Friday, April 29, 2011

Poetry Friday--"A Shower"

We're nearly through with April and her showers. But, before saying hello to May, I'd like to share this poem with you.
A Shower
by Amy Lowell

That sputter of rain, flipping the hedge-rows
And making the highways hiss,
How I love it!
And the touch of you upon my arm
As you press against me that my umbrella
May cover you.

Tinkle of drops on stretched silk.
Wet murmur through green branches.

Such an economy of words. And what a simple expression of joy. How I love it!

Visit Tabatha Yeatts for this week's Poetry Friday Round-Up.


Woodcut courtesy Library of Congress.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Women of Wednesday--UN Women

Two months ago, the United Nations launched a new agency, UN Women. Did you hear about? Neither did I, but, in my one of my web ramblings I stumbled across the press release which explained
UN Women will support individual countries in moving towards gender equality in economics and politics, and ending the worldwide phenomenon of violence against women. It will assist in setting international standards for progress, and lead coordinated UN efforts to make new opportunities for women and girls central to all UN programmes for development and peace.
An ambitious agenda for sure, but I hope one that can be achieved, if not in our lifetime, then perhaps in the lifetime of our daughters.

The key to achieving gender equality is education, the vote, and electing more women to govern.

Look at these facts from a 1997 UN publication "Women at a Glance":

Political Participation

* The first country to grant women the right to vote was New Zealand in 1893.

* Only 28 women have been elected heads of state or government in this century.

* Women hold 11.7 per cent of the seats in the world's parliaments.

* In early 1995, Sweden formed the world's first cabinet to have equal numbers of men and women.

* Of the 185 highest-ranking diplomats to the United Nations, seven are women.

* The percentage of female cabinet ministers worldwide has risen from 3.4 in 1987 to 6.8 per cent in 1996.

Women and Education

* Of the world's nearly one billion illiterate adults, two-thirds are women.

* Two-thirds of the 130 million children worldwide who are not in school are girls.

* During the past two decades the combined primary and secondary enrollment ratio for girls in developing countries increased from 38 per cent to 78 per cent.
The last statement looks hopeful, but as for the rest, there's still a long, long way to go. Let's get out there and do it!


Monday, April 25, 2011

Mentor Monday--You Are What You Eat!

You are what you eat--what a thought! So what does this have to do with writing? Do you have a deadline and you can't get started? Is your well of ideas completely dry? Perhaps your brain needs nourishment.

Over the past decade there have been a gazillion magazine articles on the five, or ten foods that are best for brain function. The problem with those lists, though, is that you may find some funky items on them! Take, for instance, this list of "Top 5 Brain Health Foods." Although I am tickled pink by the inclusion of #2 cacao--think dark, dark chocolate, I have to run to "the Google" to find out more about #3, "Matcha." Green tea powder? I'll pass.

Without depending on "best" lists, eating brain-healthy is something you can do fairly easily. Brain food lists contain things that should be included in any healthy diet like antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, olive oil, nuts. Eat healthy and your brain benefits, too.

If you learn how the brain uses food, it all starts to make sense. Psychology Today has a page called What is Good Brain Food?--check it out.

For those who need mnemonic devices or graphics, the Franklin Institute employs a brain food pyramid. Click here.

You can literally "exercise" your brain, too! Puzzles are just one way to keep it agile. Try the puzzles found on this page called Brain Food to give those brain cells a workout. Plain old physical exercise, like walking or jogging, is therapeutic, too!

Take a walk, balance your checkbook without using a calculator, and have a bit of dark chocolate. It's all good, and it may improve your writing.


Friday, April 22, 2011

Poetry Friday


And if I loved you Wednesday,
Well, what is that to you?
I do not love you Thursday–
So much is true.

And why you come complaining
Is more than I can see.
I loved you Wednesday,–yes–but what
Is that to me?

~~Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay was a poet, a playwrite and a Pulitzer Prize winner. She was also a lyricist, a feminist, and a political activist. For more on her life and work, click here and here.

For more great poetry, head over to Book Aunt and get lost in a garden of verse.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Women of Wednesday -In which Russian Women are Freed from being the Personal Property of Husbands and Fathers . . . and are Nationalized?


