Monday, June 29, 2015

Meet Some Real People Who Have A Common Bond

Elaine--New York
Em--South Africa
IMAGE: “Water Fairy Sisters” by Ola Design . Prints available at ...
    Em--South Africa                                                                                  
Joyce--South Carolina


Miho--South Carolina
Wanda--Kansas (deceased)


What do you suppose these people have in common? They are all ages. They live in different states and countries. They all look like someone you might pass in the grocery store aisle. 

Each one is a writer. I know them all personally and can assure you that they are all very normal human beings. But each one has a passion for writing. Three are poets. Two wrote wonderful memoir pieces. Two are fiction writers. One writes personal essays. One blogs about life as seen through her eyes. One writes nonfiction books. One is deceased but her writing lives on.

All of them have a personal life, too. One that reads much like yours or mine. Some have jobs; some are retired; some try to make a living with their writing, some are hobbyist writers like me. They have spouses, parents, siblings, friends--just like you. 

The point of all this is that writers are real people. They don't sit on a pedestal between writing sessiosn waiting to be admired. Not at all. Instead, they do laundry, go to concerts, do yardwork, get groceries, and clean the house. 

I am proud to know each of these real people.

Friday, June 26, 2015

A WWII Story I Recommend

I finished reading this Pulitzer Prize novel very early this morning. I could have finished it last night but chose to read the final 43 pages today. For some reason, I didn't want to come to the end of this compelling novel written by Anthony Doerr.

And so, at 6:15 a.m., I sat in the quiet house and read to the end of this bestseller. You can't help but wonder if the world needs one more WWII story but perhaps we do, perhaps we need to be reminded on a frequent basis what the world became during those years. When they are as beautifully written as this book, they are a satisfying read. Despite the abundance of WWII books, each one tackles one small part of that war, introduces us to a handful of the thousandas actually involved. I've always thought that historical fiction is a painless way to learn history, and this novel deals out a healthy portion of history to the reader as well as some scientific knowledge.

The story begins in 1934 and centers around two children. Marie-Laure is a blind child who lives in Paris with her father, a locksmith in the Paris Museum of Natural History. Werner is an orphan who is being raised with a younger sister in an orphanage in a coal mining town in Germany.  He is gifted in the science of radio transmission and all involved with it. As a result he is sent to a training school for Nazi youth and eventually becomes a soldier. Marie-Clare and her father flee Paris when the Germans come. The go to Saint-Malo, a town on the seacoast of Brittany, where they stay with Marie-Clare's great-uncle. Etienne has never recovered from his WWI experiences and remains housebound in his tall, six story house, due to his never-ending fears. 

The book moves back and forth effortlessly between the two children and what occurs in the lives of each. It is only late in the book that their paths cross and then for only one day. As we follow the lives of these two characters, we also get involved with a mystery of the whereabouts of a huge diamond named The Sea of Flames. 

There is much more but I prefer the reader find it on his/her own. The story is fascinating and gripping. Not being of scientific mind at all, I felt I learned some things about radio transmissions during this period of history as well as learning something of what it is like to live without sight as Marie-Clare did from early childhood on.

I also reveled in the beauty of the prose. Some paragraphs almost felt like a prose poem as they were written in language that spoke to my heart.

I found a veil of overwhelming sadness throughout the story. How can a war story be anything else, I asked myself. Even the ending pages which take place long after the war ends did not leave me with joy or hopefulness. But this is not a reason to pass over this novel. 

Read it for the fascinating story. Read it for the beautiful prose. Read it for a painless history lesson. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Writing Beautiful Prose

I love flowers and I also love beautifully written prose. If it becomes too flowery, then I feel embarrassed for the writer. There's a fine line between what is termed purple prose and that which grabs the reader with its beauty.

I am about halfway through Anthony Doerr's bestseller All The Light We Cannot See. He is a fine storyteller but he also writes prose that sometimes makes me stop and go back to reread a sentence. Last night, one that I especially liked was The sky drops silver threads of sleet.  What a beautiful way to convey the fact that sleet was falling. It's visual; it's almost poetic. There are many other instances of this type of writing in this WWII novel.

