Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Reading Recap

Woohoooo, I slid in under the wire and finished my 888 Challenge yesterday:
Read 8 books in each of 8 categories during 2008
My reading list follows below and includes ratings and links to reviews I’ve written. (Edited to add: I've removed 12 review links that were problematic; will repost them when the code is repaired.) Brief comments about every book can be found on my Challenge thread.

That volume of reading is unprecedented for me; my previous annual high was 48 books. (I do confess to nearly a year’s worth of unread magazines at this point, though, heaped in three towering piles.) But what raised the difficulty factor even more was my desire to read predominately from the shelves and stacks of to-be-read (TBR) books that are overtaking my house ... and I finished with the proportion at exactly 50% (32 books) from TBRs. They’re each indicated by “#” in the list, and it’s why so many seemingly older titles are included.

•Dewey: The Small-town Library Cat That Touched the World by Vicki Myron (****) (See review)
•Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman (*****)
•I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings# by Maya Angelou (****)
•Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison (****)
•Lucky Man# by Michael J. Fox (****)
•Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-word Memoirs (****)
•The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch (****)
•The Longest Trip Home by John Grogan (****) (See review)

I’ve Started and Want to Finish...
•A Christmas Carol# by Charles Dickens (****)
•A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius# by Dave Eggers (****)
•A Thousand Splendid Suns# by Khaled Hosseini (***)
•Everything is Illuminated# by Jonathan Safran Foer (****)
•Like Water for Chocolate# by Laura Esquivel (****)
•The Song Reader# by Lisa Tucker (***)
•The Poisonwood Bible# by Barbara Kingsolver (*****)
•The Time Traveler's Wife# by Audrey Niffenegger (****)

By My Favorite Writers
•Airframe# by Michael Crichton (***)
•Testimony by Anita Shreve (*****) (See review)
•The Gate House by Nelson DeMille (***) (See review)
•The Gold Coast# by Nelson DeMille (****)
•The Man in My Basement by Walter Mosley (***)
•Until the Real Thing Comes Along# by Elizabeth Berg (***)
•What Now? by Ann Patchett (****)
•When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris (****)

•A Tree Grows in Brooklyn# by Betty Smith (*****)
•Alice's Adventures in Wonderland# by Lewis Carroll (***)
•Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman (***)
•Dope Sick by Walter Dean Myers (***)
•Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz (*****)
•Holes# by Louis Sachar (***)
•The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (*****)
•When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale (****) (See review)

•A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink (****) (See review)
•Bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe (****) (See review)
•In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (***) (See review)
•The Omnivore's Dilemma# by Michael Pollan (*****)
•The Power of Now# by Eckhart Tolle (***)
•The Tipping Point# by Malcolm Gladwell (*****)
•The Zen of Eating# by Ronna Kabatznick (***)
•This is Your Brain on Music# by Daniel J. Levitin (***)

•Flash Fiction# ed by James Thomas (****)
•Labor Days# ed by David Gates (***)
•Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou (***)
•Letters to a Young Doctor# by Richard Selzer (*****)
•One Minute Stories by Istvan Orkeny (***)
•The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review (*****)
•The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted by Elizabeth Berg (***)
•Where I'm Calling From# by Raymond Carver (*****)

On Writing
•78 Reasons why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might# by Pat Walsh (****)
•Fingerpainting on the Moon# by Peter Levitt (***)
•Journal of a Novel# by John Steinbeck (****)
•If You Want to Write# by Brenda Ueland (***)
•Page After Page# by Heather Sellers (***)
•The Anatomy of Story by John Truby (*****)
•The Situation and the Story# by Vivian Gornick (***) (See review)
•Writing Mysteries# edited by Sue Grafton (***)

Discovered on LibraryThing!
•Food 2.0: Secrets From the Chef Who Fed Google by Charlie Ayers (**)
•Gardens of Water by Alan Drew (****)
•My Husband's Sweethearts by Bridget Asher (****) (See review)
•Schooled by Anisha Lakhani (**) (See review)
•Simplexity by Jeffrey Kluger (***) (See review)
•The Music Teacher by Barbara Hall (****) (See review)
•The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block (***)
•The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (****) (See review)


My Overall 2008 Top 10:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz
Testimony by Anita Shreve
The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver

Images of the books (including some off-challenge reads) appear below.

Next Post: 2009 Reading Preview

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I listened this morning while -- for some reason -- a radio station's traffic reporter spelled her name on air:



I wish my name had that kind of rhythm!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Season's Greetings

I wish I'd noticed this nativity scene earlier … before last weekend's warm weather erased the foot of Chicago snow beneath the palm trees.

Ah, well.
Greetings on this fifth night of Christmas!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Vacation Reading

So I’m headed on vacation to gaze at the ocean. But while most girls would obsess over which clothes to pack, I’m far more interested in choosing which books to take!

Six remain to be read for my 888 Reading Challenge, and five of them made it into my suitcase (the carry-on, mind you; I can’t risk them in checked baggage):

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens -- I’ve seen most film versions but haven’t read the book (nor -- gasp! -- anything by Dickens)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith -- I read this in childhood but can’t remember a thing about it; am looking forward to seeing what comes back as I re-read

Labor Days ed by David Gates -- I love stories set in workplaces, and this is an anthology of work-related short stories and novel excerpts

Letters to a Young Doctor by Richard Selzer -- personal essays by the surgeon forerunner to today’s Atul Gawande

Fingerpainting on the Moon by Peter Levitt -- combine the ocean with this book about artistic creativity … and who knows what might happen??

Of course, I’m still debating about a couple more

Monday, November 24, 2008

Certain Things Must Happen

The plan isn’t foolproof. For it to work,
certain things must happen.

So begins Jack Handey’s bank heist piece in the Shouts and Murmurs column of this week’s New Yorker magazine.

He lists a series of highly unlikely (yet clever and hilarious!) coincidental events that must occur for a certain robbery to succeed. Improbable as the events are, a writer might be able to weave one or two of them into a story -- taking care to make them motivated and believable -- and end up with a rollicking good tale (for example, Ocean’s Eleven).

But if a writer substitutes “plot” for Handey’s opening reference to “plan,” the list becomes an effective refresher on the problems of deus ex machina and coincidence in fiction.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

It's All Good

I miss the easiness of warm summer mornings. I'd pull on shorts and a t-shirt, then walk for coffee, thinking about stories.

But fall is good, too.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Life in Cards

From the Chicago Tribune: The Topps Company will soon sell 90 baseball-style trading cards that document significant moments in Barack Obama’s life.

