project deserved an upgrade to software. So I ‘googled’ and found that Power Structure had the best reviews. All kinds of published writers swore by it and they couldn’t be wrong, could they?

So I clicked on ‘Buy Now’ ($129.00) praying that it will be worth my money. Here’s my review so far. You have to read the entire pdf manual. It is not very intuitive. I tried that first, but I couldn’t figure it out. So I read the whole manual and tested the Jack and Jill script at the back.

PS is definitely a learning curve. (But then I find QuickBooks too much of a learning curve.) Still, I hung in there. After all, this wasn’t freeware, so I played around with it until….Wouldn’t you know just when I was beginning to get the hang of it, it started getting buggy. I got ‘error notices’, ‘access violations’ and  ‘unable to send’ messages. ‘Terminate program’ had the truly fatal results that the message heralded.

When I lost three hours of work, I gave up. PS tech support is supposed to get back to me, but it hasn’t happened yet. Even if I get the bugs exterminated, I don’t know if I can depend on it…. wondering  if they are going to eat all my beautiful ideas.

So it was back to the index cards.  They were starting to look better all the time.

However, while researching ‘how to use index cards to structure your story (I’m a habitual ‘googler’) I found an interesting piece of organizational software and this was free. FREE! I It’s called Text Block Writer which is a virtual index card program for writers. You can organize any kind of writing the same way you’d use index cards. Rearrange them to your heart’s content. And they can also be exported as a WordDoc RTF which means you can print them out and tape them on cards if you like. It’s easy to use and easy to customize.

But even this wasn’t working for me and I think I know what it is.

Working at the computer doesn’t allow me to see the Big Picture. It keeps me hunched over, peering at the details, when I really needed to see where this story was going and where the plot holes were.

So in full circle I came back to index cards. But my bulletin board was too small. Too square. I wanted something to stretch out on. Give me room to spare so I wouldn’t feel claustrophobic.

I love my storyboard!

I thought about this a lot because I wanted something I could easily move if I’m not ready to share my right brain ideas with dinner company. Another requirement was that it wouldn’t leave holes in the wall or be too unsightly. Third and fourth requirements: it had to be cheap and easy.

Voila, this storyboard meets all my standards. Three foam boards and push pins. The push pins are just long enough to go into the wall.The 3 boards are roughly designated as the beginning, the middle and the end of the plot. I love it!

So I’m thinking it’s not a matter of writing software vs. index cards. I think there’s a need for both and I’m hoping to integrate the two tools so I can work out the details on one and have the Big Picture spread out before me on the other.

What do you think?

Let me know how you organize your work. If you use writing structure software, what do you think of your program of choice?

If you use index cards, how do you use them?

Chinese fortune cookie wisdom

One of the most meaningful pieces of advice I work from comes from the quote  to “seek knowledge, even unto China. ”  To me this means that every moment in every place is a source for knowledge, so inspiration often comes to me from the most unlikely places.

Here’s what I found tucked inside my Chinese fortune cookie the other night.

One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimension.

I love stretching my mind. That’s what makes writing so much fun because I am always challenged to look at things in a new and unique way. Then the challenge becomes how to express what I envision so that others may see it as well.

Late blooming writers

This post is for everyone over 50 who thinks it’s too late to take up writing. I didn’t take it seriously until I saw my 60th  looming on the horizon and I knew if I was going to do anything interesting with this part of my life, I’d better get busy. Fast.

I jumped in with both feet and never looked back. After I got a few chapters into a children’s story I realized I had no idea where I was going and how to get there. So I spent the next year researching, trying to understand the structure of a plot and how to create characters. I studied archetypes and astrological signs; what makes a good protagonist and worthy antagonist.

Since my book, Guardian Cats, is seen through the eyes of cats, I did extensive research into cat behavior, including cat body language, cat whisperers and a whole host of YouTube cat videos. My collage of delicious bookmarks ranges from such diverse studies as The World Egg Throwing Federation, pirates and bullies, raccoons, talking parrots and pet psychics.

My computer, driven to its limits, crashed and burned. I lost all my research, photos and and half my files. I slogged on, determined that I wouldn’t drop the ball. There was no turning back, especially after a year of sleep deprivation that it took to study this fascinating craft.

