Verbs and Vindication at the Virginia Festival of the Book

When Valerie Tripp, author of the American Girl series, said that excess description in children’s books borders on “self-indulgent,” I swear I heard my Muse crack open a beer in salute. I attended Tripp’s session on the differences between writing for boys and girls at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville yesterday. Fred Bowen, the session co-presenter and author of two series of sports books for kids, agreed. Both said that metaphors had better explode to “earn real estate on the page.” Hallelujah, pass me the verbs!

As I traveled through various presentations from authors, editors, and agents yesterday in Charlottesville, the same theme followed me. During a session entitled “Dancing with the Manuscripts,” writers could submit the first 100 words of their manuscript ahead of time. The moderator read each submission aloud during the forum. Four representatives from the Moseley Writers’ Group served on the critique panel at the front of the room and held up a green card if they wanted to read more or a red card if the writing had problems. They consistently “green-carded” submissions that dropped readers right in the middle of the action with vivid language that moved. Those stories that launched into a description of the setting or some other story element generally ended up with a red card. The Moseley Writers also requested that authors use fewer “be” verbs and completely annihilate the word “it.” By this part of the day, the Muse had finished a case of beer and had a good buzz going.

I’ve always hated books with long descriptions like that Proustian crap where it takes two pages for some guy to walk across a room or three pages for the same guy to eat his eggs in the morning. I tend to put down books replete with metaphors and similes and devour plot-driven novels. William Zinsser refers to all these excess words as “verbal camouflage” in his book On Writing Well. Even though he gears his manual toward the creative non-fiction writer, I think his statement applies to any genre. But then, maybe you shouldn’t listen to me. I’m a twelve year old trapped in a late-thirties body: I still think farts are funny.

I believe the passive tense completely shits all over a good piece of writing as well. The sentence “From its pink shutters to its cute little door and hanging wisteria, the sweet little house was lovingly built with hand hewn boards and guarded carefully by enormous trees, standing sentry-like on both sides of the driveway” pisses me of. It makes me want to write a rebuttal like this, “The tornado ripped through the neighborhood, sucked the roof off the pink-shuttered house, snapped the guardian trees in half, and deposited giant logs atop the splintered hand-hewn boards.” Call me an asshole, but still! Let’s just pile some passivity on the roof of the poor house, power-wash it with adjectives, then hurl some adverbs through its windows until it collapses with a guttural moan and dies.

Given my preoccupation with flatulence, I must again remind you that I may not hold the qualifications to judge good writing. I will point out that some successful writers agree with me, though. My favorite author is Rita Mae Brown—I particularly love her earlier works like Southern Discomfort, Rubyfruit Jungle, Bingo, High Hearts, etc. I also like Cathy Lamb, Sarah Addison Allen, William Kotzwinkle, and Glenn Murray. All these fiction writers have VERY different styles, but their stories all move. Brown’s characters pepper the stories with colorful dialogue and bad behavior. Lamb creates a grandmother who thinks she is Amelia Earhart and flies around the room, while another character lights her thongs on fire after every one-night-stand she procures. Allen makes trees throw apples at villains. Kotzwinkle and Murray created the Walter the Farting Dog series for kids. Walter’s flatulence leads him on many exciting adventures that caused me to weep and snort with laughter one afternoon in a local bookstore.

All those books are short on passive verbs and long on action. Even the forays into the characters’ emotional lives literally shove the plot along. The authors tell us very little about their characters—they just turn them loose on the page and let them bump up against each other or fart repeatedly, as the case may be. Their crazy behaviors reflect their emotional lives, relegating all the “to be” verbs to the obsolete hole of darkness where they belong.

In her book, Starting from Scratch: a Different Kind of Writers’ Manual, Rita Mae Brown says, “If you want to get your black belt in boredom, load your sentences with variations of the verb to be.” (p. 67). I read this book during my first year in college and loved it! Ignore the chapter about “Computers and Other Expensive Knicknacks” that advises writers to buy an “IBM Correcting Selectric III” rather than a computer. Brown says, “You’re better off with expensive lighting than a computer. Those damn computers hurt your eyes, too” (p. 53). So what if she published the book in 1988? The writing advice is still relevant and reads like one of her novels.

Yesterday’s sessions at the Virginia Festival of the Book taught me that I need to tighten up my writing, make the first words of my books scream with excitement, and stay true to the type of writing that I have always loved. While Oprah may never endorse my books, plot driven writing sells, too. Hello, Hunger Games! Fred Bowen quoted Mark Twain and said something like “If you don’t write for money, you’re a blockhead!” Damn straight. Once the Muse recovers from her hangover this morning, the two of us will get to work. Liven up those verbs, and have a creative day!


