Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.  Geoffrey Chaucer said that about 600 years ago as part of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the first writing we would recognize as English.  I believe it.  What would life be worth if it weren’t a pilgrimage?  Every day.  I hope you will join my pilgrimage.  I’m writing a book … well, several.  Writing is pilgrimage, and I’ll need sustenance along the way.  I hope you will follow along, comment, help lead me.  C’mon, it will be an adventure …

Writing and sculpture

Wood sculptor

Roughing out

My father was a sculptor in wood.  I remember him saying, “The wood has a story.  It’s my job to let it out.”  I was six or seven, but those words have stuck with me.

I have been working with a fine editor (see Kopp Editing Services) on the first part of my second novel.  As I was hacking away at the prose, chopping a sentence here, a participle there, I saw my father working.  His chisel was at first roughing out the block, revealing the grain and density, finding the story.  Maybe because all writers are suckers for metaphor, I realized as I read through the margin notes and suggestions, the first draft is that roughing out.  Rewrite teases out the shape, and editing provides the fine adjustments my father made to his sculpture with the gouges, skews and v-groove chisels that gave the the piece character.

There is something to be said for that metaphor.  When I began my first novel, I thought I would write a draft, then line edit.  (After all, I’m a good writer, I thought.  Got B’s in college from the writing teacher who was reputed to believe, “A is for God, B is for me, and C+ is for the best of the rest of you.”)

Pelican Sculpture

My father saw a pelican in this piece of wood

That first time, I got the same result a woodworker would have gotten by jumping to fine detail before the roughing out was finished.  Now, on the second novel, after more experience and the help of three critique groups, I believe it’s time to take out the gouges and skews.  So I sent the third pass off to my editor.

Taters Are Hicks

Here is a starchy tour de force. Good writing, too.

Elan Mudrow


Baked potatoes are stoners

Spud is a good guy to have a beer with

and watch the game,

But when the conversation

Gets serious or sad

He must be composted.

Pringles are prissy thin little wankers

Fingerling potatoes play with themselves.

Russets are bores

Unless you do the mash potato with them.

Curly fries think they’re so damn cute.

Sweet potatoes lie all the time

Just ask a yam.

Taters are hicks.

I wonder how many potatoes

Were scalloped by Indians?

Au gratin can get a little cheesy

Do potato skins need a dermatologist to cook them?

Shoestring potatoes can trip you up

French fries are freaks!

Ketchup, salt, vinegar, mustard, ranch, etc.

Voila, they’ve done them all.

Chips have something fishy about them.

Hash browns are grease balls

Ruffles have wrinkles

Poor guys.

Is potato salad really a salad?

I mean c’mon.

You could live on one bowl for…

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Writing and the Embarrassment Of It All

My critique group friend Julia Carpenter wrote this article for the New York Times. It speaks to the delicate task of explaining one’s writing to one’s kids (or grandkids) when that writing is, ahem, a little spicy.

(Well, more than a little … Julia redacted certain bits that the writing group really, really wanted to read.)

Congratulations, Julia!

Arrrrgh! Bring-Take

No, I’m not channeling my inner pirate.  And, right off, I admit to being a closet snooty person about grammar.  However, I do understand that language is ever changing, mapping our ways and means of communication.  So, unlike political candidates these days, I’m a proud centrist with respect to grammar (and in politics, too, but I promised myself not to hyperventilate on my blog).

So, as we now say, it’s all good, right?

But.but.but good writers keep on telling me to strip nonessential words.  Make every word punch above its weight, right?  Which means meaning is important, right?  In particular, a writer needs to paint a picture of action so the reader can follow the story, right?

So here we are back at good old bring/take.


Here is an ad from Writer’s Digest.  The folks that advertise themselves up as the most complete writer’s resource.  The closet snooty person says, “bring things here and take things there.”  If you’re going from here to some other place, it’s take, even if one is speaking of electronic files.

So, the new quandary for the snooty grammarian is a variation of that old tree-falling-in-the-forest question:  If everyone uses bring for all movement from place to place, does the writer simply acquiesce on the grounds that his more precise use of bring-take will be lost on modern ears?

Or maybe the writer quits grousing and writes better.




Good Writing, Italics, Inner Monolog

I’m in rewrite on my second novel.  I occasionally run into the problem of how to show the reader a character’s thoughts as distinguished from what the character says.  There are no precise rules to follow, and that somehow makes it easier to get away with bad writing.  In doubt? Put the thought in quotes.  Wait … the characters have just been talking, so there are quote marks all over the place.  Okay, throw in some italics.

In frustration, I went to the Chicago Manual of Style Forum.  Not normally a place for writing advice, but great on so much else …

the original sentence was:  Ross took his cue, thinking Enough of this love fest. Time to send this country boy back where he belongs.

I got a great discussion and finally made a very small change, but one which to my ear makes the sentence better:  Ross took his cue. Enough of this love fest, he thought. Time to send this country boy back where he belongs.

AND it allowed me to get rid of the italics.

As they say, it’s the writing, stupid.

The World in a Decade – Thanks!

When I asked you, my friends and readers, for your take on the world a few years from now, I expected comments responding to the post.

I waitedWaiting

and waited

and waited

… nothing.

