SHOW DON’T TELL: A PERSONAL DEMONSTRATION by Miko Johnston

One of the first rules of writing I learned was the mantra “Show, don’t Tell”. I’ve lost count of how many times I heard this advice “told”, but ironically, I’ve never been “shown” how to do it. If you agree, read on, for I will “show” you my version of Show, don’t Tell with a demonstration of what I call forensic editing – a way to improve writing line by line, paragraph by paragraph, page by page. And I’m going to use a sample of my own work to illustrate how it’s done.

I’ve never shown a rough draft of my writing to anyone before, but I want to give you real “before and after” examples. Below you’ll find the original version of Page one from my novel, A Petal in the Wind III: The Great War. I’ll guide you through an analysis of its many flaws and correct them using forensic editing. Let’s begin:

Lala Hafstein stepped out of the taxi in front of her house. Still a charming two story stone cottage, she observed, surrounded by blooming rose bushes and bathed in mid-afternoon sunshine. The cherry tree was bare of fruit, but the walnut tree was laden, the plums needed harvesting, and apples and pears would soon ripen on their respective trees. A typical early August day in Bohemia, she thought, even if absolutely nothing else was remotely so.

A sense of déjà vu enveloped her as she clutched her travel satchel to her chest and stepped aside. Her parents entered the house, followed by the driver who assisted in bringing in their travel trunks. Lala went inside as well and looked around. The gilt-framed mirror still hung in the entryway above the walnut cabinet her father had constructed decades ago in his carpentry shop in Prague. The parlor, filled with a mix of old and recent pieces acquired through inheritance and her father’s masterful woodworking skills, was as they’d left it save for a trace of dust. She wondered if Hilde, their maid, had been in for over a week. Her life, like everyone else’s, was interrupted nine days earlier, when Emperor Franz Josef directed the bombing of Belgrade in retaliation for the assassination of his nephew by Serbian nationalists.  #

Yikes!

Consider an ideal page one. The opening sentence functions as the “hello” to the story, grabbing the reader’s attention. The first page must coax you into the first chapter and hold your interest. It should give readers a sense of the who, what, wherewhen, why and how of the story. Usually the who – your protagonist – is foremost. Page one lays the path to the when and where (is this taking place) and the what (is going on), which eventually leads to the how (the story will play out) and why (it’s important).  This version fails on most accounts.

 

Let’s review the first sentence:

Lala Hafstein stepped out of the taxi in front of her house.

 

The who is clear, the where not so much. We know she’s home, but where is home? What is significant about her coming home? How does that intrigue the reader?

 

This opening line is neither dramatic nor engaging.

 

The rest of the first paragraph provides some setting details with imagery. We learn where, in Bohemia, and when this takes place, August. But with summer fruit at its peak and fall fruit soon to harvest, readers might figure out this must be late summer anyway. Not until the end of the paragraph’s final line, …even if absolutely nothing else was remotely so, do we get a hint that all is not what it appears to be. This may be too subtle or cryptic to hook readers.  

 

A dissection of the paragraph shows it’s moving in the right direction, but fails to engage readers. It conveys very little for the valuable real estate it occupies.  

 

The next paragraph shows Lala’s been traveling with her parents. The déjà vu reference harkens back to something that occurred in the first Petal novel. As this is Book III, many readers might not recall this and make the connection. The rest frontloads the page with backstory. The implication, that on the surface things look the same but really aren’t, repeats what was in the first paragraph. And we still don’t know why that is until the end of the page. I knew the bombing of Belgrade marked the actual launch of the first World War, but to readers that reference might be vague; not everyone spent months researching the subject like I did. Worse, I reveal WWI’s onset in an undramatic way, telling rather than showing. Not much of a pay-off for the “things are different now” scenario I imply, nor an irresistible way to end page one.

The opening also falls into a classic trap by limiting Showing to visuals – no scents, no sounds.

 

Now let’s examine how to fix these weaknesses:

 

1- Write an opening line that entices the reader and alludes to what will transpire.

 

Lala Hafstein stepped out of the taxi in front of her house does not accomplish this. My first revision:

 

Lala Hafstein stepped out of the taxi laden with trunks and valises in front of her house.

 

A little better. We surmise she’s been traveling, but we don’t know how she feels upon returning or what her return means, so back to work. My final version of the opening sentence:

 

Relief washed over Lala Hafstein as the taxi laden with trunks and valises came to a stop in front of her family’s house.

 

Relief. That exposes her state of mind. We know what that looks like and feels like. The word captures our interest, puts the rest of the paragraph in perspective, and also mirrors the ending. Woo-hoo, triple points.