It’s a great exercise for anyone, especially a writer: What are 90 of the most significant people, places (be specific), moments, actions, and utterances of your -- or your character’s -- life? What image represents each? What stories emerge?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Search Power

The U.S. Government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continually tracks patterns of infectious diseases, including annual outbreaks of influenza. Data is gathered from a network of doctors, correlated by the CDC, then released weekly via FluView, which details the rates and geographic patterns of illness (scroll to see map at end). It’s a long-established process that tootles along.

Now enter Google -- specifically,, a philanthropic arm created to glean socially important meaning from Internet-search trends. From the blog:

Our team found that certain aggregated search queries tend to be very common during flu season each year. We compared these aggregated queries against data provided by the [CDC], and we found that there's a very close relationship between the frequency of these search queries and the number of people who are experiencing flu-like symptoms each week. As a result, if we tally each day's flu-related search queries, we can estimate how many people have a flu-like illness.

Google data correlates strongly with CDC data, and can be tallied faster and with fewer resources -- automatically, even. For now, it’s fun to compare it against well-known disease patterns and trending processes. But the real excitement is its potential in epidemiology, if disease variations, including pandemics, emerge.

Who'da thunk?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Multi-dimensional Character

I resist negativity on this blog and aspire toward a playful space for creativity. So I won’t rant about the over-mortgaged homeowners in this article from the International Herald Tribune. Instead, I’ll fit one of them into a writerly challenge:

[Kenny], a data security specialist, moved into Mountain House [California] last year, buying a foreclosed property on Prosperity Street for $380,000. But the decline in values has been so fierce that he too is underwater. He has cut his DVD buying from 50 a month to perhaps one, and is waiting until the Christmas sales to buy a high-definition television. He does not indulge much anymore in his hobbies of scuba diving and flying.
The challenge: give Kenny some sympathetic character traits.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Original Story, v2

If you enjoyed my post about commonalities among submissions to writing contests, you're in luck: WritersWeekly publisher Angela Hoy has pulled all the pieces together from the Fall 24-hour Short Story Contest.

Take a look -- read the story prompt, consider the original story you'd write, then look at the commonalities among the submitted manuscripts and read the winning entries. (Interesting ... I liked the 3rd Place entry best in both the Summer and Fall contests.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

By Dad

Snipped from an online conversation about libraries:

Person A:
[My] library has just recently switched over to giving you a receipt with the due date, rather than stamping it in the book (I kind of miss that, not sure why).

Person B:
I miss the old stamping of the book, too. That, and the old circulation card with your name and due date from grade school.... It gave a sense of history to the book and its readers. You could actually see who had an interest in the book--and perhaps you even knew the person.

That reminds me ... when I was in grad school in the '90s, I requested my dad's PhD dissertation (from the '40s) through inter-university loan. I loved seeing the names/locations and dates of people who'd checked it out.

Person B:
WOW! What a wonderful feeling it must have been. And a fine tribute. What was the subject?
Title: "A Study of the Relationships Between the Secondary School Science Curriculum and the Contemporary Culture Pattern in the United States, 1918-1940"

My mom typed its 650+ pages (through several revisions), including formatting 75 data tables ... on a manual typewriter of course, through three carbons; think of how strong a typist’s hands used to have to be.

I now have Dad's personal carbon copy, and someone's eventually going to have to pry it from my cold, dead hands :) I confess that I’ve still only skimmed it. But I'm in the midst of a looong-book reading challenge (one 500+ page book each month) and still need a couple titles to fill it out...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Master Metaphorist

With the death yesterday of fashion snark Mr. Blackwell, so goes a master of the metaphor.

His descriptions were as over-the-top as the celebrity fashions he satirized, but admit it: there’s perfection in his evocation. Take a moment to visualize these:

1. A peeled grape on the end of a pipe cleaner.

2. She dresses like the centerfold for the Farmer's Almanac.

3. Half sequined scarecrow, half gaudy acrobat. Is it Abe Lincoln in drag? I'll leave it at that!

4. A boutique toothpaste tube, squeezed from the middle.

5. In layers of cut-rate kitsch, [her] look is hard to explain…she resembles a tattered toothpick -- trapped in a hurricane!
Now match Mr. Blackwell’s descriptions to the celebrities (answers in the comments):

a) Celine Dion (2003)
b) Goldie Hawn (1969)
c) Mary Kate Olsen (2007)
d) Martha Stewart (1999)
e) Elizabeth Taylor (1966)

Friday, October 17, 2008

As in Rain Man

From John Sutter, the attorney-protagonist in Nelson DeMille’s forthcoming novel, The Gate House:

…the last will and testament, along with related papers, sometimes revealed a family secret or two -- an institutionalized sibling, an illegitimate child, two mistresses in Manhattan…
Mmm, juicy. And as Sutter goes on to indicate, the reveals are not only shocking, surprising, saddening -- but often amusing.

How might such a revelation open up one of your stories?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Original Story

Writers Weekly runs a quarterly, prompt-inspired Short Story Contest, wherein participants receive a prompt and word-count requirement, then immediately have a mere 24 hours to conceive, write, and submit their short stories.

The prompt from the recent summer competition:

The bells on the door were still echoing as she stepped further into the old toy store. The owner winked at her and turned back to his black and white television set. She reached under the rack on the back wall and pulled it out. It was just where she'd left it last week. She approached the counter and put the item down.

He turned to her, grabbed the item with surprise, and said, “This is NOT for sale...”
The contest guidelines note that a story doesn’t need to include the prompt literally, it only needs to “touch on the topic in some way.” As far as judging: “While good writing is a must, originality plays a huge role.”

So -- take a few minutes to riff on some ideas from the prompt above. The contest is closed, you won’t have to write the story … just imagine something original that it could involve.

Then take a look at the commonalities that judges found when reading the submissions. Are your ideas there?

Now read the text of the three winning stories … not completely unique, but yes, distinctive -- due largely to the writers having followed some part of the prompt that resonated, rather than staying literal to all of it.

Are you still an original? Then you might be a great fit for the winter contest on January 23.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

P.S.: Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week having ended, I looked through The American Library Association’s most recent long-list of banned and/or challenged books -- their top 100 of 2000-2007, compiled from 3,869 challenges*.

A number of the titles are familiar -- I’ve bolded those I’ve read (11) and italicized those I own but haven’t yet read (4) -- and others intrigue me anew. If I were in my twenties, they’d inspire me to activism; if I were a parent or grandparent, they’d inspire my reading for the next year. Heck, they inspire me anyway; I guess all publicity is good.

How about you?

