Is a love of writing the mark of an amateur?

A long, unbroken, solitary afternoon before me; sunlight in my window or rain and a fire laid in the stove, as the case may be; a cup of tea at my elbow; and best of all, a blank screen in front of me—that’s what writing is on a good day.

There are few prospects I relish with more delight. But that isn’t something you want to admit lightly among writers.

It isn’t just that it’s fashionable to play the tortured writer persona. I’ve seen dozens of blog posts about the grueling nature of professional writing and the amateur nature of all enthusiasm. Writers forums are full of the self-important, who will tell you that the easiest way to tell an amateur from a professional is to ask if they really enjoy writing.

The typical explanation goes something like this, “When a small child first encounters a piano, they bang away at the keys in delight. It’s great fun and they think it sounds beautiful. They want everyone to be quiet and listen to their noise. But it is only painful, boring practice that can turn that banging into real music worth listening to. Writing is the same way.”

Creative Commons image by Richard Patterson

Creative Commons image by Richard Patterson

The proponents of this line of reasoning also like to insist that there is very little real artistic, musical or writing talent innate to anyone. Everything is learned and can be learned through practice, they insist. Writing at a professional level or playing music at a professional level must always be a carefully calculated task. and while some satisfaction in one’s skills is permitted, enthusiasm and passion is the mark of an amateur. And this holds some internal logic.

Except that it doesn’t fit my experience.

My daughter first got to sit at a piano when she was two. She’s a particularly active child and I was concerned that she would bang away at it. Instead she gently touched the keys, heard the sounds and began working her way up and down the keyboard. I have seen countless numbers of children pound on a keyboard, but not her. She immediately found that some notes go better together than others. Within a few minutes she was making cords.

I can’t do today what she could do at two. I can’t hear the sounds that way. Once in a while, I come across a writing student who is that way with words and story. The sense of it is there before any teacher. So, I don’t believe in the “talent doesn’t exist” theory.

At the same time, I know that talent isn’t everything. Talent won’t get you much of anywhere without practice. And for most people both solid musical skills and good writing proficiency are there for the learning. There are countless technical assists in writing, things that could almost allow a computer to generate infinite variations of entertaining stories using standard plots, characters, devices, dialogue norms and tension points.

A lot of modern fiction reads like that too. I could swear someone plugged in an algorithm and churned out a series of thrillers or romantic mystery novels with artificial intelligence. They all have perfect pacing, neat and tidy plots and snappy dialogue. But they also have predictable characters, transparent plot devices and lack-luster climaxes.

And yet. as the purveyors of writing as a miserable profession are eager to tell you, those cookie-cutter novels make money. Publishing houses recognize the same elements I do and readers are so accustomed to the standard fare that most of them, those who still read books at all, continue to read them.

There is a lot to be said for practice and the rules of the craft. Without a lot of practice my daughter will never have the full freedom and experience of music. And without a solid understanding of the rules, writers who break them do so badly. I have no quibble with that.

And there have been many times when i didn’t want to write and had to anyway. I would go so far as to say that that experience—writing under pressure when you are tired and disoriented—is probably a necessary step in honing the craft of writing, or at least a way to significantly speed up the process. I spent ten years as a journalist, forced to crank out endless “copy” on subjects that I usually found boring and almost always on too little sleep.

It was called “copy” but we never copied anything. Every sentence had to be crafted and polished. It took energy and determination and focus. Doing it while tired and bored ingrained the rules deep.

I learned the trade, so that I could sit down and write anything quickly and easily, conforming to whatever standard was required, short or long, technical or atmospheric, any structure, any voice. But that doesn’t mean that all writing must from then on be unpleasant or that all of the learning and practice was unpleasant. I still remember my days as a young reporter fondly. Despite the difficulty and tedious stories about small towns and the machinations of the ministry of transportation, I got to go to work every day in a room where I sat with other people furiously writing and I got to write all day long.

I grew up doing heavy chores. Then I spent years in academia, studying and taking tests. I worked at jobs that didn’t give me purpose or fulfill my intellectual needs. And the reality of writing every day, even if it wasn’t very exciting writing, was wonderful for several years.

Even today, while I prefer to write things closer to my interests, if offered a job at a cash register or a job writing technical manuals, I’d still take the technical manuals any day. But sitting down to an afternoon of writing on a subject I enjoy, or better yet fiction—that is pure pleasure.

Is it always easy? Certainly not. That is a good part of why it is fun. I don’t really go in for easy, even in my hobbies.

That feeling you get when you’ve been writing for two hours and you get three quarters of the way through a key chapter and the plan you had isn’t working and you feel a heavy drag on you because you ,know you’ve got to go back to the plotting board and probably rewrite several major scenes to make it work—yeah, that feeling—that’s when you know you’re in the thick of it. I do tend to go get another cup of tea but I eagerly plunge back in. It’s a challenge, a battle with word counts and plot holes, and victory is that sweet zing of a successful line of tension running through the story from beginning to end.

The preachers of the miserable writer theory probably believe what they are saying. It seems likely that they have followed a path of genre writing that leaves them burnt out and frustrated but in possession of certain skills. They assume that these two things must necessarily coincide. If someone comes along and argues that writing can be a lot of fun, even at a professional level, it is the easiest thing in the world to paint that writer as an amateur. No one wants to risk that, so few ever try to argue.

Getting past the beginning of a novel - Advanced writing tips

So you’ve got a bodacious idea and you’ve written the first 20,000 or 30,000 words! You’ve got the gumption to start and the grit to put your butt in the chair and write through the wee hours of the morning or on your coffee breaks or whenever it is you have manage to squeeze in your writing time.

Congratulations! You’ve already beat out 99.75 percent of the competition. A lot of expert writing coaches like to quote the “Five percent rule.” The five percent rule says that of all the potential novel writers with an idea only 5 percent of them will ever start on it. And only 5 percent of those who do anything with their idea will make the time and discipline themselves to sit down and write regularly.

Creative Commons image by Misticsartdesign via Pixabay.jpg

Creative Commons image by Misticsartdesign via Pixabay.jpg

I’m not sure if the numbers are actually that exact. But if you’ve reached this point, the end of the beginning of a novel, you have fortitude and courage. That’s undeniable.

And you have also just run into the steepest and scariest writing hurdle yet. According to the five percent rule, getting past the beginning should only cull out another 95 percent of the prospective authors out there, but this one feels bigger to a lot of us somehow.

Maybe it is because the people who didn’t make the first five percent cut really weren’t serious at all, so there was no pain involved. They just had an idea and didn’t pursue it. And the people, who didn’t get around to making a real start and didn’t manage the discipline or time to put their butts in their chairs. didn’t really sacrifice anything beyond mental anguish and a fair amount of whining.

On the other hand, the writers—yes, now really anyone who got this far is a writer—who falter at around the 30,000 word mark have worked hard. They’ve disciplined themselves, made real sacrifices to get the time to write and faced down fear and shame. And still… only a few will make it.

Writing coaches are supposed to make it seem like all the others will fail but you personally are the star who will not. I’m not making that call. You’re one reader and the bitter reality is that if one hundred writers at this stage of a novel read my blog, only about five of you will actually finish that novel. Fewer yet will ever see it published.

BUT… (And this is a big but.)

These statistics are about the novel, not about you. Most writers—I might even say, “hopefully all writers”—will start at least one novel they toss before they finish their first book. If you don’t, how do you learn and become an awesome writer?

We need ten thousand hours of writing to make a master, just like every skilled craft or art. So, if your novel falls by the wayside, that doesn’t mean you fail as a writer—just that you need to succeed with a different novel.

But this post is for those who have an idea they are convinced is a winner, those who have reached the end of the beginning and have the proverbial genitalia to keep on.

Let’s face it. It’s heavy going. No one gets past this one without some sweat, tears and likely some blood, whether fictional or actual.

If you are an expert plotter and have spent years on world building and have a detailed storyboard, maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about and you’re sailing through your manuscript without any trouble. But then again, if that were the case, you wouldn’t be reading this post.

If you’re like me and most other intrepid wordsmiths, you know the dreaded 30,000 word marker. Very possibly you’ve been here before. Maybe several times. And it might as well be the grim reaper.

There is something about reaching this point in a manuscript that makes writers wilt like that houseplant you forgot to water since you started this novel. No, you didn’t just run out of gas. It happens to all of us.

You start with an exciting idea and all the enthusiasm that goes along with it. There is very likely at least one early scene and possibly an ending and several other scenes firmly in your head before you start. You have a character or characters you like, a great setting and a unique premise. That can get you through 10,000 words without breaking a sweat.

You’ve got the opening description, the initial action and the premise to describe. In short, you’ve got clear goals that anyone with a couple of years of dabbling in writing can handle.

But I hate to break it to you. That’s the easy stuff.

Beginnings are important and must be brilliant and all that, but you know you can go back and edit, so you probably didn’t sweat rivers over it. Now, however, things get hairy.

You get to a certain point in writing your novel (usually somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 words depending on the type of plot you’re using and how much plotting you did early on) and you suddenly feel like you’re slogging through thick mud while carrying a fifty-pound pack.

How did this happen? You didn’t start out carrying a pack. Did all that positive energy just evaporate? Are you just a wimp without staying power?

No and no.

There is some small comfort in knowing that your exhaustion is completely justified. And it isn’t just that you’ve been cooped up in your basement staring at a screen for too long, although if that’s the case, remember that pacing yourself applies to writing as much as it does to running a marathon.

The 30,000-word marker is a different sort of exhaustion though.

Here’s the first key to getting through it: That fifty-pound pack is real.

OK, you can’t actually weigh it on a scale. But you are carrying a massive load after writing 30,000 words. You are carrying around in your brain all the bits and pieces, character traits, setting details and subplots that you subconsciously or consciously know you are going to need to remember later on. Depending on how many notes you’ve been keeping and how organized you are, this mental burden can be enormous.

Hopefully, even if you’re a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser, you have written down some notes about your major characters and main plot, at least the basics up until now. Pantsers are more likely to collapse at this point than plotters. It is one of the places where plotters can be justified in a bit of their smugness.

But plotters will have a burden too. Even if you write everything down scrupulously, you will be memorizing where you wrote what and how to find each piece of information. And there are always details you didn’t put in your notes, which is why your notes are not actually the novel, though their word count may be pushing a close second.

So, the first thing to do when you feel the sluggish doldrums at the end of the beginning descend upon you is to update your notes. Even if you’re an avowed pantser, now is the time to do a bit of plotting. Write character sketches if you haven’t yet. Make an outline of your plot or a story board, if at all possible. As you put down some of these burdens on paper, you will feel lighter.

If you have extensive notes, look through them. Make sure they are organized and remind yourself where to find things. Think through any plot holes that may have cropped up. Untangle and discard what has turned out not to be useful. Lighten the load.

The end of the beginning is also a good time to take a break from writing if you’re an intensive writer, spending hours writing each day. Get out in nature, spend some time with people or sleep all the hours you want for once, whichever meets your needs.

But don’t let go entirely. Many a good book has died because the writer went on a break at this point and didn’t actually come back. The break may feel way too good.

Set a limit or a deadline to get back at it. And then sit down and get back into it, no matter what.

OK, not entirely “no matter what.” As I said before, some projects need to die. Every writer needs to leave a few unfinished novels on their creative compost pile. So, don’t break yourself on something you have realized wasn’t a keeper. But if you are still convinced this is a keeper, put your head down and power through.

That is the third thing—and possibly the most crucial—about the end of the beginning. To some extent, you just have to push through this difficult time. It is likely that your plot or your characters are more complicated than you thought. You’ve realized you need to go back and change some things. Or you’re worried because you still haven’t figured out some major plot points coming up.

Whatever the specifics, this is a tough stretch. It’s uphill and there is no second wind yet.

Remember again that you can edit later. Keep in mind that this is normal for writers. It’s a natural part of the process of writing a novel. Take your best shot at how the plot needs to go and write it.

When you get to the 50,000- or 60,000-word mark and those last few puzzle pieces drop into place in your plot conundrum, you can go back and fix whatever you’re messing up now.

Yes, puzzle pieces dropping seemingly of their own accord happens far more often than a purely rational view of the writing process would indicate. And yes, you are messing things up at this point. It’s pretty much impossible not to. Don’t fret about it.

Getting past the end of the beginning is almost always messy or rugged or both. But by putting down some of your mental burden, taking a carefully limited break and pushing through the urge to throw it all in the recycling bin, you can crawl over this hurdle.

How much is too much (or too little) description in fiction?

The echo of automatic gunfire bounced off the gray, cement buildings, making it impossible to pinpoint the direction of the threat. Trash scuttled along the gutter in a stiff jab of wind. Sand stung her eyes.

The girl crouched in a doorway, the stench of sour cabbage and old grease washing over her from inside. She gnawed on the nail of her little finger and tried to remember the map of streets between here and the old railroad yard. She couldn’t afford a mistake now.

The rapid cracking of more shots just a block back along the street forced the matter. She darted out, along the wall and away, slipping through the rubble like a little brown squirrel, lightning quick and nearly silent.

Some of the most common questions I get from students are on the issue of description in fiction—how much, when and where?

Creatove Commons image via Pixabay

Creatove Commons image via Pixabay

Budding writers often receive lavish praise for description in school. Most general education teachers and even a distressing number of creative writing instructors, view almost all description favorably. It is creative, after all. It fills up assignment page quotas at a gallop and the students who use description are refreshingly motivated.

What isn’t there to love about it?

Well, lots actually.

Writing description is like playing the piano. Unlike most musical instruments, pianos make nice-sounding notes with the press of a key. All you have to do to feel like you are playing the piano and making nice sounds is to play the keys with a bit of grace and not bang on them. Once a small child learns to stop banging and to press individual keys, the sound is relatively pleasant and even pretty at times. It is motivating because it is easy and it garners praise.

But just as playing real music on a piano is a far cry from that gentle random tinkling, writing great description is complex, requires long practice and is immeasurably more rewarding than the initial experiments.

Here are the crucial questions to consider when writing description.

1. What is description and why do you need it?

After they discover that their initial descriptive prowess does not actually make regular people—who are neither their teachers nor their parents—want to read their writing, many beginning writers careen violently in the other direction. They strip all description out of their fiction and stick to action verbs and dialogue, like it’s a fundamentalist religion. Some very stereotypical fiction (and screenplays) can be done this way, but it has the staying power of popcorn.

Description is part of how we convey setting, character and mood to the reader. More importantly, it is the gateway through which the reader enters the world of your story. While a gripping plot and excellent dialogue are arguably more important on every page of a story, description opens the door for your reader.

We experience fiction primarily through our senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. It isn’t the actual page we see or even the movie screen. In order for a reader to fall deeply in love with a work of fiction, recommend it to their friends and make sure to read everything else by the same author, that reader must experience the story to some degree physically. It’s description that jump-starts that process.

The reason why narrow genre fiction needs less of it is that there are already a lot of description assumptions that readers come into each story with. The entire genre aids in developing the sensory experience. Even there, description plays its essential role, only in a different way.

2. What description is not

Description is not plot or story and it never can be. It can’t even be character, though it can try.

It’s like the old adage that children do what their parents do rather than what they say. Description is like a parent telling a child to do something. If done well, it may be memorable and valuable. But if it isn’t backed up with coherent actions and purpose it won’t matter for long.

Description may be enough for a newspaper article in the features section. There we describe characters, locations, scenes and social dilemmas and leave them for the reader to resolve. But despite the literary-term “character sketch” description does not make a story.

Problems and actions attempting to resolve problems make stories. Description may help. That’s all.

3. How do I know if I put in too much description?

The grip that a work of fiction has on the reader is like a kite string. When I edit a work of fiction it feels as if I am flying a kite. The kite is the reader and the taut string is the pull that keeps them reading. The first rush of the opening must be a powerful enough burst of speed to propel the kite up. But then if the kite is driven only by the pilot running around on the ground and there is no wind (metaphorically plot), the kite would sail up for awhile and then drift dully to earth, just as surely as it would if you let go of it and let the wind take it entirely.

Tension in fiction is much like the tension in that taut kite string. It is the pull between the wind of plot events and the striving of the characters. It is the only thing that won’t let the reader drift away from your story.

All this is to say that description plays only an indirect role in the basic physics of the relationship between plot, character and tension. Description is crucial to the reader’s experience of the events of the story, but it must not interfere too greatly.

Excess description has the tendency to slacken the tension of that kite string. Too much and the kite falls, the reader loses interest and abandons the story for something more engaging.