 

2- Shore up the sensory details that lead to the teaser at the end of the opening paragraph.

 

I amended it so her parents now exit the taxi with Lala, but I got rid of the procession entering the house. Lala remains outside while the driver unloads the luggage, so I focused on better illustrating the where instead of the home’s interior. What began as a purely visual description:

 

Still a charming two story stone cottage, she observed, surrounded by blooming rose bushes and bathed in mid-afternoon sunshine….  became:    

 

As she inhaled the scent of roses warmed by the afternoon sun, Lala looked over the property. The two-story stone cottage perched on a hill, overlooking rolling plains sectioned by thickets of forest….

 

Adding relatable sensory details beyond visuals, and broadening the setting, vivifies the where.

 

3- Eliminate the repetition and make the reveal about the war’s onset more impactful.

 

Having Lala wonder what the maid experienced, which is third hand information, dulled the impact. The most visceral reveal would be through her first-hand perspective, but Lala wasn’t there. I went with the next best thing, a creative solution based on logic. Curious to know, she would ask, “What was it like here when it began? How did you know?” to someone who was there – the taxi driver. In the final version, Lala does that:

 

The driver understood, for he answered without hesitation. “Church bells, Miss. The church bells rang out.” He stood up and with head bent, took off his cap and held it against his heart as if facing a coffin. “Not just our church bells, but you could hear them ringing off in the distance, from every town and hamlet in the region, ringing for a long, long time. We knew then our empire was at war.”

As he described that moment, Lala could almost hear church bells clanging from near and far.

 

Now we not only understand what has happened, we feel it through the taxi driver’s firsthand account of the moment the war began. By establishing it with sensory detail – in this case, sound – readers, like Lala, can virtually hear the church bells clanging as we listen to the man’s response and see his physical reaction. I can also see readers turning the page to find out what happens next.  

 

 

If you would like to see the first page as published, click on  this link:

Click on “LOOK INSIDE” and scroll to Chapter One. The entire first chapter is available.

CREATE A ‘BEING THERE’ SETTING FOR YOUR STORY by Miko Johnston

I’m currently writing my fourth Petal in the Wind novel, which takes place in Prague. Having spent a week there ten years ago, it roused happy memories. I felt as if I were back in the city, if only on the page. However, I recently experienced that sensation of “being there” in another way.

In addition to my historical series, I’m also working on a contemporary mystery set in a fictionalized SoCal town. Stratford, where my heroine Iris lives, serves as a stand-in for Thousand Oaks, California.

You may recall the name – it’s where another mass shooting occurred last November in the Borderline Bar and Grill. I suspect you watched the story unfurl on television, shocked, but not surprised that another senseless slaughter had taken place. Maybe you shook your head and said, “Not again.” You felt sadness for the young victims, compassion and sorrow for their families, like every other time this has happened.

For me, this time was different. Very different.

There’s a scene in my novel where Iris abandons her car and runs when she realizes the men chasing her are not reporters, but hitmen. That spot is across the street from the Borderline.

A gut punch of foreboding struck me as I watched the coverage, wondering if I knew any of the victims or their families. I worked in Thousand Oaks for nearly twenty years. Having lived two blocks from the club, walked or driven by it countless times, I recognized every detail of the TV footage – the building where the shooting took place, the street where the ambulances parked, the gas station down the street. My mind became a camera following the action. I could envision every inch of the route as the ambulances raced to the hospital, the layout in the ER where the victims would be taken, the doors separating it from the waiting room where their families would pace, anxiously awaiting news. I can describe that room down to the pattern of the carpet.

The experience gave me a new appreciation of the importance of setting in stories. Writers may create interesting characters and provide a compelling narrative, but they neglect that third part of the trinity. Creating that “being there” sense in writing really draws you into the story.

Last year our blog published Patricia Smiley’s superb post on the importance of setting. But how does a writer create that “boots on the ground” feeling when writing about a present-day location they don’t know well? One option is traveling to the places you’re writing about. Nothing else will compare. However, if that isn’t possible, then consider the next best thing to being there.

Thanks to internet sites like Google Maps, you can take a virtual tour of any neighborhood. Practice on a place you’re familiar with, like the area where you grew up, went to college, or used to work. “Walk” the streets to see what the predominating architecture looks like, what shops line the avenues, how folks are dressed, the types and condition of cars. You might find the field where you used to play hide-and-seek is now a shopping mall, the yeasty aroma that wafted from your favorite bakery has been replaced by the perfume of exotic spices from the Indian restaurant that recently opened.

