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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

My Thoughts On Halloween

Halloween Confessions
By Nancy Julien Kopp

I have a confession to make. I don’t like Halloween, and I never have. Even as a kid in the Chicago suburbs, it was not a big deal for me. It was a day to get through. Oh, I participated in the school parties, school parade and Trick or Treat time in the evening, but I never got excited over it like some kids did.

As I got older, I asked myself what was wrong with me. Give me Valentine’s Day or Thanksgiving or Christmas any day. But Halloween? During the forties, we didn’t go to Walmart or Target and buy a costume. First of all, those stores weren’t even born yet. Secondly, my family, like many others, didn’t spend money on things like costumes. No sireee. We raided our closets at home and came up with some kind of costume. We had to be creative.

I can’t tell you how many times I was a gypsy because it was easy to don a full skirt that twirled when I turned round and round, a peasant style blouse and many ropes of beads from my mother’s jewelry box. Sometimes, I added a colorful scarf over my hair before going out to Trick or Treat in our apartment building.  We climbed three flights of stairs in one vestibule after another. The building had 62 apartments, and my brothers and I hit nearly every one. We were getting beneficial exercise, but no one realized it..

When we got home, we dumped all our loot into a big blue mixing bowl that Mom had set out for us. No keeping your own candy, for it all went in together. We were never allowed to stuff ourselves with it either. Candy in our house was rationed, a little at a time. Mysteriously, the level of the bowl sank faster than might be expected. I feel pretty sure a couple of adult hands dipped into the bowl when we were asleep or away at school during the day.  

My brothers rigged up clown outfits or dressed as a bum, using things from our dad’s closet. Nobody cared if you wore the same costume year after year because we all did it.

But one year, I wore something totally different. My Aunt Vivienne had made her daughter a Martha Washington costume, even including a white cottony wig. The dress was something any girl would have delighted in wearing. My cousin had outgrown it, so I inherited the special outfit. It was in my fifth grade year when I slipped into the dress and wig and set off for school on Halloween morning. I felt pretty nifty. No gypsy girl costume for me this year.  But my happiness turned into misery faster than you can say ‘black cat’ when the boys howled at my wig and the girls giggled and pointed. I felt totally humiliated and dreaded walking in the school Halloween parade. I looked different than anyone else, and I guess that was the problem. But at such a young age, I had a hard time dealing with it.

At our school parties, we played the same games year in and year out. One of them was bobbing for apples. The only thing I hated more than Halloween itself was that silly game. The teacher produced a big tub of water and tossed apples into it. They bobbed merrily around. The object was to put your hands behind your back, lean over and grab an apple with your teeth. My face got wet, my long hair trailed in the water and I had a hard time grabbing the apple. I never won and I didn’t care. Even the year I wore the Martha Washington wig, it came up dripping after my unsuccessful try for the apple.

Slide across the years to the time I had small children who needed costumes, marched in school parades and went Trick or Treating. I dreaded the end of October and getting them ready for Halloween. By then, we bought cheap costumes at the store. No more gypsy girl outfits made up at home or bum clothes put together from Daddy’s stuff. Some mothers were creative and made costumes from boxes and other things. Very clever ideas, but I must admit that I didn’t even attempt to come up with anything like that.

Halloween was still a day to get through. And now, when it’s my grandchildren who are dressing up and Trick or Treating, I can enjoy seeing the pictures of them in their costumes. I don’t have to participate because they live in other towns. We don’t decorate the outside of our house for Halloween as so many do now, but I do answer the door many times during the evening of the 31st of October as does my husband. He is always hopeful we have some candy left over, and we usually do. It’s kind of fun to see the neighbor kids all dressed up, but somehow I’m relieved when it’s time to turn off the porch light and I know there are 365 days until Halloween comes again.

Last year, my daughter told me she really didn’t like Halloween and dreaded having to get her kids costumes and all the rest that goes with it. She said, “I didn’t really like it when I was a kid.” Do you suppose it’s genetic?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Random Word Writing

full moon 02

No reason for this picture other than the spectacular full moon we saw last night. Truly an awesome sight. Is it any wonder that poets like to expound upon the moon, plus the fact that it rhymes with a lot of words? 

But on to today's post. In my critique group (writersandcritters), we do a weekly Random Word exercise. Members take turns in posting a word a week for a full month. They select the words in various ways. Some open a book or even the dictionary, close their eyes, and point. Wherever the finger lands determines the word for the week. Others use a theme, so they might post words that are seasonal or all action verbs. They might choose words that have to do with the military or schools or whatever else they come up with. 

The word, and sometimes a dictionary definition, is posted. The members who choose to do the exercise freewrite for no more than ten minutes. At the onset of the ten minutes, the writer is to write as fast as possible whatever comes to mind without self-editing. It can be drivel. It can be rhyming words. It can be fiction, something true or a memory the word triggers. Anything! 

When the ten minutes are up, stop writing. Some put Time... at this point in case a thought is interrupted. Sometimes, what you've written really is drivel and worth very little. However, there are many times when something you've written has keywords that will help you write a new essay, story, or article. I've seen members in my group who have expanded on the ten minute exercise to a full piece ready to submit to the group for critique and then hopefully to submit for publication later. 

A Random Word exercise is a great way to warm up before you start your serious writing for the day. 

You can do your own Random Word by opening any book in your possession, close your eyes and let your finger land on a word. Then set the timer for ten minutes and write nonstop. Keep those fingers on your keyboard and write whatever comes to mind, no matter what it is. I've seen people write a few sentences then say something like this is worthless, where am I going with this? but that's OK. They are still writing.