Angeline Lajeunesse, a romance writer, said this about writing prose:
"Metaphors, simile, symbolism, imagery, description…all great tools.  Ugly prose happen when someone pastes adjectives, adverbs and long words they don’t understand into sentences trying to sound verbose and writerly."

She draws a definite distinction between good prose and that which is not. Let's go back to the term purple prose. We define it as being prose that is so ornate that it interferes with the flow of the narrative, bringing attention only to itself. As much as we want to write memorable prose, we don't want the words to take the reader away from the story.

Angeline Lajeunesse stated that tossing in adjectives, adverbs and long words doesn't accomplish much. To me, it shows that the writer still has much to learn. When a writer uses two or three adjectives per noun, we tire easily when reading the story. Throwing adjectives and adverbs into the air and letting them rain onto your story is a sure way to label yourself a newbie.

Let's take a look at the sentence that attracted me when I was reading last night. The sky drops silver threads of sleet. Note the action verb, the use of one adjective and the small bit of alliteration with silver and sleet. It's a simple sentence but beautiful, so much better than saying It was sleeting.

The story you write is of prime importance but the way you use words can make a good story a great one. Is this, perhaps, one of the reasons Mr. Doerr's novel is a bestseller?

For some writers, writing beautiful prose comes naturally. Others must acquire the ability to write memorable prose. When revising and editing your work, look at your sentences and ask yourself if there is a better way to get the idea of the sentence across. Are there words that bring a better image to the reader? But be careful. You don't want to be accused of purple prose.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Are You A Procastinator Or A Do-It-Now Person?

asleep-in-chair-while-watching-tv.jpgThis is the perfect picture of procrastination. The man has a deadline for an article but he's stuck. Can't think of a good ending. So, maybe he decides to go for a walk. Then, he goes to the kitchen for a snack. Next, he turns on the TV and sits back waiting for inspiration to hit. Now, he's fast asleep. The project has been put off and put off.

We're all human and it's a natural thing to sometimes push aside the things we know we should be doing but really don't want to. I have a major project in the works, but I have reached a point where I am not sure how to proceed. So, what have I done? Put it aside thinking I'll tackle it another day. The days come and go and that little project is still sitting all alone with no one to finish it. The worst part is that the longer I put it off, the easier it is to keep ignoring it.

Why do we procrastinate? Maybe because of difficulty and not being sure of what we're doing--which is the case for me. Some writers also have the attitude that I can always do that later. They know the project will be there waiting for them. Other things are so much more appealing.

How often, as a student, did you leave the studying for a test until the night before? Then you had to cram until the words or numbers were swirling in your head making no sense at all. The next day, you went to the exam with red-rimmed eyes and a fuzzy brain. Or how about those papers you had to write in high school or college? The ones that you had weeks to do but waited until a day or two before the due date. Was it your best work? Probably not.

Some of us are natural procrastinators--always putting things off til the last minute. They seem to get things done but I wonder if they produce their best work by doing it that way. There's certainly no time to let the paper simmer and then edit and/or revise, is there?

Procrastinators need to work hard to change their mindset from doing things last minute to getting to the task as soon as possible. It's a good feeling knowing that the assignment or project is done with time to spare.

I find that I can work both directions--getting things done immediately or putting them on hold until I'm in the mood to do whatever it might be. It's much easier to put off doing things I don't like to do and far simpler to tackle the appealing ones right away. So, liking or disliking what you have to do is of importance here.

My intention with this post is not to solve procrastination problems for others, or even myself, but rather to make you think about it. Check yourself--ask if you are a procrastinator or a do-it-now person. Then, consider why you are one or the other. Or are you like me--a combination of the two?

Have you ever missed a deadline because you put off doing whatever it was too long? Did you learn a lesson or has the same thing happened more than once? Have you ever made an effort to change from a procrastinator to a take-charge-and-do-it now person? Did it work or not? Let us know. We often learn from the experiences of others so it's good to hear these stories.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Philosophy For Writers

The quote above is good advice for everyday everything, but let's narrow it down to our writing life.

