Monday, August 19, 2013

Writing Exercise: Breaking The Rules

"Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist."
Pablo Picasso

This is an important lesson for those of us who tend not to read instruction manuals, turn Siri on for directions or listen to old people. Creative types BELIEVE everything will just work out all right, because it always has, I mean, we are still alive and kicking right?

To be alive is a matter for imbeciles. Anyone with tenacity can survive. It is the quality of life to which one lives and creates that makes a REAL life.
In order to do that, you must know the rules. Then you MUST break them.

New writers must first; read a freshman English book, seek advice from seasoned scribes and read literature.

Even if your are not writing the Great American Novel or Fiction, reading the classics will open your mind to age old ideas and concepts that flourish.

NO MATTER what you are writing, your voice and ideas must resonate and stir to keep the pages turning.

I suggest you start with the following authors who are amusing and full of philosophy:
Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway and Tom Robbins.  All these author’s posses a flair for vocabulary, plot and syntax not duplicated. Not only will you enjoy yourself, it will make you want to compose better. They all have that “comedic left turn” that will surprise and induce you to add more punch to your prose.

My favorite novel from each author for you to try:

1.     Mark Twain- The Innocents Abroad (Unabridged). Written before World War One when Europe was intact and full of cathedrals and art, a group of New York socialites travel via ship to Europe and then to retrace the path of Jesus. Twain’s observations and travel log is one of the best chronicler of a tourist path. He breaks rules and does what he wants and it is an exciting piece.

2.     Ernest Hemingway- Islands in the Stream. Found after his death and edited by his daughter, you get to experience WW2 and the true heart of this author.

3.     Leo Tolstoy- Anna Karenina. The plight of women and choices that they make is never stronger than in this text from 1837. The lessons and prose still echoes today. He uses humor and subterfuge to drive his elegant points home.

4.     Tom Robbins- EVERYTHING. No one commands the English language, nor breaks the rules more than this author. If a gun was to my head and I was forced to pick, I would say, Another Roadside Attraction, Jitterbug Perfume and then Villa Incognito.

Writing Exercise:

Use one of the following sentences as a beginning to a story (500 words or more). During your writing, try to break one grammar rule on purpose that drives a point home.

2. The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Sign up for Live Writing Courses beginning September 4, 2013

Sign up to hold your spot as classes are filling up at

Writing Exercise:  Write 500 words of why you value your stories so much, you wouldn't miss this class!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Writing Exercise- Gardening at Midnight

Each night before I settle me head down on my down pillow, I turn on my Kindle and take in a TED talk. These are 10-20 minute video lectures of positivity and creativity spoken by the best minds in the world. Always an impeccable bedtime story.

Last night, the lecture taught us how to add 10 years to a life by playing games. Along with getting off my tush every hour and dancing around, the need for social interaction and kindness is needed. This sedimentary writers life is doing more than making me an arthritic alcoholic. Surprising to hear is that our bodies weren’t designed to hunch over a keyboard making up stories, it was meant to hunt, gather and garden.

Possessing a sound mind and a bit of red wine, I planted a garden at midnight.

I hoed and plowed until 1:00am, then sprinkled seeds in an inorderly manner, finally turning the sprinkler on my patch of growth. Not at all like the neat little rows you see in everyone else’s garden, mine will be one of surprise.

Do I anticipate problems?

Of course! Even if I did it the “right way”, I would have weeds, gophers, droughts and giant zucchini.

The point is that I did it. After arguing through the spring and summer with my husband about how to plant this garden, as he wanted raised beds with proper avian wire underneath to battle the gophers and a suitable fence to scuffle the deer and bunnies and twinkling old AOL CD’s to combat the crows, etc., etc. His was a war before one seed dropped.  I wanted to throw the seeds in the dirt, mix in some horse and chicken poop and see what God gives us.  

Now the garden is two fold- one an experiment in the age-old marital battle “who was right”. The other is a brain strengthening, life sustaining and produce-inducing plot of land. Anyone for a pumpkin-green bean?

Writing exercise:
Take a story and write it without any “thought” verbs.  You may not use Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use. 
The list should also include:  Loves and Hates.

You can also take an old story, and change it so it has no thought verbs. This is very good for honing your editing skills.

This brilliant lesson was from Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club and many other fantastic books) and it resonated with me so much, I am going to try and write this way forever. His whole lesson and explanation is at the link below. It is worth your time to try. Even if you are a new writer, it is a fun experiment.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Writing Exercise: finding the RIGHT words

The words we write, say to ourselves and to others influence our lives. I have been witnessing this most profoundly in my 3-year-old grandson’s vocabulary, which is extensive. He can order politely in a restaurant, explain events in great detail and retell a story down to the last “and they lived happily ever after”. When he is most verbal he gets much attention because he has cognitive words coming out of a small package of a human. He gets preferred attention and favors. Sometimes he gets idolized. 

His vocabulary is how he is judged.

Where most boys his age are grunting and knocking things down (he has spells of that behavior too) he is complimenting the Chef on the Crème Brulee.  He is judged by his words and he enjoys the mastery of it. We learn a couple of new words every day and it has helped my writing as much as his preschool swagger.