To get you started, I'll give you a Random Word for today. The word is:  obnoxious


  [uhb-nok-shuhs]  Show IPA
highly objectionable or offensive; odious: obnoxious behavior.
annoying or objectionable due to being a showoff orattracting undue attention to oneself: an obnoxious littlebrat.
Archaic exposed or liable to harm, evil, or anythingobjectionable.
Obsolete liable to punishment or censure; reprehensibl

Monday, October 29, 2012

Writers Need Support

This poster made me laugh when I saw it on facebook this morning. But it also made me think about the support writers have. Or don't have! 

Starting out as a writer is sometimes scary business. Those suitcases filled with doubt and fear sit on one side of you and your computer, while on the other side, there are suitcases filled with hope and confidence. One way to lean to the hope and confidence side is to have a good support system.

We all respond to encouragement, some more than others, but we do feel a genuine lift when we know somebody believes in us and is willing to be our cheerleader. That support comes from various places. It can be a committee of one good friend. Or a critique group. It might be a beloved aunt or sister or spouse. These people believe in you and love you enough to help you unpack those negative suitcases. 

But what about those you know who don't give you the support you'd like? There could be family members who think you're crazy for setting sail in the rough seas of the writing world. Some might be quite vocal about it. Others might just ignore any successes you have, or the amount of time you spend writing. That hurts but if you're dedicated to what you're doing, you'll move on and hope that someday, they will change their reaction to your writing. In fact, it could spur you on with that I'll show 'em! attitude. 

For all of you who write and read this blog, I'd like you to know that I support you in your quest every day of the week. Whether you're hoping for a career as a writer or are a hobbyist writer, like me, I'm here to cheer you on and to tell you I'm proud and happy when you have a writing success. I'd love to have you post those successes here. It's not bragging. It's sharing! 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Inspiration To Write

Here's a great poster one of my readers shared on facebook. It's sure to give you a smile and some inspiration. I still like the one at the bottom of this post best, but this one is pretty good, too. Being a former Girl Scout, it triggered a lot of memories as well as offered some incentive to get busy and write.

How about you? What inspires you to write? Is it seeing posters like these or attending writing seminars or reading a new book on the craft of writing? Is it being out and about and seeing a person who would make a great character in a story? Is is the pressure of needing to bring something you've written to a critique group meeting? 

For me, it's all of the above. One other thing that often inspires me is seeing something that triggers a memory from way back. When the memory comes flooding back, I sometimes think I really need to write about that. The key here is to do it immediately. Strike while the iron is hot! 

Now, for that other poster that I find so inspiring. You've seen it here before and most likely will again. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Choices In A Writer's Journey

The poster above sounds like something your mother might have said during one of the Mama Lectures she gave you in your growing up years. A little sharp, a bit caustic, but good advice.

It works for writers, too. If you aren't happy with where you are at on your writer's journey. maybe it's time to take a few steps back and assess your writing life. Then, try the following:

1.  Ask yourself why you don't like your writing life at the present time
2.  Make an honest assessment of what you've been doing and why it isn't working
3.  List the things you can try in order to change the situation
4.  Do the items on your list, one at a time

Let's take a fictitious writer as one example.  After many rejections at many places, Willa Writer sold a story to a small print magazine which thrilled her. It also inspired her to send more of her work to them, and they bought a few more subs from her. She was so happy that she stopped submitting to other places, the fear of rejection bubbling deep down inside. Better to stay with the one place where she'd found some success. She'd made a choice. But she painted herself into a corner by doing this. Eventually, she grew bored with writing the same kind of story for the same publication.

Willa knew why she didn't like her writing life as it was. She stepped back and made an honest assessment. Then she made her list of things she could do. At the top was Look for other markets. She added others to her list, and the next day, she started to work on them, one by one.

There are lots of other reasons a writer gets dissatisfied with their writing life. Willa's problem is only one of many that may be encountered on your journey. You're the one in control here. It's you who can either stay where you're at or move on to newer, bigger and maybe better things. Go for it!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

One Of My Favorite Places

I've written many times about the joy and benefit of being a library patron. One of the short essays I wrote about libraries can be read here.  Another about how I was introduced to the library and what it has always meant to me can be read here.

When I saw the poster with Albert Einstein's quote yesterday, I knew I would have to share it with you. Think about the times Einstein lived in. The library offered so much to all who took advantage of their services. As the professor said, you could find almost anything there. But, unlike today, you had to work at it.

Remember the alphabetized card catalog with little notecards on the front telling you which letters the drawer held? Our school librarian taught us how to use this index of all the books in the library. She also made sure we learned the Dewey Decimal System. Mrs. Peterson, my school librarian, taught me another lesson that goes for anywhere. We sat at tables in the library, not desks.I can hear her now saying, "When you leave, you chair should be placed under the table as you found it. Do not leave it parked away from the table." To this day, I am still careful to always return my chair to the proper place, whether it be at my dining room table or in a public place. 

The public library also had librarians who could help patrons find whatever information they had come for. They still do this today, but instead of the card catalog, they might refer you to one of the computers that hold the inventory of all the books, music CDs, artwork, and more. She could possibly refer you to the Technology Center for help, too. Or she might check on her own computer for the information you need. 

Today, you can also google on your own computer for help on any and all subjects. I'm still a strong library user. I've learned its location in every town I've lived in, usually within the first few days of residence. If I knew where the grocery store and the library were located, I knew I'd be OK.

Your library is filled with items that will increase your knowledge, entertain you, and, if you're like me, soothe your soul. Visit a library soon.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Strive For Strong Verbs

This is a repeat of a post from a couple years ago. Grammar and word usage are not always the most exciting topics, but they are essential in good writing. So take a look at passive versus active verbs. 

Passive vs Active Verbs

We all use many passive verbs in everyday conversation. Consider how many times you include the words was, is, were or some variation of them. We do it subconsciously as method of economizing our speech. Those words are short and we know the point of what we’re saying lies in the words that surround those bland verbs.