So, as you read over your work in editing, keep that kite string in mind. Judging when the string goes slack is somewhat subjective and it certainly varies with tone and genre, but you can develop an intuitive sense for it. If you feel the line of tension through a scene slacken, look to the descriptive phrases in the scene. Too much description is not the only problem that can cause slack tension, but it is the easiest such problem to solve.

If cutting excess description helps then you have likely resolved the problem. Professionally this trimming of wordy text is called “tightening up the prose” and that refers to tightening the tension, just like a kite string.

Some writers today complain that classical writers had it easier, that they were allowed lengthy descriptions of landscape, clothing and the faces of characters, while readers won’t give us the same chance to develop depth in a story today.

There is some truth in this lament. Fiction used to be much more difficult to come by and readers were less likely to put a book down due to a bit of slackened tension. Today’s readers have a lot of distractions and even more options.

It is true that sometimes depth of description is sacrificed today to the gods of reader attention in ways that do not actually make for better writing. But the conditions of entertainment-scarcity of old were not necessarily superior. They allowed for some wonderful depth in some of our classical works, but they also spawned some very long-winded, boring drivel written by privileged white men who only got to be published and even mildly famous because of their random fortune of birth.

The bottom line is that today’s conditions are what they are. They force you to write tight, if you want readers, and that can be a good thing if you focus on honing description to be as powerful and evocative as possible.

4. How much is too little description?

There are modern examples of fiction with too little description. The plot may be snappy but it feels hollow and the reader cannot experience the story sensually. Any trend can become too extreme.

The basic role of fiction still hasn’t changed since ancient times. People read fiction to relax. While fiction often competes with various multimedia entertainments today, many readers seek out reading specifically for the quiet relaxation it offers. That means that we do need some description and quite a lot in literary, fantasy and romance genres.

All description, even in a literary genre where you can theoretically be more relaxed, should strive for brevity and power. The key is to provide a few “evocative” details that open the door of sensory experience and lead the reader’s senses to take over the task of description.

A story must have enough description, given all the circumstances of genre and readership, to start the reader’s brain on the sensory experience. This can often be done with a single phrase or even a single word if that little detail is well-known enough to the readership that the writer can be reasonably sure it will jump-start sensory memory.

If a fantasy author mentions “the smell of leather and sage” it is very likely that most fantasy readers will instantly connect to a sensory memory of just those smells and a lot of other details can be left out and assumed. This is because fantasy readers tend to be the kind of people to own leather items and to have visited places or shops that smell of sage. Such readers will start to see muted greens and earth tones in the clothing of the characters without the writer mentioning color. They may envision natural landscapes or faces roughened by weather, even if they aren’t described.

If a crime or detective author mentions “the blood and vomit spattered on the floor of the interrogation room” their readers will likely construct an entire scene in their minds complete with unfriendly, windowless gray walls, a single lamp, a bare table and a hard chair, even if they have never personally been in such a place because they read a genre in which such descriptions are very common.

This is a bit like cheating, but it is legal and in many cases desirable. You pick just the right detail and thus skip whole paragraphs of description, if your detail evokes a similar scene for your readership.

There are two methods in this kind of cheating—1. banking on reader experience and 2. exploiting genre conventions. The more you know your readership and your genre the easier it is to use details that will evoke sensory experience for those readers and thus free you from the need to provide further descriptive details.

Unfortunately, we can’t always count on enough shared experience between readers to do away with most description. This is another reason why some old fiction feels uninspiring to modern readers. Simply put, the author’s assumptions about our experience and what will trigger our sensual responses are no longer valid due to changes in our society.

There are also plenty of things you may want to describe in fiction which you can be pretty sure most readers have not encountered in physical life. In fact, if you are describing mostly only things that are so common to the genre that they don’t need much description, your work isn’t going to be very original.

So, description isn’t going out of style. Get used to it and use it skillfully.

5. How can I make my descriptions better?

Better in description generally means more “power.”

Power? Like short, snappy sentences?

Well, sort of. Shorter and more varied sentence lengths help, but when we say “power” in description it means the power to evoke and thus bring the reader into the story physically.

Fortunately, there are some fairly easy ways to increase the power of your description. This goes right back to elementary school, where you learned the parts of speech—verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs.

Verbs are inherently the most powerful part of human language. It is likely they were the first actual words, given that pointing likely took care of initial nouns for prehistoric people. Nouns are the next most powerful part of language, followed by adjectives.

The weakest of the non-grammatical, substantive parts of speech are adverbs. This is why your writing instructors and how-to books tell you to avoid them.

It is much better to use a verb that describes the entire action, as in, “The officers pounded up the steps and charged into the apartment,” rather than common verbs with adverbs, such as “The officers ran forcefully up the stairs and came into the apartment fast and furious.”

The first example happens to be shorter, but even if it somehow wasn’t technically shorter, it would more easily draw the reader’s senses into the story for reasons that go deep into psychology.

The same goes for nouns. It is better to be more specific with your noun than to use a common noun and an adjective. It is better to write “poodle” than “small, white dog” unless your narrative absolutely requires the vagueness.

Adjectives are weak enough that it is better to avoid them, if it doesn’t cause other complications in the text. Adjectives ending in -ly are notoriously the weakest of all. Many writers do a search for “ly” during editing and specifically analyze each adjective with that ending to see if they can safely cut any. This isn’t to say that you should never use them, only that it is worth looking to see if there is a stronger alternative.

If a paragraph was a savory soup, verbs would be the broth, nouns the meat and veggies, adjectives the salt and spices and -ly words would be things like protein powder and vinegar that you add to some soups when it is really necessary but would not want in any significant amounts.

This advice comes with one very large caveat, Almost every writer who has learned this step has at some point realized the wonderful tool of the thesaurus and been put under its evil spell for a time. Don’t get me wrong, your thesaurus is not inherently evil. It is a good tool for reminding you of descriptive synonyms you may have forgotten.

But whatever you do in writing, resist that temptation to go window shopping through your thesaurus and pick out a nice-sounding word that you aren’t otherwise acquainted with and stick it into your sentence because it is more interesting than its common alternative.

A good rule of thumb is that you should not use a word from a thesaurus if you have never encountered it in speech or in a written work that was not intended to describe the word itself. Your thesaurus is for reminding yourself of words you knew already, not for coming up with new words. There is nothing that screams “amateur” at readers more than a writer who appears to be using unfamiliar descriptive words.

Putting it all together

Honing your descriptions to make them brief and powerful will help your current story and boost your overall writing skills. It is also fun and just as description brings readers into the world of the story, it can transport you there as well.

And that crucial for coordinating scenes and writing great dialogue, but those are issues for other posts. Check out my other advanced writing tips here.

Winning fans is more than just hooking readers

As a senior in college I bombed out of my first journalism job interview on the question, "What is the most important thing in a newspaper story?" posed by a small-town newspaper editor.

I had given up on figuring out the "right" answers because the editor had already told me he didn't think a legally blind person (or even just anyone who couldn't drive) could be a newspaper reporter. He only asked this question to confirm his biases, so I told him my actual opinion.

"Good research and real facts." 

And arguably for many readers that is the most important focus of a newspaper story. But of course, I was wrong in journalism orthodoxy.

Creative Commons image by Glenn Strong

Creative Commons image by Glenn Strong

The standard answer to that question is "the hook." The hook is technically part of the lead, the first paragraph. The hook is often, though not always, the last sentence or phrase in the lead, something surprising, snappy, intriguing or shocking enough to force a good portion of readers to keep reading for at least a few more paragraphs. 

Journalism theory has it that it doesn't really matter if readers finish the article. The important thing is that they read enough of it and other articles in the paper to A. see the ads that fund the paper and B. decide they actually need the paper and subscribe. At least that was the theory, back when print newspapers were the primary form of journalism. 

There is a similar theory in the book industry today. The cover art, the blurb on the back of the book and the first few paragraphs of chapter one play much the same role as the hook in the days of old. And we still talk about "hooking readers." 

The idea is to give the reader a little thrill of recognition—"Ah! This is a book I'll like"—a sense of tribe. You play into the desires of the given genre and provide enough momentum and adrenaline to keep them reading. If you want to catch today's readers, swimming around in a bookstore or at an onlilne shop, you need something with some punch because there are a lot of distractions. 

Both the old journalism version and the modern book-selling version are true as far as they go. The journalism lead and hook got readers who were just casually perusing a paper to actually read it. I did eventually go on to learn to write a pretty good hook as an international newspaper stringer. Thank you very much, Mr. Small-Town Editor. 

But there is something that the doctrine of the hook does not take into account—a crucial factor that is the deal breaker in today’s book industry.

Let me illustrate with another story from the trenches. In 2007, I landed a prestigious Manhattan agent for a memoir. The agent loved my book but didn’t love my hook. She insisted that I rewrite it to put the most suspenseful and violent scene first and then handle the rest of the book as one giant flashback. This is done a lot and it isn’t actually as bad as it sounds, if it is done well.

Most of my memoir was about being a blind kid from the back of beyond who got scholarships and somehow ended up in the high-pressure world of international journalism. I started it at a crucial point of no return, while the agent wanted me to start it almost at the end of the chronological story because there was an incident that involved me running from a machine-gun toting mob in the midst of an interethnic skirmish in the Balkans, which is sadly a good part of my journalistic claim to fame.

I love to read memoirs in general. It’s probably the genre I read most and I am not the kind of reader who looks for shock and awe in the hook. I look for character and an engaging narrative voice. But I’m probably not the norm. So my opening, which focused on drawing the reader in through character and voice, made the agent nervous.

I rewrote the hook and made the agent happy. But the book still isn’t published.

It was well written as far as it went, but it was a journalistic memoir by a journalist who was never famous. It should have been a memoir of self-discovery by a blind person with too much to prove, because that would have at least stood a chance in today’s book industry.

But that would have required a different kind of opening, less the traditional hook and more voice and character.

What the editors of 42 publishing houses told the agent, which both of us should have known from the beginning, was that as good as the book was, no one cares if they don’t know the author. If it’s a book about a journalist, that is even more true.

In newspaper journalism “back in the day,” you were assuming the reader already had the paper in their hands. And many readers had no real choice about which paper they were going to read. They read the local paper and possibly one national paper. They could choose among the national papers but they weren't likely to switch just because of less than snazzy hooks. They were much more likely to switch if a paper proved to be either boring overall or full of shoddy research. 

No, the purpose of the hook was first and foremost about the ads around the article. Get eyes on the article and you had eyes on the ads. That’s what advertisers wanted and because they funded the paper, their interests were paramount.

Reporters also wanted to hook readers into their particular story, so their interests coincided with those of the advertisers when it came to writing a good hook. It was more important to a writer that a reader start reading their article than that readers would love them specifically. Bylines were small and usually unnoticed.

Today writers have to contend with a very different landscape. Audiences are much less captive. The hook may get a reader to start reading but if they stop reading immediately afterward because the writing is bad, the content is non-existent or the voice is boring, nothing is gained.

No matter how good your hook is, readers can and do pick up ebooks and stop reading them within a few pages. In some ebook systems, this even means that they don't have to pay for the book. Similarly blogs are only really helpful to the writer if readers come back again and again to the same blog. Hooks are still part of the equation but they are no longer the defining skill of a writer. 

Some ad-dependent bloggers will still use hooks in much the way old-school newspaper reporters did. There are snazzy, intriguing hooks and often a sad lack of any substance or resolution of the mysteries raised.

That isn’t my blogging strategy. The reason for that--beyond the fact that I'd rather work my day job as an ESL teacher than write boring copy--is that things have changed. Today the focus is on readers rather than on advertisers, and that's a good thing for writers. Frankly, writing to the taste of readers is much more fun than writing to the taste of advertisers.

Today a writer's job is not so much to hook readers for a few seconds but to win fans for years to come. We want readers to finish the post or the book and then reach for another one and another one by the same author. That is what keeps the lights on so that writers can keep writing. 

Don't get me wrong. There are still gimmicks out there and people making money off of gimmicks but ultimately readers will figure out when something is a gimmick. There are people cranking out "ebooks" which consist of just a few pages of new material, while the majority of the pages in the book are stuffed with the author’s old material, old blog posts, promos of other work and so forth. The writing, even what new material there is, in these "books" is also not great. For some strange reason, the Amazon algorithms favor lots of releases by the same author in a short period of time, so there are people making some money that way until readers catch on. 

But what is it that will win real fans? What will grab the people who will remember an author's name and seek out the author's work or recommend it to their friends? 

Three things:

  1. Good writing craft,

  2. Consistent delivery of what a specific group of readers wants. 

  3. And a distinct and addictive author voice.

Readers become fans when the book or other material they are reading holds them in a kind of spell that feels very comfortable and which calls to them enticingly when they are doing something else. The elements that go into this spell are voice, character and story, usually in that order.

It can be argued that grammar, punctuation and spelling, the nuts and bolts of writing are an inherent part of voice. If your work is littered with typos, it is like your voice is squeaking. It isn't pleasant and it breaks the spell, no matter how lovely your characters or story are. But of course there is much more to voice than nuts and bolts.

Essentially, "voice" refers to the tone, humor, cadence, dialect and closeness of your narration. People read for a kind of human contact. It's like being friends and as such winning a fan is like being a good friend.

I don't say It's like "making a friend" because it isn't. Writers aren't friends with every reader. But readers feel a bond of friendship with favorite authors nonetheless. And if you, as a writer, can provide the kind of voice that your readers need to hear from a friend, then you're halfway home.

Naturally not every reader needs the same kind of friend or even the same kind of friend at all times. I sometimes read straight forward thrillers, sometimes epic fantasy and sometimes humorous YA, even though I'm over forty. Each of these genres plays a different role, much like different kinds of friends. Sometimes I need a more humorous friend, sometimes a serious one who gets the heavy despair I'm feeling in the world right now and has resilient grit.

So the first thing to remember about voice is that you can't please them all and you shouldn't try. The worst thing you can do to your writing--other than litter it with typos and convoluted grammar--is try to make it for "everyone." Something that is for everyone is necessarily bland. And while some authors may get away with bland, you'll notice that they are already famous. Not-famous writers like me and you will have to stand out and that means deciding who we're talking to (our target audience) and what kind of friend we're going to be (wry, dark, gritty, whimsical, etc.). 

Beyond that, voice is about making the reader comfortable. You don't want to be too long-winded but neither is this a contest to see who can use the least number of words, the way it often was in newspaper journalism. Readers today read to relax more than anything else. So your voice should be one that matches what your specific readers need and makes them feel good.

You want to have a clear and identifiable voice, so that a reader can pick up an unlabeled page of your writing and be able to name the author. That would be the ideal.

Just as the nuts and bolts of writing are a prerequisite in voice, understanding the specific needs and expectations of readers in your genre is crucial. It is possible to write in the gray areas between genres, though finding your readership will take longer. Genres need not be restrictive boundaries, but be aware that readers will latch onto you for something specific and the more you can consistently provide their the fix they need, the longer you’ll keep readers and the more they’ll turn into actual fans.

An old axiom says beginnings hook readers and endings create fans. My last post told you my low opinion of endings. I don't agree with the axiom anyway. It's a cliche that may have been true in another would where reading had a different position in our entertainment industry. Today, when you can access just about anything, anywhere, right this second, you need quite a lot of good stuff between the beginning and the ending.

On the bright side, what is hard for you is also hard for other writers. You don’t need all the fans, you just need your own tribe.

Fiction isn't life but a good book should make us live life more fully: The final book of the Kyrennei series

Light of the Shield (Book 6 of the Kyrennei Series) has been released.

I have never liked endings in books. I usually don't like them even in my favorite books. I don't mean that I don't like happy endings or sad endings. I don't even mean that I don't like when a good book ends because then it is over, although that has been an issue a few glorious times.

No, I just don't like what endings have to do.

In fiction, when you write an ending, you have to tidy things up, tie up loose ends, bring subplots in, show why this or that happened and wrap up neat little packages. Everything needs a reason or at least a purpose, even if that purpose is to show randomness. That's what fiction is. It's a way of making sense of life. 

But something in me always rebels.

Life isn't like that! Or at least the logical, linear part of me clings to that belief. If life was like fiction--if everything made sense--it would be an even scarier world than it already is. Maybe that's one reason why I don't like endings.

Beyond that, I find them to be too predictable, too convenient and too unrealistic. Endings are like sex scenes. There just aren't very many creative, original, non-cliched ways left to pull one off. 

Ending the Kyrennei series, a story I started when I was less than fourteen years old, was admittedly tough from a technical writing standpoint. This story grew and evolved with me, and traveled in the back of my mind as I became a freelance journalist. It's a story I poured so much of my imagination into for so many years that ending it by putting the last part down on paper where it no longer changes was one of the hardest tasks of writing I have ever completed.

