Monday, November 23, 2015

Reads for Writers: On Conan Doyle by Michael Dirda Provides a Masterclass

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide masterclasses within their books.

          Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don’t generally have this option, but I have found some books to be masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice and/or creativity.


          On Conan Doyle by Michael Dirda is a two-fer as both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Michael Dirda provide Masterclasses. Dirda’s memoir, from his first reading of a Sherlock Holmes mystery as a fifth grader through to his present day membership in The Baker Street Irregulars, is full of the passion all avid readers feel about literary characters they love.

          Dirda recounts how he waited for a stormy day when he was alone in the house to read The Hound of the Baskervilles he bought through a book club at school. First he rode his bike to the store to buy provisions—candy bars, a box of Cracker Jack, and a cold soda—then climbed into a reclining chair under a blanket.

          “In the louring darkness I turned page after page, more than a little scared, gradually learning the origin of the dreaded curse…I shivered with fearful pleasure, scrunched further down under my thick blanket, and took another bite of my Baby Ruth candy bar, as happy as I will ever be.” (page 6)

          Can’t we all relate to that moment?

          This memoir is filled with the joy of reading, of discovering literary greatness, and of learning about other authors with the same feelings paying homage to Conan Doyle with their books like The Incredible Schlock Homes and its sequels by Robert L. Fish, full of puns and deliberately bad jokes, or The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes by Vincent Starrett, a most important study of the canon. A great number of these books are discussed in the text and a list is included in the back on pp. 203-206.

          Dirda also quotes Conan Doyle’s advice for novice writers:

          “…he reminds the novice to build up his vocabulary, to adopt a style that doesn’t draw undue attention to itself, to be natural. Above all, he argues that good writing should follow three rules: ‘The first requisite is to be intelligible. The second is to be interesting. The third is to be clever.’” (page 98)

          This is a fabulous book for anyone who loves Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or great writing.

          As Dirda states, “Whether you’re looking for mystery or horror, science fiction or romance, social realism or historical fiction, memoir or essay, Arthur Conan Doyle is the writer for you.” (page 199)

Is there a better recommendation than that?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Writing Longhand vs Keyboard

From Kate’s Writing Crate…


Somewhere long ago I heard someone say the physical act of continuous motion of your pen on paper connects your brain to your heart through your fingertips. You plug in your intuition. So, I write by hand every day. I doodle. I keep lists of ideas, which become a crazy haiku that I can sometimes decipher.

--Suzi Baum


For it would seem…that we write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person. The nerve which controls the pen winds itself about every fiber of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver.

 --Virginia Woolf


Writing by hand is also like…"sculpting words with a pen".

I read that phrase recently, but couldn’t find it again so I don’t know who wrote it. Normally I underline phrases, sentences, or passages I like in books or copy them into my notebooks or common books, but this time I only remember reading it so I apologize for having no attribution, but the phrase is so true for me I had to include it.

Since I’ve studied graphology, I’m interested in handwriting. It does look artistic from many angles, but I know it’s a form of sculpture from the solid callous near the top joint of my middle finger  that formed over years of holding a pen firmly while I inscribed my words into paper. Yes, into paper. I write firmly enough to be able to feel the words on the back of pages when I’m scribbling fast and furiously.

I love to write longhand in my favorite 80-page notebooks with my favorite pens—I favor blue ink in the Bic Cristal 1.6mm pen. (Not a paid endorsement.) It’s inexpensive and fast-writing as my hand tries to keep up with my thoughts—the qualities of a useful pen as recommended by Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones (page 5). She prefers cheap Schaeffer fountain pens.

The point of being a writer is to write. Before I had any paid assignments, I followed Natalie Goldberg’s advice to fill a notebook a month using fast-writing pens. I wrote about anything and everything to get those pages filled. My ideas and feelings oozed out through my pen mixed with what I had read, heard, and learned along the way. Over time my writing style appeared and shaped my work. I wrote all the time. In short, it’s how I became a writer.

I did this for years while in school, before and after jobs I hated—sometimes during, too—until I started my first magazine staff writing job which I wouldn’t have landed without all the writing practice in notebooks. As I began to write more professionally, I still filled a notebook a month until my writing assignments took up the majority of my time.

Now I spend most of my professional writing time using a keyboard. Writing this way has its charms: easy to do, easy to read, easy to reorganize, easy to delete, and easy to email—which is I why I can work from home.

These are all the reasons I love writing using a keyboard and computer, but I will never give up filling notebooks with my thoughts, ideas, and quotes that appeal to me with attributions because I love the feel of a pen in my hand. I love how intuitive I feel when writing with a pen. I love filling pages with words leaving trails of ink in my unique style.