1 Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
2 Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
3 The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
4 Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
5 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
6 Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz
7 Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
8 It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
9 And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell
10 Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey
11 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
12 The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
13 Forever by Judy Blume
14 The Color Purple by Alice Walker
15 The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
16 Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan
17 Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
18 King and King by Linda de Haan
19 Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
20 Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
21 The Giver by Lois Lowry
22 We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier
23 To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
24 Beloved by Toni Morrison
25 The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline Cooney
26 Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
27 My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier
28 In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
29 His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman
30 Gossip Girl series by Cecily von Ziegesar
31 What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones
32 Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison
33 It’s So Amazing by Robie Harris
34 Arming America by Michael Bellasiles
35 Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
36 Blubber by Judy Blume
37 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
38 Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher
39 Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
40 Life is Funny by E.R. Frank
41 Daughters of Eve by Lois Duncan
42 Crazy Lady by Jane Leslie Conly
43 The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
44 You Hear Me by Betsy Franco
45 Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
46 Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher
47 The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby by Dav Pilkey
48 The Facts Speak for Themselves by Brock Cole
49 The Terrorist by Caroline Cooney
50 Mick Harte Was Here by Barbara Park
51 Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green
52 The Upstairs Room by Johanna Reiss
53 When Dad Killed Mom by Julius Lester
54 Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause
55 The Fighting Ground by Avi
56 The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
57 Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
58 Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going
59 The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things by Carolyn Mackler
60 A Time To Kill by John Grisham
61 Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez
62 Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes
63 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
64 A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck
65 Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
66 Always Running by Luis Rodriguez
67 Black Boy by Richard Wright
68 Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
69 Deal With It! by Esther Drill
70 Detour for Emmy by Marilyn Reynolds
71 Draw Me A Star by Eric Carle
72 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
73 Harris and Me by Gary Paulsen
74 Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park
75 So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Watkins
76 Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
77 Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
78 What’s Happening to My Body Book by Lynda Madaras
79 The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar
80 The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
81 Anastasia Again! by Lois Lowry
82 Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
83 Bumps In the Night by Harry Allard
84 Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine
85 Shade’s Children by Garth Nix
86 Cut by Patricia McCormick
87 Grendel by John Gardner
88 The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
89 I Saw Esau by Iona Opte
90 Ironman by Chris Crutcher
91 The Stupids series by Harry Allard
92 Taming the Star Runner by S.E. Hinton
93 Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by Judy Blume
94 Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume
95 Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
96 Nathan’s Run by John Gilstrap
97 Pinkerton, Behave! by Steven Kellog
98 Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers
99 Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam
100 Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman

* Per the ALA: “Research suggests that for each challenge reported there are as many as four or five which go unreported.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"Coma": Japanese Bestseller?

A New Scientist article looked at the rates of human organ donation in various countries (see chart) and argued against the presumption that higher rates are due to national policies of "presumed consent" (a person is in the donor pool unless he opts out) vs "informed consent" (a person is out unless he opts in).

The writer theorized (based on experiences in the world's donation-leader, Spain) that rather than the law, high rates are the result of "efficient transplant coordination and the way families are approached," and went on to describe some of those factors.

All well and good and believable.

But for me, a huge question remains: What's going on in Japan??

Monday, September 29, 2008

Orphan Mail

You run an errand at the post office and, on your way out, notice an unattended little stack of envelopes on a side counter in the lobby. They're obviously forgotten, so you take a peek: the first looks like a credit card payment; the others are a utility payment and something to the Disabled American Vets. One has a stamp; the other two don’t have postage.

You look around, see no one, and consider taking them to one of the clerks at the counter. Instead, you pull out your new roll of stamps and, as a little pay-it-forward courtesy, affix postage and drop the envelopes in the mail slot.

Oops, bad idea. Very bad idea.

What’s the story?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Banned Books Week

The 27th annual American Library Association (ALA)-sponsored Banned Books Week begins Saturday, September 27 and extends through October 4.

To commemorate, I'll be reading the frequently challenged I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou ... and reading it in public as much as possible.

You might have some banned (or more likely, today, challenged) books among your own to-be-reads (or to-be-rereads). In addition to the ALA lists, take a look at the LibraryThing member project, BannedBooksLibrary -- click on See Library to browse its catalogue of more than 500 titles. Or browse at the University of Pennsylvania's Banned Books Online, a source for books that have been banned somewhere, at some point -- but are now freely and digitally available. (I’ve downloaded Jack London’s Call of the Wild and might get to it next week, too.)

What banned or challenged book are you going to read next week?

Tote bag available at the ALA Store.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Book Horror

From a post in an online forum:

Right at the moment, while I'm having my [apartment] painted, I have many boxes of books stored in the little bathroom [...] in the shower stall. I live in fear that somehow that shower is going to come on and drench my books.
Go ahead, writers -- be Stephen King.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Basics

I keep returning to a certain web space -- the writer's section at author Meg Waite Clayton's website. But I don't understand why. What draws me to a space for beginning writers? Haven't I internalized that material, and more, in these years of writing?

So I shrug it off ... and then visit again, and shrug.

And visit.

Until, finally, I pay real attention to the words in that first box on the screen. And I'm flooded with the sense of freedom and optimism I felt as a beginning writer: that writing can be simple ("Open a journal or your computer and start writing") and that writing can be fun ("What have you got to lose?").

Lesson (re)learned. And, periodically, reinforced through Meg's blog, 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started (see blogroll).

Monday, September 1, 2008

Second in a Series...

...of writerly Labor Day observations, this one prompted by my feeling a bit tucked away from "real life," especially as it relates to "real work."

It's from John Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel, the collected daily letters he wrote to his editor while drafting East of Eden:
Writing is a very silly business at best. There is a certain ridiculousness about putting down a picture of life. And to add to the joke -- one must withdraw for a time from life in order to set down that picture. And third one must distort one's own way of life in order in some sense to simulate the normal in other lives. Having gone through all of this nonsense, what emerges may well be the palest of reflections.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Virtual Vacation, Day 3

And every vacation needs some entertainment, yes? How about a movie -- a thriller! -- say, “The Googling”? In five parts:

I “Google Maps”
II “Google Moon”
III “Google My Maps”
IV “Google SMS”
V ...eep, a cliffhanger! (not yet released)

Then, for some laughs before falling asleep, go retro with a few of the 2(ish)-minute episodes of Stupid Game Show Answers.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Virtual Vacation, Day 2

If you prefer man-made scapes to natural ones, and have access to iTunes (via your computer even if you don’t use an iPod) -- search the iTunes Store for the Discovery Channel Video Podcasts. Then scroll through the archives and download “FYI” episodes. Enjoy the 1-2-minute tours around the Brooklyn Bridge, Empire State Building, Kennedy Space Center, Eiffel Tower, Great Wall, and Egyptian pyramids.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Virtual Vacation

Not traveling over this holiday weekend? ... yet craving an end-of-summer getaway?