I was determined to make the ending as emotionally real and creatively honest as the rest of the story, even though I often feel endings lack in exactly those qualities. In short, that's why it took so long. I know a lot of readers have asked me where the ending is. And I finally have your answer. 

The story that started with Aranka Miko and bound you to a dozen other characters in the process finally has it's conclusion. It's one that meets my high standards and I hope it will both entertain and satisfy you. 

This is the final book in an epic series. The fifth book was almost an ending, more so than some of the cliff-hangers early in the series. At the end of Path of the Betrayer (Book 5) there was some resolution. Kai Linden and Elias Miko completed an insanely risky mission and saved the lives of hundreds of Kyrennei. Although their world is tenuous and J. Company is forced to take refuge in underground caverns, they do find refuge. Aranka and Kenyen are also safe for the moment. Many readers told me they thought that was how things would remain.

The idea that the the resistance could truly overcome the Addin is as unthinkable as our chances of achieving world peace, healthy democracy and ecological sustainability in our world. It is what we want but there are forces that stand in the way that are far stronger than any of our known weapons.

The one major piece that is unclear and still really sad at the end of Book 5 is Maya. Kai did manage to rescue Maja during that terrible mission. But she is unconscious or at least unresponsive and has clearly suffered a lot. There are also plenty of loose ends that haven't been tied up throughout the series.

Thus Book 5 provided the ending we see as possible in our world. If we fight hard, we might be able to achieve a measure of safety for a few of those closest to us. We will then stand vigilant against the darkness and aggression in the world and mourn our losses. Many questions never get answers. And there are some who we cannot save, even those we love the most. 

The challenge of the final book in the series is how to create a vision of hope and also make it one that will not betray the authenticity and realism of The Kyrennei Series. How can Maya survive what she has undergone? Is this all we get? Like Kai, we are stripped of everything that truly matters, even our core principles, and left with survival and survivor guilt? Can those who fight for freedom and justice ever win a battle that actually matters in the long run?

These were the questions I set out to answer in this final book of the series. It begins with Kai as he enters the rebel base in an underground salt mine, holding Maya unconscious in his arms. His parents were taken by the Addin. He is a fugitive and because of the success of their mission, he knows the Addin leader Marti Bloom will expose the fact that he betrayed the resistance and the Kyrennei in his apparently futile attempt to save Maya. What little has been won came at great cost. 

While he waits for Maya to come out of a comma, Kai begins training as a scout, learning Kyren and the rest of Aranka Miko's dearly bought secrets from Elias Miko and other teachers. But he keeps to himself and spends every available minute sitting at Maya's side, even though she is unresponsive. 

It isn't a situation that can last and when Maya is finally taken from him, Kai has only one thing left to fight for, one person he might still be able to save. But with martial law declared across the United States, the attempt is an obvious suicide mission.

That might not sound like a promising beginning for this end game. But keep in mind what I said before. The situation is hopeless given the weapons we know we have at our disposal. It is easy to forget the weapons of solidarity and mutual defense. They have been lost in time, both in today's world and in the world of the Kyrennei Series, but they did exist once. And if such solidarity can be found, then hope will arise in places we never imagined. 

Read Light of the Shield, the final book in the Kyrennei Series, here. It is available in Kindle and paperback formats.

What they need to grow: An interview with children's illustrator Julie Freel

Here is another interview with Children's Wheel of the Year illustrator, Julie Freel. This time I want to let you in on her other life, which is as an expert on the emotional development of children. Her input has also been very helpful on the writing side of the books, ensuring that the stories and dialogue are helpful to children, even as they entertain.

Welcome back to the blog, Julie.

How is the illustrating for this project going?

It's getting easier and more fun.

You work with children for your day job, right?

I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. I've provided services to children and families for 25 years.

Painting Shanna books Sommer Solstice 3.jpg

We always say plants need soil, water and sunlight to grow. Can you sum up what children need to grow and flourish?

Kids need safety and security to survive. To thrive, children need a reliable someone paying attention, providing care and nurture. To flourish, kids need motivational opportunities such as new experiences and ideas as well as opportunities to develop skills and talents.

What role does self-confidence play?

At a certain age, kids need challenges. Shanna and the Goddess is a story about how challenges help to build confidence. Giving children an opportunity to meet challenges helps them develop a healthy sense of self, challenges that are genuinely meaningful within the context of their lives.

The opportunity to be needed and the feeling that your contribution is valuable can develop a sense of self, if it's not above your developmental level. A five-year-old without an available parent who has to figure out how to get food for his three-year-old sister isn't being provided with a helpful challenge because it’s beyond their developmental level, causing later emotional problems. But if it is a challenge that causes you to stretch and prove your abilities, where you get the opportunity to test your real limits, it builds confidence.

Self-confidence is what underlies motivation and the ability and willingness to try things, make mistakes, learn and grow. Many people have abilities and exceptional talents but are unable to find the motivation to express them. Some people say it's laziness but I would say it has more to do with lack of self-confidence. Self-confidence makes life more fun.

What is self-regulation and why is it important to children's development?

Self-regulation is the ability to manage our emotions and behavior within the context of the expectations in our situation. It includes emotional regulation; or the ability to manage emotions, to calm oneself when upset and to adjust to changes. These skills allow us to direct our behavior towards goals despite the unpredictability of the world and flux of our own feelings. Without adequate emotional regulation, children are less capable of succeeding socially and academically. Our abilities to self regulate are largely developed before the age of three, including prenatal development. With a safe environment and responsive caregivers, children develop the capacity to calm themselves under stress. Without a safe environment, our brains develop patterns of hormonal responses that last a lifetime and take a great deal of effort to manage, impacting our abilities to be fully present to our life experiences.

Julie painting imbolc cover of beltane.JPG

Do you think self-regulation is particularly important because of the emphasis of today's society on academic success in a sedentary structure?

Self regulation is important in any society. There is a difference between being able to regulate ones’ emotions and the ability to sustain attention. A societal emphasis on academic success within a sedentary structure is not conducive to sustained attention for many children. But being able to regulate emotions is essential to social connectedness and success with any endeavor that requires sustained effort. Our abilities to self regulate directly relate essential relationship skills: to our ability to be present to our own emotional experience and that of another person.

What are some ways to help kids who struggle with self-regulation in school?

It depends on the need. It is helpful to have a calm-down place where kids can self regulate. Children benefit from learning mindfulness skills such as body awareness and yoga. Emotional intelligence skills can be taught; for example, learning to identify and name your feelings and expressing them to others calmly. These skills can be integrated into social relationship skill building. Children need to be taught how to express themselves in ways that are sensitive to others and help in problem solving their daily challenges.

Help kids talk about important issues--such as bullying, social exclusion, difficulties keeping up
academically--with each other. Normalize the need for calming down and the need to help each other calm down. Teach children how to be there for each other when someone is having a hard time.

In addition, doing projects--just getting out and doing things--is a huge predictor of future success for children. That's one reason why too much time sitting in front of video games is such a problem for children. They aren't having opportunities for building the many skills that are necessary steps toward self regulation, confidence and competence.

The book Shanna and the Goddess has a lot about children gardening. Do kids gain more from gardening than just technical skills like other chores?

Gardening helps children connect to nature and the earth, offering a source of calm and connectedness to the environment as well as to one’s family. Nature is one of the greatest sources of internal peace and satisfaction.

With so many demands today--academics, sports, foreign languages, creative enrichment opportunities for kids and then those chores--do you have any advice for parents hoping to include some sort of spirituality in their children's lives?

If it is a part of your life, spirituality will naturally be a part of your children's lives. If you want spiritually based celebrations, you have to make that choice and put it into practice for yourself and your family. Living your spirituality has to be integrated into your daily life as well as your celebrations, in order to be meaningful.

Thank you so much for your perspective on this. And happy painting!

Summer is coming and the fourth Shanna book is here

The turning point of the new moon is just hours away. And that makes this a perfect moment to announce a new beginning.

The fourth book in the Children's Wheel of the Year has finally arrived. This is, of course, the long-awaited Summer Solstice story, the previous three having focused on Imbolc, the Spring Equinox and Beltane. 

The Summer Solstice is one of the nature-based holidays that gets the least attention and there are remarkably few books out there for kids on the subject. Of those that are available, most either teach about the traditions of various cultures in the past, such as The Longest Day, or mention the Summer Solstice with a host of other holidays such as Rupert's Tales or An Ordinary Girl - A Magical Child.

For many people who don't follow a major religion in our modern society, it is hard to feel connected to holidays that have lost much of their tradition and essential magic to commercialism. One alternative many people are now embracing is the celebration of naturally occurring transitions, such as the solstices and equinoxes. Some spiritual paths also hold these as holy days, but even for atheists and agnostics, these moments can fulfill the human need for bright gems of interest amid the routine of daily life. 

The summer solstice has been celebrated in cultures all over the world--from the equator to the poles--for thousands of years. It is the time of flourishing life in each hemisphere, a moment of fullness and a turning point in which seasons begin to swing back.

The summer solstice is the top of the pendulum, the height of a swing. And like a child's swing it gives us all that giddy feeling children get at the moment of weightlessness as the chains of the swing stop propelling them forward and hesitate before pulling them back. That is also the moment where the swing set is no longer visible and you feel most as if you were flying. The summer solstice is the cosmic equivalent of that giddy instant. Our faces are in the sun and for a moment it feels like everything is possible and we are far more capable than we knew.

The title of the fourth book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series is Shanna and the Goddess, and it is a story about the accelerated growth, confidence and courage that can result when we are challenged by adversity and we are capable and ready to meet that challenge.

In this book, eleven-year-old Shanna and her eight-year-old brother Rye take on grown-up responsibilities when their mother breaks her ankle at the beginning of the summer. Shanna is determined to save the newly planted garden from drought and neglect. Rye takes on cooking with some interesting and tasty results. Both gain confidence and skills, but their courage is tested when a massive hail storm threatens to flatten the garden. 

Instead of being primarily a teaching tool, like many other books about natural holidays, the Children's Wheel of the Year series offers adventure stories linked to the themes of earth-centered holidays that are fun to read and listen to. The Shanna books are not focused on teaching kids how the holidays were or are supposed to be celebrated. There are examples of traditions in the books because the family in the story celebrates the holidays. But the focus is on a kid-friendly story. 

Shanna and the Goddess is available in paperback and kindle formats here

Kids, household tasks and that feeling that the sun is inside you

About childhood chores, I remember mostly boredom--a million cherries pitted, a thousand apples picked, countless weeds pulled, endless Saturdays spent scrubbing the bathroom, vacuuming and--longest of all somehow--cleaning my own room.

But then there was apple juice spilling from the spout of the press. The first drink--so rich it makes your teeth ache, yet it slides down your throat like perfect music. 

There was the realization that my classmates in college didn't know what to do in a kitchen, being known as "the techie one" because I knew how to turn on a vacuum or unplug a drain--even though in reality I'm rather technically challenged. Today there is that sense of wonder at a basket of food grown with my own hands, food that was just seeds a few months ago and the realizations that I had learned this as a toddler. 

Creative Commons image courtessy of Georgios Liakopoulos

Creative Commons image courtessy of Georgios Liakopoulos

Viral internet videos have made famous the 2014 Braun Research study which reports that only 28 percent of kids today do chores. People watch the cute pictures of three- and four-year-olds doing chores and cooking, and they gush about how important the skills and the theoretical sense of responsibility they gain is to those kids and to the world. 

In my generation, just a few decades ago, the digits were reversed. 82 percent of the parents of today did chores as children. We have those memories of aching boredom, frustration and watching the sun slowly march across the sky, stealing our play time on a glorious, sunny Saturday. My husband recalls his own childhood on a South Bohemian farm as one endless era of forced labor in the garden beds, weeding and picking. 

Sure, there are people out there who think parents who give kids chores are looking for cheap labor and they put negative comments on those chore videos. But I can pretty much guarantee that those people either aren't parents or they have never asked a kid to do a chore, because any parent who has knows the exponential amount of effort and work it takes to teach and persuade kids to do chores than it is to do it one's self. Even if the task is something kids want to do, like cooking a special treat, the amount of work parents do to "help" kids learn, do and clean up from the task is massive.

But the Braun study found something else interesting. Even though only 28 percent of kids today do chores, 75 percent of parents believe chores would help their children learn skills and gain responsibility. 

So what is the problem in this generation? Parents believe it's good for kids to do chores but very few actually follow through. Why?

Creative Commons image courtesy of Darien Library 

Creative Commons image courtesy of Darien Library 

I can think of several reasons right off the top of my head:

  1. Parents are busy and over-stressed. It really does take several times the time and effort to teach or even persuade a child to do a task than to do it one's self. We don't have kids do chores in order to get things done faster, at least not for several years and even with older kids the stress involved can outweigh any minor time savings.
  2. Kids are busy. There is a social expectation that good, responsible parents will provide their kids with at the very least a sport, a foreign language and a creative experience. That means that on top of school and homework, kids are racing between soccer, Spanish and ceramics classes. Some say parents then feel guilty about giving kids chores on top of all this. I contend that the 15-hour, kids-awake-time day is simply over. Guilt of no guilt. 
  3. Attachment parenting is all the rage and forcing is unfashionable. Last but definitely not least. a myriad of books and media today tell us that it is the emotional development of children that is most important to their future success and survival and that the only way to ensure their emotional health is to defer to their pure and natural desires and ensure that harsh words never pass our lips. Discipline is supposed to be all about "natural consequences," even thought they don't tend to materialize in the insulated, safe worlds of our homes. That doesn't leave much room for persuading kids do do boring tasks that no one without a couple of decades of experience can see the value in. 

I am far from a perfect housekeeper, cook or gardener and not a day goes by when I find that I lack a skill that my mother tried to teach me. How do I make sure the meat is cooked all the way through? What cleaning tools or supplies might help in scraping and scrubbing some of those deep, dank corners? Why aren't my pumpkin plants sprouting this year? 

I do know the basics of gardening--soil, compost, seeds, water. It's simple right?

Well, actually it isn't. After ten years of trying, I'm now just barely a decent gardener. And when I remember my initial attempts to cook in college, having come from a mother who was famous for delicious and seemingly instantaneous meals, I laugh. I did know how to boil rice and fry eggs though, and watching young adults who don't have the slightest idea where to start with either task today is disturbing. 

More disturbing is looking at more studies on human behavior. One of the longest longitudinal studies ever conducted on humans, the Harvard Grant Study, found that the factor most closely linked to professional success was the length and early on-set of childhood chores, i.e. the more chores kids did and the younger they started, the more successful they are as adults today.

It's an average, of course. There are a few kids who had it easy with no chores and were handed a high-paying job by their families and continue to manage not to screw it up. But most who didn't do chores, either don't make it to success or crash and burn if success is handed to them. 

Illustration by Julie Freel from the book   Shanna and the Goddess  --a story about growing maturity and empowerment

Illustration by Julie Freel from the book Shanna and the Goddess--a story about growing maturity and empowerment

And that study was done on the 82-percent-doing-chores generation, in which many of the 18 percent who didn't do any chores "failed to launch" and became the modern joke of "kids" over thirty who still live with their parents and can't seem to find their way.  I'm not going to speculate about the generation with only 28 percent doing chores, because most disaster predictions turn out to be wrong. But yeah, it's disturbing.

One of my kids has special needs that make dealing with chores much more difficult than it would be with the average kid. The younger sibling is seven and still needs a lot of help doing household tasks. I know the stresses and strains and doubt I'll live up to a perfect standard or teach my kids even as much as my mother taught me.

But I'll try. Not just because I want my kids to be successful (or at least move out by the age of thirty). More important than that to me is the feeling I get from knowing how to do things that take care of my home and food.

It's primal, I think. It is one of the most intoxicatingly empowering feelings, the sense of competence. The sun is inside me when I cook a great meal in record time or pull in the first garden harvest of the year or take a deep breath and look around at that brief moment when my house is clean before the kids demolish it again. 

It is very good to be self-reliant and competent. And kids get the same sense of that, even with smaller tasks. Of course, I didn't love chores as a kid, but I did love the feeling of the sun shining inside that came at the end. Just like he endorphins after exercise, it is a reward you don't know will come until you've done it often enough. 

When I write children's stories, my goals are to connect with kids through fun, suspense and things that make them feel good about themselves and their values. Our latest children's story, Shanna and the Goddess, goes right too that feeling of confidence and empowerment. In this illustrated, chapter book, a brother and sister named Shanna and Rye must take on significant. grown-up responsibilities when their single mother breaks her ankle. These modern-day kids start out eager to help, but soon they face hard work, callouses, conflicts and a destructive hail storm. They weather these troubles and receive much deserved rewards. 

