Improve Your Introductions and Conclusions in Non-fiction Writing

by Jeanette F. Chaplin

I recently discovered I’m a cruciverbalist. It’s chronic, incurable, and inoperable. Don’t worry, it’s not contagious. But it’s probably terminal. And it has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of this blog post, which is the whole point.

The purpose of this somewhat puzzling introduction was to get your attention. Using a word that is probably unfamiliar is one way of doing that. I “hooked” you in one of two ways: either you didn’t know the word and read on to learn the meaning, or you know the term because you are one. In that case, you decided to keep reading to see what I have to say about a topic that already interests you. Or, I may have lost you while you left to look up the word.

For your enlightenment:

cruciverbalist [ kroo-suh-vur-buh-list ] noun.  a person skillful in creating or solving crossword puzzles

Two of the most challenging aspects of writing non-fiction are effectively introducing the topic and wrapping it up satisfactorily when you’re done. The trick is to find a natural and interesting way to lead into the topic in the beginning and close it off at the end.

Movies do this quite well. A classic example is The Princess Bride. The opening and closing scenes have nothing to do with the actual story (although some might challenge that statement). The well-meaning grandfather comes to read to his ailing grandson. After watching the story that’s enacted, the viewer is returned to the modern-day scene and Peter Falk excuses himself with, “As you wish.”

Using a narrator to tell the story can be useful, but it has been overdone and doesn’t lend itself too well to non-fiction. One way to make this “bookending” happen is to connect a seemingly unrelated idea with the theme of your essay, article, or blog post. Then weave it in seamlessly from beginning to end.

To accomplish this, come up with an idea, a concept, or premise that seems far removed from your topic, as I did with crossword puzzles and introductions and conclusions. Nothing is off limits: waterfalls, RV life, grandkids, politics. Well, maybe not politics.

Make a list or a cluster chart of your ideas and think of any connections between those random concepts and the topic of your essay or article. Let’s try waterfalls as an example. Waterfalls flow, they are refreshing, it may be difficult to reach them, they could present a danger, are challenging to cross, and they can be inspiring—or frightening. Those descriptions could apply to any number of topics. Do any of them spark a connection? If not, keep playing with ideas until you find a comparison that works. Brainstorming with a friend or family member may help.

So, back to my off-the-wall, totally irrelevant introduction. What connection could crossword puzzles possibly have to with writing non-fiction?

crossword-146860_960_720For one thing, both follow a very specific set of rules. Crosswords must be square, they contain a specific number of squares and answers, they must be symmetrical, and they can’t duplicate clues in the grid. Clues and answers must match grammatically. Puzzles must have a theme. Now we’re getting closer to something writers can relate to: themes and grammar. For crossword creators, that means their answers must support the theme. Writers, on the other hand, must develop a theme that carries readers logically from beginning to end. Do I even need to mention that writing should be grammatically correct?

Non-fiction also needs an attention-getting beginning and an introduction to the topic, which may include why it is important to the reader. The author has to explain the concept in a way that is understandable to the reader, preferably in an interesting way, and conclude with a reminder of what was discussed.

In the crossword puzzle, the creator may attempt to misdirect the solver to make it more challenging. In the really difficult puzzles, generally scheduled for Saturday, creators often turn to wordplay, slang, unusual punctuation, or the ultimate twist of the knife: heteronyms (words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciations and meaning, Polish and polish, for example). 1

But ultimately, the creator wants the solver to succeed. According to crossword expert David Kwong, a New York Times puzzle constructor, “A good enigmatist makes the solver feel smart.” 2

newspaper-news-media-spectacles-53209But solving a crossword puzzle is far removed from the experience of reading an article. The solver of the former is looking for entertainment and a challenge. The reader of the latter wants to be informed, inspired, or educated. Or, at times, to be entertained.

The crossword challenge ends when the cruciverbalist either a.) solves the complete puzzle unaided, b.)  resorts to subterfuge to find answers, or c.) tears it up and tosses it into the trash.