A decree is proclaimed by the association of Anarchists of the town of Savator in compliance with decisions of the Soviet of Peasants Soldiers and Workers deputies of Kronstadt. The private possession of women is abolished and social inequalities and legitimate marriage having been an instrument in the hands of the Bourgeoisie thanks to which all the best species of beautiful women have been the property of the Bourgeoisie. The proper continuation of human race has been presented and such arguments have induced the organization to issue the present decree.

From March the 1st the right to possess women of the ages from 17 to 32 is abolished. The age of women shall be determined by birth certificates and passport. Failing to produce documents the age shall be determined by Committee which shall judge according to appearance.

Former husbands may retain the right of using their wives. In case of resistance of husband he shall forfeit his right under former paragraph. All women according to this decree are exempted from private ownership and are proclaimed to be the property of the whole nation.

The distribution and management of appropriated women in compliance with the decision of aforesaid organization are transferred to the Savator Anarchists Club from the date of publication of this decree. All women given by it to the use of the whole nation are obliged to represent themselves to a given representative and to supply the required information. A Special Committee is formed for realisation of these decrees.

Any citizen noticing any women not submitting herself to the address under the decree must make the fact known to the Anarchist Club giving name of woman.

Men citizens have right to use one woman 3 times a week for 3 hours observing rules specified below.

Every man wishing to use a piece of public property should be bearer of certificate from Authoritative Committee of Workmen Soldiers and Peasants Council certifying it belongs to a working class family.

Every working member is obliged to discount 2% of his earnings to the funds of the Public General Action.

This Committee in charge will put these discount funds into state banks and other concerns handing down the funds to the population.

Women when they become pregnant are released for three months before and one month after child birth.

Children borne are given to a constitution for training after they are one month old, when they are to be trained and educated until they are 17 at the cost of the Public Funds.

In case of birth of twins a mother is to receive a prize of £20.

All citizens are obliged to watch theirselves carefully and those who are guilty of spreading venereal disease will be held responsible and severely punished.

Women having lost their health may apply to the Soviet for a pension.

The Chief of the Anarchists will be in charge of the temporary measure relating to the decree.

All refusing to recognise and support this decree will be proclaimed enemies of the people and country and will be held strictly responsible.

Signed Councillor City of Savator


We've come a long way, baby!


The original English translation of the first page can be found at the website of Gordon Smith, where he pays homage to his grandfather, Chief Yeoman of Signals George Smith, DSM, Royal Navy 1904-1928, and member of the North Russian Expeditionary Force of 1919. It is item #6, and is difficult to read.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Mentor Monday - Good, Better, Best

Nope. This is not a blog about grammar or the rules of English. This is about making a good manuscript a better manuscript, and a better manuscript the best manuscript. It’s about taking your work to a level a notch or two higher than it already is.

How do you do that?

The secret - like God - is in the details. Unlike God, it is easy to explain and understand, and even easier to do. Simply take the generic and make it specific. In every single case, it will make your manuscript better.

Here are some examples.

John went to the store.

Let’s say we don’t really care how John got to the store. The important thing to the story is that he got there. Why worry about the sentence? If you have a good story, no editor is going to turn it down because of that line. The truth is, an editor probably won’t even notice it.

Still, if you change the vague ‘went’ to something specific - walk, run or drive - your plain factual statement becomes a sentence that conveys mood. Walk makes us think everything is fine and dandy, run makes it seem like something is wrong, and drive indicates he’s in a hurry. You, of course, will choose a word that conveys the mood you are trying to create, and mood is something an editor will notice. Now, a section of your story that didn’t stand out, suddenly will, and all you did was change one word. Imagine the effect if you changed all the vague words in your manuscript?

Another way being specific helps a manuscript is in turning a piece of description that is just there for description’s sake, into description that matters. Let’s say your MC is on her way somewhere and stops to pick a flower. The flower will have no major bearing on the plot. You’re just doing a bit of description to set the scene. You can say she stopped to pick a flower, or you can say she stopped to pick an aster.

Why does it matter one way or the other if the flower isn't important? Again, it doesn’t really. It won’t prevent you from selling an otherwise good manuscript. But ‘a flower’ tells us nothing. An aster, on the other hand, says it is fall, and now the reader knows what time of year it is without the writer telling them, (Although you did tell them, in a sneaky, unobtrusive way) and that allows the reader to envision the surrounding scenery, too - the reds and golds of autumn rather than the green of summer and spring. Your irrelevant sentence becomes relevant - not to the plot, but to your scene setting. You've added an extra layer to your work just by changing a vague word to one that is more specific.

