Reading and Writing – The Basics by Kate Thornton

Kate Thornton is a retired US Army officer who enjoys writing both mysteries and science fiction. With over 100 short stories in print, she teaches a short story class and is currently working on a series of romantic suspense novels. She divides her time between Southern California and Tucson, Arizona

Reading and writing. I have been doing both.

It has always been a firm belief of mine that you can’t write – or write well, anyway – if you don’t read. And I’m not talking about magazines – c’mon, people, we all read magazines, if only while waiting at the checkout counter (although 2 of my regular supermarkets now have TV for the attention-impaired, 5 second snippets of shows and commercials.) I do not discount this type of reading; I publish in magazines and do not bite the hand that at least pats me on the head. But magazines are very thin picture books, meant to give your mind a jumpstart or a tweak, not to give you hours of transportation to a completely other world.

The difference between books and magazines (or newspapers or blogs or the Huffington Post) is not exactly the same as the difference between People Magazine and actual people, but it is nonetheless great.

So when I say I have been reading, I mean books. It sort of goes without saying that I read magazines, online posts, news, cereal boxes, tee shirts, bumper stickers, the mail, and just about anything with printed words.

I have my favorite genre fiction – it runs from James Lee Burke, Dean Koontz, and Louise Penney on one side to Earl Derr Biggers, Arthur Upfield and Ngaio Marsh on another and Sue Ann Jaffarian, Jeff Sharrat and Taffy Cannon on yet another – it’s a multi-sided construct. But I love classic fiction as well. I learn from it, the easy way, while being entertained, enthralled, whisked away, and fed on rich things.

I have a dear friend who just discovered the joys of a Kindle and is reading Willa Cather. Now that’s reading. This same friend just finished Faulkner (the hard, difficult, rip your eyes out Faulkner of Light in August) in hardcover, so she’s no stranger to the type of reading that sometimes takes you to places you would never allow yourself to be taken otherwise. But she enjoys going to the good, kind places, too.

Which brings me to writing. If you don’t take the trips to places through reading, I don’t see where you can buy your ticket to take others to places through your writing. It is one of only two ways I know to learn how to write, and they are both connected. The other half of it is actually writing, the BIC (Butt In Chair) method.

This week I have been reading both fiction and non-fiction – and writing.

I have completed that same novel I started writing in late 2007. I confess I let it sit for several years due to plot holes, but I have since learned how to knit up the raveled sleeve of a couple of good ideas strung together with engaging characters, an endearing puppy dog and a couple of gruesome murders. What’s not to love? And working on it this time around was a pleasure, not a chore.

I also discovered – by reading through it and looking ahead to the satisfying conclusion that it is not the mystery I thought it would be, but is an animal I have not before tamed, namely Romantic Suspense.

So I have begun to read in that genre. And it’s fun. I am enjoying and learning and reading it all with a delight I before had reserved only for mystery, science fiction and certain favorite classics.

So my question is:

Which romantic suspense authors do you like? Recommend a few books to me as I reach the end of my own.

Fun with Writing by Miko Johnston

MikoJ Photo1Miko Johnston is the author of A Petal in the Wind and the newly released A Petal in the Wind II: Lala Hafstein.

She first 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 Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon.

Fun with Writing

Have you ever read a book that got you scratching your head and wondering, how did this mess ever get published? Perhaps the story started out great, then took a turn for the worse. Maybe at some point it read like a different author took over. Or the book was laughably awful from Once upon a time, but since you’ve always liked the author you stuck with it through the equally bad they lived happily ever after. This has happened to me too often, so I want my revenge!

Thanks to the inspiration of these bad novels, here’s a few writing exercises you can do on your own or with your writer’s group that will not only help sharpen your writing skills, but may provide a few giggles and even a groan or two.


First, find a truly awful book. Unfortunately, it’s not that hard, but if you’re stumped, pick a genre and Google: worst (publisher) ever, or just: worst (genre) book ever and see what comes up. (Hint: I tried this using a well-known publishing company; their name is synonymous with Romance, though ironically, a synonym for ‘clown’.)

Then find a few paragraphs, a page or a short scene in the book that stands out as excruciating. Look beyond mistakes like spelling or grammar, you want prose you need a steak knife to cut through, or a decoder to comprehend. Now here’s the hard part. Read it a few times to determine exactly why it’s so awful – awkward phrasing, clunky dialog, too much or too little description – and try not to laugh. That might be the hardest part.

