Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Baby Steps of Writing #4: Opening with a Line in the Sand

Starting a novel can be intimidating. Finishing even more so. It is my hope that this series will help other soon-to-be or wanna-be writers find a place to begin a novel and better yet, empower them to finish. Here you will find all the advice I wish someone would have given me when I first started writing fiction.
Oh, man! I’ve been gone from my blog for so long. I’m sorry! Life gets crazy for us all and mine is no exception. But continuing on with my Baby Steps of Writing, I’m discussing elements of openings.
Openings must set the mood, introduce a dynamic character, and compel the reader forward with tension. Most of all, the opening of a book should force the reader to care. Emotional investment is the reason to keep reading, to buy the book, to tell your friends they just have to read this one. It can also be called the so-what of the story.
My favorite way to do this (and the technique I strongly recommend using) is The Line in the Sand
The line in the sand is when we as writers state the book’s purpose which will be established through out the tale. This is either an idea that will be overturned or the driving force where the character’s actions are fostered. A line in the sand is different from the theme because the line is a belief statement. It can be the theme, but more like the expectation we try to set for the reader in a flashing neon sign. Often it carries an undertone just like a theme would, though. We smell and taste trouble. We flat-out tell the reader what they’ve gotten themselves into and then set up the rest of the story to either refute or reinforce the statement we’ve made.

Here’s an example of an opening line from The Help: “Taking care of white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime.” Abileen is going to decide if taking care of white ladies’ households is what she can or will continue to do once things get out of hand.
The famous lines from Pride and Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” We automatically ask, “Is this true in Regency England?” And the characters are going to prove or disprove this statement about single, wealthy men.

Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” That name has so much baggage! We automatically know the character likely will too. In The Bible, Ishmael was cast out of his father’s landholdings once the favored son, Isaac, was born. Ishmael is telling us he is a castaway, a nomad, and we can safely bet he sees himself as second best. He might even have a cheeky chip on his shoulder.

Here’s one from my own work in progress: Right now I have only to save myself.” The main character is going to have to decide if that is true, if she can live with herself by only saving her own skin and no one else’s.

Anyway, that is the Line in the Sand. What do you think?
Could you work one into your own story?
Do you want to?
So what are everyone’s plans for the holidays? I’m hoping mine will be quiet enough to let me work on my blog, my writing, and my Super-Secret Project. *grins*

Have a wonderful holiday season, my friends!

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Baby Steps of Writing #3: Telling Titles

Starting a novel can be intimidating. Finishing even more so. It is my hope that this series will help other soon-to-be or wanna-be writers find a place to begin a novel and better yet, empower them to finish. Basically, this is all the advice I wish someone would have given me when I first started writing fiction.

If eyes are the windows to the soul, then titles are windows into a book’s content. (Well, maybe that and the cover. But the title is usually what we see first….)

A title is the flashing light that arrests the reader and says, “Check me out!” You want it to be good. But you also don’t want to be so attached to it that you’d change your firstborn’s name to the same set of words.

 Here are some tricks to come up with a working title:
  • Include irony! Just like the conceptual hook, a title with irony or a double meaning packs a punch. Make that title a loaded gun. (Think of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold—the title itself is eerie and incongruous, just what we expect of the novel when we start to read.)
  • Make a list of all title options, even if you feel they aren’t very good. Send them in an email to a trusted friend or spouse and see what they say. Who knows? They may send back an email with their own list to help you brainstorm better. (It worked for Shannon Hale and a title for one of her Bayern books was born.)
  • KISS that title! Keep It Simple, Stupid. The simpler the title, the easier it is for readers to remember it. Thus easier for them to pass a referral along when they like it.
  • Make a list of keywords that describe the tone and/or the theme of your book. Then make a list of keywords that make your story unique. (A good thesaurus and are great resources here.) Somewhere in these lists there might be a word or combined words intriguing or catchy enough to use as a title.
  • Write down the setting of your book. Is it important enough to be included in the title?
  • Think of applicable quotes and proverbs. Do they fit as a possible title in some fashion? What about a play on words? (For example, my book about a high school Senior on an all-things Beatle’s tour has a working title of Her Ticket to Ride. So it references a song by the band central to the story.)
  • What about your main character? If the book is about a single character’s emotional or physical (or both) journey, consider indulging them by having their names in the title.
  • Are there any significant lines in your book that express the gist of the book? Margaret Mitchell didn’t call her book Scarlett or Tara but “Gone with the Wind”—a nod to the line Scarlett says in a poignant part of the book.
Things you might now know about titles:
  • Titles cannot be copyrighted. Content can, however, so make sure your vampire novel called Twilight is very different from anything Stephenie Meyer wrote.
  • Titles are great at inspiring more story ideas. Sit down and write 2 to 3 word phrases that roll off the tongue. If you did this a few minutes everyday, you’d be surprised how flooded with story ideas you’d become. (Same goes with chapter titles when you are stuck plotting.)
More advice:
  • Consider all titles as working titles because if the book gets published at a leading house, your editor and the editorial committee have a huge say in what the book’s name should be.
  • Say your proposed titles out loud. Which ones roll off the tongue? Which portray what it’s about the best? Rank all the ones that you like, from the most loved to the most pathetic.
  • Make sure your title is pronounceable and doesn’t have words so uncommon they are easily forgettable.
Just like reading people through eye-contact, titles can be mysterious or straightforward. Intriguing or familiar. Open-hearted or dark. Sensitive and quiet or loud and garish. Whichever approach you choose, make that title a part of your voice as a writer. It’s your baby, after all, no matter how many people have a say in what you name it.

Q4U: How do titles come to you?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Baby Steps of Writing #2: Having the Courage

Starting a novel can be intimidating. Finishing even more so. It is my hope that this series will help other soon-to-be or wanna-be writers find a place to begin a novel and better yet, empower them to finish. Basically, this is all the advice I wish someone would have given me when I first started writing fiction.
Continuing on with our baby steps of writing, today I’m talking about solidifying your concept. (If you missed Step #1, go here to the previous post about creative banners.)

So we’ve made our creative banner (i.e. the essence of the joy we’ve found in the initial story idea, the thing(s) that we most love about it). Now we need to mold the idea further into a tangible concept.

