Monthly Archives: May 2016

In Search of the Perfect Critique Partners

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge

Today I’m joining the ranks for the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. Thank you to IWSG for the opportunity to share and learn from your writerly experiences. We post the first Wednesday of the month, but I’m posting early due to family commitments. Check them out here:

A topic much on my mind lately is getting good-quality feedback on my writing. I’ve just finished another (hopefully final) polish of my second novel, and am starting another round of agent queries. It took bloody forever to work this manuscript through my critique group, since we’re only allowed to submit twenty pages per meeting. It’s a fair rule—we’d never get through a meeting otherwise.

I’ve been participating in the same critique group for over a year now, and their bi-monthly meetings are a highlight of my writing practice. It’s energizing to chat face-to-face with other writers. From them, I’ve received lots of valuable advice on refining my cozy mystery and women’s fiction novels. No one in my group writes in these genres, but that doesn’t disqualify them from critiquing my work; in fact, the best writing advice I’ve received so far has come from writers of historical fiction and sci-fi. Good storytelling is good storytelling.

I’ve also exchanged a few online critiques with members of the Women’s Fiction Writers’ Association, and will continue to pursue that avenue. These readers understand the expectations of our shared genre, and a bonus is that some of these critiques come from published writers.

Here’s where the insecure bit comes in: I give more credence to advice from fiction writers whose work has been published, especially those who’ve been traditionally published.

Disclaimer: I’m sure there’s lots of very fine indie-published fiction out there—but the indie fiction I’ve sampled so far has mostly been clunky, unpolished, not enjoyable for a reader like me who expects that level of polish found in most traditionally-published fiction. And that level of polish is what I’m trying to achieve—not just good proofreading, but well-rounded, relatable characters wrapped up in a believable, non-rambling plot.

Back to my face-to-face critique group. Sure, it’s valuable to get feedback from all sorts of writers, and to see the evolution of their works in progress. We all have a great deal in common, and sharing the process of chiseling away the dross from a draft to reveal the gem inside—that’s a great learning opportunity for me.

But the limitations of this critique group are becoming hard to ignore. A few of our best writers have peeled off, dissatisfied with nature of the critiques. They tell me there’s too much nit-picking over mechanics and too little focus on plot, characters, pacing—the meat of the story.  They have a point.

Our group contains some die-hard writing-rule-evangelists. (One actually carries the Chicago Manual of Style to every meeting.) Oh, how these writers cling to their formulas, their cherished edicts about what one must and must not do in order to create a work of fiction. Here’s where I admit to being a retired high school English teacher. I have great respect for grammar, punctuation—all the tools we use to achieve clear communication. But oh, dear reader, there is much eye-rolling when these group members start spouting their rules for this and that aspect of writing fiction. And have these particular group members published anything? Not as far as I know. That doesn’t mean that they won’t, of course, but still…

Ugly thoughts, I know. And unfair—after all, I haven’t published anything yet either. When I finally do get my work published, whether traditionally or independently, it’ll have more to do with voice and storytelling than whether I’ve followed a certain formula or eliminated all my adverbs and exclamation points. A good storyteller can bend lots of rules and still delight her readers.

I don’t want to leave the security of my little critique group, but suspect it’s time to move beyond its secure borders. It’s time to look for more in-depth feedback than I can get twenty pages at a time. Wish me luck.

Ready for Launch

graduation hats

Eleven more days until graduation! A student has scrawled this joyful message across the classroom whiteboard in two-foot-high letters. I’ve spent the past few days substitute teaching for high school seniors, and graduation is the number one topic. Next week our clan gathers to celebrate my step-son’s graduation from medical school. All this excitement and preparation brings the memories tumbling back—memories of the many (26!) high school graduations I attended during my teaching career, including my daughter’s, and of my own graduations.