Writing pitches reminds of me pregnancy hemorrhoids. I strain really hard, then something odd pops out. I’ve been pushing all day, let me tell you. I hope I have created something at least slightly Prep-H worthy.

I really HATE writing pitches, but I won’t get published without them. I love making stories, but I despise trying to consolidate my ideas into a couple of attention-getting sentences that will snag me an editor. I’m NOT short winded. AT ALL. I will fart around for days before I actually sit down to write a synopsis. I spent all day yesterday avoiding the queries I’d assigned myself by lolling around at the park with my family. I had the BEST day playing with my kids, so I slapped a couple of pictures from our little adventure up with this post. They are way cuter and more appropriate than any graphic representation I could put up that would symbolize me trying to get my work done today. For me, writing a pi-otch is a bi-otch.

I’m not sure if I’m even qualified to give advice on the subject of pitching, but I’m going to try. Here are a couple of things to remember when you are on your own personal query toilet.

  • First and foremost, consider your writing style. Are you funny? Is your writing contemplative? Flowery? Sarcastic? Academic? Then write that way! Construct your query to match the writing style you are trying to sell. Be professional, obviously, and DEFINITELY have your facts straight, but don’t send some stilted formal tome to introduce yourself. Editors can smell constipated writing from miles away.
  • For Cripes SAKE! Spell the editor’s name correctly. If I were the editor, and you screwed my name up, I’d flush your “jank” immediately.
  • Look for and FOLLOW EXACTLY the directions on the submissions guide for the  magazine/agency/publisher/website to whom you’re sending your work. Most editors, etc., will slushpile your work if you don’t format or send it correctly.
  • Do your homework. Show the editor/agent/publisher that there really is an audience for your work. Statistics help. If you’re writing a book on stepmothers, you can tell a potential agent that there are around 2500 stepfamilies created daily in this country; currently, there are an estimated 15 million stepmothers in the United States. There’s definitely a market for your book, and you proved it with your stats. BUT, don’t submit an article on snow to a local publication in Miami, Florida, whose readership consists of people who hate cold weather. Duh.
  • Most pitching experts I’ve consulted (stalked on the Internet) agree that if you can’t narrow a synopsis of your work or idea down to four or five sentences, you don’t know what the hell you’re writing about. I have to agree, but that doesn’t mean this tight of a summary is easy for me. My queries today were pretty long, but I got my point across.

I can assure you that there are plenty more important things to think about as you create a query, and I’ll add to my list as time goes on. I am also going to submit the synopsis I created for my unfinished middle grade novel manuscript to The Canary Review to be “Pitch Slapped.” Their reviewers will rip it to shreds, slap me soundly, then provide me (maybe) with some ideas for a better pitch. I’m scared crapless, but criticism from fellow writers can really help improve your work and possibly get you published. I’m ready to flush my ego and put my stuff out there. I’ll share any comments and feedback I receive on this blog; I’m going to get me a public “pitch slap.” So wish me luck, and have a creative day (that doesn’t involve queries, hemorrhoids, or constipation).

Finding a Story Doesn’t Have to Grate On Your Nerves

Today, I’m going to try my hand as a mystery writer. My life is filled with intrigue and suspense which occasionally mingle with petty crime. With four kids and two adults in the house, every day is a new mystery. Not a one of us can ever find a damn thing. Each morning affords me an annoying feeling of suspense as I try to locate the Little Worrells’ shoes. Some mornings leave me with a cliffhanger ending, and I strap my babies into their respective carseats in their sock feet. Luckily my parents keep the kids for me while I teach. They know me well and keep the house stocked with clothes and shoes for these particular days.

Other days unfold a little like a crime drama. I use my Kindle Fire for word processing, but I also downloaded some apps on it for Lil’ K. to play with under my strict supervision. The other day, I reached into my purse for my little writing lifeline, only to find it gone. I searched around frantically, following Lil’ P.’s clues and footsteps, certain he had made off with it somehow. He led me to a glowing blanketed lump in a tight corner of our bedroom. He threw himself
onto the lump, thus making it squeal in loud protest. When I lifted the lump’s blanket, I found a guilty-looking Lil’ K. playing Zoodles on my lost Kindle. Culprit found, placed into timeout, and I finished my work.

