Showing posts from 2011

Writing in bits and pieces

I love to read novels, and won't buy one that's fewer than 300 pages long. I also love non-fiction: travel books, biographies and accounts of businesses/institutions/historical events are among my favorites.

But when I write, I prefer to compose in bits and pieces. The 1000-word article is my favorite form of writing. I've been writing newsletters for 26 years, and really enjoy the compressed format. My writing tends to be loose and wandering, so the limits of a two-page newsletter tighten up my writing, reining in my verbosity.

Samples of my newsletters are here

I have 7 blogs, and love this format, too. I use lots of photos and very little text, styling myself as a copywriter.

Praguepies, one of my blogs

Someday I will write long novels. I have written several fiction and non-fiction books already, none longer than 120 pages, with relatively short chapters.

My goal for 2012 as a writer is to write longer pieces that are just as focused and economical in their wording as my…

Kindle, Kindle, Kindle, 1, 2, 3

I have gotten very comfortable with my Kindle reader. So far, after 9 months of owning it, I've paid for only one book--99 cents, by mistake. There are enough free books to keep me happy. I read a book every couple of days. With that kind of sampling of books, I can list the three top things that keep me engaged in a book:

1. Interesting setting. I just finished For Time and Eternity, a romance about a young woman who runs away with the Mormons as they trek to Utah. The writing was good, the characters were okay--what hooked me was the setting in Utah as the Mormons drove out the Indians and claimed their own Zion.

2. Decent dialogue. TheVelveteen Rabbit, a kid's book, features some lovely conversations between the rabbit and the other toys. I admire authors whose dialogue sounds natural and unforced.

3. A fast-moving plot. Dracula by Bram Stoker has a nice, quick pace. It also has a great setting: Transylvania. The dialogue is pretty stiff, but maybe 19th-century upper-class …

Kentucky history: The Frontiersman's Daughter

This novel was a freebie on the Kindle website at Amazon. I "bought" it because of my Kentucky background, and didn't expect much as it was billed as a romantic, Christian novel which often means boring!

I was wrong. This was a heart-rending, well-written, fast-paced adventure story that was wrapped in Kentucky history. I loved the book.

Lovely but tough as nails, Lael Click is the daughter of a celebrated frontiersman. Haunted by her father's former captivity with the Shawnee Indians, as well as the secret sins of her family's past, Lael comes of age in the fragile Kentucky settlement her father founded. Though she faces the loss of a childhood love, a dangerous family feud, and the affection of a Shawnee warrior, Lael draws strength from the rugged land she calls home, and from Ma Horn, a distant relative who shows her the healing ways of herbs and roots found in the hills. But the arrival of an outlander doctor threatens her view of the…

my failure to write

I have not written much of anything for more than a month. Excuses include the following:
I was on holidayI didn't have my computerI've been busyImagine if Dickens, or Shakespeare, or Stephen King used this excuses. Lame! The real reason is that I have been living more than observing and analyzing, which are necessary for me to write. So I am writing again. Starting today.

The Discovery of Slowness

In June, I bought a book at a library book sale for 10 kc (fifty cents) called The Discovery of Slowness by Sten Nadolny.

But it's a Penguin book, and they are nearly always a safe bet for quality and style, so I plunked down my 10 kc and took the book home. I started reading it and am finding it's a dense, satisfying book. Nadolny paints a picture of Franklin's slow, one-thing-at-a-time, intensely methodical nature by writing as if he, the author, too, is "afflicted" with slowness.

Franklin stutters; he can only avoid stuttering if he pauses between each sentence ( a LONG pause) to allow all the random chattering ideas and memories in his head surrounding that sentence to play themselves silently in his brain. The writing is the same--sentences seem to stand on their own, singular and ominous, making sense only after several paragraphs or pages have been read and thought through.

I've known people who were slow, and often I came to see that their slowness w…

Do you have to be bored to write?

Last night Jarda and I were talkng about writing. We are working on a book, 21st Century Christianity, that's about half-written. Somehow I can't get excited to finish it. Jarda noted that he has to be bored to sit down and write, rather than doing one of the many other, more stimulating things he can do in Prague. Since we haven't been bored at all living in Prague for the last 11 months, we aren't writing.

There's some truth in this. But I know that I won't write until I have to, when either the need to express myself overcomes my inertia or when I have a deadline. This is the appeal of journalism--the pressure of the deadline squeezes writing out of you.

My biggest problem with writing is that it's so much more fun to read than to write. So as long as there's a book anywhere in the house that I haven't read, I'll read before I'll write.