What a concept is NOT:
  • A theme, which gives mood and meaning to your story
  • Your banner. It’s a refined version and presentable version of your banner.
  • Your idea. I’s more expanded than that idea was initially.
  • Your plot. The concept is only an ignition coil while your plot is going to be your V8 engine.
What a concept IS:
  • The irony that makes your story different. (For example, in my book Courtesy and Patience, the main irony is a group of backwoods orphans, who never have anything unusual happen to them, have a never-seen before flying machine fall on their heads. What’s more, the balloon is full of sorcerer’s stones. Unusual and unexpected.)
  • Your banner duded up then married off to an interesting main character, a conflict, and a setting all in one “I do”.
  • Your hook. You have only two or three sentences to spew this information in a compelling way.
  • Your expanded idea. It’s about (insert character here) in (insert setting here) who wants (insert motivation here) but (insert conflict and/or antagonist here) gets in his/her way. Not really that simple but kind of is.
Larry Brooks, in his book Story Engineering, says to run a list of “What if?” questions to find your concept. I’ve never tried this, but I think it could really help boil your story down to what is the most compelling. (Just make sure you don’t include the questions in your query. Most agents hate rhetorical questions in query letters.) Another trick is to write down all the choices you don’t want in your story until you find what you do (i.e. you want to write a spy book but you know you don’t want a Bond character and you don’t want it set during the Cold War. So how about a New York nanny in a contemporary world? Spin the idea on its head until it looks like you’ve put your touch on a normal story idea.) Pretty soon by process of elimination, you’ll have come up with the beginnings of a concept. What I do is try and write a compelling concept several different ways, evaluate what I like and don’t like about each one and then mesh together the good stuff. I share it with my writing friends on paper and verbally pitch it to my non-writing friends. My writing friends give me honest feedback and my non-writing friends have tells in their body language that let me know what they really think of the idea. If that’s not enough (and even if it is), I fill out this form:


What it is in a nutshell: (1 to 2 sentences)

It’s like __________, but different because it ___________.

The Irony: (The appealing dichotomy or dichotomies in the story)

Hook: (The irony and the conflict in as few words as possible)

Who would my PERFECT audience be? (Twelve year old boys into baseball or purple-haired elderly ladies at a tea party?)

ATMOSPHERE of the Book: (The tone or the mood of the book.)

Locations and Time Periods:

Notice a lot of the info in my list could potentially be redundant. (About like washing a car in the rain.) No sweat. Thinking about each element in different ways helps our brains catch the strengths and weaknesses of our concept.

Whatever exercise you do to find your concept, make sure you write down everything and keep it with the rest of your files for that specific story. I cut and tape them in a notebook specific to this shiny new idea. And I don’t throw away any drafts or ideas. Some little piece might later be the spark I need to fix a problem or change a concept all together.

Anyway, that’s concept. I would be happy to help anyone struggling with this, there's no sense in being discouraged on your own! Just email me @ jackee(dot)alston(at)gmail(dot)com.

Best of luck, my friends! Next post: Title Ideas.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Baby Steps of Writing #1: Starting Smart, Starting Centered

Photo Credit
This post is for anyone who is thinking of starting a novel.
This post is for writers who are setting those first exciting words to page.
This post is for those who are ready to write a second, third, or fourth book.
This post is for anyone who wishes they could minimize the amount of rewriting they have to do on their novels.
This post is for people who prefer to tackle huge projects with baby steps.
In other words, this post is for everyone. (Provided they are open to my opinion I'm giving here.)

Fiction writing is hard yet rewarding emotionally. Most of my “writing block” comes from, “What do I do next?” Because of this, sometimes I balk at it being the only discipline I know of that does not need a blueprint, a formula, a recipe, a protocol, or a sketch to begin. Sure, I’m a huge outliner, but often my outlines are haphazard and unfocused. This can work—and there is no one right way—but you have to be willing to accept that the less you plan up front, the more time you will spend rewriting. At least in my experience, it’s been that way.

After experimenting with different methods of plotting (and reading several writing books), I’m going to share with you what works the best for me in the next few blog posts. (All in portioned out baby steps.) My hope is that it might help some of you out there who have asked for my advice:

Baby Step #1
First, we start with an IDEA.
The idea is a lovely place to be. It’s so shiny and exciting—perfect in its very untainted form. For J. K. Rowling, the idea was the character Harry Potter, fully formed in her head on a delayed train. For Neil Gaiman, an image set a book in motion (I think maybe he said this about either Coraline or The Graveyard Book?). For Stephanie Meyer, it was a picnic scene she had had in a dream. For some people it’s a title with a dim idea as to why it should be titled so. In whatever form the idea comes to you, write it down. That’s the first step and one most of us writers can’t bear to not do. Write all you know about it, especially what excites you about it. It could come out as dialogue, narrative, a list, or whatever. Maybe all the above. It doesn’t matter; just write it down however the words come. Go ahead—get it out of your system. You deserve to not have it buzz around in your head forever. Be aware, though, that much of what you are going to write here won’t make it into your final draft.

Now reread your idea. Underline what is your favorite part about this idea. You will use that to make your IDEA BANNER. This banner is going to wave above everything else you do with this book. This is going to hold you firm to what the story is supposed to be about. Your Idea Banner isn’t the hook, the log-line, the concept, premise, or anything else. It’s the essence of idea and the pure passion you have for it. And it’s meant only for you.

If you are ahead of me (as in already writing the book) and don’t see the point in this first exercise, I urge you try it anyway. It will ground your novel. Think of this as the center stake in the huge circus tent you are erecting. You can lean on this banner as the ideas flow into your work. It will help you keep perspective on what really mattered to you about the story. Go ahead and try it, I challenge you. :o)

 So there you have it: Baby Step 1. Write the initial shiny stuff. Then sift through the shinies until you find its essence, what you love most about it. Make that the flag under which you march AND set up camp. Good luck! (And please let me know how it goes for you, if you decide to take the baby step challenge.)


Thursday, September 15, 2011


I am really good at over-complicating things. (Don’t ask me how to run my own Blu-ray player even—I have to know what every button on the remote is for or I won’t use it. And I don’t. Because I lost the manual and there are too many options.)