The kids I’m working with this week have to fill out a lengthy statement of their post-graduation plans before they’re allowed to “walk” (across the stage to receive their diplomas). I was touched and tickled as I watched the students scramble to complete this requirement. These are AP classes, so most of the students are college-bound. One young man, however, kept exclaiming, “I have no fricken idea what I’m doing next year.”

I feel for this kid. So many students reach this age with no plan for their future—beyond celebrating their freedom from high school. Once that victorious moment arrives, though, they cling to the edge of the precipice, afraid to leave that familiar ground and jump into the unknown. I remember how, after graduation, the ex-seniors of Bitburg High School would return to the school to hang out, only to be chased away by the office staff. “You’re done! Go!” Go where?

Me, I was ready to leap into my next adventure—four years in the army. I was more than ready to be all I could be, to get out of town, and to escape the shame of not going to a four-year college, like all my friends were doing. And yet, I remember that moment right after graduation when we all filed back into the small gym to turn in our graduation gowns. It was like one of those movie scenes; I stood google-eyed in the middle of a spinning blur of happy, crying, hugging, shouting people. And I said to myself, “What now?” It seemed surreal—how could high school possibly be done, just like that? In comparison, my two college graduations were a piece of cake. But then, I had a plan; there was no cliff-jumping when I left college—at least not without a parachute.

For my step-son this graduation is a victory, but I get the feeling he cares much less about the actual ceremony than his family does. His mind is on the next step, residency. But the clan will be there in force to cheer him on. It will be a fine party, worthy of the joyous occasion.

My daughter didn’t have that wall of family to cheer at her high school graduation, and that’s one of my greatest regrets. Her dad and I were in the middle of a very acrimonious break-up, and we sat on opposite sides of the auditorium. We were in Germany, and I couldn’t offer to house visiting family in the war zone that our home had become. And so I sobbed through her graduation ceremony alone, surrounded by big, boisterous clans. I was so proud of my daughter, who celebrated with her friends, despite the chaos at home. She had a plan—a plan that changed, as it turned out, but she’s still making me proud. She leapt into the unknown.

To the class of 2016, I wish you courage, joy, and happy landings.

Whither Creativity?


I’m part of a team of advance readers for Gabriela Pereira’s upcoming DIYMFA, a book in which she presents the essentials of creative writing that she learned while earning her MFA. So far, I’m enjoying her book, especially her concise way of presenting the various types of plot conflicts, with concrete examples. Look for DIYMFA this July. Check it out here:

This week, she’s asked us advance readers to comment on which of these myths about creativity we’ve fallen prey to.

  1. Creativity is an exclusive club, and you can’t be part of it.
  2. Creativity is innate–you either have it or you don’t.
  3. Creativity is driven by chaos, so there’s no way to control it.
  4. Creativity is all about getting that one “Big Idea.”
  5. Creativity is focusing on an idea until it’s perfect.

Honestly, Gabriela, I haven’t stumbled over any of these. Am I unusual in that respect? I hope not. All of us are creative—creativity is a basic human drive. How we express our creativity varies greatly, of course: writing, dancing, making music, making visual art, building things, repairing things, designing things, growing things…

Looking back at my upbringing, I don’t recall any family members or teachers who tried to squash or belittle my creative efforts. My parents were at least patient with my many “projects,” and were supportive of my many performances. My sister, my friends and I were forever building forts, putting on shows, making witch’s brews of leaves and mud, excavating “jewels,” composing songs—on and on. Typical kid stuff, right? Mom did insist that we learn a musical instrument, though she promised we could quit after two years if we truly hated it. Neither my sister nor I quit.

A few special mentors helped me to see myself as especially creative. In the fourth grade, Mrs. Graham cast me as the Spanish dancer in our class “recreation” of a Spanish rancho during our California history unit. She noticed my love of dance and lent me her antique, embroidered shawl to whirl about, not even complaining when I accidentally stepped on the fringe.

