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9 04, 2018

Texas, My Texas

By |2018-04-07T13:10:47-05:00April 9th, 2018|Make Me Think Monday, Writer's Life|4 Comments

I recently changed my FB banner. I know, I know. FB is a touchy subject these days, but in order to connect with readers I keep an active FB presence. But I digress…

I chose a Texas bluebonnet picture. It’s the one you see on the left. When I think of Texas, I think of bluebonnets. I missed them when I lived away.

Famous Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) Wildflowers.

Texas is bluebonnets. People also associate the state with Lone Star beer, cowboys and rodeos, astronauts and space centers, cattle and the Texas Medical Center.

Texas is a very diverse place. Same thing’s true of a Texan and I’m not talking about the football team players.

We all have a picture in our heads when we think of a native Texan. Usually it’s someone with a cowboy hat and boots, but there’s more to a Texan and even Texans who never wear cowboy boots.

Hurricane Harvey gave images of real Texans and not many of them wore Stetsons. The folks in those pictures looked like anyone else helping their families and neighbors when hard times strike.

Texas has its own language, Texas-speak. A whole slew of vocabulary that can have folks scratching their heads. I just used a Texas-ism—slew, meaning a whole bunch.

We’re always y’all-ing and gonna and fixin’ when we talk. Non-Texans do sometimes need an interpreter.

When I’m lazy in my writing, Texas talk naturally flow into my first drafts even if my characters are not Texans. My critique partners and editors often catch phrases like:

come hell or high water – proceeding, regardless of the problems, obstacles, etc.

conniptions – get upset and raise a ruckus

hissy fit – kin to a conniption; a state of extreme agitation and not a pretty thing to see

hot as tin toilet seat – in Texas we know that’s HOT

screaming bloody murder or banshee scream – not a pleasant sound at all

bone tired – yep, been there

slow as molasses – visualize molasses syrup oozing out of the jar

keep your pants on – meaning not what you think, but to be patient!

If you’ve ever been to Texas, you know it’s a special place. You love it or hate it. Seems there’s no in between.

But there’s something in a natural born Texan’s blood that tends to bring them back to Texas no matter how far or how long they wander. My daddy always said I’d come home and I did.

17 09, 2012

Texas talk, colloquialisms, and weasel words – in my writing?

By |2012-09-17T10:53:11-05:00September 17th, 2012|Writing Craft|12 Comments

I wish I could say NO WAY!

Can’t.

When I shared a recent chapter with my critique partners, one of them questioned this sentence, “He found himself in deep water.”

  Not understanding that my POV character’s internal thought meant he found himself in trouble, she thought I had put him in a swimming pool and forgot to put that detail on the page.

Frequently what’s playing in my head fails to come across on the page in early drafts. Thank heaven for CPs who call me when that happens.

Not this time, though. This time I was using Texas talk.

She’d never heard the expression “in deep water” used that way. Her stumbling over the phrase led to a discussion of colloquial language and how words, phrases, and even clichés vary from one geographical area to another.

In Texas, we have a whole slew of vocabulary that has folks scratching their heads. I just used one—slew, meaning a whole bunch. We’re always y’all-ing and gonna and fixin’ when we talk. Non-Texans do sometimes need an interpreter.

 Some more phrases:

come hell or high waterproceeding, regardless of the problems, obstacles, etc.

conniptionsget upset and raise a ruckus

hissy fit – kin to a conniption a state of extreme agitation and not a pretty thing to see

hot as tin toilet seat – in Texas we know that’s HOT

screaming bloody murder or banshee scream – not a pleasant sound at all

bone tired – yep, been there

slow as molasses – visualize black syrup oozing out of the jar

keep your pants on – meaning not what you think, but to be patient!

When I’m being lazy with my writing or rushing, Texas terms and phrases naturally flow into my first drafts. 

I also have favorite words that pop up. Words like: had, that, could, was, felt, knew, thought, saw, walked, come. Margie Lawson  calls these “weasel words.”

 I learned in Margie’s deep editing class, The EDITS System, to keep a WEASEL WORD CHART listing colloquial phrases, overused word, throw-away words, clichés, and opinion words.

 Unfortunately, my chart populates too easily. I’m my own worst copy editor. that’s why I always pay a professional before my books are published. The words I overuse stand out like sore thumbs to others.  (Sorry, Margie had to use a cliché to prove my point.)

 During the revision stages, the chart helps eliminate such weasel words and phrases using my word processor’s search and replace function.  