But as writers, we need to find verbs that show the reader something, verbs that bring out sensory details. Using too many passive verbs is the mark of a new writer. I profess to guilt in that department, too, when I first started writing.

Which of the following sentences are more interesting? Which ones give a picture to the reader?

  1. She is sad.
  2. Sadness engulfed her.

  1. We went to the beach.
  2. We motored to the beach.

  1. We were hot in the sun.
  2.  We roasted in the blazing sun.

  1. Alice turned around, her skirt moved, too.
  2. Alice twirled until her skirt billowed.

The B sentences all bring a mental picture to mind and allow the reader to get into the scene far better than those passive verbs in the A sentences. In the final set, A has semi-active verbs, what we might call weak verbs. Again, the ones used in B are far more interesting and give a more vivid picture.

When you finish the first draft of a story or essay, look through it and mark the passive verbs. Then try to find active verbs to replace them. Use a thesaurus if you need some help. Read your work from beginning to end, and you’ll see how much stronger and more interesting it sounds. Work on using active verbs whenever possible.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Picture Prompt Exercise

Time for another writing exercise to get you into prime shape as a writer. Today, I thought we'd use some picture prompts. I'll post three pictures. Study each one, see what it triggers, then freewrite for ten minutes. Move on to the next one. If you do all three, you'll have spent 30-plus minutes and have the seeds for three stories. Now, how bad can that be? So....

Number 1:

Number 2:

Number 3:  

If you especially like one of the three pictures prompt exercises you've done, post it for us in the Comments section.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Beliefs, Opinions, and Respect

The first time we visited South Africa, I fell in love with zebras. They are so beautiful, stand looking so proud. I'm guessing they rate high on the self-esteem scale. When I saw this poster, I had to save it to use here. 

It seemed appropriate in the turmoil of our national election. I abhor all the hate-filled ads and speeches that candidates for high and lower offices are giving to the American public. My first introduction to politics was in Junior High when we elected our class officers. During our social studies class, we were taught that our speeches were never to tear the other candidate down but to extol our own virtues. Tell the audience why you are the best person for this job. I ran for Secretary in 7th grade and won. We learned a lot about our election system in America. 

But that was long ago. Things have changed, and not for the better in my estimation. What kind of message do today's politicians send to young people when they throw one accusation after another, like arrows coming from Robin Hood's bow? Their campaign workers search high and low to dig up as much dirt on the other guy (or woman) as they can. Then they sling the mud fast and furious.  It's not one party only using these tactics. Both sides are guilty. Who started it? I have no idea but that doesn't matter because the other side picked it up pretty fast. 

What's come from this situation is that friends and family members who differ in their political views are ending up arguing and leaving major dents in their relationships. Hate spreads pretty fast. The comments at the end of some of the political articles on the internet are pretty sickening at times. Threats laced with anger. 

We all have our own opinion as to who is best able to lead our country, and I'm not about to tell you who you should vote for. But I will tell you to stand up for what you believe, no matter who tells you that you're crazy for doing so. I'll also tell you to think carefully before you degrade and humiliate someone who believes differently than you do. They have a right to their opinion, just as you and I do. Have the grace to respect it, even if you don't agree with it.

Whatever the outcome of this soon-to-happen election, accept it. If it's your candidate, great, but don't lord it over others. If it is the candidate you oppose, swallow your disappointment and move on. 

If you stand alone among your friends, don't worry. Be true to whatever you believe. Stand proud like the zebra does.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sweet Sue Saves The Day

I wrote about the frustration of not being able to pull up my new story at Knowonder! website on Tuesday, when it was first online. I'm still having problems so cannot give readers the link to the story. Instead, I'll post the story here--meant for middle grade kids but maybe for grown-ups, too.

 Sweet Sue Saves The Day
By Nancy Julien Kopp

On Monday, Mickey Pickert bullied Annie Rose Kiley like he always did. By the end of Tuesday afternoon, they were becoming friends, even though one of them limped.

“Tell me your dog’s name, Annie Rose,” Mickey hollered after school on Monday. An unpleasant grin spread across his freckled face.

Annie Roses’ heart beat fast as Mickey and two other boys sauntered toward her. “Sweet Sue is her name. Sweet as sugar she is. I’ve told you and told you.” She turned away from the trio of boys just in case she couldn’t hold the tears inside.

Mickey grabbed her thin arm. “Tell me again, Annie Rose.” He glared at his captive while Tyler and Jimmy egged him on. “What’s the mangy cur’s name?” he shouted, his face only inches from hers.

Annie Rose pulled back, but Mickey held her fast. “Sweet Sue is her name. Now let me go!” She jerked her arm but Mickey only tightened his grasp.

He released Annie Rose’s arm when a growl rose from deep in the little dog’s throat. “Tell me why such a mutt is called Sweet Sue one more time. Just one more time.” Mickey glanced over his shoulder at Tyler and Jimmy and grinned.

“Sweet as sugar, that’s why.”  Annie Rose moved close to the brown and white dog. Sweet Sue’s tail wagged like a flag in a ferocious wind.

“That’s not a name for a dirty fleabag like her. I think you should call her Stinky,” Mickey said in-between laughs.

Annie Rose bit her bottom lip and kept her gaze on the dirt road. Instead of answering, she walked away, her feet sending up swirls of dust. The dog trotted at her side and neither of them turned around when Mickey continued to call out awful things about Sweet Sue. The laughter of the three boys followed them home.

Annie Rose loved Sweet Sue because the dog never teased like Mickey and she didn’t ignore her like her daddy often did. The little dog didn’t make her feel stupid and foolish like her teacher, Miss Evans, sometimes did. Sweet Sue listened to every word Annie Rose said and stayed close. She seemed especially loving on the days when Annie Rose acted sad.

