Friday, February 26, 2010

Can You Haiku?

I met a poet at a conference my online writers' group had in 2008. Elaine Holoboff spoke to the group about writing poetry, shared some of her contemporary poems with us, and gave many of us the courage to try writing poetry. She and I corresponded after the conference, and she helped me with a poem I'd written.I now consider her a friend.

I enjoy reading haiku, but I've never had much success in writing them. Elaine, on the other hand, is a master at turning out one after another. She is on journey now to write 1011 haiku poems, which is what an ancient Japanese poet she admires had done. Her blog features her haiku and more. You can read these seemingly simple poems of few words but which say ever so much at

If you've never been a fan of poetry, or of haiku, don't shake your head and ignore this interesting form of expression. Go to Elaine's blog and read some of her work. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised, and you might even try to write one of your own. You, too, can haiku.

I'll tell you more on Monday how Elaine helped inspire me to write a lengthy poem that is soon to be published.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Advice Can Be Confusing

Wrters hang on the words of other writers who have been successful. After all, if these people claim major publishing feats in a literary world where such success is not easy, then they must be all-knowing. Right?

Not necessarily. I know a writer who reads every book regarding writing that is written by a known name in the literary world. This person will hand me the key to success, she believes. And when it doesn't happen, she moves on to the next book, because surely this person will be the one to open the doors she needs to walk through to achieve celebrity status.

I'm not saying to disregard advice books from writers. Quite the contrary. They do have a lot of good information. They open the eyes of a newbie writer. But they alone are not going to be the one way to sure publication. Sometimes one tells you to do one thing, while the next one says just the opposite. Write what you know. And then You can write about things you've never experienced. Confusing? Yes.

Don't stop reading the books. Learn from them, but don't take every word as gospel truth. Use your head, listen to your heart and do it in the way which is best for you. No two writers approach writing in exactly the same way. One gets up at 5 every morning to write. Another waits until the entire family is asleep and then writes on into the wee hours of the morning. If mid-afternoon works best for you, then do it.

Even good advice can be confusing.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Writing Exercise

Basketball players  practice a lot. The ones who practice hard are the ones who excell in the games they play against opponents and in front of the fans. The guy who slacks off in practice usually ends up warming the bench a lot because he doesn't give much to his team on game night.

Writers are no different. They need to practice, too. And the best way to do that is to do writing exercises. Google 'writing exercises' and you'll come up with a long list to choose from. Or purchase a book of writing exercises. Beginning writers sometimes think they're boring and so they skip them entirely. They want to get on to the real writing. The kind an editor will purchase and publish. To get to that kind of writing, it takes practice. Skipping the exercise step won't be to your advantage.

I've found that doing a writing exercise often triggers thoughts about something I would like to write, or it shows me a place where I've fallen down in my writing. A short, simple exercise reveals much more than you would think. One I partcularly enjoyed doing was on color. The direction given was to write a paragraph or several paragraphs in which a color is described but never actually named. A challenge! My effort is below. Give it a try and then find some other exercises to do. Make it a regular part of your writing routine.

Color Exercise:  Color Exercise #2

Silver: (trying to give a picture of the color without mentioning the word silver. Did I?)

The sun’s rays hit the giant metal symbol and bounced back, almost as if a bullet had ricocheted. I shaded my eyes from the gleam, then tilted my head to get a better look at the newly erected artwork at the entrance to the raceway. It resembled a charger plate meant for a giant’s dinner, a wealthy giant perhaps, for the raised carvings on it spoke of riches. I thought it might fit better in a pharaoh’s tomb than here where men soared around the oval track in souped-up cars, hellbent on nothing but winning the race and downing as many beers as possible afterward.

Every person who approached the new symbol paused to drink in its splendor. Some appeared mesmerized by the opulence, others smiled and moved on, while a few stood transfixed. The lustrous artwork looked richer than gold might have. Hands reached out to touch but stopped short as if in fear of leaving marks on the resplendent, round plate.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Bomb Threat Interrupts Our Afternoon Plans

Ken and I experienced a bomb threat yesterday. Oh, not to us personally but at a building on the Kansas State University campus where Dennis Blair, who heads the National Intelligence Agency, was scheduled to speak.

The university has a lecture series that brings people of note to the campus to deliver a speech and answer questions put forth by lecture patrons and students. Military officers, cabinet members and presidents of the United States have been previous guests.

As we walked from the parking area to McCain Auditorium on this cold but sunny day, a young man approached us, phone in hand. "Are you going to the Landon Lecture?" he asked. We said we were, and then he told us they had evacuated the building because of a bomb threat. "I got an e-mail on my phone from K-State about it." At least, we knew the university warning system worked promptly.

