Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Best Writing Advice Ever

When I teach creative writing classes, one of my first handouts is "Writing Advice" to help inspire the students. Here are some of my favorites, that have inspired me over the years:
Woman pencil
 There's nothing to writing. 
All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.
  ~ Walter Wellesley Smith

Open book
I try to leave out the parts that people skip. 
~Elmore Leonard

Woman writing
If there's a book you really want to read,
but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. 
~Toni Morrison

Girl computer
Writing became such a process of discovery
that I couldn't wait to get to work in the morning: 
I wanted to know what I was going to say. 
~Sharon O'Brien

The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion,
some place, in the air.  All I must do is find it, and copy it. 
~Jules Renard

I love being a writer. 
What I can't stand is the paperwork. 
~Peter De Vries

What no partner of a writer can ever understand is that
 a writer is working when she's staring out of the window. 
~Burton Rascoe

Angry typewriter
You can't wait for inspiration.
You have to go after it with a club.
~Jack London

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Circle the Wagons - It's all you can eat!

     The main reason my husband and I like to travel is not so much to visit distant relatives, check out famous museums, or see the local sights. No, we go to eat. Wherever we are, we love to tour the regional restaurants and taste local delicacies, everything from Texas chow to Wisconsin cheese, from New York egg creams to Gilroy garlic ice cream. It’s all about the food.

    When we heard the Food Truck Phenom would be invading the Alameda Fairground in Pleasanton, we decided to check it out. Instead of spending all that money on gas traveling throughout the country for a taste of the nation—even the world—we figured we could find it all in one place (other than a shopping mall food court, that is).

   We sort of knew what to expect after watching “The Great Food Truck Race” reality show on TV, which always left us drooling: Invite friends so we could order a variety of foods and share bites. After arranging to meet Ann Parker, Colleen Casey, and Staci McLaughlin, along with Staci’s two kids, Jake and Connor, and we headed for the fairgrounds.

    We paid the eight dollar parking fee and three dollar entry fee, then found ourselves in a wonderland of mouth-watering aromas. Trucks that had once hauled mail, carried overnight packages, and even bussed school children were now painted bright colors, given festive names, and turned into mobile mini-kitchens. They’d circled up like wagon trains, surrounding the grassy picnic area to await hungry customers.

   It took us nearly thirty minutes to check out all twenty trucks and peruse the various tempting menus. We had to make some tough decisions. Should we sample Chairman Bao’s pork belly buns or go for the Lobster Shack’s lobster mac and cheese? We’d heard good things about Nom Nom’s Vietnamese tacos, but the Tikka Masala burrito beckoned from the next truck over. And what about Babaloo’s Cuban Ricky Ricardo sandwich? Or the Korean Fusion at Bulkalbi? Or the Asian soul food at Soulnese’s?

   Those were just the main course items. What would we do when it came time for dessert? Would we head for Twisted Chill’s soft serve ice cream, Sunshine Susan’s Solar Ice Cream sundaes,  Sweet Constructions chocolate crackle cookies or That’s Sweet whoopee pies?

   We split up, each heading for a different truck. Overwhelmed, I made my first stop at the wine vendor for a plastic cup of chardonnay to whet my palate—as if it needed whetting. The weather was perfect—unseasonably warm for October—and strolling past the crazy, colorful trucks, inhaling the fragrant odors of food cooking, was a slice of heaven.

   We met back at the picnic table to cut up and share our finds, while the kids played on the grass and listened to the live music. After sampling everything, I couldn’t remember what I ate or which truck it came from, but it was all good. I barely had enough room left in my stomach for a Zantac, let alone dessert. We resolved to come back again when the trucks returned to the fairgrounds.

   But next time I’m eating dessert first.


Friday, October 14, 2011

Ten Ways toi Tell You've Finished the Last Draft of your Manuscript...

