Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Notebook

Like many writers, I carry a tiny notebook wherever I go, and record details that strike me.

It’s not that I’d forget such details, but more so that I’d forget to remember them. They’re recorded just fine in my brain but there’s no prompt to bring them back to mind. So the notebook entry is the prompt. (More recently, I’ve been trying to carry my tiny camera … one click captures a visual detail so much faster than writing down all those descriptive words. But cameras tend to get people’s notice; the notebook is covert.)

I once listened, for example, to two people having a one-sided conversation. After a time, it struck me how many ways a person can lob dialogue back to the other party without really participating:

Oh, sure.
I see.
Mm hmm.
Oh, right.
Oh, good.
Uh huh.

I wrote them down to use, someday.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Just Add Tension

Now, this is symmetry.

Imagine introducing a tiny photographic misalignment ... feel the tension, feel the forces trying to right it.

Then, use a tiny bit of plot to misalign, and watch the story forces come alive.

Friday, February 23, 2007


This emailed image (presumably from a student's exam paper) made me laugh.

It reminded me of some articles I'm currently writing. One is in that early, optimistic stage where information and possibilities grow exponentially. But I'm at "Step 7" on another and I know what's coming: the condensation of ideas that strangles instead of simplifies, that threatens to implode and send me back to the beginning.

It seems impossible that any pleasing shape will emerge. But gradually, with work, it does.

Please comment or email me if you have original-source info
for this ubiquitous Internet image.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


I like any kind of twist in perspective.

And Thomasville Furniture's current print ads provide about the best visual twists I've seen ... worth collecting into this collage.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Work, Part 3

“What do you do?”

For a living, they mean. The question comes up within minutes of meeting someone.

I’ve always had an easy answer: “I’m a pharmacist.”

“Oh,” they say, smiling. They know pharmacists. They nod approvingly and I watch their minds paste my face over the one behind the counter at their local drugstore.

But that’s not me, and I hardly ever leave it alone.

“In a hospital,” I say. “I’ve never worked retail.”

The smile stays on their lips but there’s confusion in their eyes. I watch their minds run video of the only thing they know a pharmacist to do: count, pour, lick and stick. A pharmacist fills an amber vial with 30-days’ worth of pills and attaches a label. They can’t imagine how that translates to patients in a hospital. Besides, wouldn’t the doctors and nurses there do that instead?

Yet they never ask. They veer left: “Oh? Which hospital?”

I give the name and they smile and nod again. They know hospitals.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Dreaming Fiction

Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler lets everyday details inspire his fiction. He not only lets them, but actively collects them, and uses bunches of details as a gimmick/ device/ conceit/ catalyst (whatever) for whole short-story collections. A group of postcards prompted the stories in Had a Good Time; a number of supermarket-rag headlines prompted Tabloid Dreams.

My friend Denise introduced me to Butler by recommending From Where You Dream, an edited transcript of his creative-writing lectures at Florida State University. He stresses creativity as a product of sense/emotion, not intellect, and shows how it’s accomplished. Even if you pursue nothing else by Butler, make it a point to stand in the aisle at a library or bookstore and read Chapter 4 (“Cinema of the Mind”) for his comparison of fiction and film techniques.

But if you do want more, read Bookslut's Interview With Robert Olen Butler.

And if you’re hooked now, FSU has archived Butler’s series of 17 webcasts that document his creation of a postcard-inspired short story … from pre-writing to final manuscript.

Friday, February 16, 2007


Thinking of fine chocolates again, I'm reminded how beautiful they look on their shining silver trays in a glossy display case. And how disappointed I was, one time, to watch a clerk replenish the display with fresh candies from ... ugly cardboard stock boxes!!

Let's go the other way.

Compare the people and the work at this fish intake point in a restaurant kitchen -- the clothing, the speech, the sounds and smells, the equipment -- with the waiter who places a $24 plate of hazelnut-crusted trout on the white tablecloth in front of a customer in the dining room.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Wanna feel seltzer in your veins? Try transporting a large amount of cash.

I'm not a person who peels $100 bills from a wad to pay the big check at a restaurant. I'm not one who vacations with lots of cash or even Traveler's Cheques. No, I'm 90% plastic.

My big-cash experience is limited to decades ago, when I'd help my parents count the collection at church. Afterward, our drive to the bank's depository would be unnaturally silent -- and that was with three of us in broad daylight, in a small town, on a Sunday noon.

Cash is a terrific paranoic: everyone watches you; everyone notices the bulge in your chest pocket or how tightly you're gripping your purse; cars pull out to follow you; the bank teller steps on the silent alarm when you ask if you can take a photo of her counting the money.

Cash is so universally loaded with hope and fear and motivation that a writer can feel some seltzer just by imagining this exercise. But even better details come by carrying it out. Method writing, anyone?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Every Day

Much chocolate is being consumed today. Special chocolate. But just as my mom was my first Valentine, she was also my introduction to special chocolate as an everyday treat.

Her favorite has long been Moritz Ice Cubes, which melt in your mouth to release a velvety chocolate hazelnut. Decades ago, she’d also surprise me with Russell Stover French Mints -- a chocolate smudge from one is still evident on page 14 of “Fifty Famous Fairy Tales,” the first book I ever bought.

Today, if the sky were the limit, I suppose I’d choose Godiva or Leonidas or Cova over most anything else I’ve tried. (Though I’ve lately been hearing about Mexican chocolates…) But I do have limits, both financial and caloric, so, with a nod to Mom, I’ve been on a mission to find a delicious everyday chocolate.