Then rewrite the passage in a way you think improves the work. You’re not looking to change the story, but to make it comprehensible and entertaining, introduce what’s missing – tension, clarity, recognizably human behavior.

You can do this exercise on your own, but it’s especially fun to do with other writers. Then once everyone finishes laughing over the original version, they can compare notes and see how each one reinterpreted the dreadful pages.


Take a page (pun intended) from the many ‘bad fiction’ contests: redirect your masterful literary skill and write the worst line of fiction ever. Mind you, this is not about bad grammar or a weak concept. This is about truly pathetic prose. Skip piecemeal and terse; instead, head directly for convoluted and illogical, but in a funny way. Challenge your writer friends to join you and then compare. If you need inspiration, review the first paragraph of BOOK DOCTOR above.



The classic Japanese movie tells a story from the point of view of several characters. If you are part of a writers group and would like a fun exercise, try this:

Select a well-known historical incident, or find a story reported in the news, one that involves multiple individuals, such as a crime. Establish the story in the omniscient point of view – just the facts, so to speak. Then assign a character to each writer, who then tells the story from that person’s perspective. If any of the characters intersect, then the writers documenting their stories can work together to create those scenes. If you’re feeling extra-creative, make up your own story. Afterward, read all the individual accounts and see how well they link together, and how much they may differ.


Remember the old game of telephone, when you whispered a story to someone and then they whispered it to the next person, and so on? By the end of the line, the story usually bore little resemblance to how it began.

I once belonged to a writers group that decided to produce a novel this way. They came up with a basic premise, really an idea to launch the story. Then one member wrote the opening chapter and passed it along to another writer, who created chapter two. By the end of the book, the story had emerged in an unusual way. The writers found the challenge of following and continuing the threads already written to be intriguing, but very challenging. They chose a science fiction genre, which allowed a degree of latitude in creating each successive chapter.

Although their book followed a linear storyline, it might be easier to create an episodic novel, similar to TV shows like “Route 66” or “Highway to Heaven”. If you try this, I would recommend selecting one genre and sticking to it. If dragons or flying saucers appear in the middle of your contemporary political thriller, it may get chosen for the next BOOK DOCTOR.

* * *

Tell us of your experiences with these or similar writing projects.