We continued walking, not quite sure what to do. Should we have turned around and gone back to our car? Did we really think this whole thing was real? I'm not sure we did. I had no feeling of panic, more one of disgust that someone would disrupt this event and change the plans of hundreds of people. There were several state trooper cars parked in front and on the side of the building, a large dog sitting in one of them. People milled about the outer sidewalks.

Ken suggested we go to the classroom building next door to wait where it was warmer. Many others had the same idea, as the interiror hallway swelled with the crowd standing elbow to elbow, still bundled in winter outerwear. A few minutes later, word came that it would be an hour to hour and a half before the building was cleared for entry and the speech could begin. We decided to go on home as the delay would make me late for a board meeting I had later in the afternoon, one I felt I needed to attend.

As we neared our home, we heard on the car radio that the speech had been moved to a small theater in the Student Union. We vetoed returning, as too much time had gone by, and I'd never make it to my 4 o'clock meeting.

As the day progressed, I thought about what we'd done--continuing on to the auditorium building, then moving to one right next to it. Had there actually been a real bomb that had exploded, we could have been injured, possibly killed, depending on the size of the explosion. As I said earlier, I don't think we actually believed the whole thing to be real. And that's not a very good attitude.

The police determined later in the afternoon that the building had no explosives in it. The bomb threat had been a hoax. And the person who made the call must have been delerious with joy at what he'd accomplished. No one hurt, but he'd disrupted the lives of many. He'd let people know he had a gripe against the US government. Next time I hope he writes a letter to someone in Washington instead.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Can A Dinner Begin A Journey?

Last night we spent the evening with our dinner/bridge group. The four couples have put together many fine meals. The hostess provides drinks and the entree, and the other three bring appetizers, salad and dessert. Our hostess, Mona, is Italian by heritage and I had asked her if she'd fix an Italian dinner.

After appetizers of stuffed mushrooms and assorted international cheeses, we were treated to a moist, tender chicken smothered in a rich tomato sauce, polenta, and perfectly seasoned fresh green beans. The red wine was one called Paisano that she said is an everyday table wine in Italy. A layered lettuce salad complemented the meal, and a rich chocolate cake and coffee brought it to a satisfying end. Or so we thought! Mona brought a tray of tiny liqueur glasses to the table and two bottles of liqueurs from Italy. We all tasted both and pronounced them smooth, warming and satisfying. A digestivo!

As we drove home later in the cold, on snowy roads, I began to think about a trip to Italy. We've talked about going there many times, and then another trip pops up and we head to Germany or the Czech Republic or somewhere besides Italy. I've pored over travel books that offer trips to various parts of Italy, but somehow we never seem to book the trip. Instead, we look at the pictures and read about the places we might visit, then move on somewhere else. Why? I have no idea, but last night's wonderful meal and hearing Mona talk about Italy has sparked my desire to go there once again.

Everyone I know who has visited Italy comes home saying how much they loved it. Maybe it's time for us to experience it firsthand. I have a feeling I would find much to write about there. I know a writer who is spending a full month in Florence, Italy right now. For her, it's an annual visit as that renowned city keeps pulling her back. Maybe a dinner can be the first step in a journey across the sea.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Freewrite Your Way Out Of An Emotional Situation

I received news this morning that a very dear friend is dying. It's not terribly surprising as she is 95 and very frail physically, but her mind is as clear and sharp as when she was 25. Tears and a huge cloud of sadness descending were the first reaction I had. And the second one was a desire to write about all that I'm feeling. And I will do that sometime today, I'm sure. It's one way to release the grief I'm feeling. I'll freewrite and let whatever is inside rise to the surface like cream in an old-time milk bottle. It won't change what is happening with my friend, but it will help me to deal with a  coming loss and perhaps end up being a tribute to her, as well.

Writing can be an emotional outlet for many situations, not only for a loss. It also works with anger. In fact, freewriting when angry can serve more than one purpose. It does let you release your anger, but it may also help you see things from a different perspective when you read it a little later. It can help calm you down, delay making a rash decision or action that might not be wise.

A break-up, whether a romance or a marriage, is another emotional situation that writing may help. Let out the hurt, the anger, and the sadness. Freewrite your way as a first step in healing. Keeping all those emotions inside can create more problems and keep you mired in the mud of the break-up far longer than need be. No one else needs to see what you've written. It's for you, not to be used vindictively in any way.