The most interesting mysteries in the Worrell house occur when the needs of the Little Worrells and the Big Worrells collide. The latest story involved the family cheese grater. Big A. was home from college, and both Little Worrells had hacking coughs and fevers. Lil’ K., who hadn’t eaten all day, allowed as to how she would enjoy some cheese and raw broccoli for dinner.  I started searching for her requested food  against my better judgment. I could just see her sick little gullet hitting the reject button and sending broccoli and cheese all over the wall. That was some art I didn’t want to see.

“Straight cheese, Mama,” she told me.

“Straight cheese” is grated cheese from a bag. Naturally, I had run out. I reached into the cabinet for the cheese grater, knowing two things up front:

  1. Lil’ K. wasn’t going to touch my grated cheese with a ten foot pole because it wouldn’t have the same taste, texture, or color as the bagged crap.
  2. I am a lazy slackass who would rather pay someone to grate cheese and put it in a bag. Scraped knuckles suck anyway. I hadn’t reached for the grater in months.

As I opened the cabinet where the cheese grater had been in the habit of living, all the pots and pans dutifully fell out. Organizing my cabinets is, like, number 980 on my to-do list. Cleaning our closets is number 981. Maybe that’s why we can’t find anything. Anyway, the only things left inside the latest cabinet disaster were a few smooshed steel wool pads and a sifter. Clearly, the grater had taken up residence elsewhere.

The little Worrells had cleared the room, so I posed a rhetorical question to the rest of the family.

“Where in the hell is the cheese grater?” I asked.

“It’s where in the hell you left it,” replied my husband, Mr. Jenn.

I noticed Big A’s expression shift from thoughtful perplexity to reluctant recollection. She slipped furtively from the room, while I proceeded to start more cabinet avalanches.

“Where’s my cheeeeeeeese, Mama?” whined Lil’ K. from the next room. She lolled her way into the kitchen. Lil’ P. followed her closely behind and opened up the damned cabinet with all the plastic ware in it. The enormous mountain of piled lids and tubs of every shape and size slid down and hit the floor with a sickening crash.

I stomped over and tried to bulldoze all the tops and bottoms back into the cabinet. We also keep liquor down there, and as I shoved, I displaced a bottle of my favorite brand of rum.  It tipped and teetered beside a lettuce container and an old whipped cream tub. I gave another skillful shove and managed to stabilize the whole heap. I took note of the rum and decided that a shot or two later in the evening would not be out of the question.

“He’s eating that wooly stuff!” cried Lil’ K. suddenly. She gestured to Lil’ P. who had crawled back over the fallen pots and pans under the sink and had a steel wool pad in his mouth. I grabbed it, only to incite the silent scream from Lil’ P.

“Whatcha tearing up the kitchen for, Mama?” Lil’ K. asked. Lil’ P.’s face had turned puce with rage—his mouth was wide open, but thankfully, not yet emitting sound.

“Trying to find the cheese grater to make you some straight cheese,” I told her, holding up the block of cheese. I patted Lil’ P. in a futile attempt to curb the explosion and felt his mid-section expand with a violent inhalation. This was going to be a doozy.

Lil’ K. immediately clapped both hands over her mouth, and emitted a mile long whine.

“I don’t wike dat kind,” she cried.

Lil’ P. finally drew enough breath into his scrunched face to create the volume he needed to let the world know how positively pissed he was that he couldn’t snack on the steel wool. The duet between the two of them rattled the windows. I would have reached for the rum then, but I knew the bottle was currently holding up Mount Plasticmore.

“Jesus CHRIST!” Mr. Jenn yelled, yanking open the dishwasher and tossing in a plate. Peyton stopped screaming long enough to note that the dishwasher was opened. “Young’uns screaming, shit falling out of cabinets—I’m going back to work!”

Just then, Big A. came in holding the cheese grater.

“Um, I borrowed it,” she said. “Last Christmas, when the girls were over, we, uh, were trying to fray our jeans with it.”

I took the cheese grater from her. I tried to remember what it looked like the last time I saw it. I didn’t think its handle was bent into a leering grin like it was now. I also didn’t recall the rust, and I know it didn’t have pieces of jeans stuck in it.

“I tried to get the jeans out, but I guess some are still left,” Big A. said, rinsing it in the sink.

“Fiber,” my husband noted. “It’s what’s for dinner.  Jesus!”

“DEEEEsus!” giggled Peyton. I suddenly realized he wasn’t holding onto my pants and screaming. I looked up and saw him in the dishwasher.

“DEEEEEsus!” he said again, cackling from behind the plates.  Mr. Jenn fished him out before I could get to him.

“Boy!!!” he said holding Lil’ P. up to eye level. “What in the hale are you doing in there?”