Column Writing Pros and Cons 
by Jackie Houchin
Column Writing sounds so, well, so glamorous to me – a daily, weekly, or monthly byline with a headshot. Readers loving me, looking forward to my next article, writing to me… Head swelling stuff for sure.
Unlike the other gals on this blog, I’m not a novelist. I’ve attempted writing short stories and had ONE flash story published, but the whole… character arc, rising and falling action, three act structure, dying-to-self climax… I just can’t get it all to work.  Maybe that’s why I got into the newspaper writing and book reviewing business. Telling someone else’s story – now THAT I can do. 
My first book review was published in a local “rag” (The Foothills Paper) with the greatest of ease.  The editor asked for another review, and then started sending me out as a “cub reporter” covering local events, writing human interest stories, and doing local business profiles.  I loved seeing what was happening around town, “shooting” dignitaries, writing it all up. My favorite was interviewing people and telling their stories. (See my “Interview Techniques” on this blog
My words and photos, in print every week. It’s a real high. Give me a press card, an assignment, a Wednesday deadline and I was in writer-heaven. I’ll admit, I got a bit “cocky” when I started getting front page and multi-part stories. That’s when I began to wonder…could I segue from a “stringer” into a columnist?  What would it be like to have my own permanent spot on page three?
It was then I happened on *Lydia E. Harris’ article, “Is Column Writing for You?” What I learned from it made me decide to… well, let me share her wisdom first.  She asked NINE questions to consider before taking the leap.  I’ll list them, and show how I came to my “final decision.”
1. Do you have an idea for a column TOPIC?  She told us to consider our profession, hobbies, life experiences.
I had several I could choose from: aspects of writing, photography, horse keeping, Bible commentary. A “Dear Abby” type column would be fun, but who was I to tell other people how to solve their problems? I had to look at each idea closely and see if I could generate an ongoing column from any of them. (Kind of slim, I had to admit.)
2. How will the commitment impact your family? Do you have TIME to take on a new, ongoing writing assignment?
As I chewed on my cheek, I looked at the things in my life that might have to be set aside. Of course that depended on how often my column would appear, wouldn’t it?
3. Is money an issue?
I hadn’t considered money much. Sure I got paid for the stories and photos that ran in the newspaper, but would a column garner more money? Any money? (Note to self: check this out.)
4. Can you accept criticism from readers? If your writing is controversial, you may receive negative feedback.
Eek!  No, I’m not good with criticism.  But wouldn’t my column be “nice” and safe?  I’d been expecting “atta-girl” letters, not confrontations. (I looked over my possible topics list and crossed off Bible commentary.)  I also had to consider the fact that my newspaper editor DID thrive on controversy and heated letters exchanged. Would he allow me a cute little column? (Um… nope.)
5. WHY do you want to write a column? Is it to share your expertise, shape lives, develop credentials? Do you want a built-in writing market? Do you want to gain recognition and build a platform?
These questions were getting harder.  Did I really have “expertise” on any of my topic ideas? How would tips on horse keeping shape people’s lives? How about name recognition? I already had that with my weekly stories and photos.  (Note to self: develop MORE topic ideas!)
6. Are you good at generating ongoing ideas for your topic? (Here she gave a short challenge: Pick a topic that interests you and quickly list 10-20 column ideas.)
Um… how about two?
7. Are you motivated to complete columns regularly and meet deadlines?
Deadlines were not a problem. I did my best writing when I was coming down to the wire on a midnight deadline. But, what if I couldn’t come up with enough ideas on my column topic?  Would I get bored? Get sloppy? Want to quit quickly?  Would I let the editor and the readers – my dear sweet readers – down?  
8. How often would you want to write a column?
The stars in my eyes were quite dim by now. I wasn’t sure I could do this column writing thing.  The vision of a fascinating and well-read weekly column was fading into the mist. Writing it seemed like climbing Mount Everest. Or a prison I’d be locked into for the rest…of…my…life. 
Her last question was a hum-dinger.
9. SHOULD you write a column? It depends on how you answered the above questions. If you have something to say, can say it well, and find a market, then the answer is probably yes.
Sadly disillusioned, I had to admit my answer was “no.” I was a cub reporter, a stringer, for a rag newspaper, in search of that great investigative story that would win me a Pulitzer!  (Okay, maybe not that!)
But she continued with a bit more advice if your answer was “yes.”
1. Carefully select a title for your column. If possible make your title distinctive by including your name in it.
2. To find a market, start with a local publication and prepare several sample columns. Submit them with a proposal and cover letter to introduce yourself and the need for the column. (Don’t discuss pay!)
I retired from newspaper writing when I moved south to Orange County four years ago. I never attempted to write a column, but I did have my own News Website for some years, and now I write on three blogs; THIS ONE, my eclectic “Here’s How it Happened” ( and my “Morning Meditations; Beginning the Day in God’s Word” ( ).
Hey… a blog is a column of sorts, right?

* “Is Column Writing for You?” by Lydia E. Harris, Christian Communicator, September, 2011

For Better or Worse – Married to a Writer by GB Pool

For Better or Worse
Before I married my husband, I told him all I wanted to do in life was write. I wanted to make sure he didn’t mind being married to a writer. Richard wouldn’t have cared if I said I wanted to wrestle alligators. He just wanted to get married. Neither one of us was getting any younger.

           So we married. It will be 30 years this coming New Years Eve. And I have written many books. Fifteen have hit the presses and I am doing what I said I wanted, but I also signed on as wife, and that has obligations, too.

It was only six years into our marriage when it became possible for me to retire and write full-time. No longer were we sharing the chores and the cooking after work. Now Richard earned the paycheck; I was “housewife/writer.” No matter what they tell you, writing doesn’t pay all the bills for most of us pen-pushers.
I have to admit, the house was cleaner when I had a full-time job. I also wasn’t doing any writing then. I kept the homestead ship-shape and took pride in a sparkling kitchen and dust-free zones. Now there are dust bunnies the size of gorillashiding under the bed and there are areas of the house I haven’t touched in years.
But I do try to put hot meals on the table, though more than once the center of the re-heated beans is still cold or the three-day-old chicken is a tad tough. I do wash and iron the clothes, even the permanent press. I want to send Richard off to work looking terrific.
I used to do this all on Friday. It was a solid seven or eight hour day. I started to dread Thursday evening knowing what loomed ahead of me the next day.
My brilliant husband suggested I split up the work week. So a few hours Monday, Thursday and Friday gets it all done. I am finished before noon every workday and have two entirely free days in the middle of the week when I am working on a writing project.