But when life is simple—or rather when I take time to rejoice in simple things—I forget why I usually over-complicate my life. Dieter Uchtdorf, a man I admire, said, “There is beauty and clarity that comes from simplicity that we sometimes do not appreciate in our thirst for intricate solutions.”

Creative people love beauty but can get lost when they weave too many strands into a masterpiece. The beauty of simplicity is lost. I’ve found this out the hard way lately when deeply searching if a plot to a book is over-complicated. Pretty soon I see where I’ve dropped other threads because I was too busy weaving in another and things have become muddled, the colors unblended. (This is why I’m such an outliner usually. I don’t like to find these sections in my writing after I’ve written it so I combat it with plotting.) Now to blend the colors I’m doing a lot of frustrating rewriting. On the bright side, I’m learning a lot. They are such good lessons that perhaps some of them I’ll share on future posts. Perhaps….

But there are many simple things I’ve been able to rejoice in lately. I have also had a wonderful few months:
  • Planting a seed and watching it grow into a beautiful plant.
  • Watching thin, spindly growth sprout from a tree cutting, soon on its way to becoming taller than my house. (Imagine—something so fragile and small to something so huge!)
  • Watching how a simple loaf of bread can bring a smile to a friend’s face.
  • Discovering people I know helping other people with a humble meal when they hadn’t the physical means to feed their family that day.
  • Canning an over-abundance of produce to store for another day. (A new skill for Steve and me!)
  • Learning new skills.
  • Sharing a book I love with a friend I love.
  • Writing a new story.
  • Listening to my kids play uninterrupted.
  • Basking in the presence of women (like my mother) who know so much more than me.

And just to add another beautiful thought, I’ll include a piece that’s usually included in the Navajo (Dineh) Blessingway ceremony. (I found it researching for a novel. I love beauty of new research too!)

With beauty may I walk.
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty all around me, may I walk.

What an awesome prayer. I wish this for all of you!

Q4U: What simple things bring beauty to your life?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What Blogging Has Given Me

Blogging has given me...
  • An outlet to discover my writing voice.
  • Friends to meet, some to treasure forever (click on the sidebar links under betas, you’ll be glad you did).
  • A place to soul search. (Between this and my private, family blog, this will be my 424th post.)
  • A professional connection arena, since those are limited in my small town.
  • Courage to declare myself a writer (and to show what it is I write).
  • A world outside of raising young children when needed.
  • A vast amount of people who motivate me to be more, to do more, learn more.
  • Greater knowledge about many topics, but especially on writing craft.
  • People I wouldn’t normally get to interact with, but a place where geographic boundaries no longer matter.
  • A greater understanding of myself and my passions.
  • Empty space to brag about my kids.
  • Better editing skills… okay, maybe not that….

From this list you can see blogging has been about building relationships for me. After a summer of deep evalution on if I want to conintue blogging or not, I’m here to stay. I love the relationships I’ve gained here and have missed posting and visiting. No more once a month jaunts. I’m back, baby!

Q4U: What has blogging given you?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Summer Whiplash: an update

Yeah, I stink at blogging these days. Sorry. I really do love to blog, love visiting new blogs, love meeting new people through blogging, and… well… I pretty much love everything about blogging. It just seems to take too low a priority in my day right now. No excuse other than that.

But school is about to start and time will open up a little! And since I’ve been absent, I thought I’d share what has been up in my world:
1. I spent last week with my in-laws in San Diego: all 14 of us crammed into a little beach house and we survived! Actually, everyone got along great and the truth be told, I really do love them as my own. Especially my husband’s siblings (all 4 of them). We’ve been married long enough that I’ve been lucky to have watched the younger two grow up into the amazing adults that they are today.

Photo courtesy Stephanie Alston
2. Besides CA, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling to CO and NM visiting my family. (Have I mentioned how much I love acronyms?)
3. Thanks to my dear friends and associates, we have about 40 humanitarian aid school kits together! Almost all the bags are sewn, we are collecting school supplies now. With school supplies on sale, I’m sure we’re going to get the bulk of them filled this month.
4. Our yard is coming together this year! We’ve planted dozens of new trees and have an amazing herb and vegetable garden going. I never would have believed we could grow anything out here where the wind, rocks, frosts, insects, rabbits, and etcetera are against us. Even the chickens have left it alone. Next on my list is to make my own cheeses. I’m going to live off the land, baby! (Ha! Yeah, right.)
5. This is the sad news: after being in remission for a little while, my mom’s cancer is back. I mention this because some of you have been there for me as my mom has fought this off and on for the last four years. This will be her third fight and I couldn’t be prouder of her. Cancer is a ravaging demon and chemo not much better.
6. I’ve been plotting, plotting, and REplotting! No, I’m not planning to take over the world, I’ve just been trying out exercises to revamp the plots of two books. It’s been great: these new tricks have helped me see glaring holes in both my story and character development. Now to implement them into the actual drafts… that will take awhile.
7. It seems like I’ve spent most of my summer entertaining kids. Taking them here, doing this there. Am I the only one that over did it on the fun wagon? Please don’t let me be the only one who fell into that trap….

So... how is everyone? Having a good summer? What’s new?????!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Alcoholics Anonymous, Holy Grails, and Control Freaks

I talk a lot about prioritizing time here, especially writing time. Sometimes I practice what I preach, sometimes I don’t. The truth is, I’m a control freak. I’m getting better the older I get, but I’m still looking for the ever-illusive way to manage and balance my time, money, and weight/fitness. To me, being able to control these three aspects of my life is like the Holy Grail of a balanced life. And being as it is a Holy Grail, I’ll probably never achieve it. But if it exists, I think maybe… a huge MAYBE… the Grail is kept at Alcoholics Anonymous.

Though, I’ve never been a drinker—as in I don’t drink—I admire their philosophies. They apply well to managing time (especially writing time), weight control, exercise, and money.