Mama was gone and Daddy sat in his chair a lot. He never had much to say. He didn’t notice that she tried to do things in the house that her mother had done. Some things she did just fine but others she skipped because they were too difficult for her.

She didn’t look much like the girl whose picture sat atop the TV anymore. No one reminded her to wash her hands and face or put on clean clothes for school. Some days her hair and Sweet Sue’s coat were both uncombed and matted.

Lost in thought, Annie Rose didn’t see Henry Hounder, the Dog Catcher, until she nearly ran into him. He was always after her to get Sweet Sue a collar and leash. She’d promise to get them, but she didn’t want to ask her daddy for the money. Henry Hounder wasn’t much of a threat to dogs, for he was too fat to chase them. Instead, he’d plant himself in one spot and holler. Annie Rose ducked her head and jogged past the Dog Catcher on her way to Pepper Street where she lived.

Tuesday morning, Miss Evans returned math papers, a smile on her face. When she came to Annie Rose’s paper, the smile vanished like smoke from a chimney. Frown lines appeared on her forehead.

Annie Rose studied her desktop as Miss Evans scolded her. “Annie Rose, there is no reason for this poor paper. Any girl who is the best speller in the class should be able to multiply and divide, too.”

Annie Rose tried not to cry over the page with all the red marks on it and she ignored all the snickers and giggles coming from Mickey and some others.

After school, Annie Rose ran down Pepper Street with Sweet Sue. They didn’t stop until they reached the edge of town. Three boys came whooping and hollering through the thicket of trees by the railroad tracks. Jimmy and Tyler were running like track stars, Mickey close behind. Annie Rose stepped aside before they ran her down. Sweet Sue barked at the boys but stayed close to Annie Rose.

“Help! Help! Jimmy! Tyler! Come back.”

Annie Rose turned around when she heard the cry. Mickey lay with the upper half of his body facedown, across the train tracks. She ran to him, Sweet Sue at her heels.

Mickey had one foot trapped between two big rocks near the steel rails. The leg held captive was straight behind him, while the other seemed bent at the knee and drawn up close to him.

Mickey lifted his head and grimaced. “Get me out of here, will you? It hurts. It hurts a lot.”

Annie Rose knew he wasn’t fooling by the pained look on his round face. The boy kept stretching and pulling the captured leg but he couldn’t work it free.

Sweet Sue ran around and over him barking while Annie Rose bent down for a closer look. The faint whine of a train whistle far down the tracks startled her.

“Hurry up and get me out of here,” Mickey wailed.

The other boys were gone. There was no help nearby. Annie Rose kneeled in the road and held Sweet Sue’s face between her hands. “Go find somebody, anybody,” she pleaded.
The old dog whined but turned and ran toward town.

Annie Rose tried to move the rock that held Mickey’s leg but she couldn’t budge it. The distant train whistled again. Mickey laid his head on his folded arms and began to whimper. Annie Rose thought he sounded like she did when she missed her mama. She sat down beside him and patted his back.

“Don’t worry, Mickey. Sweet Sue will find help.” Her hand kept a steady rhythm on Mickey’s back.

After what seemed like a long time, Annie Rose spotted her dog running toward them. Sweet Sue stopped, turned back, ran a little way and barked. She headed to her mistress once more. Annie Rose smiled when she realized the old dog was leading someone to them.

Henry Hounder rounded the bend. He huffed and puffed with every step, hollered and shook his fist. “I’m going to get you this time,” he shouted.

When the Dog Catcher spied Annie Rose and Mickey, he sucked in his breath and hurried to the railroad tracks. “We better get you out of there before the evening train comes along.”

The big man bent over and, with a mighty grunt and groan, he moved one huge rock enough to free Mickey’s leg. Henry Hounder, still breathing hard and wiping his forehead, helped the boy to his feet and away from the tracks.

Soon, Mickey limped down the road, wiping both tears and dirt from his face. Annie Rose and Sweet Sue followed a short distance behind.

Annie Rose called out to Mickey. “Now you know why she’s called Sweet Sue, don’t you, Mickey?”

Mickey stopped, turned around and grinned. “Sweet as sugar, she is. Wait until I tell my mom how Sweet Sue went for help. I bet she’ll buy her a great big bone.”

Henry Hounder said, “Maybe your mother could buy Sweet Sue a collar and a leash instead.”

They all laughed and the little dog ran in circles, tail wagging.

Mickey said, “Why not? And maybe Annie Rose will be on my team in the spelling tournament next month if I help her with math.”

A smile spread across Annie Rose’s face. She turned to wave to the engineer as the evening freight train rolled by. Tuesday was a good day, after all.  

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Ever felt like a total failure? Ready to give up? If you're a writer, I know you have. It goes with the territory. A somewhat overused metaphor is that we writers are on a journey, but it's so appropriate. We travel from that beginning step down a long and winding road that has many roadblocks along the way.

Those roadblocks come in the form of rejections that pop up in our mailbox or inbox. Get enough of them and you might very well feel like a failure. Well guess what? You're not a failure at all.

You should be learning something from each one of those rejections. I know people who get angry and never look at the submission that was rejected. They either file it or toss it. Wait a day or two, then take a good, hard look at that submission. Try to look objectively. Hard to do, I know, when it's your own precious words, but try it. Maybe you'll see something that can be changed. Maybe it still looks like gold to you and you see no reason for the rejection. Some rejections come because the editor couldn't use it at the time, not because it was a bad piece. In a poor economy, this could easily be the case. Editors deal with budgets, advertising sales etc. so are limited in what they can publish. Sometimes, the reason is poor writing. If so, it can be changed.

There are times in our writing life when we seem blessed with acceptances. Might get several in a row. You feel as though you've moved forward on your journey, and then comes that next rejection. Two steps forward, one step back. My friend, Annette Gendler, teaches memoir writing classes. In one of her blog posts, she stated that the average rejection among her writing friends is about 30 rejections for each piece that makes it. You need to work hard to keep yourself from feeling like a failure. You're not alone in the rejection game. You have lots of company.