BUT characterization can need slang and colloquial regional dialogue. Texan talk has a function if the protagonist is a Texan or the setting is Texas.

Are you working on a Texas setting or character? Here’s a great resource: http://www.rice.edu/armadillo/Texas/talk.html

Other times, overuse in novel narrative becomes a stumbling block, pulling readers from the story.

 When that happens, the reader does what no writer wants a reader to do—QUITS reading!

 If colloquialisms are your writer’s voice, I caution you to be sure your reader can understand what you’re saying. Always remember what I learned in a Susan Wiggs workshop.

In the battle of words, the story reigns.

 Our word choices should always move the story forward.

In case you’re wondering what I did about my CP’s question, I decided the reader could discern the meaning from the rest of the scene and left the phrase “deep water” in the manuscript.

 How about you…

Do colloquialisms, local slang and weasel words slip into your novels?

Are you guilty of using expressions you grew up with that might confuse a reader? Care to share some and explain their local meaning?

10 09, 2012

3 Necessities to be a successful writer

By |2012-09-10T09:37:46-05:00September 10th, 2012|writer, writing|2 Comments

What does it take to be a writer?

Is all you need to be a writer pen and paper or a typewriter or an iPad or laptop/computer with a word processor? Maybe all it takes is the latest writing tool like this:

Or is there more involved besides having the proper writing tool?

Simple answer, YES.

A writer’s journey is a solo trip. A lonely trip and no two writers achieve success in the same way.

I think, to be successful, an aspiring writer must possess, at a minimum, these things:

  1. A PASSION
  2. A WILLINGNESS TO PRACTICE
  3. A DESIRE TO LEARN

On PASSION…

The most important trait a writer needs is the deep desire to write and a steadfast commitment to his passion.

“Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.” Hebbel quotes

Writers must write because, if we don’t, we are miserable. The desire flows with our blood.

On PRACTICE…

If you watched the Summer Olympics last month, you saw performances by athletes who had practiced and trained YEARS for the opportunity to compete in their chosen event.

A certain number of hours practice is frequently necessary to be considered proficient at so many things.

Think about airline pilots who must have a specific number of flying hours before they are qualified to solo. Teenage drivers get learner permits and must practice before taking a test to prove their proficiency and earn a driver’s license.

Writing is no different. Writing requires practice.

The exact amount of practice depends on your natural talent, how quick you learn the techniques of your craft and how much passion you have for what you’re doing.

Which brings up another question, how often should you write?

My simple answer: EVERY DAY.

But how much should you write? Does it matter?

According to James Thayer’s Author Magazine article “How Many Words a Day?” Jack London wrote between 1,000 and 1,500 words each day.

Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day.

Ray Bradbury, who authored over five hundred science fiction novels and short stories which someone calculated to be three and a half million words worth of stories, advises writers to “Write a thousand words a day and in three years you will be a writer.”

To succeed as writers, we must practice by writing something, anything every day.

On LEARNING  or STUDYING writing craft

Most people wouldn’t dream of trying to build an automobile without learning about auto mechanics. Unfortunately, too many people try to become writers without learning about the craft of writing.

An idea for a story strikes, and they start writing. They never consider story structure, POV, or any of the other skills embedded in every novel we read.

This, imo, is why so many aspiring writers fail so often.

Without learning basic skills, you won’t go far as an auto mechanic, no matter how many hours you put into practicing. Think about artists. They learn to mix paint, how to prepare a canvas and color theory at an art school. Aspiring auto mechanics go to technical schools.

Learning about basic craft skills requires time and study. To me, it’s the most important aspect of being a writer.

Sure, some writers succeed without study. With study, I believe success comes faster.

Even those born with great talent rarely go anywhere without equal measures of passion and practice. Mozart was a virtuoso of musical technique and artistry, but even he needed to learn his craft. He was full of passion for music, he practiced all the time, and he studied.

There are hundreds of great books on writing. I’m sure you have your favorites. On my website you’ll find a complete list of writer resources and some inspiring quotes. Below is a short list I recommend for every writer’s craft resource shelf:

  1.  Plot & Structure, by James Scott Bell
  2. Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass
  3. Break Into Fiction, by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love 
  4.  Story, by Robert McKee 
  5.  Scene and Structure, by Jack M. Bickham
  6. Getting Into Character, by Brandilyn Collins
  7. Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias
  8. The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley

Writing classes – on-line and at colleges and universities – also offer wonderful ways to develop writing skills. Too many classes, in fact, to list them in this post. I’ll do another blog with my recommendations soon.

Writing conferences offer yet another means to study writing craft with the added benefit of networking with like-minded people.

