Scotland the Brave


Because, of course, the world is clamoring for an American perspective on the Scottish Independence referendum.

Seriously, though, I’ve watched the lead up to the vote with curiosity, and I want to see what happens next. It’s interesting how people define themselves and how an independent Scotland versus a UK Scotland is or is not part of that definition. It’s a question of identity.

Black and white panorama of the beach. It's a windy day and the clouds are heavy over the water. The camera is behind a patch of wind-beaten dune grass, and a lone silhouette stands at the water's edge.

“Beach Troon” by Patrick Verheij CC BY

My Grandma was born in Troon, Scotland (south of Glasgow) and came to the states during the middle of WWII, when she was 18. She stayed, married, had kids and moved around the US: New York, Colorado, Indiana.

She and my grandad took periodic trips to Europe. During one of these trips, they stopped in Glasgow. Since they were running out of clean clothes, Grandma popped down to a nearby laundromat. She saw a young couple and thought it would be fun to eavesdrop on the lovebirds. Much to her dismay, she couldn’t understand a word they said.

Granted, Glaswegian isn’t the easiest Scottish accent to get. When I studied at the University of Glasgow for a semester, I understood everyone just fine. I watched the movie My Name is Joe in the theaters over there and scoffed when I heard it was being released in the US with subtitles. Who needed subtitles? That was ridiculous…until I watched it five years after coming back to the states. Who needed subtitles? Me. Here’s a fine sample.

Grandma told me her laundromat story decades after the fact. Obviously, it was an important moment for her. As a college student, all I got out of that conversation was an epiphany that I didn’t have to pack clothes for every single day that I was traveling. Today, I hear the sadness in her story.

There are things that we think define us. What happens when we realize those things aren’t true any more?

I never talked about this with her, but from hearing stories, it seems that Grandma was “other” in the small towns where she lived with her husband and kids. Her accent made her stand out whether she wanted to or not. And there she was, the place where she shouldn’t stand out, the place where she should be able to blend in and eavesdrop like everyone else, only to discover that she was other there, too.

Close-up of thistle bloom with a loch and mountains in the background

“Scottish Thistle at Loch Tarff – South Loch Ness – Inverness Scotland” by Dave Conner CC BY

Thistle picture on Flickr

Beach picture on Flickr

20,000 Characters Under the Sea


I was on a business trip, stuck on the runway because my destination airport (aka home) was temporarily closed for weather. While we waited, I pulled out my work-issued tablet, hoping it would have some preloaded book on it. Success! There was a selection of free (aka copyright free) books. I started Sun Tzu’s The Art of War but didn’t get past the intro. I was stuck in a metal tube with no way out: I was too fidgety for strategy. Next on the list was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a book about some guys stuck in metal tube with no way out. Perfect.

Except it wasn’t. 20,000 Leagues is a classic. I respect that. Great imagination, Jules Verne had. Character development, he did not.

I thought it would be fun to live tweet my reading. Because what goes better with classic literature than modern 140 character critiques?

They weren’t critweets so much as they were questions that I usually yell at books when they annoy me.

I started with #livetweetbooks and then moved to #livetweetclassics.

Here are some of my, uh, astute, tweets:

Reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. There's hella lot of telling so far and the narrator's a pretentious ass. #livetweetbooks

Conseil is the most interesting character so far (and I just met Nemo). You're smart, why are you this guy's man-servant? #livetweetbooks

Conseil is just biding his time, right? He's totally going to mutiny the Nautilus. #livetweetbooks

"Slimy mud which the Americans call 'ooze'" oddly proud to know we coined the term ooze. #livetweetbooks #livetweetclassics

"And could you tell me what everyone knows about it?" [Nemo] inquired, ironically -- Nemo is a hipster! #livetweetclassics20,000 Leagues mentions corvettes (sadly not little nor red) ... Had no idea they were originally ships. #livetweetclassics

Oh Conseil, I had hopes for you but you're turning into an idiot. #livetweetclassicsI fat thumbed #livetweetclassics as #licetweetclassics  I suppose that would be era appropriate.

Wait, wait, wait. I could buy that the harpoonist and sailor loved dry land more than anyone else #livetweetclassics 1/3

I looked the other way when he didn't want to see the wonders of the ocean #livetweetclassics 2/3

But you expect me to believe that a sailor doesn't know what a pearl is? I call bullshit #livetweetclassics 3/3

Much of the characters' actions (or inactions) can only be explained by a class system, not their personalities #livetweetclassics

For a supposedly curious person, Aronax is surprisingly incurious about why Nemo did all this #livetweetclassics

Also annoyed Aronax talks about crew's strange language and wonders where they're from BUT NEVER BOTHERS TO ASK #livetweetclassics

I'm back with more #livetweetclassics  75% thru 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Sperm whales are regular whales are battling it out.


