Thursday, January 19, 2012

Simply Fun: A Sitcom in Print

Most folks in the writing community around Amarillo, Texas know Travis Erwin wrote The Feedstore Chronicles. And if they’ve read comments about his book, they’ve heard it is entertaining. It isn’t merely entertaining; it delivers at least a smile per page, and provides enough laughter to eliminate enervation caused by a difficult workday.

If you are offended by language you’d hear in a bar—oh, you’ve never been in a bar? –then don’t read it. If you’d like a lighthearted book that illustrates not merely good, but great writing, get the book.
Its cover hints at comedy, but belies the fact that a true word crafter produced The Chronicals…., with prose worthy of the book’s price and time spent reading it.
Characters in The Feedstore Chronicles are too lifelike to be entirely fictionalized, but too much fun to be anything but. And fresh metaphors enliven scenes: “I thieved the position from Hunter Thomas as blatantly as a pickpocket lifts your wallet.”
Serious readers will appreciate techniques Mr. Erwin uses to provide transitions and back stories. They’ll savor an expert’s use of vocabulary and skill in creating dialog. They’ll notice how deftly the author weaves events into his story.
Readers of all stripes will simply relish a coming of age story—a sitcom in print.

© 2012, Bernice W. Simpson

Monday, January 16, 2012

Role Playing -- by KittyCat

One day last week when I was bored, I jumped on Mom and sent her lunch tray flying. I usually don't do things like that, but I wanted to play, and Mom didn't. Not only that, she was chowing down on a chicken sandwich and wouldn't share. So I crouched down, pretending I was a great cat hiding in high savanna grass, looking for yummy wildebeests. Excited, I pounced and grabbed one. Oops--it was Mom's foot in those dopey reindeer sock slippers she got for Christmas. She jerked, flipped her tray, almost bonking me with an upside-down teacup. Boy, what a mess!

"KittyCat!" Her voice shot through me like a bullet.

"Yes Mommy?" I mewled all innocent like. I sat on her dropped sandwich so she couldn't pick it up and toss it out.

"Move!" It was an order. Arms folded, Mom glared down at me. "I have just had it with you, Cat."

Ha, ha. For sure I've got her good and ticked when she calls me plain old "Cat." I'm thinking this could be fun, so I laid myself down and flattened my belly over that sandwich so tight, I almost pushed it clear through the carpet. Then, back to playing like I'm that savanna cat and protecting my prey, I hissed.

Bad move. Next second, I was standing on the garage floor. And that's only cuz cats land on their feet.

Except for Mom's burst of temper though, it was kinda like a kid getting sent to his room where he's got all those cool electronic games and such. I had fun checking out stuff tossed out there around Christmas, and exploring places rearranged since the last time I played in the garage.

When I stepped down from a shelf to the top of the clothes dryer, its warmth made me sleepy. About that time, Mom came and scooped me up.

Taking me inside and over to the couch, she set me on a cushion. "I expect after being stuck in that messy garage, you'll think about being a good kitty," she said.

And of course I would. Sleeping, even savanna cats are good kitties.

(c) 2012, Bernice W. Simpson

Friday, January 13, 2012

Writing Lessons: Now Under $5.00

The review below is a reprint of a book that may be out of print, but despite changes in the publishing industry, it contains timeless advice. Find like-new copies for under $5.00 from several online book sellers.

A review of The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers
Author: Betsy Lerner
Publisher: Riverhead Books
pp: 284

Irresistible. When I saw the name "Skrunk" used as a verb on the front cover of a library book, I had to pick it up. Who had the audacity to poke fun at a venerated grammarian that way? Was the coined verb a ploy to gain notice, to help sell the book? I leafed through it.

Delightful. The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers deserves notice, if nothing else, for its humor in observation of writers. Author Betsy Lerner quips, "the great paradox of the writer's life is how much time he spends alone trying to connect with other people." I was hooked--compelled to borrow the book. It is a slender volume you can put on your nightstand and enjoy like a bedtime novel. Its true tales about authors entertain as well as a storyteller's yarn, but without the agitation of plot turns to disrupt sleep later.