What I need is a boring life in a place with no books, where I have strict deadlines. A cabin in the wo…

Book sale! Read to write better

The Christian Library of Prague had a sensational book sale last weekend. I bought lots of books, for 10, 25 and 50 koruna each ($.50, 1.50 and 2.50). Books are not cheap here, so this was a great bargain.

At the sale I met one of my friends from church, a Greek student studying dentistry in Prague. Since he's a student, he has very little time to read for fun. When he saw my piles of books, he was impressed! When he asked how many books I read a week, I admitted that I read all the time, because I'm a writer.

It sounds strange, but reading is what makes me a better writer. I absorb the writing styles, use of language, knotty grammatical structures and imagery of other writers. Inside my brain this material is transmuted into ideas and plots, characters and styles, that I then use when I write.

These book sale finds will take me a long way in developing my skills and insights as a writer. Thank you, Christian library!

Too Big to Fail, or Biting the Hand that Feeds You

I'm reading a book, Too Big to Fail, about the financial crisis on Wall Street in September 2008. The firms that were "too big to fail" (Bear Stearns, Lehman, AIG, Merrill Lynch) did, indeed, fail.

But their complete failure was not allowed by the US Federal government and by other huge Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.
Why? Because all the firms were so inextricably intertwined through deals, counterdeals, insurance, counterinsurance, derivatives, toxic assets, subprime mortgages and all kinds of arcane financial strategies, that for one to fail would bring all of them down.
The US far-right political view of these partial rescues was that Wall Street was bailed out by the Federal government in an unfair and illegal way. "Main Street" (solid, working-and-middle-class Americans) was contrasted to "Wall Street" (greedy, thieving financial barons); the Bush and Obama administrations were villified for helping to avert or at leas…

George Eliot--she could really write!

Breaking news--George Eliot, English writer and author of Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, was a woman, Mary Ann Evans. In her day (1860), it was easier to publish a book if you were a man, or at least appeared to be one.

Evans wrote both fantastic dialogue and lovely lyrical descriptions. Here's a meditation from The Mill on the Floss, the story of stolid Tom and mercurial Maggie, on the memories of our childhood days and how they forever color our view of the world:

"Life did change for Tom and Maggie; and yet they were not wrong in believing that the thoughts and loves of these first years would always make part of their lives. We could never have loved the earth so well if we had not childhood in it,-if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass; the same hips and haws on the autumn's hedgerows; the same redbreasts that we used to call "god…

Back to basics

Today I was tutoring one of my Korean students. He wants to take the TOEFL exam and the SAT for admission to a US university,  which means he'll be writing timed essays.

We looked at some practice essay prompts, and he wrote his responses. They were imaginative and interesting, but had some grammar, spelling and syntax issues. I felt like an old fire-engine horse that hears the bells in the firehouse. I was energized! I don't know how much my student enjoyed my critique, but I surely enjoyed trying to help him raise his score on the writing section.


We had a seminar and graduation ceremony this week for our "Your Next Job" and "Looking Ahead" participants. It was a lot of fun, as we shared in Czech and English what we had learned about ourselves and our careers in the seminars.

One joke, told in Czech, involved rhetoric. I couldn't quite follow it, but everyone who speaks fluent Czech laughed. I imagine that they were making fun of the use of rhetoric by politicians. Czechs love to insult their politicians, who make (as many Czechs believe) empty promises and grand, meaningless statements.

This is, of course, one use of rhetoric, the art of persuasion. Politics, business, education, and religion all are guilty of misusing the power of rhetoric towards their own ends. Good rhetoricians can "carry people away" with their ideas and offerings, causing normally cautious people to agree to things that they later regret.

But is it fair to blame the art of persuasion, invented and perfected by the Greeks…

My new Kindle

My son bought me a Kindle for Christmas, but I just picked it up in Florida last week. It's quite the piece of technology. I downloaded about 40 freebies (books, copyrighted or not, written prior to 1923) and have been having a ball reading bits of this and that. I think what I like the best is the way you turn the page--it's a little tab on the side (either side) that "turns the page" forward or back.

That little tab just fascinates me--I want to press it! So I read fast, faster than I usually read a book that has paper pages to turn. My feeling is that reading a Kindle is an entirely different experience than reading a regualr book, but not in a bad way. I'll report again later, when I have some better insights into why I love my Kindle.


Maps are a special kind of writing, combining words and symbols in a graphic way. I love maps!

Just do it

Of course, Nike beat me to this slogan. But I don't think they'll mind if I tag along with their thought--sometimes the only way to do something is just to do it.