Is freewriting a one-step cure? Of course not. But it can be a help. Whether we are angry, grieving, or deeply saddened, we move in steps to overcome or deal with these emotions. Freewriting is only one step on what might be a long road, but it's a beneficial one.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

More About Libraries

Earlier this week, I wrote about libraries in our poor economic times. I'm still thinking about libraries and what they have meant to me. Below is an essay I wrote several years ago. Maybe it will trigger memories of your own early days visiting a library and what it has brought to your life.

My Second Home
by Nancy Julien Kopp

In addition to my regular residence, I have a second home. My mother
introduced this special dwelling to me when I was only six years old. She held my hand, and we walked several blocks in warm autumn sunshine, stopping only when we approached a square brick building. Graced by trees and shrubs and a patio-like courtyard, it had a certain elegance and air of importance that I recognized, even at so young an age.

We entered the building and stepped into a cool, quiet atmosphere. The first thing to meet the eye was a large, wrap-around desk that extended across the entryway. A stout woman stood behind the desk, gray hair severely drawn back and caught in a small bun. No make-up adorned her face, and there wasn't a smile there either. I moved instinctively closer to my mother, my hand nestled in hers, until I looked up into the woman's eyes. What I saw made me smile at her. Blue eyes, the shade of cornflowers, sparkled with a smile of their own, softening her otherwise stern appearance. Soon, the smile in her eyes spread to her wide mouth.

"We've come to get a library card," my mother announced. The woman had the application card ready in a flash and passed it over to me to sign my name. I proudly printed it for her and slid the card back across the desk. Not only could I sign my name, I could read, as well. Dick and Jane and their dog, Spot had shown me the way.

"All right, Nancy," she said as she read from the form, "come with me."

She came around the desk and offered her hand, saying, “I am Miss Mayes.” I grasped the hand this corseted woman in the black dress offered. My expectations were great, and I was not to be disappointed, for this kind woman led me to the Children's Department and patiently showed me all the books that stood on shelves like soldiers at attention. She spoke with wonder and awe as she explained the kinds of books that rested before us, making me eager to read every one.

It was a land of enchantment, a ticket to exotic places. My mother and Miss Mayes introduced me that day to the fascinating world of books and libraries, and thus began a love affair that continues to this day. I became a voracious reader and still am.

I was the child whose nose was always in a book. When old enough, I walked to the library alone at least weekly, sometimes more than that. I strolled past the conservatory that was home to a tropical rainforest, then on by a city park, across the railroad tracks and down a cinder path that ran behind the train platform. By the time I reached that cinder path, my pace increased, even though I carried a stack of books. I was in a hurry to reach the riches awaiting me at the library.

The grade school I attended had a separate library, which we could use when we reached fourth grade. I visited it regularly but also continued going to the public library. I felt at home in both places and felt much the same when I moved on to the high school library, then one on my college campus. The libraries provided necessary information for all the papers I wrote during those years, as well as hours and hours of entertainment, as I read book upon book. The building I had frequented near my home during my growing up years was renamed when my old friend, the librarian, died. The South Branch became the Adele Mayes Branch Library, and every time I saw the plaque bearing her name, I thought of those cornflower blue, smiling eyes, and her kindness to me and other children through the years. How I wish I could thank her for what she gave to so many.

During the years since I left my home community, I have made a habit of making a visit to the library one of the top priorities whenever moving to a new place. Within the first week, I have fled the packing boxes and sought out what has become a second home to me. Over 45 years of marriage, we have lived in five different towns, and, in all of them, the library has been a sanctuary and a haven.

Now, when I open the big glass door to my local library and walk through the atrium to the book-lined shelves, I feel just like I did when Miss Mayes took my hand and led me to the children's books. I am happy and contented, as though loving arms have surrounded me with a great big hug. Best of all, I still feel an exciting anticipation of the unknown treasure waiting for me amongst the volumes that line the shelves in my second home.

I am so grateful that I had a mother who led me to one of the greatest treasures in my life, the public library.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Family Birthday

Yesterday, our granddaughter turned fourteen. Alexis lives in Texas, is on the cheerleading squad at her Middle School, and serves as editor of the school newspaper. She's a busy person and always has been.

She's been a bright spot in our lives ever since the day of her birth--our first grandchild. She opened the door for a whole new world for Ken and me. And what a wonderful world Grandparenthood is. Our son, Kirk, called us on a Friday evening with the good news of the birth, and by 7 a.m. the next morning, we were on our way to St. Louis to meet her.