The schedule works, though I do dread Wednesday evenings knowing “cleaning day” is coming, but I get over it quicker. And it is the right thing to do. I also make a point of listening when Richard has a bad day or a good day or an average day at the office because he is giving me what I wanted – time to write. If he wants to head off to the hardware store or Big 5 Sporting Goods or Office Depot, he asks me to go with him and I do. The fact he still wants my company means more to me than the hour or two I might lose at the computer.
I have spent these many years not only writing, but building doll houses and making other miniatures and painting. My artwork is everywhere. I tried to leave the living room as strictly his space for his various radios and books. And I give him space to do his own thing in the garage.

My point in writing this blog post is to let other writers know they, too, have an obligation to their spouse or family and pets, even their friends, to give a little of themselves while doing what they want to do. You have to be true to yourself, but you aren’t alone out there and having friends and family to share your dreams and accomplishments is an integral part of life.
Richard and I signed on to that agreement nearly thirty years ago when we said, “I do.” I am thankful every single day that he had no idea what he was getting into. I guess this is sort of a Valentine to my guy. Thanks for believing in me, RJ.

The Time, the Place, and the Story by G.B. Pool

The Time, the Place, and the Story
As a writer, I am often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” I have to tell them ideas fall out of the sky into neat little baskets, neatly typed out… Who believes that? Nobody. But ideas do come out of the blue or sometimes from a newspaper article or maybe while driving to work or maybe right before you fall asleep.
I remember watching a movie once and as I usually do, I was trying to guess where the movie was going. My idea ended up not being anything like the movie, so I wrote my own story. It turned into Eddie Buick’s Last Case.  

One of my fellow Writers-in-Residence members, Jackie Houchin, used to write for our local newspaper. She did an article about the dam near us. Jackie took some great pictures of that eerie place before they retrofitted it. One of those pictures now graces the cover of Damning Evidence, a book about a local dam and murders that happen around it and my private detective, Gin Caulfield, who deals with that problem in the third book in the series.

See, ideas do come from lots of places.
Now it’s the Christmas Season. There are a lot of holiday books out there… and movies, too. I have seen most of the movies and read a lot of the holiday stories. I’m what you call a “holiday-aholic.” I collect Santas. 3500 and counting to be exact. I knew someday I would write a Christmas story, but about what?
I didn’t want to write a children’s story with twenty pages and big drawings. I wanted one that grownups would like. And not a retelling of A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s been done and frankly, I like the original versions just the way they are.
Several years ago I was walking through the Glendale Galleria here in California just as the stores had finished decking themselves out in tinsel and holly. I heard someone singing. He was using a microphone. The guy had a great voice. And he was wearing a Santa Claus suit. An idea exploded in my head as I stood there listening to him.
Now for a location. I might not live in Las Vegas, but I went to my 30th high school reunion there. I went to a boarding school in France for children of American military personnel and Vegas was a nice central location for us military brats. And what better place to locate my guy than in a place with one heck of a reputation.
Frankie Madison isn’t a big-time singer, so I put him in an out-of-the-way dive off the Strip. He loses his job, but his agent, who runs an employment agency, not a talent agency, gets him a gig singing Sinatra songs in another dive. It doesn’t go well. Then Frankie gets hit by a taxi. The driver is going to play an important part in the singer’s life.
Then Frankie’s agent calls. The only job left in town during the holidays is at the mall. What kind of singing gig is there in a mall? And he has to wear this suit… a red suit… a Santa Claus suit, but he can sing if he wants. And he does.
Frankie gets noticed by the female clerks in nearby shops and they like his voice. So does a young girl in a wheelchair. She loves Santa. And her father is a BIG TALENT AGENT.
Frankie finally gets another chance to sing, but this time it isn’t what he expects… it’s worse. And there is another problem. As Santa, he makes a promise to the young girl. And he makes another promise to the big talent agent as the struggling singer he really is. But this is his BIG CHANCE. Maybe his last chance. What does a guy do on Christmas Eve? And remember… this isn’t a kid’s fairy tale… or is it?
The Santa Claus Singer was my first Christmas story, but not my only one.
When I first moved to California many years ago, I worked in a miniature store where we sold dollhouses and we also had a holiday room filled with decorations for each season. During Christmas, I was surrounded by Santas and decorations and holiday magic. I came up with an idea for a story about a Polar bear. I drew up plans for a Santa castle where he and Santa live. Years later I wrote the story, Bearnard’s Christmas, then I had to build the castle…

