Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Unhappy Halloween Week -- by KittyCat

Way back when, people looked up to cats (even to cats snoozing on a floormat) and treated them like gods. Now cats are treated like goods, or worse, like they’re kinda worthless goods.

Well, not all cats. A famous artist said cats are masterpieces, and there are people who really love cats. There’s even a word for them: ailurophiles. Bet Mom can’t even pronounce it. Well that’s no big deal cuz I can’t either. Besides Mom shouldn't love all cats—just me.

And she does, but it gets crazy sometimes. Like today, so warm, you’d thought it was summertime outside, and Mom decided I should come in way before supper—“don’t want you out after dark,” she said.

Mom hardly lets me play outside at night, and specially not on Halloween. Monday, though, when it was freezing and barely daylight, Mom kicked me out to go potty first thing—before breakfast. How loving is that?

No sense in being cold, starving, and miserable I thought, so decided to catch a bird. Hidden by the Jeep’s tire, I felt my body twitch as a starling landed close to the driveway. I inched forward in the tire’s shadow. Clueless about its fate, the bird was checking under leaves at the driveway’s edge. Clack, the front door opened. Swoosh, the bird flew away. I hissed at Mom.

Mom made me come inside. I saw she had filled my dish to the top, but I wasn't gonna act happy about it after what she’d just done. I got up on the plant table and looked out the window. And guess who was in my yard? Stewie!

His family left some stuff behind when they moved to an apartment. Mom heard Stewie got dumped at the pound, and felt bad for him. When she saw him Monday, she got leftover steak from the fridge, pinched off a fly-sized bite for me, and took the rest out to Stewie. Can you believe it? Steak!

In a bit, I figured by the way Mom had dressed and was hurrying around she was going somewhere. Well, the morning hadn't started good, but at least I could have the computer to myself without the scary vac monster messing up my day.

Wrong. Mom had closed the office door.

That night it was worse. She came home smelling like she’d been to the pound. I smelled dogs. Mom’s a sucker for their brown eyes begging attention. I smelled cats all around and up and down Mom’s pant legs. I was so ticked!

I’ll bet a ghost in an empty house had more fun than I did this week. The up side is Halloween’s over, Tomorrow’s a brand new month, and the month after that I’ll get lots of goodies. I may not be a god, but when I think of that red stocking full of toys and treats, I feel like one. 

(c) 2012, Bernice W. Simpson

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Scatterings of Yesteryear: Backstory Techniques

Interject. What does that word bring to mind? Interruption? If you think interruption instead of backstory, it will help you avoid extraneous material. By weaving in only crucial details, your final product will resemble a subtle pattern in silk versus a coarse woolen plaid.  

When critique group members use words like “jump” or “awkward,” or say “something’s not working here,” or “needs transition,” the problem may lie in how you handled the backstory of a character or plot. The issue is particularly challenging for beginning writers.

A character’s thoughts that trigger a flashback can work: Bernard looked out at the ocean, and after all those years, remembered the tsunami’s destruction of his village. But as a literary technique, it’s almost a cliché, isn't it? If you are learning to write, use it for now. With experience you'll find better techniques.

Remember background interrupts the story’s flow. Write your thoughts, then cut where you can. For example, Leslie had trouble putting the doggie boots on Ben. The last time she had taken her dog to her uncle’s place, Ben whimpered as Leslie spent hours tweezing burrs from the fur on his lower legs and between the dog’s toes which were bleeding from walking on the barbs. Delete any information not necessary for the story. The doggie boots Leslie put on Ben would protect his feet from the burrs around her uncle’s place. If the reader must know Leslie had to remove burrs the last time, the reader understands removal of burrs is time consuming and a dog would probably whimper. No need to include them unless the details are pertinent to the plot.

Sometimes inner thoughts work. Greg was not saddened by his father’s death because his dad had constantly abused his children. Instead of describing Greg’s treatment, put yourself in Greg’s shoes at his father’s funeral. Greg half smirked at the man in the casket. “Good riddance, Dad. What would you think of being buried without your weapons—your belt, your hard-toed work boots, your hands rolled into knock-down fists?” 

Here a writer tells how two characters met by connecting flowers from the past to the present: Carla Laughed, “Cosmos planted along this fence again. Six years ago a sudden swarm of black hoppers prompted me to knock on Allen’s door. I was afraid those insects would infest the neighborhood.”

Scatter background information as much as possible. Interject details as smoothly as you can, and keep them short. Holding his burger with two hands, Marvin took a deep breath and inhaled his high school hangout. Burgers, fries, and a whiff of chili. He looked straight ahead: the jukebox was missing. Once referenced, the writer can use the jukebox to pepper the story with background details later.