From the website, Advice to Writers, JACQUES BARZUN gives this wonderful quote: “You must attend to words when you write, when you speak, when you read. Words must become ever present in your waking life, an incessant concern, like color and design in graphic arts or pitch and rhythm if it is music, or speed and form if it is athletics”.

Bigger is not always better, it is the right usage of the words that impress. You should not get too focused on the thesaurus (one of my editors is always telling me “Back away from the Thesaurus, Teri”), but focus on building your vocabulary so you are using the right word for the right rhythm and theme to your story. For a great example of this, read authors who are short on their prose and big on getting the most out of each word like Amy Hempel and Ernst Hemmingway.

As Mark Twain wrote and Jimmy Buffett sang, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

It is about the right word and not the most impressive word. I have been writing my food column every week now for 8 years. That’s over 420 columns on food and in each description I must find a different word for delicious. Every now and then I think I have run out of adjectives, but then I do comparative descriptions using texture, sight and smell and I am back in the game again. It is not easy and I constantly read my compatriots work (cookbooks, travel books, lifestyle articles) to find new ways to say, “it was delicious”.

What does writing with shorter words do for prose? Paula LaRocque, author of The Book on Writing theorizes that the exercise forces writers to use simple, familiar words. When writers are nervous or want to impress, they often choose bigger words, and bigger themes or stories to match them. In doing this, they try to anticipate what will impress their reader and stave off criticism, when in reality, simple, direct prose is generally much more powerful."

The stuff we know best usually has a simple name. For example, basic words such as bed, earth, stars, bone, yard, house are all simple words, but they're also rich with emotional potential. In limiting ourselves to monosyllabic words, we force ourselves to adhere more closely to direct, personal experiences.

Writing Exercise:
Write a story of 100 words using only one-syllable words. Make it something familiar and it will be much easier. Send it to me if you would like and make sure to share this lesson with friends and potential writers. Have fun!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Writing Exercise- Tenacity and forcing the writing


Some say you can’t force writing. I disagree. I think you can force anything. It is called tenacity.

Many people use this word to describe my style. It is true that I latch on to things/people/situations and no matter how demanding or unrestrained they get, I do not let go, ever. This serves my writing career well, but my motherly instinct has taken quite a beating. But with my tenacity comes some really creative solutions to impossible problems and that has served my story telling well. If you are constantly stepping outside your comfort zone, you tend to find more stories (or they find you).


I do love having an empty nest after raising 8 kids, until I am left to my own devices when dressing for a formal occasion. No matter who you are, dressing formally requires assistance. I like to picture my handmaidens lacing my boots and trussing my hair. But customarily it is one of my girls checking the putty depth applied to my face and my husband hitching my zipper.

On Sunday one of my foster kids was going to be married and I am overjoyed at how perfectly her life has turned out and adore her betrothed. All the girls were in the wedding party so I was left alone to apply my mask. My husband was called out of town to the land where the orange groves roam to visit his parents, so I was unaccompanied to dress and draft my makeup. This proved an impossible task.  Unable to zip up my dress no matter who many yoga moves I attempted, I left the house three quartered clothed. I drove to Ross and went in to the front counter and asked the clerk to finish zipping my dress. She was kind enough to oblige and then even pointed out a crease in my rouge.

Upon leaving the store, a bee came at me with a full frontal attack to my eye, thus springing my tear ducts to full waterfall mêlée. This washed the right side of my face clean of war paint and made my eye look like Quasimoto. I figured I would just leave it be until after the ceremony because the likelihood of crying my entire face off wasn’t just a possibility but an inevitability. I have been known to sob like an infant during choir recitals to debate competitions when it is my kids on the center stage.

The wedding was beautiful, I cried like a wailing widow.   After the ceremony, I went to reapply my façade so I would not have to stand in the back row for pictures, I discovered there were no bathrooms with mirrors and I had no mirror in my purse. There were sani-huts, but no powder room to speak of as the wedding was hosted at a rustic barn. This bride was one of my triumphs and I was determined to have a picture of her and I on our wall of trophy’s at home. I was resolute. I did what any sane person would do and asked a stranger (from the grooms side) to apply my makeup behind the barn.

I should have looked at her maquillage skills before I handed her my greasepaint.  She did me up like Mimmi.

When called for pictures, this was the first time my girls noticed my face. Too kind to say anything to me for fear I had accomplished this feat by myself, they simply sent me to the back row and gave me a stiff drink. I got my picture and we will giggle about it for years.

Another boundless writing teacher (though sometimes X-rated) explains this trait in his own unique way. Introducing Chuck Wendig:

“You can’t force art.”

Google that phrase, you’ll get over 20,000 hits.

Many of them seem to agree with the notion that, indeed, you can’t force art.

Can’t do it. Can’t force art, creativity, innovation, and invention.

To which I say a strongly-worded:




I’ll posit that not only can you force art, but you in fact must force art.

Because art is not a magical power. Art is a result. It is a consequence of our actions, and the very nature of an action is that it is something we forced ourselves to do.

Read the rest of his rant/advice here:

Writing Exercise:

Write a story in the first person where you inordinately stepped out of your comfort zone to accomplish something. 500 words at least.