I was blessed with an excellent band teacher and two demanding but nurturing drama teachers, all of whom gave me the chance to shine onstage. It was an honor to do the same for my drama students when I taught theater classes.

And writing has always come easily to me. As young as eight or nine, I’d lie awake at night, spinning stories in my head. I remember creating what would today be called “fan fiction,” new stories based on characters from TV’s Batman and Star Trek. I recall a Catwoman-esque character who fought on the side of good, climbing buildings at night to protect Gotham City from nefarious types, like the nasty boy down the street.

So, where do the ideas come from? I dunno—they just come. Doesn’t everyone slide into daydreams about “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” or “Wouldn’t it be ironic if…” or “What if I found a dead body in those bushes over there?”

Of course, a surplus of ideas doesn’t equal a publication-ready story. That’s the hard part. And lots of readers wouldn’t agree with me about what constitutes an interesting story. But there’s no doubt that I’m a creative type. I have no doubt that you are too.

The Leftover Project: Lentil Soup in the New Kitchen

The kitchen 1

The kitchen is finished! Welcome, new temple of culinary rites. Welcome, new heart of our home. Farewell to camping in the living room.

The kitchen 2

For the past six weeks, we’ve been subsisting on what could be grilled in the back yard or quickly prepared in the “camp kitchen” a mini-microwave, an electric skillet and a slow cooker. The trouble with cooking in the living room as that pervasive odors, like garlic, cling to the furniture. There’s a reason we don’t put sofas in the kitchen.

Thank goodness for take-out. I’ve eaten more sushi in the past month than in the previous year. But take-out food is expensive, and I’ve really missed cooking. The first dish I made in the new kitchen was pasta, something I just couldn’t prepare on the grill. And last night the weather turned from warm May splendor back to our usual gray drizzle. Time for lentil soup!

Lentil soup is a worthy addition to my leftover project, a collection of basic recipes to help me (and perhaps you?) use up leftovers before they go to waste. According to the United Nations Environmental Program, “about one-third of all food produced worldwide, worth around US$1 trillion, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems. When this figure is converted to calories, this means that about 1 in 4 calories intended for consumption is never actually eaten. In a world full of hunger, volatile food prices, and social unrest, these statistics are more than just shocking:  they are environmentally, morally and economically outrageous.”

Knowing this, I feel like a complete cretin when, because I haven’t paid attention to what’s in my fridge, I end up discarding food that’s become too old to eat. It feels like throwing money directly into the garbage can, not to mention the natural resources involved, and the work of all the people who produced, transported and packaged that food. Thus, the Leftover Project.

Lentil soup is a delicious way to use up leftover bits of this and that. I often throw in greens that are starting to wilt, sad tomatoes, and bits of cooked meat. Today’s version was pretty much the basic recipe, and gave a home to some slightly soggy celery and a lone potato that would otherwise have melted into gooey oblivion.

Here’s the basic recipe to serve six. We’re only two, but I freeze the rest for I-don’t-wanna-cook days.

  • First, I chop up 2-4 peeled carrots, 2-4 stalks celery, including the leaves, and a big ol’ onion, chopped, or all the bits of various onions, green onions, shallots, and/or leeks I have lying around, to equal the volume of one large onion. I sauté all this in a few tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot. (Doesn’t that sound like a term of affection? Come on over here, my heavy-bottomed soup pot.) Put the lid on and sweat the veggies for about five minutes over medium heat.