All my grandchildren are very special, each birth to be kept in a  memory bank like most grandparents have. That account began when we walked into the hospital room where Amy and the new baby were resting. After greeting our son and daughter-in-law, I peered into the face of a perfectly beautiful child, picked her up and held her close to me. I knew holding her would be a memorable moment, but I never realized how overwhelming it would be. Emotion swirled and bubbled up as I thought about the fact that this was the child of my child. My father had passed away only months earlier, and here was a sign that our family would continue on. That her middle name is my maiden name made it all the more evident.

Watching Alexis grow from infant to toddler to preschooler to grade school and middle school student has been a journey of joy. Next year, she begins high school, and no doubt, she will continue her good academic progress, her involvement in extracurricular activities, having fun with her friends and making time for her family both near and far. She'd like to be a professional writer someday, and I feel sure she will reach that goal.

She told me on the phone yesterday that she was having a good birthday and looking forward to a special dinner her mom was making. I hope all her birthdays will be good ones and may she always stay the nice person she is today.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Decisions Can Be Daunting

We've put off redecorating our kitchen for too long. We've discussed it, thought about, and kept putting it off. Last week, the project got started when a painter came to remove the wallpaper which started on one wall in the dining area, then continued through the kitchen and laundry area. After three days of scraping and mumbling about the people who had put the paper on years ago without sizing the walls, Mike painted all the now-bare walls the same color as our living room and dining room. The area is very open and it seemed the right thing to run the same color throughout. Decision #1 made and accomplished.

But now, Decison #2 is upon us. We want to change the countertops which sounds easy enough, until you  look at the material options available and the dozens of color choices. How do we decide from a tiny sample piece what a whole sea of the color/design will look in our kitchen? It's just plain stressful. We've looked several times, and yesterday we finally began to get it narrowed down to only a few. Soon, the final decision will have to be made. And then we must also decide on a new sink and cooktop. More decisions! The one thing I know is this:  I will have to live with whatever decision we make. You don't change major things like countertops over and over again.

Writers have decisions to make, too. When plotting a novel or a short story, there are plenty of decisions to be made. But there, the changes can be made up to the time a submission is sent to an agent or editor. A writer needs to decide the kind of publication she wants her work to be seen in. Do I send to any and all, or do I narrow the field to a select few with the risk of fewer publishing successes? Do I write only the easy things or do I tackle a tough research project? Do I contact the editor who's had my submission for six months and never answered, or do I write it off as a rejection? What to do?

My advice is to weigh the pros and cons and make up your mind in a reasonable amount of time, then go with it. Don't agonize and play the What if? game with yourself once you've decided what to do. I'm going to live with whatever countertops I finally do select. No regrets. No playing What if? You can live with your writing decisions, too. Make your choice and move on to the next thing.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Libraries Offer Books and More

During recession times such as we’ve been experiencing this past year or so, library usage tends to increase. And why not? Libraries offer services for free to members of the community.

Years ago, a library meant only one thing—books! Lots of books! The library offered a path to the wonderful world of reading, and it still serves that purpose in 2010.

Today’s library offers more than books, although they are still the primary service. Now, they also have computer areas, music CD’s, DVD movies, large print books, Talking Books for the visually handicapped, a large variety of magazines. Research possibilities galore, meeting rooms available to the community, and numerous reading activity programs for youngsters and grown-ups, too. Even artwork may be checked out, taken home where the library patron can enjoy them for a short time.

Even though library usage has increased, libraries are dealing with funding cuts in nearly all our states. It’s difficult to serve the community with less money. I serve on the Board of Trustees at my own community library, and I know how difficult it is to prepare budgets with less funding and more needs. Those two items have a way of never achieving that balance we’d like to see. We have contingency funds for emergencies, and when operating a large facility, there always seem to be emergencies with heating or air-conditioning systems and various other building problems. Librarians and the trustees are constantly concerned with being able to serve the community in the best way possible with the resources they have.

What can you, the library patron, do to help? Consider a memorial gift to the Library Foundation if there is one. Join the Friends group. Your membership allows this group of supportive people to fund many programs your library might not be able to afford otherwise. If your library has a volunteer program, give some of your time. Good volunteers allow libraries to operate well and afford staff needed time.

If you haven’t visited your local library in a long time, do it one day soon. You might be surprised at the treasures that await you there.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Value of Journaling

Do you keep a journal? Maybe some of you write a daily journal only when you travel. I can't begin to count the number of times I've read that all writers should keep a daily journal, but not only writers. It's recommended for everyone to do so. It leaves a record for others, it offers opportunity to vent about the joy, anger, frustration, and more in your life, and it allows you to say things you might not voice to others verbally.
Three good reasons, but today I found one more reason a journal is a valuable item.