Go virtual!

For the next three days, I’ll link to transporting sites that shake you loose from your day-to-day routine. And unlike real vacations -- that go poof! the moment you return home -- you can take these little breaks again and again, any time.

Now ... where better to begin than an immersion in nature?

Herewith, Beautiful Places in HD. Each 3-4-minute video includes an extended period of sounds from nature, evocative of the closing moments of CBS's Sunday Morning program. The photo above is clipped from the Redwood National Park episode.

Bon voyage!

Friday, August 22, 2008

I Used to Believe

One reason to wander around at I Used to Believe is to be reminded of the childhood perspective -- or any naive, or out-of-context perspective. From the site:

I Used To Believe is a funny and bizarre collection of ideas that adults thought were true when they were children.
But another is the quick opportunity to analyze different ways of communicating the same thing. Choose one of the site's most common beliefs, and read through the multiple entries describing the same belief. Notice that the entries are rated quite differently by the site's visitors (readers). Take a look at those with the highest ratings (they're shaded in blue and marked "rated beliefs") and notice how the writing goes beyond exposition by incorporating techniques of craft: sometimes an arc; a setting; a scene; dialogue.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


I overheard a man tell of a moment that occurred while watching a film with his three-year-old daughter:

Onscreen, two dinosaur eggs hatched and the tiny young dinosaurs emerged. Suddenly, a huge dinosaur came out of nowhere and snatched one of the babies in his jaws.

My daughter was horrified. “Daddy! What’s he doing?!”

I didn’t know what to do, so I hugged her. “Don’t worry, he’s just taking the baby somewhere safe.”
Oh, no no no.

I know a bit about this man and know he had an honorable intention: to ease his tiny daughter through a terrible moment. But his immediate response was in direct conflict with a longer-term goal.

She’s obviously a smart kid -- she interpreted that violent scene spot-on and reacted appropriately. Assuming she was old enough to deal with the film’s content (a big assumption), the moment offered her dad an opportunity to help her cope with what she saw. But if her dad’s response did quiet her, it was probably due less to comfort and more to a stunned confusion from having her reality denied and rewritten. It’s called crazymaking, and what she learns is to not trust herself.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Worst Firsts

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton wrote it worst (and first), in his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents -- except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
But since 1982, hundreds of writers have intentionally crafted opening sentences terrible enough to be awarded Winner, Runner-up, or Dishonorable Mention in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. This year’s winner, by Garrison Spik of Washington DC:

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped "Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J."
I gathered five favorites from the 2008 awards -- favorites because, ironically, there's something great in each:

Joanne watched her fellow passengers -- a wizened man reading about alchemy; an oversized bearded man-child; a haunted, bespectacled young man with a scar; and a gaggle of private school children who chatted ceaselessly about Latin and flying around the hockey pitch and the two-faced teacher who they thought was a witch -- there was a story here, she decided. (Tim Ellis, Haslemere, UK) [Ack, it's the writerly truth!]

"Let's see what this baby can do, Virgil," said Wyatt, as he floored the Charger, brushing a Dart out of the way, sideswiping an oncoming Lancer, rear-ending a Diplomat, and demolishing a row of Rams before catapulting head-on into the sheriff's Viper -- realizing that we'd indeed missed the turn-off to Abilene and ended up instead, in Dodge City. (Paul Curtis, Randburg, South Africa) [Clever!]

Like a mechanic who forgets to wipe his hands on a shop rag and then goes home, hugs his wife, and gets a grease stain on her favorite sweater -- love touches you, and marks you forever. (Beth Fand Incollingo, Haddon Heights, NJ) [Hey, it’s effective!]

Carmen's romance with Broderick had thus far been like a train ride, not the kind that slowly leaves the station, builds momentum, and then races across the countryside at breathtaking speed, but rather the one that spends all day moving freight cars around at the local steel mill. (Bruce Portzer, Seattle, WA) [Again, great imagery and symbolism!]

Bill swore the affair had ended, but Louise knew he was lying, after discovering Tupperware containers under the seat of his car, which were not the off-brand containers that she bought to save money, but authentic, burpable, lidded Tupperware; and she knew he would see that woman again, because unlike the flimsy, fake containers that should always be recycled responsibly, real Tupperware must be returned to its rightful owner. (Jeanne Villa, Novato, CA) [What a small, true, detail!]
But your mileage may vary. So please, enjoy the whole 2008 list. Then look at the 25 previous Grand Prize winners, read the rules for entering, and bookmark the submission page your own 2009 entry.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Hoo boy, watching the Olympics Synchronized Diving does something to my mind … it’s a magnet that pulls all the atoms in my brain into weird and perfect alignment.

I do love visual patterns and themes! When it occurred to me that the design of a certain pink TV kitchen was no accident, I realized other people enjoy them, too. I've since paused to take a snapshot whenever I’ve noticed examples.

Some are pleasing because they’re understated -- see how the colors of Murphy Brown’s clothing, hair, and skin are repeated in the lamp, the vertical blinds, and the background windows. Some are pleasing because they're coincidental -- like these three June issues that arrived together in the mail.

But others join the over-the-top collection:

from the 1970s Mary Tyler Moore show...

...the Ellen show...

...and Vera Bradley stores, where clerks coordinate the sack and tissue to whatever noisy pattern you’ve purchased.

Together now: shake your head to re-scatter the atoms ... you'll want to be ready for next week’s Olympics synchronized swimming!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Fast Forward

From a 1969 LaZBoy furniture ad, this image fit my child-self's vision of a newlywed couple's typical evening at home.

How is it the same (and different) from the couple's typical evening today, as they approach their 40th wedding anniversary?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Henry Bemis

What bibliophile doesn't freak while watching The Twilight Zone episode about a bookish man whose dream of unending time and unending books comes true?

Freak again: take a look at CBS's website, which streams video of classic TV shows, including that Henry Bemis episode.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Zero-Sum Game

A summer-story prompt, overheard from a teenage caddy:

When golfers drink beer, the happy guys get angry and the angry guys get happy.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

On- and Off-Stage

From Maureen Ryan’s Chicago Tribune article about tonight’s second-season premier of Mad Men:

[P]art of what makes Mad Men special is its affinity for the slow burn. There are secrets and contemplative moments. Some of its most evocative scenes show characters sitting and thinking. “You get to see what you don’t get to see on most TV shows,” [series creator Matthew] Weiner said. “You get to see them with [their public] faces and then finally, you get to see them alone.”
I like both aspects mentioned here. First, the slow burn -- which also draws me to Lost (its first season, especially) -- that the camera stays on a character for a long minute while the story deepens and then moves forward solely through an evolving expression.