Now let’s suppose something does matter to the plot. Here is an excerpt from M. T. Anderson’s Feed. The MC and his girlfriend have gone out to the country to tour a farm.

It was a filet mignon farm, all of it, and the tissue spread for miles around the paths where we were walking. It was like these huge hedges of red all around us, with these beautiful marble patterns running through them. They had these tubes, they were bringing the tissue blood, and we could see the blood running up and down.

Anderson could have written, It was a filet mignon farm and there were steaks growing everywhere. It’s simple and direct and tells the reader they are not in Kansas any more, and if that was all Anderson wanted to convey, it would serve his purpose.

But by this point in the story, we already know we’re not in Kansas. The point of the description is to convey just how out of whack society has become, and the more detailed he is - the tubes, the marble patterns, the tissue and blood - the more out of whack his world seems. This is more than a futuristic world where steak grows on a stalk. This is a world where things have gone horribly awry, (or magnificently wonderful, depending on your personal take on life) and Anderson makes it so easy to see and understand because he gave us the details.

The above examples, I think, show the differences specificity and details can make in a story. Nobody is going to say, “Oh, I loved that you used the word aster instead of flower.” It’s just not all that noticeable. But when you’re looking at the big picture - the novel as a whole - that’s where it makes the difference. It gives your writing nuance, mood and tone. It takes your writing a step higher than it was. And it will make your work stand out above the work of others in the slush pile who aren’t being specific.

The road to publication is long and hard. If you’re a beginner trying to break in, you need to be above average. Give yourself every advantage you can.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Poetry Friday: Celia Thaxter's A Song of Spring


Celia Thaxter, New Hampshire’s own, died too young on her beloved Appledore Island in 1894. She left behind a rich trove of paintings, poems, essays, and gardening inspiration.

Here’s a digitized version of Celia’s book An Island Garden

The poem below appeared in St. Nicholas Magazine in March 1887. The second half is rarely reprinted these days, as didactic poetry for children is no longer popular. The first three stanzas, with their gleeful observation of the slow but certain spread of warmth across the land, still resonate, at least here in New England.


“Sing a song of Spring,” cried the merry March wind loud,
As it swept to the earth from the dark breast of the cloud,
But the windflowers and the violets were yet too sound asleep
Under the snow's white blanket, close folded soft and deep.

“Sing a song of Spring,” cried the pleasant April rain,
With a thousand sparkling tones upon the window pane,
And the flowers hidden in the ground woke dreamily and stirred,
From root to root, from seed to seed, crept swift the happy word.

“Sing a song of Spring,” cried the sunshine of the May,
And the whole world into blossom burst in one delightful day,
The patient apple trees blushed bright in clouds of rosy red,
And the dear birds sang with rapture in the blue sky overhead.

And not a single flower small that April's raindrops woke.
And not a single little bird that into music broke,
But did rejoice to live and grow and strive to do its best,
Faithful and dutiful and brave through every trials' test.
I wonder if we children all are ready as the flowers
To do what God appoints for us through all His days and hours,
To praise Him in our duties done with faithful joy, because
The smallest of those duties belong to His great laws.

O Violets, who never fret and say, “I won't!” “I will!”
Who only live to do your best His wishes to fulfill,
Teach us your sweet obedience that we may grow to be
Happy like you, and patient as the steadfast apple tree.

This week's Poetry Friday Round-Up is being hosted by Write Sister, Diane, at Random Noodling.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Women of Wednesday: Ada Lewis Sawyer

Once in a while our work on the Notable Women series turns up what another industry might call a “dry hole.” One such woman was originally considered for the Rhode Island book: Ada Lewis Sawyer, the first woman admitted to the bar in that state. Unfortunately, but not uncharacteristically, there was simply not enough information about Ada to include her in the book: not enough for a fourth or fifth- grader to be able to complete a report about her, that is.

This does not, of course, mean that her accomplishments were not extraordinary. Ada achieved her goals in spite of tremendous odds (her application to take the bar exam was referred to the state Supreme Court on the question of whether or not she, as a woman, qualified as a PERSON).

What the dearth of information about Ada reflects is the reality of most of our lives –we live our lives, we do our jobs, we endeavor to be the best we can be . . . and most of us leave very small ripples in the surface of documented history. And yet – our efforts are not without meaning. There may not be much information available about Ada’s life. But there is no doubt that her pioneering effort, and her perseverance, paved the way for those who came after her.