Delectable. If you collect quotations, end-of-chapter zingers, or examples of grammatical usage, Lerner's prose is writing worth citing. You can be certain she didn't say "nor will I Skrunk you over the head with rules about style," because she lost her thesaurus. Her 284 pages offer a feast of everyday language seasoned with uncommon words and a bouquet of informal expressions.

Commendable. It is a how-to book that reads like fiction, but The Forest for the Trees is not fluff. Every anecdote serves a purpose, every tickle delivers more than humor. Do you want to feel comfortable the next time you meet an agent or editor? Are you curious about what happens to a book between manuscript and manufactured product? Would you like to know about the one thing that will probably assure your success? Betsy Lerner answers your questions.

Memorable. There's an intimacy in Ms. Lerner's writing. You almost feel like you're sitting with her, exchanging a lively conversation about being an author, her experience as an editor, and sharing your common interest--books. You can memorize a bulleted "do and don't" list for writers, or you can simply relax and imbibe Betsy Lerner's book. If you read it only for the tidbits about John Gresham and others, expect to absorb cleverly interspersed advice.

Indispensable. Early in her carer, Betsy Lerner "began to understand the cyclical nature of the publishing business, the brutality of the media, and the vagaries of the market place." Today, an unknown writer's ride from manuscript to marketing is even tougher. Few succeed. Despite the odds, however, two decades of editorial experience tell Ms. Lerner that a draft for another classic is gestating in Somewhere, USA. Is that your baby? Lerner's book can bridge Project Plausible to Goal Achievable.

(c) 2012, Bernice W. Simpson

Monday, January 9, 2012

Fabulously Funny -- by KittyCat

I finally get to use the computer that Mom's been hogging all day. Dad's home, so she has to fix supper. She said she wouldn't clean house today because tomorrow is her birthday, and just like office workers, she plans to take the day off, so she'll clean house then. After that, she's going to make Dad take her out to eat for her birthday.

I don't get it. If she gets kicks from doing all that housework, why doesn't she just go ahead and make supper, too?

I thought she did housework on Mondays so she could have the rest of the week to goof off at her computer. Well, she's mostly at her computer. When she isn't, she's reading or scribbling in a notebook while asking folks questions on the phone.

It's crazy. On her so-called working days, she even admits to sitting around all day. But then she complains about how all that reading and writing makes her back hurt, so she has to go for a walk.

It gets crazier. Now she's in this group called TAB--Three Active Brains. Active? HA! They meet at each others' houses so they can concentrate better without noisy people around them. Really? I think it's cuz snacks and drinks cost more at coffee places. It doesn't take any thinking at all to eat cracker sandwiches and cherry tarts. That's work?

They're changing the name to FAB. The letters stand for "Four Active Brains." That's Mom plus three more that are a whole lot like her. "FABulous," they said.

Ha, ha... I'm thinking how fabulously funny tomorrow will be. When switching her housecleaning day, Mom forgot that tomorrow FAB meets at our house.

(c) 2012, Bernice W. Simpson

Outlining Made Simple, Part II

If you used the outlining system explained in Outlining Made Simple and your writing assignment was a page or less in length, I’m certain it worked for you. In that blog, we deliberately did not tell how to use the system for outlining a school research paper or a 2,500-word magazine feature. The reason: too much information can overwhelm most of us. We learn best in small increments.
We also learn by doing. Like downhill skiing, just reading about the subject won’t keep your face out of the snow.  So, if you don’t have a writing assignment, give yourself one—a short story, essay, or several pages in your journal—and follow along. Since the two blogs deal with the same subject, think of them as Outlining Made Simple, Parts I and II. Read Part I. That is the bunny trail.  
Here’s a summary of the bunny trail: To outline your writing, list miscellaneous thoughts about your subject on the right side of a 2-columned table. Next, place a number in each cell in the table’s left-hand column to indicate the note’s order in your piece. Then, highlight the column and click “Sort.” Now your thoughts are in logical order, and your article or story is ready to for a quick first draft.
In Part II, the slope isn’t frightfully steep.  We are still working in a table using Microsoft’s Word 2007, but this time we are using additional features. We will add rows to the top of the table, split the table and use commands “Split Screen” and “View Windows Side by Side.” If you are not familiar with those features, look them up in “Help,” or send me a note in “Comments,” and I’ll explain how to use them.
Use of the extra features will help you glide down a long slope. If your list of notes continues past one page, enumerating hundreds of thoughts can be a dizzying chore. Long lists need presorting. Follow these steps:
1.       Scan your notes and think of topics within your subject.
2.       Estimate the number of topical subdivisions you’ll have, and add that number of blank rows to the top of your table.
3.       Split the table after the last blank row. Similar to your listing of notes in the first table, list your topics in your newly drawn table.
4.       Next, assign a letter (a, b, c, and so forth) to each topic according to the order you want sections to appear in your paper.
5.       Highlight the left column, and press “sort.”
You have constructed your paper’s framework. Next, you will group all those miscellaneous notes to an order you can work with. You need the lettered list handy for referral while you go through your notes. You can print it. That works at home. But too often in a school or office, your one-page document’s place in the printing queue follows an order for a dozen copies of a 30-page collated booklet. Murphy’s Law applies: the printer jams. By the time your document prints, you could have finished your outline. Steps:

1.       Use the command “Split Screen” to keep the section’s list at the top of the monitor’s window. Now it remains in place for quick reference.
2.       Next, scroll through the list of notes, assigning each the letter of the topic a particular note will be grouped with.
3.       When each note is paired to a letter, highlight the table’s left-hand column, and click on “Sort.” Now disparate notes are pulled together into groups of related topics.
4.       Working with one letter at a time, decide on how you want to arrange the thoughts or notes in that particular group. Assign each note a number, and write that number beside the letter. The “c” group in the left column’s list may look something like this: c2, c5, c1, c4, c3.
5.       Highlight the part of the column containing only the letter you are working with. Click “Sort.”
Repeat the action for each lettered group in your notes. If you followed the steps outlined here, your notes logically arranged, almost represent your first draft. How easy is that?
©, 2012 Bernice Simpson

Friday, January 6, 2012

Writing Outlines Made Simple -- By Suzi Sandoval and Bernice W. Simpson

Award-winning Toastmaster, Suzi Sandoval, provides her audiences with speeches full of exceptional material presented in a concise and understandable manner.
Preparation for a speech or article begins with a topic and research for that topic. Once facts are gathered they need to be sorted, a process once done on index cards. "With our system, I can get those ducks in a row so much faster now," said Suzi.
Bernice said, "Before we developed our outline system, sometimes I spent so much cut-and-paste time on an article, I was tired of it before the writing started."
Here is the convenient method we use to outline an article or speech. We used 2007 Microsoft Word for the steps below. If you use Open Office or another word processing program, certain details will differ, but the overall concept should work for you.
            Ten Easy Steps to Create your Table. 
1.      From, the Home ribbon, go to Insert tab.
2.      Click on Tables
3.      Click on arrow, to insert a table.
4.      Hover cursor over “Insert table.” The line will turn yellow. Click.
5.      An “Insert table” box appears with choices.
6.      Choose the number of columns; for this particular purpose, we choose 2 columns.
7.      Choose the number of rows. For this particular purpose, we start with 12 rows.
8.      Click OK.
9.      By default, the column with is set on “auto” which means your two columns are the same width.
10.  To change the width click on the column line, and using the ruler for a guide, drag the line to the left to create one narrow column on the left and a wide column to the right.  

            Six Steps to Prepare Your Outline.
1.      In the rows on the right, jot down thoughts that pertain to your subject. Use one row for each thought. Use the down arrow to move from one row to the next.
2.      If you need more than the 12 rows in your table, use this quick method: simply move your curser to the outside of the table on the right side. Click on the "enter" key and another row will appear. Repeat for each extra row you want. Note: you must position the curser (use the "back" key or move it with your mouse) to the outside of the table to perform the action.
3.      Now you are ready to sort those miscellaneous thoughts to chronological order. Go through your list of notes, and place a number beside each note in what you think is a logical order. Where you are unsure of the exact order, assign a number to each major point. Next look for supporting material, and give those notes the number plus a small letter: 1a, 1b, and so forth.
4.      On the ribbon, choose the “Home” tab.
5.      On the ribbon, go to the “Paragraph” section. Find the icon for “sort.” It is an A above Z with a down arrow beside it. Click on it. A sort box will appear.
6.      By default, it is ready. Simply click OK.