And second, that this slow burn leaves air for the private moments that clarify character. It reminds me of an early passage in Uncle Tom's Cabin, where a senator votes to pass the Fugitive Slave Law, prohibiting assistance to runaway slaves even in northern states. Not many pages later, he personally gives money and transportation to an escaping slave couple. A simple question is: are people’s truer characters revealed by what they do when others are watching ... or by what they do when no one is looking? The complex answer: you need to see some of each to even suppose.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


There are the six-word memoirs to prompt little flashes of inspiration in your story-telling, and discussion threads of six-word stories (scroll through for links to similar sites).

But if you’re writing a steamier story, or have a romantic subplot in need of complications, try letting your mind wander through these eight-word sex memoirs (contains audio and text, mild adult content).

Monday, July 21, 2008

Too Cute

Well done! -- Photoshopping a Cute Overload screen into this fancy-pants scene...

...makes the men's interior monologues practically write themselves.

Go on, take some dictation.

Friday, July 18, 2008


It was an accumulating series of comments.

First was a passage in the soon-to-be-released novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society:

I have been looking at a book about artists and how they size up a picture they want to paint. Say they want to concentrate on an orange -- do they study the shape direct? No, they don’t. They fool their eyes and stare at the banana beside it, […] They see the orange in a brand-new way. It’s called getting perspective.
Similarly, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future suggested that while my left brain is busy analyzing something, my right brain takes in the essence of what I’m really interested in -- the something else.

Then there was someone’s passing comment -- that she always pays more attention to the extras in a scene than to the stars.

So I'm interested: that man on the very far right.*

What’s his story?

* photographed at the International Museum of Surgical Science

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Playing Tourist

My husband and I had a little staycation.

His choice: a Schaumburg Flyers minor league baseball game. A neat thing: taking a book along to read between innings (heck, between batters!).

My choice: a visit to the International Museum of Surgical Science. A neat thing: learning that ants served as the original surgical sutures. From the exhibit: “Around the 10th century BC, [suturing] called for an ant to be held over the wound until it seized the wound edges in its jaws. The ant was then decapitated and the death grip from the ant’s jaws kept the wound closed.” !!

Then we walked through Chicago’s utterly beautiful Gold Coast neighborhood (scroll down), to have lunch at FoodLife in Chicago’s Water Tower Place shopping center. A neat thing: using the Dyson Airblade hand dryer in the restroom, amazing!

Our mutual choice: a river cruise narrated by a docent from the Chicago Architectural Foundation (CAF). A neat thing: seeing the Marina City towers and thinking of my friend L, who suggests that their design is an homage to corn, the king of the Midwest (which, if it isn’t true, should be).

Another neat thing: we’ll keep the vacation mood going by ending an upcoming workday or two with a CAF Happy Hour Tour.

Monday, July 7, 2008


Contrary to the title, When You Are Engulfed in Flames is David Sedaris’s sixth collection of essays … not a survival guide. Except maybe for one passage:

…I’m still reluctant to put anyone out. Once someone sent a cake to my [hotel] room, and rather than call downstairs and ask for silverware I cut it with my credit card and ate the pieces with my fingers.
Clever and neat! At best, I’d have stabbed out the messy border of a piece using the handle of my toothbrush.

Friday, July 4, 2008


More fun with complex characters.

Yet mere randomness doesn't make for satisfying complexity. Why is this combination surprising? … and then, why is it believable?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Oil Rig

I'm lucky: I'm not unduly affected by the rising gasoline prices. (In fact, I welcome their long-overdue prompt of conservation.) But the prices will eventually mandate more of these rigs, or at least differently located ones.

What if living and working on one for 18 months was your next job?

Conceive a week's worth of entries from your gratitude journal -- three things, each day, that you find you appreciate out there.

Monday, June 30, 2008


Readers disagree: is it a “sin” to make notes in a book, or is it a gift to future readers?

From a post on a LibraryThing discussion thread, it’s at least a writing prompt:

I was in the Cincinnati Public Library doing some research when I found [a] genealogy that had writing in the margins of almost half of the pages. At first I was upset, but then it became obvious that the author had come to the library again and again over twenty years to update the book. The most recent entries were in a very frail, shaky script.
What’s the story?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Supervising Assessor

The supervising doctor in the Emergency Room sat with Mom and me in our little curtained cubicle. She reviewed the resident’s medical work-up of my mother. “What’s your relation?” she asked. “Sisters?”

I smiled and waited for her to look up from the chart and wink. After all, Mom was 38 when I was born. Sure, second and third marriages generate some surprising age ranges among today’s step-siblings. But 38 years? Would she look up and wink, already?

Her question hung in the air. Seriously? I looked like a seventy- or eighty-something? Granted, it was early; I hadn’t showered. But sisters?

“I’m her daughter,” I said. She shrugged. “I never make assumptions.”

I’ll use this someday, in some piece of writing. But my character will be edgier. For starters, she’ll say, “Gee, your assessment skills suck.”

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


On Saturday, preparing for a little road trip with my mom, I was next in line when the car wash broke. “Need to order a part,” they said; wouldn’t be repaired for two days. I backed out and drove home.

On Sunday, I was on my next-to-last load of laundry when the washing machine broke. “We’ve already repaired it once,” my husband and I said; we’d shop for a new one in four days, when I got back from my trip. We gathered the last loads and drove to the laundromat.

These things come in threes, yes? And in themes, yes?

I never dreamed that the third thing to break would be my mom. “Need to go to the hospital,” she said on Tuesday; she stayed six days. I stayed close for three, then my sister came and stayed close until discharge.

But what’s the theme?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Setting Maps

Further along into the book with the Scene Map that I blogged about the other day, was a Setting Map -- an overhead, blueprint-style rendering of the TV town of Mayberry, North Carolina, laid out by postal worker/artist Mark Bennett.

Interesting! So I googled Bennett and discovered he’s released a whole book of similar maps: TV Sets: Fantasy Blueprints of Classic TV Homes. I’ve mapped floorplans myself -- childhood classrooms, my house, a neighbor’s house, the house on my first favorite TV show (Bewitched). I borrowed Bennett's book from the library and am making my way through it as a series of puzzles about TV shows from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s: I cover Bennett’s map with a sheet of paper while I re-assemble my own mental image, then slide the paper away little by little to reveal his map and see how closely we match. The process feels like a really slow computer trying to load a screen image.