I just shook my head and grated the cheese. Soon I had an impressive looking pile; I didn’t see any denim therein. Lil’ K. picked up a piece of my cheese, sniffed it, and crossed her arms. After all that, I could tell my pile of cheese didn’t have a snowman turd’s chance in hell of winding up in Lil’ K’s gut. I looked up to notice that Lil’ P. was climbing back into the dishwasher.  Big A. had come in and handed me the stylin’ jeans she had engineered herself with the family cheese grater. Damn. Not bad. Hmmm. I had some 501s that could use some fraying—what an interesting and worthwhile use for a cheese grater. I would sacrifice my knuckles for a cool pair of jeans.

Finally, we had solved the cheese grater kidnapping. We now had to solve the mysteries of how we were going to keep Lil’ P. out of the dishwasher during the loading and unloading and get Lil’ K. to eat something decent. I still need a few clues. I do know that I’m going to buy a new cheese grater. Big A. will find this one on her bed on her next trip home from college.

But I do have another post about some mundane thing to illustrate that every day moments make art, too. Don’t overlook these small things in your life as you develop your own creativity. I don’t mean that you make every piece of art you bring forth resemble an annoying romp through your iPhone family photo gallery at your office party, but STILL. It’s  no mystery to me: my life is kind of beautiful!


The headlines and news videos are pretty clear: thanks to Friday’s tornadoes, entire towns no longer exist except in the hearts of their citizens. I can’t wipe the faces of the people I’ve seen out of my mind. The looks of grief over lost loved ones, disbelief, and complete displacement tear at my heart as they should.

She’s right, you may be thinking, the devastation is terrible to watch, but what in the world does this have to do with an artist’s/writers’ blog?

Everything. In times like these, the art community provides the therapy and the hope. Now more than ever it’s important for writers, musicians, artists, and other creative types to get moving and be productive. Whether your particular endeavors make kids laugh, make adults cry, or fortify yourself enough so that you have the strength to rebuild a town, get off your ass and make something! God knows our world needs it right now!

Being Crazy Isn’t Enough–Dr. Seuss

Boy, did ol’ Theo hit the nail on the head on that one. Crazy in and of itself isn’t enough when it comes to art. You have to be disciplined about it. Dr. Seuss wrote 60 books throughout his life, and 46 of them were for children. Those children’s books came from a place in himself beyond imagination. That kind of writing and illustrating requires the author to live in those cob-webby, unused spaces within their own minds on a pretty consistent basis. Getting to that mental location is difficult, if not impossible, if you’re working a full-time job, chasing kids around, and trying to figure out what to cook for dinner.

Theodore Geisel said, “In my world, everyone’s a pony, and they all eat rainbows and poop butterflies.”
I most certainly can relate to the poop part. When my son was born last year, we were still potty-training my daughter. My husband and I dubbed me the Head Ass Wiper In Charge ’round our house. I was drowning in shit there for awhile, and let me assure you, there were no butterflies involved. If any of these poetically winged creatures had flitted by, the smell would have killed ’em for sure.
I wasn’t always changing diapers on maternity leave last year, though. I spent a goodly amount of time stomping through the stream in the woods behind our house with my son in the front pack and my daughter splashing along in boots beside me. We threw leaves in the stream just to watch them float along with the current. We stalked bears, lions, deer, and antelope; we were sure we’d seen their prints all along the bank. We bent the little saplings by the water and checked the size of their buds each day. We thought a lot of thinks during those lazy days. We would come in each afternoon for lunch, baths, and naps. I wrote like crazy during those naps.

We have to be so disciplined about our jobs, chores, and errands each day. As important as those things are, they absolutely suck the life out of our creativity unless we discipline ourselves to find time to play. Blocking out all the mundane noise quiets the mind enough to that the Muse can wake up creativity and download ideas. Dr. Seuss was definitely on to something. Because our world turns at lightning speed, it may seem irrational to take time to watch a stick float down a stream. If you want to find your inner genius and bring it to light, making a date with “crazy” on a regular basis is imperative. So graze on some rainbows, shit some butterflies, and access the best of your creativity this weekend; celebrate Dr. Seuss’s birthday by celebrating yourself!

Finding the "Yes" in the "No"

When you’re a writer, the word “no” sucks hind tit, doesn’t it? The infamous rejection. When you are submitting a beloved manuscript via snail mail, you can tell you’re screwed when your SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) comes back to you, and it’s REALLY skinny. You still tear open the envelope because hope springeth, leapeth, and backflippeth eternal, but, dammit, it’s another FORM LETTER. These photocopied atrocities are always so short, and, well, pleasant. The editor/agent/or other person to whomever you’ve submitted says your work is not a fit for their style, or due to the economy the market is not right for your work, or WHATEVER! They always wish you well in your future literary endeavors and tell you to have a nice day.