Modifying some of their steps, I’ve come up with a few of my own…
1. Admit there’s room for improvement.
Books (and any large projects, for that matter) are created in those stolen moments of time. Sure we wish we all had big blocks of time, but the surprising progress is made in the 15-30 minutes we chisel away at the rough-cut stone. The same thing could be applied for finding time to exercise. Spend sometime evaluating where in your life you can spare fifteen to twenty-five minutes, with five more left for mental preparation to move on to the next thing in your day. (Another tip: As you list how you spend your days, especially identify the areas you consider time wasters. These are golden opportunities for carving out time for more important things.)
2. Write an inventory of the reasons why you are tempted to “waste” time/not write/not exercise/eat too much or unhealthily/spend too much money. These reasons may seem big or trivial.
3. Open your heart. Be ready to improve.
4. Make a list or a chart of accountability. How much time are you really spending on writing? Exercising? Shopping? How many calories are you eating? How much money are you spending? There is great power in a written report of our doings.
5. Practice self-control. Then give yourself little rewards for the restraint and courage you’ve showed.
6. The above all said, if being too regimented is sucking the fun out of you, then don’t it. There is a happy medium for every person and if looking back and seeing how much you’ve accomplished doesn’t outweigh the drudgery of accounting for your time, then something must change. Account for activities weekly instead of daily. Or if nothing else, run through a mental check of your doings at the end of the day. Doing some accounting will improve your productivity better than doing none.

As I have said, I’m no expert at managing time for writing/exercise/blogging. (Obviously—I’ve neglected blogging most of the summer!) For sure I can’t balance a budget to save my over-indulgent life. But I’m trying! And if you’re too, I hope my take on AA has given you some ideas of your own to help you.

P. S. Notice I’m only to Step 6… haven’t made it any farther in my own program… lol.

Q4U: Anyone have great time or money management techniques they’d like to share? I would love to hear your ideas!

Monday, June 20, 2011

In a perfect world

In a perfect world…
  • Every person is of value, has something to offer.
  • Every person has something to say and it is okay if others don't agree, the opinion is still valid.
  • Every person is able to portray themselves looking or doing anything they wish. That is the only visual others have to go by.
  • Every person is judged only by what one says and does. Not by what one looks like.
  • Every person helps one another along the pathway of life, career, and family without expecting any compensation in return.
So… yeah, blogging = A Nearly Perfect World.


(Thanks for being there for me, all my sweet bloggy friends. Sorry I took an impromptu blogging break. Will be around to your places ASAP.)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Lenny Lee Fest

Hello, friends! Today is a special day on my blog: I get to tell you about an amazing kid I “met” blogging a couple of years ago. Lenny Lee is eleven but it only takes a few conversations with him before you know he is no ordinary eleven year old. Lenny is special and one of those rare individuals who can light up your life with sunshine even on the darkest days. There is a reason his blog avatar is a sun. Even the wild forest animals that live near his house know he is special. (He can hand feed raccoons!) So today’s post is dedicated to him. It’s a book I wrote just for him, to hopefully brighten his day as much as he brightens mine. This is just the first chapter, but the rest will be soon in coming to blog posts for him to find.

And for those of you who don’t want to read a kid’s Wild West yarn about lawmen sheep chasing flea-bitten outlaw goats, feel free to go to Lenny’s blog instead. You have an amazing friend to make. :o)

Still here? Then please enjoy my humble contribution to the Cheer-on-Lenny-Fest:

Title: Sheep Go to Heaven (A Middle-grade Tall Tale)

Chapter 1: The Woolly West

Ike followed Barney’s hoof tracks right to the edge of the cliff. There were other tracks too, but Barney’s didn’t leave that rim. If Barney had fallen down into the gully, Ike didn’t have time to search the sparsely treed patches lining the mesa top for whatever trouble had happened here. He had to find his friend. He leaned over the edge. He hated heights, which is not something you admit when you are a sheep. He would get a reputation for being yellow instead of the handsomest cowpoke in Tin Can County.
photo credit

He drew in a shuddering breath, inhaling the dry desert air, and looked down. There was Barney, hanging onto the ledge by his teeth. Literally. He had a scrubby old bush between his lips, his body hanging free but about to plummet a hundred feet to the bottom of the gorge. His eyes were wild with fear.

“Barney,” Ike called, “hold on! I’m getting a rope.”

He adjusted his gun holster and untied the lasso hanging on his left flank. With his hooves full of rope, he frantically scanned the cliff’s edge for something to tie off on.

That’s when he came eye to eye with Bull, the biggest, meanest goat that ever walked on two legs. He and his boys already had their shooters poised on Ike’s heart.

Ike raised his hands slowly, away from his own weapons.

“Well, well, boys,” Bull said gleefully to his men, “looks like we caught ourselves the Sherriff AND the Deputy.”

“Not a good day for the Tin County law,” said one of Bull’s men. Ike thought maybe it was Jaws, the ugliest one.

Ike’s deputy badge suddenly felt heavy on his chest, like a bright red target instead of the shiny gold thing he used to get girls’ attention. He’d only ever agreed to be deputized to help Barney out, his best friend who happened to be the Sherriff because no one else wanted the job. Barney was easily convinced of things, especially when he was so forgetful. The Hazee townsfolk could convince him to do anything just by telling him he agreed to do the task already and must have forgotten. He’d go along with anything because of that. Ike figured being deputized was a good way to watch out for Barney, to make sure he didn’t get taken advantage of anymore. Attracting the single ewes with his brave, deputy status was an added bonus. He just hadn’t counted on how much time being deputy would take. Watching out for Barney while he played Sherriff was a big job and he knew Barney would end up in serious trouble someday. Like hanging off a cliff by his teeth. Ike smiled wryly.

 “What’s so funny?” asked Bull, cocking his gun. “Want something to laugh at?”

The deafening crack of gunshot echoed through the desert, bullets spraying the dirt at Ike’s feet. His hooves danced back and forth to avoid the hard earth spitting and stinging on his flesh.

Bull and his posse guffawed heartily. They took a step closer.

“I’m taking you in, Bull. All of you put down yer weapons,” demanded Ike.

The goats laughed all the harder.

“We’re the ones who’re calling the shots here, pretty-boy.”

With that they resumed firing at Ike’s feet, forcing him to back up against the cliff until his hooves slipped over the edge.