My dear friend, Mavis, sent me a Valentine greeting letter written in her home in Johannesburg, South Africa. She had dug out her journal kept on a fall trip to the USA in 1988. One week of the trip was spent at a bank convention in Washington, DC and it is where we met. Our husbands were attending the week long meeting, and Mavis and I attended all the spouse excursions together. We met the first night at a cocktail party in a huge ballroom filled with people. We enjoyed visiting with Mike and Mavis right from the start and whisked them off with us to a party one of the investment companies had later that evening. We've visited one another's homes several times and traveled in European countries together several times. Over these 22 years, a deep and lasting friendship has grown.

Mavis copied the journal entries for that week in Washington, DC in her letter. It provided a trip down memory lane and turned out to be one of the nicest valentines I've ever received. For one thing, only a dear friend would take the time to dig out that particular journal and then type it all into a letter. And it meant a great deal to me to read how our first meetings had occurred and the nice things she'd written about that time in our lives. I, of course, remembered the main things, but she had added little details which brought it all back in living color. What fun it was to live those moments once again. And it was all made possible because of her journal.

I don't keep a daily journal, but I do write a daily diary when we travel. It's fun years later to read about what we've done, what I thought about some of the places we've visited or people we've met. And perhaps someday my children and/or grandchildren will enjoy reading them. It will give them a picture of the times we lived in, of us as younger people and more.

Some grade school teachers are using daily journals as a teaching tool with children as young as second grade age. Our two oldest granddaughters learned to keep a journal at that tender age. One of them hopes to become a professional news journalist someday. Perhaps learning to journal so early is partly responsible for that.

Try journaling and see what it brings to you. You don't need to write pages every day. Sometimes a few lines will be sufficient. Keeping a journal can easily become a valuable habit.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

More on A Good Book

A few weeks ago, I wrote here about a book I was reading and finding hard to put down. The Help by Kathryn Stockett was released February of last year, and it found a place on the Top Fiction List in a short time. I noticed that last week it had hit #1. It doesn't surprise me at all.

Ms. Stockett's story is her first novel to be published, and she had a hard time accomplishing that feat. She was turned down by about 50 agents before finally being accepted. Her book is set in Mississippi in the 1960's Civil Rights era. It's about the white women who live there and the African-American women who work for them--the help. The characters jump off the pages as very real people, and like any good melodrama, the reader wants to cheer for some, hiss at others, and shed a tear for some.

We see prejudice, independence, anger, resentment, joy, and more as the story moves on. Part of the tale involves a mystery regarding the disappearance of one of the maids. "She moved to Chicago" Skeeter's mother tells her. End of discussion. Skeeter, just graduated from college is devastated that she has lost the woman who raised her. Skeeter finally unravels the mystery but doesn't like the things she learns. This is only one story in the book. There are so many others, tales about the women who hire the maids, and the maids and their families, their church, hopes, dreams and more.

Yesterday, my Book Club discussed this book, and a lively discussion it was. All of us were young women in the period in which the book is set, and it triggered long-buried memories for all of us. The discussion triggered many things, including the baring of a few souls. A good book will do that.

This is a book I will remember as one of the best I've read. One editorial review says it will become a classic in the same way To Kill A Mockingbird or Gone With The Wind did. I think that is highly possible. It's a lengthy novel, but that's not a problem as I found I didn't want to put it down. And when it ended, I found myself wanting to read more about the characters I'd come to know well.

You can read about the book at Scroll down the page for editorial and reader reviews.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dolly Parton's Wish

Sunday morning while I was getting ready for church, I had the radio tuned to our local station. They run an oldies music program with celebrity interviews, music and chatter at that time. I was half-listening to it but not gving it my full attention until I heard Dolly Parton laugh. The host asked her what she'd most like to be remembered for.

That's when Dolly's lilting laughter came through.  Then, turning serious, she said, "I've never considered myself a very good singer. I've never thought I was even a good performer. But I can write (songs) pretty good. I'd like to be remembered as a good writer."

It was a simple statement by someone who has been a country music star, an actress, and a songwriter, but her words have stayed with me every day this week. As much as Dolly has given to the American people in the way of entertainment, she has only one real desire--to be remembered as a good writer. But, will she?
Perhaps in the world of other musicians she will be, but her songwriting abilities are not what she's been known for by most people. I think people will remember her showmanship, her promotions in Dollywood, her flamboyant physical attributes before they remember her writing.

