Category Archives: Thoughts on Writing

The Great Imagery Hunt or Walk 1.8 miles in my Brooks Trainers.

In the search for the ultimate imagery for our work, writers dredge up memory and metaphor that surprise and thrill our readers, that surpass cliché. In particular, I struggle with the language of sound and smell because I tire of the common metaphors and descriptors of these senses.

An example: In my thesis, I wrote of a storm that “mumbled” and a note appeared next to it, “grumbled?”

Mumbled. That’s what I meant. I didn’t mean that it grumbled and growled like a beast overhead or an angry old man. I meant that it mumbled like an indiscernible conversation. I was trying to show that it was not imminent. Perhaps if I’d spelled it out that way, it would have worked, but I worry such labored metaphors detract and distract from the action at hand. “A distant storm mumbled, sounding like a conversation in another room.” Meh. I’ve just lost my focus on the fact that my character is lying on a hillside with possible broken bones. Do I worry about how the storm is mumbling by dragging out the metaphor? I changed it to avoid the problem, but I didn’t like going to “grumbled” because I’ve heard a hundred other writers (well, perhaps ten) use that same expression. I’m sure there are other options but at the time, I was just trying to finish a thesis. The point remains, when and how do we break free of what is expected of us in terms of imagery/description vs. what we are trying to communicate? And, of course, what are we willing to do for the critic who comes back and says, “Huh? What does this mean?” So, I keep searching for ways to express these ideas. If “mumbled” doesn’t work, what will? What gets across the idea that a storm is making noise far away without being cliché or common?

To find these ideas, we search in our everyday life, of course. For me, that can be a challenge. I am somewhat housebound. I hate to use that term. Let’s say, “restricted.” I can tolerate some sun, but not a lot. I am perfectly ambulatory; my husband and I walk a couple of miles a night. We fish early mornings and evenings when we take vacations. I’m not stuck in a bed 24/7. I just have some limitations. I can’t go jogging in a park or hiking in a canyon or the woods in midday. I can’t launch a canoe at 9 a.m. and return to shore at 3 p.m. (though I would love to do so). My ability to gather data then is limited to grabbing at bits and pieces as I move from one place to another or in the little two-hour swatches of the world fabric I get here and there.

I get a surprising amount of data from the nightly 1.8 mile walks with my husband. Often, the familiarity of it leads to a certain numbness, but now and then I awaken to the smells and sounds.

On windy nights, each street has a life of its own. This street with its oaks and north-south facing has a stiff breeze and sharp sound. The wind pours unimpeded over the rooflines and sends the odd oak leaf skittering down the street. On another street, the wind is raked fine and soft with the needles of huge loblollies. It’s a ghostly sound that takes me back to childhood every time. Along the creek, the song of the frogs and the power lines mingle with cool air even in the hottest months. And on one street, the houses seem to stack up somehow and form a barrier such that, no matter the direction of the wind, the street is always a stagnant, stifling cave. At best, the very tips of the tallest pines will sway.

On still, damp nights, neighborhood smells bloom. Gardens of sweet or sulfurous blossoms waft through privacy fencing. Hints of Indian, Korean, Filipino, Tex-Mex, BBQ, and other meals leak through kitchen windows. Perfumed laundry fresheners puff from dryer vents. Fresh mulch and lawn clippings scent the walkways. Sawdust and diesel fuel clouds drift from garages. Then there’s trash night. After all those wonderful meals, clusters of “Ew!” sit on the sidewalk every sixty feet or so.

We pass from five to twenty-five neighbors, most of whom have earned a badge for Southern Hospitality. My husband smiles, waves and says, “How are you?” to everyone he sees. He often says, “Happy Saturday!” (Or whatever day is appropriate. Be prepared for “Happy Monday!” and go with it.) His smile is contagious and his friendliness near impossible to ignore. We have won over the most hardcore grumble-and-scowl walkers in our neighborhood. While we know the names of maybe five of these good folk, I believe they think well of us (him) and we trust them in an emergency. Many have dogs and if you have a dog, you can’t be all bad, right?

In all this walking and smelling and greeting and smiling, I am writing. Not literally walking along with pen in hand and composing, of course. Not even rushing in the door to jot notes (though that’s a good idea). It’s all been stored (theoretically) so when I come back to those metaphors like the storm so distant that it sounds like an indistinct conversation, I will have more writing fuel. I will (I hope) prevent myself from slipping into the usual “grumbling storms” or “flashing eyes” or “burgeoning” whatever burgeons.


Happy Tree!