With a sickening lurch in his stomach, Ike fell backwards, sliding down the rocks and scraping his body as he tried to find anything to hold on to. He came to a sudden stop when his knees smacked the ledge where Barney was. He was eye-level with Barney now, where his friend still clutched the branch in his teeth. Bull and his goats leaned over the edge. Ike could do nothing more than glare at them while he clung to the cliff.

“Why don’t you two just hang out for awhile?” gloated Bull, “We’ve got us a bank to rob.”

The goats disappeared, the pounding of their hooves above reverberated in the gorge below.

“Barney,” Ike said, trying to keep the dizzy sensation from overwhelming him. “Can you swing yourself up onto that side of the ledge?’

“Mmrph,” answered Barney through bits of brush.

Slowly, he began to swing his body backwards and forwards, moving like a pendulum until with a loud thump his back hooves landed on the wider portion of the ledge. Barney backed himself onto the ledge until his whole body was secure. With his front knees folded on the thinner section of the ledge, Ike scooted towards the wider spot where Barney was then hefted himself up. Breathing hard, they both leaned their backs against the cliff.

“That was none too fun,” said Barney.

“Yeah,” agreed Ike. “Why in the blazes are you out here, Barney?”

“Tracked Bull here. I left you a note back at the jailhouse, asked you to follow me.”

“You mean the scrap of paper on my desk with your bad cowboy poetry on it?”

Barney stared blankly then slipped a hand into his shirt sleeve. He reddened when he pulled out a piece of paper. "Dear Ike,” he read, “I received a tip off that Bull and his gang would be at the gorge. Going to investigate. Come when you can.”

Ike groaned. “Durn fool. Obviously Bull lured you here.”


Barney appeared so dejected Ike didn’t dare chastise him more. Instead he said, “Well I reckon it’s a hundred feet up and a hundred feet down, so my vote is down.”

“Mine too,” said Barney, nodding.

They picked their way down to the bottom of the narrow gorge carefully, sometimes jumping from ledge to ledge, sometimes sliding down on their backsides.

At the bottom, Barney clapped his friend on the back, his earlier shame forgotten. “Right, now let’s go stop Buck from robbing the bank.”


“Bull? No bull. I’m sayin’ the truth. It’s our duty to stop them.”

“No,” sighed Ike, “Bull. His name is Bull, not Buck.”

“Oh, yeah,” laughed Barney, nervously.

Ike elbowed him with a smile. “But you’re right. His name should be Buck. Or Billy. He’s goat, after all. His momma must have been none too smart.”

Barney smiled back broadly. Best to let him think he’d made a joke instead of a mistake again.

Together they hoofed it out of the canyon.

To Be Continued... Next up: The Good, The Baaaaad, and The Mugly

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why I hate zombies, vampires and the like.

Yes, it’s true. My secret is out; I’m sharing too much of the truth. I write for young adults, but there are few half-human creatures I can stand. Throw stones if you will, but it’s my own personal taste. I’ll not judge you if you DO like them. I will, however, give you some of my reasons for hating their resurgence into pop culture:
  • First and second graders now talk about vamps like it’s cool to date one. (I wonder what sort of fantasies are being discussed at home, hmmm?)
  • I’ve spent time explaining why biologically none of these creatures can exist to children, specifically my own children. Specifically in the middle of the night when I’d rather be sleeping.
  • I’ve also had the long philosophical question whether vampires are good or bad. To both my kids and adults. More Stoker-style or Meyer-style, is generally where the adult conversation turns.
  • If I tell anyone I write for teens and tweens the first comment is, “oh so, like vampires and stuff?” No, that’s not what everyone writes… at least not me and not many of you.
  • The forbidden love of a man-beast (like Edward) has ruined good women I know for real men. (I swear loving a book character really is their problem. In some cases of people I'm close to.)
  • Is it just me or are the quiet, sweet middle grade books not getting the attention they deserve more and more? For argument’s sake, I’ll blame vamps, werewolves, and zombies. They are just too attractive for their own good.
  • And lastly, I saw these at the store while picking out an 8 year old birthday gift. Yeah, zombie barbies. Hot stuff, I tell you.

NOTE: This post was not meant to offend anyone who does like urban and paranormal fantasy genres. Sorry if it did. It was only intended to be a tongue-in-cheek laugh for your long weekend.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Vignettes: Resurrectionist

My accusers say I would have dug up my own mother. Little do they know I kept flour sacks on hand to cover up the faces. I did not want or need to know the identity of my subjects. In all likelihood I would not have recognized my mother besides. No, I did it not for the grim satisfaction of disturbing the dead. It was all for the living. My interest was only in the corpse itself and what I could find within it. All my efforts were in the name of science. In the name of a cure. ~ Dr. Thomas Sewell, Journal Entry, 1819

I’m teaching myself how to pique interest in the shortest possible writing. So Friday’s new feature is going to be reoccurring posts of flash fiction. Please feel free to come up with your own for each picture I post. (And let me know if the story has sparked even the tiniest interest in you.) Have a wonderful weekend, friends!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What I know about character building I learned from an Anne Geddes photo

Sometimes I think Anne Geddes photography is inventive, sometimes I think it’s creepy. She takes a newborn and makes it look like flower. She wraps a peanut-sized baby into an afghan and makes it look like… well… a peanut. We look at her pictures and know we are looking at a baby, but we also see how it reflects a flowering pot (or whatever they are dressed up as). In writing fiction characters, we also give the illusion that the person we’ve created is more than it appears. We dress it up until the smoke of our imagination resembles a real person. Then we take that smoke and blow it in the direction of our readers, hoping they’ll see through the dress-up, but mostly hope they’ll see themselves in what we’ve created enough to relate to the book.

So to all you writers out there who are struggling as much as I am with good characterizations, good luck with dressing up your smoke. That flower pot hat is worth the beautiful snap shot you’ll get. :o)

P.S. I thought this blog post by Shannon Hale about rating books on Goodreads and Amazon before they are published is hilarious. Check it out!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

LIFE: Check!