Next to Bennett’s book on the library shelf was Diana Friedman’s Sitcom Style: Inside America's Favorite TV Homes, loaded with both wide-angle and close-up photographs of familiar rooms from 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s series. I leafed through her book from back to front (to avoid chapter-heading spoilers) and instantly recognized almost every set. Then I read the accompanying design notes to learn how the furnishings and decor were selected to develop story, characterization, and theme.

While looking through both books, it seemed that my mind had organized and remembered the layouts and details of rooms more along the style of Bennett’s overhead blueprints, but that I now recognized them faster via Friedman’s front-facing photographs. Either way, I’m encouraged that, decades later, the TV fictions are so memorable … kudos to the storytellers who developed them so fittingly.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Scene Map

From You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination by Katharine Harmon, this image was created by graphic designer Tibor Kalman to promote a NYC restaurant. (Click on image to see larger size.)

Notice one napkin on the floor, the other curving onto a lap. See how the forks are held, take in the atmosphere of mirth.

Try mapping a still-shot of one of your scenes … noticing details like these along the way … then write out a first draft.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Men in Trees

What's this guy's backstory? (Click on image to see larger size.)

What's his next maneuver?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


The big picture: competing anchors from the three network evening-news programs appeared together, non-competitively, on this morning's Today show to promote Stand up to Cancer, a collaborative cancer-research fundraiser to be simulcast on September 5.

The detail: after a two-year absence, Katie Couric was back on the set of Today.

Surely everyone has experienced such a scene: a beloved or respected (or detested) employee returns to the workplace after an absence. What's your scene like? Or imagine your own return: how do you behave? how do others? how about your
"replacement"? Toss a twist into the mix, to throw everyone off-guard, and see what happens.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is full of insightful passages, among them a proposition that we tend to define people’s character in simple, binary ways (e.g. good or bad; aggressive or passive) rather than muddy things up by acknowledging their behavioral complexities. But Gladwell argues:

Character […] isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits […]. Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment. (emphasis added; page 163, pbk ed)

Gladwell’s comment pertains to real-people personality traits, but it also speaks to characterization in the writerly sense. Writers are advised to let characters develop beyond simple cliches, into surprising, conflicting, complex people. We’re advised to let more, and worse, things go wrong for them. Aha, I get it: it’s precisely when things begin to go wrong -- when characters lose control of their environments -- that they begin to reveal their complex selves.

Monday, May 12, 2008


From a retail display:

And I thought "work of art" referred to the words on the pages.

Friday, May 9, 2008

O! The Suspense!

Oh, to be able to dramatize tension this tight ... but by using words on a page ...

Try it, why don'tcha?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Tipping Points

I’m finally reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, an engaging exploration of how social trends ignite and spread.

It brings to mind an email from a friend who owns a restaurant franchise. He sees people do the same thing at the same time, seemingly out of nowhere:

Sunday was only moderately busy, with lunch rush ending early at about 12:30. Then at 2:50, we had 10 large orders within a 10-minute period. All 10 included a taco pizza.

We see it all the time in all areas of the business: one day everyone pays with checks, one day with credit cards, one day with twenties, one day with exact change, one day with fifties. One day everyone wants breasts, one day thighs, legs, wings, mashed potatoes, green beans, coleslaw, ranch dressing, deep dish crust, original crust, thin crust, on and on and on. Something clearly affects us that we are unaware of.

What trend (repetition) can you weave in to deepen your current piece of writing?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Three Windows

The floorplans are probably similar on all levels of this Chicago 3-flat, but the occupants might use the rooms differently.

Like those windows in the building's narrow extension on the left -- what's in the rooms behind each of them?

[Click on image to see larger view.]

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Word Count

Although tending to length isn’t critical while drafting a novel, I decided I wanted some parameters … that I might as well try to keep my manuscript within the realm of acceptable length all along rather than over-write now and need to seriously prune later.

So I researched publishers and gathered their preferred word-count ranges. Then I opened some of my favorite novels and estimated their word counts: the general number of words per line, multiplied by the number of lines per page, multiplied by number of pages in the book. For novels I don’t own but which are similar to the one I’m drafting, I planned to go to, where I’d view a page of the book and proceed as above. In the process, I stumbled upon a cool feature.

For some (Amazon says all) of the books with the “Search Inside!” feature, Amazon now provides text statistics, including word count. Simply select a book and scroll down the page past the Editorial Reviews and past the Product Details to the Inside This Book space. In the New! section, click on Text Stats. I’d estimated 60,000 words for Harriet the Spy, my favorite middle-grade (ages 9-12) novel; Amazon says 57,959.

You can compare the word count (and the book’s readability statistics) to other books -- by default, the comparison is against all others; click the arrow to target it to related titles, e.g. other books for children aged 9-12. Harriet the Spy is a slightly easier read than other middle-grade books, but much longer. And though it still sells today, it was first published in 1964; it will be important to consider the lengths of recently published novels.

[As to the absurdity of Amazon’s Text Stats, read this and this.]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


It's not the common things we notice, but the exceptions -- the contrast tells us something. On an early morning walk, the overwhelming majority of lawns go unnoticed until I come upon one that bears a fresh-delivered newspaper.

A writer could generalize stories about those households, based first upon the presence of a newspaper and then the choice of which one: most around here are Chicago Tribunes, a few are the Sun-Times. And then there's the lone yard with Britain's pink-orange Financial Times. What related uncommonalities does it suggest? Which of them could be tweaked to make a unique household even more surprising?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Ad Men

Maybe I was an ad man in a previous life.

As a small-town kid in this life, I loved the 1960s TV series, Bewitched, with its peek into a Manhattan advertising office and the spillover of work into home life. Two decades later, I liked thirtysomething’s ad-agency scenes, especially with the evil boss Miles Drentell (and despite their mocking of Bewitched). Today, my to-be-read bookshelves include Joshua Ferris’s Chicago-agency novel, Then We Came to the End and Peter Mayle’s nonfiction, Up the Agency.

And four weeks ago, I added a fifth: AMC-TV’s original series, Mad Men. I missed its premiere last summer; I missed its two Golden Globe awards at this year’s strike-abbreviated telecast. But I finally stumbled onto the series late in the replay of Season 1; I watched four episodes and I’m hooked. What’s not to be intrigued about: 1960 with its pervasive sexism, racism, alcohol and cigarettes. The behaviors are so, so wrong, yet they’re our history. Unfortunately, in some places they're still very much our present.

Season 2 begins in primetime in July, but another replay of Season 1 begins with Episode 1 tonight. Check it out and set your recorder for midnight (Eastern time) on Sunday nights on AMC-TV.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A View To A...

