Monthly Archives: March 2012

A Modern Minerva

I have discovered a new plaything… Do you remember Fashion Plates? When I was ten or so, I spent hours putting the plates together, rubbing the black crayon over the bumpy lines to create an image, coloring in my “design” with pencils. Now I can go to, chose from thousands and thousands of fashion products, and put them together in my own “sets.”

Of course, it is also great marketing for the fashion industry . . .

(continue reading beneath the fashion image and info)

A Modern Minerva

Monsoon cotton cardigan
£38 –

Striped skirt
£25 –

Jimmy Choo platform pumps
$745 –

Coach leather tote
$370 –

Fine jewelry
£2,110 –

Dorothy Perkins scarve
$12 –

Tortoise sunglasses
£14 –

I’ve decided that I can combine my rediscovered love of fashion with my belief in shopping locally. It is rather simple: I create a look on Polyvore and then I go looking in thrift stores, Goodwill, Marden’s, maybe a boutique or two if I’m feeling flush for similar items to create the look for real–locally.

My fiction-writing self is also quite enthused with the idea of creating “looks” for characters. In the past, I have cut pictures from magazines and stuck them up near my computer as inspiration. Now, I will visualize a character’s outfit . . . and in all my spare time will re-create it on Polyvore.

Is this all a tremendous waste of time and creative energy? Maybe. But it is enjoyable, and as my Reiki friend/teacher tells me, if you are going to indulge in something, do it mindfully. If you are interested in learning more about Reiki, check out the Reiki Fusion blog.

As for Minerva, there is a wonderful mosaic of the Goddess of Wisdom at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Libraries are an incredible resource, not only because of the collection of materials and information but also because of the personal knowledge that librarians provide. A librarian can point you to the best databases, reference materials, and archives. Libraries are also wonderful community gathering places…on any given day you might find a new installation by a local artist, a group poetry reading, a book signing, a children’s nature program, or a community sing-along.

Visit your local library this week. Get a library card if you do not have one yet. Check out one of those best-sellers you’ve been hearing about . . . before the next movie is made.

And if you are inspired by fashion, consider local shopping options. You may be surprised how entertaining it is to create “sets” for real . . . Outside the Box.

The Plot Thickens

The Hero's Journey

There are two types of writers when it comes to creating structure in a story–Plotter and Pantsters. A plotter figures out, maybe even draws a map or outline of the events that will take place in a story. A pantster puts a character in a situation and maybe has a vague idea where the story will end up, but “flies by the seat of his pants” when it comes to writing the story. BOTH ways are valid.

Stephen King is a pantster. He says, “Plot, I think, is the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.” (from ON WRITING. Check it out. This is one of the best books on the craft of writing, ever!)

King’s way is to start with a situation…a predicament. Into this situation he puts a character or a group of characters. These characters reveal themselves over time. They act, he records. He starts with situation–he calls it a tableux–and throws in some characters and watches to see what they do and writes it all down.

What is the downside to this, you ask? It sounds so simple, and when people ask, you can say something like, “Oh, I don’t want to know what will happen. It would take all the fun out of writing.” Well, here’s the rub. King has read A LOT. He’s also written a lot. He has incorporated the conventions of story (including the rhythm of plot) into his subconscious.

Either that or he really has made a deal with the Devil.

So, while King makes pantstering look fun and easy and, dare I say it, cooooool, the rest of us may not have developed our talent to that extent. What happens when we try? We end up writing ourselves into corners we can’t get out of. We go down dead ends. We lose the threads of the story. All those threads get tangled up, and we waste time rewriting, scratching our heads, wondering how the heck we are ever going to unravel this unruly story/novella/epic plot.

Since we are beginners and we really want to finish something in our lifetime, what can we do to compensate? Especially when we are still in the beginning stages of learning the craft?

We can become Plotters, if only for a little while.