You’ve been working on your book for weeks, months, even years, and it feels like it might be done…but you’re not absolutely sure. Maybe it needs another read-through? Another draft? Another polish? So how do you really know when it’s time to let your baby go face the cold cruel world of publishing? Well, here are ten ways to help you recognize it’s time to step away from the manuscript.
Speaker1.     You’ve read your book so many times, you have it memorized and have recited it verbatim to your long-suffering family.
Skeleton 2.    You family has moved out of the house and you didn’t notice they were gone.
Hand3.    Your hands are numb, you have no fingerprints left, and you’ve worn away the letters on your computer keyboard.
Woman writing 4.    You’ve included your grocery list, your college thesis, and your will within the body of the manuscript.
Book-thick 5.    Every time you rewrite the manuscript, you add another 90,000 words.
Closed6.    Your editor has passed on and the publishing house has closed.
Cellphone7.    Your agent has forgotten you name and has asked you to stop calling her, whoever you are, or she’ll get a restraining order.
Recipes8.    You’re starting to wonder if you should add recipes to your story.
Confused 9.    You can’t remember what you’ve written and don’t care anymore.
  Wine glass
10.    You’ve run out of alcoholic beverages.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Am I as savvy as a fourth grader?

They say public speaking is more terrifying than death, paying taxes or baby-sitting all four grandchildren at the same time. However, I'm used to speaking in front of large groups, since I've been doing it for more than 30 years.

I teach a morning class at the local college, where I try to keep 40 post-adolescents awake for an hour and a half so they will learn something about child development.

Over the years, I've talked to rooms full of professors, doctors, women's club members, business professionals, writers, and elderly people who are hard of hearing and miss most of what I say. I've even presented information on TV to millions of viewers across the country.

Yet there is nothing more terrifying than speaking to 120 fourth-graders for 30 minutes.

Why the terror? They're just kids, right? How frightening could they be? Well, if I remember my fourth grade correctly, I spent most of class time writing and passing secret coded messages to my friends behind my teachers' backs instead of paying attention to the lesson.

How did this all come about? After writing several mysteries for adults, I decided I wanted to pen a mystery for kids, based on my extensive experience in writing and passing secret codes in fourth grade.I felt I could justify the topic because, as an educator, I knew codes offered benefits beyond just entertainment. They help increase language, math, and cognitive skills, (but please don't tell that to the kids).

So when my book, "The Code Busters Club," came out last week, I gave a copy to my neighbor Connor Brien, a fourth-grader, to see what he thought. Apparently he told his teacher about the book, and soon I had an invitation to come speak to the entire fourth grade at his school.

OMG, as they say in text-messaging code. What would I talk to 120 kids about for 30 long minutes? My exciting writing life? My excellent typing skills? My love of Dr. Seuss books? There wouldn't be an open eye left in the place if I did that -- everyone would be sound asleep.

OK, how about codes? I would supply the kids with "code-busting kits" filled with secret origami-folded message holders, Caesar cipher wheels, invisible ink pens and Morse code whistle/lights, then teach them how to make and break codes. So I quickly whipped up a bunch of code-busting kits and tested my theory on Ms. Vamvouris' fifth-grade class at Greenbrook Elementary School in Danville, with only 30 kids. It went well -- at least, nobody asked if it was time to do math instead.

After making 120 more kits, I was ready to face all those fourth-graders in the Greenbrook School library. Moments later, the four classes filed in, accompanied by their teachers: Ms. Hegarty, Ms. Edgren, Ms. Caldera, Ms. Ravin and Ms. Cowles.

To my surprise, these weren't sleepy-eyed, fidgety students just waiting for the recess bell to ring. They were actually excited to be there and learn how to cracking codes -- everything from Morse to semaphore. Before I knew it, 30 minutes was up. I could have stayed another three or four hours.

I hope they learned something. I certainly did.

Giving 120 fourth-graders whistles for Morse Code was a mistake. When I talk to another fifth-grade class next week, I'll know better...