You can frontload crucial information with a prologue. I generally don’t like them. But if that’s the only way you can get your story started, go for it. Maybe you’ll leave it, or maybe you’ll find a way to stitch in threads as you write the body of your work.

My friend, Mike Akins, won a contest with a prologue. I had read it online—poetic, emotional, beautiful. I just had to meet this guy. And that’s the backstory to Dynamic Opinions, our present critique group.

© 2012, Bernice W. Simpson

Friday, October 26, 2012

Thoughts for Panhandle Professional Writers

Have you visited lately? The home page is clean, and gives readers a clear understanding of Panhandle Professional Writers’ goals. I would like that page to include officer’s contact information, but found it in the association’s latest newsletter, The PPW Window.

On page two of The PPW Window, you’ll see a heading, “Survey from Matt.” Members and prospective members may profit by responding to it. Matt expects a response of 10 to 15%. PPW can do better than that, right?

Thinking his questions were cogent to my blog, I decided to gather ideas. I phoned a dozen members and discovered numerous incorrect phone numbers in our directory. No surprise, actually—my phone number, unchanged for 47+ years is not even listed.  Why not simply make the group’s database available via email attachment? Something is better than nothing. Besides, why dun the treasury for a print version that goes out of date before it reaches the press?

Matt asked for opinions. After the conference last year, Suzi Sandoval told me it was money well spent. She had a great time, and because attendance was lower than expected, she enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and opportunity to spend more time with both staff and other participants. At Market Street today, the pharmacist said he was impressed with the conference, and it stimulated his interest to learn more about writing. I was getting a flu shot, so thought it wise to discuss only positives with a man with a needle in his hand.

He mentioned attendance. He’d like to attend all PPW meetings, but his work schedule has prevented it. Distance may be the number one reason out-of-town members don’t make it. How easy is it to drive to Amarillo from Albuquerque, NM; Brownfield, TX; or Eads, OK? I noticed on one page of our directory 41% of members listed lived at least 100 miles from Amarillo. How do we improve attendance? Well…a decade ago, we had at least one agent or editor speak at our meetings annually—a definite draw. Now that the industry has undergone so many changes and air fares have exploded, that may no longer be an option.

Considering the business of writing, though, pitching to agents and editors is why a serious writer attends writers’ functions. Isn’t that particularly true when the cost of a function (like a conference) runs well beyond dues already paid, and participation devours a weekend? In business, every expense is weighed against value. When a conference is targeted to beginners, published authors don’t attend. One member said that even inexperienced writers like to rub shoulders with established authors of various genera. Perhaps a semi-annual conference with broader audience appeal would prove profitable. Profit—years ago Ellen Richardson told me FIW was PPW’s annual fund raiser. Times change, don’t they?

On the subject of speakers, “variety” had the edge, but ambiguity reigned. Laura Stevens applauded the idea of variety, but added, “I could listen to Phyliss Miranda again and again, and never tire of her.”

What could I possibly add to that?

(c) 2012, Bernice Simpson

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Leaf Chasing and Cricket Catching - by KittyCat

I didn’t scratch or hiss at Mom when she scooped me up from my chair outside and plopped me on the living room floor. As quick as I thought about it, I remembered she turned on the computer, and I could write while she’s out today.

When she comes home, I’ll go outside and stay there until suppertime. That’s what I did all day yesterday and Monday. It was too nice out—like summer days, but better. Balmy, all day long.

I asked my tabby friend, Snoook, (not last time I saw her—there was no balmy in that conversation) why bombs were bad but bomby was good. She explained a whole bunch of words to me, and was so nice about it, I wondered if her real name is Snooker instead of Snookie. She could make me think something is true when maybe it isn’t.

For now, I’ll take her word for it. The week has been balmy—not oven-hot like the summer. Prettier, too. Colored leaves all over the grass, it looks something like candy sprinkles on cupcakes. That’s better than it looked all summer.

Tomorrow fall is coming back, and the next day it will even freeze. In winter I stay in most of the time, curled up on Dad’s jacket except when Mom puts it on a hanger, and mumbling how she’s not the maid, puts it in the closet. Dad and I like it on the chair. If we had a maid, Dad could fire someone for sticking stuff where he doesn't want it to go.

Since Vondell, the schnoodle moved away, I can't pester her from the brick wall in her yard, so yesterday I played savanna cat. I chased crickets, slapping one around until it wouldn't hop anymore, and then hunted for another. I caught leaves flitting down from trees or scooting across the grass. It wasn't as much fun as watching Vondell go crazy but when you don’t have someone to play with, you have to make up fun stuff.