Yesterday: Whatever you wrote 10 years ago or last week is a thing of the past. If you've sent a story to an editor weeks or months ago and are still waiting to hear, there's nothing more you can do about it. If you entered an essay in a contest two months ago and suddenly thought of another angle or something wonderful to add, it's too late. You can't ask for your entry to be returned for revisions. The one thing you can do with what you wrote yesterday, that has not been submitted, is to revise and edit it until you reach satisfaction. Well, as close as you can get to satisfaction. I'm not sure writers are ever totally satisfied.

I was in a small discussion group yesterday. The question asked was If you could do something over again in your life, what would it be? The answers given were not about huge life-changing things. Some were quite minor in importance. At least of minor importance to the people listening. But to the person giving their answer, whatever it was that they wished they'd done differently was a big deal. The group concluded that many of those life events are seen with a totally different perception now than when they happened. What we have written long ago is much the same. We are older and, hopefully, wiser; we have added more experiences to our lives which in turn reflect in our writing.

Yesterday is gone. It's best not to dwell on it. Time to move on and chalk whatever you wrote and maybe regret to your youth and inexperience. It's done. It's finished.

Today:  Today is your day! Use it wisely. I read a biography of Barbara Bush several years ago. One of the best things I read in the story of this former First Lady's life was her approach to every day. The gist of what she said is this: Each morning, when you wake up, you have a choice. You can like what you do that day or hate it. She went on to say," I choose to like it." Attitude is the keyword here. If you get up in the morning and hate the thought of working on a difficult chapter, it's probably going to be a miserable chore. If you tell yourself that you are going to conquer the problems with that chapter today, chances are the writing will work out better than if you go with the negative attitude.

I know what you're thinking--easy to say, not so easy to do. Keeping that positive attitude is not a given. It takes work, especially if you're more often a negative person and want to make some changes. It doesn't happen overnight. You might have to start over each morning until it becomes a habit. Success depends on how much you want to change.

Live for today by writing the best you can. Write and rewrite until you like what you've written. If you like it, chances are a lot of readers will, too.

Tomorrow:  The quote tells us we can't control tomorrow. That's partially true. I think we can control what our plan is for the next section of our writing journey. We know where we want to go and we are aware of what needs to be done to achieve our goal. What is not under our control are the bumps in the road that we meet as we move along our writing path. Each one may set us back a bit, but there are ways to overcome and move on.

Once again, a positive attitude will help you get past those bumps in the road more easily and faster without any scars left on your psyche. You may not be able to completely control tomorrow but you can certainly learn to deal with it.

Don't spend today worrying about yesterday. Mark it as past history. Don't spend today worrying about tomorrow. Meet tomorrow when it comes. Write for today. That's what you have in your hands right now.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Soar To New Heights With A Random Word Exercise

To start the week, let's try a Random Word exercise. I will list some words below, one for each day this work week. Start with number 1 today and see where it takes you. Then on to the second one tomorrow and so on. 

The Random Word Exercise is one my online critique group does on a weekly basis. To do the exercise properly, look at the word, then start typing as fast as you can. Write whatever comes into your mind, even if it seems like gibberish. It doesn't have to have any form, or be related, multiple thoughts can come from one word. Or it can take you along one path. There is no right or wrong. Don't hesitate or stop. Keep typing. Continue for a full ten minutes. Set a timer before you begin if it helps. 

You'll have many unrelated thoughts about real things. Or you may start writing the beginning of a fiction story. Or you might just begin with words that rhyme with the word given. Memories from years ago might emerge. Whatever you do, don't stop. Keep on writing no matter how silly it may seem at the time. 

There are days when you get nothing but gibberish, nothing that you can use for a future writing project. But wait! There are also days when a gem of an idea bursts forth, something you can use as the bones of a new story or essay, or even a poem. Several members of my writers group have used their Random Word exercise results to go on to write a full story. You can, too.

You might wonder how the words are selected. Different methods for different people. Some open a book, close their eyes and put a finger on the page. Whatever word that finger lands on is it. Others use a theme, as one person chooses the words for a full month. I did seasons once; another time I used words that all began with the letters fr. If you're doing it on your own, the finger in the book is a good method. This is a great warm-up exercise for any writer.

Here are the five words for this week: 

1. apple

2. elevator

3. silver

4. carnival

5. canine

Friday, June 19, 2015

Dancing With Dad

My Dad in 1942

Father's Day is Sunday. My dad passed away 20 years ago but he remains with me through memories. One of those memories is a story published a couple years ago in Good Old Days magazine which will be my post for today. 