   And make all the characters who live there…
You see how this happens? You get an idea and it carries you away. So whenever you wonder where writers get their ideas, just look around. Ideas are everywhere. A very Merry Christmas to you all.

Hodge Podge – Google, Weather, and Promotions

 Madeline (M.M.) Gornell is the author of six award-winning mystery novels. Her current literary focus is Route 66 as it traverses California’s Mojave Desert. Madeline is a lifetime lover of mysteries, and besides reading and writing, is also a potter. She lives with her husband and assorted canines in the High Desert. For more information, visit her website or Amazon Author Page.

The original title of this post was “This ‘n That,” then I went for “Hodge Podge” and found out in its definition there’s something called “salmagundi.” Who knew!

Then of course, I spent half an hour or so wandering around Google following tidbit to tidbit, instead of writing this post, updating my blog, or working on my next novel. Which oddly enough takes me to my cousin Frank, a wonderful song writer among many things, and we were sharing on the phone how much we like books—the look, the feel, the smell of them. We also like reading them (smile)—from there he wandered back to the days way back when he was writing his thesis, and searching though card catalogues, and library shelves. Which finally takes me to the point of this long paragraph. For me, Google (and equivalent search engines) are great for adding details that bring richness, color, and depth to settings and character personalities–without the time and energy needed at the library (though still close to my heart!). An example for me is doing the research for the fancy accouterments for one of my character’s idealized sports car driving experience/fantasy. I.e, Italian driving-shoes, driving-gloves, hat, etc. Was that fun! And I traveled the sports-car road without leaving my desk chair. Downside, for awhile there, a lot of driving-glove ads seemed to appear from nowhere on my various site visits…
We live way out in California’s High-Desert, and coming most recently from Washington’s Puget Sound, one of the attractions for us was sunny dry-heat weather. Well, this last summer dripped with humidity. And I hadn’t really comprehended how my writing was being affected. No energy, slow moving, brain-dullness. Indeed, I was a little worried, then it cooled off and dried up for a few days, and I felt a surge in mental acuity. So, the point of this piece of Hodge Podge is, if you run out of excuses why you haven’t finished your latest—blame the weather. Which takes me to setting (which includes weather) and what a powerful tool the weather can be for taking the reader there, action enabler or inhibitor, and character motivator.
Then there’s the “P” word, promotions. In my last post I cavalierly said I’d talk about my birthday revelations on the topic. I tried to tell myself I really liked doing all the P-word stuff, and for awhile it was definitely fun. Especially the part of meeting, engaging, and connecting with new people, mostly readers and authors. That part was lovely. (And I really enjoy talking to readers and authors on a one to one or small group situation, and even signings and promoting their books.) But talking about myself, saying what a great book I just published, all of that remains distasteful—but necessary sometimes–I’ve slowly learned. And I kept telling myself, I would gradually embrace, and get better. However, to this day, I haven’t embraced, nor gotten better. Bottom line that I finally accepted and internalized this last birthday was–I still do not like doing promotions—regardless of the necessity of doing them. So what does that leave me with? Books that aren’t best sellers, and a name only known by a few.
So can I say, so be it? I don’t know that answer yet. I do think though, that finally embracing the truth, has made me feel a lot better. And no, I do not have a marketing plan for my next title (smile). And my point in this last post segment is: The truth about your writing-self is sometimes not easy to figure out or accept, and once you do, what do you do then?
And my super bottom line point to this Hodge Podge rambling is, the writing life has all kind of paths, with crooks, and turns, and switch backs. And determining if you want to go to a certain place, then figuring out the best route, “ain’t”[i] easy.

[i]Reading Elizabeth Daly’s Henry Gamadge series and as was the convention then—“ain’t” keeps appearing.—annoyingly to my ear, but the word takes you right there to that period!