Shanna and the Goddess is also a story of the modern-day celebration of the Summer Solstice, the day of the longest and most intense sun. The story reflects the natural power and expression of the height of summer through the story of growing maturity and the children discover the sun within as a personal source of empowerment.

Young activists, millions strong

One day in seventh grade is etched into my memory. I was sitting in the second row in a dimly lit science classroom, bored as usual. Our teacher was uninspiring. He was droning on again, something about a military program to train dolphins to attach bombs to the bottom of enemy ships.

I wasn't sure what the science point of the lecture was. Animal behavior maybe? The chemistry of explosions? You never knew with this guy. 

Illustration by Julie Freel from  Shanna and the Water Fairy

Illustration by Julie Freel from Shanna and the Water Fairy

But then this sentence got my attention: "So then these morons from Greenpeace came along and started blockading, so that they had to stop the program and put the lives of our troops at risk." 

I raised my hand. Most of the class was half asleep anyway. I wasn't even sure what I was going to say until he called on me. I tried to find words for the wrongness I felt in the lecture. I think I said something along the lines of, "So you think dolphins should have to do the humans' dirty work?" 

There were a few snickers around the class. The teacher leveled his gaze at me and paced a few steps closer. At least to me as a seventh grader, his voice was low and intimidating. "And you think a dolphin's life is more important than a human life?" 

More snickers and a few derogatory comments were flung my way by some of my classmates. I wasn't one of the popular kids who would get support for mouthing off to a teacher. And apparently mine wasn't a popular sentiment. 

Illustration by Julie Freel from  Shanna and the Water Fairy

Illustration by Julie Freel from Shanna and the Water Fairy

I had all kinds of arguments, all lined up. But I also knew this wasn't one of those times where reasoned argument would work. You don't argue with teachers in front of the whole class, not if you want to avoid trouble. How many times had I been told that? I knew that if I got one more sentence in I'd be lucky. 

And for once I had it. "If they are so concerned about human life, what are they doing blowing up ships in the first place?" 

The snickers stopped. Everyone was watching the teacher and waiting for his reaction. He stumbled a bit over his words, told me I was out of line and went on a rant about "patriotism." But I didn't care anymore. I knew when to quit. 

It was lonely being a wannabe activist in 1988 in rural Eastern Oregon. Today it may still not be the mainstream, especially environmental activism. but at least there are places to turn. If I was thirteen now, I could get on the internet and find like-minded others. In the last few weeks, I could see and join the amazing youth movement for gun regulations. 

We scarcely had books about nature and PBS documentaries. If you were interested in activism for social or environmental causes, it was a long, lonely and mostly silent road. Today there is more media and more connection across distance, especially for teenagers.

For younger kids, there are books like Shanna and the Water Fairy. I wrote this story with kids and parents on the activist road in mind. It's a gateway for kids ages six to twelve, for those who might feel like lonely voices against wrongness in hopes that they may add their voices to the rising tide of young activists for a better future.

This is the third book illustrated with emotive oil pastels by Julie Freel. It tells the story of a sister and brother, Shanna and Rye, who discover a hidden spring on dry waste land behind their school. The spring is a magical pocket of vibrant life in a drought-stricken land, a sanctuary for wildflowers, butterflies and a being they call a fairy. When the children discover that the spring is slated to be bulldozed to make way for another shopping mall, they look for ways to call attention to what would be lost and inspire local activism of their own. 

Shanna and the Water Fairy is the kind of book I longed for as a kid. It is a story that reaches out to every kid who has wanted to be heard and taken seriously for concerns many adults think kids aren't bothered with.

You aren't alone and your voice does matter. This is the time of the rise of young activists, millions strong.

Pagan Book Review: Awen Alone

Awen Alone has a definite Celtic focus but it is not exclusionary. The book mentions at several points that people of non-Celtic background should not be afraid to explore this path and that it is natural for druids to explore other pantheons beyond the Celtic pantheon.

Awen Alone offers a straightforward description of modern druidry. The author Joanna van der Hoeven explains without obfuscation the differences between joining groups and taking on a solitary practice. She makes clear that druidry can be a practice for atheists as well as a spiritual path and she assuages common fears about doing it wrong. The book also includes a particularly helpful and non-judgmental section with straight talk about different perceptions of gods and goddesses.

Where the beginning of the book emphasizes an openness to different ways of following a druid path, later in the book the tone becomes at times heavy-handed with an insistence that daily walks are the primary way to observe changes in nature through the seasons.

There are chapters outlining basic concepts of meditation, inner path working, and prayer. The author places a significant emphasis on connecting with ancestors of blood, place and path. The focus seems to be on a very flexible druid path. If there are any rules on this path, they are about respect and care for the natural environment. The only thing that is non-negotiable to the author is that you must explore your local environment and care for it, no matter what it is, urban or rural. 

A loose version of the wheel of the year with Neopagan names for the feast days is promoted with the caveat that many people will adapt the dates to fit local climactic conditions. 

The path of druidry presented here is attractive to eclectic Pagans. It may appeal to people of various backgrounds who have felt a pull toward Native American spirituality but don't want to appropriate the beliefs of that culture if it is not their own. The solitary druid path as presented here allows the individual to adapt an earth-centered spirituality to local conditions and to choose from a range of techniques such as various types of meditation, prayer, nature observation and inner path working to gain spiritual insight.

Advanced Writing Tips: Problematic and irritating disability tropes to avoid in writing

I'm going to make an assumption here. I'm assuming you as a writer, whether you have a disability or not, want to write pedal-to-the-metal, amazing plots with characters that grab readers by the throat and don't let go until they cough up cash for your next book. 

Or something like that. 

So this is not a whiny post about all the bad, prejudiced books out there that treat disability issues poorly. This is an Advanced Writing Tips post to help you avoid pitfalls that distract, lose and piss off readers. I happen to be legally blind, but I'm a writer first and I have to think things through when I write about characters with disabilities just like anyone else. 

Creative Commons image by Tim Evanson

Creative Commons image by Tim Evanson

We want our writing to be fresh and original. That goes without saying. We don't want to rehash the same stuff people have been doing for decades. That's boring. We also want our characters to be emotionally realistic (i.e. relatable for readers).  When it comes to writing about characters with disabilities it is all too easy to get sucked into cliched tropes that not only drag the story into old ruts but also make the characters more annoying than relatable.

And in many cases, even when the writing is good, tired tropes simply piss off readers with disabilities, who are at least 15 percent of the reading population and thus a hefty chunk of your market. An even heftier chunk if you count their close family members, who will likely be just as pissed off by annoying tropes.

One of the sticky problems of disability tropes is that avoiding one cliche too vigorously can make you stumble into another by accident. The most important thing to keep in mind when writing about a character with a disability is that people with disabilities are much more like abled people than they are different.

So if your character has a disability, that probably isn’t their main characteristic. It’s something of side importance most of the time, even if the story centers on something related to it. Your character has many interests that aren’t what you would expect from that sort of disabled person.

For example, I am legally blind but I’m pretty good at graphic design because I happen to have a brain wired for visual thinking. Bad combo but I didn’t get to pick. I’ll never be great at graphic design, which I might have been if my eyes weren’t screwed up. I am, on the other hand, terrible at music, which is often a stereotypical interest for blind characters. I do like music and I tried hard to play the flute for five years as a child but I was never very good. It was way harder to memorize all that music than it seems when blind musicians do it.

Other than that, here are the most common story pitfalls to avoid when dealing with a disabled character:

Creative Common image by Wheelchair Basketball Canada 

Creative Common image by Wheelchair Basketball Canada 

  1. Bounce-back magicians: Characters who become disabled and immediately (within months, weeks or even days) are able to function in amazing top form, handling everything without help and having better developed other senses or muscles. (Yes, people with disabilities find other ways of accomplishing things and can function fast and happily in almost every situation a abled person can but it takes years to learn the specialized skills, to develop different muscles and to learn to read other senses to compensate for a sensory loss. It takes years and often specialized training and education. There are already way too many stories and movies out there about a disabled character's miraculous recovery and given the propensity of fiction to speed up medical miracles, we come across characters who adapt unrealistically quickly. This is not only old and boring, it is also highly annoying to people actually struggling with these issues. There are very few stories or movies that portray a realistic struggle and show the grit of real people with disabilities. Possibly a good plot line or six there.)
  2. Superheroes in non-magical stories: Characters with super powers or super sensitive senses where they don't belong. (I am legally blind and I can throw pebbles across a ditch to tell how far I have to jump by sound, I can often sense obstacles by echolocation and I can almost flawlessly tell what my young children are up to in the other room by hearing. But I am sick to death of the cliched character who is a martial arts master and totally blind, who can hear how their opponent is swinging a sword so precisely that they always win easily. Yes, blind people sometimes appear to have super hearing to sighted people but controlled hearing tests show that we have no better technical hearing ability than anyone else. What is true is that people who have lived without a particular sense for a long time (think decades) learn to pay much more attention to their remaining senses and interpret meaning from things others would ignore. People with various disabilities have adapted skills that abled people have because they are not forced to practice such specific skills minute by minute for years. But this is about skill and muscle, not super powers. Despite my abilities in interpreting sounds, I'm still pretty tone deaf and have a terrible ear for recognizing voices. There are things you can train and things you can't. Keeping this realistic and ensuring that your disabled character has had years to adapt to their disability, if you want them to be really skilled, are essential to making characters relatable.)
  3. Gracious suicides: Disabled characters who nobly commit suicide to escape their unbearable existence and reduce the burdens on abled characters. (This is another type of trope entirely and it is the kind that will get your book or movie thrown across many rooms with enough force to break the binding. The movie success of "Me Before You" has made this trope famous recently but it has been around for decades, probably centuries. If you have any confusion on this, here's the crux. Being disabled is not an unbearable existence and portraying people with disabilities as a burden whose best shot at heroism is to commit suicide to lift their burden from others is wrong in so many ways. But from the writer's perspective it is just cliched, overdone and old hat. It is also maudlin and melodramatic, and it relegates a major character to a paper cutout prop for other characters. Just don't do it. Euthanasia can be explored in much more realistic and mature ways.)
  4. Inspiro-porn stars: Characters whose primary purpose is to inspire others through their stoic courage despite suffering. (There’s a term for this. It’s called “inspiration porn.” It’s like porn because it is designed to generate a strong, involuntary emotional response in the reader/viewer and it makes the reader/viewer feel good and almost euphoric for a short time at the expense of reducing another person or character to a prop for the edification of others. People with disabilities are not any more stoic than other people and they shouldn't be expected to be. Disabled characters should be allowed to become overwhelmed and emotional about difficult things in their lives, related to disability or not, just like any other characters. Certainly, if you are writing about a hardened detective or other James-Bond type hero who happens to have a disability and he/she is stoic and doesn't complain when their arm is severed in a fight because that's just what kind of individual he/she is, that's a different matter. But it is not “courageous” to simply live with a disability and not go kill yourself (see trope #3). Most people with disabilities live pretty happy lives where their struggles are often not related to their disability. It can be irritating to deal with a society that isn’t ready to include our differences, but it isn’t like we lie in bed in the morning and muster the courage to live. We muster the patience to deal with ableist barriers and weird social reactions but that’s more patience than courage. It can take a lot of mental struggle for people who are newly disabled to see that their new situation is livable but people handle it in various ways due to temperament and all of those ways are normal and acceptable. Here too there are several good potential plot lines that have rarely, if ever, been explored.) 
  5. The crip in distress: The dependent invalid or the one who must be saved. (This is less common today but it used to be a big trope. It is still very tired. No one really wants to read stories where a secondary character is a disabled child or other who the hero is going to save from their terrible fate. I'm not going to belabor the point. Just avoid doing this. When you need a hero to save someone in order to be heroic, it is always better to make the person being saved a three-dimensional character as well. What would be a cliched "rescue plot" can gain immense punch with more careful characterization.)
  6. Last-minute cures: The plot arch in which the cure of the disability is the solution to the plot problem. (This is a huge one today,, which has kind of taken over the 19th and early 20th century trope number 5. I see stories far too often today where the plot revolves around a character wrestling with the psychological and physical effects of a disability. Sometimes the character is a mess and has to learn the courage and stoic fortitude in trope number 4 or the adaptations in trope 1 and toward the end of the story he or she does adapt and things look okay, tolerable and the disability is mastered. But the author betrays their internal belief that disability is still too terrible and the disability is cured in the end. So the character finds that they could live well with such a disability and then they are rewarded with a cure that takes the disability away so they don’t have to. This isn’t impossible in terms of a realistic event narrative but it has been done and done and done and it is far from the norm of disability. It displays an underlying assumption in society and on the part of the author that no adaptation or psychological resolution is actually good enough and the only positive outcome is to get rid of disability altogether.)
  7. Pre-adventure cures: The disabled character who is magically cured at the beginning of the story so that they can go on an adventure or be a hero. (This is a minor but highly annoying fantasy trope. Sometimes my pulse will quicken as I read the blurb on a new fantasy book that says the main character is disabled, only to find that the initial plot point is that the disability is magically cured, so that now the formerly sedentary protagonist can now go off on an adventure or become a hero. That's what happened in The Last Words of Will Wolfkin by Steven Knight. The message in stories like this is all too clear. People with disabilities are seen as helpless and useless. They can only be victims or people to be rescued, never a hero in their own right. This is a problem and the whole premise of the disability being cured in the first chapter is just weak and disappointing as a plot spur in any case.)
  8. Fakers and manipulators (This is one that will send me and many others into vicious bad review mode faster than any other. In fact, I’ll give a bad example right here as a bad review. Yes, I’m naming names. The Netflix series "The Good Wife" would be a fairly decent dramatic lawyer show except that it uses this trope several times. The one disabled major character in the show is a lawyer who slyly and manipulatively uses a tardive dyskinesia disability to derail arguments, manipulate judges, plead for sympathy from juries and so on and on and on. It is really all his character ever does. He is the only major disabled character and here this is finally a show with a disabled lawyer as a character. Another minor character is the son of a rival politician who has leukemia. The child is used as a media gimmick to gain public sympathy for an otherwise unsympathetic politician. The fact that this show uses both these "faker" stereotypes without including other people with chronic illness or disability points to some serious bigotry somewhere in the production chain. Abled people are likely to protest that “Well, this happens in real life!” In fact, it almost does not happen. It is exceedingly rare for people to fake a disability in public to gain sympathy and it is impossible to fake a disability medically given medical technologies today. People with real disabilities do not fake or exaggerate their difficulties to get attention or sympathy. Yes, I know some beggars pretend to be missing a limb or to be blind to get sympathy and donations. These people are rare anomalies who you see relatively often because they place themselves in highly frequented areas. They are a tiny fraction of reality. The trope in fiction and the stereotype in real life that some non-disabled people fake a disability and some disabled people exaggerate their difficulties to get attention, sympathy or advantages is so tired that the dead horse has decomposed. Furthering this trope is unforgivable today in a society where everyone should know better. Works that promote it actively harm people with disabilities and cause us to be accosted and accused of faking at random moments in public. Every time an book or movie portrays such a stereotype, real events result in which disabled children and adults are mocked and dismissed. Do not do it. It's like portraying a black person as a monkey. Sure, some black children eat bananas and jump up and down pretending to be a monkey, just like some white children do. It happens. But we don't do it in fiction for very good reasons. The same goes for fictional portrayals of people faking disability. Disabilities are extremely varied and you won’t always understand why a mother with a white cane on the train who uses a disability transport card is reading a printed book to her children (that would be me). But it is just the way optics work and no one is faking.)
  9. Charity applause: Disabled protagonists who are good "for a disabled person." (This is a particularly tired one but it still comes up sometimes in children's literature. Much may be made of a character's accomplishments because they are pretty good at something "for a disabled person." There is a legitimately difficult line to walk for writers here. It is natural to write about the accomplishments of someone against the odds. We all know that it is an achievement for a wheelchair user to play wheelchair basketball. And a sports story about a kid's dream to be a star in wheelchair basketball is fair game. But it isn't attractive or interesting if the point of the story is that everyone claps for little Jimmy who tries to play with the abled kids but he's really very bad at it and the climax of the story is the one time he makes a basket. He was so good, considering he's disabled, but really he was awful by any other standard. Boring.)
  10. Automatic no-threat sign: A character's disability used to show that they are not a threat in competition. (Sometimes a secondary character in a story has all the hallmarks of a good, positive disabled character. It's often the best friend or sidekick of the main character. The thing is that the secondary character is disabled, and the assumption is made clear in the story that this means the disabled character will always be the follower and is never a competitor for top jobs. This character is a great confidante when it comes to love interests because he/she is "obviously" not in the running for romance. This is overused and obviously annoying. It's also very boring.)
  11. Prince or princess Not Sexy: The disabled hero who wins everything except love. (This is a special little trope that crops up every now and then. The most famous example is probably "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" Disney musical. The hunchback did all the things most Disney princes do and won but instead of getting a beautiful princess and everlasting happiness in the end, his great prize is that he is tolerated in public. Causing your readers/viewers to gag on vomit during what is supposed to be the heartwarming end is usually not part of the plan. Don't do this.)
  12. Gimpiness as the evil trope: The villain who is obviously a villain because of a disability. (I am personally simply perplexed by this one. There are so many villains in modern culture who are disabled. They far outnumber the number of disabled protagonists. If any racial group was so universally portrayed as "the bad guys" it would be a topic of anti-discrimination activism. But today disability has replaced the dark visage as the quick and easy way to show who the villain is. They walk with a cane, breathe with a machine, need magic to keep their body together or whatever. There are theories about how this is related to a hard-wired human fear of deformity and disease. The first zombie movies were about AIDs victims and I am sure the cheap play on people's fears has something to do with it. But quick and easy or not, it is just as problematic as having all your villains be dark-looking. At the very least, we need to balance the number and major positioning of disabled protagonists.) 