It’s only a small piece of the collection process. I will always need more. Trips to the beach. Trips to the Hill Country, Las Cruces, Dallas, other parts of the state, the city, the bayou. Early mornings in my own backyard looking at my favorite tree (Happy Tree) and watching the hummingbirds drink from the lantanas while the blind dog tries to catch the fly that’s buzzing him. Still, it covers a lot of ground and for me, in my circumstances, I look for all the opportunities I can find.

Feed(back) Starvation or Finding a tool to fix a writing problem: Community.

There’s a phenomenon in fountain pen mechanics called feed starvation. Fountain pens work on the principal of capillary action (or flow) similar to the way our tiniest blood vessels work. Clean and simple explanation on this page:

The parts of the fountain pen that facilitate this capillary action from the ink reservoir to the writing tip (nib) are the section, tube, and feed. When something prevents the ink from getting to the feed, it is starved. A starved feed means your pen won’t write.

Can you see where this is going?

I’ve put out a few stories to contests (no wins) and journals (no responses) and I’ve asked a couple of people to read my work (no responses or limited responses). The reasonable me (she who is in control of 90% of my processor cycles, give or take) says of those family and friends, “They have their own lives. It’s hard to find time to read eight pages. You’re an unemployed hausfrau who has time for that stuff so don’t be hard on them.”

The petulant child who needs validation or at the very least, acknowledgment, says, “Damn! It’s eight bloody pages! At least nod in my direction.” The paranoid artist in me thinks, he or she read the eight pages, thought the they were awful and has decided it’s better not to say anything because he or she only has bad things to say. Of course, anything not acknowledged by contests or journals is obviously trash.

I write because I love writing, but I admit that I have a need for validation and every other writer I have met, save one, has had the same need. Not to say we need constant praise—just the acknowledgment that our work was read, considered, and perhaps some nugget of beauty or truth seen in it. Without validation, I suffer from feed(back) starvation. My pen won’t write.

So, recently I joined Scribophile and began contributing critiques. Last night I screwed up enough courage to submit something for critique. It was helpful to get some feedback. It remains to be seen if the critique environment will match that of my classes. I think, more important than the critique is a new sense of accountability. Knowing I was going to put something in front of people who could very well rip it to shreds, I chopped out some of the fluff. Not enough, apparently, but it’s a start.

Another benefit to a community like Scribophile is the process of critiquing others. In sizing up other works, I see my own flaws looking back at me. When I return to my stories, I can rework them more objectively and with keener vision. I’ve been tucked away in my cave with my red pen and my own work as a go-by for several months. Reading published works is important for learning what to work toward, but reading other works-in-progress reminds me of that we all have to edit and there are a variety of ways to do so.

I’d love to see some of my classmates find their way to the community. From what I can tell, quite a number of the workshopped pieces do get published. I’ll be happy if Scribophile can be my feedback supply but even if it isn’t, I think I’ll gain from it.

However, there are problems for someone like me. I am a slow reader and a verbose critic. This means that for every piece I want to post for critique, it takes me a great deal more time to earn the karma required than it likely takes others. I am ready to post a second chapter but I don’t have enough karma. It also means that I have to be careful not to make my writing life turn into my Scribophile life. I don’t need a Scribophile problem anymore than I need a Facebook problem. As with anything, it’s about discipline.


So, if you’re looking for feedback and your blog isn’t enough and your family and friends are sporadic at best, check it out and see what you think.

I do have a selfish motive in this. I’d like to see people I know show up there. I miss you guys and I always trusted your input. However, I also think it has the potential to help some writers. It’s not for everyone, I’m sure. I’m not even entirely sold on the idea for myself. Check back with me in six months.

Help! I Need More Conflict.

In my book, not my life.

The Book takes shape.

Each writing day (most days) I work on some part of the Book that I know I can fix: editing the next chapter, rewriting, or writing a new section needed to make it all fall together neatly instead of sitting like so many puzzle pieces half-joined here and there. Some days I work other projects, letting my conscious focus elsewhere. I hope at those times that whatever I do with the other project is instructional for the Book at a later date.

Latte and Grand Place

Latte & Grand Place


As much as I feel I’m making progress, I fear the end product, no matter how well-structured, no matter how keen the turn of phrase, will fall flat for lack of one crucial element: conflict.

It has been an issue from day one. I’ve tended toward Jamesian efforts—not so much in prose style but in the sense that I spent/spend a fair amount of time in dialog and thought, and in observing the characters. Recently Writers Write posted this on their blog and I went through each question. I was brutally honest with myself and while I didn’t score in the lowest ranking, I have to answer, “Why are you not making things more difficult for your characters?”