The important thing here is to keep moving forward, even if you do take a step back now and then.  Just the other day, a reader of this blog contacted me to say that she'd finally had a story accepted. She would soon be published after many tries and many disappointments. I was so happy for her and felt some admiration for her perseverance. She didn't give up; she kept moving along on that path to publication. I hope this is the first of many to come, but she'll most likely hit a few more bumps in the road. I don't think they will deter her now. She'll keep taking those two steps forward with only an occasional step backward. No doubt she's learned a lot along the way. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

One More Cyberworld Frustration

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Finding My Faith: 101 Inspirational Stories about Life, Belief, and Spiritual Renewal

I had planned to write about two of my stories being published today. But I'm down to only one at the moment.

Today, Chicken Soup's newest volume, titled finding my faith, will be in bookstores and available to order at Amazon or Barnes and Noble online. My story in the book is The Body Beautiful.

I received my author copies a few weeks ago. I woke far too early this morning so got up and finished reading the stories in this inspirational book. Most are written from a Christian perspective but there are a few stories about the Jewish religion.

As I sat in my quiet living room, with the world outside still dark and silent at that early hour, I wondered why this book about faith had no stories from the Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist faiths. Was it because people of these religions do not want to share their stories with others? Did they have less faith than other religions? I doubt either one of these is the case. I have no answer here, only a question.

The stories were varied, interesting, uplifting and sometimes very inspiring. I found myself marveling at the many hurdles in life that the authors had met and sprinted over with the help of God and a faith that may have been missing for years but returned when needed most.

I have another children's story published today at Knowonder! magazine.  The story, Sweet Sue Saves The Day, is there, but I can't make the link work. Knowonder!, like so many cyberworld sites, requires creating an account to access the stories. It is a mildly irritating necessity, according to those who operate the sites. So OK--I created an account, checked the Remember Me box, so I didn't have to login each time. Until today, it's worked fine. I have been locked out! I've changed the password twice now, the site indicates I am logged in, but it will not allow me to access the story. Mildly irritating has become cyberworld frustrating!

I wrote to the editor-in-chief asking for help. So far, I have not had a response, but it's early in the day. I hope to hear from her soon. And when I do, I'll post the link to the story here.

We are so dependent on our computers and the internet. When they don't work smoothly, we freak out. I have to keep reminding myself to take it one step at a time. Sooner or later, these problems do get worked out. Meanwhile, I need another cup of coffee!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Thinking About Theme

Theme is often misunderstood or even ignored by the beginning writer and also by some who claim experience in the writing world. In her book Write Away, Elizabeth George says “…most novels are unified around their theme. This—the theme—is the basic truth about which you are writing, the idea you’re playing with..., or the point you are attempting to make.” This internationally best
selling novelist goes on to say that even if theme is not addressed directly, the unification of the subplots will make it clear to the reader.

The theme in fiction and nonfiction is the central idea, or focus, that runs through the entire story.  For instance, most fairy tales use the theme of good vs. evil. We select a theme from both good and bad principles of life—guilt, greed, revenge, kindness, service to others, and unconditional love are all possible subjects for a theme in a story. Try making a list of conceivable themes for future stories.

The story you write should illustrate the theme without preaching to the reader. Few readers want to be told what the theme is. It’s much more fun to figure it out as you read. The theme should come through in subtle ways. If it doesn’t, it’s time to go back, rethink and revise. Ask yourself what message you want the reader to take away.

Some people confuse theme and plot. An author friend who writes historical fiction says that what your characters do in a story is your plot, but what they learn is the theme. The plot should illustrate your theme and leave a lasting impression on the reader.

Do you select a theme and write a story around it? Or should you write a story and see a theme emerge little by little? There is no set rule. Either way works, but you must be careful that you don’t scatter too many themes throughout the story. All that it does is to confuse the reader who might think: What in the world is she trying to tell me? Pick a theme and stay with it.

When you pick up a book for your own pleasure, read with a critical eye. Look for theme in every piece you read. Search for the message the author sends and ask yourself if the plot of the story brought out the theme. With practice, you’ll find it easier to mentally critique the stories you read, and writing your own stories with a theme in mind won’t be nearly so difficult.

Some Points To Remember  

  1. Theme is the central idea, or focus, that runs through the entire story.
  2. The story should illustrate the theme.
  3. What characters do is a plot, but what they learn is the theme.
  4.  Let the theme come through the story in subtle ways; don’t preach.

Friday, October 12, 2012

October Memories

Have you added any stories to your Memory Book for the month of October? We're nearing the halfway mark of the month, so it's time to get busy if you haven't done so already. The poster above offers some good triggers for your memories.

What was life like during your childhood years during October? What kind of decorations and bulletin board topics did your teachers use? Did your mom start pulling out warmer clothes for everyone? Did you live in a part of the country where raking leaves was a big part of October?

Did your mom make pumpkin pies only in the fall, or other parts of the year, too? What did your scout troops do in October? How did the weather differ from other months? Halloween memories come into play this month, too.

As for me, October brings back memories of seeing huge piles of leaves that people had raked. Many made smaller piles and put them in the gutter area of the street, then burned them. Forbidden in most places today, but the smell of smoldering leaves figures into my October memories. Because we lived in a large apartment building, which had more concrete than grass and trees, I never had the experience of raking leaves or jumping in a big pile of them. But I watched it all on my way to and from school on October days.

I also remember my Girl Scout troop going to one of the Chicago Forest Preserves every October. All the city sounds and hustle bustle disappeared as we hiked the trails, identified trees and plant life, roasted hot dogs and marshmallows over an open fire. It was often chilly and damp on those outings, but we didn't mind. The chance to be in a natural environment was a thrill for kids raised in a city atmosphere.