In written work, the writers’ goals are accomplished when they convey the ideas to the reader as clearly and convincingly as possible and possibly even stir them to action. A good ending helps to achieve the desired result.

A satisfying conclusion should in some way reflect the introduction. It can be a restatement, an echo, a contrasting statement, or an illustration of the point. Or as in our example in this blog post—a bookend. Which means, at this point, I’m expected to return to the original crossword puzzle illustration.

Just as puzzle solvers come to a crossword with certain expectations, so do readers. Construct your non-fiction writing to smoothly lead them into your topic, cover the main point clearly, and tie it up neatly at the end. Make your reader feel smart.

Unlike the crossword creator, your goal is not to bewilder or stump your reader. You want to skillfully lead them from the hook to the denouement. Directly from 1. Across to 31. Down.

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JFC_RomyBestSemi-retired college English and Spanish instructor. Self-publisher, editor, and entrepreneur. Jeanette has been writing, teaching, editing, mentoring, and publishing for the past four decades. Now she is available online to help writers around the world with their writing ventures.  When she’s not writing, she enjoys enjoys traveling to visit family and friends, especially her two grown daughters and her two young grandchildren.

Jeanette F. Chaplin, Ed.D.


Look for Jeanette Chaplin on Facebook, LinkedIn, & Twitter

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Chaplain-esque      https://chaplainesquethoughts.wordpress.com/

 

 

1 Amlen, Deb. “How to Solve The New York Times Crossword.” n.d. https://www.nytimes.com/guides/crosswords/how-to-solve-a-crossword-puzzle?module=inline

2 Kwong, David. “How to Create a Crossword Puzzle.” WIRED MASTERMINDS  S1  E3. n.d. https://youtu.be/aAqQnXHd7qk

 

This article was posted for Jeanette Chaplain by Jackie Houchin

Teaching Writing in Africa

Ah, the stories they tell!

IMG_0643MeTeachOn a recent short-term mission trip to Malawi for my church, I had the opportunity to teach Writing classes to two groups of home schooled MKs (Missionary Kids). These were children from American, Canadian and South African families. There were nine in the 3rd-4th grade group and seven in the 5th grade and up group.

Two years ago I taught most of these kids “How to Write A Short Story.” Their creations were marvelous, and in fact, I posted some of the stories on my blog, Here’s How It Happened. (See the mystery, “The Tay Diamond”,  the action-packed, “The Adventures of Timmy, the Squirrel”,  and the creepy, Twilight Zone-esque “The Mirror”)

IMG_1133Booklet coversAfter reviewing the stories and talking to the other home school teachers, we all agreed that the kids needed help in character development. The action was amazing; the worlds they created were vivid, but the heroes, helpers, and villains were flat and hard to imagine.

This would be my topic then. I prepared workbooks for each of the classes. We did some work in them in class, but there were “homework” assignments for them to do at home as well.

IMG_0645MeTeach Young classBefore I arrived I asked that the kids (both classes) bring the first several paragraphs of a story they had written to class. In class, I had them each read their paragraphs aloud.  There were Captain Jack, Commander of a Starship, twin girls named Peace and Harmony, and a 20-year old girl named Ella who wanted to become a princess (and a dozen others).

I asked the listening students how they “pictured” each of these characters. There was either confused silence or vague and differing descriptions.  I then asked the authors to describe how their characters looked in their own mind’s eye. They came up with a lot of colorful descriptions that were not in their stories. Suddenly they “got the picture,” and from there I showed them ways and examples of taking the images of their characters from their minds and putting them on paper for their readers.

IMG_0640MeTeach Micah,TylerFor the younger class, I had them draw in their workbooks a circle for a face, then slowly add features (eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair) and write a description of each as they went. Next they drew bodies with any kinds of clothes and shoes (or not) they wished.  I had them write why these “characters” were smiling, wearing… glasses, a soccer jersey, a swim suit, a long dress, a tutu, and had on sandals or swim fins. They began to see how to show what their story characters looked like by writing descriptions, and in the process developed more interesting information about them.  (I could see “light” dawning in their eyes!)