Then I realized the comment section wasn’t working and your comments were in a special folder in my e-mail.  So I stopped mumbling under my breath. One friend was probably right that I jumped the gun having Congress start using genetic data to ration healthcare by five or six years from now.  Hell, just getting the roads fixed is in the Too Hard column for Congress.  My friend Weaver gave me a prescient warning three years ago that I’d better deal with drones, so I was glad to see his references to several articles (the media does tend to look forward at the end of a year).  I got some help on the likelihood of grid coverage or lack thereof and the staying power of wired connections. A member of one of the critique groups that are pulling me (slowly) toward good writing mentioned that the implanted blue tooth devices I imagined in my second novel are just around the corner, not the few years away I imagine.  Another friend comments that I haven’t really addressed demographics … I have no Muslims, just Bostonians, North Dakotans, Floridians, good old boys.  The third book will have Muslims.

Thanks to all of you!

An Exercise in Descriptive Writing

Tim McMullin, a friend, musician, songwriter, videographer and observer of the human comedy wrote a long reply full of insight to my post on the Agony of Grammar.  In it, he referred to a story by Katherine Anne Porter that is a tour de force in descriptive writing.  You can read it here.

One of the great pleasures of writing and music is the crowd of interesting people that are drawn to these arts!

The World in a Decade

As followers of this blog, you know I have been working on two novels, Fatal Score (used to be Hack the Yak) and Skins and Bone.  Both are set in the near future, which has led me to predict how the world will be a decade from now.  I could use some creative help on what you envision, or at least a critique of the assumptions I’ve made.  Take a look at this page and give me your ideas.Future

My own vision is either optimistic or fatalistic, depending on your outlook.  Despite the current refugee/2,000-mile fence/deportation/security situation, I’m projecting that the world will not be greatly different in ten years than it is today.  (Among other things, I have neither the knowledge base nor the patience to predict politics.)  So I’ve projected that the world in which my protagonists Joe and Weezy operate will be a mix of the familiar (singlewide trailer, boneheaded boss, diner serving breakfast in North Dakota) and the new (iPhone continuing to evolve, surgically implanted phone receivers, luxury trains, self-navigating cars, holograms).

I’m sure you have some good ideas. No prizes or giveaways … yet.  But help is always appreciated.

The Agony of Grammar

My apologies, gentle readers.  A month and a half since the last post.  Don’t know where the time’s gone.  Rewrite on two novels, a passel of query letters sent out, and … oh, quit with the excuses.  Reminds of my gentleman cousin, Gamble Rogers.  He used to say, “Life’s what happens when you’re making other plans.”  Guess keeping up the blog got drowned in life.

ANYway, I’ve been running into an issue in writing lately that has me stumped: grammar. Specifically, how precisely to follow grammatical rules in writing, particularly in dialog. On the one hand, John McWhorter (Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and others) points out that the language is always in motion and often intimates that the “rules” we follow are dated. On the other hand, a shared grammar should give the most possible meaning to those words we write.

The difficulty I have is bridging the gap between real speech, which has available to it gestures and visual cues to help meaning along. We also tolerate and edit out imprecision, along with meaningless y’knows, umms, and so on.

Written dialog needs to be clean and economical while sounding natural. It’s a delicate balance. I try to stay grammatical, but occasionally find my characters sounding stuffy as a result. (That’s what rewrite is for, right?)

Punctuation Grandma




I won’t even start on punctuation.

Best Mysteries/Thrillers — Fall and Winter Reading List

I am reading through a list of 15 36 48 books that I believe define the genre I’m writing in, Mystery/thriller.  I’ve attached my list as a separate page.

When I began writing, I didn’t choose a type of fiction or a genre. I just started  telling stories. To my surprise, I found I was writing what is now classified as a Thriller.

Trouble is, the Mystery (subcategory: Suspense, sub category: Thriller) world is huge, particularly since publishing houses discovered calling a book a thriller is a marketing advantage. In a thriller, Hero, frequently an ordinary person, Stack of booksdiscovers a big, bad problem, and we’re off.  My two novels, one complete, one almost so, run that way.

After a couple of years of research on my own (aka stumbling around), I ran into a lively discussion of fifteen great mystery writers at Minnesota Crime Wave. Energized, I made a list and amplified it with suggestions from my writers groups. The list includes mystery, suspense and thriller titles. Most mystery writers produce series (after all, when you’ve created discovered a good character, you have to let him or her live a little), so tried to find the single title in a series that best represents the author, with some outstanding help from the fine folks at the bookstore Once Upon a Crime and Karl Jorgenson, who reads widely and has encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. (See his reviews at Goodreads.)

Most of the authors on my list are famous, established writers.  I’ve added a few less famous writers whose works I’ve admired, including books from members of writers groups I’m in, Tim Mahoney (gangster-era noir) and Carl Brookins (several mystery series).  I did not include mystery categories distant from adult thrillers. That means I left out some fine works of writing group members. The cozy mysteries from Monica Ferris aren’t on the list, nor is Susan Runholt’s YA story, The Mystery of the Third Lucretia. Also missing are Karl Jorgenson’s (oops, John Sandfraud’s) send-up of John Sandford (a short novella) and Kara Jorges’ mostly romance novels. (There’s a fine caper mystery coming soon.)

I’m halfway through my list.  Trouble is, it keeps growing.