Monday, December 26, 2011

Climbing the Christmas Tree -- by KittyCat

Mom’s forever calling me her sweet kitty angel. Well, I didn’t make a very good “kitty angel” on the Christmas tree. I didn’t even make it to the top before it tilted. Since our Christmas tree stood in a corner, the walls caught and held it even after I jumped down.

Nothing got broken. That includes me, cuz Mom was out at the time.

“What happened to the tree?” She spotted it before she took her keys from the door lock.

“What tree?” Dad, home a few minutes before her, hadn’t even noticed.

“What tree-ee.” Mom grabbed her keys from the door and kicked it closed with the back her shoe. “How many trees do we have in the living room?” She plopped two bags on the dining room table, and you can bet she gave Dad that look.

Her question wasn’t really a question. It was one of Mom’s “where’s your brain” comments.

I pretended to be asleep on Dad’s jacket, still warm cuz he’d just taken it off and dumped it in a chair. Its fuzzy insides all nice and crumpled like that kinda make a comfy nest for me.

Dad was tired, and interested in finding a football game with his new remote. When his mind’s on football, Dad act likes he’s not the sharpest claw on a paw. He ignored Mom’s snap-to-attention tone.

In a flat voice Mom said every word real clear and slow. “The tree ... and that would be the Christmas tree ... is leaning into the corner of the living room wall. But for wall holding the Christmas tree, everything on it would be smashed.”

“Oh.” Still holding his remote, Dad went into the living room and stood the tree up. Then, walking toward the TV, and almost talking to the remote, he said “KittyCat probably knocked it over.”

I’m thinking I’m done for, but before I got real terrified, Mom disagreed, and her usual cheerful voice was back.

“No, he showed no interest in it when I decorated it. Besides, he would have knocked ornaments off. Guess when setting it up, I didn’t quite balance it.”

Whew! Every now and then I get a pass.

Curled up real cozy, I fell asleep.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Feeble Can't Fly

You can’t boot every worn word or phrase off your manuscript, but between the “Find” command and your critique group, you can search for feeble expressions, and where possible, eliminate them.


Before you present your manuscript to readers, type “ly” in the search box, and examine each adverb the search highlights. Your decision to keep or cut will rest on whether:

1.      You’ve pushed the limits of the assignment’s word count (adverbs can save words).

2.      The reworded section sounds less effective than your original version.

3.      Rephrasing will cost you so much time, you will submit your manuscript late.1

Look at each set in this section. In your opinion, does elimination of the underlined adverbs improve the writing? Can you defend your opinion?

 Shyly and slowly, Callie walked toward the clown.
A shy child, Callie approached the clown with apprehension.

“Water, I need water,” he rasped pleadingly.
“Water, I need water,” he begged.
His voice raspy, he begged for water.

The toddler whined continuously.
We endured the toddler’s constant whining.

She walked quietly.
She padded.

I apologized sincerely.
I expressed sincere apologies.

 The verb be

More time consuming than finding ly, review your manuscript for the verb be and its forms: am, are, is, was, were. Some writers perform this task faster by reading their work and marking the verbs. In particular watch for was followed by a participle. Substitute with the simple past (or past perfect). The improvement may require lengthening and/or rephrasing an entire sentence.

Notice be or one of its forms underlined in each set here. Once again, you decide which version you like best, and why.

The soldier was limping.
The soldier limped.

I was going to attend the concert, but the tickets were too expensive.
I intended to attend the concert, but decided against purchasing high-priced tickets.
Expensive tickets prevented my attending the concert.

Upon arrival, I called Security because Pup was barking.
When I arrived, Pup’s continuous barking prompted me to call Security.

Myra was always treated like family, but turned against them after she graduated.
Myra, always treated like a family member, turned against her foster family after she graduated.

According to her art teacher, Marcia is an exceptional artist for her age.
Her teacher said, “Compared to her peers, Marcia excels in art.”