For the record, then, Ada Lewis Sawyer, daughter of Frank and Ada Sawyer, was born in Providence in 1892 and was graduated from Providence English High School in 1909. She went to work as a stenographer in a law office and eight years later she notified the Rhode Island bar that she was reading law with the intention of taking the bar examination. This resulted in the request for an opinion from the state’s Supreme Court from the bar examiners, whether a woman could even request admission to the bar.

Once the Court had determined that she was, in fact, a person, Ada became a lawyer in the State of Rhode Island and a partner with her mentor in the firm of Gardner and Sawyer. She carried on the practice after Mr. Gardner’s death in 1955, and finally retired in 1983 when she was 91 years old.

Ada must have loved her work, as she sometimes put in seven days a week, even at an age when many would have retired. She also loved boating and photography. Never married, she lived with her sister Bertha until her death in 1985. A friend established a scholarship in her name at Harvard Law School.

In 1964 Brown University honored Ada with a Doctor of Law degree. The citation read:  “Your quiet example has inspired others to follow your path and has helped to bring about equality in fact as well as theory. We honor what you represent, and what you have done privately and publicly to serve your clients and your community.”

Monday, April 11, 2011

Mentor Monday: Voice, part 3

In the two previous installments of this series we looked at the voice of our characters and the voice of the narrator. The final and perhaps most difficult “voice” to analyze is the author’s voice.

Just as each of us has our own unique “voiceprint,” such that those who know us recognize our voices whether we are talking in our stern mother voice, our cooing over the kittens voice, or our ever-so-serious –and-staid conversation with the principal voice, so too our author’s voices will eventually have a consistency that will be recognizable in all our work. I say “eventually” because it’s not uncommon to hear an editor (or even a critic) say that the author “hasn’t found her voice yet,” by which they mean that they somehow don’t find anything distinctive or distinguishing in the author’s work.

 One interesting exercise for studying an author’s voice is to choose a much-published author: Jane Yolen, say, or Margaret Wise Brown, and compare books from the early and middle parts of their career with their more recent works. Keeping in mind that most authors work for many years developing and polishing their voice before they ever sell the first book, it is still possible to see changes in the author’s voice as the years go by – maybe a shift to shorter sentences or simpler words, maybe a familiar rhythm in the later books that is absent in the earlier ones, possibly just a hint of confidence early on that becomes more solid over time, or, as with someone like Dr. Seuss, a hint of silliness that became increasingly bizarre. Another interesting exercise is to compare books by the same writer under different noms de plume and see if you can find places where the “real” voice shines through, while noting how the writer has deliberately chosen one voice or another depending on the “author.”

The author’s voice is part style: complex or simple sentences, fast-paced or leisurely prose. Compare Dickens and Hemingway; you could never mistake the work of one for that of the other. It’s part vocabulary; not simply whether you tend to esoteric words or prefer plain ones, but the frequency of particular words and phrases which you use, unconsciously, probably in your conversation as well as your writing.

More importantly, the author’s voice grows out of her worldview. Some of us are congenitally optimistic. Others take a darker view. Some of us are intensely influenced by our environments. Some have an intuitive connection with animals. Others are acute observers of character. Some see magic in the everyday, some are stolidly convinced that even the most mysterious phenomena must have a natural cause. A quirky sense of humor, a deep abiding faith, a cynical eye: all these traits will shape our writing, no matter the subject matter, or even if the work is fiction or non-fiction.

A mature authorial voice is authoritative and consistent. It is steady and even, humming along below the melody and harmony of the work, like the drone of a bagpipe. It resonates with a reader (or not: just as some readers will devour everything by a particular author, others will avoid certain writers no matter the subject of a work).

Because the author’s voice is the expression of his personality, it is difficult, perhaps even dangerous, to try to intentionally develop your “voice.” It is too easy to imitate the voice of authors you admire, and too likely that if you concentrate on your author’s voice you will wind up sounded affected and artificial, instead of letting your natural voice shine through. So the “exercise” for this third meaning of “voice” in writing is simply: keep writing. Write passionately, write obsessively, write consistently, and over time, over thousands of words chosen, placed and polished, your voice will emerge.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Poetry Friday: Memories