Another New Year’s Day by M.M. Gornell

Madeline (M.M.) Gornell is the author of six award-winning mystery novels. Her current literary focus is Route 66 as it traverses California’s Mojave Desert. Madeline is a lifetime lover of mysteries, and besides reading and writing, is also a potter. She lives with her husband and assorted canines in the High Desert. For more information, visit her website or Amazon Author Page.

Another New Year’s Day

Had a birthday not too long ago—my marker for beginning a year, not January 1st. A day for assessment and commitment (more often than not, re-commitment!). And Writing, these years, is the first item on the dreaded list. And even with all the time that’s accumulated behind me, instead of stretching endlessly ahead of me, it’s a constant yearly amazement why I haven’t figured certain things out a long time ago. A New Year for me, means a lot of “should have known” head-scratching.
This year, number one, was my dissatisfaction with where I am writing-wise, and promotions wise. On the Writing-front, “No more excuses,” I’m telling myself on B-day, I have to physically write more.
Should be spending more time writing. Deciding that was easy. So far, writing one book a year is not enough. But trying to figure out when, how, where—all those little niggling details are the hard part. So, after my New Year’s Day introspection, I was whining to a friend about how I’m flitting around not writing, who in response looked at me like I was crazy, then said, “You’re always writing. What are you talking about?”
She pointed out things like: I’m constantly picking-up unusual people and place names, also asking details about places and people no one else would bother with, and saying things like, “What a place for a murder?” or “I wonder why that happened?” or “What else was going on then?” or “Where you around when?” etc. She also most candidly offered, I spend a lot of time “listening” in a particular way. I stopped there—too much personal insight. I didn’t want to know in detail what particular meant. She also offered, “I bet you wake up thinking about writing, and go to sleep thinking about writing.” Guilty as charged.
So why am I publicly sharing all this B-day stuff? When I first sat down to write this post, I was thinking maybe it would be a help to anyone else struggling with the question of not enough dedicated computer or pen-to-paper time. I.e., 1000 words a day, or 3 pages a day, or, or… Plenty of thresholds out there to claim as your own. But now as I’m wrapping up this B-day meandering, I realize it’s because I wanted to share an important insight I finallyinternalized. Knowing about my writing, knowing about me even, isn’t an exclusively inside-to-outside progression kind of thing.
The looking glass needs to talk back. And I don’t mean writing critique groups—something more encompassing I can’t fully articulate yet. But hoping you get the point. Writing is a great adventure—made even better with a few road signs. Feeling pretty lucky I have some people in my life who’ll tell me the truth. But I don’t think we can always count on that, so here’s a nugget to be taken away. Occasionally step back, then look in.
And for my “writing more” resolution. Decided I’m just fine. Ha! However, I did make some promotions resolutions; but they can keep until the next time I’m up.