I’ll be speaking at the memorial.
I’ll speak at the memorial.

That particular oak, but no others was on the crude map.2
On the crude map, we identified no trees except that particular oak.

Lazy verbs

You won’t find the term “lazy verbs” in a writing style book, but it’s an apt moniker for a set of verbs called linking verbs. They link a sentence’s subject to its predicate. A constant part of everyday speech, they wheedle their way into first drafts, and can remain, undetected through publication. Ask your critique group to watch for the little do-nothing blobs.

Perhaps we overlook words in the group because they can function as regular or linking verbs, depending on their use in a sentence. Tip: if you can substitute a form of be for a verb, it is a linking verb. For example:

1.      John felt sick. // John appeared sick. // John was sick.

2.      That tastes sour. // That is sour.

3.      Granny looked angry. // Granny appeared angry. // Granny was angry.

4.      The dog smelled stinky. // The dog was stinky.

5.      Cheryl appeared distracted. // Cheryl seemed distracted. // Cheryl was distracted.

But notice these same words in different contexts:

1.      John felt the cabochon, and pronounced it fake.

2.      I tasted the sauce, and added a tablespoon of sugar.

3.      When Granny looked at the headline, she flushed with anger.

4.      The dog smelled his bowl, but refused to eat.

5.      Cheryl appeared in the doorway—two hours late.

 Linking verbs often signal opportunities to show instead of tell. Sometimes your revision will include an extra sentence. Compare the paired sets below. How would you eliminate the underlined verbs?

He gazed at the withered fields, and he felt completely desolate.
Desolated, he gazed at withered fields. No rain, no crop, no money.

It looked like it would rain.
“Rain’s coming,” he said.

She appeared happy.
Her face reflected happiness.

            Certain verbs are simply weak: get, make, put, try, and more. Ask your writing group to watch for, and redline weak words or phrases. Consult a thesaurus or dictionary for substitutes. Upgrade your writing by trading puny terms for more powerful expression. Then, congratulate yourself for producing a polished manuscript.

1 Editors can fix small problems, but will often discard a manuscript that arrives late, and refuse further queries from the tardy writer.

2 An explanation of a grammatical point demonstrated by this sentence: “That particular oak, but no others was on the crude map.” Does the verb agree with its subject? Yes. Here, if I understand it correctly, is the rule:
ΓΌ  When a sentence has a compound subject in which a negative and contradictory plural follows the affirmative singular subject, the verb agrees with the affirmative subject.

I’d like your comments on the above rule, and/or examples that illustrate it. Please attribute any material you quote.

In my submissions, I avoid anything that would raise quirky grammatical points. I can’t imagine an editor who has earned her MFA—Masters of Fine Arts—appreciating lessons in English grammar from me. 

(c) 2011, Bernice W. Simpson

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Very Short Stuff

2011 is almost history. Time is short for all of us who are balancing work, Christmas events, year-end bookkeeping, and preparation for a special family celebration. If you've put your large writing projects aside until next year, you needn't pack in it entirely. One-hundred well-crafted words is all it takes to enter a contest that could add another publication credit to your list.

Time is short for me, too. So, instead of telling you all about a unique contest, I'll simply point you in its direction: Go to Initiated by five women who wrote a book of flash fiction stories, the contest is free, and it's open to you regardless of where you live.

Meet five interesting members of Panhandle Professional Writers at Flash Fiction Five. Check it out, and have fun.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lonesome at Christmas -- by KittyCat