Some days I fly by the seat of my pants, some days I stick to a checklist. Most days I wonder where the day went. Anybody else feel that way?
Today is a checklist day. But I’m breaking free of it to stop in and say hi. I needed friends today. I needed to take a deep breath and remember life is good, especially because of the people in my life. (Meaning: YOU!)
And in case you are wondering what’s been on my checklists, here are some fun facts:
1. My friends and I are up to 47 (count them!) school bags for the Humanitarian Aid project. Hopefully by September 1st I’ll reach my 127 goal.
2. I’ve been a single mom a lot lately. In the last four months my poor husband has been to 6 countries and about 6 states. I can count on my hand how many nights he’s been home, bless his hard-working heart. Thankfully the travel is ending for awhile. (Added bonus: my writing time won’t suffer as much!)
3. Speaking of writing, I have a hope-story for those out in Queryland. Sometimes submissions you think have grown cold, aren’t. This business is very, VERY slow. For example, I had an agent request a full thirteen months ago and have just now heard from her that she’s reading it. Moral of the story: remember to exercise patience when subbing. (And never give up.)
4. My oldest baby just turned 8 yesterday! I went through all her old pictures to make a presentation for her big party this weekend and got a little sad how fast she's growing up. (My youngest will be 2 in a few months, which astounds me as well.)
5. Spring cleaning. Boy has the house needed a deep clean!
6. Gardening. Still working on getting a big garden in this year….
7. Revising (read: rewriting) three books and writing a new book. All are clamoring for attention. All have very loud voices. A big thank you to my critique partners who are so patient with me.

So that’s it for me. What have you all been up to? Checklists, pantsy-activities, or something entirely different?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Confidently Stuck: A lament on writer's block

When I have writer’s block, it generally is one of two things: a) my writing confidence is lacking or b) I’m stuck, I don’t know what precisely is going to happen next. Sometimes it’s a combination of both. Here are some tips I use to get through it:

A. Confidence
• I remember I’m as poor a writer as I’ll ever be. If I work hard, the only direction is up.
• I’m the best writer I can be. Right here, in this moment, I am perfect.
• I staple Jane Yolen’s quote to my forehead: "Just write. If you have to make a choice, if you say, 'Oh well, I'm going to put the writing away until my children are grown,' then you don't really want to be a writer. If you want to be a writer, you do your writing. . . if you don't do it, you probably don't want to be a writer, you just want to have written and be famous -- which is very different."
• If Jane Yolen’s advice doesn’t work, I remind myself I can’t stop writing even if I want to, so I might as well embrace this part of me, judgment on my own talent set aside.
• I review this interview by Neil Gaiman on how he felt he wasn’t a good enough writer to write The Graveyard Book for many years. (He had the idea in 1985.) I have stories I feel that way about too. Boy, do I ever.

B. Stuck in the story.
• I skip the scene I’m stuck on and move to another, one I see clearly in my head.
• If I can’t skip ahead, I use Kevin Henke’s advice, and draw out the scene in illustration (or if you are drawing impaired like me, find pictures in magazines or online that inspire you to write on).
• I go back to my outline pages and rewrite them a third or fourth time. (Sometimes this is a list, sometimes this is a visual diagram of plots, characters, and subplots).
• I treat the book like I would the reorganization of a house: one piece of furniture, one pile of papers at a time. Baby steps, I remind myself, can lead to a finish line too.

So my Q4U: What creates your writer’s block? Or if you are not a writer, what stops you from accomplishing something you really want to finish?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

How do YOU do it?

I don’t seem able to write my posts out early. I can count on my hand how many times I have, at least. I try to write them in advance, but the words don’t come until I’m in the passion of the moment. Yet I want to be more organized (hang passion… it’s overrated). I’m ready to commit to change. So my questions to all you bloggers are:

How do you do it? (How do you write posts early, if you do at all?)

Do you write them, edit them, and then schedule the posts all at once?
Do you write a draft then modify it before posting that day or the day before?
Do you write what you feel in the moment and post it immediately? Or do you wait until after you’ve thought more on it?

I am ready to learn new tips and tricks because I seem to be stuck in a blogging rut with no schedule I can stick to. And I love blogging too much to keep in the rut.

Thanks in advance for the advice, friends! XO

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Life Unsung

As a kid I never wanted to be a mom.
I never even wanted to get married.
Instead I saw the greatest fulfillment in my life coming from traveling about, studying animals and writing for a magazine like National Geographic or Smithsonian.
This shocked other girls I knew. Their life’s dream was to find a husband, have kids, and be a housewife.
And I belittled that. (Shame on me.)

Now I’m where I never thought I’d be: three kids, a husband, and a stay-at-home life. I’ve given up (for now) the days when I traveled all over studying animals and I’ve given up the acclaim I used to get from peers. Some days that is hard to not have, especially living in a world that puts so much emphasis on careers and very little emphasis on children. I fall too often into the trap of feeling like I don’t contribute enough. There are days when my life feels unsung.

Yet I know my life is fuller, richer, and happier now having a family. The joy of motherhood and a happy marriage isn’t something you can explain unless you experience it yourself. People would tell me that, but I couldn’t believe them until now. Sad… I’m a writer with no words to convey that joy.

Last weekend, I listened to a man named Richard Scott give a talk on how much he loved his wife (now passed on) and how much happiness he gets from thinking of the future days when he can be with her and their kids in the next life. His tender words gave voice to my feelings of how invaluable the love of a family is. They were words I needed to hear. He gave a few examples and ideas to help me remember the joy more often:
1. Play with them. Some of us work. Even if we don’t, all moms need activities that are ours alone. Hopefully these things require creativity, a chance to use our brains. I still write and will always write because I need to do this for myself. But when it’s time to be with the kids or the spouse, it’s time to be with them. To focus on them. To give them our quality attention. Scott told a story about how he’d been gone on a business trip and instead of coming home and fixing the washing machine, he played with his kids. Later, in the middle of the night, he felt a tiny hand slip into his. He heard, “Dad, I love you. You are my best friend”. Those are the moments that are remembered and cherished when you are Scott’s age.
2. Tell them. I’m so quick to admonish and “teach” more often than praise. Rather, I need to look for more moments to tell my family I love them and express gratitude for them. Scott talked about how his wife would leave him notes in his briefcase to find when he had a presentation. He kept those and he treasures them now that she’s gone.
3. Little things matter. Scott talked about how he took the circles from a hole punch and how, as a joke, he wrote a note to his wife, one word per circle. He numbered them and put them in an envelope for her to unscramble and read the note. This little laugh ended up being a tender expression she cherished. When she died, he found them, all taped together and preserved in plastic in a private place where she kept her most important things. He also shared a story about how one Valentine’s Day he didn’t have money for a gift for her so decided to create a watercolor picture for her on the refrigerator. Only he used enamel paint instead of watercolor. She wouldn’t let him try and take it off because it meant something to her.
4. Serve together and for each other. As Scott says, self-centeredness and selfishness goes out the window when we serve in families and serve each other. I’ve seen this happen in my own family. My tendency to be selfish is lost when I’m serving and my kids get to see that everyday.