Our teachers used a theme of colored leaves when decorating bulletin boards or doing art projects. My mother often started October by baking a pumpkin pie. She topped each piece with a huge dollop of real whipped cream. Cool Whip had not come along yet. Homemade soups and even Campbell's soups appeared with the cooler temps, and we started wearing our flannel pajamas to bed.

Halloween brought a school parade of kids in a variety of costumes, most of them put together at home, not purchased in a store like today. Then each class had a Halloween party where we played games like Bobbing for Apples, then ate our share and more of sweet treats. All to be followed by neighborhood Trick or Treat time.

Do your family a favor and write about life in October before we have to turn the calendar page to November. There are lots more things to write for that month.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Musing on Inspiration

I wonder sometimes if, as writers, we struggle too hard to find that perfect story to write. Do we try to find inspiration at every corner we turn? Maybe we are overly conscious when it comes to finding inspiration. 

Wouldn't it be nice if we woke up every morning inspired to write a great story, article or poem? Yes, but not very realistic. One way I get inspired is to attend writing seminars or conferences like the one I went to last week-end. Listening to the workshop leaders often makes me want to hurry home and start writing. Same thing after having many conversations with other writers. But we can't attend this kind of event on a weekly basis, or even monthly. It's an occasional occurrence. 

Rare is the day I bring my cup of tea or coffee to my office, sit at the computer and inspiration comes floating right into my lap. Not only rare, it's a never-gonna-happen kind of thing. Inspiration cannot be brought forth with the snap of your fingers. Search too hard and you may never find it.

The quote above is filled with wisdom. All the inspiration you need is within you. It may be buried so deep that it's pretty difficult to find and pull to the surface. The Be silent and listen part of the quote cautions us but also gives us hope. If we don't try so hard, if we let inspiration appear naturally, we're going to continue writing on a regular basis.

When I take long walks by myself, I often think of a story I want to write. I'll plan it mentally as I traverse the walking trail near our home. I'm quiet and I listen to the birdsong, the rustling of leaves on the trees, or the crackling sound they make as I walk through leaves that have already fallen. Among the gentle sounds of nature, I've found inspiration many times. Find a quiet place that is pleasing to you. Listen carefully to what's inside you. Just let it happen.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

My Writing Exercise

Yesterday, I posted an exercise for you to try. I've posted my effort below. You can see that it is a response to an exercise, but it's also a possible beginning for a story. More than one story or novel has started with a simple writing exercise. How did yours turn out? Care to share? 

Describe a landscape as seen by an old woman whose abusive husband has just died. Do not  mention the husband or death.

Tess plodded down the winding path that led to the pond. This morning, her legs moved in jerky strides, feeling heavier than they ever had. She needed to go faster, to get to the calm pond where she might sit and sort out her feelings.

The few wildflowers in the field looked like dancers doing a slow waltz on this only slightly breezy day. Branches on the willow trees seemed to sway to music, too. Seeing them brought to her mind a powerful word—freedom. Tess stopped, put her hands over her face, as a strange sound erupted from somewhere deep inside her. Laughter!

She straightened to her full height and lifted legs that suddenly felt like feathers as she moved on. A bullfrog croaked and a blue-toned dragonfly zipped past her ear. With a smile as broad as a boat paddle, she tasted the sudden freedom that had come her way only today. She would laugh now whenever she wanted to. She would sway in the breeze like the flowers and the willow branches. She would taste life again, life denied her for so many years.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Writing Exercises--Are They Worthwhile?

Why do we bother with writing exercises? What can possibly come from them? Should we flex our writing muscles with these exercises? Or should we just jump right into writing stories? For a writer, they're the equivalent of an athlete or an entertainer practicing over and over to perfect their talent. They will help you grow as a writer.

A writing exercise can:

be a story prompt. 

result in a descriptive paragraph that you will save to use someday in a story. 

serve to heighten your awareness of the five senses. 

help strengthen point of view in your stories

help you see the importance of active verbs

teach you to show more than tell

make the use of similes and metaphors easy

Here's an exercise that you can do many times.  Describe a landscape as seen by an old woman whose abusive husband has just died. Do not mention the husband or death.

This same exercise can be repeated because you can change the landscape. You can show her feelings in various ways. You can use active verbs, add sensory details, and strong verbs along with similes. Change the weather, the time of year--anything you like. You needn't do a writing exercise once and forget about it. There are many possibilities. By not mentioning the husband or death, you'll be forced to show rather than tell. 

Tomorrow, I'll share one of my tries at this exercise, and I hope you'll share yours, too.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Writing Contest Judges

Writers enter contests for several reasons--to win, to get their name into the writing world, perhaps to test themselves, to take a chance they might win or place. As I told you on Friday, our state authors convention was held this past week-end. The Awards Luncheon is the final part of the week-end. Contest entries were sent between April and June and entrants had to wait until October to find out if their work placed, won big, or got no recognition at all. That's a long wait which results in great joy for some and disappointment for others.

This particular contest has several categories in both poetry and prose. It's up to the writer to decide how many entries to send. There were some happy faces on the people who walked to the front to accept their award. The woman handing out the certificates and checks made a rather startling (to me anyway) statement as one person was on her way to receive an Honorable Mention. She said that the judge had penned a note on the entry that told the writer that her work probably would have placed much higher if the judge had been younger and more hip. 

Maybe that comment would have been better left for the individual to read herself rather than hear it publicly. But, it also got me to thinking about contests and the judges. Maybe the judges personality and stage of life plays a bigger part in winning contests than we realize. I feel, though, that a judge should not consider lifestyle, age group, or other specifics when judging a writing contest. Judge the writing, not what he/she relates to as far as those item are concerned.