When I write, I have two modes. One is painstaking--I edit as I write. I often write in my head like this, to pass the time on the tram or at the dentist. This is slow, painful and no fun at all--I do it to distract my thoughts from the present moment. The writing produced may be exact and appropriate, but it doesn't exactly sing. Your soul doesn't take flight when you read it.

The other mode is more like journaling, or writing poetry. Teenagers often write like this, pouring their emotions and longings into their words. This writing moves you even when it's ragged and raw.

When I can't get going on a writing task, I switch to mode 2--just do it. You can always refine it later, or scrap it. Just doing it builds fluency and creativity into your writing skills repertoire.

Rhetoric, again

Repetition is one of the primary tools of rhetoric. Little children know this instinctively; when they learn a new word that they like, they repeat it gleefully. Repetition of sounds is the basis for rhyming poetry. Here are just a few of the many kinds of repetition used by the Greeks in their rhetorical studies.

 "Nevermore!" ------------------------
A good website you may look at is Repititon in rhetoric

Repetiton of sounds:
ALLITERATION is repetition of initial word sounds: silly Sara, Marilyn Monroe, Sylvester Stallone, Coca-Cola, American Airlines, Patek Philippe, and so on. ASSONANCE is the repetition of vowel sounds (a,e,i,o,u,y) in adjacent or nearby words. Mad cat, go home, sweet dreams, General Electric, Toyota Camry, London Town. Sometimes the end sound is also repeated, making simple rhyme: hurry-scurry, fat cat, surround sound, fly high. CONSONANCE is repetition of consonant sounds in adjacent or nearby words. better butter, little battle, jumpy chimp, Wonder Br…

Theme in writing

To complete my original task of delineating the 6 major aspects of writing, today I'll talk about themes.

The word "theme' is not unfamiliar. We go to theme parks, we know that TV shows have theme music and the old-fashioned word for an essay is theme. Decorators have themes (color schemes, seasons of the year) and sermons have themes (sin, redemption).

The defines theme as follows (note the derivation, from Greek to Latin to Old French to Middle to English to Modern English):
1. A topic of discourse or discussion. See Synonyms at subject. 2. A subject of artistic representation. 3. An implicit or recurrent idea; a motif: a theme of powerlessness that runs through the diary; a party with a tropical island theme. 4. A short composition assigned to a student as a writing exercise. 5. Music The principal melodic phrase in a composition, especially a melody forming the basis of a set of variations. 6. Linguistics A stem. 7. Linguistics See topic. tr.v.

Using rhetoric to persuade

The ancient Greeks invented and perfected the art of rhetoric, which is simply the use of language to persuade. In days past, a classical European-style education included an in-depth study of rhetoric. Three men who used rhetorical devices with confidence and authority are Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Winston Churchill. Their speeches are textbooks of rhetoric.

Rhetorical devices are not difficult to identify. Here is an example of the use of contrast:

"The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds."~John Maynard Keynes, economist.

Keynes contrasts new and old ideas, but with a bit of a twist. Instead of applauding the power of new ideas, which you might expect from an influential economist whose ideas shaped the study of economics for decades, Keynes points out the immense power of old ideas, which are so embedded in people's minds that…

Signs, signs, everywhere signs!

I love sign. They are like poetry, in that they compress meaning into a few words or just images. Here are some Prague signs.

Learning language

My husband and I have on-going debates about the best way to learn a language. He insists that immersion is the only way to learn quickly. He loves to remind me that he learned enough Norwegian in 2 weeks of living in Norway to get a job and enroll at the University of Oslo. He jumped into spoken Norwegian, using listening and speaking skills.

I, though, am a writer. Even in my native language, English, I prefer to read and write rather than listen and speak. In fact, I consider listening as my least favorite way of communicating. I lose patience quickly when I have to listen more than about 10 minutes at a stretch. I can talk for long periods, if I know a lot about the subject. This is a skill I polished as a teacher, where I had to convey complex information to five classes in a row, every day. I can talk, as my students will testify.

But I vastly prefer to read and write. I like reading just a bit more than writing--reading is relaxing, while writing is work. But a good writing sess…

Lenin, Stalin and Hitler

Yesterday I went to Luxor Palace of Books, a large bookstore on Vaclavske namesti. They have a decent selection of books in English, mostly from British publishers. I love to browse here. If someone gave me 100,000 crowns I could spend it in 5 minutes, as I know exactly where the books I want to buy are shelved.
I had about 450 crowns (about$20), the last of my Christmas "mad money." I perused many great books, and eventually bought Lenin, Stalin and Hitler. The author is a Canadian historian who now teaches at FSU in Florida. He's an expert on the political art of public denunciation, which is the main tool of all totalitarian regimes. I started the book and could barely put it down!