Okay, so King thinks it is the dullard’s first choice. Whatever. I love King’s characters and his stories pull me along, but guess what? We aren’t all Stephen King! There are other ways to get the action down on paper, and they are just as valid. There are outlines. There are index cards. Story maps with bubbles and lines drawn in between connecting them are another choice. There are many plot worksheets, maps, schemes, rubrics, etc. that the beginning writer can use. You can find many on the internet and many more in books specifically written on the subject of plot. Try a few, if you want. See what works best for you.

Keep in mind, though, that even here in Plotter-land you start with the basics: A situation and at least one character. The character has gifts and foibles and goals and fears and needs. The character will act in situations and from that other situations will arise. Pay attention to cause and effect. Pay attention to how your character is learning and growing. Have a premise in mind, i.e. what is the point of this story, anyway?

Eventually, you and your character will make it to the resolution, and you’ll both be able to revel in the rewards of your hard labor.

If you are interested in learning more on this subject, click HERE to access Lesson Four in the Teen Writing Workshop series. At the end, I include a short plot “aid” as well as some helpful websites about plot structure.

In Joseph Campbell’s classic study of universal elements in plot structure of mythology and legend, Campbell’s heroes are given a Call To Adventure which they can either chose to accept or not. Consider this your call to adventure! Embark on a new story today . . . Outside the Box.

Chosing A Sustainable Life

My blogger/local community friends at The Existential Gardner posted a wonderful piece about our sustainable past, our industrial present, and hopefully a sustainable future. Since they said it so much better than I ever could, I’m going to share the link so you can enjoy it for yourself. This is one I will read again.

What A Character!

Teen Characters by The Teen

Dear Reader:

Last night was Teen Writing Class night, and this week we discussed the craft of characterization. I am enjoying this process of teaching narrative and fiction writing techniques and terms. The students are remarkable writers–open, observant, funny. Teaching also forces me to write examples, and I’ve been rather amused by the characters and scenes that have popped out of my subconscious with just the teeniest prodding around in the psychic storeroom.

Following is a short scene showing characterization techniques–dialogue, vivid verbs, and sensory details. Mostly we hear the character’s voice, though, and I think we learn quite a bit about Penelope Perry just by listening to what she has to say. Also note that we don’t know much about the narrator. He or she is a classmate of Penelope’s, that much we can gather from his/her point of view, but everything else about him or her is still hidden in that storeroom of story ideas in my subconscious.

If I wanted, I could probably dig a little deeper, find some more pieces of the story, and put it all together. I have a feeling, though, that frantic Penelope is seeing the light of day for the first and last time this week.

Back she’ll go to whatever dusty shelf in the storeroom she has been languishing for who knows how long. Perhaps since my own elementary school days? Maybe she’ll be tossed into the recycle bin someday, emerging in another form in another story, and maybe not. Who knows? The truth is, we don’t really know where stories come from. They are just there, waiting for us to find the pieces and put them together. If the end product is sturdy enough, it will last for centuries (think Shakespeare and Dante). If not, well . . . at least Penelope had her moment in the sun.

Penelope Perry’s hand shot up into the air as soon as Ms. Walker swooshed through the classroom door after recess.

“Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh!” Penelope bounced around in her seat, a pink-cheeked, over-pressurized steam-engine about to blow. The rest of us slouched behind our desks and glared at her, but, as usual, she was oblivious.

“Yes, Penelope? What is it now?” Ms. Walker exhaled as she spoke and her eyes slid toward the clock.