The more I studied, the more I was hooked. Whenever thoughts crept into my mind like– ‘You’re too late! Too old. You should have kept up your writing when you started years ago. Then you’d be somewhere now…’–I slammed the door in their faces. Threw rotten tomatoes, eggs, anything handy, at those whiny, demonic little beings.

The thing is, my previous attempts at writing were childish and immature…when I was a mere 20, 30, 40 years old.  I like to think that all my living counts for something and that being over the hill a late bloomer might actually help.

Here are a few tips for other late blooming writers.

  • Read like crazy. Haunt libraries, bookstores, Amazon and GoodReads.
  • Study the craft of writing like you are attending a university.  Take it seriously, but keep it fun, if that makes any sense.
  • Throw rotten eggs at your demons.
  • Patience and determination will be your best companions.
  • Write without expectations. Write because you love it.  Like my mentor, Ray Bradbury, says:
“Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”

Interview with my Main Character

I’m taking Holly Lisle’s ‘Create a Character Clinic”. One technique she uses in getting to know your character is a personal interview. My main character is a 13 year old boy and I wondered if he might prove too difficult for me to get inside his head. However, my first book is written from the perspective of cats, so I must like the challenge. This kid was proving too elusive though, so I tried the interview technique. Here’s how our talk went:

“You’ll have to let me get to know you if I’m going to write a story about you.”

”I know.”

He stands quietly in front of me about 10’ away. I can’t tell what he looks like yet. He appears smudged, like people on  TV when they don’t want them to be identified. I am peeling garlic for tonight’s soup. Multi-tasking.

Now what? It’s so awkward when you get two shy people together.

“Can I call you Maxx? That’s the most recent name I picked out.”

“But it’s not my name.”

“O.K.” I was a tad bit disappointed. I liked that name. “You want to tell me your name?”

He bit his lower lip. He hasn’t look at me yet. We’ve moved into the living room where we can sit. I’m waiting, pen poised in my hand. I’m going to have to be patient. Why did I pick such an unassuming character? Is he going to cooperate? I know more than he does about his future, and he has an interesting story, but he’s not making it easy.

“O.K. You can tell me later,” I suggest. I’ll try another route. Something simple. “How old are you?”

“Thirteen. And a half.”

I remember when those half-years carried such weight. That age when one is still charging full speed ahead towards adulthood.

“Have you thought about what you want to be when you grow up?” I could kick myself for asking such an ‘adult-type’ question.

“Be? I just want to be me. Only bigger. And smarter.”

It was a better answer than the question deserved and I was intrigued.

“Do you think you are smart now?”

“No. Yes. I don’t know, maybe.”

“Why wouldn’t you think you are smart?”

“I don’t feel smart.”


“What do you mean?”

“When don’t you feel smart? Or where?” I take a wild guess. “At school?”

“Yeah, mostly.”

“What are your grades like?”

“B’s. Some A’s.”

“Really? That seems pretty smart.”

“He gives me a look like ‘the grades don’t really mean much if you still feel dumb look’.

“What about at home? Do you feel smart there?”


Unequivocally ‘no’. I was clearly treading on sensitive ground. I took a step forward to see how far I could go. “Can you tell me a little about your family?”

“What do you want to know?” He seemed like he was squirming inside his skin and I could see him chewing on his lip. Oh God, help me understand this kid without scaring him half to death.

He shot me a look I couldn’t interpret and he is saved by the ringing of my phone. When I return he is fiddling with his cell phone.

“Sorry about that. Where were we?” I see his hands manipulating the buttons on his phone. They struck me as being extremely clean and I found myself oddly wondering if other 13 year old boys had such clean hands. His fingers were long and thin, but not delicate.

“Oh yes.” I was answering my own question, wondering if I’d lost him. “I was asking you about your family.

He closed his phone and slipped it in his pocket. He seemed to be thinking about how to answer this, even more than the other questions. “I have a mother,” he said with a slight edge of defensiveness. His answer was filled with worlds of unspoken heartbreak.

I took a deep breath. “You live with her?”

“Of course.”

“Can I ask where your father is?” I don’t make any assumptions in our ‘broken-family’ society.

“Don’t know. He died. I mean, he left when I was little. I don’t remember him much.”

I don’t know if his slip and instant correction showed a slight edge towards wanting to tell the truth, or just opening up.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. I really meant it, but it sounded like such a canned, insincere response.