It seems like wine. A white wine is easy to drink and it’s quenching -- like a milk chocolate. But if you’re willing to try a little harder, to pay closer attention, there’s -- as with red wine -- a deeper and more satisfying payoff from dark chocolate. And it pays after a piece or two, not a handful. I’ve always preferred Mounds to Almond Joy, and thought (like their commercial said) that it was about the nuts. But now I think it’s about the dark chocolate. So I focused my mission to finding an everyday dark chocolate.

For a year, I sampled bags and bars of plain, high-quality product: Dove/Mars (too sweet), Hershey (too bitter), Starbucks (too pricey), others that were literally forgettable. My favorite? Ghirardelli 60% Cocoa – rich and smooth and 4 bites per 55-calorie, 25¢ square.

I know science is still out on exactly where the “health benefits” from chocolate’s flavonoids kick in -- at a product that’s 60% cocoa? 70%? 90%? Let me just add a caution that cocoa has a surprising amount of fiber -- enough in those higher-% products to, um, startle an unsuspecting colon.

Besides, I learned to love chocolate as a treat, not a medicine.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Mom.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Million Penguins

There’s a creative train wreck going on over at Penguin Books UK: a wiki novel.

You’ve heard of National Novel Writing Month, where 80,000 writers each try to draft the full arc of a novel in one month. But what if that many novelists were to collaborate on a single story?

That’s precisely the 6-week experiment of A Million Penguins, underway since February 1. Structured on a wiki (specifically, the type underlying Wikipedia), the project’s question, “Can a million penguins sitting at a million keyboards together write a novel?” is reminiscent of the Infinite Monkey Theorem.

Although deciphering the novel itself requires some determination at this point, the editor’s blog gives an accessible, big-picture view of the process and some of its most creative aspects.

Monday, February 12, 2007


I wonder what prayers are represented by the votives these ladies are lighting ...

... but I'm more curious about what's become of some of the other intentions -- like those embodied in the candles that have tipped or fallen.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Prompt Yourself

Once in awhile, I collect writing prompts by running through the TV channels and writing down the very first sentence I hear on each channel. I sit with my back to the TV so I won’t be influenced by any context other than the words.

Here are ten from my latest round. Pick one -- or two or five, together -- and see what story emerges.

The following week, they were too big.

They’re looking for who bought a rare tool that was found at the murder scene.

If you ask an employee to move something like this, well you’re taking a risk.

I’ve already packed our “go” bag.

C’mere, I want to show you something.

You’ve nothing to lose, the phone call is free. This could change your entire life.

I had to wear this mask for the ammonia. All the jocks called me “Phantom of the Mop-era.”

Tomorrow morning at 11 …

Would you stop bugging me, Dad? I mean, it’s my hair.

I’ll put that in my karma jar.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Show Don't Tell

Want to convey how cold it feels in the middle of a week of below-zero temps?

Write about the layer of salt that accumulates on the road -- how it dusts the black asphalt until the street looks as snow-covered as the grass.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Rear Window

Maybe this picture isn't pretty, but it's beautiful. ("Interesting" can be beautiful!)

There's plenty interesting here:
the penthouse;
the striped curtain;
the pink-themed laundry (including nightshirts?);
all the antennae;
the flower pots and open door;
the disrepair (imagine it faces a gentrified section).
You probably notice six different things.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Outer Limits

Begin with something happening at this perfectly ordinary intersection. Then load it up with unbelievable details to develop your own bizarre plot.

Writer to Critique Group: "But It Really Happened!"

I've been up for a couple of hours. Wanted to make sure I was really, truly awake before I posted this, because the first time I read it I was sure I was dreaming such a far-fetched, bizarre story. (Oh, to imagine details like that...)

My post originally linked to a short, early morning version of this story -- fragmented and nearly screwball-comic in tone and detail. However. AP has revised the story numerous times since, and MSNBC continues to incorporate these revisions under the original link. The revised details and tone now paint a tragic incident. And they serve as a reminder of how much a writer influences the reader's takeaway by choosing what is written and how it's structured.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Done Good

Maybe few will write my headline about Da Bears today, but hey, it's been a good ride.

I love the traditional fight song (audio alert). But what struck me this year were the unexpected renditions -- in country-western, lounge-lizard and opera; by a bird, a class of pre-schoolers ... and yesterday, my church's congregation!

Friday, February 2, 2007

Plus One

I noticed this in one of the URL summaries from a Google search:
“26 - 5th graders go to Camp Kett. 27 - 5th graders return from Camp Kett.”
Huh? They gain a kid?

Imagine the story that explains this.

Then, if you're still curious, go to the link below to see the actual context.

"The Brookside" newsletter

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Outside In

My first apartment after college was a one-bedroom with a balcony. I worked evenings then, and spent mornings buying and borrowing items to furnish a livable space. But it wasn’t realistic to hope a plaid sofa (new) and a turquoise chair (borrowed) would meld with gold shag carpet (it was the ‘80s). The combination -- seen in my daylight hours at home before work -- always seemed a little harsh.

Then one night off from work, I cooked a late supper on a portable grill on my balcony. The meat smoked and flared enough to keep me out there next to it, and I remember looking into the apartment through the sliding-glass door to watch TV. The soft lamplight inside not only warmed the beige living-room walls, but also muted the argument between the furnishings’ colors and patterns. As my gaze drifted across the room, I caught myself inexplicably thinking, “I’d like to live there!” It seemed such a different apartment from the balcony at dusk than I’d come to know from the sofa at noon.

Most people, on an evening walk, like to glance through windows into the houses they pass. Next time, try it with your own home that you know so well.