The image is a teaser for's article about view-blocking neighbors.

Read the article but for now, forget the non-fiction. Right now, sit your character in that chair and write the scene.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Trust Me

At age nine, my classmate Mark was small with dark eyes and dark hair -- even dark peach fuzz on cheeks still round as a baby’s. His terrible grades belied a quick mind and, sitting across the aisle from me, he’d pranked me countless times. Whenever Sister Mary Albertina reminded us to use our talents for good, I was torn -- between watching how long her eyes stayed on Mark, and looking at him myself.

So, after nearly a year of fourth grade, I was ready when his heyday came around. By the afternoon, he’d been able to squeal, “April Fool!” a dozen times to other kids. But not to me. Finally, he did lean across the aisle and poke me.

I ignored him.

“Hey,” he persisted, “there’s a dollar on the floor.”

Was he crazy? Did he think I was still that easy?

“Yeah, right.”

“No, really! It’s on the floor in front of your desk.”

I could feel others listening in. So I didn’t look at Mark and I didn’t look where his hand reached over and pointed.

Instead, I shrugged. “You can have it.”

“All right!”

He jumped up and as he took a step, I peered around my desk. And saw a dollar on the floor. He snatched it and waved it at me and I heard laughing as my face got hot.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Reading Globally

I mapped my armchair travels after reviewing the settings of some geographically memorable books I’ve read.

It seems backward, but I've physically visited almost twice as many U.S. states as I’ve visited through books -- 43 in body versus 24 in mind. (Maybe it's a dearth of books set in certain states ... "they say" it takes extraordinary content to overcome a flyover-country setting.)

My international travels are more parallel in number, although the literary locales have been markedly more exotic.

I’m shocked by the amount of white space on these maps! To remedy that, I'd love to hear recommendations for books (fiction or nonfiction) that explore the planet.

[Then go map some international or stateside
aspect of your own life.]

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


While it's unlikely you've experienced a doppelganger (a physical double of yourself), it's quite likely you have numerous googlegangers -- virtual doubles -- people who share your name and whose hits are mixed with yours on the result pages of a Google search.

I don’t have a googleganger; my name is unique. But my maiden name gets a few pages of hits, among them a firefighter, realtor, yachtswoman and psychologist. Until I noticed that one had been a guest on Sally Jessy Raphael’s TV show, I’d forgotten that I was once an on-air caller to her 1980s radio program.

That maiden self did come close to having a doppelganger. I walked into my small-town high school as a freshman and discovered that my 'til-then unique first name was already in use by an outgoing, assertive senior. (Three years older + popular = very intimidating.) Unbelievably, she later married a man with my surname!

Who are your doubles? What details about them spark energy?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

It Takes a Thief

From the Chicago Tribune:

“[A national pharmacy chain agreed] to pay $36.7 million to settle charges it routinely overbilled Medicaid for a popular generic antacid drug, cheating federal and state governments out of millions of dollars over more than six years. Prosecutors say the pharmacy chain illegally substituted a more expensive capsule form of the drug instead of the prescribed tablets to increase its Medicaid reimbursement.”

A similar case, involving another pharmacy corporation, was settled for $49.5 million in 2006. The cases have in common a pharmacist who noticed something amiss, contacted an attorney and the rest is history.

All hail this crusading whistle-blower -- an unadulterated hero!

Hmm, not so fast.

Consider that the law provides him with a share of the settlements -- in his case, more than $10 million. Consider that he himself was arrested in 1992 as part of another Medicaid-fraud scheme, the FBI’s Operation Goldpill. He was sentenced with a fine, probation, and temporary suspension of his pharmacist license.

In a novel, would readers still view his whistle-blowing as altruistic? Or as greed? Or as paying a debt to society? It’s a tough call … it’s known as complex characterization.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Miracle Money

The well-dressed twentysomething ahead of me in line at Starbucks talked on his cell phone while the cashier poured his grande coffee. When she set the cup in front of him and announced the price, he held out a crisp, double-folded bill.

She didn’t take it, but asked, “Do you have something smaller?”

He shook his head.

“Do you have a debit or credit card?”

He shook his head.

She held up her hands in surrender. “It’s on us.”


It’s a great scam: make the rounds of Starbucks locations with a $50 bill that never gets used because the cafes won’t accept currency larger than $20. Another customer this morning had offered a $100 bill. Note to Starbucks: Complete the financial transaction, then pour the coffee!

Note to creatives: Look deep … find these customers' consciences. What is a positive explanation for them expecting (heck, for wanting the bulkiness of) $98 in change?

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Astrapo’s comment yesterday about extreme latitudes is perfect timing for today’s astronomic equinox.

Today's pattern of sunlight (top image, as of a few minutes ago) is centered onto the earth and is moderate even at the extremes of the north and south poles. But just two months ago (below, at about the same time of day), it was near-continuous dark at the northernmost latitudes; it was dark even longer during the December solstice. Things get squirrelly when diurnality and nocturnality collide … so get ready, southern hemisphere!

You can keep an eye on the daily and seasonal sunlight patterns through the blogroll link to the World Sunlight Map.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Zoned Out

Presently, the earth is divided into time zones that organize the day similarly around the planet: dawn arrives in the early morning hours and nightfall comes toward the end of the 24-hour cycle.

But what if there were no zones -- what if time were constant around the world? Which location might evolve as the authority that dictates how the clock is set? And what might it be like to live halfway around the world from there -- to function where daylight and the clock are inversely correlated?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Records Keeper

You've heard about records getting mixed up.

But New Scientist magazine reports:
The average number of people wrongly declared dead every day in the US as a result of data input errors by Social Security staff: 35.
In the realm of 10,000 per year, suppose they're not erroneous mix-ups. Who is the clerk and what's in common among the people s/he's targeting?

Friday, March 7, 2008


What kind of person goes to this trouble -- to destroy data on a technology that's already dead?

Or maybe the question is: What kind of data needed such absolute destruction?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Moving On

I've been recently mulling some ironic timing: a friend's husband who died on Valentine's Day, another friend's mom who died on Mother's Day.

But this week, a coincidence seems a little sweeter: a friend's 97-year-old stepfather, a life-long farmer, passed away on March 1 -- farmers' traditional moving day.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Such a Girl

I hate road salt. Hate following snowplows that spray it directly at my car's undercarriage. Hate that it turns my parkway lawn into brown florist's moss. My husband and I are more likely to risk a fall than sprinkle salt on our sidewalk.

Then again, I didn't know it came in pretty colors...