We talked about what a boy’s face and posture would look like if he were angry, sad, or excited, and how to describe that in words.  Then I had volunteers come to the front and walk like someone angry, sad, sick, old, or excited. The class called out descriptions of the body movements (facial features, arms swinging, shoulders slumped, stumbling, skipping, marching etc.) that portrayed the emotion.  Suddenly they began to see how they could “show” these actions in their stories instead of simply “telling” the reader that the character was sad or happy.

We talked briefly about similes (and metaphors for the older group). Wow, did they come up with some doozers! At this point I had to remind them not to overload the story with these, but to sprinkle in descriptions as the story progressed in action or conversations.

Character traits 71T4QNm+soLNext, we had fun with thirty-six Character Trait cards (ten seen at left) that I purchased from Amazon.  I had them each choose a positive trait and a negative trait and to explain their choices. I asked them to describe the animals in the picture illustrating the trait.  We talked about how they could write about the kind of person (animal) their character was by using these traits (such as, mischievous, responsible, persistent, mean, honest, loyal, etc.)

As an exercise I had them use these two opposite traits and write a short paragraph in their workbooks, describing how that character trait would look in actions.  “Harmony was dishonest because she….. or  Timothy was peculiar because he….”

For another exercise, I had them draw a large “T” diagram on one page, labeling the left side “What a character looks like” and the right side” How a character behaves.”  They made a few comparisons from their own story characters. At home, they would make more of these diagrams and fill them in for other characters, or ones from books they liked.

IMG_0654 Older writing classFor the older class (all boys, and most writing sci-fi or fantasy) we delved a bit deeper into making their characters memorable by using various ways to describe physical as well as personality traits. They practiced describing a character in an action scene (showing fear or bravery without actually using those words) and played around with using an occasional quirk, flaw, or unconscious mannerism to reveal hidden traits.

We talked about body language and how personal beliefs and moral standards could affect their characters actions and words in certain situations.  These t’weens and teens also enjoyed acting out emotions and physical limitations while the rest of the class called out descriptions. It’s a great exercise in noticing small things and putting them into words. Their favorite was imagining a large magnet across the room, and a piece of iron stuck on various parts of their body (forehead, stomach, etc). They were to show being pulled by that force and trying to resist. (Some were hilarious!)

IMG_0651MeTeach MatthewIMG_0653MeTeach AndrewThese boys also wanted to read from their stories, using some of the descriptions they’d learned inserted here and there.

I think they got it! By George, they got it!  

(I can’t wait to read the complete exciting, imaginative tales!)

At the end of the two-hour sessions, I sent both groups home with assignments to sharpen their skills. Hopefully they will follow through and I will have a new pack of stories to post on my blog, with characters you can clearly imagine, love, or love to hate.

I love these kids, and I really had fun…. as you can see!

IMG_0667MeTeach fun

 

Post Script:  I used several limericks in the classes, to illustrate teaching points, add humor, and keep the class attentive.  One of the kids in the older group took one of these limericks, combined it with a vocabulary assignment from his home school writing class and came up with a HILARIOUS story – The Virtuous Walking Fish.  Check it out too, and leave a comment for Jacob K.

 

 

Me? Write a Memoir? But…!

by Gail Kittleson

Decades ago, some friends invited us to go rafting on a local stream. I thought our son, three years old at the time, would be excited, but he said,

          “I’m scared of those rabbits, Mommy.”

          “Rabbits?”

          “Yeah. Evelyn said we’re going to come to some rabbits…”

Those rapids would’ve scared me, too, if I thought they might hop into our raft. After a bit of explanation about the mild rapids, our son loved rafting.