When you pick your site, visit it often until you have a feel for the neighborhood. If you’re creating a fictitious location, give it an authentic feel by basing it on an existing locale. Need a place with lots of open space and wilderness? Check out areas near national parks in Utah, Washington and Wyoming. For a once grand area that’s fallen on hard times, look at rust belt cities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. One caveat: note the recording date. With a world to document, some of the images may be several years old and potentially inaccurate.

Many cities and towns have travel bureaus or chambers of commerce. Their websites will give you a capsule version of the more positive aspects of the place. Contacting the police department for blotter information will help with the less positive. Local libraries can also provide statistics; reports, ads and calendars in regional newspapers will give a sense of what’s going on.

Be creative. Seek information on local vegetation from area nurseries, botanical societies or hiking groups like the Sierra Club and American Hiking Society. Contact the Wildlife Society and the Audubon Society for information about fauna. A general or special interest travel guide for your locale will provide valuable information (take advantage of your AAA membership). Do a search on a travel website like Tripadvisor. Local lodging, restaurants and activities say a lot about an area. While researching this post, I discovered niche.com, an online rank and review site that evaluates places based on criteria like schools, job prospects, housing and cost of living.

Go beyond geography. Think weather patterns and geology, their potential to add a layer of crisis or provide a much needed respite to your action. Are there any iconic structures, significant history or landmarks associated with your locale?

These tips will help you research locations, but how do you go about finding them? One way is to seek out real estate sections in newspapers or online through realtors. Investigate houses for sale and rental properties. They will give you a baseline of the character and economic health of different neighborhoods, often mentioning if the area is trendy, noted for good schools, or otherwise desirable. Another is to search the internet for legitimate articles (as opposed to paid ads) about topics related to your location. Aside from statistics, any accompanying photographs and interviews with residents will offer a more first-hand perspective.

For example, if I needed to set my story in a struggling West Coast farm community, I might base it on East Porterville, California. The Tulare County town has been seriously impacted by drought, based on a Reuters article I found. Quotes from locals interviewed for the piece would provide great insight into character development as well as plot. Of the five homes I found for sale, three are in foreclosure auctions. Satellite images of the town show modest one story homes, one market, an auto shop, older middle-class cars and pick-ups parked in driveways, and a parched landscape. Although the images are two years old, the article, Zillow and niche.com concur that life has not improved there. Worse, the community abuts Porterville, a suburban city thriving with shopping malls, parks and a medical center. With my research complete, I would weigh the information against its relevance to the plot or characters.

A compelling plot and well-drawn characters are critical to good writing, but the ability to create a realistic setting enhances the experience. Take advantage of the many tools available to help bring that sense of “being there” to your story, and if you have other sites or resources you like, please share them with us.

 

Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

A YEAR IN RETROSPECT by Miko Johnston

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, it won’t come as a surprise to hear how much we at THE WRITERS IN RESIDENCE like, respect and learn from each other. As 2018 draws to a close, I’d like to share with you some highlights from the blog this past year.

Our cycle of posts begins with Madeline, who always opens the discussion of writing with her unique point of view.I nodded in agreement after reading her post on why adjectives and adverbs are okay… “They are what bring the cadence to your ‘voice’, and the musicality to your writing.” I admire the way she paints pictures with words: “…the (plot) cake is mixed and in my mental oven.”

Reading Rosemary’s entries almost feels like I’m reading her diary. Her innermost thoughts on why she writes remind me that the best writing digs below the surface of the subject. “Leading Myself Astray”, on the importance of research, illustrated how she brings historic authenticity to her writing. I especially related to her piece on how endings, even when tragic, can lead to promising new beginnings.

That proved true when a post on naming characters became the last entry from former member Bonnie Schroeder, who decided to leave the blog. However, we welcomed Jill Amadio, whose range and depth of experience has made her a valued addition to the group. Not many of us can begin a sentence with, “Sara Paretsky told me….” I appreciate her insight on the business side of writing, something I tend to overlook.

Speaking of the business side, Linda wrote a thought-provoking post about a subject many of us have, or will, experience as the publishing industry continues to transform. I could relate to the decisions she’s facing with publisher Midnight Ink’s dissolution, a common dilemma for authors.

Gayle’s “What’s in a Name?” confirmed the importance of getting the right name for our characters – it took three tries before my newest one would ‘talk’ to me. I consider Gayle the teacher of the group. Her lessons included how a character’s voice can convey who they are, and how to bring minor characters to life without a lot of exposition. And I still smile when I recall Gayle’s post on Valentine’s Day – part 2 of “How to Open Your Story with a Bang”.