The Book moves back and forth through time and I am careful to make the analepsis both relevant and conflict-filled in my rewriting. However, the present action is still essentially a yes to #7. Not so much a heart-felt conversation as a yelling match, but I don’t see it as making things terribly difficult for my characters. More importantly, I don’t see my protagonist as active and this has been a concern for some time. I have brought some conflict into the present time for her by introducing a sore point between herself and her loving spouse. Still, she is not “trying to achieve something tangible” but is, instead, trying to achieve something emotional. It is a book of emotion. One MFA committee member referred to it as a “quiet little book.”

I suppose that isn’t all bad, but I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about it the closer I get to rewriting the denouement. I have set an arbitrary goal for completion by next summer (2015) if only because I’m not getting any younger. (Many thanks to my cardiologist for calculating my cardiac event risk yesterday and pointing out that lupies have cardiac inflammation that puts them at much higher risk than the general population and blah blah blah. Way to go, Doc.)

I fear that all those times when I stare into space in the middle of an otherwise productive writing session or doze off because the anxiety of failure overwhelms will sabotage my timeline. Of course, that fear sabotages me as well and the anxiety builds and…

Please, someone read this and tell me what you think about the conflict checklist. Here it is again: Conflict checklist. Suggestions for dealing with my problem would be appreciated. Or, if you think I’m overreacting to a fear, telling me that would be great. Any input short of “sod off, you moron,” would be appreciated.

Fun with paper samples from Rhodia Drive

Recently, Rhodia Drive gave me the opportunity to play with papers by Clairefontaine and G. Lalo, two French stationers whose papers are imported by Exaclair, Inc.  Clairefontaine makes a variety of notebooks and notepads as well as “Triomphe” stationery. G. Lalo makes high quality stationery for correspondence.

GraF it sketch paper.

Smooth but matte texture. Disclaimer number one: I am not an artist. I’ve been playing around with sketching people, dogs, and trees but I won’t frighten you with the results here. Still, I’ve developed a little feel for how graphite feels on sketch paper v. writing paper so I think I can speak to this a little.

Clairefontaine designed GraF it to take both ink and pencil. It is less toothy than the Strathmore I used for comparison (my only other sketch paper) so it did feel as if it didn’t want to take the graphite as readily as the Strathmore.* There is some difference in the lead darkness on one v. the other (Graf it is lighter) although the paper is whiter than the Strathmore. However, the GraF it erased better and didn’t leave as much of a scar from repeated erasing compared to the Strathmore. Both smudged easily (intentionally) although it seemed to me GraF it smudged more uniformly. Whether this is an advantage or not, I don’t know. I’m sure it is because the paper is smoother overall.

It’s important how it handles ink, of course, and it does quite well. Disclaimer number two: I like smooth paper but I like toothy paper, too. What I care about with paper is, will it stand up to my ink and my way of writing?

Clairefontaine GraF it

GraF it paper showing pencil marks, erasure, and ink appearance.

The image above shows that I used several nib types and several ink brands on the GraF it. All performed very well with no bleed-through, no feathering, and minimal show-through. As I said, the paper is matte and slightly toothy for sketching purposes but it is still fairly smooth as opposed to something like laid paper (see G. Lalo below). You’ll feel it. Your pen won’t skate like it’s oiled, but it won’t be an unpleasant writing experience.

I don’t care for using pencil on the ultra-smooth paper of CF’s other notebooks (or similar papers). It’s messy and hard to control. But, I have wanted a journal I could draw in with graphite and colored pencil and fill with ink ramblings to my heart’s content. GraF it comes as blank and dot grid notepads. I was happy to learn that the same paper appears to be in their “Crok book” notebooks. On may way to find a seller, NOW!

*Below is the same test written on the Strathmore sketch paper (Recycled sketch paper 400 Series) and more of my hideous handwriting. Strathmore is not designed for fountain pen ink so you can see the ink spread and slight feathering. Not bad considering.

Strathmore sketch paper. Pencil, erasure, and ink test.

Strathmore sketch paper. Pencil, erasure, and ink test.