The veggies

  • Now, I throw in 2-4 cloves of garlic, minced (more would be fine). If you’re adding greens, like spinach, kale, etc., now would be the time to shred or chop them up and throw them in. If your greens are already cooked, throw them in later, toward the end. Anyway, I also add a few bay leaves and stir this for a few minutes, then pour in about eight cups of water and the lentils—any type. This time I used the green ones which hold their shape in the finished soup. The brown ones soften up and dissolve more, making a more velvety soup. Nothing’s stopping you from using your stick blender (AKA immersion blender) to partially puree the finished soup, if you prefer a creamier consistency. You could use red lentils too, but they seem to call for Middle Eastern or Indian seasonings, whereas the green ones feel more French, Spanish or Italian. Last night we were heading toward Italy, so I added several grinds of black pepper and a good shake of Penzi’s Tuscan Sunset herb blend (so good!) and let the lentils simmer for about forty minutes.
  • While the lentils cooked, I squish the guts out of six raw chicken Italian sausage from Trader Joe’s. I brown that up and set aside half the pan for future dishes—I love this crumbled sausage in my stuffed peppers, zucchini or eggplant—also great vehicles for leftovers.
  • When the lentils are starting to soften, I add about a tablespoon of beef bouillon concentrate, the stuff in a jar. You could use the chicken concentrate or the veggie. I dump in a can (14 oz.) of diced tomatoes, two medium potatoes, peeled and diced, and the sausage, which could just as easily have been replaced with diced ham, roast beef or chicken, or even vegetarian sausage.
  • And here it is! It turns out I’d grabbed the spicy sausage, which gave the soup just a bit of a kick. Delicious!

Lentil soup

After dinner, we went to Tacoma’s B Sharp Coffee House to hear the T-Town Blues Review. Vocalist Paul Green roared on harmonica, and the excellent band raised the roof. What a great evening.

T-Town Blues Review 2

What’s your favorite way to use up leftovers?

Reflection on the A-Z Blog Challenge

A-to-Z Reflection [2016]

The A-Z Blog Challenge has come to an end, and I sort of miss it. Writing a daily (except Sundays) blog post gave me a satisfying feeling of achievement during a tumultuous month—workers traipsing through my house daily (except Sundays), no kitchen, piles of kitchen stuff hidden away here and there like a squirrel’s nut caches. Daily blogging also gave me a refreshing break from the novel I’ve been working on. I was stuck on a solution for the opening scenes, but when I tackled that task again in May, I made real progress. Blogging is good creative cross-training for a fiction writer, eh?

Q is for Quatsch was the easiest to write. The hardest? None, really. What was challenging was sticking to my declared theme: making the most of early retirement. I’m glad I have another eleven months to think up a theme for next year’s challenge.

This challenge has strengthened my resolve to learn more about the structure of blogging; I need to update my theme and become more proficient at using graphics and photos. The Word Press theme I’m currently using doesn’t allow me to create a blog roll in the side bar, so I’m shopping for a theme that will facilitate that.

The most enjoyable part of this challenge, beside the writing, was hearing from strangers around the world who share my interest in writing, travel, and the joys/challenges of this life stage. What are the chances that I’d otherwise make new blog friends in Australia and India? I hope the Linky list stays active so that I can continue to sample these interesting blogs.

My blog posts that got the most views, comments and likes were

  • D is for Daring
  • N is for No, Thanks
  • M is for Motherhood
  • L is for Love
  • I is for Impressed
  • V is for Vacation

As for complaints, no tengo nada. I found the website accessible and the guidelines easy to follow. And if some bloggers weren’t able to finish the challenge—so what? Life happens.

I’m looking forward to next year’s challenge. Until then, please stop by from time to time, and I’ll do the same for you!

But What Do I Know?

question mark

I have a writing assignment with a generous deadline. For this year’s Write on the Sound writers’ conference in Edmonds, Washington, October 1-2, I need to create a work of short fiction, creative nonfiction, or a poem on the topic of “What I Know Now.”

I think I’ll choose the fiction option, as the nonfiction option puts me up against the likes of Oprah—not that she’ll be attending WOTS, but well-written essays about “What I Know (Now, for Sure, etc.) abound. This is not one of them.

What do I know, now that I’ve reached my fifties? Most of it would just echo Oprah’s insights. I doubt the judges would be impressed by my advice to listen to their bodies, keep a journal, eat veggies with every meal, stop wasting food, be selective when considering which (if any) trends to follow, and do something creative every day. We all know that stuff, right?