Poetry in E-motion 
by Jackie Houchin

Jackie is a retired photo-journalist, a book reviewer and blogger. She loves to travel, to read (of course), and has a favorite, very intelligent cat named Story (what else?). She is involved in her church ministries for children and the elderly and admits to being a “sinner saved by God’s grace.”
Several years ago I took a creative writing class at Glendale Community College, hoping to develop my skills in fiction writing. I was disappointed to discover in the first ten minutes of class that the instructor, Bart Edelman was a poet and that poetry would be the main thrust of the class. 
I confess I’m not a fan of poetry, perhaps because I don’t know how to write it or read it.  Rhyming verse, as in hymns, ballads and old Rock ‘n Roll songs, is fun, understandable, and easy, but all that “free verse stuff” (often without punctuation and capitalization) seems like words scattered on the page without thought or purpose.
I considered dropping the class, but in the end, I decided to endure. Maybe I would learn something.
Mr. Edelman soon had us learning about the types of poems – Italian, Elizabethan and Shakespearean sonnets, haiku, tercets, ballads and such. We reviewed meter, construction, and how to “cheat” by contracting words.
In each session our homework assignment was to write a poem to the exact standard we’d learned, submitting all our notes and scribblings to show our process. I picked up a couple books on rhyming words and grudgingly got to work.
Surprisingly I began to enjoy the task. I’ve always been a lover of words, and to see them coming together from the hidden recesses of my mind to form beauty and sense amazed me. I saw character, setting, description, even dialogue. Huh! And I found that as I wrote the poem, hidden emotions – hurt, anger, sorrow – came out on the paper. I read it and had to acknowledge the truth I’d written. Whoa!
Edelman made me rewrite that first poem titled “Change of Face” four times, but in the end I got an “A-” on it.  
Sonnets with their strict meter and line placements appealed to me.  And again, as I wrote and rewrote lines and thoughts, the beauty of the words amazed me. Humor and entendre also surfaced. Wow!
I wrote a sonnet about my work as a photographer of civic light opera productions, titled “Drama, Focused and Exposed.” Can you guess the three Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals?
In gauzy fog beneath the ancient stage,
The masquerading maestro longed to own
Christine, his light and life.  But now in rage
He damns his love.  She’s gone and he’s alone.
A requiem, a funeral most grim.
But Argentina’s eyes must cry no more.
A comet flaring fast then growing dim,
A queen, a saint, belov’d, adored… a whore.
The chosen son – among his brothers loathed –
In rainbow hues paraded, dreamed, advised.
From Potiphar and prison cell, unclothed;
He rose like worshipped sun, adorned and prized.
These images through lens; my claim to fame!
With help, of course, from the Sir-What’s-His-Name.
I wrote a Terza Rima Tercet titled “Rude Awakenings” which came from some deep emotions of disappointment, danger, and disillusionment.
A candy bar, a car; his tools to stalk
A sweet young girl. She smiles and reaches…“No!”
They cry, “With strangers you must never talk!”
A tender boy, experimenting, slow.
(He loves me true. He’ll marry me. He will!)
A plunge; I cry!  He smiles and leaves. I know.
An angry boy, a son not mine, but still
I welcome him and offer help and love.
Rejection. Threats! Then me, he tries to kill.
Apologies, in recognition of
his infidelities, to her he brings,
And candy too, and gems…but not his love.
The final day, collecting all his things.
“We’re downsizing,” they’d said. “Now take a walk.”
“Oh… here’s a watch for your retiring.”
When we came to Haiku – those weird 5 – 7 – 5 syllable lines – I wrote about a 65 year old memory of my father’s death titled, “Daddy’s Demise.” I actually remember reaching on tiptoes into the casket and touching his cold hard hand.
Fatherless daughter
On tiptoes views him, reaches—
touches death’s cold hand.
Tears of grief squeezing
From a child’s eyes; bitter juice
pressed from unripe fruit.
Clods of earth; humans
Long returned to dust, welcome
box and body home.
Autumn’s crimson leaves
Drip like blood, blanketing earth—
Quilts warming the dead.
Like evening tides
eroding sand castles; life
fades from memory.
Okay, I know that was sad!  I also wrote a 35 line ballad based on the colorful life of someone I knew – but I won’t include that here.  I had SUCH fun with that one!
The poem – an Italian sonnet – I am most proud of, which was also included in the college literature book that year, tells of my personal emotions about my boys growing up and leaving. It’s titled “Empty Nest.”
Flown far from home my offspring; eagles now,
Were embryos and hatchlings; homely, plain,
Then fledglings yearning for the sky.  “Unchain
Us Mom,” they begged, then fled my homey bough.
First came the empty chairs at meals, (Oh, how
I missed their narratives of pain and gain!)
Then girls arrived, and cars and wives to claim
My boys.  Now men, with rows their own to plow.
But all’s not lost.  There’s peace and calm once more,
And rooms reclaimed and far less work to do.
There’s time for hobbies, gardens and decor.
And wives become new daughters. Furthermore,
There’re children, grand and great, and one more due.
Returned; the progeny of those I bore.
I got A’s on all these poems, often with an “excellent!” following. I thought I’d aced the class with a solid “A,” then Edelman pulled me aside. He couldn’t give me an A in class, he said, unless I wrote a free-form poem.
Ugh!  Just when I had begun enjoying the form and beauty of constructed verse, I had to let it go, throw words willy-nilly on the page and hope they passed the test.
For inspiration our instructor showed a film in class about a young Jewish boy hidden in a Swiss school during Hitler’s reign of terror. Goose-stepping soldiers eventually found him and…. well, the atrocities I saw burned in me and eventually came out on paper in my poem titled, “Reparations.”
Perhaps it’s not the free verse poem Edelman expected, but I noticed he cringed and squeezed his legs together as he read it. Raw emotion, unrestricted by order and form can be strangely cathartic.
Shall I include it here?  I might get some backlash. Oh well, here goes.
Kill them slowly…
Murderous bastards,
all of them arrogant
in their Aryan race and place.
Kill them slowly…
Blue-eyed scum
coldly wrenching gold teeth
from bloody gums, greedily.
Kill them slowly…
Golden haired giants
gleefully blackening bodies
and bones of boys and girls.
Torture them, burn them,
peel skin from their backs!
Torment them, rape them,
rip babies from their bellies!
Pluck out their eyes
and teeth and hair and nails.
Castrate them! Punish them!
Oh, God! 
Forgive them slowly…
In their quest for purity,
they exterminated the brilliant and the wise.
In their depravity, they left the world
bereft of light and art and grace.
In looking for the “solution”
they sacrificed the sanctified;
the chosen ones…
Abraham’s race.
Emotion, controlled in strict style or released just as it comes out, enriches writing in all genres. I still don’t write poetry as a rule, but the thing I learned is that beautiful (or terrible) images and emotions revealed in words is the substance of  good writing.
I got that “A” in the class. I even got the job of taking Edelman’s author photo for the back cover of his book of poetry. (I made him look pretty good.)