If a 24 year old judges a memoir about WWII, he/she would have a difficult time relating to that era, but they can judge the impact of the writing, the passion behind it, the good or bad mechanics. If a 70 year old judges a piece on the rock bands lifestyle, he/she should consider those same things. Consider the writing above the subject matter. 

So, if you didn't win anything in a contest you entered--whichever and wherever it might be--don't give up. Enter your work in another contest or submit it to an editor for possible publication. I've often told writers that an editor is only one person. If the first one doesn't accept your submission, then move on to the next one. Her opinion could be altogether different. Judges are the same--all individuals.

An ideal situation would be to have 3 judges make their choices from a group of entries, then see which entries get unanimous votes, which have differing views etc. Note that I said ideal because in the real world, it's not easy to find people willing to commit to the time it takes to judge a writing contest. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

What's Your Convention Personality?

The Kansas Authors state convention is this week-end. I've been on the planning end of this one for the past two years. Writers from all parts of our state will be attending. The theme this year is "Encouraging Words" which covers a lot of territory. Writers can spread encouraging words with whatever they write. Readers receive encouraging words when they read the novels, stories, article and poetry the writers offer. Writers need the encouraging words spread at a week-end conference like this. We used a play on words from the song "Home on the Range." You know the one that has a line that says, ...not a discouraging word...  We turned it into a more positive but are keeping with the Kansas theme of the place where the buffalo once roamed (and still do in a few areas in our state), where the wheat fields dot the landscape along with tallgrass prairie, the Flint Hills, and the flatter lands of western Kansas.

I've been thinking about how people participate at writing conferences, whether they are attended by small numbers or large. Some sit and absorb, taking copious notes, but never offer an opinion or thought when they attend the workshops. Others are more vocal and share their knowledge and experiences in the writing world with no urging.

Some network like mad with the other writers while others sit quietly and listen. Like all things, there are myriad personalities in our writing world. Some people write because they enjoy working on their own, are perfectly happy in a quiet one-person atmosphere. Others need that personal contact that these conferences offer. Both can benefit.

Whichever personality you are, there is much to be gained from the workshops and keynote speakers. For the quiet people, I would urge you to step out of your comfort zone and participate fully in the workshops. And for the more vocal, reach out to the quieter people, draw them into the conversation. A writers convention or conference is meant to enrich your writing world. Enjoy the time spent in workshops, the gathering together for meals or maybe a glass of wine, at the Read-Arounds and in the Hospitality Room.

This is the schedule of workshops we have lined up. Wish you could all be there.

Saturday Workshop Presenters:
Nancy Julien Kopp [graphic dot]“Creative Nonfiction & Writing for Anthologies"
Mark Bouton 
[graphic dot]“Let's Write a Novel”
Kevin Rabas
 [graphic dot]“Writing Flash Fiction and Narrative Poems”
Judy Entz
 [graphic dot]“In the Know Concerning Self-publishing”
Ann Zimmerman
 [graphic dot]“Songwriting Should Not Be Left to the Pros”
Jim Hoy [graphic dot]
“Serendipity, the Writer's Best Friend”[graphic dot]“Finding Gold in the Flint Hills or Wherever You Live" 
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
 [graphic dot]“These are the Materials; the Transformative Power of Fiction” & Keynote:[graphic dot]“Wreckage, Wonder and Ways Through the Impossible; Writing Life's Hard Stuff in Poetry, Fiction and Non Fiction"

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Attitude Factor?

The quote above boils down to one word Attitude. You know the old rub about people who see the glass half-empty opposed to those who view it half-full. We're told over and over that attitude is important. I agree with that wholeheartedly and am frequently known to push the positive.

I wrote a personal essay a few years ago that starts out with a story and ends up with a nudge to have a good attitude as we age. It doesn't matter if it is about aging, or our writing world, or any other part of our lives. You'll get far more benefits with loving life and traveling the road with a good attitude than the other way around. Here's the essay, which has been published three times.

 Past, Present and Future
By Nancy Julien Kopp

 My dad told great stories. It took very little to trigger a family memory, and he’d relate a tale from long ago regarding an aunt or a grandparent or himself. As he told how afraid he’d been when something bumped on the outhouse door in his childhood, Dad’s face lit  up, and his eysparkled. He’d draw the story out, adding details as he went along, almost as though he didn’t want to reach the end. We heard how the bumping made his heart turn over and how he sat in the outhouse shaking. “What could it be?” he’d ask. The bump turned out to be a dairy cow that finally butted her head hard enough to open the door and meet our dad nose to nose. His frightened yowl scared her away.

One day he started to tell a story about his grandmother. I watched his gnarled hands work expressively and the way he leaned forward in his chair as he talked. I’d heard the story multiple times. I listened, although not very patiently, when a thought struck like thunder in a summer storm. Old people live in the past because they don’t like the present and they fear the future. Maybe the past wasn’t the best, but they know what happened then, and it’s a safe haven.

Perhaps the past provides a more secure spot because many older people aren’t especially happy with life right now, and they await a future that holds only mysteries and promotes anxiety. Why not retreat into the safety of days gone by?

 As we age, our once-strong bodies begin to betray us. Why is it so difficult to get up from a chair after sitting for a long time? Why has our energy level dropped so many points?  Why do knees ache so often? Now that I’m seventy, I don’t like that part of the present, and I’m willing to bet that few seniors do.

I’m definitely a tad fearful of the unknown future. I don’t want to be a burden to my spouse or my children or to consider the fact that I may need help in my home and perhaps even move to an assisted living facility—maybe even a skilled care center.