**

Misunderstandings often ground our fears, and this proves true with writing. Being afraid to express our anxieties in black and white originates in false assumptions:

  1. What we write may be used against us.
  2. There’s a ‘right’ way to write, and we haven’t learned how.
  3. Once we write something down, we’re bound to the perspective we embraced at the time.
  4. Once written, our words will be “golden,” and therefore, we can’t destroy them.

          First of all, what we write may be used against us. But this is no reason to forego all the benefits of the process. Writing in a safe place that no one ever sees has done wonders for many people experiencing trials.

The feeling that we have no control over who might see what we write can keep us bound by the tide of emotions swirling inside us. Launching out to safely journal our thoughts, tied irrevocably to those emotions, may seem beyond our power.

          In order to take this tentative step, we must unlearn the second misconception, that there’s a ‘right’ way to write. Nothing could be farther from the truth. No perfect method for expressing what we feel exists.

In fact, the ‘perfect way’ will be the way our words come out. Each person’s story contains unique content, since it comes from our one-of-a-kind inner being. Each of us perceives even the identical situation with variations.

A family outsider, my sister, or my brother will see what I remember differently than I do. But my first feeble step—even if that amounts to writing one short paragraph about what’s transpiring inside me—unleashes immense healing power.

          Now to the third misnomer: we are not bound by our viewpoint at any given time. A glance around us reveals that everything changes constantly. The only constant is change, as they say.

If I still looked at what I experienced fifteen years ago with the same eyes, I would be in big trouble. But the thing is, I would never have arrived at my present perspective if I hadn’t started writing down my thoughts and feelings.

          At the time, my journal pages seemed somehow sacred, and they were. But as the years have passed, I’ve grown, and at certain points, I let go of certain writings from the pasts. Burned them, because they no longer seemed ‘golden.’ Some of them, I kept and edited. And re-edited, and re-re-edited into a memoir. That’s not the route for everyone, but proved to be an important part of my journey.

The point is, your writings are your writings. You have the right to choose what to do with them, including chucking them down a sinkhole never to be seen again.

And the broader point is that in the darkness of an emotional avalanche, we cannot even know what we think. By allowing words to flow from us, we invite clarity, and through this process, discover truths we would never have imagined.

Words equal an enormous gift—penned quietly in secret places, they blossom like hidden desert plants that bloom in darkness, where no one observes. But their flowers bear perfume, attracting the necessary insects for pollination. It may be that we will rework and launch our writings into a published memoir, but either way, this practice can become a powerful experience.

“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than You.” 
Dr. Seuss

 

Gail Kittleson 2

When Gail’s not steeped in World War II historical research, writing, or editing, you’ll find her reading for fun, gardening, or enjoying her grandchildren in Northern Iowa. She delights in interacting with readers who fall in love with her characters.

Gail Kittleson taught college expository writing and ESL before writing women’s historical fiction. From northern Iowa, she facilitates writing workshops and women’s retreats, and enjoys the Arizona Ponderosa forest in winter.

catching up

Catching Up With Daylight; a Journey to Wholeness, is Gail’s own memoir. She and her husband began renovating an old house after he returned from a deployment in Iraq.  The book is “a gorgeous tapestry of non-fictional thoughts. This very gifted author knows how to weave her thoughts, memories, and the history of the old house she is refurbishing into a journey of emotional and spiritual wholeness.”

 

Women of the Heartland, Gail’s World War II series, highlights women of The Greatest Generation: In Times Like These, April 2016, With Each New Dawn, February, 2017 A True Purpose (Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, and Word Crafts Press, December, 2017.)

 

  Cover_APuroseTrue    With Each New Dawn    In-times-like-these
Visit her at the following social media sites:

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NOTE: This article was posted for Gail Kittleson by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin

A Library By Any Other Name…

by Jackie Houchin

Mention “Valentine’s Day,” and instantly visions of  cute or sentimental greeting cards, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, and bouquets of red roses come to mind. You may even dream of romantic dinners or diamond bracelets.