Looking for Meaning by Gayle Bartos-Pool

A former private detective and reporter for a small weekly newspaper, G.B.Pool writes the Johnny Casino Casebook Series and the Gin Caulfield P.I. Mysteries. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line.” For more information about Gayle, visit her website!

For the past several months I have written blogs on the 5 Elements of a Story as outlined by Aristotle in The Poetics. Mine weren’t deep, philosophical discussions. They were just good, solid writing tips and techniques. So far we have covered Plot, Character, Setting, and Dialogue. Each of these is an integral aspect of a good story.

Without Plot, you have your annual Christmas letter. Without Character, you have a travel guide. Without Setting, you have an essay. And without Dialogue, you don’t have much reality to your story.

The final element is Meaning. Or: “What is the point to your story?” If you don’t have a point, why write the story? You might think the plot is the meaning, but the plot is simply what characters do in a specific time and place, enhanced by what each character has to say about it.

The Meaning is a higher concept. It’s the theme. There aren’t all that many concepts out there: Man against Man. Man against Nature. Man against Machine, Man against Himself, Man against God. Even if you have a dog as your hero, it would be Dog against Man, Dog against Dog, or Dog against Nature or Machine. (God loves dogs so there wouldn’t be any conflict between them. Sorry, I digress.)

Any good western has a guy in a white hat battling a guy in a black hat. Even in good, old-fashioned detective tales you have man against man (hero against killer) or maybe it’s hero against femme fatale.

The new movie, Everest, has men battling that mountain. My latest book, Caverns, coming out in October, pits man against nature until the heroes realize the rats in the caves underneath the city of Chicago aren’t their biggest problem.

The silent movie, Modern Times, has man battling the machine age. Or how about 2001: A Space Odyssey when the human is trying to outsmart the computer. (Obviously in real modern times and the real future, now, every gadget used in a CSI TV show works, nobody’s cell phone ever loses a signal or runs out of battery power. But that would be a different story. Sorry… Again I digress.)

Then there is Man against Himself. This is often a psychological tale where the man is trying to find himself or save himself. The Days of Wine and Roses and The Lost Weekend pit an alcoholic against the bottle in his fist. Whether it’s alcohol, drugs, or maybe a nymphomaniac female and her cravings, they are each fighting a battle against their addiction. And since they are the only one in the room, it’s the character against himself or herself. Society really doesn’t have a place in that scenario.

There are tales of man (and I use the term facetiously in this case) against God as in The Screwtape Letters. The devil is definitely having his issues with God.

And as in some instances, the man or woman doesn’t have to win. The Tale of Two Cities ends with Sydney Carton walking to the gallows. The plot might lead him to Madame Guillotine, but it’s his self-sacrifice that takes him on his final journey and the ultimate meaning of the story.

It is up to the writer to find those obstacles against which his or her characters can struggle. The writer creates a character with traits that either defy and overcome the odds or succumbs to them, because in the final analysis all stories are really about man vs. himself. 

Can the hero triumph over his limitations? Will the hero find himself, his courage, and his soul in that struggle?

What is your story trying to say?  What are you trying to say?

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