Penelope sat with both palms flat on the table, elbows jutting out to the sides. You could see her arms shake with barely-repressed excitement. Her knees bounced up and down beneath her desk as she spoke in her girly-girl-goody-two-shoes voice. “I know you said we weren’t supposed to touch the goldfish, Ms. Walker. So I thought you should know that Timmy Landry stuck his hand in there and grabbed the fish which is now floating on top of the water and I think its dead and you’d probably want to know that. Plus, Marissa and Lolly were fighting over who had the prettiest pencil eraser–Marissa said pink and Lolly said green–and Marissa called Lolly a swear which I won’t repeat because I know you don’t want us to say swears in your classroom. And then Derek called Marissa a swear and I had to cover my ears because it was a really, really bad word and my mother would be mad if she found out. I’ll probably have to tell her when I get home and she’ll call the principal.” Penelope took a breath and then she was chugging off again, her voice rising higher with every word. Her eyes widened. “And I’m pretty sure how you feel about kissing, Ms. Walker, so Colin and Tami really shouldn’t have gone into the art room closet when the were supposed to be taking a note to the office for you. And . . .”

“Enough!” Ms. Walker held up a large, firm hand. “That’s quite enough, Penelope.” She lowered her voice to a near whisper. “Class, please take out your math books and start working on page 56. I need to take a look at that fish.”

Creating multidimensional characters is challenging. Listening to conversations, taking in the rhythm of speech, observing people’s unique ticks and habits, analyzing body language that demonstrates inner emotional landscapes, trying hard to be honest about what we see, hear, know about people–these practices help us to write characters that are vivid, sympathetic, real.

Listen. Practice. Stretch. Work. If you do those four things, you’ll get better.

If you’d like to read the entire lesson, please click HERE. Or you can find it under the Teen Writing Class tab at the top of the page. Remember, to be a writer all you really need is a notebook, a pen, and a block of uninterrupted writing time a day. Go ahead. Be a writer. I dare you . . . Outside the Box.

The Mill Has Some Gloss

North Mill in Biddeford, Maine

Dear Reader:

I love old mill towns. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps because I didn’t grow up in a mill town, I am fascinated by the novelty of an industrial-ish landscape. These manufacturing communities are cities, not towns, I suppose, but they are not cities of high-rise apartment buildings, corporate offices for national food chains and banks, and big shopping malls. These Maine city-towns have Main Streets, corner stores, local tobacco shops, and hundred-year-old bakeries; triple-decker apartment buildings that used to house the mill workers, big Catholic cathedrals with a satisfying Gothic flair, and a turn-of-the-century architectural style that for one reason or another sets my creative juices flowing; people who sometimes speak with the slight accent, still, of the St. George River Valley. I love it!

Across the river in Saco

When I lived in Westbrook, my daily walk took me past one of these slumbering manufacturing behmoths that had been built along the tumbling river that once powered the building’s machinery. Incidentally, I would also walk past the still-operating paper mill at the other end of Main Street. I would look up at the even rows of windows, the geometric simplicity of those windows and the pattern of red-orange brick, and imagine an earlier time when people walked from the neighboring streets to punch in to work for the day. They’d be carrying their tin lunch boxes. They’d be tired already, perhaps, at the end of a long week, or else young and cheerful and hopeful.

I’m sure I’m romanticizing the whole thing. That’s my nature.

Since moving even further south, I’ve spent time driving into Sanford, often routing past the empty, old textile buildings there and dreaming of how they could be repurposed. I even wrote two romance novels set in towns like these. Apparently, I’m a little obsessed.


Maybe it has something to do with Richard Russo. His EMPIRE FALLS is brilliant, of course. It is the story of a town and its citizens trying to come to grips with a new economy where manufacturing takes place in China or India or Mexico, and the people left behind at home buy the finished products and struggle to figure out what to do now. I loved EMPIRE FALLS. I recognized it. There is a kind of sad romanticism to these crumbling, quiet buildings. Like Dickens’ Miss Havisham, they’ve seen better days.

Enter Biddeford. I’ve been to this small city many times in the past few years, taking the Teen to the orthodontist and myself to the allergist over near Southern Maine Med, but I’d only visited downtown twice–once to eat at a great little Indian restaurant, The Jewel of India, and another time to have coffee with a friend at the old mill building. So, on a sunny day last week, I decided to check out the refurbished North Dam Mill again–this time with my camera and a notebook in hand.