“What I Know Now” requires a backward glance to what I didn’t know then. Having worked with teenagers for so many years has provided a better understanding of my own youth. Poor teenaged Rhonda thought she knew quite a lot about how to achieve the good life, but she didn’t know diddly-squat. Know-it-all teens are usually covering up deep insecurities; I sure was.

I didn’t know that my racehorse metabolism was a temporary gift from God, not something I’d earned. I get about the same amount of exercise now as then, but I’m sure not as slim as I was at twenty, even without the Friday-night binges with my army roommate—Doritos and Lambrusco. Blech!

I didn’t know that attracting boys/men would never be a problem. I mean, they’re guys. If you’re reasonably attractive, open and friendly, you’ll catch the eye of several potential partners. If this one doesn’t work out, the next one might, or the one after him. Back then, I was worried that my small boobs would prevent me from finding true love. Having met so many non-standard beauties with devoted mates, I know that we can blithely ignore the beauty industry’s strictures about must-have’s and must-do’s. Beauty comes in many flavors.

I didn’t know how to listen and learn from others’ experience. I could have saved myself a lot of heartache and frustration if I’d heeded the advice from the many wise older women I met back then. One piece that really stuck was uttered by a Southern lady I worked with: “Honey, ever’body has something to teach you, even if it’s how not to be.” So true. Now I pay attention to the wisdom of others, written and spoken. Teachers abound.

I didn’t know that most of life’s problems have complicated causes, and that everything is connected. As a young woman, I believed in simple solutions. Honey, ain’t no simple solutions. I now know, for example, that my bulging belly has to do with age, hormones, posture, my gut biome, my favorite (alas, far too sedentary) activities, heredity… There’s no pill, no diet, no one panacea that will suck in this belly o’ mine, and the answer lies somewhere between acceptance and vigilance.

It’s all about balance. That’s what I know now. Life is a balancing act—difficult to achieve, but with practice you reach that point where balance becomes automatic. You’re aware of so many factors that could blow you off-balance, but you breathe into your center, open your arms and your heart, and find that place where balance feels effortless. Work and play, together and alone, indulgence and discipline, serious and silly, a well-lived life requires balance. That’s what I know.

Now, if I can just think up a short story that illustrates that lesson.

May Day in Tacoma’s Wright Park

A lively line dance starts Tacoma's May Day celebration.

A lively line dance starts Tacoma’s May Day celebration.

When I was a small child, we used to have a huge May Day celebration in school. We’d make construction-paper May baskets, fill them with flowers, and deliver them as surprise gifts by hanging them on someone’s door knob, ringing the bell, and running away–probably the only time that this childhood prank had a positive outcome. The school celebration also included an outdoor gathering where we sang and danced, including the dance in which we’d weave ribbons around the Maypole. What ever happened to this joyful celebration? I think it may have been cut in reaction to the big communist brouhaha on the first of May–or perhaps some parent objected the the holiday’s pagan origins.

Today the Puget Sound Revels presented a traditional May Day celebration in Tacoma’s lovely Wright Park. This group presents several performances and community events throughout the year, culminating in the very popular Christmas Revels. My neighbor Kay was in charge of this year’s floral brigade, and supervised the making of scores of floral crowns for the dancers–anyone who joined in the celebration was bedecked with flowers.

Banner parade

Singers from Puget Sound Revels led us in song and dance, including this lively drum line.

Drum Line May Day

We sang several rounds of various traditional songs, with lots of references to the Green Wood, the Green Man, Summer is Icumen In, deer hunting, etc.

Of course, the day’s festivities concluded with the traditional May Pole dance. What started out as a bit of a knotted cluster ended up forming this lovely pattern on the pole.

May Pole 1

May Pole 2

A Hey Nonny Nonny time was had by all. Thanks to the Revels crew for a lovely welcome to summer.