It’s not much different when you send off your amazing writing via email. You see the special address of the person with whom you’ve entrusted your precious work pop up in your inbox, and you immediately begin clicking the mouse. If you’re me, and you’ve struggled with dial-up or piece o’ crap air cards because you live in the sticks, you’ve clicked your mouse on these messages enough times to freeze your computer. Then you have to start the whole damn mail opening process over again, which takes five milleniums, until you finally get the bastard to pop up on your screen only to find that it’s a short email. It’s another FORM LETTER just like the ones you used to get in the mail before every office went green. It’s the same smoke the folks have been blowing up every other rejectee’s ass since the dawn of the pencil. Except it’s recycled smoke. FORM SMOKE! You don’t even get smoke of your own.

Okay, I’ve gotten a lot of these SHORT letters. At first I fell for it. The editors were kind, weren’t they? AWWWW. They wrote me a PERSONAL letter thanking me for my submission. I was nineteen, then. Yes, folks, I’ve been at this for awhile–nineteen was a LONG time ago, and I’m quite long in the tooth by now. I know when I’m at the bottom of the slush pile.

But, I’ve been at this long enough now to know what a thicker envelope feels like. The kind that has complimentary copies of YOUR PUBLISHED WORK inside. I also know how that special piece of mail with the tear-off edges feels in my hand–I love riding those bad boys over to the local bank. I’ve been lucky enough to have enough YESES to do Christmas for everyone and pay the mortgage a few times. Freelancing was great, and I found some incredible opportunities to see my work in print. I have even had some regular gigs, despite all those earlier rejections.

Now that I’ve traded writing to others’ specifications for writing to my own, I’ve gotten reacquainted with NO. Delightful. A FORM LETTER just muffs up a sunny day, doesn’t it? Lately, however, my NOs have had a different twist than ever before. I’ve been querying successful agencies with sample chapters of my work and been asked to submit more. I’ve also been told to expand the market for my book, then resubmit. I had one editor tell me she had been really thinking long and hard about my submissions, but that she thought the stories were too regional for big sales. She did not send a FORM LETTER. I’ve submitted to three agents and one editor over the past two years. I’ve received a pending MAYBE, two suggestions about marketability, and only one FORM LETTER.

To me, personal feedback from an agent or editor, even in the form of a rejection, has a YES in it somewhere. These people read thousands of queries each week, but something about the work made them take the time to send their own comments, rather than paste in a form letter. DUDE! That’s something, right?

Putting oneself out there is mighty scary, and we all know rejection really chaps one’s ass. At least it does mine. That’s okay, though. Use those damnable FORM LETTERS to rub cream on the sore spots, polish the work some more, and send that story to someone else. Eventually, with enough revision, we will all get to that resounding YES! We can then sit and celebrate with a beer. Because, let me tell you, there’s little better sound than the hiss of a popped top in concert with the ri-i-ip of torn check tab. CHA-CHING!

I’m Back!

I can’t believe it has been two years since I posted to this blog. Contrary to obvious belief, I am not a literary slackass. At. All. I’ve been busy, oh, you know, having a new baby boy! I have also finished the second draft of my memoir which I’m so excited about. During my maternity leave with my son, I began work on a middle grade novel, too. So yeah, I’ve been fairly well occupied.
Bu-ut the Muse has been poking me in my doughy gut about this blog. Apparently, she has plans, and a few thing she wants to say. I must comply so she will let me sleep. Lately, she’s been worse than my son on the snoozing front–at least he sleeps through the night!
So please bear with me while I get this show back on the road. I have plenty of stories to tell about writing and being creative with a family in tow. I will share anecdotes about typing the final pages of my book while my three-year-old draws on my toes with marker. We will rejoice together in the ecstasy of two children simultaneously napping, and we will bemoan the perils of squished puffed cereal in the computer’s USB port thingy. Oh, yeah, and I will discuss the logistics of breastfeeding and writing…at the same time! Yes, friends, it can be done!

And, maybe, just maybe, I’ll get to write about acquiring an agent, and GASP, publishing a book! Now wouldn’t that be just spiffy. If not, no biggie. We can hang out together a couple of times per week over Diet Cokes and Teddy bear crackers and talk about the sanity that creativity affords us. While we’re at it, maybe one of you can tell me what to do about the crayons melted onto the load of clothes I just took out of the dryer.

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