(He had other beautiful things to say, but these were a few that stayed with me. You can read the whole talk HERE at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saint’s website.)

I know this wasn’t a writing post like I usually have, but families and being a mom has been weighing heavily on my mind. Maybe it’s because I had a birthday last Sunday and am feeling like I’m “getting up there” with not enough to show for it. Maybe it’s because my husband is traveling a lot this month. But Scott’s words cut to my soul and were answers to my prayers. You don’t have to agree with my very serious post today, but I just needed to give voice to those destructive feelings I get that tell me I don’t do enough. That being a mom and wife isn’t enough. Well, it is enough.

I won’t dismiss my mixed emotions, but rather accept them then also accept that it isn’t true. And when they come, I can do those things above to remember why I chose the life I did and feel the joy I feel that surpasses the days of unsung glory that sometimes come with being a mom. I will remember the greatest good I’ll do is what I do for my children. As Scott says, as a mother I’ve “been given divine instincts to help me sense my child’s special talents and unique capacities”. Only I can raise them the way I want them raised. My kids won’t always be little and there will be a time I can contribute to the world ina different way someday. Right now I’m here for them when they need me the most. I will stop discrediting my contribution to society by “just” raising these kids, these little people who will take it by storm someday. My contribution is not a meager one. They are magnificent.

Believe me, I should know. I’m raising them. :o)

NOTE: This post is part of a Mormon Blogfest going on. Go to Krista's blog for the full list of bloggers sharing their deeper thoughts on talks they've heard at an LDS Conference recently held.

Friday, April 1, 2011


If you’ve publicly declared yourself a writer, you might have experienced a conversation with someone where they’ve confessed to you they a) want to write a book but haven’t because it takes a lot of time, b) want you to take their “best-selling” idea and write it because they haven’t the time, or c) both. I claim c.

Every time someone brings this discussion up, I try to sound supportive and listen. They don’t understand (yet!) what a daunting task writing a book is. It takes time—they get it—but they don’t realize how much until they actually write it. Then rewrite it. Then rewrite it again. It takes soooo much time. And blood. Sweat. (You guessed, it: tears too.)

I love writing. Writing has a reward in and of itself; it’s therapeutic to many of us. But to write a book-length work takes a deep commitment. It would be like eating an elephant*. Every page is a bite of tough, old meat chewed one morsel at time. You would have to make most of the meat into jerky just to make it last until you can get around to swallowing it! You can’t tackle it all at once. In the last few months I’ve started a few huge, new tasks. Two of those being revising a hot mess of a draft and another would be writing a very research-intensive new book. When I start getting overwhelmed, I calm my breathing and ask myself, “How do I eat an elephant?” And then myself answers in a not-so-chipper voice, “One bite at a time.” I grumble that it’s taking so long. But often the admission that is does take one bite at a time helps. (And I’m telling you this in hopes that it helps you too. Because it is hard to stick with it and I know it!)

So to all of you starting, finishing, revising, or thinking about writing a book or two, here is my advice: start with one mouthful at a time and work your way in. It’s too easy to overwhelm yourself, but anything worth doing is worth your best effort. (Not your best writing, mind you, but your best focus of energy.)


Finishing up my author interview series, Kate Scott is the winner of Prisoners in the Palace. Congrats, Kate! Please email me (@ jackeeDOTalstonATgmailDOTcom) your snail mail address and I’ll get the book sent out to you. Thanks to all those who commented and participated!

* Even though I compare it to eating an elephant, in Shel Silverstein’s poem, Melinda Mae, the girl thought she could eat a whale, said she could and then “started right at the tail”. She ignored the nay-sayers and in eighty-nine years, she ate the whole whale because she said she would. You choose the animal you like best for the analogy, but I’ve no physical concept of how big a right or blue or humpback whale is, so I’ll stick with an elephant. :o)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Interview and book win with Michaela MacColl

Last but far from least, we have Michaela McColl, author of the YA historical fiction, Prisoners in the Palace: How Princess Victoria became Queen with the Help of Her Maid, a Reporter, and a Scoundrel. Her book (as my best friend put it), “is one of the most intriguing books I’ve read in a long time”. Set in London, 1838, it’s about Liza and her dreams of a society debut becoming dashed when her parents are killed in an accident. Penniless, she accepts the position of lady's maid to young Princess Victoria and steps unwittingly into the gossipy intrigue of the servant's world below-stairs as well as the trickery above. I asked Michaela the same questions as the other interviewees and here is what she had to say:

Q1. First off, my burning question to everyone published is at what point in the long road to publication did you actually think you could succeed, that you could make it into print? 

A1. I think we all have to begin assuming that we can make it into print. Otherwise I don’t know how we would even begin. Happily I knew nothing about the process when I started and I didn’t know how difficult it would be. However, early on, I found a mentor, Patricia Reilly Giff. She assured me (and many other new writers) that writing is a craft. It can be learned. Persevere and you will get published!

Q2. Was there ever a point when it was the opposite, where you thought you couldn’t succeed in getting published? Dare to share the story? 