But it was none of these things that Kristin Molloy of Mission Viejo, California, wished for last year for Valentine’s Day.

“I love books and libraries,” she said with a smile. “So do my kids. We love to go to our Mission Viejo library to check out books. Growing up, everyone in my family had a book to read around the dining room table. I wanted my own library!”

oaxze7-b88760174z.120160726144933000gjmhqss4.10
From left to right: Jenna Brown, Kaitlyn Schisler and Astha Parmar take a photo with the Little Free Library, a book kiosk at the Lake Forest Sports Park designed by the three from Cadette Girl Scout Troop 1859. Contractor Bradlee Rodecker helped in building the house-like kiosk.

Her husband, Kevin Molloy, a fireman, knew exactly what she meant. Earlier that year while visiting the Lake Forest Sports Park and Rec. Center they spotted an amazing tiny wooden library on a pole. Designed and built by three Girl Scouts with help from the Park staff, the cheery blue and white painted Little Free Library is a house-like box of books. Visible through two Plexiglas doors are perhaps 30-40 books for all ages. Anyone can take a book to read…free. After reading it, they can return it or bring back a different one. The organization’s motto is “Take a Book, Return a Book.”

Kristen thought her own Little Free Library would be great for their neighborhood.

IMG_2702Kevin drew plans and constructed his Valentine’s Day gift, painting it to match their house. He checked with city regulations (though not all the Libraries I visited did) and sunk a post into their front lawn three feet from the side walk and about 24 inches from the ground. Three small flagstone steps invite kids to visit. He attached a mailbox flag which is extended when new books are added.

Kristin loved it!

(The height of the Libraries is a personal preference. I saw ones sitting on a base at 3 and 4 feet high.)

The family says they have quite a few kids & teens stopping to choose books on their way to/from a nearby park. The couple’s children, Georgia and Ryan, enjoy sharing their own books as well.

Check out the organization for information on buying or building your own library, and to see an amazing variety of Little Free Libraries, including some that look like a church, schoolhouse, caboose, or English telephone booth! https://littlefreelibrary.org/faqs/

Of course, right away, I had my hubby build a Little FREE Library for ME for THIS Valentine’s Day, and paint it to match our house. (I’ll let you know how it goes in a later post, if you are interested.)

Other Little Free Libraries in Mission Viejo.

IMG_2676      IMG_2705

 

Now let me tell you about some other things to LOVE and to GIVE on February 14th, and these are especially meaningful to us writers of books.

I love a libraryThe 14th of February is also LIBRARY LOVERS DAY.

Here are some things you can do to celebrate:

  • Visit your local library and check out a book or film.
  • If you know someone who doesn’t have a library card, encourage/help them to get one.
  • Volunteer time at the library (shelving, tutoring, reading to kids), or donate money and/or a few of your books.

Without the library, you have no civilization.” ― Ray Bradbury

“Libraries really are wonderful. They’re better than bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts.” ― Jo Walton

“The library is like a candy store where everything is free.” ― Jamie Ford

“Libraries made me – as a reader, as a writer, and as a human being.”  –Laurie R. King

 

book-giving-day-bookmark-original-copyThe 14th of February is also INTERNATIONAL BOOK GIVING DAY.

Here are some ways to participate:

  • Share your favorite book with a friend.
  • Give books as gifts to your own children or to those of friends.
  • Donate books to children’s libraries, schools or charities.
  • Leave books in places where they’ll be found, such as doctors’ waiting rooms, train or bus stations, or airports.