If you happen to live in or near Houston, Texas, there’s going to be a great writer’s conference next month—Northwest Houston RWA’s Lone Star Writer’s Conference featuring James Scott Bell.Yep—same one whose book is #1 on my recommended list.

The conference also offers a tremendous line-up of editors and agents. All for only $130.00. Check it out here.

Now you know what 3 things I believe are necessary to be a success writer so get out your iTyperwriter and GO, GO, GO.

YOUR TURN: What do you think it takes to be a successful writer?

10 08, 2012

Friday on THE MILLER FARM: Episode #1: ROOSTER RESCUERS

By |2012-08-10T10:51:10-05:00August 10th, 2012|Friday Free Day, Uncategorized|9 Comments

The Millers are Sara, my daughter, and her husband, Brian, who have a mini-farm at their home in Aggieland. For my non-Texan readers, that’s Bryan/College Station, Texas. That’s right, in their backyard, a chicken coop with nine “Easter Eggers,” a few Barred Rocks, a couple of Black Copper Marens, a few black and few gold sex links, some Bantams and  twenty-five American Game Birds. The rest are Barnyard Mutts. All give eggs that are truly delicious!

Part of their backyard also houses beehives. More about dealing with bees and fresh honey in future posts.

You’ll also find four miniature daschunds – Tucker, Bella, Sadie and Coco, one mixed breed dog name Marvin, and three teenager children—two girls and a boy, who wish to remain anonymous, on the Miller farm.

Sara, the chicken wrangler, writes such entertaining emails about life on the Miller Farm she should start her own blog. She won’t. That’s why – with her permission, I’ll be sharing the humor and fun of being a city farmer from her emails on Fridays.Today: ROOSTER RESCUERS  (my comments and additions in blue)

Yesterday afternoon I (aka Sara, chicken wrangler extraordinaire) went out to check on the chickens and gather eggs (what few eggs are being laid in this heat). (Texas, like a good part of the country, is experiencing unending days of triple digit tempearatures.)

One of our roosters was laying under the coop looking not so good. I tried to entice him out with bread but alas, he didn’t move. I grabbed him by the legs, an action which usually results in much fussing and flapping. However, he came out with nary a sound. I laid him by the water, hoping that he would perk up. After I checked all the other birds, he was still lying there and the other birds were starting to pick on him.

Being the rooster lover that I am, I could not tolerate that and gently carried him to the garage where I summoned Dr. Brian (her husband, who, btw, is NOT a veterinarian but a school psychologist). Drawing from all his vast avian veterinary experience, he proclaimed that the bird had heat exhaustion.

I carried him (the bird, not Dr. Brian) to the living room where he laid in front of the fan which I have been told is the best remedy for heat exhaustion in humans so it has to work for birds – right?

Throughout the evening Mr. Rooster laid still raising his head just often enough to let us know he was not quite dead yet. When it was time for the humans to retire, we decided he needed to be contained in case he had a miraculous recovery overnight.

I put him in a cage and went to bed feeling quite comforted by the fact that we were just like all our neighbors who had roosters sleeping in their living rooms.

The next morning Mr. Rooster was much more alert and holding his head up. I put some water in his cage which he promptly spilled all over. At this point, he was making such a mess I moved his cage to the front yard.

After caring for all the other chickens, I moved him back with his flock where he stepped out of the cage on his own. He hung out by the water for a while and when I last checked, Mr. Rooster was walking around pecking the ground as chickens are prone to do.

I would say we have successfully snatched a rooster from the jaws of death earning the title Rooster Rescuers.

Sara might be okay with a rooster in her house. I’m not sure I’d be willing to set up a rooster infirmary in my living room. Would you?

16 07, 2012

What my high school reunion taught me about writing BACKSTORY

By |2012-07-16T15:44:32-05:00July 16th, 2012|Uncategorized|15 Comments

Sitting at a table at my high school reunion recently, this thought struck me: “This is how backstory should work.”

Huh, you say. Let me explain.

I’ve know most of the people at my high school reunion more than half my life. I didn’t have to ask mundane questions to get to know them. When I looked in their faces, I saw not the wrinkles but teenagers I remembered from our school days.

We were (are) a close knit group, attending English class or studying for Algebra or cheering our Austin High School Maroon football team. We laughed about our Red Jacket (the drill team) adventures, relived football losses, groaned over teachers and relived our glory days on the yearbook and newspaper staff as reminisced.

I knew their past.