A2. About year before I eventually sold Prisoners in the Palace, I had a serious nibble from a wonderful publisher. My agent told me that they were talking a “contract by the end of the week!” I was over the moon. But then the deal fell through (because the publisher had a strong affiliate with a UK operation and they dissed the idea of an American writing about their Queen Victoria – really, it’s true!) I was absolutely crushed – I don’t think I’ve ever been so depressed. Thankfully my agent didn’t give up on me – so neither did I. When I finally sold Prisoners in the Palace, my father chuckled and said “You are a stubborn one!”

Q3. I recently found your very cool blog. Has blogging helped you in your path to becoming an author? If so, in what ways? 

A3. I only started blogging after Prisoners in the Palace was sold. I found that I wasn’t terribly comfortable sharing personal information on a day to day basis. So I decided early on that blogging for me was going to be a way to keep my website current. I’ve never tried to build up a following–there are so many other people who do that better than I could.

Q4. I loved the rich detail of Prisoners in the Palace! What was your inspiration for such a unique, historical setting?
A4. I wish I could take credit for the rich detail, but I’m just trying to recreate the past. All the details happened–just as our own lives are filled with smells, tastes and textures. Trying to recreate Kensington Palace was difficult because there wasn’t a lot of information about furnishings. However, the Victorian era is well-documented so the details are out there.

Q5. Any new, exciting writing projects you can share with us?
A5. I just finished revising my copy-edited manuscript called Promise the Night (Chronicle Fall 2011). It’s about Beryl Markham, a famous lady-aviator in the 1930’s. She grew up on an isolated ranch in the highlands above Nairobi. Beryl’s exciting childhood—with natives, lions, sadistic governesses and warthogs, gave her a taste for adventure that she never lost.

Q6. And final question (a writerly one): long-winded first drafter or a skeleton sketcher?
A6. I’m a planner. Even when I’m writing my first chapters, I’m mapping out future scenes, themes to explore, and if I’m lucky, the ending. I admire those people who just write and let their characters decide the story for them… but the idea terrifies me!

Thank you, Michaela! Your answers were just what I needed to hear. To learn more about Michaela, visit her blog or webpage—they are certainly worth your time. In the interim, I won a copy of this book on Caroline Rose’s blog and the publisher (Chronicle Books) sent me an extra copy (along with a few bookmarks). Please leave a comment for Michaela and me, be a follower, and I’ll enter you in to win the book and bookmarks.

Last week’s winner is… Jemi Fraser! Congratulations, Jemi. Go ahead and email me that Canada address of yours and I’ll send you a copy of Tortilla Sun.

Thanks to everyone who stopped by (and contributed!) to my author interview series. I will be back to a regular posting schedule next Friday when I announce the Prisoner winner. (Ha, ha. Love the way that sounds….) Happy weekend everyone! Big hugs from Arizona!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Interview and book win with Jennifer Cervantes

We’re going to finish out March with two more great interviews. Our second to last is the wonderful JENNIFER CERVANTES, debut author of Tortilla Sun. TS is the story of “12 year old Izzy Roybal who is sent to spend the summer in her nana's New Mexico village where she is soon caught up in the foreign world of her own culture, from patron saints and soulful food to the curious and magical blessings Nana gives her tortillas”.

Q1: First off, my burning question to everyone published is at what point in the long road to publication did you actually think you could succeed, that you could make it into print?
A1: That’s a great question and one that is sometimes hard for me to answer since my journey felt so sequential and even serendipitous. But here goes. When I began to write TORTILLA SUN, my only goal was to finish it; I had to see what happened to the characters. And then when I did finish it, I celebrated and felt like I’d accomplished something that felt so big. And anyone who writes an entire ms knows what I’m talking about. It is a true labor love. Then after I finished the manuscript, some crit partners encouraged me to really try to get it published. So I went the long route of finding an agent and when I did, I think that was the point when I thought, Wow, this could really happen.

Q2: Was there ever a point when it was the opposite, where you thought you couldn’t succeed in getting published? Dare to share the story?
A2: I think I was such a neophyte, and so amazingly na├»ve about the publishing world, that I didn’t know to even think about not getting it published. Sometimes I wish I could go back there.

Q3: Now for the hardest question yet: many of my blog readers are moms or are working full-time outside of writing. Can you give us some advice on how you manage to keep up this writing gig and mother kids to boot?
A3: I think all women have to deal with this idea of balance. For me, I succeed on most days and fail on others. There is never enough time in the day to do everything I want to do and to do it well. But, I have learned to be kinder to myself on those days that I don’t quite balance all the components of my life as well as I’d like to. Keeping a schedule and lists really helps. But carving out time for your writing is critical. Sometimes you have to shut the door and post a “keep out” sign.

Q4. How has an online presence helped you become published or promote your book?
A4: For me, I don’t think it helped me get published since I didn’t even have an active presence at the time TS was sold. Now I use my website to connect with readers which is so important to me. Also, visiting with bloggers has been a wonderful way to reach out to potential readers and let them know about TS and my journey as a writer. And I love Twitter and Facebook to stay connected to my writer friends, readers, and the publishing industry as a whole.

Q5. Having been born in a small New Mexico town myself, I’m hungry to see more books about this area. Have any others in the works? If not, care to share any new projects you are working on?
A5: Yeah for a native of the Land of Enchantment! I don’t have any works in progress that are set in NM, but you never know. I just finished an MG manuscript titled MAX OF THIEVES which is about a boy named Max, (who is born to a long line of thieves) the Day of the Dead, a curse, magic, and family. And am now working simultaneously on two projects—one light and fun; the other is creepy and cool.

Q6: And final question (a writerly one): long-winded first drafter or a skeleton sketcher?
A6: In the beginning of a project-skeleton sketcher! And then I can definitely get long-winded.

Thank you so much, Jennifer! Max of Thieves sounds wonderful. I can’t wait to hear more about this one. In the meantime, to learn about Jen and Tortilla Sun, check out her adorable website.

For a chance to win a copy of Tortilla Sun, just leave a comment and be a follower. The chance to win will be open until Thursday, March 24th @ 8 pm MST. The winner will be announced Friday, March 25th, when we’ll have our LAST author interview and giveaway. Then I’ll be back to a regular blogging schedule. :o)

And as for last week’s winner….

The Liar Society goes to: Myrna Foster. Congratulations, Myrna! Please email me your snail mail address and I’ll get the book to you.