I also love looking at these notebooks years later. They are proof I have written as opposed to Word docs that were never printed out only emailed to editors to appear in magazine issues. Not only are these pages sculpted by the words I inscribed, but the filled notebooks are also haphazardly-piled colorful sculptures displayed on shelves around my home. I love knowing I’ve created art.


Monday, November 9, 2015

Cookbooks Gifts Written By Kelsey Nixon and Claire Robinson

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          The holiday season is upon us—this means providing feasts and giving gifts. I find that good cookbooks meet both challenges.

          This year, I’m recommending two: Kitchen Confidence: Essential Recipes and Tips That Will Help You Cook Anything by Kelsey Nixon and 5 Ingredient Fix: Easy, Elegant, and Irresistible Recipes by Claire Robinson.

          I discovered Kelsey Nixon on the Cooking Channel hosting Kelsey’s Essentials. The focus of her show was teaching people techniques along with recipes so they could become comfortable with cooking. She makes everything fun and easy. Her new show, Kelsey’s Homemade, begins on November 14th.

          In her cookbook, I enjoyed her introduction explaining how she became a good cook. However, I love her essential lists on pages 12-15. Nixon shares what you should have in your pantry for fresh, frozen, and on-the-shelf ingredients as well as spices. Having your pantry stocked up means quicker meals especially on busy days.

Nixon lists go on to include essential equipment from cookware and cutlery to baking and miscellaneous items. And what makes a good cook? Knowing the ten essential techniques so roasting, pan roasting, stir-frying, grilling, braising, blanching, pickling, baking, frosting, and working with yeast dough are second nature. Once you master these techniques, there’s nothing you cannot create.

Kelsey Nixon gives her readers confidence in the kitchen not only with her recipes and directions, but with personal notes at the top of each page. Her recipes include plenty of comfort foods for every meal—Prosciutto, Mushroom, and Gruyere Strata (page 22); Sloppy Jane Sliders (page 101), Tortellini with Snap Peas and Lemon-Dill Cream (page 129); and Skillet Blueberry and Peach Cobbler (page 211)—as well as some outside my comfort zone—Caramelized Onion-Tomato Jam (page 67), Ratatouille Tart (page 69), and Carnitas Tacos with Pickled Red Onions (page 139).

          I discovered another cook through TV. Claire Robinson’s show and cookbook have an intriguing hook: there are only five ingredients or fewer in every recipe. One caveat: salt, pepper, and water are freebies. How can anyone go wrong with recipes this concise?

          On her show, 5 Ingredient Fix on the Food Network, I’m always amazed at what Robinson can create within this parameter. She makes four dishes on each show including a dessert. 

In her cookbook, Robinson also lists the basics that should be in the kitchen including cooking equipment, small appliances, supplies as well as food pantry items including double-duty ingredients (pages 14-17).

I randomly choose the Ginger and Lemon Roasted Chicken with Braised Fennel recipe from her book. Four ingredients are in the title. The fifth ingredient is butter, plus the three freebies. The key is using ingredients in multiple ways like the lemon. The recipe calls for lemon zest, lemon juice, and lemon slices (page 120).

Fresh Pea Ravioli with Crispy Prosciutto sounds delicious. Lemon-infused olive oil sneaks in another layer of flavor to these ricotta enriched, wanton-wrapped ravioli (page 160).

Millionaire’s Shortbread is a three layer dessert that still uses only five ingredients plus salt. Again, there is a double-duty ingredient. This time it’s butter. (See page 212.)

With each recipe, Robinson notes what really makes it sing as well as listing other ingredients you could add for variations like carrots and celery in the roasting pan with the fennel, mint or basil inside the Pea Ravioli, or finely chopped toasted almonds in the shortbread.

Use your writing talents to add beautiful notes to these cookbooks to make them the perfect gifts.


Monday, November 2, 2015

Write Like a Photographer

From Kate’s Writing Crate...

          In celebration of my father’s birthday, I arranged for a professional photo shoot in the yard to use the bright fall foliage as the backdrop while family members, including the dogs, posed for portraits. As everyone relaxed, candid shots were also taken.

          It’s funny how differently people—and dogs—act when cameras are around. My father’s German shepherd is usually within a few feet of him most of the time. However, when the cameras were turned her way, she knew she was the star of the show. She scampered off with the squeaky ball meant only to make her ears perk up and look at the camera. She sat when asked, but soon was doing her own thing: rolling around in the yellow maple leaves; flopping down with her tongue hanging out; and looking pensively off into the distance instead of at the cameras then racing off to play with the other dogs.

          With digital cameras, photographers can catch all this action by taking thousands of pictures per photo shoot with lots of variations. Subjects in different poses, grouped together and separately. Using close up and wide angle shots. And taking multiples of the same shot to make sure it’s in focus and properly framed.