Yesterday, an empty ribbon spool rolled across the floor, but I didn't feel like chasing it. I got Mom worried because I'm not jumping in boxes or pulling tissue paper out of gift bags she's arranged just so. I heard her tell Dad, “He's sick. He hasn't touched the Christmas decorations. He hasn't been under foot in the kitchen, and...”
“... And you're complaining?” Dad picked me up and offered me a couple of treats. “He's growing up, that's all.”
I ate the treats just to please him, but they were both wrong. I wasn’t sick, but I did feel yukky. It’s a sad and lonesome feeling I used to get all the time before I got adopted. My tabby friend Snookie says it’s called heartsick.
She knows, cuz she gets it, too. She and her human Mom, my Auntie Gay, travel lots. Sometimes, when they’re in another state Auntie takes a side trip, and Snookie has to stay in a boarding place. Can you imagine feeling lonesome with all those other cats and dogs and people around? "It’s the very worst," she said. "There’s no lonesome like being dumped in a crowded kennel."
I thought Snookie and my friend, Sophie (she’s my dog pal), were spending Christmas with us. But they’re not. I’m not getting any people food this year cuz my doctor says it’s not healthy. Ya, right. It’s not healthy for her paycheck when moms don’t buy that cat diet stuff. On top of all that, it’s going to snow today, and be snowy for Christmas. That means cold and wet.
When Mom hung my “Precious Kitty” stocking on the mantel, she picked me up, snuggled me, and said gooey loving things to me. I purred and didn’t fuss to jump down cuz when Mom worries, it makes me feel even worse. Besides, I’m hoping she’ll put good stuff in my stocking. That’s yummy good, not good-for-you good.
I sure looked forward to my friends staying here for the holidays, but it's Christmas time. That’s joyful time. It says so in the Bible. I’ll show Mom how happy I am and climb the Christmas tree.


Can you relate to this? Everyone agrees you have a good topic and you've put a great spin on it, but it lacks…well, it’s hard to say what exactly. You redo paragraphs your writing group said were long; now the entire selection is choppy. You break up narration with dialogue, only to learn “it doesn’t have a natural feel to it.” The prose is flat in places, and even where the writing is good, your article or story is simply not coming together.
Maybe it lacks what I call journalistic balance. If so, you can learn to balance your writing by examining the works of professional writers. They’re easy to find.  Your local newspaper could be a source, and you can definitely expect to see them in magazines known for their excellence in journalism.
To find examples for this article, I checked the website of one of my favorites: The Smithsonian Magazine. I immediately clicked on “How E.B. White Wove Charlotte’s Web.” What writer can resist a title like that? And the reference to weaving fit this article because a well-woven article will be balanced.
Hopefully the article by Chloe Schama will still be posted when you read this. As a writer, reading her article should be both interesting and entertaining for you. Studying the following three items should not overwhelm you.
·         Opening: Notice the phrase, “porcine encounter.” Without it, Ms. Schama’s opening would have been too wordy and awkward for one sentence. How many of us would have considered using the word porcine?

·         Use of the m-dash: Here it emphasizes the next six words whose contrast to all that follows makes the m-dash still more effective.

·         Transition between the first two paragraphs: Remember that long list of transitional words and phrases you drew up in high school? They are largely absent in Schama’s articles, and that gives her writing a satisfying maturity. What links her first two paragraphs are the words “loss” and “sentiment.”
There is much more to learn about balancing your writing, but effective openings, punctuation, and transitions are good elements to start with.  And speaking of transitions, while you’re at the Smithsonian site, why not read Chloe Schama’s article, Frank Baum, the Man Behind the Curtain? After you’ve read it once, peruse it. Notice how she leads you smoothly from one paragraph to another.
Make a list of your observations. Soon your skill in using transitions will improve. And when you apply your knowledge to the story that wouldn’t come together? Read it and listen to the flow.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Your Mission: Write! By Mathis B. Rogers

If you are on anyone's "Fun Forwards" lists online, you no doubt received the "First Pictures from Mars" photo sent from either Spirit or Opportunity - I can't remember which one got there first - of the red planet with Wal-mart on the left-hand side of the photo. I can almost assure you that the Wal-mart Planning Committee did not send it out. I must admit that I am surprised that we were not bombarded with reruns of "My Favorite Martian" on TV or new shows concerning people living or life on Mars.