“Give a Book” is a UK based charity with the sole aim of giving books where they will be of particular benefit including prisons.  http://giveabook.org.uk/

“Give a Book” works with Ellie’s Friends, a charity who helps women who are recovering from Cancer. They send a monthly mixed selection of light reading to be enjoyed. Each bundle contains ten titles and is delivered to a different recipient each month.  https://elliesfriends.org

“Give a Book” also works with First Story, a registered charity which places published authors in schools to hold weekly workshops on creative writing. At the end of the program, the students’ pieces are published in their own anthology.  https://firststory.org.uk/

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4fe43936383d7abf9e1f87c045c5a3b2

 

TWEETABLES: 

What else can you do for your Sweetheart on February 14th? (Click to Tweet)

Library Lovers Day & International Book Giving Day share February 14 with Valentine’s Day. (Click to Tweet)

Creating Seasonal Articles*

Christmas sugar plumsby Jackie Houchin

Does reading all those December magazines with their holiday stories, recipes, tips, traditions, and inspirations make visions of sugar plums, er, I mean, ideas for articles to dance on your head?

“Oh dear! I so wanted to write an article about those fun games we play for identifying Grandma’s tag-less gifts under the tree!” (Family Circle Magazine?)

“And how I wished I’d shared my Mom’s Christmas fruitcake recipe from her recipe box (that I inherited this year when she died), and told all who read the article why they really should try fruitcake again.”  (Reminiscence Magazine?)

But, I forgot to write them.

And now it’s too late – WAY too late.

At least for this year.

But not for next year, if I plan ahead.  Many magazines need seasonal articles. But they need them long before the pub date. Articles with a “time-tag” are a good way for new writers to break into print (or seasoned writers to pick up some pocket money).

It’s all in the timing

Start by picking up Chase’s Calendar Of Events and look ahead to see what holidays will be celebrated in six months to a year. Or you can check the guidelines in the new The Writers Market Guide for specific publications you hope to write for.

Send a query letter with your idea ahead of the suggested time. If you get a go-ahead, be sure to deliver your article on time. And be patient. If it isn’t used in 2018, it may be held till 2019.

Low-profile holidays

Brain storm ideas for the less popular holidays, such as Arbor Day, Grandparents’ Day, Flag Day, Patriot Day, Friendship Day, Bastille Day, Poppy Day, or even…. Cookie Baking Day! (December 18)  Also think about back-to-school and summer vacation themes.

Your special “slant”

If those “sugar plum” ideas aren’t already dancing away up there, then:

  • Leaf through old magazines (yours or at the library).
  • Think about experiences you’ve had during holidays.
  • Write a short biography of a person linked to a holiday.
  • Research a holiday custom.
  • Remember anniversaries. (What happened 5, 10, 500 years ago?)
  • Interview a teacher, a parent, a coach, a Macy’s clerk.
  • Write a holiday short story or poem. (Some magazines are still open to them.)

Christmas funny poem

Before and After Tips

Start an idea folder with clipped articles from magazines or newspapers. Jot notes about ideas on each. Not all will be usable, but many will work. When you’re looking for a certain seasonal theme, these may trigger an idea.

After the original-rights sale, look for reprint markets for next season. Make a list of potential ones and their lead times, and keep your original article with them.

Open a new bank account!

Christmas bank accountJust kidding!  You won’t get rich from these sales, but you will get “writing clips.”  And when magazine editors discover your timely, well-written articles/stories etc., they will approach YOU with their needs.

Okay… do you need some ideas for NEXT Christmas?  Check out these:

  • Favorite Christmas books, movies, musicals/plays (pastiche or true likes)
  • Christmas mishaps (humorous, or coping skills)
  • Christmas trees: cutting your own, uniquely decorating (we knew friends who lit live candles on their tree!), a special nostalgia ornament
  • Family traditions (oldies, or how to start your own)
  • How to make homemade gifts (food, ornaments, clothes, home decor)
  • Holiday baking (how-to, tastes & smells, shipping)
  • Holiday traditions from other countries (foods, decorations, activities)
  • Or…. interview someone with over 3,500 Santa Claus decorations (Hint: I can give you her name.)

Take away

After all the gifts are opened, the holiday meal is eaten (and cleaned up), the kids are playing with new toys (or the boxes), and the older “boys” are watching football, go grab a piece of crumpled wrapping paper, smooth it out, flick open that new expensive gold-plated pen, and start writing up your holiday impressions, experiences, and ideas while they are still “dancing in your head.”