But what dawned on me was that what I remembered from those good ole days is only a small portion of their story. As we shared over the three day reunion, I learned of their triumphs, their heartaches, their success since we’d last been together.

Did I learn everything at once? No. Piece by piece they shared stories. Backstory came to light that had shaped who they were today.

Like all my high school friends, I know my characters. After all, I am creating them.

And like my friends who told their stories over the time we were together, that’s how I must reveal my character’s background–slowly as it relates to the story and character development.

This is where new writers often err in their opening scenes, revealing anything and everything that’s happened up to the time of the inciting incident.

There are times when a bit of backstory is necessary for the reader to grasp what’s going on and why it’s important. But, editors and agents agree a newly submitted manuscript with backstory dump in the beginning scenes is the biggest kiss of death for the work.

Writers, whether new or seasoned, must tread carefully when considering how much backstory to include. We should trust the reader’s intelligence to “get” what’s going on without providing lengthy backstory.

Think about it. Is it really necessary for the reader to know Mary has been married three times, each relationship ending badly, to “understand” why she’s looking for a good relationship. Usually, that kind of backstory, while indeed important, should be doled out later in the story and bit by bit.

A general rule is keep backstory either absent from the opening or only include as much as is absolutely necessary to set the scene for the inciting incident.

To quote Donald Maass, “no backstory in the first fifty pages.” And then, only to do one or more of these things:

1. Raise the stakes
2. Reveal motivations
3. Express innermost fears
4. Reveal obstacles

Easier said than done for most writers, including me.

I think of backstory as “BS.” Literally. I ask myself does the reader really need to know this in order to relate to my character? The answer is usually no!

Another way to think of backstory is as carefully placed clues to the mystery of the character and why they are the way they are. Hints to keep the reader turning the page.

Just as I discovered my old friends’ stories gradually, we writers need to let readers find backstory clues throughout the book until they’re brought all together to explain how and why the character changed or clarify whatever the character did.

What do you think about backstory dumps in the opening pages? Do you close the book or keep on reading?

14 03, 2012

FLAT STANLEY Adventure

By |2012-03-14T16:55:44-05:00March 14th, 2012|one word Wednesday|8 Comments

I should have spent yesterday writing my ONE WORD WEDNESDAY blog for an  early morning post today. I didn’t.

My daughter volunteered to help the son of an on-line friend in Minnesota  with his Flat Stanley Project. She  invited me to tag along while she and Flat Stanley visited the state capitol of Texas. I had a fun and enlightening  adventure.

You’ve haven’t met FLAT STANLEY or heard about the project?

FLAT STANLEY is Stanley Lambchop the protagonist of Jeff Brown’s 1964 children’s books series. The story goes…

Stanley and his younger brother Arthur are given a big bulletin board by their Dad for displaying pictures and posters. He hangs it on the wall over Stanley’s bed. During the night the board falls from the wall, flattening Stanley in his sleep. He survives and makes the best of his altered state, and soon he is entering locked rooms by sliding under the door, and playing with his younger brother by being used as a kite. One special advantage is that Flat Stanley can now visit his friends by being mailed in an envelope. Stanley even helps catch some art museum thieves by posing as a painting on the wall. Eventually Arthur changes Stanley back to his proper shape with a bicycle pump.

In 1995, a third grade schoolteacher in Canada used the book for a letter-writing lesson between schoolchildren as they documented where Flat Stanley went. The students created a two dimension “paper doll” fashioned to look like them and mailed Stanley to pen pals everywhere.

That project has now become a worldwide adventure for children with Flat Stanley projects. The objective of which is for the child to explore through Flat Stanley’s adventures. Sometimes by writing diaries for language arts skill or travel journals of Flat Stanley locations for geography and social studies skills. Check for the full concept here.

Flat Stanley does get around. He’s traveled to Russia with me once. As you see, my Stanley was a small, easily transportable and pose-able paper doll.

The Stanley from Minnesota was a life-size ten year-old butcher paper cutout, flimsy and awkward to pose. March winds forced us to tape him or hold him upright for pictures. We had to strap him into the seatbelt for the trip to Austin!

Some of those observing our antics recognized Stanley from their own school projects. Others scratched their heads and thought we were two crazy ladies. Can’t post the pictures until the Minnesota student completes his project, but I will get snapshots on my Judythe Morgan FB page  as soon as I can.

We began Stanley’s adventure on the University of Texas campus. One of the fringe benefits of spending the fun day with my daughter was touring her old college town haunts, her condo, the intramural field where she worked refereeing softball games, and campus buildings where she’d had classes. Her reaction to the familiar places all these years later was like seeing a child opening a Christmas present. Great memories for her, and I got a glimpse into what her life on campus had been when I sent her off to the big, bad UT.