That was supposed to read “Sperm whales AND regular whales are battling it out.”

Apparently sperm whales hiss and snort #livetweetclassics

So the guy who just massacred a bunch of whales wo blinking is upset at whalers for "rage of destruction" toward seals #livetweetclassics

#spoiler Ctpn Nemo swore he'd never walk on land again but is still keen to be the first man to walk on the South Pole?#livetweetclasics

I really want a clue as to Nemo's motivation. I'm with Ned at this point: this us bullshit #livetweetclassics

Nemo keeps you prisoner and always disappears, and you, M. narrator, never get upset or worried? #livetweetclassics

Hunting a sea animal to almost extinction as the cause for yellow fever. Surprising conservation messag #livetweetclassics

Perhaps this is only fascinating to me.

I’ve seen a lot of people live tweet movies or tv shows, but never a book. Good idea? Bad?

Comment Triage


An incredibly important part of a writers group, or any critique, is learning how to decide if a comment is good or bad. It’s not easy, but it’s an important skill to hone.

Lisa Rosenthal, the author who started one of my writer’s groups, told us to look at comments as a gift from our mother-in-law: well-intentioned. Imagine that the comment is a vase. Say thank you, take it home and decide if it fits with the decor of your story. If it does, great, keep it. If not, toss it on the imaginary Goodwill pile.

When I get back from a writers group, I compile all the comments onto one copy of the manuscript. This way I can see if multiple people said the same thing, or if there were contradictory thoughts. Plus, it’s nice to see all the good comments in one place.

Tag showing levels of triage: White=non-injured; green= 3rd priority, delayed; yellow=2nd priority, moderate; red=1st priority, immediate

Triage tag used by the U.S. Army. Wikimedia Commons

When I triage my comments, I do them in reverse order. Medical triage handles the most severe cases first. I work on the simplest yes/no cases first.

Non Injured: Easy Fix

Spelling and grammar notes? (If correct,) Done.

Some comments makes perfect sense and I adopt them right away. A recent example is the phrase “wedding-coiffed hair.” I really liked the way it sounded, but a critiquer pointed out that a 20-something guy would not say it. She was absolutely right. I liked it, but it had to go.

Other comments I reject right away. How I decide this is harder to explain. Sometimes I just know that the wording is right the way it is. And sometimes I have more background than my critiquer. My writers groups only meet once a month, so they don’t read everything in my WIP. This isn’t ideal since, from their point of view, the story can be choppy. They may even miss important info. In a recent session, a critiquer didn’t understand a reference to a conversation that my characters just had. The suggestion to explain the reference it didn’t make sense since the conversation took place the page before…the critiquer simply hadn’t seen those pages.

3rd Priority: Maybe/Maybe Not Fix

I try not to reject a comment just because I don’t like it. I give myself a day of thinking “that critiquer just doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” then I dig down to find out why I don’t like the comment. This is where combining the comments helps. If more than one person had a similar comment, I know I need to adjust something. Maybe that point I thought I had explained, I hadn’t. Or, maybe, I know the comment is right but I just don’t want to put in the work. I know I’ve got this kind of comment when my stomach turns into a heavy brick.

2nd Priority: Big Changes/Unsure

But what if only one person had an issue? I need to think about it some more. I don’t ignore their feedback, I consider the source. This is why I think it’s important to review the work of the people who are reviewing you.

I like Person A’s plotting. Person B writes romance and avoids action. Person C only writes in symbolism with sweeping themes.

If Person A says there’s a problem with my plot or that there isn’t enough forward momentum, I listen. If Person B says there’s too much action, I file the comment away, but don’t worry about it until I hear that comment from others. But if she has a comment about a character’s relationships, I pay attention. If Person C says they are bored by the small family moments in a piece, I realize that this isn’t a story that they would normally read. Again, I make a note, but don’t act.

1st Priority: Second Opinion

Enter multiple writers groups. If I can’t decide whether or not to make a change, or I don’t know if the change I made solves the problem, I take the piece in question to a different group. They don’t know what was said about the piece, so they haven’t formed an opinion yet. If they comment (one way to the other) on the section in question, I have my answer. If they don’t, I ask.

Your Opinion

This was a tough post. Actually writing down how I determine what comments to accept and which to ignore highlighted how “it depends” everything is.

When you get comments back, what do you do with them?