There were several great tips on how to evoke sensory details in Jackie’s post on the subject. Jackie’s work with African children, including mentoring them in writing, exemplifies not only her life’s mission, but our blog’s mission to encourage and support writers. I found her recent post on handing down traditions very meaningful.

I can’t ignore the many excellent guest posts we’ve had. Patricia Smiley’s “The Importance of Setting” would have been an outstanding piece under any circumstance, but it carried special meaning for me. I read it the day before the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks California took place. Whenever these tragic incidents happen I’m horrified and disgusted, but this was different. For many years I lived two blocks from the Borderline Bar, where the shooting occurred.

Sitting 7,500 miles away in Sydney Australia, I watched news footage taken from a sidewalk I’d walked along thousands of times, of a building I’d driven past almost daily for years. I could envision every inch of the route the ambulance would take back to the hospital, the layout of the ER where they’d treat the victims, the waiting room, down to the carpeting, where the victims’ families would be waiting. Having had ‘boots on the ground’ personalized the emotional impact for me. It became a painful reminder of our challenge as writers to incorporate that first-hand realism in our own writing.

I interviewed author Mike McNeff about his background in law enforcement and the authenticity it brings to his writing.  Mike has also pursued courses in the craft of writing and became a certified editor. He generously shares his expertise with other writers, including creative writing students at our local high school.

Hanna Rhys Barnes weighed in with the best pep-talk on writing romance fiction I’ve ever seen, reminding us of how some writers can be disrespectful toward the most popular, best-selling genre of fiction in the English language. As we WINRs have often said, “Writing is writing.”

An excellent post by Paul D. Marks lamented how… “our cultural ties-that-bind are breaking down”, which has made writing more challenging as a new generation seems less aware of the past. I still recall a young writer in my critique group questioning why my child protagonist wandered in the forest for days when she could have used GPS. In 1899. Fortunately, some readers appreciate the past. Sally Carpenter made that point in her “Retro-Cozy” piece, and in “The Story of You”, three memoirists shared their insight and advice with me on the importance of communicating memories of earlier times.

What to do when you lose your publisher or contract became a popular topic (little wonder), on which both Linda and guest blogger Heather Ames reported. And the question of where writers get their ideas has been explored frequently this year. Jackie wrote about it in “Writing A Murder”, Linda in “Inspiration?”, and Madeline in “Stealing and More….”

Did you find one of our posts particularly noteworthy, touching or instructive? Tell us which one. Wondering what the new year has in store for you here at THE WRITERS IN RESIDENCE? Check in with us every Wednesday and find out!

 

 

Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington.

AN INTERVIEW WITH MIKE McNEFF by Miko Johnston

 

mikemcneff

If you write mysteries – stories about crimes, their investigation and prosecution – and want your writing to be publication perfect, wouldn’t you love to know someone who could help you achieve that goal?  Then prepare to meet your next best friend, Mike McNeff.

Mike is a retired law enforcement officer and lawyer. He’s worked as a state trooper, a deputy sheriff and a city police officer; a prosecutor, police legal advisor, defense lawyer and a civil trial lawyer. He’s a firearms expert and certified instructor who volunteers as a teacher for a local gun club. He’s also a published author of three novels and in addition, has recently completed a certified course in editing from the University of Washington.

Mike’s the guy who’ll tell you the crook wouldn’t “snap a cartridge in his gun”, he’d “jack a round in the chamber”.  The proper methods of searching a crime scene. The sound a bullet makes when it hits the trunk of a car or passes within inches of your head. How a corpse would smell or appear depending on the environmental conditions and TOD. He knows this all firsthand.

As a qualified editor, he can tell when a scene moves the story forward or drags down the narrative. He also knows an m dash from an n dash, when to use ellipses, whether that number should be written out, and how many sentences comprise a complete paragraph (hint: it depends on whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction – the answer will be at the end of the interview).

And if that wasn’t enough, he’s a great guy and a good friend to all, especially writers.

 

Mike, could you begin by explaining the four types of editing that can be done?

There are actually five types. First there is acquisition editing, a review of a manuscript for possible acceptance by the publisher. There’s developmental editing, where the content and structure of a work is developed for publication. Then there’s a line editor, whose job is not to correct punctuation, but make certain that everything written properly develops and moves the story forward. Next is a copy editor and there are three stages: light, medium and heavy. Light is mainly going over the work for major mistakes in punctuation and grammar when the piece is well written and it doesn’t have to be delved into deeply. Medium is really going into the grammar, punctuation and sentence structure to make the piece as readable as possible. Heavy is medium copy editing mixed with line editing. The last is proof reading. The proofreader looks at every word, punctuation, spelling, formatting, looking for any mistakes in the final draft of the manuscript to make sure the copy is clean.