Smokestack Tower

The first mill established here in the 17th century was an iron manufacturing business. Eventually, large buildings were erected on both the Biddeford and Saco sides of the Saco River and workers flooded into the cities, creating a booming textile manufacturing center. Read about the history and see some great archival photos at the Maine Memory Network site.

Eventually the mills closed. A few years ago, developer Doug Sanford bought the property and re-purposed the wonderful buildings into retail, office, and living space. Click HERE to visit the Pepperell Mill/North Dam Mill website.

Art Outside the Mill

On this day, I take a few photos of the impressive smokestack near the parking lot and then stroll into the reception area on the main floor of building 18. The large hallway is dim, with its exposed pipes painted black to blend in with the black ceiling. An expansive red Oriental rug anchors two over-sized leather couches in a sitting area. Right near the windows of a small off-shoot of a hall, a tiny coffee shop wafts acoustic music and the aroma of fresh-ground java.

This is “Perk”…and while I sit at the narrow counter in front of the windows, a few residents drift in to order lunch or coffee. The young guy behind the counter makes pleasant chit-chat with everyone. His co-worker is busy making sandwiches or something. I hear clanging pans behind the music (Sarah Brightman, maybe?)piped in over the speakers

Outside the windows, I can see the river across the road, traffic zipping past, three guys hanging out near the benches and steel flower sculpture near the entrance. Neighbors chatting? I think so.

The entire place makes me think of a castle, the walls rising along the river and road like ramparts, the smokestack a watchtower. Inside are art studios and professional offices on this main floor. A sign beside me reads, “River’s Edge Wood Products: Showroom open on an appointment basis.” Upstairs floors are dedicated to apartments.

Exposed pipe against a white-painted brick wall

I can imagine living here. The exposed pipes. The high ceilings. The well-used hardwood flooring. Mostly, though, I love the idea of living within biking/walking distance to Main St. and all the great local stores and restaurants and the library. The Amtrak station is a short walk, as well, for trips to Boston and beyond. Living close to neighbors. Stopping for a morning latte at Perk.

Art in the hallway

This is a New-Urbanists dream! Click HERE to read about New Urbanism. Walkability. Diversity of purpose. Community and connectivity. Traditional neighborhood structure. Common space. I’d like to see a community garden somewhere here–maybe on the roof!

The Saco River

I took this picture from a little patio off the parking lot overlooking the river. The Saco side of the mills are across the water.

Windmill at the Mill

Isn’t the juxtaposition between the old water/coal-powered mill and the new, space-agey windmill great? To me this symbolizes the future . . . if we have the guts and willpower to transition to a more sustainable way of life. A way where we go back to our more densely-populated urbans centers, our Main Street stores owned by our neighbors, and our sense of community purpose while at the same time taking advantage of new technologies and ideas and art.

I want to wake up and smell the coffee . . . at places like Perk!

It’s Electric!

Here is my question: Would you pay $.99 to download a short story to read? Would your decision depend on the length of the story? Or the reputation of the author? Would $.99 be a more likely price-point for a book-length piece?

I have never purchased an electronic document. I HAVE ordered a hardcover children’s book through, and it wasn’t so different from ordering a book on or anywhere else. I don’t own an e-reader yet . . . but I’m getting closer. Even when I have finally snagged a Nook or a Kindle, I’m not sure how many short stories I would purchase–although, when you think about it, I pony up $4 for a latte on a fairly regular basis, so wouldn’t a dollar for a story be a bargain?

There are authors on some of my online writing lists who are self-publishing in this way and finding it rewarding. I’m undecided about whether or not to try it myself. I welcome your feedback.

What would entice YOU to pay .99 for a e-pubbed piece of literature–a snappy description, a known author, a good cover picture?

If you are a writer, have you or would you publish electronically? If so, what have been your experiences?