The best thing about playing savanna cat is the pretend part, cuz I don’t have to watch out for getting tromped by elephants, and I can nap instead of hunting for food. Housecats get fed—some of them too much—I won’t mention who, or say that f-word that rhymes with cat.

I just heard Mom’s car. Good timing, cuz I’m gonna take a nap in my porch chair under the hanging plant that’s still got flowers. Or maybe I’ll lay on the porch table cuz kids coming home from school always smile, point and say how I’m so good looking. 

It’s a pretty good life, being a handsome tuxedo cat.


(c) 2012, Bernice W. Simpson

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Six Websites for Writers, Annotated

Its homepage invites you to “Step into Speculative Writing.” Mike Akins led me to the site after we discussed proofreading marks last week. For a comprehensive list of them, click on Teachwrite’s “edit” footprint. Don’t stop there. Take advantage of explanations offered about a story’s structure. Try the graphics the site provides to help you flesh out characters and outline your ideas. Designed for students, it exemplifies how computers impact today’s classroom. It deserves a place in the “favorites” of writers, parents, teachers, and students.

world-english: test, learn and study the English language online
Describing itself as “the one-stop resource for the English language and more…,” it fascinates and overwhelms. Avoid the site when you’re pinched for time, or if you tend to amble down rabbit trails when you should be working. Examples of distracting links: “Interesting News Stories,” “World English Slang,” and the numerous quiz links. But true to its subtitle, it is a great place to check your vocabulary, and have fun with word games and grammatical quizzes.

Lynch Guide to Grammar
 Lynch Guide to Grammar and the many links Jack Lynch provides covering all things English is another site that’s fun to get lost in. If you can put a name on a grammatical question, Jack Lynch’s guide will no doubt help you. If you can’t name your problem, check out “Bugbears,” and you may decide to wing it. His introduction begins with: “Arguments over grammar and style are often as fierce as those over Windows versus Mac, and as fruitless as Coke versus Pepsi or boxers versus briefs. Pedantic and vicious debates over knotty matters such as….” Well, you get the gist. But there are conventions in English, and if in doubt you’d do well to find out what Mr. Lynch has to say.

Resources for Writers and Writing Instructors
Jack Lynch apologizes for the page he states needs reorganizing. Sure enough, I discovered several broken links. On the plus side, though, the annotated links give you a better idea of what you can find than by simply reading the title alone. Also, according to Mr. Lynch, none of the sites he lists are commercial. I’d give him two thumbs up for that.

The Norton Anthology of Poetry
If you are a non-poet and a member of a mixed-genre critique group, peruse this site. It is a good place to begin learning how to understand, and eventually appreciate poetry. Its glossary, less complete than websites aimed at the more advanced poet, also lacks pronunciation of the words listed. On the other hand, it offers the novice a learning aid: “glossary flashcards.”

Worthless Word for the Day
You can Google it. Also, you’ll find it with the dictionaries listed in Ironically, the dictionary includes aubade, a word listed in Norton’s Anthology of Poetry. If aubade is silly, the serenade must be as well. Kudos to wwtd’s compiler. Where can humor writers find a better list of uncommon, rib-tickling words?

Speaking of words, 500 are enough for now, aren't they?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Field Trip to Booker, Texas


Between them, Jerome and Bobette Doerrie served on the Panhandle Professional Writer’s (PPW) board for almost a decade. They enlisted each other when needing help, partly because, as married couples are wont to do, it’s easy to call “Honey....” Also, it is not easy to recruit volunteers from Amarillo when you live on a farm near Booker, Texas.

An educator, Bobette said they both flunked “Retirement.” She is still teaching (in Panhandle in the mornings, and Woodward, OK, in the evenings); Jerome, despite the drought, still farms. Schedule conflicts have precluded their PPW meeting attendance lately, but they continue to write. “Curriculum” Bobette chuckled. She also writes poetry. Jerome founded an astronomy club four years ago, and since then, his main writing focus favors astronomy.

Located in Lipscomb County, TX, Booker should be an excellent place to view the night sky.  The entire county’s population is under 3,500. In fact, despite its designation as the county seat, I drove past the entire town when looking for its courthouse this afternoon.  With my friend, Sondra Kennon, navigating, we backtracked and found the building—quiet and dignified on the outside, bustling with activity of wonderfully friendly people within.