Clairefontaine Triomphe Blank 90g

This is CF’s correspondence paper. I’ve used the same paper but lined. It is wonderfully smooth, there’s no getting around that. I don’t know if it is exactly like their notebooks and notepads. To me, it seems a little more tolerant of my ultra-smooth nibs; they don’t seem to skate so easily. I could be imagining that. It also seems to show through a little but that could simply be that I’m not accustomed to using blank paper. Their standard notebooks are 90g just like the Triomphe paper. Whatever the case, if you want smooth paper for writing letters, this is an excellent choice and is one of my favorites. A lined version is available, as well. There is the one little problem with super-smooth paper like this: dry time. If you use a very wet pen, or a very goopy ballpoint (for shame!) you will get some ugly smearing if you don’t allow the ink to dry a few seconds. Well, in the case of the goopy ballpoint, you’re on your own. You’ll see at the end that I did smear tests for all three papers.

Clairefontaine Triomphe. Top quote in wet writing medium nib, bottom quote, dry XXXF nib. Some show-through visible from other side (wet writer, dark ink).

Clairefontaine Triomphe. Top quote in wet writing medium nib, bottom quote, dry XXXF nib. Some show-through visible from other side (wet writer, dark ink).

G. Lalo Verge de France

A lot of fountain pen users balk at laid paper but I’m not one of them. I love the stuff and I particularly love to use a very fine nib on it. Oddly enough, using a fat, smooth nib makes it feel more unpleasant. Better to tip toe through rocks than walk with flat bare feet on top of them. It’s more than that, however. I actually like the tactile feedback of the sharp nib on the laid lines (the narrow ridges on the paper). It’s part of the process. I equate it with the way many people prefer old mechanical keyboards over the membrane keyboards. I’ve tried to capture the lines in the picture here.

G. Lalo laid lines

Laid lines of G. Lalo Verge de France. The vertical lines are chain lines and do not affect texture.

Laid lines of G. Lalo Verge de france. The Vertical lines are chain lines and do not affect texture.

It’s entirely personal preference and if you know that your pens can only tolerate smooth or glassy surfaces, Verge de France isn’t for you.

From an inky point of view, this paper was tiny bit picky. I was sent “White” which looked distinctly “cream” to my eye. Nice color but I’d never call it white. You won’t be able to tell from the pictures that the Noodler’s Apache Sunset is fainter and shows less shading on the G. Lalo than on the other papers. The darker inks were fine. My Violet Vote ink, which tends to write rather wet, almost seemed to feather. It’s not as noticeable after the fact but was when I was writing.

I wrote at length on the back of the G. Lalo just to confirm my preference for fine nibs and the Violet Vote’s behavior. Yup.

G. Lalo Verge de France

G. Lalo Verge de France ink test. Inks used, top to bottom: Noodler’s Apache Sunset, Diamine Mediterranean, Iroshizuku Yama Budo, Noodler’s Bulletproof Violet Vote, Diamine Umber.

Last image. The smear test. They all did about the same. I was surprised that the Verge de France, with its texture, smeared as much as it did. But all were good at 20 seconds. The ink is Diamine Umber in a custom XXXF nib. Umber is not known for smearing. I consider it a middle-of-the-road ink, neither too saturated nor too weak.

Smear test of three papers.

Smear test of three papers.

So, wrapping up. European paper makers come through with great stuff. No big surprise there. Is this Big Box, grade-school priced stuff? No. They aren’t ridiculously expensive either. All three are worth giving a go if you love to write letters and/or draw.

Disclaimer number three: Other than three sheets of paper to play with and the fun time writing this, I get diddly squat from Rhodia Drive or Exaclair without paying for it. This little blog entry is uncompensated except by the sheer enjoyment of the process.

Getting Unstuck: Colorful Distraction


I tried to write about process in a succinct manner for a couple of weeks and I have failed. I tried to separate the discussion into two or three separate posts and failed there, as well. Perhaps that tells me it’s not time to write about it. Maybe I’m too new to or too close to my current process to talk about the psychology and methodology of it, even though I’ve been writing stories since third grade.

Instead, I’ll limit this to one small aspect of my process which is the meditation mandala.

I learned about mandala coloring in a book on contemplative prayer. I was intrigued that mandalas, much like walking labyrinths or Zen gardens, might be useful in prayer and similar spiritual endeavors. I sought a trick of sorts to help me find my way back to my faith. That’s another story but suffice to say, tricks don’t work.

However, I realized coloring served well to distract my inner editor when I was stuck. If I have a difficult paragraph or chapter, I pull out my colored pencils, gel pens, and coloring book, and start coloring. With the editor worrying about what shades of blue and green work well together or if I can throw some maroon in the mix, the writer can get to work on the story. This works all the better if I can talk aloud to myself and ask myself questions. It’s a little embarrassing if Husband is home, but it is the most effective way for me to think through a story problem.