Manuscript Crit


I just found this in my draft folder…from back in January. It’s appropriate to post now, though, since Midwest Writers’ Workshop was last weekend.

In my last post, I mentioned that I bought a manuscript (first five pages, really) critique at the Midwest Writers’ Workshop. I submitted the opening of my current WIP and waited impatiently.

In addition to the paid critiques, everyone had the opportunity for an open critique: putting your pages on a table in the library for anyone to read and critique. I tossed those same pages into the ring.

As part of the weekend, I signed up for an all-day intensive workshop with the same published author who was doing the paid critique. I figured I needed to learn more about him so I could better weigh his comments.

One of the first thing he said was that authors need to name their character right away so readers know who they’re dealing with and aren’t confused when the names are finally mentioned. My first person narrator wasn’t named until the end of the submitted pages. Strike one.

Then he said when he’s reading he wants a description of characters’ clothes. If not, he has naked characters running around his head. Strike two. Plus, the two main characters in the first five pages were college girls…kind of icky to have them running around naked in readers’ heads.

As the day went on, my Strike List got longer.

I wasn’t looking forward to the critique session. However, I figured that since I knew what he was looking for I could at least steel myself for my pages to come back dripping in red ink.

Except they didn’t. He liked the pages. He liked my characters. He liked where and how I’d started.

“But, the clothes!” He hadn’t noticed.

I was elated. I’d managed to break “the rules” and get away with it.

Meanwhile, the open critique of my pages had comments that contradicted each other and the comments from the paid critique.

I’m not surprised. For good writer’s karma, I critiqued a few of the manuscripts (too many to read them all). There was a range of genres, but most of the manuscripts I picked up were fantasy. I was out of my depth, but tried to give helpful feedback anyway. I’m sure that many of my comments were written off because it was obvious I didn’t read the genre.

Ask five people, get five different opinions.

Looking back, on this post, I would say that the real take away is that all comments aren’t created equal.

An incredibly important part of a writers group, or any critique, is learning how to decide if a comment is good or bad. It’s not easy, but it’s an important skill to hone.

More on that next time…

Name Dropping


In a recent writer’s group submission, I described a big box store and its blue polo, khaki wearing employees.

Some members of the group said I was spot on in my description of Best Buy, while others were frustrated that I didn’t name names.

Further into the piece, a character played an unnamed first-person shooter (video game) with lots of explosions.

Someone really wanted an exact name of the video game (even if it was made up), and someone else wanted me to be explicit in which game controller and system my character was using. And some people were confused as to what a first-person shooter was.

One of the people who wanted more names accused me of trying too hard to future-proof my novel. To a certain extent, I suppose I am — this guy should see how I danced around naming Facebook — but I don’t think it’s true in these cases.

I don’t care if the reader thinks the store is Best Buy or Walmart or Radio Shack. That’s not important. What’s important is that my character can get both a video game and a cell phone at the same store. That’s more practical than literary, but it’s true.

I’ve read stories that named Woolworth’s and A&P. Those names mean nothing to me. They’re stores. That’s as much information as I get. I’ve read books that named JC Penny’s and Marks & Spencer. Those means more to me only because those stores still exist. But in another 5 years? 10 years?

If I’m using the name to convey something about the character or the setting, shouldn’t it be something that can A) stand the test of time from writing to publishing and B) have a similar meaning to a wide audience?

I know the JC Penny’s reference was to show the poverty of the community, but if you’re from a similar community, you’re going to read that reference very differently.

As for the video game, I’m going for a feeling. A shoot ’em, blow ’em game reflects the characters mood. Which one? What I think is a gory shooting game might be fluff to someone else, so if I name names, I may not be conveying what I want.

I read an article (which I can’t find now) in which an author explained people’s reaction to his description of a character. He wrote that she was like a model on the cover of a men’s magazine. Several of his friends said he described her so well that they knew she looked like and then they proceeded to describe vastly different women. This didn’t bother the author because his goal was not to describe the woman’s hair color, build, etc., but to have the reader envision what they found sexy.

That’s what I’m going for more than future-proofing (except maybe with my non-mention of Facebook). If I do a clumsy job, then it’s my description needs work, not necessarily my approach.

What do you think?

When you’re working on your novels, do you use brand names? Do you worry about future-proofing?

You Know You’re a Writer When: Gas Stations


On myPicture taken from the driver's seat of the car in front of them at a gas pump. The car is off with no one near it. There is a pink "out of order" sign on the handle. way to the grocery store is a gas station that doubles as a gift store. They advertise gift-able holidays more than the price of gas. I’ve never stopped there before, for either gifts or gas.