With Sondra’s help, I was delivering a jeepload of books to the Lipscomb County library. The courthouse maintenance crew directed us to a nearby once-vacant schoolhouse, now turned into a library. They unloaded the books in a foyer, and then led us into their library, complete with overstuffed chairs in reading areas, and ambience so inviting, we hated to leave it.

But plans included lunch with the Doerries at Imo’s in Booker, and earlier irresistible scenery around Canadian had slowed my driving. We were running late.

Our good-byes came too soon, but not before tentative plans were laid for another excursion in that direction--a writers’ weekend in June at Lake Fryer.

In the meantime, Panhandle residents can easily drive to join the festivities this coming weekend around Canadian, and scope out fantastic scenery for the delight of looking or for a possible setting in an upcoming novel. 

©2012, Bernice W. Simpson

Monday, October 15, 2012

Welcome Home, Snook -- by KittyCat


Last week I was so happy to see my tabby friend, Snookie, but right off she started arguing with me. She accused me of throwing insults at her. “Snookie,” I tried to explain, “I didn't say you’d gotten fat over the summer.”

“You most certainly did.” She put on her all-uppity look.

I tried again. “I didn't even say the word fat. You’re the one who said it. What I said was...”

She jumped in, not letting me finish the sentence. “You may whisper one word while your body language screams another. I saw what you were thinking the moment Mother walked in the door with me and set me down on the floor.”

“I merely noticed you were a little rounder than usual, and said if you needed to pee or something, Mom cleaned the litter pan in the bathroom.”

“How crude,” she said in her Snook-the-Snob voice.

“What? Are we in the same conversation?”

"That word you used is crude,” she said.

“What word?” I asked.

“That three-letter word,” Snook replied real high-and-mighty like.

By now, she’d got me so flustered I felt itchy all over. Scratching my neck and thinking three-letter word, my question just popped out. You ... or fat?

With Snook right behind me, I flew past Mom and Aunt Pen, and found safety in a skinny spot between two plants Mom had brought inside for the winter. Snook hissed from the other side of a plant pot, threatening to bite my ear off if I moved from my little nook.

“What on earth has gotten into those two?” Mom had panic in her voice.

Aunt Pen isn't one to get rattled much. She looked at us like nothing special was happening. “It’s been five months,” she said. “I suppose they are getting reacquainted.” She took a sip of her Irish Cream and added, “And the exercise is good for Snook. She’s been idle and has gotten much too fat.”

(c) 2012, Bernice W. Simpson

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Critique of Mechanical Errors


            When you find mechanical errors (punctuation, spelling, and so forth), while doing a critique of a manuscript, mark them. Use standard proofreading symbols, if you know them. Your group’s policy may be to mark, but not mention. Reasons: to avoid embarrassing the writer or to use time more efficiently. Consider the following reasons for marking and mentioning errors that may seem insignificant:

  1. Writers make countless errors in areas they never learned, have forgotten, or where they have not stayed current with “updates.” If your group has a grammatical expert, it takes only a few seconds to site the “rule,” informing the writer who made the mistake as well as others who would appreciate the information.
  2. A person who indicates a punctuation mark as a mechanical error could be mistaken. It’s not unusual for disagreement between experts, especially since electronic submissions today are the norm. For example, you can find the ellipsis, written with a space between the dots (. . .) and without (...). Which is correct? If marked, but not mentioned, the entire group misses an opportunity to understand how changes in publishing have impacted mechanics.  
  3. Grammatical conventions evolve with time. For example, which is correct? (1) No if’s, but’s and maybe’s (2) No ifs, buts, and maybes. Most guides today say to avoid the apostrophe.
  4. Proofreading is a skill all writers must develop. When one reader catches an error that others have missed, it reminds them to improve their proofreading.
Mark and mention. If citing a rule in punctuation initiates a conversation that will put the critique session off schedule, your group’s facilitator or time keeper should terminate the discussion. At the end of the meeting or later by email, the facilitator can call for volunteers to check resources. If there's no time for a grammar report at the next meeting, the volunteers can email brief notes with site links to the group.

(c) 2012, Bernice W. Simpson

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Format for Critiques

When you prepare a manuscript for publication, follow the agent’s or publication’s guidelines.

When you submit your work for critique, follow the guidelines set by your group. Readability is the key. That could mean you will use a larger font than the standard 12 font size to accommodate a member with poor eyesight. If you run out of black ink or white paper, use colored if it’s readable. Of course, you’d never use colors on a formal manuscript. When you ready your manuscript for an editor’s consideration, you will start the first page about halfway down from the top. Your critique group has no use for that extra space. Save paper, and begin on the first line below the top margin.  