The kid looked hard at me, evaluating whether I was sincere or not. Now who was interviewing who, I wondered.

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”


“How does that feel? I mean, do you think you’d like to have a brother or sister?”

“Sure.” There was the slightest hint of a spark in him.

I decided it was time to open myself up now, rather than just prying into his life like a school counselor or CPS worker. “I always wanted a big family,” I told him. “I have a sister and that’s pretty cool, but I think big families look like a lot of fun. Messy, but fun.”

His face is coming into a little more into focus. He’s wearing glasses and his eyes popped open in a funny way that changed the configuration of his whole face. He pushed his glasses, too big, back up on his nose. There was something charmingly innocent about this boy. Refreshing.

“Let’s play a game,” I said impulsively. I already knew that this kid’s reality was troublesome to say the least. After all, I made him up. Maybe I could get to know him by entering his fantasy world. His face transformed into a big funny question mark.

I said, “Let’s pretend we could pick our ideal family.”

“Yeah?” It was like I had opened a door that he’d been standing outside of and I just gave him permission to go through.

“Sure. You want to go first?”

“Hmm. No, you go.” Hesitant, but clearly looking forward the game.

“O.K. Let’s see. I’d definitely have a brother. An older brother who would tease me terribly, but who would defend me from anyone who might want to hurt me.”

The kid’s face relaxed and changed again.

“I like that. I think I’d have a brother too, but he’d be a twin. I would always have someone to hang out with.” There was a definite twinkle in his eye.

“You’d always have someone to blame for the broken window too,” I teased. He got my joke right away.

“Course it works both ways, but twins do seem to have a lot of fun. Playing pranks and stuff,” I said.

“What about sisters?” He’s asking me questions now. This is turning out better than I anticipated. “Do you want more sisters?”

“Well, I have an older sister, but I think I’d like two younger ones. And a baby brother. A chubby little boy who everyone would spoil, but he’d still be loveable.”

We’re interrupted by the phone again and I have to finish making the soup. When I return to the living room, he’s gone. I think I’ll be able to coax him back again pretty easily though and I’m encouraged, but I’ll have to keep our sessions short.

Passing the table where I keep my hodgepodge collection of rocks, I notice they have been neatly arranged and grouped by their basic compositions. I was fascinated with his subtle way of communicating.

Maybe next time I’ll learn his name.

Think like a writer

The more I write, the more I find myself thinking like a writer when I’m not at the keyboard. Some of my best ideas come when I’m in the shower,  especially when I’ve hit a wall or have a question for my character who gives me a blank stare as an answer.

It’s usually a conscious decision to multi-task like this. I’ll make a mental note of where I’m stuck and carry that with me, like I’m tucking it away in a special fold in my brain. I carry a pocket spiral with me at all times for that little gem that gives me even the slightest nudge of forward motion in my story. I’m delighted whenever this happens. It adds a spring to my step and a sparkle to my eye.

I don’t have the luxury of hours of time blocked off for writing since I’m still working, so this method helps me make the best use of my time. The more I consciously think this way, the more of a habit it becomes.

Even reading the newspaper offers tidbits for my plot and characters. A news story about a woman who abandoned her kids mentioned that she drove a purple Ford Escort. This jumped out at me like a flash. It was the perfect car for the chain-smoking, gambling grandma that my MC’s mother dumps him on.

If I’m not stuck, I still find myself thinking how I would describe something….like the last three leaves on the tree in my front yard. I imagine they are having an argument about who’s going to drop next.

Unexpected unpleasant encounters? Those too are fodder for my writing bag. Recently we found ourselves in a seedy part of L.A. at a rental car agency I found online.  The scruffy looking employee on duty and the repainted cars parked on a side street looked like the repo car business it truly was. While my husband was trying to extricate ourselves from the contract we had with them, I entertained myself with memorizing details. I’ve never seen so much black wrought iron with pointy spikes as I did in L.A.  But I might be able to use this in some future setting.

I’m thinking that this mental multi-tasking is a way of allowing the door to open to the right brain…by keeping my left brain content enough that it’s being all adult and responsible. I’m sure my friend Sid over at the Right Brain Cafe would help me explain this. Which leads me to another question about multi-tasking and women. But maybe I’ll save that for another posting.

If you are a writer, do you have this habit? Do you find it useful? Fun? Or does it get in the way of what you’re trying to do with your responsible left-brain task?