This past weekend, however, I was almost on empty and didn’t want to be stranded in the grocery parking lot with milk and meat spoiling in the back. So I stopped.

There were two cars already in the station. I pulled up behind the sedan and started filling my tank. The full, floor-to-ceiling window of the station was packed with gifts: vases, flags and miscellaneous things wrapped in plastic. I was debating going in to find out exactly what those miscellaneous things were when I realized that there was no one else around. No new cars were pulling in for gas. The two cars that were there when I arrived were still there, but no one was filling them up. No one was sitting inside them.

I have never been the only person at the gas station before. It was creepy. Like a ghost town. My thoughts turned to *why* the people had abandoned their cars. They must have gone inside to pay (something I haven’t done in years) only to be taken hostage. Obviously.

I watch the glass doors, but I can’t see anything inside thanks to that black plastic film people put on windows to cut down on sunlight, glare and, oh, people peeping in.

Before my gas pump finishes, and before I get to the stage in my paranoia when I start to plan my escape if I’m seen, an older gentleman walks out and straightens the gift-y lawn pinwheels by the door. That’s when I see the pink out-of-order fliers taped over the gas nozzles next to the parked cars.

Ever been surprised to find yourself alone? What was your first thought? Ghost town or hold up? Or something more benign?

Mediums That Scare Me

Creative Commons license:

Jazz Hands “Spiritual Advisor” by mmatins – Flickr Creative Commons

Not that kind of medium.

I’ve been watching the World Cup, emailing cheers with friends in the Netherlands and texting anxiety with friends here at home.

The recent US-Belgium game got me thinking of the summer I was an exchange student in Bruges. I had a great time and suddenly, despite the heartbreak loss, I wanted to reach out to my host sister. We’d lost contact fairly soon after my return…nearly twenty years ago. I found her online (God bless the internet). Then I got cold feet. I had her email, but what did I say?

Letters do that me. Cards do that to me. Any sort of well wishing (the signable frame at weddings, a friend’s cast, you name it) does that to me.

I panic. I want to get the words and sentiment just right.

I can write chapters upon chapters about characters spiraling into insanity or contemplating a revenge murder, but a little “hey, how are you” or “best wishes on this next great adventure” paralyzes me.

Yes, I realize that it’s what’s behind the writing rather than the medium itself that’s tripping me up, but it’s still frustrating. The card is so small. An email is so casual.

I suppose a blank page is a blank page no matter what.


I’m posting early because: Hup Holland!


World Cup & Father’s Day


As long time readers of the blog know, I love soccer. And another 4 years have passed, so it’s World Cup time again! It always feels appropriate that the World Cup and Father’s Day coincide.

2014 USvGhana in Grant ParkI spent most of last weekend parked in front of my TV cheering and screaming and hooting. I’ve spent my work days flipping between XLS spreadsheets and Google to get a quick peek at the scores. God bless Twitter for the running commentaries, although I have to stay away from them when I’m on the clock or I’d do nothing but scroll.

On Monday, I even went to Chicago’s Grant Park to cheer on the US Men’s Team in their debut game against Ghana (2-1 US). I love that the sport has grown so much here — so much that I don’t think the organizers expected so many people to show up. There was one jumbo-tron and thousands of heads between me and that screen. I tried and failed to send a tweet because there were so many people squeezed into such a tight spot. But I loved being there, surrounded by fans. Chanting U!S!A! when I’m alone on my couch just doesn’t have the same feel-good energy as it does when you’re standing in the middle of a mass of people.

And being in the crowd reminded me a bit of my dad.

In 1994, the World Cup was held in the US. Most Americans were baffled, but FIFA was trying to bolster the sport here. For those of us who were already fans, it was a miracle. My dad and I road-tripped to Detroit and watched several of the games. We saw the US and Brazil. We sat next to a family of 3 who lived outside of Chicago and were traveling back and forth between the cities to get in as many games as they could. I remember the smell of stale, sloshed beer mixed with the strong, floral perfume of the Chicagoan mom. I remember the roaring crowd and beating drums. I remember the energy that crackled around the stadium, even when my team was losing, even when I wasn’t rooting for a team.

I couldn’t believe that not everyone loved this game like I did. I hated hearing sportscasters deride soccer players as silly little guys running around for 90 minutes…did they hear themselves? Running for 90 minutes. That’s not easy.

Dribbling, passing, juggling…none of it is easy, but when a player does it well, it’s fluid and graceful and, well, beautiful.

I grew up playing soccer, mainly because my parents wanted me in some activity. I’m not sure how soccer was picked. It was a fledgling sport that actually had a fairly big following in Lexington, KY thanks to the many international students and families at the University of Kentucky.