As a writer, what does this adventure do to your imagination? If you are not interested in Sci-Fi probably nothing. Some of my characters have been to a few parties on Mars and had a good time, but weren't really impressed with Mars, itself. It's dry and dusty. Not much different than the South Plains of West Texas. We do have a few trees here. There are none on Mars.

In July of 1994, the Shoemaker Comet hit Jupiter. If you've watched reruns of Bewitched, you know that Witches and Warlocks do not like the image that Mortals portray of Witches at Halloween. Therefore, in my story, Halloween Night, the Witches Council created a virtual ski resort at the location of the impact. Almost all Witches and Warlocks spend the entire week of Halloween at the resort, so if any of your friends ever disappear during that week, you'll know they're hanging out at Jupiter's ski resort.

The Moonbeam Lounge is the place to hang out after skiing on the slopes. Members can also workout in the gym and relax in the hot springs. Ice-skating on the frozen lake between the Moonbeam Lounge and the Starlight Restaurant while the moons of Jupiter reflect off the snow, also make for a fun, romantic time on Jupiter. Mortals are not allowed at the resort, so if you take one, they will turn to stone. It's a three minute flight to Jupiter from Hayden, Vermont, where my main character, Shane Jordan, lives. But after a conflict of trying to decide what to do about something, he gets so angry that he tears down his great-great grandparents four-story mansion with a gust of wind and makes the flight in two minutes.

In The Golden Locket, another story in the fantasy collection, my main character doesn't find out that he's a Warlock until he's 29. He has acrophobia. What would it be like to be able to fly and be acrophobic? He does okay until he leans up against the "wall" and falls off of Cloud Nine.

It's surprising what "Fun Forwards" and things I see in everyday life can do to get my over-active imagination really going. 

What gets your imagination flowing?

Your Mission: Write!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas Shopping at Tuesday Morning -- by KittyCat

Ready to go shopping, Mom pointed to a purse-looking thing under her coat. "It's a doggie sling," she said to Dad. "I hope it works... Tex is about KittyCat's size."

I felt like a pit bull had attacked me, and was chewing inside my tummy. I was wishing I'd never scratched her. I was thinking about how bad it would be, being bullied the rest of my life by a dog that grew big and mean. I got in her lap, purred and rubbed against the doggie holder like it was mine. Maybe we could spend one more day together, just the two of us before Tex moved in and took my Mom and Dad away from me.

"KittyCat almost acts like he'd try it out for me," Mom said. "I'll put him in it, and see if he likes it."

"Sure," Dad said, "whatever you're brave enough to do."

"He's purring." Mom was all happy as she zipped the pouch closed, and unbuttoned a flap so a big head with floppy ears and long snout could poke through. "I think KittyCat could get through the top here, but he's not trying to. Can you believe it? He's still purring. I'll take him with me."

I popped my my head out--just my head, kinda showing Mom that Doggie Sling wasn't big enough for any but me.

Later, out in a store's parking lot, Mom showed someone the pooch's pouch, and I learned she got it for a friend, but wanted to make sure it worked before giving it away.

We went in Tuesday Morning--that's a store. When almost done for the day, and headed for the cash register, we stopped by a gift display. I got excited when I saw cards I liked with pictures of big cats called snow leopards.

Mom opened her coat more and whispered, "Getting to warm in there, KittyCat? Be still, we're almost finished."

I scooted up a bit, rubbed my head against her neck, and then looked at the cards I wanted. Pretending she didn't understand, she stroked my forehead with her thumb, but then pushed me down into the sling. I could've puked fur balls on her, but instead I reached up to give her face a loving pat.

She took my paw, gave it a little kiss, (Does she forget what I do with that paw in my cat box?) and put it back into the doggie pouch. "You promised to be a good kitty, remember?"

No, I didn't remember. What's more I didn't like that sweet tone in her voice that's really a put down. It says "you're just a cat, and humans rule," and it ticks me worse than an empty food dish. I jumped to the floor. Ignoring her whispery calls, I headed for a shelf that earlier I saw had tons of cat picture stuff--computer paper, cards, photo holders, and even cat calendars.