As we head off into this brave new world of electronic media, I find myself drawn to older things. Perhaps it is a way of keeping balance. Publish an electronic story in the morning and whip up a batch of blueberry jam in the afternoon. Watch a video-streamed movie Friday night and put on a pot of baked beans and knit up a dishcloth on Saturday. Today, I’m going to publish this blog post, and then put on a bandana and some Patsy Cline (click HERE to listen to “Crazy”) and start my spring cleaning.

Drop me a line . . . Outside the Box.

Lesson Two: Life Is in the Details

Tree Frog?

In this week’s Teen Writing Class, we talked about using vivid details to bring our stories to life. The scene below was extended from a couple of sentences to a descriptive little section complete with figurative language, inner dialogue, secondary characters, and sensory details. If you want to read the entire lesson, click HERE. Otherwise, hope you enjoy this scene that could be part of a longer young adult story or novel.


I loiter in the hallway outside Room 15, slipping through the doorway at the last possible second when the bell rings. The sharp chemical stench of formaldehyde hangs heavy in the room, inescapable. When I try breathing through my nose, I can taste the smell on the tip of my tongue. Dissecting day.

‘Larrisa Boucher! Put that knife down before someone gets hurt!’ From her perch behind the desk, Ms. Cameron screeches at a five-foot ten inch basketball player pretending to threaten her teammate, Brandi Ellerby, with the silver dissecting tool. The Lady Hawks goofing off at the corner station snicker and shuffle in a loose clump of sharp elbows, hooded sweatshirts, Amazonian legs. I shoot them a look, eyes narrowed. Mutants.

A feel a nudge at my elbow. ‘Are you okay?’ Angela Greer whispers, breath minty from her gum. ‘You look kinda pale.’ Her long, orange hair brushes my elbow.

Shaking my head, I say, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’

Angela leans closer. ‘You have to. If you don’t bring up your grade in Biology, you won’t be allowed to go to drama camp with me this summer.’

‘I know, I know!’ Holding my breath, I glance down.

There it is. The frog.

Reaching out, I slide a tentative finger along its back. The skin is cold and slimy and weirdly stiff. Not like a real frog. Nothing like.

I remember when I was a kid how my cousin and I would walk down to the stream on summer mornings and catch them–big, green croakers hiding close to the muddy bottom among the cattails. We’d plunge our hands into the cool water and grab one by his leg. They were slimy then, too, but in a live way, wiggly. This frog is dead. And I have to cut him open. It isn’t fair, I think, stomach hollow and queasy. Why do animals have to suffer for us to have this stupid biology class, anyway?

Slippery Details

Cool Pool

Details. Description. This week, prepping for my Teen Writing Class on Wednesday, I’ve been inhaling writing-craft books one after the other, trying to get a handle on this most slippery subject. Why slippery? Because just when you step onto what you think is the firm footing of “add sensory details to make the story more vivid,” the slickness of “but don’t overdo it; don’t let the description get in the way of the story” causes you to slide right into a pool of cold, deep panic.

Okay, so I’m exaggerating, but I’m beginning to see why I’m not a critically-acclaimed literary writer. I have trouble concentrating on the nuances of the craft. I’m in awe of Monica Wood, a Maine author, who happened to write a book, DESCRIPTION, as part of the Elements of Fiction Writing Series put out by WRITER’S DIGEST magazine. I’m tempted to just tell my students to purchase a copy of this book and study it. There is everything here they will need to know about using detail and description to create vivid stories, to move the story forward, to develop character and setting.

But I’ve made a commitment to teach this class. I can at least share what I know and give some encouragement. Gasping, I hold my breath and swim for shore, one stroke at a time. “You don’t have to grasp every single concept all at once,” I tell myself. “You don’t have to teach all the material in a 170-page book. Start simply. One stroke at a time.”

This is good advice for any craft. When you are learning to knit, you don’t try to create a multi-colored sweater with intricate cables the first day you pick up the needles. Instead, you learn to cast-on a row of stitches. You learn how to slip the loop in a knit stitch and then in a purl stitch. You make a scarf, row after row, serviceable and simple. You focus on not dropping or adding stitches. You bind off.