Christmas garland

Merry Christmas &  Happy New Year !

 

*Inspiration for this post came from Jewell Johnson’s article, Writing Seasonal Articles in the Christian Communicator, Nov-Dec, 2017.

(RE)STARTING YOUR ENGINE

4618c-bonnie

Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.

 

 

(RE)STARTING YOUR ENGINE

I was on an author panel recently, and a member of the audience asked us if we wrote every day. The other panelists confirmed that they did, and I had to confess that I do not. I know, call me Slacker.

 
It’s not like I don’t enjoy writing—most of the time. I usually have plenty of ideas of what to write, I know where my work in progress is heading, and I WANT to sit down and write, but there are days when it just doesn’t happen. The phone rings—Caller ID tells me it’s a friend I haven’t heard from in weeks, so of course I must answer. Or the computer goes on the fritz and I spend an hour in Help Desk Hell, listening to a robovoice assure me that my call is very important, so please stay on the line for the next available representative. Or the dog begs me for a walk with an irresistible, pleading expression on her furry face.

 
And there go my good intentions right out the window.

 
Generally, I make up for lost time, sooner or later. I turn off the phone, let the dog amuse herself in the yard for a while, and swear off Facebook until I’ve done at least 1000 words or put in an hour of writing, whichever comes first.

 
Recently, however, everything ground to a screeching halt—not for a day, or even a week.

 
For a month.

 
I had a good excuse: hip surgery. The surgery itself was uncomplicated and successful, and I’m making a rapid recovery. But in the days leading up to it, I had too many things to think about besides my current work in progress, where I was a little over the halfway point.

 
Post-surgery, there were many more distractions: follow-up doctor appointments, physical therapy, and fatigue that demanded frequent naps. Additionally, for a while I needed heavy-duty prescription pain meds—a creativity-killer if ever there was one. The opioid fog began to clear, but I still felt apathetic about writing. I’d abandoned the unfinished novel at a point where I wasn’t sure exactly what should happen next, which was a huge tactical error, but by then it was too late to remedy it.

 
I stared at the pile of pages on my writing table, overwhelmed with hopelessness. The novel reminded me of a car with a dead battery; the parts were all there, but the battery was drained and the vehicle was just a cold, unresponsive lump of metal—or, in this case, paper. Stalled car

At that point, I gave in to despair. Why bother? Who cares? Does the world even need another book from me?

 
Then I remembered that some people did care: my writers’ critique group. I soon would owe them 30 pages of new work. With that deadline looming, I sighed. How could I let them down? I must at least try to produce something for them. So I picked up the pages and re-read what I’d written before I went under the knife, all the while laughing at my foolish assumption that I would “catch up on my writing” while I was recuperating.

 
The pages I’d already written weren’t bad, and I’d gotten some positive feedback from my fellow writers. I started writing down words, reminding myself that if  I simply put them on paper, I’d have something to work on, something to build on and edit. I remembered a valuable saying: You can’t fix what’s not on the page.

 
I knew this approach as surely as I knew my own name, so I gritted my teeth and ground out five pages. They seemed flat and pointless. But at least I had something to show for my time and effort. And as I read over what I’d written, I had an idea for how to make them better. A flicker of hope beckoned. Hey, maybe this wasn’t a lost cause.

 

I wrote a few additional pages, and the more I wrote, the more ideas started to flow. First a trickle, then a stream. I lost track of time as I scribbled the outline of what needed to happen next, and a delicious enthusiasm flowed over me, that feeling I’d begun to fear was lost for good. That poor old dead engine had finally turned over. It sputtered a few times, but then it started chugging along.

 
I still have a long way to go to “The End,” but if I hadn’t sat down and made myself pretend to be a writer again, the muse would not have whispered in my ear. Why try and talk to someone who’s not listening?