Mom followed.

Sure enough, once up on the shelf, I spied another snow leopard card packet, and pushed it forward, but Mom didn't put it in her cart. A woman stopped near us to look at pretty telephone pads in fancy boxes. I pushed the cards again. A bunch of stuff that was hiding me fell off the shelf. I ducked behind a box of scrapbook stuff.

"I saw a cat," said the woman, all nervous--like you would get if a big spider jumped on your nose.

Grabbing a cat calendar, Mom showed it to the lady. "How perfect for my friend--in fact, I'd like three if I can find them. These shelves are in such disarray, aren't they? I jiggled all over with laughter seeing Mom white hot at me, but acting so cool.

"I meant... I saw... no, uh... I'm...." Mrs. Flustered walked away mumbling at the floor.

"KittyCat!" Mom spoke real quiet, but her voice reminded me of an alley cat's growl. "You get over here. Now!"

When Mom's that ticked, I split. Blending right in with toy animals dumped in a huge bin, I watched Saturday afternoon shoppers trash the store. I wondered if they're nicer on Tuesday mornings? It was great fun, but comfy in a bear's lap, I got sleepy.

Yow! Someone pulled my tail. I stood, humped my back and hissed, showing all my teeth. Mom heard and rushed to the bin while some brat ran crying to his mother. I dropped to the safety of my sling under Mom's coat.

The customers and half the store workers rushed to the bin. All talking at once, they showed the screaming kid how a lamb makes a b-a-a sound, a pink fuzzy dog barks, and a toy frog can actually leap like it's real.

Mom, I guess happy she found me, gave me a gentle love squeeze. Then, as quietly as a cat padding across carpet, she paid for English cups and bowls you buy when you really like somebody, and left the store.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Show, Don't Tell: Three Tips to Turn Tell to Show

A novice sees "SDT," in her manuscripts margin. When told the letters stand for Show Don't Tell, the novice frowns, "...and that means what?"

It doesn't mean to never tell. But a good critic looks for places a writer can substitute facts (tell) with show. Show refers to something written in such a way that readers not only follow a story, but experience it. Read the three tips here to increase your understanding of the SDT concept. Their use will help to guide you toward your goal of writing excellence.

  1. Engage Your Audience
They are participants aren't they? You write; they read. Instead of telling readers what to think, what to feel, or what to notice, give them credit for intellect. When they are pulled into a scene sufficiently to draw their own conclusions about characters or plot sequences, readers experience, through a movie in their minds, what you want them to know or feel.

Example of Tell:

Nobody liked working in that department, least of all Mr. Carter's assistant, Brenda. In her personal notebook she recorded his rudeness toward her and others. With Carter's negativity escalating, Brenda gleefully looked forward to the day he'd be fired. She had enough on him to present to head management, if necessary. It would rid their department of Mr. Carter, and put Brenda in his vacated office--with a promotion and raise, of course.

Tell Turned to Show:

Without losing stride, Alvin Carter stepped off the elevator, pushed the department door open, snapped his fingers at Brenda to summon her, pressed his remote key, and walked into his office.

Brenda pulled a notebook from her purse for a quick notation of his behavior. Give 'm enough rope, and he'll hang himself. As she moved toward his office door, she smiled. Keep it up, Alvin. You'll slip up seriously, and with your attitude, it has to be soon. I'll inherit your position with private office, and get two raises six months apart. One with the promotion, the other.... Raise morale, raise production, and that makes a raise for me. Poor Alvie, you just don't get it, do you?

When Brenda entered her boss's door, she left it open. If Carter raised his voice, others would hear it.


The Show selection is longer than the Tell selection. Describing behavior that demonstrates a characteristic requires more words than a simple fact: "Mr. Carter is rude." But which one paints a clearer picture?