It made me wonder about other writers. Will they be remembered for what they wrote or for other things in their lives? Those who have acquired fame with their writing probably will have that attribute listed first by their fans. People like Mark Twain, John Grisham, Charles Dickens, Nora Roberts. For other writers, who write but have not achieved greatness, maybe their writing will be far down the list of things they will be remembered for.  But perhaps like Dolly, their writing is what they would most like to be noted for. It probably depends on how much the writer loves working with words that, when put together, create stories or informative articles or essays. If writing is something you love, you want it at the top of the list.

I hope Dolly's wish is realized someday. From now on, I'll think of her as a writer and others who heard her will, also.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Valentine Story

Since this is Valentine's Week, you might enjoy reading a story about my Valentine's Day way back in the second grade. It was the year I learned something very important to a child, something I had never realized until then. This story was published in a Chicken Soup for The Soul book (Fathers & Daughters), and it has been published many more times since then. Even in foreign languages across the seas. This month, it was published again by a Senior newspaper in Kansas City. The picture is of my dad, taken in 1939, the year I was born.

Love In A Box

By Nancy Julien Kopp

When I was a little girl, I found love in a box all because of a class assignment. On a Friday night I made an announcement at the dinner table. The words bubbled out in a torrent of excitement I could no longer contain. "My teacher said we have to bring a box for our valentines on Monday. But it has to be a special box all decorated."

Mother said, "We'll see," and she continued eating.

I wilted faster than a flower with no water. What did "We'll see" mean? I had to have that box, or there would be no valentines for me. My second grade Valentine's Day would be a disaster. Maybe they didn't love me enough to help me with my project.

All day Saturday I waited, and I worried, but there was no mention of a valentine box. Sunday arrived, and my concern increased, but I knew an inquiry about the box might trigger anger and loud voices. I kept an anxious eye on both my parents all day. In 1947, children only asked once. More than that invited punitive measures; at least in my house it did.

Late Sunday afternoon, my father called me into the tiny kitchen of our apartment. The table was covered with an assortment of white crepe paper, red construction paper, and bits and pieces of lace and ribbon from my mother's sewing basket. An empty shoebox rested on top of the paper. Relief flooded through me when Daddy said, "Let's get started on your project."

In the next hour, my father transformed the empty shoebox into a valentine box I would never forget. Crepe paper covered the ugly cardboard. My father fashioned a ruffled piece of the pliable paper and glued it around the middle. He cut a slot in the lid and covered it with more of the white paper. Next came red hearts attached in what I considered all the right places. He hummed a tune while he worked, and I kneeled on my chair witnessing the magical conversion of the shoebox and handing him the glue when he needed it. When he finished, my father's eyes sparkled, and a smile stretched across his thin face. "What do you think of that?"

My answer was a hug and a "Thank you, Daddy."

But inside, joy danced all the way to my heart. It was the first time that my father devoted so much time to me. His world consisted of working hard to support his family, adoring my mother, disciplining my brother and me, and listening to every sports event broadcast on the radio. Suddenly, a new door opened in my life. My father loved me.

Monday morning, my mother found a brown grocery sack to protect the beautiful box while I carried it to school. I barely felt the bitter cold of the February day as I held the precious treasure close to me. I would let no harm come to my beautiful valentine box.

My teacher cleared a space on a long, wide windowsill where the decorated boxes would stay until Valentine's Day. I studied each one as it was placed on the sill, and none compared with mine. Every time I peeked at my valentine box, I felt my father's love. My pride knew no bounds. There were moments when the box actually glowed in a spotlight all its own. No doubt the only one who witnessed that glow was me.

Every day some of my classmates brought valentine cards to school and slipped them into the slots of the special boxes. The holiday party arrived, and we brought our boxes to our desks to open the valentines. Frosted heart cookies, red punch, valentines and giggles filled our classroom. Chaos reigned until dismissal time arrived.

I carried my valentine box home proudly. It wasn't hidden in a grocery sack but held out for the world to admire. I showed it to the policeman who guided us across a busy city street. He patted me on the head and exclaimed over the box. I made sure everyone along the way took note of my valentine box. My father had made it for me, and the love that filled the box meant more to me than all the valentines nestled inside.

From that time on, I never doubted my father's feelings for me. The valentine box became a symbol of his love that lasted through decades of other Valentine Days. He gave me other gifts through the years, but none ever compared with the tender love I felt within the confines of the old, empty shoebox.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Story Ideas

I don't know what to write about.  Those are words lots of writers have said, probably more than once. They sit at the computer and say them, mentally or out loud. They say them in a whine or in a slightly desparate voice. I'd rather not call this Writer's Block, which seems to me like a very overused excuse at times and is made up of more than just not having anythng to write about.