I had a third grade teacher who made us (gasp!) memorize poems. This was one of my favorites. When you’re 9, what’s not to love? It was like a luscious tongue twister and we were so proud of ourselves when we were able to get through it perfectly. Just a note: it’s more fun if you read it out loud. Eletelephony by Laura Elizabeth Richards Once there was an elephant, Who tried to use the telephant— No! no! I mean an elephone Who tried to use the telephone— (Dear me! I am not certain quite That even now I've got it right.) Howe'er it was, he got his trunk Entangled in the telephunk; The more he tried to get it free, The louder buzzed the telephee— (I fear I'd better drop the song Of elephop and telephong!) Head over to for more great Friday poems.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Women (Young People) of Wednesday

I come from a generation that was privileged to hear wonderful speakers. By their words alone they were able to engage, encourage, and empower large groups of people. At age 11 I heard one man say “…ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” When I was 13, another man proclaimed “I have a dream.” At 19, I stayed awake until the early hours of July 20th to hear a third man announce “One small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind” as he took the very first walk on the moon. I often told my children that I did not think they’d had the good fortune of being inspired by such imposing words. In a way, I was right, but that’s because I failed to understand that words don’t have to be spoken to be powerful. I didn’t realize that it would be different kinds of words--short cryptic lines sent through cyberspace--that would engage, encourage, and empower this generation. The Write Sisters usually devote Wednesdays to honor women and their stories of accomplishment. But today is April 6th. It is the 3rd anniversary of the founding of the April 6 Youth Movement. If you go to the Movement’s Facebook page you will learn where to find them: Office: Every place in Egypt Location: Everywhere Those two lines say it all. The young people united in cyberspace have used their words to launch change. Perhaps this generation will not have a bunch of quotes to repeat and remember. Words sent through the internet are not meant to be held down, but they are just as powerful in their somewhat ethereal existence. They have inspired international change in an unpredictable way. Other, similar, cyber youth movements have followed their lead. We are all amazed at the events occurring in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco. So, happy anniversary April 6 Youth Movement. I’ll be waiting to “hear” what else you have to say.

Monday, April 4, 2011

What Can Writers Learn from Three Puerile Porkers and Lupus Magnus Malus?

We repeatedly urge beginning writers to read, read, read the types of books they want to write. This study never ends. Studying the masters should include traditional folk and fairy tales. These stories continue to exist and be read for one reason: they work.

What sorts of things occur in these stories that should also be happening in your stories? Start with a simple tale: The Three Little Pigs. The first written version of TTLP appeared in the early 1800s. For nearly 200 years we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to variations of it in book and cartoon and movie form.

Here are a few things I think we can learn from it:

Simplicity is key. One should be able to summarize a story’s universal theme in one sentence. “A mother sends her three sons out into the world to make their fortune— knowing the dangers that lurk there.

Names matter. The protagonists are Little Pigs, not just pigs. They are young and na├»ve. They are children. Their antagonist is Big and Bad. No confusion there. A comic book hero named Mediocreboy (as opposed to Superman) just wouldn’t work. J.K. Rowling’s “Severus Snape” gives readers a chill just by saying his name. Sssseverussss Ssssnape. Nice name for a bad guy. Sounds kinda Bronx Zoo cobra-ish, doesn’t it?

Show don’t tell. “The first little pig built a house of straw.” What do the last three words explain about the character? Straw is plentiful, light-weight, and easy to maneuver. The first little pig is impatient, doesn’t plan for the long-term, and lazy. He does what he is supposed to do but only haphazardly. An entire character has been described in one sentence that shows us how he behaves.

Triads Rule. The rule of three works like this: 2 failures and a success. Two failures add tension. They’re the reason we turn the page. The success allows the reader to breathe and cheer for the hero. More than three tries and we lose patience with the story.

Repetition is Emphasis. And, often, joyful as young readers participate:

“I’ll HUFF! And I’ll PUFF! And I’ll BLOOOOOWWWW your house in!” C’mon, admit it. You can’t read that sentence without pizzazz.

The Child Protagonist solves his Own Problem. Once Mom Pig sends the three piglets out the door, she’s never mentioned again. No helicopter moms in fairy tales. Empower the protagonist, empower the reader.

Your turn. Pick a successful story. What makes it work?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Poetry Friday: Ars Poetica -- Kicking off National Poetry Month

A poem should be palpable and mute   
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless   
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time   
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,   
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time   
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean   
But be. 
                       -- Archibald MacLeish

The Kick-Off is being held over at The Poem Farm. Let's party like it's April 2011!!!