Suzi and Bernice hope you'll try our outlining method. Let us know if you find it helpful.

(c) 2012, Susana Sandoval and Bernice Simpson

Monday, January 2, 2012

At the Click, Say "CAT" -- by KittyCat

After supper one night last week, I got up on Dad’s chair to get my ears and chin scratched. “Oh, good,” Mom said, “Keep him occupied while I set up the computer.”

Dad kinda frowned trying to connect thoughts of scratching my ears and Mom turning the computer on.

“I’ll need your help in a few minutes,” she said. “I’ve already tried to hold KittyCat up for the camera to catch both of us, and he wiggles out of the picture just before it snaps. I need you to hold him for me—first while I comb his jabot—he’s been obstinate about being groomed—and then to pose him close to me for our picture.”

“Comb his what?” 

“His jabot...” She pointed to my neck and chest, “see how his fur’s not smooth and even here? He’ll look scruffy in the photo.” 

Dad kinda frowned again. He’s not interested in fashion or hair styles, and I’m not either. He said he was going to bed in a bit cuz he had to get up real early, so he’d listen to his football game while he fell asleep.

“Well, in that case, I think I can take his picture, and then use one of these programs to fix it.”

By this time I had walked across the back of the couch and sat behind Mom. I saw her type this in a search box: photo enhancement.

As she clicked around different places, I finally figured out what “photo enhancement” means. I’m thinking, she can just check around for cats, then. If I’m not good enough, she can find another model.

But a second later, I remembered the pumpkin patch photo shoot, and how I outsmarted her. I slid down from the couch to the floor, and rubbed Mom’s leg with a generous show of playful affection. Let the fun begin. By the time I got tired of mucking up Mom’s picture plans, we’d see who looked scruffy.

Four hours and a half bag of bribery treats later, Mom still didn’t have the picture she wanted. I rested on the back of a chair in the living room. “Finally…and this will be so sweet,” she said as she set up the computer camera in front of me. Cat-quick I sat up and moved over just before it clicked. For a senior, Mom wasn't so slow herself.

Want a big toothy smile when you aim the camera at folks? Forget “smile, and say cheese.”  “CAT” works fine.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Personal Mail -- Never Outdated

Parked in front of a friend's house, I watched the mail delivery on her street. A hand which appeared from the side of a creeping vehicle shoved mail in rural-style boxes located near the curb in front of each house. In my brother's neighborhood, a bank of boxes located on a through street's boulevard holds the mail for dozens of houses. I wonder what hazards exist for the community residents stopping to grab their box's contents during rush hour traffic.

In our neighborhood, the elderly often sit on their porches and watch for their mail delivery. They usually smile and exchange a few pleasantries with their mail carrier, perhaps the only person to walk to their door that day. When I see our mailman coming, I like to meet him at the street and say hello. I think it saves him twenty steps. A vestige of the past, in our efficiency-oriented and electronic world, there is somethng welcoming about hand-to-hand delivery. It's personal.

The few cards and letters sent by friends and family are almost part of by-gone days as well. Animated cartoons, dazzling video displays and carolers singing into our computer screen replaced most of the Christmas cards we received this year. It's hard to say which I enjoyed more--the videos or receipt of cards, many with a letter enclosed.

Regardless of how they're delivered, traditional cards and letters have their place in this computer age. Last year an Alzheimer's patient in a nursing home proudly showed me her card display. Whether remembered or imagined, she had joyful stories to tell about those who sent them.

And words put to paper are not just for those who don't have a smart phone or computer. Last week, I sent a letter on personal-sized stationery to a friend's husband because I couldn't find an appropriately worded card. Only a letter would do. Tech savvy or not, when emaciated by disease, who would find pleasure reading emails?

To post it, I merely opened the front door. Our neighborhood, developed in the 1940s and 50s, knows postal service convenience. Our letter carrier not only delivers mail to our door, (our mail goes through a slot right into the house) but picks up outgoing mail clipped to the mailbox flap. When USPS cuts the service we're accustomed to, I'll miss it. But I'll continue writing personal notes on cards and attractive stationery.

"I do it so seldom, composing a letter is a chore," a woman said recently. In a future blog, I'll offer tips, because regardless of how delivered, recipients appreciate a personal note.

(c) 2012, Bernice W. Simpson