Instead, let's call it a lack of story ideas. So how do you solve this problem? Walk away from the computer. Go to the mall. Go outside and take a long walk. Sit down and watch TV for awhile. Anything but sit at the computer and brood. And then take a good look around you. I know I've said this before, but there are story ideas all around you.

As you're walking through the mall, you might come upon a mother/child conflict taking place in front of a fast food counter. How does each one of them react? What kind of body language? How about others who see this little scene? Turn it into a story! Or topic for a parenting article.

Perhaps you hear birdsong as you're taking a walk. Think about the different kinds, what birds sing loudest, longest, most often, and any other aspect. Go home, do a little research and you've got another topic for an article.

Something you see on TV can trigger a memory perhaps. Or an opinion. Or a rant. Use it!

Last night, many Americans, including me, watched the Super Bowl. Listening to the announcers, watching the game and the ceremony and celebration of the Saints afterward left me thinking about the many, many stories that were there. You, the writer, could write numerous stories from what you saw in those few hours.

There are story ideas all around you every day of the week. It's up to you to open your eyes wide and 'see' them.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Happy Birthday Kirk

Some days just don't go the way you plan, and today is one of them. I had planned on writing a Happy Birthday message to our son, Kirk, earlier this morning. But the cybergenies had other ideas. To make a long story short, I was hit by the Personal Security virus/spyware. And now my desktop is at the computer hospital receiving tender, loving care. I wasn't able to connect to the internet with my laptop for some reason, but when I talked with my birthday boy son tonight, he asked if I'd turned off the modem. Sure enough, that's what I'd done.

We went out for dinner and flipped the modem back on when we got home, and I'm connected to the world once again. When my computer is down, I feel isolated, frustrated and a little bit furious.

Our son turned 42 today, and for me it was a day of reflection. The years rolled away as I thought back to the day of his birth. We were living near Chicago at the time, and February 5th was unseasonably warm. Good thing as I was so big I couldn't button my winter coat! I'd made stuffed peppers for dinner, a favorite of mine, but no sooner had I taken the first bite than I was hit by a strong contraction. I knew you shouldn't eat once labor had begun, so I put down my fork and looked longingly at the food on my plate. Nothing happened in the next few minutes, so I took another bite, savoring the mellow flavor of green pepper, ground meat, rice and tomato sauce. No sooner had I done so than another contraction hit. I put the peppers in the fridge and started to time contractions.

By 8:30 we were on the way to the hospital and before 10:30, Kirk had arrived. Our joy knew no  bounds. Only a year earlier, our first baby had passed away at 7 weeks of age. Birth defects she had were too severe to allow her survival. And so, when our healthy baby boy was born, our hearts were filled with love and happiness.

He has given us much joy in all these 42 years with his sense of humor, kind heart, and positive attitude. He's been a son to be proud of, has brought us a wonderful daughter-in-law and two beautiful granddaughters.

Happy Birthday Kirk!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What's In A Name?

Remember the quote from Shakespeare that goes something like What's in a name? A rose by any other name will smell as sweet. That may be true, but when it comes to giving a name to a novel, essay, short story or any kind of writing, it's more important than some writers realize.

I've known writers who literally slap a title on something they've spent hours, days or weeks writing. They need to spend some time playing with titles to find the best fit. Why?

Picture yourself in a bookstore or the library looking for a book. You scan the titles as you walk up and down the wall of shelves. Hundreds of books stand like soldiers at attention. What makes you pull one out to look at? A title that leaves you wondering or one that makes you smile. The title needs to reach out and grab you, make you want to read the book.

Some authors lift a quote from the story to use as the title. Some work at creating a puzzle or question while others use very generic titles. Whatever you use, ask yourself if the title will pull in readers, for that is what you are trying to do. A title can draw or be detrimental, so take care in selecting one. You choose a name for your children with care, do the same with your writing 'babies.'

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Can You Underwrite?

Yesterday I talked about overwriting--putting too much into a story so that readers skip those 'boring' parts. So today's question is: Can you underwrite?

I think that's very possible, most especially with newbie writers. Inspiration hits them between the eyes and they're ready to write an essay or a nonfiction article. Or perhaps a short story. They've seen it all in their mind's eye and can hardly wait to get the words out. They write and write and suddenly, it's finished. Because they're excited to have a finished piece, they hurriedly send it flying off to a critique group  Or even skip that step and send it to an editor. And then....