When we see the proofs, not every photo is going to be perfect. Someone’s eyes will be closed or mouth open. The dogs will be blurry in action. The angle will cut off the top of a head. The wind will have ruffled hair. But some shots taken between these flawed photos will be the gems where the light and shadows are perfect and the subjects are all looking in the right direction with attractive expressions on their faces.

These are the photos worth taking, but they can’t be singled out, only captured among thousands of others.

          Writers have pictures in our heads. We commit them to paper. No pixels, only words. And not just any words, but the right words. It’s an extraordinary endeavor.

This is why we write rough drafts then rewrite pieces repeatedly. Every thoughtful rewrite focuses our writing, develops our style, and sharpens our skills so readers can clearly see our vision.

These are the words worth writing, but they are also only captured among thousands of others.

No one tells photographers every shot has to be perfect. So why does anyone think first drafts have to be perfect?

Write like a photographer. Choose interesting subjects and settings. Group various subjects together and see how they react then rearrange them. Use different perspectives. Try the same perspective, but zoom in for details then out for the overview. Use light and shadow—what needs to be revealed and what can remain a secret? What can be cropped? What’s in focus? Have we framed the piece properly?

Great writing, like great photography, depends on the choices we make.    



Monday, October 26, 2015

Reads for Writers: Kresley Cole Provides a Masterclass in her Immortals After Dark Series

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide masterclasses within their books.

          Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don’t generally have this option, but I have found some books to be masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice, and/or creativity.  


          As a nod to Halloween, I write about paranormal fiction in October. It’s not the genre I’m most likely to read, but I always learn a lot from authors who write it well.        

Fiction is difficult enough to write in settings readers recognize or can relate to easily, but authors who can create whole new worlds for characters with preternatural abilities have to be really good to make it believable.

One of these authors is Kresley Cole who writes the Immortals After Dark series. Among her characters’ abilities: it’s very hard to kill these immortals—usually they have to lose their heads, some can regenerate limbs, some have access to magic while other count on supernatural strength. They all look human, but some change their looks when they are fighting, in fear, or there is a full moon. All have allies and enemies as their world is a dangerous place.

          In this series, Cole inhabits her novels with werewolves (Lykae Clan), vampires, Valkeries, witches, sorceresses, and many other creatures with an amazing array of powers. In A Hunger Like No Other, the first book, werewolf leader Lachlain MacRieve has escaped from being imprisoned in a fire pit for 150 years by the powerful vampire Demestriu because he sensed his true mate was on the street above him.

Mates mean everything to werewolves so they will do anything to find and protect them. But Lachlain’s dream of happiness with his mate, Emmaline Troy, may be doomed as she is nothing that he expected while Emma wasn’t expecting a mate at all. She is considered weak by her family so she is in Paris alone to study. Now she has a handsome and powerful suitor who claims her, but is unkind because of her background. Her instincts tell her to run, but she cannot escape her fate--or can she?

Lachlain also still has to even the score with Demestriu. The werewolves and vampires are headed for battle, but love is complicating everything. Once he accepts his mate, he will do anything to keep her happy. However, his clan’s interests clash with his responsibilities to Emma. Difficult choices have to be made by both Bowen and Emma. Who will prove to be stronger?

One of my other favorites in this series is Wicked Deeds on a Winter’s Night. Many more creatures take part in this book as the plot revolves around An Amazing Race-like contest only the winner of this game gets to use Thrane’s Key to go back in time twice.         

          The two main characters are werewolf Bowen MacRieve, Lachlain’s cousin, and Mariketa the Awaited who is a witch. Bowen wants to go back in time to save his fiancée. Mariketa’s parents need to be saved as well so both are determined to win the prize.

Bowen is drawn to Mariketa, but he despises witches as one devastated his family. Also, he has remained true to his mate since her death so he doesn’t want to acknowledge any attraction.

Mariketa hasn’t yet transitioned to her immortal state, but Bowen is unaware of that fact. When he traps her and several other contestants in a burial chamber during the game, he presumes she will escape using a spell. However, her magic is strong, but not very accurate. She doesn’t want to blow everyone up so they prepare to wait for rescue. Unfortunately, there are gruesome creatures in the tomb who want to feed off her…

          When Mariketa doesn’t return to her coven, her fellow witches try to track her down. Discovering Bowen had been giving her trouble, they tell Lachlain to expect war if Maiketa isn’t returned quickly.  Once Bowen realizes she cannot save herself, he rushes back to rescue her. He is not prepared for her reaction to his return or all the obstacles he will face getting her home.

          Bowen's instincts are telling him Mariketa is his mate so when his fiancée reappears he is torn between the two of them. Who is his true love?

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Soul of Creative Writing by Richard Goodman

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          I discovered Richard Goodman when I read his Introduction “In Search of the Exact Word” in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (post dated 6/9/14). It’s a tribute to Flaubert for penning the phrase le mot juste, i.e., the exact word. According to Flaubert, “All talent for writing consists after all of nothing more than choosing words. It’s precision that gives writing power.”