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Six-Word Memoirs

It’s said that Ernest Hemingway wrote the shortest story ever:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

In 2006, the storytelling website SMITH Magazine challenged people to do the same with memoir. Now, editors Rachel Fershleiser and Larry Smith have compiled nearly a thousand of the best into Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure.

While some resemble epitaphs (It was worth it, I think - by Annette Laitinen), most, like Hemingway, say enough in six words to evoke a full narrative arc (After Harvard, had baby with crackhead - Robin Templeton).

There are stories of vulnerability:
I was born some assembly required. - Eric Jordan
Quiet guy; please pay closer attention. - Jonathan Lesser
Can my words have footnotes, please? - Amy Harbottle

…and misfit:
Right brain working left brain job. - Dave Terry
Type A personality. Type B capability. - Keith Lang
Fact-checker by day, liar by night. - Andy Young

…of humor and joy:
Four children in four decades; whew! - Loretta Serrano
The day just kept getting better. - Jeff Cranmer

…and heat:
Brought it to a boil, often. - Mario Batali
Asked to quiet down; spoke louder. - Wendy Lee
Asked and answered, asshole, next question. - Joe Lockhart

…and cleverness:
Palindromic novels fall apart halfway through. - Chuck Clark
EDITOR. Get it? - Kate Hamill

The compilation is not only entertaining, it's inspiring. You can’t help but consider your own memoir, even while you mind-write some of these into full-length fiction.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Very Wet Snow

What I learned while shoveling snow today:

1) trying to clear a sidewalk of standing water is as futile as trying to shovel a lake empty;

2) all it takes to sound like Monica Seles is to lift a shovel-full of this stuff; and

3) when you hear the rumble of a 10-ton snowplow barreling down the road toward you (and spraying a 20-foot arc of slush across lawns, sidewalks, and sides of houses along its way) ... the driver will slow appreciably if he sees you freak, throw down your shovel, and run for cover.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Call to Order

Go ahead -- anthropomorphize.

Take the dysfunctional drama that lies beneath the calm facade of meetings at your workplace...

...and bring it to life in this group of bird-brains.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Younger, Prettier?

Once upon a time, there was a settled, committed couple. They’d been together for years and had twice become Mom and Dad to sets of triplets (triplets!). Incredibly, they seemed to be on their way to another set again this spring.

Then a younger woman showed up at their house and started hanging around. Mom alternately tried to befriend her and get rid of her, turning at times to vicious behavior. Then, suddenly, it was Mom who was gone -- out of the house and away from the young ones, who immediately regressed. Next thing anyone knew, there’s Dad and the new girl, taking up together.

I hear your response: "Such a cliched story! Give me something surprising."

Well, would it help to remove the personification -- to realize that the story’s characters aren’t human but rather American bald eagles? Their unfolding drama surprised everyone who watched the Norfolk Botanical Garden’s Eagle Nest-cam over the past week.

Scientists are already hoping for new eggs from the new couple this season. I’m a scientist too, but I need a little more time to remove the last traces of personification before I wish those birds my best.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


I hear an engine idling on the street below. I hate that our house seems to be the perfect spot to pull over to the side of the road and take care of business. Sales reps stop to look through big binders on the passenger seat. Cautious moms make cell-phone calls.

When the low rumble continues, I look out a window. Ack! -- a FedEx truck. They require a signature for delivery and here I’ve been, working upstairs, out of range of the doorbell. I race downstairs, hoping to get the driver’s attention before he leaves the arrange-for-redelivery slip and zooms off. I throw open the front door.

The truck is still there! But there’s no package, no slip; I check again. Then I stand at the door and notice the driver’s seat is empty. He must still be in the back, looking for my package. He appears at the door of his truck, a Gatorade bottle in hand. He leans out the door and tosses a few ounces of pale liquid across my parkway.



That pisses me off and I stand behind the storm door, hands on hips and scowling, hoping he’ll notice my disapproval before he drives off. Instead, he hops out of the truck and carries a large box up my sidewalk.

I open the door. “Thanks,” I say neutrally.

“You are so welcome!” he says, and he winks, and I let him win me over.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Prompt Yourself #3

I’ve collected writing prompts by flipping through TV channels, but today’s come from my answers to someone’s query: What book titles are complete sentences?

Consider the titles below as a dialogue. The “hard work” -- crafting the words -- is done! Now just play with transitions until the conversation flows…

A Complaint is a Gift
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Are Your Lights On?
Does Anything Eat Wasps?
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
I Could Tell You Stories
I Feel Bad About My Neck
I Like You
I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This
Me Talk Pretty One Day
Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf
No One Belongs Here More Than You
Ron Carlson Writes a Story
Something Happened
The Devil Wears Prada
There Are No Children Here
This is Your Brain on Music
We Are All Welcome Here
What Einstein Told His Cook
When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull up a Chair
You Are a Dog
You’re Lucky You’re Funny

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Lesson Learned

I studied Spanish for two years back in high school, and remember the exhilarating moment when I caught myself thinking in Spanish.

I've studied writing for longer than that now, but felt the same exhilaration this afternoon when I noticed that the snow was sticking like whipped marshmallow to the east side of everything.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Oh, Right...

... You need to vent the potatoes before you bake them.

What caution did you ignore and then things blew up?

Monday, January 28, 2008

They're Back!

American bald eagles are headed back into parenting mode at the Norfolk Botanical Garden!

Since their three chicks fledged last summer, this pair has built a new nest in a different tree, and spent January courting and mating.

The Norfolk Botanical Garden has relocated its terrific eagle nest-cam (linked on my blogroll), and upgraded it with night-vision capabilities to provide 24/7 streaming video of the nest.

Cross your fingers for egg-laying in early February.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Cloak of Invisibility

You probably haven’t hidden in a cabinet during a Nazi attack, as this little guy did in the screenshot from the film Life Is Beautiful.

But you've been inconspicuous somewhere. What did you see and hear?

Be inconspicuous again today. See which eavesdropped details gather juice, and put them together into a story.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Say it isn't so.

Tell me Americans aren't getting another government rebate check.

I was happy enough when the first check was announced, $600 per couple, back in the spring of 2001. They were going to be distributed in consecutive order, according to the last digits of taxpayers’ social security numbers. And you couldn't get numbers lower than mine! Except -- it went by the (grrr) Head of Household’s number, and you couldn't get higher than my husband’s.

We could afford what we needed then, and most of what we wanted -- overall, we’re not big consumers. But we’d been heads-down in work for a very long time, and it was fun to spend June, July, and August mentally putting the check toward an end-of-summer splurge.

Until finally, the last checks were mailed.

And the next week was 9/11.

The $600 is still in our bank.