 
So you see, magic can still happen. Believe in it. You may think the game is lost, but there’s always the chance it isn’t over yet. There may be a tiny spark of life left in that engine after all, but you won’t know unless you fiddle around with it a while.

Anybody out there who had to abandon a project and then fought to resurrect it after some time had passed? How did you get going again, or did you? Or perhaps now you’re thinking, maybe you will . . .?

 

Holy Cow! by Bonnie Schroeder

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Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter

 

I’m wrapping up our series of pet-centric posts today and hope everyone has enjoyed reading about the animals in our lives. . . and our writing.

I’ve had pets almost all my life, mostly dogs and cats, but few have had starring roles in my fiction.

My very first “published” short story, however, featured a cow as a main character, and not just any cow. My pet cow.

Here’s how it happened:

As a child, I spent my summers on my grandparents’ farm in northern New Mexico. It was a kid’s paradise, with all sorts of animal life: dogs and cats and chickens and pigs and cows. Being semi-obsessed by Western movies that were all the rage back then (mid-20th-century, that is), I often lamented that there were no horses on the farm.

The reason? Simple economics. My grandparents were not wealthy, and a tractor can do the work of many horses, without the attendant feed bills. My grandfather tired of my yearning for a horse, and he offered me what was, in his opinion, the next-best substitute: a docile milk cow named Brindy.

Brindy and I became fast friends during my summer visits. When I arrived, I’d race out to the pasture, climb over the fence and call to her, and she always came to say hello. I’d tell her how my time in California had gone, share a few confidences, rub her forehead and give her a carrot. When she was lying down, I’d often climb on her bony back and stroke her bristly hide. She was always gentle with me and seemed to enjoy the attention.Brindy

My favorite thing, though, was to help with the milking! You need VERY strong fingers to milk a cow, and I wasn’t always successful, but I kept trying. Milk straight from the cow, by the way, is nothing like the stuff you buy at the supermarket. It’s warm and thick and has a distinct, earthy taste.

How did Brindy come to star in my short story? As the product of a “broken marriage”—which was not taken so casually then as now—I was something of an outsider in school; friends did not come easily. But in the 5th grade, I discovered—or rather my teacher discovered—that I had a knack for creative writing. I suppose it came from all the time I spent alone with my books, coupled with a wild imagination. My teacher gave the class an assignment to write a story about an animal, and without my even having to think too hard about it, a story emerged about a cow that wanted to be a horse. The cow in my story, of course, was named Brindy, and although she tried hard to act like a horse, she eventually came to realize horses didn’t have it all that easy: people riding on their backs, hauling heavy wagons, and so on. Brindy decided she was pretty darn happy being a cow.

The ”be yourself” message must have impressed my teacher, because she typed up the story, shared it with the class, and sent a note to my mother that my writing “talent” should be encouraged—which, of course, it was.

That summer when I went to visit Brindy, very full of myself for all the attention my story had received and the friends it had won me, my grandfather cautioned me that Brindy had given birth while I was away. Eager to see the new calf, I hurried to the pasture and climbed the fence. Sure enough, there was Brindy with the cutest little baby standing next to her. I called out to her and ran forward. At this point, Brindy lowered her head, bellowed, and charged. I was threatening her baby.

I turned and fled and barely made it to the fence without being trampled. When I told my grandfather what happened, he shook his head. “I warned you. She’s mighty protective of that calf.”

And so it was that I lost my friend on the farm. Brindy became a mom and had no more interest in me. It made me sad, but then my grandfather brought home a puppy, and when he presented it to me, my disappointment over Brindy melted away. We named the puppy Buck, and he lived a long and happy life, watching over me and protecting me from the many hazards a child encounters on a farm. I decided a dog was a more suitable pet than a cow, after all.

Brindy had abandoned me, true enough, but she was my first muse, and I have always been grateful to her for that. In return, I gave her a kind of immortality, at least on the written page. If cows have emotions—and I think they do—she’d be proud.