Dancing With Dad
By Nancy Julien Kopp

Most girls remember their first dance with joy, but I had a dilemma when mine was only days away. Not a boy ask girl dance. Instead, all the girls in my eighth grade Girl Scout troop would go to the Valentine Dance with their fathers. Not only for a dance but dinner, too. In the early fifties, that was heady stuff.

Oh, how I wanted to go, but would my dad be interested? Maybe he’d like the fact that we’d be eating and dancing in the basement of Ascension Church, the one he’d attended in his youth. Night after night went by, and I didn’t utter a word about the dance. Thirteen-year-old girls often lack confidence, and in my slightly warped early-teen thinking process, it occurred to me that if I didn’t invite him, Dad couldn’t say no. I lay awake a long time each night telling myself I had to ask. How could I go to the dance if I didn’t? 

My father disciplined my brothers and me with an iron hand, figuratively not literally. He believed in being strict, being consistent in punishments, but also fair. When he gave us a ‘No,’ he meant it, and no whining or pleading with him to change his mind was tolerated. But finally, my desire to go to the dance overcame my fear of a possible negative reaction.

At the dinner table one evening, I cleared my throat and everyone looked at me--Mom, Dad, and my two younger brothers. Heat radiated in my cheeks, and my hands shook a little when I picked up my fork and looked at my father.

“My scout troop is having a Father-Daughter Dinner Dance a week from Friday, and it’s at Ascension Church. I don’t suppose you… “  I took a deep breath. “Can we go?”

Dad looked across the table at my mother, and a smile spread across his thin face. I knew they were saying something to one another in that silent language all parents seemed to have. Then he spoke to me, and I noted a twinkle in his hazel eyes.

“I’d love to be your date to the dance”

Relief washed over me and a flicker of excitement began to build. Suddenly, a week from Friday sounded all too far away, but the big day finally arrived.

Mom had made me a new dress, perfect for the fifties decade, a wide circle skirt in a  satin-like peach fabric with black flocked flowers scattered over it.. The short-sleeved, scoop neck top was black, a color I’d never worn. It was the most grown-up dress I’d ever had. I wore black ballerina flats with it and a gold necklace of my mother’s. Dad looked so nice in a dark blue suit, a white shirt and tie. He’d shined his shoes until he could see his own reflection in them. I thought he looked a little bit like Frank Sinatra and a little bit like Bing Crosby.

We drove the few blocks to the church on that cold February evening. The aroma of roasting meat met us as we started down the steps to the lower level of the church. In my eyes, that basement looked beautiful with twisted crepe paper ribbons and hearts to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Paper lace doilies adorned the tables and small cardboard cupids stood on each one. We sat with two of my friends and their fathers at a long table. The girls all giggled a lot, and the dads talked about sports, weather and politics. We ate well-done roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, and green beans. Rolls and butter traveled up and down the table more than once, and dessert turned out to be chocolate cake. Then, it was time to dance.

The lights were dimmed and the scout leader played record after record, while every girl danced with her father. Dad had given me a few instructions before we left home. Right there in our living room with my mother and my brothers making comments. But I managed to get the box step down well enough to be able to actually dance with my dad. He whispered in my ear more than once to tell me to dance on my toes, not flat-footed, to let him lead. And he never said a word when I stepped on his well-shined shoes once or twice. I watched the other girls and their dads twirling around the dance floor. We were doing as well as any of them, and that flicker of excitement bubbled inside once again.

We danced and danced that evening. Nobody changed partners. Every girl stayed with her own father. When we got home, my mother wanted a full rundown on the dinner and the dancing. I have a feeling my report and my dad’s might have been somewhat different. I went to bed a happy girl.

I’ve never forgotten that the first time I went to a dance it was with my dad. That night, he treated me like an adult for the first time ever. I thought about it later when I went to high school and college dances. Even now, when I dance at a wedding reception with my husband of forty-nine years, I think about the things Dad taught me, about the way he whispered in my ear so no one else would know. It’s one more thing I silently thank him for.

Dad with one of his favorite cars