Another rule-breaker most groups agree to: if writing non-fiction, you don’t have to show your research data. It’s okay to leave superscripted reference numbers in place. Simply inform readers as to the purpose of the numbers.

If you have a quoted selection that is several lines long, indent it on both sides and single space it. That reminds members they cannot change the wording of quoted selections. Work that is littered with lengthy quoted material, however, is not acceptable. Writers who cannot paraphrase most reference sources indicate they haven’t grasped what they are repeating, and probably lack the knowledge needed to pursue their topic.

Sidebars often cause confusion. Be sure to note where one will appear if it is to be placed near a certain section. Example, “(see sidebar Title).” At the end of your manuscript, set each sidebar off with the word “sidebar” underlined and in all caps. Under it, write the title of the sidebar. Normally, double-space the content of a sidebar, as you do any other prose.

When formatting a manuscript that will contain charts, photographs, and so forth, you may need to include those features for readers’ understanding. If not, use a brief description. For example, “pie chart illustrating financial data goes here.” Clarity is the rule.

Poetry is single spaced with a line between stanzas. If a poem is long, add line numbers to the page. The acceptable number of pages varies from group to group, but remember, poetry requires careful reading. If you want good critiques, don’t overload your readers.

For screenplays, use screenplay format. Honor the page limits set by your writing circle, but don’t cut the end of a scene when one more page will finish it.

Prose: for both fiction and nonfiction, follow these guidelines:
×          Double spaced
×          Margins: 1 to 1.5-inches
×          Line numbers on the left side.
×          Length: groups vary on this. The book, CRAFT: Create, Rewrite, and Fine Tune, suggests 1-5 pages—numbered.

©2012, Bernice W. Simpson

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Natalie Bright

Last week Mathis Rogers borrowed Natalie Bright's "Brainstorm for Critique Groups" for epubnationwide's newsletter, "The Quill." True to her name, Natalie tells about a bright way to work through a section of your story when you find yourself suddenly stuck.

Read about it, and if you get stuck, try it.

Then, why not learn more about the person behind those words at If you are an aspiring author trying to juggle home responsibilities, a day job, and writing, Natalie just may inspire you.

(c) 2012, Bernice W. Simpson

Monday, October 1, 2012

Playthings -- by KittyCat

Dad was taking off his shoes getting ready to stretch out on the couch and watch football. 

"KittyCat is staring at the baseboard," Mom said.

Dad kinda shrugged, like that’s not something he needs to reply to.

Mom said a little louder and slower, "KittyCat – is – staring – at – the - baseboard."

By this time comfy on the couch, Dad raised his head a bit, just to show he was listening. Then, I guess cuz Mom sounded serious, he acted more interested. "...And?"

"AND." Mom said that kinda loud, like it was real important. "And that means he smells a mouse."

"Oh, he was probably asleep and was just facing that way when he woke up."

"Look at him," Mom said. Now her tone was real flat, and I just had to look at her to see if she was getting ticked

"He’s staring off into space, probably he has nothing else to do."

It’s a good thing Mom doesn't throw things. Well, she does, but it’s words. They’re not TV bad words but if they were heavy or sharp things, they’d bonk a guy pretty hard. But this time she took a deep breath, cuz  she and two friends had made a deal they'd be nice to people. “A minute ago he acted exactly like he does when he smells a mouse,” she said.

“Weather’s changing," Dad said. "Could be he can smell one under the house.”

“Under the house is just under the floor, and under the floor is almost on the floor, and on the floor is like mice running all over the house.”

It really bugs Dad when Mom connects dots that aren't even dots yet. But I guess he could tell she was upset, so he made a joke. “I think if you get enough mice eating them, you don’t need to worry about termites” Dad’s smile looked as big as a painted clown’s.

Mom didn't smile at all. “Fine, she said. We’re overdue for a termite inspection anyway, so I’ll call tomorrow, and while they’re here they can exterminate the mice.”

Dad can do math in his head real fast. “I’ll get bait and put it out tomorrow,” he said. “In the morning,” he added, cuz Mom was already reaching for the phone book. “First thing in the morning.” He gave her that honest-you-can-believe-me look.

So fall is here, and the big fuzzy moths disappeared, grasshoppers have left, crickets are almost gone, and now the mice are zapped. My toys are boring. Vondelle moved away, and I only see Snookie when Aunt Pen comes over.

Well, I guess I can play at chasing leaves as they flutter off the trees. Flutter... Ha, ha. Thinking of mice and crickets, I almost forgot them. Look out birds.

(c) 2012 Bernice W. Simpson