I know this list might feel overwhelming. And contradictory. You shouldn't portray people with disabilities as too good but you can't make them villains either. You can't make your disabled characters too strong and resilient without risking them having "super powers" but you shouldn't let them become weak two-dimensional props in need of rescue either.

It often seems like it would be a lot easier to just not include characters with disabilities at all... which is what most writers have done for ages. The worst trope of all isn't actually on the list, because the worst message about disability that we can promote in our writing is voiceless obscurity. When we don't give a character here or there a disability we contribute to a society in which people with disabilities are ignored, dismissed and isolated. 

It may be hard to avoid the pitfalls, but it is worth it. Including a character with a disability in your story, even without making the story about that disability, opens up a large and hungry market for your work. When there is too little of something in books, readers want it. Write well about characters with disabilities and you'll get a boost in reader loyalty and discoverability. 

So do write about characters with disabilities. Just do it smart.

Pagan Book Review: iPagan

iPagan is a fascinating and challenging collection of essays, including multiple, diverse perspectives on Druidry, shammanism, goddess spirituality and witchcraft. These four major streams in the modern Pagan movement are described and explored in a variety of ways both theoretical and experiential. While there are plenty of books that will tell you what these paths are and even provide step-by-step instructions for going through the motions of their practices, I appreciate this collection's attempt to evoke the sensory and inner experience of each pathway.

Later in the book there is a selection of essays on more general topics concerning the Neopagan community, such as gender, Pagan politics and Pagan parenting. These went only tentatively beyond the boundaries pushed by previous collections of Pagan essays. Intercultural topics and disability issues in Paganism were still avoided by most of the authors and only briefly mentioned by a few. I continue to be disappointed by the lack of considerations in Pagan anthologies for issues which cause daily concerns within the Pagan community. However, what is discussed is handled well here, including complex issues of gender identity.

The overall quality of writing in this collection is excellent and there was no boring moment throughout the book. If enjoy reading thoughtful and lively essays, you will likely find iPagan both informative and entertaining. 

Paying attention: The lessons of crow or raven

When I was a kid, I knew I wanted to live close to the land, to live out of the city, grow a garden and even raise chickens. I wasn't just being romantic. That is how I grew up and I knew about the work involved.

Still my reasons at first were not the same as the reasons of grown-ups. Living close to the land is a bit healthier, but it's also harder on the body and often plenty heavy on the mind. My own reasons had more to do with where I felt most alive.

Creative commons image by Igor Shatokhin

Creative commons image by Igor Shatokhin

When we experience something with all of our senses, we feel much more alive. If you live close to the land, you have to be out in all weather--feeding animals, digging in the earth, planting, harvesting and fixing things.

Often it doesn't seem pleasant but you feel, smell, see and hear everything. As long as this is part of your survival, rather than just a good-for-you walk in the midst of an otherwise dull day, you won't be bored.

Kids often understand this even if they live in a very artificial environment. When my young son marvels at the return of snow and only vaguely remembers when it was last here nine months ago, he tastes it, smells it, stands listening and then runs around wildly flailing in it. 

"Mama, will the snow always be here now?" he asks.

His sister, two years older and oh so much wiser, sneers, "No, baby, it will only stay until the trees want to wake up."

While the squabble over who is a baby goes on in the doorway, the cold wind swirls into the house and a crow (or possibly a raven, my eyes aren't good enough to tell the difference) quarks from the young oak in front of the house. 

Many grownups today barely notice the first snow fall, let alone a single bird in a tree. But I notice. This bird with its solid black feathers is interesting and important, just like the traffic signs on the road. It is part of paying attention and being fully alive.

Creative Commons image by Byrion Smith 

Creative Commons image by Byrion Smith 

Crow and raven as symbols

Fortunately, it doesn't matter much that I can't tell if it is a crow or a raven. They are both considered important and even magical birds by people all over the world. Europeans, Native Americans, the ancient Chinese and the ancient Egyptians all saw the crow and raven as symbols of real-world magic, the mysteries of the unknown, and possibly death, as well as transformation, healing, wisdom, protection and prophecy. 

While some cultures connect this bird to the sun and others to the dark of a moonless night, there is no human culture where they are native that does not see them as powerful, mysterious and noteworthy. 

Modern pop culture suggests that all symbols of the crow and raven must be sinister. But that wasn't traditionally the case. Our great grandparents might have told us that the appearance of these black birds is a reminder to pay attention, to follow your intuition, to use your personal integrity, to reserve judgement against people, to question your assumptions, to think independently or stand out from the crowd.

Some people believe that crows and ravens can bring messages from another world, perhaps from ancestors. Others believe the bird simply shows that something is going to change or that it asks us to be faithful despite changes. 

How do they live?

Crows and ravens can eat almost anything and adapt to very different environments. Crows always keep a mate but often live in groups. Ravens are faithful to one mate for life and often live in pairs. This is one reason why these birds symbolize faithfulness to many people.

Creative Commons image by Jennifer C, of

Creative Commons image by Jennifer C, of

Both types of bird are very intelligent compared to other species. Their cawing, which sounds pretty raucous to us, is actually a sophisticated language. Different kinds of cawing mean different things. Crows will often build false nests to fool predators and to protect their young. When they are in a group they will let one member check out any new object while the others watch and learn. When they eat as a group, they post sentries to warn of danger. They will even warn other animals, and especially deer, with a lot of noise when hunters are around.

These are all reasons why these birds came to be symbols of wisdom and caution. They are not dangerous themselves. Instead, if we are careful and pay attention to them, we can learn to protect ourselves both physically and intuitively. 

What do they teach us?

Crows and ravens have shown humans how to think things through and question our assumptions. Over time, many people came to see just the appearance of one of these birds as a reminder to look beyond first appearances, to avoid quick assumptions, to measure every thing based on an objective standard, to explore the unknown and to cross physical and mental borders.

In a media-saturated world it is often difficult to tell the difference between your prejudices and true intuition. These birds are a good symbol to keep in mind. Many cultures believe that seeing a crow or raven means you should spend some time in introspection, make sure things are as they seem or try to remember what you may have forgotten or left behind in your hurry.

Different cultures have very specific omens associated with crows and ravens, often depending on which direction the bird is from you and what time of day it is. It may be that these symbols work only in the place they come from. It is more likely that these omens or "rules" were devised to try to explain the intuitive messages of the birds in a logical way. The problem with this is that intuition defies logic. It might then be more effective to observe the specific case without much reference to rules about whether the bird is on your right or on your left or if it is morning or afternoon when you saw it.

Illustration by Julie Freel, used with permission

Illustration by Julie Freel, used with permission

It is the general reminder of caution and the need for intuition that is universally understood about crows and ravens. When so many diverse cultures with long and learned histories arrive at the same conclusion, it is worth paying attention.

A story about intuition and a raven

A couple of years ago, I wrote a story for kids and adults that gives a real example of how this can work. The story is Shanna and the Raven. It's about a girl named Shanna and her brother Rye, who see a raven after they meet a neighbor who makes them feel strange. The story is a tiny bit scary but it shows how intuition can be a powerful protective tool for both kids and grown-ups. 

Shanna and the Raven is also a story about this time of year. Shanna and Rye celebrate a very old holiday called Imbolc, which is about intuition, inspiration and prophecy, just like the raven and crow. This holiday comes on February 2 and you can try out their recipe for strawberry dumplings, which is really delicious, or make a doll of the Irish goddess Brigid using their instructions. 

You can start reading the story and see many of the beautiful illustrations by Julie Free at the bottom of this page

The stranger in the orange kameez

I include fiction and short stories based on fact in this section of the Hearth from time to time. This story is one that really happened though it is told here from an uncommon perspective.

In Dhaka there is a small area of square blocks with a grid of paved roads between them. Each block is surrounded by a high wall topped with razor wire and guarded by several weathered men. This is the Embassy District. Many wealthier Bangladeshis live here as well but a good portion of the houses are inhabited by foreigners--embassy personal, aid workers, scientists and the like.

One day near the beginning of the dry season a girl walked out of the district wearing striped orange kameez, the long tunic over blousy cotton pants favored by more progressive women in the city. The matching orange scarf was looped casually over her head, respectful enough but not quite right in its folds.

At the edge of the Embassy District stands the imposing red brick edifice of the American Embassy, the largest US embassy in the world. Because Bangladesh is considered a difficult country for Americans to work in, almost everything the staff needs is actually inside the embassy itself. And almost no American comes to Bangladesh without some tie to the embassy. 

Beyond the embassy there is an open space of several hundred yards where no one is allowed to build. This is a Muslim country after all, though not a particularly extreme one. The embassy requires security. But half way across the security buffer little garden plots have sprung up. Workers tend them in the hot sun, heads hidden under round conical hats.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

On this day, the conical hats tipped and bobbed as everyone tried to get a glimpse of the strange girl in the orange kameez. Almost no one left the Embassy District by this muddy track headed toward the vast slums housing millions of the nameless, hopeless poor--people uprooted from rural areas by floods, starvation and disease and tossed at the edge of the city like so much garbage. A few of the luckiest residents of the slums were hired as gardeners, cleaners or other laborers in the district. Thus the need for the muddy track. But almost no one came the other way, let alone an unescorted girl. 

The peering eyes took her in--uncomfortable in the local attire, her face pink from too much sun and not enough pigment. She carried no bag but something bulged inside her scarf, carried on her chest. 

She walked slowly and smiled at everyone. They smiled back. It is good if a foreigner smiles. Then she lifted the scarf to reveal a sleek black camera. She took the cap off of the lens and nodded toward two of the workers in a nearby garden. Her eyebrows arched in question. They grinned and stood up, walking toward her through the small garden. Several other workers followed from nearby plots. And four young men ran down the road to join them. People in the slums love cameras and they love posing for pictures.

But the girl's face changed. Now she looked dismayed and she waved at the workers to go back. She gesticulated and tried a few halting words of Bangla, "No come... Yes work... I please." The workers laughed and jostled one another. A foreigner--European foreigner no less--who spoke Bangla no matter how badly. This was a true wonder, something to break the monotony of the day.

But they could not make out what she wanted. She wanted to take a picture. They were willing. But she was now unhappy. Some moved slowly back to work. Others stood waiting to see what she would do. The four young men ran around her in circles on the muddy track. 

Finally the girl's face firmed with decision. She turned her back on the workers and lifted the camera toward the far horizon, away from the slums and back toward the embassy district. She seemed to be taking a picture of the great brick wall around the American Embassy. The workers sighed. She was not interested in them after all. Of course, the embassy wall was something much greater. They straggled back to their plots and even the young men looked disappointed and ran back down the road toward the slum. 

The girl peered over her shoulder, smiled and turned back to her study of the horizon. She did not actually take any pictures. She only waited. 

Then when the scene had cleared she turned back around and framed two of the workers in her lens. Their conical hats and quick hands were delightful. She was about to take that first beautiful picture when an angry shout split the morning sunshine, "Stop or we'll shoot!"

Half a dozen soldiers were running down the track from the embassy. They each carried a heavy machine gun.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

The girl's hand's jerked and she would have dropped the camera had it not been on a strap around her neck. She was not prepared and she did not run. The workers ran and the children playing in the ditch flattened themselves into mud. They knew what was good for them and being noticed by the soldiers was no part of it.  

The girl was surrounded by the soldiers before she took even two steps. The lead soldier demanded her camera in broken English. The girl trembled a little but tried to protest. "I'm American," she said, gesturing toward the embassy wall. "I am a tourist. You can't take my camera."

The lead soldier looked a little less sure. "You come," he demanded. The soldiers formed up around the girl and marched back to the embassy. The workers and the children looked after them, relieved and a little confused about the girl. She clearly did not belong here.

In front of the embassy the soldiers met the Americans. They were men dressed in black pants and white shirts. They had black ties and black sunglasses. They looked like pictures from the American magazines that the workers from the slums sometimes found in the trash. They too demanded the girl's camera. She finally gave it to them along with a small blue book that she took out of a pocket hidden inside her kameez. One of the American's put it in his own pocket.

"You need to answer some questions," he said. "You cannot take pictures of the embassy."

"But I wasn't taking pictures of the embassy," the girl protested. "I was only trying to distract the crowd so that I could get a picture of the people working in the garden." 

The man in black sunglasses did not look convinced, but no one could really tell. His face looked like stone beneath the glasses. But the soldiers took their positions again. Two American soldiers, in the crisper uniforms than those of the Bangladeshi soldiers, came and stood behind the man and the girl. And they all walked into the embassy together. It was not clear if the girl was a prisoner or if she belonged there. She suddenly moved like someone who belonged, swinging her hips and chatting with the man in sunglasses, thickening her western accent a bit and making as many American references as she could come up with on short notice.

It won her nothing. She was taken inside and then the man opened a door for her, as if to courteously let her go in first. The girl, expecting a conference room or at most an imposing office with a heavy wooden desk, walked in without hesitation. But the man did not follow. Instead, he slammed the door behind her. And the girl found herself in complete darkness.

The first sound she made was wordless--a cry of shock and fear. The room had been built to inspire just these feelings, though it was usually used to interrogate Bangladeshis. No foreigner ever went where the girl had gone. 

A strong light came on with a snap and the audible hum of electricity. The girl could not see anymore than she could in the dark. She put her hand up and squeezed her eyes shut. 

"Who are you?"

"Where are you from?"

"Who do you work for?" 

"Why were you taking pictures of the embassy?"

Again the girl insisted that she was not. She told about the excited people in the gardens, how she had wanted a nice pastoral picture. She had only vaguely recalled where the American Embassy was. She had not thought it through.

"Where is your residence?"

"Why are you in Bangladesh?"

"For how long?" 

The questions continued like the beat of an ominous drum. The girl answered and insisted she was a "tourist." She was in essence telling the truth, but it was such a strange truth that it was not believed. She wanted to see Bangladesh. She had a friend she could stay with in the Embassy District.

"Who? What friend? What is his name?"

The girl's answers were coming between hiccuping sobs now. She was properly terrified. But finally she gave the answer that mattered--the only one that mattered. "Oh, my friend is the medical director at the embassy. He has to be here. Ask him. He'll tell you I'm not lying." 

A quick phone call confirmed the girl's story. The men in black sunglasses came and let her out of the dark room. They handed her back the camera and the little blue book. They even apologized. She nodded, blinking back tears, trying to pretend it was all just fine. She understood. Terrorism and all that.

The only thing the men in sunglasses couldn't understand was why she had not given the name of her friend at the embassy first thing. The truth was that her presence here was just as strange in the American world as it was in the Bangladeshi world--impossible really. She had never before been in a position to drop a name. She was not of that class.

The girl walked out of the embassy and back to the muddy track. Several of the workers saw her and they were surprised. No one came back out of the embassy that quickly. It was scarcely noon.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

She stood in the middle of the track. Her hands shook. She looked back toward the square blocks of the embassy district. But then her mouth firmed into a determined line and she turned her feet again toward the slums. This time she kept her camera well hidden under the scarf. 

She walked in among the low cardboard and sheet-metal homes of Dhaka's poor. The lane leading to the muddy track from the Embassy District was fairly wide and moderately straight. The girl glanced into the side allies, teaming with children and trash heaps. But she pressed on for some distance, deeper into the slum. A gaggle of children followed her, laughing and speculating on why she had come and whether she might give them some money or even take their picture.