Wanting to read more of Goodman’s work, I tracked down The Soul of Creative Writing which includes his complete essay “In Search of the Exact Word” as well as four other essays in Part 1: Words “The Music of Prose”, “The Secret Strength of Words”, “Some Things English Can’t Do—and Shouldn’t”, and “The Nerve of Poetry”. Part 2: Writing consists of four essays and a list of maxims: “Using the Techniques of Fiction to Make Your Creative Nonfiction Even More Creative”, “Finding a Great Title”, The Eminent Domain of Punctuation”, “It’s About Nothing: Finding Subjects for Creative Writing in Everyday Life”, and “Maxims about Writing”.

I do not have space to share every paragraph and passage that inspired me, but here are some highlights:

In the end, the creation of original music in prose—or style, if you will—is that mysterious combination of everything you’ve learned, read and practiced with who you are. It’s unique, like your handwriting or fingerprint, though achieved with blood, sweat, and tears. But worth it. Because, in the end, as Flaubert said, “One must sing with one’s own voice.”  (page 16)

…The thing is, though, there are many pains in writing, but one of its most narcotic joys is putting down a word you believe does the job extraordinarily well. It’s just right. It’s juste. When you see it there, on the page, grinning out at you in all its handsome self, you know it’s been worth the effort. And when you return to it, it will still be just as handsome.  (page 22)

…in Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon word for sea is “whale road,” hronrade. As a poet, as a writer, of course this would excite him [Borges]. What a metaphor! It turns things on their heels. The sea does not belong to we humans, but is—and here we name it—a highway for enormous swimming mammals. The implication is that here we have peoples, who despite their lack of mercy, were capable of outright awe, of perspective, of knowing their place in the world. Though often murderous, they understood the sea was a place where boats were, at best, uninvited guests.  (page 33)

By thinking of those people who created bits of sound that could be repeated to others reliably, we link ourselves to the tidal struggle of what it means to be human. We link ourselves to the effort of trying to make sense and order of an often perplexing world in which we live. To imagine this is to feel a responsibility. I think that, as with the seeds of plants and trees, we are the stewards of words.  (page 34)

But the most important thing to observe here is that Robert Finch is absolutely unafraid to write about something as “insignificant” as a hornet. In fact, he’s confident that it’s significant enough to warrant writing about. Why? Because he trusts his own predilections and lets them go where they will lead him. And here we turn to Emerson, one of our great wise men, to give this idea some big-name clout. In his famous essay, “Self-Reliance,” Emerson writes, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.”  (page 100)

If you have a thought, an idea, a change, don’t ever delay putting it down—not even for three seconds. It will escape forever. No amount of pleading, prayer, or cursing will bring it back. A small part of your mind will be like the Flying Dutchman, searching fruitlessly for the lost thought for all eternity.  (page 108)

Write some of whatever you’re writing in longhand. Sculpt the words with your ink or lead. Experience the connection between your mind and your pen or pencil. You are an artificer as well as an artist.  (page 109)


Monday, October 12, 2015

What's Scary About Writing?

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          When I see actors being interviewed on TV, they often talk about looking for and accepting roles that scare them. They want the challenge to dig deep and make it work even if they might fail. However, if they are being interviewed about “scary” roles, it’s because they successfully met the challenge.

          For most of us, everything about writing is scary:

Facing a blank page;

Searching for ideas;

Struggling for just the rights words; and

Feeling stupid or self-indulgent as well as exposed.

          On this year’s Emmy broadcast, Jane Anderson was the winner of the Limited Series or Movie Writing Award for her Olive Kitteridge script. In her acceptance speech she said, “First let me just acknowledge all my fellow writers out there who were nominated tonight. We all face that horrible, horrible blank page. And we’re here and we solved our scripts and isn’t that remarkable!”

          It is remarkable that we write in the face of all the scary obstacles, but, if we are brave, we learn to write in spite of them. We know there are rewards—a phrase or sentence that entrances , a piece we are proud of, or as Ellen Gilchrist describes it on page 68 of her book, The Writing Life:

“…Because it feels good. The brain is easily addicted to feeling good and nothing on earth, with the exception of great sex, feels as good as having written well and truly in the morning. Actually it is better than sex because you control the whole activity and the afterglow can last for years if the work is published and other people profit from it. The lasting pleasure is not in their praise but in your knowledge that you have contributed something of value to the culture from which you derive your being.”

           Be brave. Write. Dig deep and make it work. Contribute something of value to the culture. Make your mark. That’s why we are here.

If we write, we may or may not end up being interviewed on TV or winning an Emmy. The rewards from our work will remain unknown unless we overcome the scary challenges of writing.