In my class this week, I will focus on adding sensory details. Sight, yes, but also touch and smell and sound and taste. I will caution against overuse, but will tell the students to err this week on the side of overabundance. I will talk about simile and metaphor. We will practice. We will talk about looking at their now vivid description with an eye to the “telling” details–which details resonate with the theme of their piece (Is the story about despair? Which details reinforce that theme?) or the development of the character (Is she confident? Which details “fit” a confident character? Or maybe a shy character will discover confidence. Is there a telling detail that hints at such an inner strength?)

What I realize most about this process of preparing to teach is how much I’ve relied on “instinct” in my own writing; this is the reason why “read alot” is one of the cornerstones of all writing instruction (the other being “write alot). When you read good writing, you pick up the techniques almost by osmosis, but I’m beginning to suspect that a more rigorous and systematic program of study would be beneficial to my own writing if I am going to continue to develop my craft.

The old truth bears out, I guess. If you want to learn how to do something, teach it.

Who Is A Writer?

From Lesson One: Writing With Intention

Beautiful Blooms

How does a person become a writer? Who or what is a “writer” anyway? Is a writer someone who has been paid money to write? In order to be considered a “real writer” does someone have to be published? If so, in what kind of publication? Would a self-published blog be enough? How about a church newsletter? The local paper? A literary magazine? The NEW YORKER or some other national magazine? A book publishing company?

What about a student newspaper or literary magazine? Or a photocopied manuscript that you’ve bound yourself and given to your grandparents for their anniversary?

This is a question students ask (and all writers secretly–or not so secretly–ponder).

Stephen King in his great book about writing called ON WRITING says:

I don’t believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-will (although I did believe those things once). The equipment comes with the original package. Yet it is by no means unusual equipment; I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened.

Natalie Goldberg in WRITING DOWN THE BONES, does not give a definition, but rather asks the question “Why write?”

“Why do I write?” It’s a good question. Ask it of yourself every once in awhile. No answer will make you stop writing, and over time you will find that you have given every response . . . Yet it is a good and haunting question to explore, not so you can find the one final reason, but to see how writing permeates your life with many reasons.

She also says, “Don’t worry about your talent or capability; that will grow as you practice.”

Here is what I believe: A writer is someone who writes with intention.

When you write, you are present, engaged, explaining or exploring or describing the topic at hand. Not striving at first to write a great poem or story (although you probably will, eventually, want to edit and prune and expand and make it the very best your talent allows), but rather opening yourself up to the topic, reaching deep, getting to the truth of things. More on this later on.

A writer writes with a goal in mind, an idea that begs to be explored, or with a serious intention to create an image with words, to play with language, to see what you can do with the medium of words the way a sculptor creates with the medium of clay or a painter creates with the medium of watercolor paints. A writer likes to tell made-up stories (fiction writers), or wants to capture a moment in rhythms and imagery (poetry writers), or enjoys giving information in a vivid, complete way (journalists), or likes telling true stories about places, people, things (non-fiction, narrative writers, memoirists, diarists, etc.) A writer writes in order to see how a story or poem or narrative idea will turn out on the page.

This may sound serious (it is), but it is not so serious that it becomes a chore–at least not all the time. Because when you are a writer, at heart, writing is work and play at the same time. You may procrastinate sitting down to write. You may dread it. You may drag yourself kicking and screaming to the notebook or computer. In the end, though, when you get yourself down to the business of scribbling or tapping away, something magical happens. Your brain engages. You energy begins to flow out into words and sentences and images and rhythms. Time speeds up. If you come out of the zone for a minute or two (to stretch or have a drink of water–highly recommended, by the way) you realize, gasp! You are enjoying the process.

Maybe it is THIS that makes you a writer. We feel engaged, happy, useful, “in the zone” when we are doing what we are meant to do or have the capability of doing well.

To read the entire lesson, click HERE.