So what is a twenty-first century senior to do? I’m not about to give up my past. I’m a storyteller just like my dad. I find joy in reliving some of my experiences and thinking about people who are no longer in my life. But I try to keep it to a minimum. I know that what occurs today is more important, so I do all I can to cultivate a good present, weaving in only a little of the past. I accept some of my limitations and work hard to change others. I pursue an active social life because I love being around people, plus it’s good for me to have social stimulation.

There’s not a whole lot of control with the future, but I hope I’ve planned for it financially, spiritually, and emotionally. I’ll cross each bridge as it appears in the best way I can at the time. My family will support me, I’m sure, and together, we can probably handle it pretty well. And if I can no longer be in charge, I’ll try to accept help in whatever form it takes.

I believe it all comes down to having the right attitude. Preserve the past, enjoy the present and meet the future one day at a time.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Something Free for College Students

Free Student Clipart

This week-end, the Kansas Authors Club State Convention is being held in Salina, Kansas at the Ramada Inn. On Saturday, there will be workshops covering several areas of writing. 

To promote interest by younger writers, the planning committee made a decision to allow all college students with a valid ID to attend the Saturday sessions for free. What a great deal! 

The workshops begin at 10 a.m and run through 3:45 p.m. The convention theme is "Encouraging Words" and that's exactly what those attending will receive from the following presenters:

Judy Entz        In the Know Concerning Self-Publishing

Kevin Rabas    Writing Flash Fiction and Narrative Poems

Jim Hoy          Serendipity, the Writer's Best Friend & Finding Gold in the Flint Hills Or Wherever                          
                      You Live

Ann Zimmerman  Songwriting Should Not Be Left To The Pros

Mark Bouton    Let's Write A Novel

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg  These are the Materials: the Transformative Power of Fiction

Nancy Julien Kopp  Creative Nonfiction & Writing for Anthologies

It's a good line-up with varied topics. Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is the Poet Laureate of Kansas. I find it interesting that she also has a recently published novel (The Divorce Girl) to her credit.

I hope area students will take advantage of this offer. All the presenters are published or work in the publishing world. What a tremendous opportunity to learn more about the writing world and all for free.

Anyone not a college student can still show up on Saturday morning and pay the registration fee to attend the workshops, the Saturday evening banquet, the Sunday morning panel discussion and wards luncheon.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Creative Nonfriction At Its Best

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, written by Rebecca Skloot, is creative nonfiction at its best. I had seen a few reviews of the book when it was initially released, but to be honest, it didn't interest me enough to find a copy and read it. Maybe later, I told myself.

Then, one of the women in my book club selected it for our group to read and discuss at our October meeting. I was hooked immediately and kept reading with interest all the way to the end. 

The book details the story of a black woman, by the name of Henrietta Lacks, who died at John Hopkins Hospital of a rare form of cervical cancer in 1951. During one of her hospital stays, her doctor harvested some of her cells during one of her treatments. Unknown to her. Without asking for or receiving her consent. Henrietta died, leaving a husband and five young children who had no knowledge of what the doctor had done. Many cells taken for cultures die but Henrietta's flourished. They divided and divided over and over again, they showed no sign of dying. The scientist in the lab named the cells HeLa--a shortened version of the donor's name. Donor yes, but unknown to her at the time. 

The HeLa cells made it possible to make great strides in developing the polio vaccine, studying cancers of various kinds and so many other medical and science issues. Finally, the world learned about Henrietta's cells and all they'd done, how her cells, which numbered in the billions as time went on, made her immortal. 

Rebecca Sloot, a science journalist wanted to write a book about this amazing story, but to do that, she had to find the remaining family members, gain their confidence and get permission to use any information they might give her. Ms. Sloot financed the project on her own, mostly with credit cards and her own savings over the ten years it took to finish the book. The four remaining Lacks children, now adults, lived with confusion, anger, and pride over their mother's contribution to the science world. Some wanted to be paid, while others only wanted recognition for their long-dead mother. The surviving daughter wrestled with the whole situation that it affected her physical health and her mental state. The HeLa cells were all she had left of her mother who died when this woman was only a child of four.

The author takes the reader with her on her journey to find out what happened to Henrietta, what happened after her death and what the public airing of the whole situation did to a family who loved a mother taken from them all too soon.

The author brings the Lacks family to life, bit by bit. She presents their side and also the medical world's side in a non-biased manner. I credit her for not seeming to take sides in this issue for she certainly must have had a definite opinion of her own. She delves into a world of a poor black family whose lives do not mirror her own and she offers the reader many unwritten questions. There are ethical and moral questions that can be discussed and debated for hours on end. 

If you want to read a book that will fascinate you, leave you wondering what was right and what wasn't, then give this one a try. I have been told that the Freshman English classes at Kansas State University are all assigning this book as required reading. This well-written book will stay with you long after you read it.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Red Flags And A Boost

Writers often have a burning desire to start a big writing project. Maybe short story writers want to try and write a full-length novel. Or perhaps a novelist has dreamed of writing a screenplay. A poet might want to try his hand at writing  a sci-fi novel.

Maybe you've already written your dream project. But now you stand on the edge of the cliff. Should you try to market it to a publishing house or self-publish? Would it be wise to keep it print only or go right into an ebook? Will any of it work?

Another scenario might go like this: You've been writing short stories for years. You've never had the courage to show them to anyone, let alone try to get them published. You know your work is better now than it was all those years ago. Should you start sharing your work?

Even another could be: You have always wanted to write but life got in your way, and now you're well past the age when most begin to write. There's a new course at your community college that is meant for beginning writers. Do you dare sign up?

We wrestle with these decisions and perhaps we ask ourselves the questions above. Caution, caution, caution with the first three, but look at the last one. I love that line "Give it a try," whispered the heart. It would be worth writing on a large piece of paper and posting near your computer. Whenever those red flags fly in your face, look at it again, and believe it.

Trying doesn't guarantee success, but at least you won't be left wondering what might have happened. So go ahead...Give it a try.