Finally she came to a little market set up at the meeting of three of the larger alleyways. Several people sold vegetables, fruit and cheap clothing from stands there. The girl peered curiously at the produce, but she didn't seem to have any money. Finally she smiled at one seller, who smiled back. And she lifted her camera and took a couple of tentative pictures. The children pressed forward, waving excitedly. To be in a picture was good luck. It meant you were someone and your picture would be there forever, somewhere in the world of the rich.

Then there was a low growl behind the children. "Scat! You filth! Move out!" 

The little market was ruled by a slum gang. The sellers paid them for the right to sell and for protection from the hordes of thieves in the slums. And the gang mostly left the sellers in peace. But none of them, not the gang nor the sellers paid any taxes or tribute to the more powerful city gangs, and the gang bosses did not want any outsiders taking notice. 

This girl had a reason for coming here, an uncommon reason. No one from the Embassy District came to the slums without a damn good reason. The gang leaders were sure of that.

The children scattered before the growling voice, all but one little girl, who crouched down behind a barrel by one of the stands. This girl's name was Minara and she was eight years old. She wore a shift with a faded red and white pattern and nothing on her feet. She was too intrigued by this tall, sun-haired lady in the orange kameez to be scared away.

Minara had never seen anyone like this. The women she knew were small and stooped, scurrying across alleys furtively and always working. They never had time to play and they lowered their eyes before men.

This lady was taller than the men, even taller than the men of the gang. They crowded in around her--a dozen gang members and two dozen more of their supporters and those who owed them something. Minara sucked at a strand of her tangled hair.

"You don't belong here! Go away!" one of the gang enforcers stood in front of the tall foreign lady and shouted at her. Sellers and costumers alike vanished from the market, ducking their heads and hitching up their clothing to run. 

"Why did you come?  You have no business here!" Another man made a fist at the lady.

Minara couldn't decide if she was really a lady or an oversized girl. Her face was unmarked and smooth. And her expression was one of interested amusement rather than exhaustion and fear. 

The overgrown girl turned around in a half circle, looking at the men who suddenly surrounded her and possibly looking for an escape, though she looked more confused than frightened. 

"Take her camera!" a voice called from back in the crowd. "See what kind of pictures she's been taking."

Minara stood up from behind her barrel and slipped between two of the men. She thought this lady or girl or whatever she was should not be here. The men were angry and it is never a good idea to make the men angry. Minara was now the only women around, and her mother had often told her that the oldest woman around was the one who had to take responsibility.

So, Minara reached out her slim hand and slipped it inside the hand of the strange lady just as the front line of men took a threatening step forward and two of them put their hands out to grasp at the camera.

The first man who had shouted--a gang leader, Minara knew--shifted his gaze down to the child. 

When Minara spoke her voice was a quiet rasp, but the man saw her lips move. "She's only lost. A silly girl."  

He stopped shouting and stood still. All the other men were looking at him and they stopped as well. The lady beside Minara jerked with sudden realization. Minara looked up and the lady's face was now full of fear. 

Minara gripped the hand more firmly and the lady looked her. Minara smiled and then tugged at the hand. 

"Come," Minara said. "Don't bother the men. You are so silly."

For a moment, Minara was not sure that the lady would follow her. Her feet were set and she was so large that no one except maybe all the gang men together was likely to move her. But then the foreign lady softened her hand and her face, ducked her head and docilely followed Minara like a wandered cow. 

The men said nothing. They only stared as the child led the strange woman away. 

An idea was quickly forming in Minara's mind. She knew now where to take the strange lady. Foreigners and especially tall, pale foreigners had money. She should show this foreigner the beggars and maybe she would give them money. Everyone would be happy then and there would be good luck. 

Minara led the lady through one street and then another. A few of the men followed them for a bit, but then they dropped back and another gaggle of children began trailing a few steps behind. They kept back this time. There was respect, since everyone could see that Minara had this one in hand. 

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

They soon approached the crowd around the blanket where a child who had been born deformed with only nobs for legs sat every day. The child was doing tricks, standing on his hands then turning in a circle and falling onto his stumps. A crowd had formed and people threw bits of food or the smallest coins onto the blanket, where a little girl collected them. 

Minara tugged at the lady's hand and she bent down from her great height. "Baby!" Minara squeaked over the noise of the crowd. 

The throng was too thick and tight for Minara to see much at all. But the tall lady went close to the edge of the crowd and peered over the heads of the tallest men. She backed up much more quickly than Minara expected though. Her face looked funny and she shook her head fiercely. 

"Baby! Money!" Minara told the tall lady. She must understand something. 

The lady put a hand inside her Kameez while turning her back on the men and after a moment she produced a coin. It was not the smallest coin, but enough to buy food for Minara's whole family. And to her shock the tall girl put the coin in Minara's hand. Then she looked again toward the crowd of men around the beggar's blanket. She did not seem to know what to do.

Minara smiled and gripped the coin firmly. She pressed between the legs of the men and crouched at the edge of the blanket. With great excitement she revealed her fist and then slowly opened it to show the coin. Everyone in the circle made a noise of approval. 

Minara flipped the coin off her fingers and onto the blanket in front of the smaller girl, who grabbed it immediately. And the child with no legs began a kind of dance, hopping from one stump to another. And then with a flick his hands he bounced up and flipped to stand on his hands again. Now he would do the best tricks. Minara had seen him do them plenty of times, but it was always fun. 

The foreign lady would like this, Minara thought.

She wiggled back between the men's legs to look for her strange charge. The lady was standing across the narrow alley, her back pressed against one of the shacks. 

"Come! You see baby play," MInara said, using simple words so that the lady would understand. She pulled the lady's hand again, trying to get her to come toward the circle.

But the overgrown girl shook her head and pulled back. This time Minara could feel how strong she was. She did not want to go near the crowd of men 

"Where?" MInara spread her hands to show that she did not know what the strange lady wanted.

The lady squatted down so that her face was the same height as Minara's. That made the smaller girl step back. No adult ever crouched down to her short height, let alone a foreigner who was normally so huge. But the lady's face looked kind, so Minara waited.

After a long time, the lady spoke--her words halting and clumsy in Bangla, "I see... Look me... your school?"

Minara didn't understand until the lady had said it three times, but when she did understand, she was happy to know what the lady wanted at last. She grasped the lady's hand again and pulled her down another street and around a few more corners until she arrived at the reading house, where a barefoot Imam taught the boys to read the Koran.

Minara patted the lady's hand to tell her to wait and then she hopped toward the school. It was one of very few full brick structures in the slums and the only one with a sort of second floor, but some of the walls had crumbled into rubble. If there had ever been glass windows, only empty window frames remained. Minara grabbed a hold of a window sill and boosted herself up. The imam looked up over his book at her with watery, surprised eyes.

Minara told him an America had come to see him and then she hopped back down and ran to stand behind the foreign lady. The imam came to the doorway with some of the boys he was teaching clustered around him. Their legs and arms showed their bones under the skin.

The foreign lady said a few words to the imam in her own language, but he did not understand her either. Finally the lady knelt down again to speak to Minara. "You go school here?" the lady asked, pointing directly at Minara's belly. 

Minara shook her head vigorously and the boys standing near enough to hear laughed. This did not make the lady happy either. She looked even more unhappy than she had with the baby that does tricks.

The lady seemed to think and then she asked "Where is your..." but Minara could not understand the word she used. It sounded like a word for a palace or one of the great houses of the rich. Minara knew she had no such thing. So she only shook her head.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

The lady tried again, "Where is your mother?" 

Ah, this Minara could do! She called a farewell to the imam and started off down another alley. Soon they came to another little market and here the lady tugged at Minara's hand to stop her. She pointed to a pineapple on one of the carts. The seller jumped to attention, pulling out a plastic bag and putting the pineapple inside. The lady looked around as if searching for something. She put her fingers against her lips and whispered, "Yellow and orange, yellow and orange," In English, so that Minara did not understand. 

Finally she asked the seller for a bag of sweet potatoes and another of oranges and bunch of bananas. Then she pulled three coins out of her hidden pocket and gave them to the seller. The seller smiled at her, showing more holes than teeth. Minara wondered if this was finally what the foreign lady had come for, though she knew that some of the richer women of the slums worked for houses in the Embassy District and they had maids to do their shopping for them. 

But when she was finished the lady asked again about Minara's mother, so Minara continued on her way home. A few streets from her house, she glimpsed her little brother, completely naked and sitting by a trash heap. She chided him with a click of her tongue and he got up and toddled after Minara, too stunned to ask what his sister was doing with this large, orange monster. 

Finally they arrived at the little house where Minara lived with her mother, her brother and sister and her uncle who was odd in the head since he had a bad sickness as a child, so he could not go away to work in the factories with the other men. The house had three brick walls, which was better than most of the houses in the slums. Inside everything was neatly hung on pegs made from sticks whittled and stuck into the cracks. Minara was proud to show how she had cleaned up that morning. 

Her baby sister was there and uncle, but not her mother. The lady took a several photographs and then asked Minara about her mother again.

Minara motioned for the lady to follow and hurried behind the house to the brick yard just a short distance away. She knew her mother would be there. Many women and some children squatted in the brick yard, knocking bricks together with their hands to make the reddish gravel that the construction workers used in the Embassy District. 

After a few minutes of searching Minara called out and her little brother ran ahead. Their mother stood up slowly from her pile of bricks and gravel. Her eyes were tired but lovely to Minara. 

"What have you done now? What have you done?" her mother's words were more fearful than angry.

"It's okay, Mama," Minara said. "She is silly. I don't know why she is here."

Minara's mother turned and reached out her hand to touch the lady's knee. But the lady knelt down again, looking deep unto the mother's wrinkled face. 

"Good girl. Very good girl," the strange lady said, patting Minara on the shoulder. 

The mother's face broke into a delighted grin, showing that she had lost all of her teeth. 

The foreign lady put her hand on her own chest and spoke a strange name that Minara could not say. Her mother only continued to smile. 

"How old are you?" the strange lady asked the mother. But she did not understand the foreigner's broken Bangla. So Minara had to tell her mother the question again.

"Twenty six," Minara's mother finally said.


The lady's face when strange again, blank and troubled. Minara knew the look by now. She knew that it meant the lady was unhappy. 

"I am twenty three," the lady said at last. At least that was what Minara thought she said. If it was true than the lady really was not an overgrown girl at all. But how she could have such straight, white teeth and such a smooth face and be so old, Minara could not understand. 

The sun was getting low in the sky and after a while the lady started to walk back toward the muddy track to the Embassy District. Minara went with her, walking among the piles of bricks. Finally the lady stopped beside a rickshaw. She asked the rickshaw puller to take her to a street in the Embassy District. He nodded.

Then the lady turned to Minara and knelt down again.

"Go to school," she said. Her face still looked unhappy. but she tried to smile. 

She took paper money out of the pocket under her clothes and dropped it into the bag of fruit and sweet potatoes that she still carried. 

She stood up and said again, "Go to school." Then she looped the strings of the bag over Minara's hands so quickly that she couldn't do anything but grab the strings to keep from dropping the bag in the mud. Then the lady hopped into the seat of the rickshaw and the puller started off. 

Minara stood watching her leave, holding the bag with all the yellow and orange foods, whih contain the most vitamin A. She never knew why the strange lady had come. She did not even know about vitamin A or why so many children she knew went blind. She only knew that the things in the bag cost more than the rice to eat for a month.

That was twenty years ago.  If Minara is still alive, she is an old woman, haggard and bent. Now floods caused by the exhaust of cars, factories and cattle in distant countries drown the streets. Minara might have her eyesight at least. Maybe she has her own children who play at the edge of the flood waters and eat little bowls of rice. She almost certainly never went to school or left the slums, unless she was very lucky.

But her picture and her name are here someplace in the world of the rich. 

The threshold

(Short fiction)

"I just don't know." The girl with straight, honey hair, waved a hand toward the heavy window casements. "No one is going to care anyway. Why should we stand out there and get wet?"

Lori shifted in her chair, but she was done mentoring. They'd do what they'd do. 

Rain beat against the windows. Nate, the lanky ringleader of the group, lolled in his chair. "Look, we did what we had to. The Nazi won't be speaking on campus. Our message is that we've won."

Creative Commons image by Max We 

Creative Commons image by Max We 

The talk shifted into plans for the weekend. Nate steered things that way and the other students, three girls and one other boy, followed his lead as usual. Every student group needed a faculty adviser and they had Lori. But advisers don't usually attend meetings. 

The group broke up and three of them got up to leave, while Rust and Kelly were giving each other looks and eyeing the back stacks speculatively.

"When's the next meeting," Lori asked Nate's back. 

He turned back around, black dreads swinging, and he looked apologetic. "Oh, sorry, Lori," he said. "I'll let you know. Maybe in a couple of weeks. See you on Twitter."

Then they were gone. Lori wheeled slowly toward the exit. The trek back to faculty housing was going to be soggy and cold. 

She stopped under the architectural overhang that made a dry spot at the front of the library. There must be a specific word for that, Lori thought.... Wait! No, that was Russian and not quite the right term anyway. It was the English word she wanted.

She chuckled at her own nerdy preoccupation. Who but a linguistics professor would care? 

The poster caught her eye. It had a huge anarchy A scrawled and circled over it. But the black block letters underneath were still clear. "White lives matter in America the great! Pastor Author Cox at the Washington Park Center at 5:00 pm on Saturday, November 25."

The poster had been torn down and replaced dozens of times and there were still soggy remnants of the previous posters pressed into the wet sidewalk around the library entrance. Well, Nate's Anti-racist Alliance had managed to keep the speech off of campus at least.

Cox was a national figure and there was talk of a Senate race in 2018. This was the man who said insurance companies should be "encouraged" to deny people with disabilities coverage,  until all books mentioning evolution were stripped from America's classrooms. After all, his argument went, evolution would require all the disabled to die as soon as possible.

Lori put her hat on and tucked the collar of her jacket up before wheeling out into the drumming rain. The cold drops splashed on her head, on her shoulders and on her thighs. She turned down Baker street. Four blocks. That was all and she could always change into a new outfit. A different kind of thoughts clamored at the back of her mind, but she had a thick wall up against them.

She had her head down so that she didn't see the truck drawn up to the convenience store until she was just ten feet from it. She stopped. There was no sign of life, no loaders or unloaders at the back. And the space between the truck and the shop was too narrow for her chair. Lori eyed the street--cars speeding by on four lanes, dirty water spouting from their wheel wells. Better to wait than to go out into the street in an attempt to get around the truck. Wait and get progressively more soaked.

Then she spotted the bus shelter. Okay, make the best of a bad situation.

She wheeled under it and stopped. Rain rattled on the fiberglass roof and a damp chill sank into Lori's limbs. This wasn't the life she'd always imagined. She'd had high hopes for travel, activism and a different kind of career. Everyone had said she could and would do it. And there was no specific reason why not. She and her chair had traveled for exchange programs--Russia, Germany, the UK, even a short stint in Egypt. And a doctorate in linguistics and a career as a professor were nothing to be sneered at. But there were moments...

The hiss and rumble of a large vehicle pulling up startled Lori. Before she could get herself turned around the doors were open and the wheelchair lift was buzzing out of it's nook against the wall of the bus.

Damn it! She'd only been hiding from the rain in the bus shelter, waiting for that damn truck, which still hadn't budged. She rolled out of the shelter, trying to catch a glimpse of the driver and shaking her head in the rain. This would be just her luck and the next time he saw her, that driver might gripe about putting the ramp down. 

"Addison, Washington Park, Central..." the line of electronic orange text scrolled across the panel on the side of the bus. 

Lori stopped rolling, stopped shaking her head.

Okay... this was weird. Were the "powers that be" trying to tell her something? Or was this day just trying to outdo the standard end-of-November drear?

What the hell! Clothes dry.

She yanked on the left wheel and spun toward the ramp. It bumped down and she rolled into position. The driver jumped out and ran around to check the clamps. Lori wished he wouldn't. She could actually clamp them herself. But she guessed there were regulations. They couldn't have wheelchairs rolling off the ramp when it was two feet off the ground. Just the thought of the lawsuits. 

"You're brave, lady," he croaked, grinning up at her from a weathered dark-brown face, "coming out here in all this weather. Where're you going?"

"Thank you so much, sir," Lori said and tried to give him her most winning smile. "Washington Park, if you don't mind. I know it's only two stops but--"

"No problem, no problem. Don't you worry about that, ma'am." He gave the lift a pat and headed back around to the front, his uniform already damp. 