 

You’ve been outspoken about the need for writers to have certified editors review their manuscript before publication. Why? 

Editing is the most crucial thing a writer can have done to their work. I never knew there were five levels of editing before I was certified. To have a neighbor or your mother do the editing isn’t going to work. You need a trained editor who knows what it takes for a manuscript to be ready for publishing. It’s very important because you have to impress readers right out of the gate. A poorly edited work will make it very hard to recover your reputation as a writer.

 

You and I have shared our bafflement as to why so many writers resist allowing their work to be edited. Why do you think that is? 

Two reasons: One, “I can’t afford an editor”. When I hear that excuse I say, “You can’t afford not to have an editor.” Others don’t like having their work critically reviewed. You need to have the skin of a rhinoceros to be a successful writer.

 

How can you change their minds?

You have to convince writers they need an editor, or else they’ll learn it through the cruel world of publishing. The market will eventually determine how good your book is, including the reviews you’ll get. Bad reviews hurt.

 

What advice would you give a writer seeking an editor?  

There are books like The Writers Market that offer writers resources. Online there’s the Northwest Editors Guild, the PNWA (Pacific Northwest Writers Association) and other groups like that (in your area). Go on Google and type in editors. It’s important to get editors who are familiar with your genre. Look at websites of different editors. And there’s word of mouth. Talk to other writers about their experiences.

 

What questions should writers ask before hiring someone? 

Find out how long they’ve been an editor. Have they any formal training, either a course or working as an intern for an editor. Ask for references, and then ask what books they’ve edited and take a look at them. Check reviews, but also read at least one or two chapters.

 

Let’s talk about your expertise in law enforcement. Does your earlier career give you an advantage when content editing mysteries, police procedurals and legal thrillers? 

I was a police officer for 29 years. I did what cops call a trifecta – state trooper, deputy sheriff and retired as a city police officer. I’ve been assigned to federal task forces, worked with FBI and U.S. Customs/Border Patrol, so I know how federal officers operate. I was a team supervisor with two SWAT teams and commanded one. Having worked almost every detail an officer can do and almost every type of crime with those investigations, I’m familiar with all the procedures officers have to follow to make a case right. It also helps that I was a prosecutor for five years.

 

What are the biggest mistakes mystery writers make in their manuscripts? 

They get too mired down in police detail.

That surprises me. I’d have thought the opposite – getting it totally wrong.

You want to show you have credible police knowledge, but don’t let reality get in the way of a good story. You see things on TV that cops cringe at but if you get into too much detail you slow the pace of the story, so you need balance. Good example: Law & Order. On every episode the suspect would be brought in with his or her lawyer for interrogation and the lawyer would let the client talk to the police. In real life that would never happen – it would be malpractice for the lawyer, but as a device to move story forward, it works.

 

What about self-published writers, regardless of their genre? 

You need a professional editor. Your English teacher is not an editor for the purpose of storytelling. You need someone who knows how to tell a story and what makes a story work.

 

It must drive you crazy when you read books or stories that get the law enforcement and legal facts wrong. What are some of the worst examples you’ve seen? 

Really egregious are stories that have cops arrest people without probable cause, kick in doors without a search warrant—things that would get a real cop in trouble and the case kicked out. Pushing to the limit is okay, but total breaks with the law don’t fly, unless the story has the offending cop punished. If the story has a cop who commits a felony and he or she doesn’t get punished, that drives me up a wall. It’s one of the reasons so many people have distrust for police officers. They think because it’s on TV or in a movie it must be true.

 

What sources (local agencies; websites) would you recommend to writers who do not have a cop or lawyer in their circle to prevent these inaccuracies? 

Lots of cops write books and pay attention to the legal aspects. Zack Fortier writes about working patrol and dealing with gangs. Another fine author, Bernard Schaffer, has several books out and is still active in law enforcement. Pick up books by those authors and you’ll get an idea. Also read my first novel, GOTU (pronounced GOT-U).

 

Lastly, what reference books should every writer have on their bookshelf? 

The one book I recommend for all writers is The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler. Also Gregg’s Grammar Reference, and a good dictionary.