I remember not liking it so much at first. I didn’t get it and wasn’t good at it. Practicing wasn’t all that fun, so I didn’t do it and, shockingly, didn’t get much better as a result. But my dad was getting into the game. He joined an adult league and started reffing. To spend more time with him, I decided to ref, too. You can start as young as 13. I hated conflict and would rather have melted into the wallpaper than stand out, but I took the test and got certified.

I was terrible.

I only did it for one year, but I learned the rules and, to this day, my friends get annoyed when I agree with the ref on the field rather than join in the boos in the stands.

Even though I was never very good on either side of the whistle, I grew to love the game. Not because I knew the rules but because I was surrounded by it. I saw the good, the bad and the ugly of the players’ skill, parents’ attitude, and team-mate camaraderie. It really is the beautiful game – the power of the individual and the fluidity of the team working together.

If my dad and I ever drift into silence on a phone call (or at Christmas), one of us just has to mention soccer and we’re off like a whirlwind.

As of this writing, there’s a rumor that the US may get the 2022 World Cup from Qatar. Dad and I already plan on getting tickets and going together.

Supernatural Woman


Recently, I started watching Lost Girl, a show about a succubus. I seem to watch and read my share of supernatural creature stories. This one is interesting because it’s a creature we don’t see much of and because their very nature (draining a human of life force while having sex with them) brings up a lot of questions about sexuality and morality that aren’t touched much on TV. But, another question popped into my head.

What’s up with all these supernatural creatures having to hide from humans?

Hiding their abilities/who they are is integral to story lines from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Twilight. I understand not wanting to, say, have the villagers come after you with torches and pitchforks. However, when the modern-day stories create their worlds, they create them with huge populations of supernatural creatures. While Stoker’s Dracula was alone, it’s not like Hogwarts is worried about a dwindling student population — because of extinction at any rate. Twilight has so many vampires that they have their own governing body. Lost Girl has factions and supernatural creatures spanning mythos.

Not only are their large populations, these creatures are supposed to be so much stronger and smarter and faster than us wimpy humans. They can snap our backs with a snap of their fingers, snuff out or life with a blink or the eye, or kiss us to death. Why are they so afraid we’ll find out? If they came out of the closet, so to speak, it seems like they’d be pretty well set to take over.

Are our pitchforks pointer than I give them credit for? Maybe I just don’t like the idea that we humans are so weak* we have to be protected or that, conversely, we’re just a mindless mob.

The idea of needing to stay hidden is so pervasive, though, that we rarely question it.

A few stories do, however, and that makes things interesting.The True Blood series starts right after vampires have a coming out.

The final seconds of last episode of the TV show Heroes showed one of the characters about to out herself. I wanted to see what happened after the camera faded to black. For me, that’s where the story got interesting.

I have no grand call-to-action or even a mini suggestion. I watch and read the stories that use staying hidden as a looming threat and I enjoy them. I enjoy the stories where super and natural are integrated. If I have any take-away, I guess that it’s I want take a look at my own stories and see what I’m taking for granted and why. I might leave it as is, or I may try to push some assumptions.

Importance of First Impressions


After watching several First Sentence Challenges on YouTube, I’m convinced I would lose that challenge. OK, I really only had to watch one to come to that conclusion, but I kept going because YouTube is The Rabbit Hole.

The idea of the First Sentence Challenge is that someone reads you the first line of a book you’ve read and you have to guess which book it is.

I wanted to see how people did, and I enjoyed seeing the vloggers’ personalities come through via guessing (and which books they’d read). But in addition to that, it was interesting hearing and really listening to all these book openings.

Of the books that were in the challenge that I’d read, I did not remember any of their first lines. Of the books in the challenge that I hadn’t read, none of their first sentences jumped out at me. Most were vague. One mentioned the weather (rain).

The first lines that were guessed most quickly had first lines that included names or, in Harry Potter’s case, a mention of wands. Those sentences included something special about that particular story.

The purpose of a first line isn’t for people to guess the book after they’ve read it, but to entice people to read the story in the first place. However, the blank looks gave me pause.

When writing marketing emails one of the guidelines is to write the subject line last. Compose the email, find what the core of that email is and then construct the subject line (what entices the people to open the email in the first place) after you really understand what your email is about.

I wonder if that might be good advice for novels, too.

Here are a few First Sentence Challenge videos to get you started:

Jesse the Reader

Padfoot and Prongs 07

Fun Bonus
Here’s the first sentence to one of the few books I’ve read more than once (hint: it’s a favorite): Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth.

What’s the book?