The writer used a technique called "Stream of Consciousness" (SOC) to show how Brenda and her co-workers feel about Mr. Carter. Without being told directly, readers gain greater insight into Brenda's relationship with Mr. Carter. She not only dislikes him, but disrespects him. The reader of Show may question Brenda's character as she schemes to take Mr. Carter's job. Despite that, the reader of Show has a greater sense of Brenda's self-confidence, and believes she is destined for Carter's position. Is it because the writer evokes an intellectual response by letting the reader follow, and identify with Brenda's thoughts?

       2. Edit Your Work

Example of Tell:

To look at Carla as she listened to Rev. Milford's Eulogy, no one could know the depth of her grief.

Tell Turned to Show:

Carla stared past the casket spray, past Rev. Milford to the bare wood of the empty choir loft, its great maw swallowing her pastor's words, "God's grace, comfort, faith, heavenly kingdom."


Twenty words tell Carla, attending a funeral, is deeply grieved. Do you care? If you do, are you relating to Carla in an intimate way, or are you observing from a distance?

Compare your reaction to Show. Note the details added. How do they raise drama in the passage? Did you notice the phrase, "her pastor's words?" Does that lead you to believe Carla is a practicing Christian? Why is that cogent (though unsaid) information? How does the choir loft symbolize Carla's grief? Think about your intellectual engagement. Show does not use the words funeral, grief or eulogy. Compare facts given in Tell to the inference you draw in Show.

How to Edit Your Work to Raise Drama and Evoke Emotion

Write your first draft as fast as you can. If typical, that draft will tell the story, but will lack the emotional impact you feel and want to convey. Next, go through each page. Mark deadwood to remove and sentences to trim by rewording them.

With your word count reduced by one-third or more, go through the manuscript again. This time underline sections where you feel a sense of drama or a specific emotion. In the margin, label the response each invoked in you.

Next analyze. Your story is a movie in your mind. If you underlined "Sarah felt out of place because she was taller than her classmates," you identified with her and felt what it is to be different. But does the statement stimulate the same response in your reader? Not likely.

Try this: list Sarah's feelings about her situation. Include memories that hurt, made her angry, or caused her embarrassment. If, being taunted, she finally hit someone, what exactly happened? How did she deliver the blow that knocked him out...or killed him?

Take your rewrite to your critique group, and ask if you managed to transfer your mind's movie to theirs.

        3. Educate Yourself

You may have aced English in college, but if you think that turned you into a marketable writer, try selling your essays or research papers. Do people comment on your witty anecdotes? Try writing them to eleicit laughs. If you want to be published, find out what you must learn. Don't let your educational ego trip you. "Show, Don't Tell is a writing technique, and you can learn how to use it.

Read. Turn away from the sitcoms and read instead. Imbue how novelists reveal characters without making specific statements about how they look or feel. Notice how nonfiction authors, while not stating their opinions directly, atttempt to lead you to agree with their point of view.

Check your writing for: am, are, is, was, were. Simply rewording sentences that contain passive verbs often forces you to change tell to show.

Practice the art of SDT. Below, find one activity to start with.

Example of Tell:

Angela, recently divorced, had purposely filled her calendar with activities to stay busy and to forget the pain she felt. She volunteered at the church nursery on Wednesday nights, and read to children at the library on Saturday afternoons. On Saturday nights she served supper to the homeless, and cleaned the facility's kitchen afterward, staying after others left. There was always something to do. She washed grime off the legs of tables and chairs and wiped smudges from the woodwork. Perhaps her job and all the extra activity helped to push the hurt from her mind, but she felt she was just going through the motions of living. But it was not living. It was anything to fill time, to postpone returning to an empty apartment.

Turn Tell to Show

Show what you can do with the paragraph above. Post your "Show" in "Comments." If you want prompts for more SDT activities, use "Comments" for your request.

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An apology for the format of this post--I will reformat to make it more readable when a kind friend installs word processing software on my new computer. --Bernice Simpson

(c) 2011, Bernice W. Simpson