The bus was nearly empty and the heat was on so high that the windows were completely steamed over. Still, the moisture in Lori's clothes did nothing but warm slightly in the eight minutes before the lift started buzzing again at Washington Park. She thanked the driver and ducked her head against the wind. It was too bad they hadn't scheduled the Cox speech for the park itself. If anything constituted inclement weather, this would be it. 

The Center, a conference building owned by the Chamber of Commerce, was on the other side of the park and across a major street. But there were curb cuts at least and the light was still good. She was a whole hour and a quarter early after all.

The students had a permit for a protest in the park across from the Center. She could theoretically position herself there, Lori realized, and be perfectly legal. Except she hadn't actually planned on coming, so she didn't have a sign or an umbrella with her... only maybe a yellow notepad in her backpack. She and the pad would be soaked in minutes out here. 

She crossed at the light and turned up the sidewalk toward the glassed entrance to the building. It had one of those turning doors but at least it was a big one, one her chair could theoretically move through, if she kept turning exactly right. She managed it with little more than bruised knuckles. Inside there was a long entrance with potted plants and at the far end a desk.

Lori wasn't sure what exactly she was going to do. She thought she should be nervous. She could end up in trouble with the university administration. They had been warned that protesters who crossed the street, let alone entered the building, would be arrested.

She put that wall up agaom. She would not care. Some part of her could not let this bigot speak in her town without a protest registered. He was a prominent member of the KKK. He advocated the most hateful positions possible and there were two large student groups on campus that supported him and planned to attend. 

"May I help you?" the trim woman with tasteful make-up and short brown hair leaned over the counter.

"I'm a little early," Lori said. "It's at five, isn't it? That's just how the buses run."

"You're here for the talk?" The woman sounded like she didn't believe a word of it. 

"Why not? White lives matter, right? Wheels or not," Lori said, and put on the same smile she'd given the bus driver. Smiles are cheap. 

"Okay, have it your way," the receptionist sighed.

Cox was to talk in the main conference hall. Lori had been there several times for off-campus events. She didn't really know why she had come, except she had some vague idea that she would go in and sit quietly. Then she would start yelling during the beginning of the speech. Security would haul her our. Not a big deal, but she would at least answer him in some symbolic way. She could not bear to be silent.

When she turned into the main hallway behind the reception area there were three police officers talking at the other end. Of course, the police would be on hand. Nate and his friends had a permit to protest after all, even though they weren't going to use it.

Lori stopped to examine the notice board, which was covered with the shiny brochures of local businesses and several not so local corporations. The officers finished their conversation and walked toward her and then past. One stopped. She could feel him behind her, hear his breathing. But he said nothing and eventually followed the others. Was it her wheelchair, she wondered, or her rumpled jacket?

The hallway was empty again but she heard a murmur of voices. She rolled quietly toward the door to the conference hall. It was cracked open, and there were several men inside. She was surprised. Cox was one of them. An hour early? Maybe he'd come to check the venue. She recognized one of the faculty from the university, a political science professor who had promoted Ayn Rand ten years ago. She didn't know the others.

There were double doors but not too wide. The doors themselves and the frame were both made of carved oak, and old fashioned glass had been fitted into small diamond windows on either side. It was a handsome entrance, the only one, except for a fire escape at the back, she recalled. Despite the new glass facade, most of the building was old and well-preserved. Lori recalled the fight over accessibility at the Washington Park Center when the building was remodeled...  was it fifteen years already? The fire escape was still marginal.

It was the easiest thing in the world at first. The door was only cracked open three inches. She just reached out and shut it. 

Creative Commons image by Roger H Goun

Creative Commons image by Roger H Goun


That was all. But the two handles... they could be bound together...

The bike lock hung on a clamp from the side of her chair--mostly for safety, not so much for locking up the wheelchair, although she could get up and walk a few steps, if painfully. 

A swift loop around the door handles and then through the spokes of a wheel.. 

Click. Again. 

The key was on her key ring, tucked in the inside pocket of her jacket. But she didn't even need it to close the lock.

"Hey! What are you--?" A harsh shout from down the hallway. One of the police officers was striding toward her, but his words cut off in a snarl. 

Lori glanced up at him. Her face relaxed. This would do. Yes, it would do very well.

She lowered a hand and engaged the safety brake on the chair. The officer stared at her with blue-gray eyes. A bit of gray showed at his temples too. but his neck was turning red, as were the corners of his eyes. 

He stepped a bit closer, craning his neck to see the bike lock. "Unfasten that immediately and clear the doorway." It was a cold order but there was an edge to it. He did not want this to happen.

Lori's face didn't change.

A fist hammered on the inside of the door and the handle moved. The door opened a crack and the chair jerked against it. Lori braced herself a little better but the doors stopped on the lock.

"Just a moment," the officer said more loudly. "I'll get a saw." 

"There's a fucking moron chained to the door," a voice said on the other side of the door. Lori peeked and glimpsed the profile of the Alt-Right faculty member on the other side of one of the windows out of the corner of her eye.

"I'll gladly see you arrested," the police officer hissed at Lori. Then he stalked off down the hallway.

It took longer than she'd thought, at least fifteen minutes, for the officers to come back. The curses and threats from the other side of the door had died down. Lori had managed to get her backpack and pull out a sharpie and a piece of paper from the legal pad.

She wrote, "Don't dishonor your ancestors." It was the sort of slogan a linguistics professor and lapsed Wiccan turning Reconstructionist would come up with. Most people wouldn't even understand it. Lori didn't really care.

But it wasn't the blue, gray and red officer who returned. This one was black.

He walked down the hallway with measured firm steps and stopped in front of her. She held the makeshift sign by two corners, her face schooled into calm. 

"We could arrest you for this, you know," the officer said in the placating voice some people employ when talking to a person in a wheelchair. He was big and his uniform was dark, like a looming cloud threatening rain. 

I'm already plenty wet, Lori thought.

He shifted from foot to foot. "I don't want to do that."

She tried not to smile. She tried. But finally the flicker of it came onto her face.

"I don't want you to either," she said. 

"You can't block this door," he said. "For one thing, it's a fire hazard." A hand reached up to massage the short hair on the back of his head.

"There's a fire exit," she said.

"That's not up to code if there is only one exit with an audience of two hundred in there," he said.

"They aren't in there though," she said. "There were only four in there last time I looked."

"You still can't block it. It's private property," the officer said.

He didn't look happy but Lori sensed that he wasn't angry like the other officer. She wondered what he really thought. It couldn't be much fun being black and defending the free speech rights of a man who said Christianity belongs to white people and who wanted to turn the United Sates into a white, Christian ethno-state. He hadn't said publicly how that should be accomplished, what should be done with all the black and brown people, but still...

"The city isn't private property and this speech pollutes our city," Lori said. "I may have to sit down for it but I won't take it lying down." She raised the "Don't dishonor your ancestors" sign an inch. 

"I don't want to arrest you, ma'am," the officer said. "But you've got to unlock that thing and leave."

"I don't see how you're going to saw the lock off without damaging the door or my chair or injuring me," Lori said. "Someone will end up suing you."

He gave her a flat look. She wondered if he would take offense. She had as good as threatened a cop with a lawsuit. They don't generally take kindly to that.

"We could have you carried out," the officer said.

"I insist that male officers don't touch my body for search or any other reason," she said. "That's my right."

"What's the hold up, Wheeler?" the harsh voice of the blue, gray and red cop lashed down the hallway. 

The black officer knitted his brows and gave Lori a distinctly disgruntled stare. Then he walked off toward the other cop and they disappeared around the corner. 

A few minutes later the first patrons arrived, trickling into the hallway and staring at Lori. A bored-looking local TV reporter walked around at the end of the hallway. No one spoke to Lori or came close enough for her to start a conversation. She continued to sit, holding her paper sign on her lap.

Finally the hallway was crowded except for a tense space around Lori. The people hoping to attend the white supremacist speech were all white and mostly young. There were twice as many men as women, but still far more women than Lori had imagined. Their language, whether muttered among themselves or hurled at Lori was crude and tired. She didn't store any of it for future reference.

The door at Lori's back rattled several times and the curses emanating from beyond the oak were growing more urgent and frenzied. 

After some minutes the two police officers returned, pushing a hospital-issue wheelchair through a narrow gap in the crowd. The white officer smirked and folded his arms, standing in front of the crowd. The black officer pushed the chair forward, his head down. He put the chair next to Lori and then squatted down beside her.

"Ma'am, there are no female officers available at the moment. You have to move and I have to move you or..." He spoke low enough that his voice wouldn't carry in the crowded hallway but he made a small jerk of his head. 

Lori watched him for a moment. His face was unhappy, his shoulders slumped. No, she decided, this was no fun at all for him. 

A fist beat slow and hard against the door behind Lori's head. Author Cox's words followed it in a plodding rhythm. "You're scum! The police... are idiots... in this town. How long... does it take... to arrest... one parasitic... bitch?

"You have children don't you?" Lori leaned forward so the cop could hear her low voice over the racket..

He nodded. "Two." His eyes and his tone of voice had both chanced. All direct now. He looked right at her. 

"And they need a father with a job," she guessed. She handed him the yellow paper sign and he held it awkwardly for a second. Then she nodded and he folded it into fourths.

She braced her hands on the arms of her chair. "You'll still have to cut the lock, you know," she said.

She got to her feet, wobbled unsteadily for a second. The officer put his arm out, like a bar in front of her, not touching her but steady as iron. She gripped it for support and moved a step, then another sideways and sank into the hospital-issue chair. 

The officer took out his tools and started to work on the lock, the high-pitched whine of the saw drowning out the epithets of the crowd and the pounding behind the door. The television camera came close, ignored Lori, and focused on the image of the officer cutting the lock.

It aired on TV that night. A minor incident. One unnamed and unpictured protester blocked the door against two hundred right-wing supporters of Author Cox and was forcibly removed by police. 

Writer-to-writer critique: the boot camp of the craft

The simple technique that will teach you to write better than any other method, class or book

For as long as there have been story-tellers, we have commented on one another's work. Writers, poets and bards alike--we are a mouthy bunch.

Sometimes these comments have taken the form of criticism, ridicule, jealousy or insult. And many writers and story-tellers have been greatly harmed by the comments of others, suffering blows to confidence and motivation. 

Creative Commons image by Robert Couse-Baker

Creative Commons image by Robert Couse-Baker

And yet, the comments of fellow writers can contain gold. I know of no other way to learn the craft of writing faster or better than through the sincere cooperation between two or more writers. And based on the comments of some of my favorite famous authors, it seems clear that no writer is ever "beyond critique" or at a level where the comments of colleagues can no longer help. 

Critique--the term used to differentiate constructive criticism from tearing down another writer--isn't just useful. If done correctly it can also provide great motivation and pleasure. It is very rare that anyone, other than another writer, wants to discuss in detail the ins and outs of your writing project.

Even your most avid readers (and your immediate family) are likely to grow weary of your writerly obsessions. This isn't that different from any other profession. My husband and his buddies can bore me to tears with endless technical discussions about surveying and cartography. (Just measure it and draw a line already! What is the big deal?)

My husband assures me that even though I think my profession is creative, vastly more fun and endlessly interesting, he finds long conversations on the finer points of writing just as boring. And this is why we need fellow writers. 

While the practical method of writer-to-writer critique may be well-known and may in fact seem intuitive to many, I have found that parts of it strike fear in new writers or lead others to abuse the trust and claim authority they don't have. Beyond that readers often don't understand the tenants of the system through which their favorite books, movies and TV shows are made. 

It is worth setting down the rules for critique. This is a starting point for writers' groups as well as useful information for everyone involved in the process.

1. There are skills that can be learned in writing. Experience is to be respected.

2. At the same time, a writer of any level can usefully critique the writing of a writer of any other level. The critique may have different uses, but even the critique of a novice can be helpful to an open-minded master. It is at the very least the honest impression of a reader. No such critique should be dismissed out of hand or ridiculed. 

3. Critique may be done for compensation, in trade or simply in good faith. Critique does not have to be reciprocal but the terms should be agreed upon in advance. Critique is always of value, even if it is not compensated in which case it is a valuable gift of time and attention.

4. On average, about seventy percent of comments in any given critique will be useful or pertinent to the writer. No writer is obligated to agree with or to use suggestions made by a critique partner. 

5. Rules of grammar and style vary geographically, culturally and between genres. Arguments about the absolute correctness of a change have limited use. It is worth stating clear reasons for one's belief. Style and grammar guidebooks are useful sources. However, in the end the final decision of rightness in the given context is the prerogative of the entity taking responsibility for publication--be that a publisher or a self-publishing author. 

6. Differences of opinion are inevitable. There is no single best POV, tense, voice, distance or style. Intentional grammatical errors are not illegal and have their uses. Questions over dialogue tags are a matter of continued debate. It is worth listening to writers of long experience, but in the end each must form one's own path. Insults do not become us. 

7. Keep in mind that, as in any creative profession, a minimum experience of ten thousand hours of active writing is considered the initiation level for a professional. However, this line is arbitrary and denotes only a level of experience, not the rightness of one's arguments or the marketability of one's work.

8. By the same token, what is correct and most seemly in writing is not always what is most marketable. Each writer has his or her own goals for writing and it is not the place of a critique partner to judge, only to give the most honest advice that individual can give.

9. We all have biases. I love first person narratives. I recently met a fellow author who hates first person. It's just personal taste. We can't help but have such biases and when we read the work of other writers those biases will get in the way. The more aware you are of your own biases the more useful your critique will be. When unable to entirely get past biases it is worth stating that you are biased on a particular issue, so that the writer can keep that in mind. That said, completely avoiding critique partners with biases against your POV or stylistic choices can weaken your writing. Remember that readers have biases too and our goal is hone our craft in every way possible.

10. Critique means honest advice to improve a piece of writing. Pure and simple. That can mean spelling, grammar, punctuation, style, voice, plot or description advice and more. It does not ever mean judgment upon the abilities or prospects of the writer. That is beyond the bounds and is never an appropriate topic for comment. 

A peek inside the Beltane story: Shanna and the Water Fairy

Readers have been waiting a whole year for the next installment of Shanna's story. Words fall quick but the pictures to make a story come fully alive take more time. 

Still the wait has been worth it. The third Shanna book has the most beautiful illustrations yet and a story that will keep kids breathless for each succeeding chapter--judging from my experience reading it out loud. 

This time eleven-year-old Shanna discovers a hidden spring on the city waste land behind her new school. When she learns that the spring and the pocket paradise of trees and flowers around it is to be bulldozed to make way for a new shopping mall, Shanna is horrified. Not only is the spring a beautiful place and the water is sorely needed to help irrigate the soccer field and school playground, she's also pretty sure there is something--or someone--magical about the spring.

After Shanna writes a letter of protest to the local newspaper, she and her eight-year-old brother Rye get a glimpse of the grown-up world of city politics. They learn about activism and how committed individuals can make a difference in a community. In the midst of it, they share the celebration of Beltane with their friends from many cultures and help to spread the love and passion for justice that infuses this special day.

While this is the third book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series and readers of the other books will recognize the main characters, the book can easily be read on its own. It is a real-world adventure story for kids who care about their community, their friends and the earth. 

Now with no further ado, here is an excerpt from the beginning of Shanna and the Water Fairy . If you would like to see how this story appears on a Kindle, you can click on the orange button to go directly to an Amazon Kindle preview of the book. No app or other download required.

Chapter One: The Spring

Shanna grasped the rough rock and pulled with all of her strength. She gulped in a great lung-full of the rich spring air and heaved herself over the last boulder just ahead of Rohan, Ella and Rebecca. 

“Queen of the mountain!” she chortled as she spun in a circle and waved her arms in the warm, free air.

Her friends pulled themselves up and collapsed giggling on the rock beside her. 

“You’re too fast!” Ella puffed, as she sucked on a scraped finger.

“I’ll beat you next time,” Rohan laughed as he pretended to tackle Shanna’s foot.

“You kids be careful on those rocks,” their teacher’s voice floated up to them from the trees below. “There could be rattlesnakes.”

“I think we’re making enough noise to scare away the rattlesnakes, Mrs. Baker,” Rebecca called down. “And you said we were supposed to find as many different kinds of rocks as possible.”

“Well, did you find any new rocks while you were scaling the mountain?” Mrs. Baker’s voice sounded like she was chuckling now. 

“I think so,” Rohan called down and he held up a speckled rock. “This might be granite.”
Another group of kids came running out of the trees to show Mrs. Baker their new rocks. They were led by a girl with light brown hair. She was Brandy, the most popular girl in the fifth grade. And she didn’t like Shanna. If she was entirely honest with herself, Shanna had to admit that she didn’t like Brandy either. 