I shared my memories of growing up in Austin. Flat Stanley saw my high school, the places I went on dates with my daughter’s daddy, houses I lived in, and some of the ancestral history of her great-grandparents who were among the founding residents.

I thought she’d be bored.  Poor Flat Stanley didn’t get a vote. My daughter claimed to be delighted to see this side to her mother…the giggles and smiles made me believe her. She suggested I compose a tour plan complete with an Austin map marked with locations for her siblings. Great idea for a memoir.

Before we ended our visit, my daughter wanted to stop by and see my eighty-five year old aunt who still lives in a small group home for the elderly.

I hesitated. Would my aunt even remember her namesake? A stroke four years ago left my aunt blind. Already deaf, the loss of another source of sensory input and the stroke damage caused memory issues.

As silly as it sounds—my daughter’s a grown woman, I didn’t want her feelings hurt or the imagery of an old folks’ home stuck in her head. I suggested lunch at a favorite Austin eatery instead.

Imagine my surprise when over lunch my daughter told me she knew what those places are like. During her years at UT, she’d gone to see her grandfather in a nursing home nearby twice a week until he passed away. She’d be fine with seeing my aunt and insisted we go.

Tears nearly blinded me, and I gave her a hug. Shocked and pleased, the value of respect and honor for elders that her daddy and I tried to instill had worked. 

Best part, when we saw my aunt, she remembered my daughter. We had a lovely visit. And over-sized, floppy Flat Stanley had quite the adventure. 

YOUR TURN: Have you ever had a FLAT STANLEY adventure or an enlightening moment with a child?

5 03, 2012

COLLOQUIALISMS and WEASEL WORDS

By |2012-03-05T09:00:29-06:00March 5th, 2012|Uncategorized|6 Comments

 When I shared a recent chapter with my critique partners, one of them called me for this sentence, “He found himself in deep water.”

 She didn’t understand that my POV character’s internal thought meant he found himself in trouble. She thought I put him in a swimming pool and forgot to put that detail on the page. Another problem I have… getting what’s playing in my head accurately portrayed on the page. But that’s a topic for another blog.

Her stumbling over the phrase led to a discussion of colloquial language and how words, phrases, and even clichés vary from one geographical area to another.

 Being from Texas, we have a whole slew of regional words. I just used another one—slew, meaning a whole bunch. We’re always y’all-ing and gonna and fixin’ when we talk. Foreigners sometimes need an interpreter. Consider these colloquial phrases I’ve been known to use verbally and in my writing:

  •  hot as tin toilet seat – in Texas we know that’s HOT
  • screaming bloody murder or  screaming banshee– used to stop the  pleasant sound coming from a kid or grandkid
  • grumpy as an old sitting hen – gives a more vivid image than grumpy old men
  • bone tired – yep, been there
  • slow as molasses – can’t you just see that black syrup oozing out of the jar?
  • keep your pants on – meaning not what you think, but to be patient!

 Besides colloquialisms that slip into my first drafts, I have “favorite” words that pop up when I’m being lazy with my writing or rushing. Words like: had, that, could, was, felt, knew, thought, saw, walked, come.

“Weasel words”  Margie Lawson,  editing guru, calls these words and colloquial phrases. I learned in her deep editing class, The EDITS System, to keep a WEASEL WORD CHART listing phrases, overused word, throw-away words, clichés and opinion words. The chart is easy to populate. The words we overuse stand out like sore thumbs. (Sorry, Margie had to use a cliché to make my point.)

Then, during the revision stages, I use the chart with my word processor’s search and replace function to eliminate them.

BUT sometimes using colloquial language fits characterization. Sometimes it has a function in dialogue especially if the protagonist is a Texan or the piece is written about Texas.

 Throwing such informal colloquialism into novel narrative, on the other hand, can be a stumbling block for readers by pulling them from the story. And, then they do what no writer wants—quit reading!

If using colloquialisms is your writer’s voice, okay. I caution you to be sure your reader can understand from the scene context what you’re saying.

 REMEMBER: Our writer’s responsibility is to always make sure in the battle of words that story reigns.

 What did I do with my CP’s suggestion? Eliminate the phrase or not?

 In this case, I believed the reader could discern the meaning from the rest of the scene and left the phrase “deep water.”

Your turn:

What are your favorite colloquialisms and weasel words? Do they slip into your writing?