Sometimes the critiquers, or critters as they're sometimes known, return advice that comes down to "...this is a good idea, but you need to expand on...."  or "...this is fine, but there's so much more that might have gone into the story...." It's simply a case of underwriting. An editor will either dump the submissin completely, or if she likes the basic premise of the sub, she'll send the writer a note suggesting an expansion of the idea and saying she might be willing to look at a revised version. That's one of those promising, but frustrating, rejections. It's also a second chance.

The writer's next step is to read their work with as objective eye as possible (and it's hard to read your own work objectively). Step two is to find the areas that might benefit from additional writing. Step three--go to work and fill in the needed areas. Step four--make sure you haven't overcompensated and written way more than is needed.

There's a fine line between underwriting and overwriting.  With practice, new writers learn where to draw the line.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Don't Overwrite

I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~Elmore Leonard

The quote above made me laugh. If only we could do that, I thought. Then I spent a little time reflecting on the kinds of things I skip when reading a book. Oh yes, I do skip parts of some books, and so do most of us. But as writers, it would not be to our liking to know our readers skip those words we worked so hard to offer them.

What kind of things do readers pass over?

Long descriptions for one. Writers sometimes get carried away. They have to 'see' a place in their own mind and so they want the reader to visulize it exactly as they have. They write paragraph after paragraph describing the inside of a log cabin where a romantic tryst is taking place. The reader could care less. They want to get to the good part--where the red-hot romance sends sparks and flames through the roof. The writer needs to keep in mind what is the more important part. Is it the way the inside of the cabin looks, or is it the relationship of the two characters? Setting is important, but it can be woven into the dialogue and/or action of the characters. You don't need six paragraphs to tell the reader where she is.

History is another part of a story that can become overdone. Writers often do a good deal of research when writing a novel. They become immersed into the historical events that have bearing on the story, and sometimes they think that the reader needs to know every little detail. They don't. A little goes a long way. Once again, keep the main story in mind, not the background. History, too, can be woven into the story.

Academic facts sometimes take up pages of a novel. Unless you're a particular scholar of the subject, you probably don't care. You want to know what happened to the professor when the lab caught fire or how the star reporter escapes from a bombed building. Once again, a little goes a long way.

Too much backstory can lose a reader. Yes, backstory can be important to the present action but once again, less can sometimes be more. A reader can get so involved in backstory that she loses track of the present.

These are only a few of the parts of books people skip over. I call it overwriting. Make your story and the characters primary throughout. Put these other things in, by all means, but don't get carried away and let them overpower the story. You don't want readers skipping parts of your book, do you?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Passion Is A Plus

I live in a university community, and like so many others here, I’m a big fan of Kansas State football and basketball. Saturday night, our basketball team played the #1 team in the nation which also happens to be our in-state arch rival. Ah yes, the mighty KU! Year after year, they have beaten us, but occasionally we step up and surprise them. And this, we thought, would be the year it happened again. The fans were in a frenzy after being on ESPN Game Day earlier that morning. 12,500 screaming faithful in what is now termed the Octagon of Doom. Which translates into our 8 sided arena.

This season, our team scratched its way into the Top 25 rankings, moving all the way up to #11 in one poll. We beat Texas who was #1 at the time. We beat Baylor in their arena and we had a team that believed they could win.

One player in particular plays with such fervor that the other players follow him like the Pied Piper. Jacob Pullen, a junior guard from the Chicago suburbs, has the passion needed to be a winner. He plays his heart out. He and his teammates don’t win every game. They lost to KU by 2 points in overtime in what has been hailed as one of basketball’s truly memorable games. The loss was disappointing, but it won’t dampen the passion Jacob displays in every game. I know that he’ll show up for the next game with the same drive as he had in this last one. He knows you don’t give up, you keep going. If you sit down and nurse your wounds, feed on your heartbreak, the rest of the world will pass right on by. If he carries this trait into his post-college world, he’ll do just fine.

Writers who have passion for what they do are going to find success much sooner than those who feel it only sometimes. It’s a kind of magic when you can write with passion day after day. The passion seed is planted, and it grows little by little until it becomes a part of who you are.

Why do some have it and others don’t? I’m not sure I have the answer, but perhaps it comes from desire and goals they strive to attain.. How badly do you want to be a successful writer? Are you satisfied writing a daily journal that no one else sees? Or do you want to write words that you can share with the world? Jacob Pullen wants to take his team straight to the top, and he’ll keep working in every practice session and every game to achieve that goal. Will you?