But looking down from way up on the rocks, Brandy looked small and Shanna thought about how her new school wasn’t as bad as she’d first feared. Mrs. Baker, her class teacher, was a lot of fun. She had gray hair, but she still loved to go on field trips, and she found a way to do a lot of lessons outside—even math. 

This warm spring day they were collecting rocks for science. It was also for math though, because Mrs. Baker said they would be practicing percentages and graphs once they gathered all of the different kinds of rocks they could find on the waste land behind the school. 

The waste land was a long, low hill that ran up from the back of the soccer field through brush and rocks and a few scraggly trees to the new River View Condos. It wasn’t really a park and there was litter here and there among the boulders and water-starved trees, but Mrs. Baker said they had to learn as much as they could from it before it got bulldozed. 

Ella and Rebecca started looking for more rocks, walking up the gradual hill behind the Queen of the Mountain boulders. Shanna followed them at first, but then she saw dark green rocks down in a little gully under some particularly nice trees, so she slipped and slid her way down. 

As she got close she heard a splashing sound like water hitting a rock. Was someone pouring out their water bottle? What else would make that sound out here?

Shanna looked in among the trees. They didn’t look very high down in the gully, but they were actually bigger and less scraggly than most of the other trees on the wasted land. 

The whole country here was pretty dry and trees didn’t grow in big forests the way they had where Shanna used to live. There was usually just one or two trees together. But in this little gully there was a whole clump and the grass around them was lush and green. Out on the open hillside the grass was already turning yellow from the dry heat, even in April. Mrs. Baker called it a “drought.” 

Curious, Shanna stepped closer. In the little hollow under the trees the air smelled wetter. And the grass beneath her feet was brilliant green. Shanna saw something sparkle and flutter in among the trees. Maybe a butterfly.

She climbed over some big rocks and slipped in between the trunks of the trees. And there behind the trees were more flowers than she had ever seen outside a flower shop. Red, purple, yellow, blue, orange… They hung down the rocks and covered the ground under the trees.

Shanna looked around for the butterfly and there were at least ten of them, flitting in and out of the sunlight and shade. She was about to call out for her friends to come and see the beautiful scene, but something stopped her. 

One of the butterflies was different. It seemed to glow against the shadows under the trees and Shanna couldn’t see it right. It didn’t even look like a butterfly exactly, but it wouldn’t hold still so she couldn’t get a good look at it.

Instead it zipped back and forth as if showing Shanna the way forward. It dipped first at Shanna and then back further into the trees. Shanna walked carefully now, trying not to step on all the beautiful flowers. The air in the little grove of trees was sweet with the smell of them—almost overwhelming, so it made Shanna dizzy. 

And maybe she was just dizzy when she looked up from her feet again and stared. 

There in front of her was an even more amazing image. Flowers with delicate dew-speckled petals hung down all over a wall of boulders. And the rocks weren’t really dark green like Shanna had thought. Instead they were covered with thick, wet moss.

And out of a crack there came a sparkling trickle of crystal clear water. It leaped and splashed down the rocks below and filled a little pool, before trickling under the roots of a big tree and disappearing back into the ground. It wasn’t a stream exactly, because it just went back into the ground.

But that wasn’t even why Shanna stared. Right in the middle above the sparkling pool was her butterfly. But Shanna was sure for a wonderful, dizzy second that it wasn’t just a butterfly. It had the shape of a person with wings and it shone with a turquoise light. Its wings were violet purple like the flowers and its hair was a deep blue green. Shanna couldn’t see it much better than that.

Then it winked a deep greenish-brown eye at her and dove straight down into the water. In a flash and a sparkle of drops, it was gone. 

“Ella! Rebecca! Rohan! Come quick!” Shanna cried over her shoulder, too startled and amazed to rethink her shout. 

She dropped to her knees on the mossy rock by the pool of water and looked around as carefully as she could. Where had it gone? 

Had she seen what she thought she’d seen? A butterfly? Or… could it really be… a fairy? A real fairy?

The other kids came panting into the grove of trees with thudding footsteps muffled by the grass, and Shanna didn’t see it anymore whatever it was. She thought then that she shouldn’t have yelled, but it was too exciting.

“Wow! This is a really cool place,” Rohan said, looking around at the trees, the climbing and hanging flowers, and the little pool. “Good find, Shanna.” He grinned and ran a hand over one of the tree trunks.

“It’s like it called to me,” Shanna said, still caught in the feeling of wonder.

A children's book for water protectors

Last spring, before I had heard of Standing Rock, I wrote the first draft of Shanna and the Water Fairy -- a story to foster the innate passion of children for social and ecological justice. 

If you don't want your child to become an environmental activist, you might not want to let her or him read this book. 

If you don't want your child to become an environmental activist, you might not want to let her or him read this book. 

It's part of the Children's Wheel of the Year series, but as with all of these books, Shanna and the Water Fairy can be read as a stand-alone adventure story. This time Shanna, an eleven-year-old girl in a typical American school, discovers a hidden spring on city waste land that is slated to be bulldozed and turned into a new shopping mall.

The spring is tucked away in a rocky gully--a pocket oasis of flowers, lush ferns and life in the midst of a dry drought-stricken land. It's a tiny, seasonal spring overlooked by the construction project's environmental report. Yet Shanna discovers something magical. 

A guardian resides in the spring, a mysterious changeable being or perhaps a real-live fairy. Shanna and her brother Rye decide the spring and its magical patron must be protected. They learn the first steps in local activism and find support in their community, while creating a homemade Beltane celebration of spring that brings together families of various faiths.

I come from dry, semi-desert country and I understood water as precious since early childhood. Shanna and the Water Fairy was born out of that deeply-rooted relationship to the land and water. As a young teen, I fought for a small spring in the dry mountains of Eastern Oregon.

The active protection of home, land and life is in no way beyond the comprehension of children. And in today's world that can often mean defending water.

This time the Shanna books turn to a topic that is by no means limited to earth-based and Pagan holidays and the themes they teach. Shanna and the Water Fairy is a book that celebrates Beltane and the fiery passions that are stirred by both love and war. But it does so with characters from a wide variety of faiths and in the context of a community effort spearheaded by a child.

Painting by Julie Freel

Painting by Julie Freel

As I edited the book and Julie Freel prepared illustrations over the past year, test readers often remarked that I had written a good book in response to the events at Standing Rock. At first I was confused. There is very little  in the story that is similar to the story of Standing Rock. The activist is far from native to the area, the struggle is purely local and its only tie to the vast tides of politics and climate change is the implied reason for the on-going drought.

But as the year went on I came to see why the book left test readers with a feeling of connection to Standing Rock and new energy for community action. It is a different event and the spring came from my own childhood, but in the end this book, my long-ago spring and Standing Rock are all part of the same story.

The earth is our home. We need the earth, the land, the air, the water, the trees... Beltane or May Day, the passion of the young--it is all tied to this. If anyone is to be a warrior today, the obvious pledge of allegiance is to the earth, our home and our source of life.

How to write dialogue readers will devour

When we read, what we really want is human speech--yelling, chatting, laughing, screaming. The reader's heart yearns for companionship and adrenaline.

If you can bamboozle the reader into the fictive dream and give them fantastic conversation within it, they'll never want to leave.

Good dialogue can be achieved by following some basic rules. Excellent, grab'em-by-the-pituitary-gland-and-never-let-go dialogue takes preparation. 

Creative Commons image by Lorena Cupcake

Creative Commons image by Lorena Cupcake

Here are the basic rules:

  1. Dialogue needs to be less formal than narration, even when it is between formal adults. Vocabulary should reflect spoken vocabulary, which is about one fifth of a character's reading vocabulary. You will not make your character sound dumb by having them use normal words. Overly formal dialogue with sentences too complete and words beyond the natural spoken vocabulary level of the type of character is the most common dialogue mistake by beginning writers.
  2. Reread lines of dialogue out loud and see if they sound natural. Use incomplete sentences, pauses, vague terms, extreme specifics and poor grammar where it is obvious that they would be used in real speech. But within reason! Dialogue must first and foremost be familiar and real to the reader. 
  3. Keep dialogue lines short. Most dialogue should be one sentence or less. Occasionally use two or three short sentences max unless your point is that the character is going on and on. And even then be cautious. Who wants to read in detail about a character giving a lecture?
  4. Dialogue should be more coherent and more concise than real speech. But remember "all things in moderation."
  5. Speech differences, slang and accents can be hinted at but do not change every word or sentence to match the difference or your text will become unreadable. Mark Twain was an incredible linguist and even so many readers have a very hard time deciphering his dialogue. Don't try this at home, folks. 
  6. Avoid obvious phrases of greetings and pleasantries unless you're emphasizing them to develop cultural setting (and even then do so sparingly). If two characters meet and each says "Hello, how are you?" hint that they did so in narration. Don't spell it out unless you have a damn good reason.
  7. "Late in, early out" applies because conversations are essentially scenes. Enter the conversation as late as possible while still giving all necessary information and leave as early as possible. Don't drag the reader through extraneous scaffolding.
  8. No "as you know, John" please! Do not have a character tell another character something both should logically know already simply in order to tell it to the reader. There are better ways to get facts across.
  9. And along with that last, don't "info dump" in dialogue. Work it in. Yes, "work" is the operative verb here. It is hard but it can be done. Information contained in dialogue must be primarily that which is natural for one character to tell another, not things the reader needs to know. Information for the reader can be contained in narration, setting and most importantly the behavior of characters.
  10. A note on tags: Mostly use the word "said." This is the exception to the rule you learned in high school language arts about using varied vocabulary and the most specific verb possible. The word "said" is almost invisible. Readers will simply understand who said something. Use other tags such as "stated," "argued," "cried" sparingly and only with good reason.
  11. A note on not using tags at all: In moderation, the tags can be cut altogether in some modern styles, especially in two-way conversations. As a general rule, tag the first lines of each character and then allow them to switch off. However, don't create strings of tag-less dialogue more than four switch-offs long. It forces readers to calculate rather than read. Try reading the dialogue aloud in a monotone and see if you would be confused about who is talking. The point is not to make the reader work. Readers are supposed to be in the fictive dream. Period.
  12. A note on actions as tags:  An even more advanced trick is to do away with standard tags involving "said" or an equivalent and use action and expression sentences instead. The key is to leave no doubt who is speaking without actually saying it. Example:  She ducked her head, looking at him out of the corner of her left eye. "I don't know. Do you think we should?" He coughed and spots of pink bloomed on his neck. "I... I..."
  13. On that note, consider the narration sprinkled in with the dialogue to be part of the dialogue itself. There have been some experiments with "dry dialogue," meaning using only the actual spoken lines without any indication of the character's actions or expressions. Usually these experiments also rely on a minimum of tag lines and they fail spectacularly. I'm not saying don't experiment, but gaining readers through this kind of experiment is equivalent to winning the lottery. It's extremely unlikely but writers do it anyway because experimenting is how everything good got invented.  When you're done experimenting and ready to write a story, make sure your dialogue includes lines of action. It is best if something is happening in the plot while the characters are speaking. But if your characters must have a conversation in which they are mostly just sitting there, you still need actions and the more sedentary the characters are the more detailed the actions need to be. Show the minute motions of hands, a flicker of emotion or picture what your character is reaching for. Watch people talk in real life. Very few people just sit motionless while they talk and if they did we would definitely notice it and put that in narration.
  14. Use the time warp. Finally, there is a strange sort of time warp that happens in fictional dialogue. Usually it means time passes more quickly in the story than the lines of dialogue can account for. Let's say ten minutes passes in your fictional world while your characters have a leisurely conversation. That conversation will probably only be four to five dialogue lines long. You then assert that ten minutes passed and the reader will feel like ten minutes really did pass. The exception would be if there is extreme tension, such as characters waiting for a timed bomb to explode in their faces. In that case a lot more than four or five dialogue lines will be noted. It has to do with the attention to detail in a suspenseful situation. Subconsciously readers know that in a scene without life-and-death tension  you aren't reporting every motion or word spoken to them. They expect you to tell only the important parts. But in a scene in which utter disaster and/or death is imminent, you are expected to tell much more. Doing that well is a matter of maintaining tension, however, and that's another post entirely.

That's how you write tolerably good dialogue. But if you want to write sizzling, page-burner dialogue, you'll need more and the ingredients are difficult to put into hard and fast rules. This is more about preparation of the writer than it is about a list of tips.

First, read a ton of the type of fiction you want to write and other types of fiction as well (for balance and perspective). Pay attention to the dialogue. When you really love some dialogue, stop and analyze it. Look at how long the dialogue lines are, what kind of phrases they use, if they use any complete sentences.

Think about the characters you most love in fiction and go through books, looking specifically at their lines of dialogue. Dialogue is much of what makes character. Observe how the character speaks. Is it consistent?  Again, what types of phrases and sentence structures does the character you love use?

Take note of these things either in your brain or on paper and keep reading and noticing. In time, the simple act of paying attention will improve your writing.

Creative Commons image by Jason Lander

Creative Commons image by Jason Lander

Record conversations and listen to them. Today in the world of smart-phones this has never been easier. Record a family argument. Record a boring meeting. Record your friends hanging out and shooting the shit. Then transcribe some conversations. Write down EXACTLY word for word what was said. Include all the messy stuff, um's... repetitions, confusion. Notice how simple the vocabulary is and how incomplete the sentences are.

Then take those transcriptions and change the statements to make them as short as possible while still containing all the important information. Remove repetitions. Leave sentence fragments and a few important pauses that carry meaning. Clean up the grammar just enough to make it understandable. Do this for as many hours as possible. The awesomeness of your dialogue will be in direct proportion to how many hours of transcription you do. 

Then before you sit down to write a scene of dialogue, sit back and imagine it. Close your eyes if necessary and play it like a movie in your head. At first this will not be easy. The better you know your characters and the emotional undercurrents going on at that moment in your plot, the easier it will be. But keep at it.

The first dialogues with new characters may need revision later, but don't worry about it. Do the best you can with your mind-movie in the beginning. Play it out.

Then write. If you can, let your mind hear the voice of the character as you write the line of dialogue. If your brain doesn't do that, reread the lines as yo go, imagining your character's voice and the expression on their face and on the faces of those listening. Get the emotion of the moment in your own head, even if it is hidden between the lines of a constrained setting or repressed by formal characters. 

Finally, after you have written the dialogue go back over it in editing and read it aloud. Try reading it in a monotone and ensure that you still know who is supposed to be speaking by context, tags and word choice. Also read it with a semblance of the voices and emotion appropriate to the scene. Does it sound realistic? Do people of that type actually talk this way?

If the answer is "No, but I want them to talk this way," you need have a long talk with yourself about what your goals in writing are. If you want to create dialogue that will reach out and grab your readers and hold on with unbreakable tentacles, then you've got to face the fact that readers will read what puts them into the fictive dream. And that dream is broken when characters sound fake. No if's, and's or but's about it. 

If the answer is "I don't know," go back to the beginning of the preparation. The problem may be that you don't have enough experience with people in whatever specific cultural, age or professional category you're writing about. Start specifically reading stories about people of the type your characters are. Analyze how they talk. Let it absorb into you. If possible, record some conversations involving people of the type you are writing about. Transcribe. Keep doing it and great dialogue will come. I promise.

This method works. You may have to modify bits of it to suit the way your own brain works, but in essence this is it. Dialogue is very particular. To be good, it has to follow some pretty strict rules. To be spectacular, it needs to make the reader forget they are reading and feel like they are in the conversation. That takes time, practice and quite a bit of intuition. 

Best wishes and keep writing!

A story of cultural and religious diversity for the spring equinox

The gift of a friend,
The promise of the pentacle,
A new beginning…
And the courage to stand your ground.

Shanna and the Pentacle is a story for earth-centered families to share the wonder of renewal and rebirth. The spring equinox (Ostara) is a time for buds and shoots, for the smell of wet earth and for asserting your true self. A new beginning can be hard but it’s worth it after all.

Ten-year-old Shanna and eight-year-old Rye are starting out at a new school just before Ostara. A teacher notices Shanna’s pentacle necklace and asks her to take it off. Brandy, a popular girl, says Shanna is going to “hell” and Rye has his own trouble with kids who say boys don’t draw or sing. Still the magic of Ostara is at work. Shanna and Rye are learning to enjoy the cultural diversity of their new school and help comes from unexpected sources.

Like Shanna and Rye, children from earth-centered families often stand out in mainstream society. Without strong identity and confidence, they struggle to choose their own path. The Children’s Wheel of the Year books provide concepts our kids need to face these challenges.

And they are a lot of fun. I never had kids get their teeth brushed this fast for story-time before we had these books. Thanks, Julie Freel, for the great illustrations that make it all possible!