 

* * * * *

Hard Justice.McNeff

Mike McNeff is the author of the western Hard Justice and the Robin Marlette series of Black Ops; the third installment, Blood Wealth will be available soon. He’s currently writing a non-fiction book about four Vietnam vets who survived a horrific battle and its aftermath. For queries about manuscript editing, he can be reached at his website, mikemcneff.com.

 

Finally, as promised, how many sentences should be in a complete paragraph? In fiction, there is no rule. In non-fiction, a paragraph should have a minimum of three sentences.

 

Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington.

THE STORY OF YOU

If you’re reading this, you’re likely a writer. You create memorable characters that breathe with life, wonderful settings readers can vividly picture, riveting stories we follow from page to page. Perhaps you’re ignoring one riveting story that takes place in a wonderful setting, featuring a memorable character – you.

Have you ever thought about writing your own story? Many writers never consider memoir, assuming it would be of no interest to anyone – an ordinary life in an ordinary place. But thousands of people who felt that way became the subject of The Greatest Generation, and I doubt anyone would consider their stories dull.

Even if you assume you never did anything that remarkable, if you’re over fifty you’ve lived through remarkable times. The world you grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. Stories set in the past entice younger readers who can’t picture a world without cellphones, social media and everything on demand. Older readers enjoy reminiscing about simpler times, when you had to get off the couch to change the TV channel. If you had a TV. If you still doubt the interest exists, consider the popularity of DNA tests for ancestry and genealogy research.

Memoirs generally focus on a theme or experience rather than a chronology of events. They differ from autobiography in that they involve memories, so memoirs don’t require the same standard for accuracy as autobiographies. Laura Kalpakian, author of The Memoir Club, says, “The memoir is not and should never be confused with the truth…alteration is inevitable. As a result, truth belongs to the teller.” Walter Zinsser, who wrote Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, adds the importance of “integrity of intention – how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us.” Once you have the pieces, they need to be assembled, what Zinsser calls “imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events.”

To better understand the genre, I spoke with three authors who write memoirs. All are in their eighties. I met them in writing groups, but truly got to know them through their writing.

Gordon Labuhn’s book, My Gang, tells the story of a boy growing up in 1940’s Detroit. Gordon wore glasses, making him a target for bullies. To avoid getting beat up he formed a gang, albeit one that resembled the Little Rascals more than the Crips. The rest, as they say, is history – a history filled with hilarious misadventures, a little drama and a few tears.

That history continued when Gordon, deciding he needed to expand on his life story, wrote a sequel. “The writing of Whirlwind: The (Mis)adventures of a Man in Motion, was inspired by concern that My Gang as a standalone memoir would give a distorted view of my life after…my gang-days lifestyle.” Gordon, who brings joy and laughter to everyone he meets, filled his memoirs with his unique sense of humor.

Avis Rector grew up on Whidbey Island, Washington, in the farmhouse she and her husband still call home. Born in 1934, she’s too young to remember the Great Depression, but had heard many stories from her family about what life was like on the Island during that era. Those stories, combined with her memories, grew into her novel Pauline, which is loosely based on her family history. Although fictionalized, she’s enriched the book and its upcoming sequel with actual people, places and events, such as the Civilian Conservation Corp’s building of Deception Pass Bridge, an architectural masterpiece that for the first time linked the island with the mainland.

Her series began with a desire to write. “I had already written my autobiography for my three daughters. They wanted more stories about the family.” She took a creative writing class and wrote a piece based on a story her father had told her about a couple who became the featured characters in her novel. “When I reached 5000 words my instructor told me I had to (edit) it down to be a short story or turn it into a novel.” She credits her heroine Pauline as her inspiration. “She pushed me to invent situations, expand on the family stories by bringing in made-up characters.”

Barb Bland has always been athletic, creative, an animal lover, and intellectually curious. When I asked what inspired her to write her memoirs, she told me, “since I have no two-legged children, these stories are my ‘offspring’ and my only claim to immortality.” Barb left her home and family in the early sixties to study in France, where she became an au pair for a French family. “I was anticipating a return to France after having lived there fifty years earlier and wanted to remember and record ‘how it was,’ knowing that it had vastly changed.” This led to her work in progress, French Lessons, which chronicles her time abroad. Barb can write about the most ordinary incident and make it interesting, so you can imagine how fascinating her memoir will be when it’s completed.

Her first publication, Running Free, recounts her experience with a “throw-away” dog whom she rescued from a shelter. “I had a great dog, wanted to ‘keep him with me’ long after he passed from this world…(I) wanted to encourage others to attempt the ‘impossible’ and show them how I did it.” She donates the proceeds of the book to WAIF, the local animal shelter, one of the first minimal-kill shelters in North America.