There’s nothing new in this concept. You’ll find numerous links online about the many ways in which we come up with ideas or solve problems when we distract our minds with mundane tasks or white noise.

For myself, I do feel that often I am manacled by Analytical KC. Putting that self to work on a separate problem allows Creative KC to work without feeling judged. I’m sure there is more to it since I still have to analyze to a degree while I talk out the various ways I might fix something. I might say, “I could have Fred get angry and drive off in a huff and get in a wreck or I could have Fred lash out and knock Joe dead. Maybe Fred just leaves with his tail between his legs and has a wreck because he’s crying because he’s such a wuss.”  Meanwhile, I’ve chosen dark blue to fill in all the small triangles in the mandala and pale green for the ellipses and dark green for the circles, etc.

It’s not multiplexing/multitasking in the modern sense. It’s more like driving a car. One must keep a number of processes going to keep the car moving at a particular rate of speed, going a particular direction, and ready to respond to the road. With the mandalas and writing, coloring is operating the accelerator and brake of which I’m barely aware. Talking through options is using the steering wheel and turn signals. Writing is the destination. Dumb metaphor, I know. Still, it’s accurate and the fact that humans can operate machinery like cars is testimony to our ability to analyze and make decisions while performing other tasks. (NOT TEXTING! That requires sight. You need that to watch where you’re going.)

So, how do you get past those little stuck moments? Do you get up and go for a jog? Do you stop and get a fresh mug ‘o murk (coffee or tea, per my dad)? Do you switch projects? Wash dishes? Just power through? Never have stuck moments? I’d love to hear from you. Maybe what you do will be of value to me or others.


Ghosts, Dead Heroes, and Subatomic Particles: A Short Essay on Inspiration.

I’ve been grieving since Monday, August 11. In this time, I’ve written and rewritten a short-short ghost story, but the ending eluded me. Without an ending, there really is no story. I don’t mean putting it in a nice box with a bow; I mean just giving it words that inform the reader, “This is all I have left to say.” I couldn’t find those words no matter how hard I stared at the two pages of story, or meditated on it, or lay with eyes closed trying to picture its scenes. Nothing said, “Here! Right here! These are the words for which you are looking.” So I put my story aside and wallowed in grief some more. I watched some wonderful old videos and some bad, distracting television. I did some hardanger. I tried not to think about those two pages.

Wednesday night Husband and I went on our nightly two-mile walk and I asked him for input on the story. He talked about the ghosts in the story and how sometimes ghosts haunt people “in a positive way.” That didn’t help me directly but I liked the theory. I’ve certainly thought about it plenty of times and I’ve written stories in the past that have drawn on it, though I’ve never made much of those stories.

We arrived home and I took one last look at that danged short-short. As I read it, I thought of Husband’s comment and of a “good haunting” and thought how I hope Robin Williams could look down now and see that thousands of schlubs like me thought he was amazing and inspirational. I carried these thoughts in parallel as I read through those two pages, thinking of ghosts and death and trying to find the clue in my piece to finish that damn story.

Suddenly it was there. ending edit

Two or three words in the piece jumped out at me and I knew how to end it. They had nothing to do with ghosts or haunting (or comedy) but were entirely independent of those thoughts. I raced to get a pen, scratched the ending on the page and set about cleaning up for the night.

I was struck, however, by the strong sense of not having found the ending but having it presented to me.

It isn’t a new or unique idea, the thought that when a person dies, their energy goes out into the world. Different belief systems have embraced it for centuries. As I got ready for bed I had to ask, why not? Why couldn’t the energy of someone brilliant be making its rounds throughout the world, touching the fevered creative minds of those trying to paint pictures, sculpt forms, write plays or books? Why can’t that energy be a catalyst in the universe: a spiritual butterfly effect in which it bounces off one particle in space and from there spreads out and makes its way to League City over three days where a struggling writer says, “I’m sure going to miss that guy. I wish I had one-tenth of his genius. Maybe then I could finish this damn story.” Poof! That particle tweaks a neuron where the idea has been hiding and the neuron fires and the idea is ready to go on the page.

Why the hell not?

About twenty more pages of thoughts followed from that thought but I will spare everyone. Besides, as I said, these are not new ideas: positive thinking, getting back what you put into the universe, blah blah blah. Much of it is just downright controversial and I’m no philosopher, just a writer thinking about how I got my story ending.

Well, I have my ending. I had, I know, Husband’s help. Perhaps, however, I also had a stray subatomic particle that leapt from the bounds of that wild, brilliant soul and, in a roundabout way, struck a nerve.