Perhaps the most challenging issue with memoir is recalling incidents or experiences that would be unflattering or racist. Barb says she tries to observe political correctness “unless I’m using a direct quotation from one of my characters.” Gordon, a white man who lived in an interracial neighborhood during the tumultuous sixties, relates an incident with a black gang member with fairness and balance. One must be honest when dealing with these memories, but they can provide insight not only into how it was, but how it is now. “I don’t think one can write after-the-fact and still be ‘who she was at the time’,” said Barb. “As years pass, we realize past experiences in a different light.”

If this convinces you to write a memoir, Barb advises, “Above all, enjoy the writing process. Write to please yourself.” When you publish your story, consider all the places that might be interested in having a copy beyond your family and friends. Many libraries have local history collections, and historical societies or museums, schools, chambers of commerce, and even hospitals could be interested in adding your book to their collection or selling it in their gift shop. Did you have an unusual job or a career that overlapped a unique period of development or history? Does your story include the challenge of dealing with a physical or medical issue? A special child or animal? Any related organization with a website, newsletter, or annual conference/convention might consider carrying or at least advertising a book based on their mission statement.

Even if you’ve never written a book before, Gordon recommends beginning with your own story. “The memoir is ideal – you know the subject and creativity isn’t necessary…write for fun and if you become rich, share some green with me.”

On the other hand, Avis suggests a more creative approach. “Unless the author can be amusing, poke fun at one’s own self in their memoir, or has led an exemplarily interesting life, they would enjoy fictionalizing it.”

Two earlier posts, Dedication and Holiday Memories, are my first attempts at memoir, but may not be my last. One of Gordon’s comments really stuck with me. “Wouldn’t you like to have a book written by your great, great, great grandfather or grandmother? A book that tells what it was like and what he/she did at that time and location in history?” What a wonderful legacy to leave for your family, friends and community.

 

Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal in the Wind series as well as several short stories. Miko is currently working on the fourth Petal novel as well as a mystery set in a library. Contact her at: mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

PAY IT FORWARD by Miko Johnston

I’ve supported many worthy causes throughout my life. In addition to monetary donations to charities, I’ve baked elaborate pastries to be auctioned off at a scholarship dinner, left canned tuna, dried beans and boxes of pasta for my local food bank, and brought gently used clothing and household goods to thrift stores. However, this year I made a new donation – myself – to what I believe is a very worthy cause. I began a volunteer program for students at a local high school.

 

It began when a teacher who offers a creative writing class at the school contacted my writers group. Several of her students wanted to pursue writing, either as a passion or a career path. However, they needed guidance and she asked if we could help.

 

I took the helm and gathered several writers, all published authors with years of experience, to begin a mentor program. Students in the class send us pages to critique and we supply feedback, guidance, and (I hope) encouragement. We began the program with a class presentation, where each of the volunteers had seven minutes to discuss some aspect of writing. I will share my contribution with you:

 

 

 

Miko Johnston: THREE HABITS ALL WRITERS MUST DEVELOP

Writers may differ in how and what they write, but most will agree to that be successful, all writers must know some basic principles. Here are three key ones:

 

I           Develop the writing habit:

Write and keep writing. Too often, writers will get a few pages or a chapter written and then go back and tweak them, over and over, until they have it ‘right.’ Or they’ll stare at a blank page, waiting for inspiration. Resist the temptation. Keep going, even if it isn’t perfect, or brilliant. Even if it isn’t good. Things may change as you progress in the story, but you won’t know that until you have more, or all of it, written. It’s why many writers begin with a ‘vomit’ draft, where you get it all out now and clean it up later. Remember: it doesn’t matter what you start out with, only what you’ve got when you’re finished. That’s what rewriting is all about. Develop the writing habit and practice it regularly. Finish what you’ve started, then begin again.

 

 

II         Develop the grammar habit:

Master the rules of writing. Learn how to use grammar and punctuation, because once you do, you can consciously break the rules without it seeming like you don’t know what you’re doing. To learn how todo it right, get a dictionary, thesaurus, and style guide.Then pick a style, any style, and stick to it. There are many ‘right’ ways to write. You can debate over whether to write 2017 or twenty seventeen, if a comma is needed after the next-to-last word in a list, or whether next to last should be hyphenated. For example, the current trend is to leave out commas except when they’re needed to make the point clear (“Time to eat, Dad” vs. “Time to eat Dad”) or put a pause in a sentence. Which style you use matters less than whether you’re consistent about it.

 

 

III        Develop the fearless habit:

There’s a tendency to keep your work private. However, you won’t know how people will react to your work unless you have the courage to share it with them. Join a critique group or find like-minded writers to form your own group. Meet with people who’ll read your work and offer genuine critique, which is different from criticism. You will do the same with their writing. You’ll be amazed at how much you will learn from evaluating others’ work. If you’re reluctant or afraid to show your work to others, don’t be. You might think that having someone read your work and tell you it’s bad would be the worst thing to hear, and you’re right. However, it’s not because their comment is hurtful, but unhelpful. What’s bad about it? If someone can point out what isn’t working in your story, and how to fix it, that isn’t negative. As for useless comments like, “It stinks”, ignore them.

 

     ****                                       *******                                    ****

 

It’s been such a pleasure working with these students. They’re anxious to learn and receptive to our feedback. I can see marked improvement in their work already. We’re on summer hiatus now, but all of my volunteers are looking forward to resuming the program this fall. A few of the students have real potential. Perhaps in the future, after they’ve been published, some of them will pay it forward and help a new generation of young writers.

 

If any of you are interested in starting a mentorship program for young writers, there are many opportunities to help in your community. Check with your local public or private schools. Community organizations like the Boys And Girls Clubs, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and other youth groups might welcome your help as well. You’ll be amazed by how much you’ll learn through teaching others.

 

You’re welcome to contact me at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com for more information.

 

 

Miko Johnston first contemplated a career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from New York University, she headed west to pursue a career as a television and print journalist before deciding she preferred the more believable realm of fiction. She is the author of the A Petal in the Wind series as well as several short stories. Miko is currently working on the fourth Petal novel as well as a mystery set in a library. Contact her at: mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

YOU CAN’T EAT A BOOK, BUT…. By Miko Johnston

Spring has finally arrived. The season of renewal. Rebirth. Intensive house cleaning. Today I’m cleaning out the attic, a.k.a. my brain. Feel free to take what you want from the pile. 

I’ve been so impressed with my fellow WinRs. Jackie Houchin bravely entering the world of book publishing. Jill Amadeo sacrificing personal glory to ghostwrite someone else’s story. Gayle’s generosity in sharing her excellent writing tips. Linda’s encouraging words about writers’ groups. Then there’s Rosemary’s wonderful “Yak Shavings” and the heartfelt way she shares her life with readers. And Madeline’s musings on writing always inspire me.

In fact, Madeline’s recent post sparked an idea, which I promise I’ll get to eventually. I’m about to lose the cooking channel from my cable subscription, so I’ve been semi-binging on my favorite competition shows. I often hear contestants stress the importance of passion in cooking. To me, passion is fine, even helpful if you want to work in the food industry, but it doesn’t make the cut for the top three criteria of a good cook. I’ve known plenty of people who are passionate about cooking and aren’t very good at it, while others who have no passion for it are quite good.

In my opinion, the three most important qualities needed to be a good cook are:

1 – An understanding of the ingredients. Anyone can go into a store and buy food, whether an apple or a piece of fish. Knowing how to distinguish quality, and which variety will be best for its intended purpose, is the beginning of good cooking.

2 – A knowledge of cooking techniques. You can start with good ingredients, but they’ll be wasted if you don’t know what to do with them. Knowing how to use those ingredients, season and prepare them, is fundamental. This knowledge can often salvage less than pristine ingredients, like that fish you forgot about for a few days.

3 – (This may be the most important of all, although I never hear it mentioned.) You have to eat good food. Good food doesn’t necessarily mean haute cuisine or the latest “it” dish. It can be burgers, branzino, or blini. It’s food that’s prepared with skill and care, whether in a Michelin starred restaurant, the corner diner, or Grandma’s kitchen.

Which brings me back to Madeline’s post about reading books by great authors and learning from them. If you’ve read my earlier posts, you know I’ve frequently recommended re-reading the authors who’ve inspired you to write, writers whom you’d like to emulate. It bears a similarity to sitting down to a great meal in a restaurant, or watching a talented chef prepare a dish on TV. You learn from theirskill and care. Like cooking, writing requires the same three qualities: an understanding of the ‘ingredients’ that make a good story, a knowledge of the techniques of good writing, and most importantly, reading good books. Much like eating a fine meal inspires us to cook something wonderful, reading a superbly written book or re-reading one by an author we admire, to paraphrase Madeline, teaches, inspires, and rejuvenates us.

Yum.

 

Miko first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from New York University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. She is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, including recently released Book III – The Great War .  Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington.