Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Not a Back-Burner Day

By Kelley Lindberg

I have few hours and many projects today. I’m working on two medical writing assignments, I’m teaching a junior high class about writing and settings, and I’m overdue for a blog post. It’s a simple fact that my creative writing must stay on the back-burner today. So what did I just do?

I wrote a poem.

There are days when the urge to write is easily lost amid the rubble and scree of daily obligations. And then there are days when the urge becomes urgent, and nothing can conspire to keep the words trapped in their little dark cages inside.

Those are the days we writers live for. The days when we remember that we are, in fact, writers, even when it seems more appropriate to be something else – something more pedestrian, like employees or spouses or parents.

So we spill out our words and gleefully watch them spread across the white page like a bloodstain, and we promise those noisy, daily obligations that they can have their way with us again tomorrow.

But not today. Today is not a back-burner day.

Today I write.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Grammar Trolling in Christmas Songs

By Kelley Lindberg

Ever wonder why Christmas carols get away with language and grammar we’d never use in ordinary conversation? Of course not. You have much better things to do with your time than that, such as dashing through the snow to the grocery store to buy those two dozen rolls your spouse volunteered to take to tomorrow’s company potluck lunch.

But just in case you’re sitting in the waiting room at the tire store while they put snow tires on your car and you need to read something that makes you say, “Hmmm” (besides three-year-old Sports Illustrated magazines), writer Arika Okrent kindly spent way too much time analyzing the language usage in a handful of favorite Christmas songs for the Mental Floss website. Check it out here: “6 Grammar Points to Watch Out For in Christmas Songs.” (Am I the only one bothered by the fact that the preposition “for” is capitalized in the title of an article about grammar? And let’s not even mention the fact that the numeral at the beginning of the title isn't spelled out. And isn't the word "Out" unnecessary? But I digress.)

I confess I was a little disappointed that she didn't even mention “wassailing.”

Next time you’re wandering through Target and “God Rest Ye/You Merry, Gentlemen” begins blasting for the eightieth time through the overhead loud speakers, I guarantee you’ll catch yourself listening.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Ten Writing Things I’m Thankful For

by Kelley Lindberg

Happy Thanksgiving! May your day be full of reasons to be grateful. Here are some of the writing-related things I'm thankful for today:
  1. Auto-correct.
  2. Brilliant authors who inspire me.
  3. Bad authors who reassure me.
  4. Chocolate, for that tiny reward at the end of a long day.
  5. Whoever figured out how to make decaf, for letting me have my ritual coffee while writing, even though I can no longer have caffeine.
  6. Word processors. While I remember the days of writing by hand, typing the final draft, and using white-out liberally, I am incredibly grateful that I no longer have to write that way. Incredibly. I mean it.
  7. Subplots that go nowhere. They teach me to be good at cutting.
  8. Characters that visit me in the middle of the night and pull me into their lives.
  9. Writing friends who don’t hesitate to say, “You can do better than this.”
  10. Words, for being fluid, nuanced, lyrical, double-edged, harsh, lush, biting, gorgeous, elusive, ringing, frustrating, rhythmic, and more fun than a barrel of monkeys to play with.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Comprise vs. Compose

By Kelley Lindberg

Pet peeves are funny. They start as barely-on-the-radar blips of something that seems a little off. Then a few more blips appear. And a few more. And pretty soon, the radar is lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree, and you’re pulling out your hair, screaming, “Enough already!”

The word “comprise” has become my newest pet peeve. Well, not the word itself – just the misuse of the word. I’ve been seeing it misused everywhere lately, in newspapers, books, websites, signs, you name it. Even some of my favorite authors have slipped, which means some of my favorite editors have, too.

Fair warning: the next person who writes “is comprised of” is going to find their online avatar replaced by the image of a smoking hole.

Yeah, I sound tough. But my computer-hacking skillz are infantile, so it’s an idle threat, at best. So, failing the more visually satisfying hacked-avatar plan, I figured I would just write about the difference between “comprised” and “composed” today.

They are NOT synonyms. Period.

For some reason, everyone suddenly seems to think “is comprised of” sounds way more sophisticated than “is composed of.” It’s nice that you want to go with sophistication, but misusing the word isn’t exactly accomplishing that for you.

What’s the difference?

My favorite way to think about the two words is this:

Composed = “is made up of.” You say, “The sum is composed of its parts.”

Comprises = “encompasses” or “contains.” You never, ever use it in the phrase “is comprised of” because you would never say “is encompassed of.” Never. Instead, you simply say, “The sum comprises its parts.”

Let’s try an example. You can say, “The team is composed of 56 players,” or “The material is composed of iron, basalt, and pudding.”

Now let’s say you’re really determined to use the word “comprise.” Try using the word “encompass” or “contain” first and see if that works: “The material is encompassed of iron, basalt, and pudding.” Nope. That doesn’t work at all. It also doesn’t work to say, “The team is contained of 56 players.”

So if you want to use “comprise,” you have to ditch the “is…of” construction and just use “comprises” all by itself. In other words, you’d say, “The material comprises iron, basalt, and pudding” and “The team comprises 56 players.” Bingo! That works.

Likewise, with “comprise” you can’t reverse the sentence’s order and say “Iron, basalt, and pudding comprise the material,” because the individual items don’t encompass or contain the material. It’s the other way around: the material contains the individual items. With comprise, the whole always comes first, because the whole can contain the parts, but the parts can’t contain the whole.

With compose, you CAN reverse the order, saying, “Iron, basalt, and pudding compose the material,” because it means, “Iron, basalt, and pudding make up the material.”

There are a host of longer explanations and examples in various grammar books and websites, but the simplest rule is just to remember that you never say “is comprised of.” If you’re trying to use the “is…of” construction, you HAVE to use “compose.”
  • “Is composed of” – great!
  • “Comprises” – great!
  • “Is comprised of” – smoking hole avatar
If you remember this one rule, you’ll be golden. If you don’t, I have a teenage computer-savvy son who can hijack your avatar, and I’m not afraid to use him.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Of Poetry, Poets Laureate, and Playgrounds

By Kelley Lindberg

I don’t consider myself a poet. In fact, most of my writing friends write novels, picture books, or nonfiction – not poetry. So I find it funny that of the four Utah Poets Laureate we’ve had since the position was created in 1997, I’ve known or met all of them. And what’s more, I’ve even known a national Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress – I took a course from Mark Strand when he was a professor at the University of Utah many years ago. (You know how they say everyone has a crush on a professor at some point in their college career? That voice, those eyes, his poetry – yeah. He was pretty crush-worthy at the time.)

Anyway, on Saturday I had the opportunity to participate in a short poetry workshop led by our current Utah Poet Laureate, Lance Larsen.

Me, receiving my first-place award for a YA novel
in the annual Utah Writing Competition.
Photo courtesy of Utah Div. of Arts & Museums
The workshop was part of the festivities planned around the award ceremony for this year’s Utah Writing Competition, hosted by the Utah Division of Arts and Museums (formerly the Utah Arts Council). Many of the other competition winners apparently decided to only show up for the award ceremony itself. But I jumped at the chance to immerse myself in poetry for an hour, even if whatever I scribbled might be deemed crap by even the least savvy third-grader in my neighborhood.

I had actually met Lance Larsen many years ago when he was part of the faculty at a writing conference I was helping organize. But this time, I had no official duties (other than to receive a first-place prize for my YA novel and to get my photo snapped – that was stressful enough), so I was able to sit, pen in hand, and enjoy Lance’s workshop.

I’m a huge fan of sharpening my writing chops by exploring “out-of-my-comfort-zone” writing styles. After all these years of writing and freelancing, I’ve learned that every type of writing, no matter how mundane or how far afield it may seem, strengthens me as a writer. Reading and writing poetry reawakens my ear to rhythm and my eye to color. Technical writing makes my prose tighter and more succinct. Fiction writing brings better story-telling aspects to my nonfiction articles. Experimental exercises in any genre stretch my boundaries and tap into my creative well.

So on Saturday, Lance had me struggling to describe the word “betrayal” without talking about betrayal. And channeling a seabird. And exploring the structure of repetition. (All that in a single hour, mind you.)

Poetry forces me to examine language (mine, yours, anyone’s) under a microscope. Or perhaps it’s more like cooking, where I try to heat and stir my words until they’ve produced a highly concentrated, richly flavored reduction – an essence of thought and emotion, rather than a full meal of story.

At the end of the workshop, I felt like a kid who’d just spent an hour diving into an overflowing toy box. And even more surprising, I found that one of the characters in my new novel was gleefully taking over my pen and putting his own voice onto the page for me.

Even though I don’t consider myself a poet, I do consider myself a writer. And that means I owe a debt of gratitude to Lance and poets like him who knock me out of my well-worn ruts every now and then to remind me that language is more than a tool. It’s a playground.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

It’s a Good Day to Write

By Kelley Lindberg

Not every day is a good day to be a writer. There are days I dread looking at my computer screen. Days I contemplate taking up a simpler hobby, like brain surgery. Days I delete everything I’ve written, then delete the backup, just to make sure.

But then there are days like last Saturday, when I attended an SCBWI workshop given by Alane Ferguson, author, speaker, ghost hunter, firecracker.

Alane (accompanied by her dear friend and great author Carol Lynch Williams) managed to wrangle 15 writers into a laughing community of committed writers. Or writers who should be committed. Or something. But we were laughing, and that was the important part.

And even better, each person in the room took away a solid belief that while their stories could all bear improvement (because there’s no such thing as a perfect story), each story had, in its heart, at least one sparkling gem of story-telling. And that meant each writer has, in his or her soul, at least one sparkling gem of talent.

Pretty nifty. It’s not easy showing a bunch of emotionally complex (that sounds better than “wacky,” doesn’t it?) writers that their stories are worth the struggle. Worth the computer storage space. Worth the backups. And that it’s okay to call ourselves writers. Out in public, even. In polite company.

I, for one, came away with some concrete feedback and ideas that I can incorporate immediately as I’m drafting my new novel. That alone energizes me and entices me back to the keyboard.

Yeah, today is a good day to be a writer. Thanks, Alane (and Carol).

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Breathing Life into Lackluster Beginnings

By Kelley Lindberg

Beginnings. They aren’t easy. You’d think they’d be. After all, that’s where every story starts. How hard can it be, really? You just jump in a start telling the story.

But many potentially good stories are stabbed through the heart by the dull wooden stake of a lackluster beginning.

The problem with most story beginnings is that that’s where we usually start writing, which means our writing for this particular story is not at its best yet. As the author, we’re just beginning to become familiar with our characters. The conflicts may be in our head, but they’re a tad murky. The plotline is often a moving target. Secondary plots and characters are just starting to appear on the sidelines, awaiting their chance to jump in. The voice this story wants you to use hasn’t yet solidified.

We’re tying on our dancing shoes, but the music hasn’t started yet.

(Yes, I’m mixing metaphors with wild abandon. It’s that kind of day.)

So it’s no wonder our beginnings are usually the weakest part of a first draft. Unfortunately, the beginning is also where agents, editors, and readers start their relationship with your story. If your beginning is weak, you will lose them. Period. You seldom get a second chance. So a stellar beginning isn’t just a nice thing, it’s an essential thing.

That’s why many authors will go back and rewrite/revise their beginnings after the entire novel is finished. By that point, you know the story intimately, you understand your characters and what they have at stake, and the voice you’re using for this story has become solid and strong and second-nature to you.

But even then, your beginning may still intimidate you. Maybe you know it feels slow, exposition-heavy, confusing, or cliched. But you’ve looked at it so many times, you can’t figure out what to cut or change or strengthen.

So here are some ideas to consider when eyeing your beginning. None of them are “rules.” They are just suggestions that might help you identify a path into reshaping that beginning into something worthy of the rest of your story.
  1. I like stories that start when something pivotal is happening. Don’t start me off with backstory. Don’t show me an ordinary day in the life of your character. Don’t drop me into the story right after something interesting has happened, so that your character has to bring me up to speed. Kick me right into the scene where something vital is changing, and let me see the heart of that change beating right there in front of me. It doesn’t have to be action-oriented (dropping us into a car chase doesn’t give us any foundation for why we should care), but it has to be a meaningful moment in the character’s world.
  2. Your story’s beginning is making me a promise that the rest of the story has to keep. Using character, conflict (stakes), setting, and voice, your beginning’s promise should give me a hint of what’s coming. In Beginnings, Middles, & Ends, Nancy Kress explains that there are two kinds of promises: an intellectual promise (you’ll learn something) or an emotional promise (you’ll experience something). If your beginning sounds like this will be a paranormal romance, and it turns out to be an intellectual thriller, or if your opening page was funny, but the rest of the story is serious and the humor disappears, your beginning lied to me, and I’m going to be frustrated, no matter how good the rest of the story turns out to be. It wasn’t what I was led to expect, so I’m going to feel let down.
  3. Your beginning should set the theme (main idea), tone, and framework for the story. Does it do all three currently? Could it do them better?
Look at the beginning chapters of some of your favorite books – the ones that grabbed you from the get-go. Do they make promises you’re eager to see them keep? How do the first few paragraphs hook you into the story? Then look at your own first few paragraphs and see if you are providing the same level of emotional impact. If not, you’ve got your first clues for what to change.

Need some brainstorming help? On Saturday, October 12, 2013, SCBWI is presenting a Writing Boot Camp with award-winning author and popular speaker Alane Ferguson, who will take your first 10 pages from your manuscript and show which components of your story are working, and which could be stronger. This day-long intensive workshop will be held at the Sons of the Utah Pioneers building, 3301 E 2920 S, Salt Lake City. For more details and to register for the workshop, see


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

For Reid

A spot on the sun
Dark, where once danced golden light
Absence carves deep holes

Thursday, September 19, 2013

So Apparently There’s This Thing Called the Internet

By Kelley Lindberg

The internet sent me a horoscope this morning:
You're eager for information on a particular subject and will go to great lengths to get it. Before heading off to the library, why not try an online search? You might find everything you need without leaving your chair. But your search might necessitate going to the primary source, so travel will be involved.
Really? Apparently there’s information on the internet, and it’s available to me, and all I have to do is search for it, and I don’t need to drive to the library to get it.

Wow. Next thing you know, it will tell me that the trusty card catalogues in my library have been replaced by…oh, I don’t know… a database or something.

This confirms my suspicions that all the horoscopes on the internet were actually written sometime in the 1980s and are just recycled every year.

Which makes one distrust the internet. Which makes one distrust internet searches. Which makes one consider going to the library instead. Which makes one stub one’s toe on the irony. Just a little. Especially since nothing guarantees the accuracy of information just because it’s bound in a book instead of fizzing electrons out there on the web.

Every once in a while, I try to imagine what it must have been like to be a writer before the internet was readily accessible. After about five seconds, I begin to hyperventilate. After ten seconds, I’m in a full-blown panic attack.

So thanks, internet horoscope, for making me thankful that I am a writer in the internet age, and not in the “Where the heck is that phone book, and why isn’t there a listing for ‘Portuguese chefs’ in it? Guess I’m off to the library now” age.

Although I must say, if the last sentence of the horoscope turned out to be true, that would be fine by me. I’m definitely up for some travel right now. Perhaps I could hunt down one of those Portuguese chefs… in Portugal.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Postcards from the Comic Con Edge

By Kelley Lindberg

Me and my son -- I mean Link -- at Comic Con.
Last week was the first Comic Con ever held in Salt Lake City and the first I’ve ever attended. Comic Con is a giant convention for fans of science fiction and fantasy held at numerous cities across the country every year. Although I think they started originally as conventions for comic book fans, they now cover a lot more territory: comic books, books, movies, TV shows, video games, board games, animation, robotics…if you love it, it’s there. At this one, there were panel discussions on everything you can imagine SF/fantasy geeks might want to discuss, talks from icons like William Shatner and Stan Lee, and an exhibition hall where vendors offered everything under the sun to keep your fan-heart thumping.

40,000 of my closest friends
Estimates range from 50,000 to 80,000 tickets sold for Salt Lake's 3-day Con, with more than 40,000 showing up on Saturday alone. They ran out of wristbands, swag bags, and other items after the first 2 days, and on Saturday the fire marshals weren’t letting new hordes in until old hordes left, even if you had pre-purchased tickets. They apparently turned away thousands of hopefuls who hadn’t yet purchased their tickets. I was there Saturday, with my teenage son and some friends. Yes, I’m still recovering!

Things I learned at Comic Con SLC 2013:

1) 40,000 is a lot of geeks in one place at one time.

2) I can still be reduced to a giggly, blushing teenager with a single wink from Adrian Paul. (Uh-oh, there I go hyperventilating again. Back in a minute.)

3) If you're a 14-yr-old boy dressed up as Link from the Legend of Zelda games, random girls will come up and hug you and ask for photos with you. Not one random girl. Not two random girls. MANY random girls. All day long.

4) Some people shouldn’t be allowed to buy Lycra. Ever.

William Shatner, live and larger than life simultaneously
5) William Shatner is still funny. Really funny. Putting Nimoy’s bike in the rafters? Oh, yeah!

6) Just because you have 2 yards of white belt/webbing doesn’t mean the rest of us want to see you wear it. Leeloo didn’t wear that the WHOLE movie, now did she? (But thanks for wearing the lime green panties. At least there was something between your skin and my burning eyeballs.)

7) Spending 2 hours standing outside in the sun to get into the building, even though you’ve already purchased a ticket, seems kind of insane. Especially for those of you dressed in full-body ninja gear, Wookie suits, full armor, or thick face-paint. But more power to you, because you did it. You wacky souls, you.

8) If you’re going to dress like Thor, you should probably be sporting 6-pack abs, not a keg. I’m just sayin’.

R2D2 gets a little maintenance. I kept waiting
for a hologram projection to appear. It didn't.
9) An awful lot of folks are amazingly creative. Some of the costumes were downright fantastic. Hats off to you (or helmets off, or Deadmau5 ears off, or masks off, or Loki horns off, or cyborg-glowing-eyed heads off, or…).

10) How scarring would it be to be at Comic Con with your family, and all of you are dressed up like sexy zombie nurses in miniskirts and fishnets -- even your dad?

11) Apparently not scarring at all, because the kids looked fine with it.

12) Some celebrities from the 1980s have aged really well. Some…well, they look a lot like the rest of us now, so that’s kind of cool, too.

13) Although I went into the convention thinking I’d go see some of the panel discussions that were focused on books and authors, I ended up just walking around for hours people-watching. You can’t make that stuff up.

14) The world is a funnier, happier place when people don’t take themselves seriously.



Wednesday, September 4, 2013

15 Ways to Celebrate National Be Kind to Writers and Editors Month

By Kelley Lindberg

You knew that September is Be Kind to Writers and Editors Month, right? Yes, that’s right. It’s that special time of year when we writers and editors break out our tiaras and get treated to free stuff all month long. You shouldn’t go to such trouble, of course, but it certainly is nice to know that you love us. You really love us!

That, and it makes up for the other eleven months of the year when we wear rejection like Marley’s chains.

If you’re like me, it’s exhausting trying to come up with new ways to celebrate Be Kind to Writers and Editors Month. I mean, how do you top last year’s nightly fireworks, swimming pools filled with champagne, and half-naked celebrity singing telegrams? That’s why I’ve put together a modest list of fresh ideas for celebrating this joyous month with the editors and authors who make your life richer every day of the year, whether you lose yourself in books, movies, podcasts, television commercials, fake online reviews, direct mail ads for life insurance, or all-natural recipes for bug repellant.
  1. Send your favorite author or editor on an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris and/or a tropical island so that they can research their next book.
  2. Buy every book on an entire bookshelf at your local independent bookstore.
  3. Use stacks of books to create all the furniture in your living room. (Imagine – a coffee table made entirely of coffee table books!)
  4. Plan your costume for the world-famous, bigger-than-Macy’s Be Kind to Writers and Editors Parade and Masquerade. (I’ve got dibs on J. K. Rowling, so find your own bazillionaire author to emulate.)
  5. Buy your favorite author or editor a Porsche. (I’d like a burgundy Boxter, please. Thanks.)
  6. Create a fabulous new dessert, cocktail, or coffee drink, and name it after an author or editor. Then send me the recipe. Or better yet, make it and bring it on over. We’ll share it.
  7. Stop posting anything funny, thought-provoking or entertaining – really, anything at all – on Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, Twitter or anywhere else online for the entire month, so we stop getting distracted from our writing. If we miss our deadlines because of a cute cat dressed in a shark costume riding a Roomba, it’s your fault. You know who you are.
  8. Don’t call, text, or email us either.
  9. Unless you want to take us to lunch or dinner. Then go ahead and call.
  10. At your local bookstore, turn your favorite author’s books so that the cover faces outwards, instead of just the spine.
  11. Loan a book to a friend. Or two. Or fifty.
  12. Dress up your kid as a literary figure and send them out trick-or-booking.
  13. Give only books for birthday and anniversary presents this month.
  14. Start every sentence with, “In this book I’m reading…”
  15. Stage write-in campaigns in local elections to get your favorite authors and editors elected to public office. So what if they don’t have any political experience? At least they’re used to producing work that has to make sense, without obvious plot-holes or egregious lapses in logic.
Remember, amid all the rampant commercialism and materialistic excess that often threatens to overwhelm Be Kind to Writers and Editors Month, we want you to know this: sometimes the best acknowledgement of our hard work is just a hug. Or a pat on the back. Or that Porsche.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Do Editors Really Hate Adverbs?

By Kelley Lindberg

[I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because most bots are boring, but bots that argue with you about grammar are disturbingly sexy.]

At some point in just about every writing workshop or conference, someone reminds someone else that adverbs (those notorious “-ly” words) are the devil’s own tools and should be hacked mercilessly from every manuscript. (You noticed I used an adverb there, right?)

Question: Do editors really hate adverbs?

Short answer: Pretty much, yeah.

Long answer: When it comes to adverbs being verboten, those immortal words of Captain Barbarosa leap to mind: “They’re not really rules. They’re more like guidelines.”

So here’s the thing about adverbs: They aren’t, in and of themselves, evil. It’s just that over-dependence on them can begin to look lazy. Or redundant. Or sloppy. Or inaccurate. Or clichéd. Or… fill in the blank with your own adjective. Adverbs are handy because they can modify a verb. That’s okay, except that it might let you get away with a less-than-stellar verb. Not okay.

Another reason to avoid adverbs is that if you use a word like “suspiciously,” you missed an opportunity to describe the body language that would have shown us the character’s “suspiciousness,” like narrowed eyes or crossed arms. Body language is far more interesting, unique, and personal than just an adverb that feeds us the generic emotion. I’d rather see how that character exudes suspicion, rather than having the author hand me the shortcut word “suspiciously.” That’s not visual at all, and I want to SEE that character!

If body language doesn’t get the job done, then interaction with another character might. By describing one character’s reaction to another, you can give us a better picture of both of their emotional states, which is far more intriguing than some over-used generic adverb.

The occasional adverb is fine – great even – if it truly is the best way to illuminate a sentence. But mix it up by using unexpected but spot-on verbs, participles, body language, dialogue, and interaction.

So, to continue our example, you could write:

“I’m not sure I believe you,” Sarah said suspiciously.

However, we've already established that the adverb “suspiciously” is generic, with a broad spectrum of how that might look on a person. Because we want to see how Sarah actually looks, acts, or feels in this particular situation, we could give her a bit of body language:
“I’m not sure I believe you,” Sarah said through tight lips.
That’s better, but can we do more with her body language to show what’s really going on here?
“I’m not sure I believe you,” Sarah said, slipping her hand to the hilt of her dagger.
Now let’s try showing some body language as well as some interaction with another character:

   “I’m not sure I believe you.”
   Sweat prickled the back of Gerald’s neck as he watched Sarah’s hand shift to the hilt of her dagger. “Yeah, Sarah, I can tell.”

Adverbs save a lot of time and words because they’re shortcuts. But as shortcuts, they often simplify everything too much, leaving us a little bored. The scenic route can be a lot more captivating. (Just ask Gerald.)
Adverbs can also be redundant. If we’d added “she said suspiciously” in the last example, it would have been a waste of effort, because the action in the scene shows us how Sarah feels. We don’t need to beat our readers over the head with a generic adverb just in case they missed the whole sweat-inducing dagger part – that’s just insulting. And a waste of word count.
On the other hand, sometimes the perfect adverb can tighten a sentence eloquently. (See what I did there? I used an adjective AND an adverb because economy of language was appropriate in that sentence. Whee!!)
Editors don’t hate ALL adverbs. They’re just tired of the lazy writing that happens when it’s riddled with ordinary adverbs instead of evocative description and taut emotion.
Adverbs, adjectives, participles, and other descriptors all carry the same caution: it’s not quite a crime punishable by death to use them, but be certain you apply them like a strong spice – wisely and sparingly – and make sure there isn’t a more riveting way to write life into your scene.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Joyfully Subversive in L.A.

By Kelley Lindberg

There I was last Thursday, walking along the sidewalk outside the terminal at the Los Angeles airport, following my printed instructions that explained how to find the SuperShuttle (note to SuperShuttle: there ARE no overhead orange signs saying “Shared Ride Vans”) until I finally stumbled across the SuperShuttle representative (still no orange signs). After I gave the helpful woman my name and reservation number, she radioed the van with the secret code for “don’t stop here for at least 20 minutes,” then she looked at my hair and said, “Is there something going on where everyone has to have purple hair?”

Right, I have a streak of purple in my hair this month. I’ve been adding color to my hair for a couple of years now, and I tend to forget about it until I catch my reflection in a plate-glass store-front window. And even then I sometimes fail to notice the color, because I’m busy disguising my horrified gasp as a coughing fit. Plate-glass store-front windows are not kind to women who are not 16-year-old gymnasts. (Trust me. It’s the window.)

So yeah, I have purple in my hair. But as far as I knew, I hadn’t accidentally staged a flash mob of purple-haired performance artists to converge on the LAX passenger pick-up area. Although I have to admit, it’s probably been done.

But I was in Los Angeles for the international conference of the Society of Children’s Books Writersand Illustrators. I explained to the SuperShuttle woman that over a thousand writers and artists were arriving in Los Angeles for this conference, and perhaps that crowd might contain a higher-than-average number of people with color in their hair.
Me, Jean Reagan, Neysa Jensen, and Bobbie Pyron
at SCBWI LA 2013

But what I really wanted to say was:

“This is L.A.! How does a bit of color in one’s hair stand out in L.A.?!”

Had she not noticed where she was working? Had she failed to see the staggering variety of the mostly (but perhaps not exclusively) human-shaped beings flowing past us on the sidewalk?

I mean, we writers and illustrators of books for young people might embrace our inner whimsy a little more freely than, say, accountants from Poughkeepsie (although I’ve known some pretty hip accountants in my day), but seriously, in L.A. – a town that canonizes plastic surgeons, where bodies are renovated from the ground up, where even the nearby shopping mall sported a sign saying “Pardon our dust – we’re having a little work done” – here of all places a lock of iris-colored hair raises an eyebrow?

She accepted my explanation with skepticism, clearly still hoping for a glimpse into an underground society of violet-haired revolutionaries wielding airline-approved carry-ons and shampoo in 3-ounce bottles.

But then I got to the hotel, made my way to the conference registration desk, and discovered something kind of wonderful.

I was surrounded by a society of revolutionaries wielding airline-approved carry-ons and shampoo in 3-ounce bottles. And some of them did, in fact, have violet tresses. Or scarlet. Or blue. Or yellow. Or blond or black or brown or gray. And we were all there for one reason:

To subvert the children.

Matt de la Pena signed a book for my son, even though
neither of them has colored hair.
Every one of us at that conference writes or draws or edits or (even worse) sells subversion. We lure those precious young people, from babes to impressionable teens, into that most dangerous land: Imagination. We write and illustrate them into places where they can explore and think and dream and think and love and think and cry and think and tremble and think and triumph and think and escape and maybe even think some more.

And we do it gladly, with everything we have within us. With or without colored hair.

And the children thank us.

Muchas gracias to everyone who organized SCBWI LA 2013. The speakers were luminous, inspiring, and laugh-out-loud funny. The workshops were enlightening and invigorating. My fellow attendees were friendly and supportive, and it was great to reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. And the party was, well, a party! Congratulations to my wonderful roomie Jean Reagan, who received the Crystal Kite award for her picture book How to Babysit a Grandpa. (And a shout-out to my other roomie extraordinaire, Bobbie Pyron, author of The Ring, A Dog's Way Home, and The Dogs of Winter!)

Now I’m back home in Utah, my purple hair still proclaiming my subversive nature. I am inspired. Stand back, everyone. I have a keyboard in front of me, and I’m not afraid to use it.



Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Metaphysical Marketing, or “Wait, What?”

By Kelley Lindberg

My friend and author Sydney Salter recently returned from a trip to Japan, and she brought me a Japanese treat to try – a banana-filled pastry (think Twinkie shaped like a small banana, made with rice flour and real banana filling). Produced by a company called Tokyo Banana, the pastry was incredibly light and tasty.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this small delicacy was its packaging. Each pastry was wrapped individually, with lots of Japanese labeling all over it – presumably ingredients, a telephone number, a bullet list of who-knows-what information. The only English on the entire package is a small logo that says “From Tokyo to All Over the Country Since 1991” and some extremely fine print on the front that says:
“People gather to TOKYO from here and there with memories of their home. And then, TOKYO gets everyone’s home town.”
 So that’s the only English on the whole package. Not something that might say – I’m just brainstorming here – “Banana-filled cake” or even “Cake being of like to a banana” (assuming it was translated by Google Translate). No, not that. Instead, it’s apparently a lot more important to warn you that TOKYO is going to steal your home town. Or something. I’m still not quite sure what it means. But it sounds vaguely sinister, doesn’t it? Not really the sort of slogan that’s going to make a lot of English-speaking tourists plunk down a fistful of yen when they’re hankerin’ for a snack.

Or maybe it is. Maybe the Tokyo Banana company has hit on a marketing goldmine. Perhaps what our own country needs is a lot more food that ignores the fact that it’s food, and focuses instead on deep meaningful concepts like memories and territorial disputes.

After all, Sydney bought the banana-cake, and I happily ate it. And, heaven help me, I’d eat another one if I stumbled across it somewhere. Even if it's in my home town. Call me a traitor.

Just imagine if all our marketing messages were metaphysical in nature. Instead of wasting time printing “breaded chicken tenders” on a package that obviously contains breaded chicken tenders, perhaps the manufacturer should say “Stars flash and sparkle, and then die in a magnetic rainbow of pulsing energy, creating new memories.” Or how about “Everyone sings happy songs to shame small birds to greater glory.” No wait, I’ve got it: “Limitations drift away like dandelion seeds meant for the neighbor’s pristine yard. Deal with it.”

Metaphysical marketing slogans – a whole new career field for writers. And remember, “dreams, like skateboards, can injure you with fun.”


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Are Your Settings Stuck In a Rut?

by Kelley Lindberg

As humans, we often fall into ruts. We go to the same place for lunch more than we should admit. We read the same types of books and watch the same types of TV shows. We shop at the same stores and rotate through the same recipes for dinner every week.
As writers, we fall into ruts, too. If our protagonist is a teenager, we’re probably going to put them in the usual slate of teenage-appropriate settings, like the mall, the school, and a big party at someone’s house. If we’re writing a traditional fantasy, there’s probably going to be a castle, a long journey with at least one stop at a road-side inn filled with menacing-looking customers, and some dark woods. An urban tale will involve several scenes at a coffee shop and maybe a poetry slam. A contemporary mystery will no doubt include a back alley, a police station, a slick-looking office building, and an ordinary-looking suburban house thrown in for that “everyman” feel.
What’s more, once we’ve written one scene in one of those locations, we generally find our character returning to that same location over and over throughout the story.
But is that really the best choice?
Can something as simple as changing the locale breathe new life into a scene? It just might. And it might do more than just give your story a fresh background – by changing the setting, you can enrich the atmosphere, strengthen obstacles, deepen tensions, or even enhance the characters and their motivations.
For example, imagine if you moved your awkward first kiss scene in your contemporary YA novel from the front seat of a beat-up Camry (ordinary) to the catwalk over the high school stage during a performance of Spamalot (a little more unusual). How did they get there? The chances of them getting caught in a fairly spectacular way just went up significantly – does that heighten the tension?
Or let’s move your urban werewolf out of his typical nightclub hangout (been there, done that) and into an evening class called “The Secrets of Sushi” being taught at the local community college. His goal is still the same – nab the curvaceous beauty in the red dress – but the obstacles he has to overcome have just changed in a refreshing departure from the usual “denizen of the night” stalking sort of way. Maybe you needed an element of comedy (the werewolf must elude campus parking enforcers), irony (he really wants to like sushi, but raw fish just doesn’t satisfy his cravings like raw human meat does), or a more humanizing aspect (he just wants to take classes at the college like a normal person for once).
Whether you’re just planning your story or you’ve already completed a draft, making a list of potential settings you haven’t considered can be a very interesting exercise. It’s especially helpful if you find your character inhabiting what you consider “typical” locales or if your character returns to the same locale for multiple scenes.
If you’ve already started outlining or drafting your story, make a list of all the locations you have used so far. Are they primarily “typical” settings? Are there repeats that don’t have to be repeats? Some repeats are necessary – returning to the scene of a crime, for example – but if your hero and his partner are discussing aspects of the crime, do they always have to be in the car or at the police station? Can they be in the back row of the movie theater while the hero’s kid watches the latest Disney movie? Can that simple change reveal something about the crime that the hero hasn’t considered yet (say, the nearly-hidden projection booth gives him an idea of how the villain escaped)?
The setting shouldn’t just be novel for the sake of novelty, however. Like everything else in your story, it should also work towards revealing character and/or increasing tension (preferably both).
Now forget about the locations you’ve already used. Make a new list of all the possible places this character might go. Try to come up with at least 30 different places (bonus points for more!). Start with the commonplace (school, grocery store, work, park, mall), but then move on to more unusual places that would still be reasonable for this character to go to (indie movie theater, arts festival, announcer’s booth in a football stadium, hiking trail, top of a skyscraper, cave, historic battlefield, zip line, etc.).
Next, see if you can move any of your scenes to one of those non-ordinary places. How will the emotions of the scene change? What can the new setting do for your characters or for their obstacles? Does the new setting enrich the scene or detract from it? Evaluate each one carefully. Not sure? Draft the scene multiple times, using a different setting each time. One will begin to call to you.
Then take a deep breath, leave the ruts behind, and blaze a refreshingly new trail for your story.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Choosing Character Names

By Kelley Lindberg

Choosing a name for your character is every bit as important – and sometimes as difficult – as choosing a name for your child.

There are plenty of criteria for choosing the right name. You want the name to be memorable, for one. It should also be easy to say (or read). Giving your alien sidekick the name Skzgx14sky may look cool, but it’s awfully hard to pronounce, even in your head. And it’s a pain to type – keep that in mind if you’re going to be referring to this character a lot in your novel.

Some other things to keep in mind when choosing a name include whether it’s time-period appropriate (“Starshine” probably wasn’t a common name in the Civil War), and characteristic of your character’s ethnic or geographic background. There are websites that list common names for various languages or cultures if you need ideas for authentic names. If the name is for an alien or fantasy character, would it be pronounceable with the alien’s facial (or other sound-producing) features?

Does your character’s name start with the same letter as another major character’s name in the story? I hate reading stories where there’s a John, a James, a Joan, and a Jean – I’m constantly confusing the characters. Avoid using the same first letter more than once, even if you think the names are pretty different from each other. In other words, even though Sarah and Samantha have a different number of syllables, our brains are still going to lump them together because of the initial “S” sound (and especially because they both end in “a”). Change one to Roberta or Kristin, pretty please! Just that single change goes a long way towards eliminating confusion.

Are there meanings or connotations you want the character’s name to represent – or avoid? Pick up a “Baby Names” book (or search baby name websites) to see the meanings of thousands of names. Some might surprise you. (For example, “Kelley” means “brave warrior.” That right there is what you might call irony. I’d be the first casualty in any battle scene, easy.)

Think about the sound of the name – harder vowels and consonants may sound stronger, more abrupt, harsher. A powerful bad guy is going to sound tougher with the name Kyle Trent than with the name Leonard Memmon. Softer, more melodious names will match softer, more melodious characters. On the other hand, giving a bad guy a softer name might be just the extra little red herring you were looking for.

A recent study at the University of Chicago (and described in the San Francisco Chronicle:Parents’ Baby Name Choices Linked to Political Leanings”), suggests that conservatives prefer baby names that start with those stronger, hard consonants like K, T, B, and D, and well-educated conservatives go with traditional names like Mary or Elizabeth. On the other hand, liberals choose names that start with softer sounds like L and often end in A sounds (like Sophia and Laura), and well-educated liberals go with more unusual, but established names. Less-educated parents often choose alternate spellings or make up entirely new names. So you might even want to take your character’s political leanings and educational background into account when you give him or her a name.

A well-chosen name can telegraph a lot of information about your character. The trick is making sure it’s the information you intended. But all of that information telegraphing is moot if you end up with a name you’re not fond of. The name must fit your character and feel completely natural to you. Don’t hesitate to try out several names until you find the one you love. The Search and Replace feature in word processing software is our friend.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Words, Ideas, Fireworks, and Other Powerful Forces

By Kelley Lindberg

Today we’re celebrating the 4th of July. Usually, if we spend any time at all considering why we are celebrating this holiday, we think of the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence.
But this year, July 4 falls the day after the 150th anniversary of the Union victory at the horrific Battle of Gettysburg, the event generally considered to be the major turning point in the Civil War that eventually led to the re-solidifying of both the United States and the concept of democracy.
Four and a half months after this crucial battle at the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which left between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers dead (from both sides) and effectively halted Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North, President Abraham Lincoln gave a short speech at a dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery to honor the dead Union soldiers.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is often considered one of the greatest American speeches ever given. He gave his address after a speech by Edward Everett, whose two-hour oration was supposed to have been the official “Gettysburg Address.” By contrast, Lincoln’s speech was listed on the program as merely “Dedication Remarks, by the President of the United States.” But while no one remembers or even recognizes Everett’s lengthy speech, every American can at least recite the first few words of Lincoln’s short, ten-sentence speech: “Four score and seven years ago…”
There are at least five different versions of Lincoln’s speech, all with slight variations (writers never stop tinkering), and at the time his words were greeted with widely different responses from different newspapers and critics. Some thought it was succinct and poignant. Others thought it was simply too short to have been any good.
But after reading his speech again yesterday, for the first time in years, I am struck by the sheer brilliance of his ideas, his intent, and his emotions, and I’m astounded at his ability to sum up a war, its devastation, and its meaning for the future of our country and humanity with so few words.
It’s said that the ability to read and write well help develop a higher level of thinking. The more command we have over language, the more penetrating and rich our ideas can become. Language paves the way for creativity and higher-order ideas. Lincoln’s speech demonstrates how the two go hand-in-hand.
In an era when the bulk of our communications seem to consist of emoticons and abbreviations (LOL), are we abbreviating our ideas and emotions, too? When was the last time we penned an email in which we carefully analyzed our thoughts and expressed them so carefully that others were moved by them, instead of just forwarding the latest sound-bite pithy slogan designed merely to inflame or amuse, but not really to inform or – heaven forbid – call to explore more deeply? When we write well, we order our thoughts and ideas into logical progressions. By doing that, we may notice the gaps we’re ignoring that require new thinking. Or perhaps we see where our own arguments break down, and we make space for alternate ideas. Or maybe we see the pieces slide together into a perfect whole, and we can express those ideas in new ways that will cast them in a new, more thoughtful light.
But if we let a generation of students move away from in-depth writing and reading, what does that bode for our own future? Will higher-level thinking wither as the ability to order our thoughts into effective written arguments is de-valued? Are we headed into a new Dark Age?
The courageous ideas of Abraham Lincoln, expressed in a handful of passionate, deeply-felt words, helped pull a country out of its Dark Age once. Our world could use a few more thinkers like him right now.
Here is the entire text for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (from the Bliss version of the text, to which he signed his name, although there are slight variations from other versions):
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Good News and Bad News about Writing at Home

By Kelley Lindberg

I’ve been doing freelance writing from home for fifteen years, and I absolutely love it. But working at home isn’t for everyone. Plenty of people I know freely admit that they lack self-discipline, and that they would miss the structure or the social environment of a regular workplace. So I’ve come up with a handy list of some Good News/Bad News aspects of writing from home. What are yours?

The good news: You can start a crockpot of food in the morning, and it will be done when you’re ready for dinner.
The bad news: You have to smell the food cooking all afternoon, driving you to distraction with hunger.

The good news: You are your own boss.
The bad news: It’s embarrassing to complain about your unreasonable boss.

The good news: You’re home when the kids are home.
The bad news: Good luck trying to get anything done while the kids are home.

The good news: You have hours of uninterrupted time in which to write.
The bad news: Except for all the household tasks that fall to you because you’re “at home all day,” the well-meaning friends who want to meet you for lunch and/or coffee and/or a workout at the gym and/or a shopping trip to the mall, the unsolicited phone calls, and all those daytime appointments with doctors, bankers, contractors, teachers, or whoever else gets to work during the day so that you can’t.

The good news: You have complete control over your priorities.
The bad news: Your priorities are screwed up. (Why did I just waste two hours rearranging the icons on my desktop?)

The good news: You can do laundry anytime.
The bad news: You can do laundry anytime.

The good news: You can write in your pajamas.
The bad news: The UPS guy looks at you funny when you answer the door at 3:00pm in your pajamas.

The good news: No one sees you cry when you watch that heart-wrenching YouTube video.
The bad news: Since no one saw you, you click on the next video, too. And the next one. And…

The good news: You have plenty of quiet time to think.
The bad news. It’s too quiet. And there’s not enough thinking going on. Why is that, exactly?

The good news: No commute.
The bad news: The refrigerator is way too close.

The good news: You learn a lot about self-discipline.
The bad news: You begin to suspect you don’t have any.

The good news: No office politics.
The bad news: Nope, I got nothing here. No office politics is AWESOME!

The good news: You finally have the time to devote to your chosen passion.
The bad news: Your chosen passion = potentially sketchy (or worse, nonexistent) paychecks.

The good news: If you have the mindset for it, writing at home can be wonderful.
The bad news: If you don’t have the mindset for it, writing at home can be horrible. Don't do it just because you think it's what you're supposed to do. Find your own source of happiness, and make it work for you.


Friday, May 31, 2013

100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know

By Kelley Lindberg
Ten years ago, the editors of the American Heritage dictionaries created a book called 100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know.
It’s a humbling list.
I only knew 75 for sure. As a writer, I hang my head. I decided to go through the whole list in the dictionary, whether or not I knew the definition, to see how I accurate I really was. That was an interesting experience. It turns out that some of the words I thought I knew were slightly off – some, like facetious and vehement, I was mostly right, but I’d assigned them a more negative connotation in my head than their real definition indicates. Several words I thought I knew, but it turns out I was wrong and have apparently been happily reading them incorrectly all these years. And with a few, I knew half the definition, but was unaware of the other half (tectonic, for example – I knew it in relation to segments of the earth’s crust, but it also means architectural or building-related, which I didn’t realize).
I thought some of the words were awfully self-serving to the American Heritage writers, heavily weighted towards wordsmithing and spelling (orthography—give me a break!, circumlocution, loquacious, nomenclature, lexicon, taxonomy). Some of the words I thought were also kind of overly scientific – I wonder how many of the dictionary writers involved actually could recite the definitions of polymer and parabola correctly, because they involve some rather specific scientific explanations to define accurately. I wonder if they just selected 100 words at random, feeling that the average American should just know them. It would be interesting to randomly pick 100 words ourselves from the American Heritage and see how we would do with those.
Anyway, it was a fun exercise, and I feel like I got to boost my writerly education today. So I thought I’d share! If you’re interested, here is the original press release and the list of 100 words those editors think we should all know.
100 Words That All High School Graduates — And Their Parents — Should Know
BOSTON, MA — The editors of the American Heritage® dictionaries have compiled a list of 100 words they recommend every high school graduate should know.

"The words we suggest," says senior editor Steven Kleinedler, "are not meant to be exhaustive but are a benchmark against which graduates and their parents can measure themselves. If you are able to use these words correctly, you are likely to have a superior command of the language."

The following is the entire list of 100 words:

laissez faire



Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What Teachers Want from Authors (and Vice Versa)

By Kelley Lindberg

April found me in Boise, Idaho, at an SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) regional conference that was held in conjunction with a conference for teachers. One of the best results of the combination, for me, was a panel discussion at the end of the conference that included teachers, writers, an editor, and an agent. The topic was “What do teachers want authors to know, and vice versa?”

It was clear that there is a strong relationship of mutual admiration between teachers and writers, who thanked each other profusely during the discussion for connecting kids with reading. But there were also a few specific suggestions that I thought were definitely worth passing on to authors who write for young people. Here are three of my favorites:
  • “Maybe authors could include a note at the end of the book describing particular writing techniques they used in their books.”
  • “We’d like to see videos on your writing process, how you work, etc.”
  • “Kids still love to get paper mail, because the kid knows the author actually touched that paper! Always reply back when a kid writes to you.”
My son with author John Flanagan in 2011
(My son wore the Ranger costume he created for a
school book report/presentation on one of
Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice books.
Mr. Flanagan was delighted.)
Some middle grade and young adult books are starting to include supplementary information at the end, such as book club discussion points, or the author’s comments on historical information they mined for the story, or an interview with the author. But that’s not common enough yet. It appeared from the panel discussion that teachers would welcome more book-specific information like that to help them make their curriculum more accessible. And if it can’t be contained within the book, teachers and students seem willing to go to an author’s website to find that sort of educational tie-in.

My son with author Heather Brewer, at a school visit in 2011
 As more and more classrooms become technology-capable, there is a growing opportunity for authors to reach students with videos, photos, blog posts, or podcasts that explain different aspects of the story or the writing process. (Obviously, that goes for authors who write for adults, too.) If you’ve ever gone to an author’s book signing or reading and watched kids approach them with something like awe, and then watch them leave with big grins on their faces, you know how amazing it can be for a child to meet an author. They suddenly see the author as a real human being – someone who maybe struggled in school, or who wrote 37 revisions of the book before finally selling it to a publisher, or who, like the kid, just happens to have a deep love of dogs or pizza or Dr. Who.

My niece with favorite author Sydney Salter
That human connection brings the dazzling heights of authordom down to a more personal, “hey, maybe I can do that, too!” realm. And that is a magical moment. With technology, those magical moments can happen anywhere, anytime. While nothing will replace an actual author visit to a school where kids can shake an author’s hand and watch them sign a book for them specifically (or a paper letter that the author actually touched!), technology can still show unequivocally that the author is human, real, and not that much different from the rest of us. And a quick lesson on an aspect of writing might make more of an impression coming from a favorite author than it would coming from a teacher. Every step helps.

Connecting with readers is essential for an author. Sometimes we forget how important it can be for the readers, too -- especially when those readers are young and still capable of believing in dreams.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Keys to a Good Mystery

By Kelley Lindberg

So there’s this set of keys. Four of them, to be exact. They’re on a simple ring, along with a shopper’s discount card and a membership card to a gym. Yesterday evening, I pulled them out of the outside pocket of my purse.

The thing is, they’re not mine.
I texted all the friends I’ve seen in the last few days. None of them is missing a set of keys. I asked my husband. He suspects the pool-boy. However, we have no pool, i.e., no pool-boy.

This morning, I stopped by the gym (which I’ve never belonged to) and asked them to scan the card. They did. It’s an invalid account, so there’s no name in their system.

I called the shopper’s discount store, and got transferred into black holes several times. I finally hung up, took a photo of the keys, and posted it on Facebook.

So far, nothing.

I’m quite worried.

According to all the best-selling thrillers, within the next 24 hours, this innocuous little set of keys is going to lead me headlong into a mega-conspiracy involving corrupt politicians, international assassins, a wise-cracking computer hacker, an earnestly flawed and extremely good-looking detective, a femme fatale, a hard-bitten FBI agent or two, and possibly a werewolf who may or may not have a day job as a pool-boy (I’m thinking Matthew McConnaughey).

But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that as the plot unfolds messily around me, I’ll find myself trapped in a windowless room without a cell phone at least once, thrown into a car trunk, shot in a non-essential and mostly bloodless body part, and threatened by a leering bad guy with a dramatic sense of confessional storytelling. And all that’s after I’ve tripped over a tree trunk and twisted my ankle, of course, as all females must do when we’re being chased. It’s chromosomal. We can’t help it.

Of course, the good news is that I’ll find an important computer, guess the password in three tries, access a remarkably user-friendly and large-print software program that automatically displays crucial crime-related files, and download it all to my one trusted ally (the wise-cracking computer hacker). But when the wise-cracking computer hacker turns out to be the international assassin’s long-lost son, I’ll be torn between doing the right thing (reuniting father and son) and the other right thing (saving millions of innocent lives, thwarting the international security meltdown, and turning the assassin over to the FBI/CIA for justice).

I do NOT have time for this. I have work to do. I have deadlines. And my husband will not appreciate a flirtatious, good-looking detective (or pool-boy) hanging around the back door.

So whoever belongs to these keys… could you please just call me so I can give them back to you?


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

My Love Affair with Writing Conferences

by Kelley Lindberg

This weekend, I’m headed off to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) regional conference in surprisingly vibrant Boise, Idaho, with two wonderful writing friends. I’m attending this conference as a participant rather than as a presenter, which means I get to focus on enjoying myself. What a treat!

I’ve been involved with planning, running, and speaking at many writing conferences over the years, and I’ve become a big fan of them. I absolutely believe that attending writing conferences can be one of the best things a writer can do for his or her writing life and career. Every conference is different, but most offer a gamut of panels, presentations, and workshops that cover craft, inspiration, and the publishing industry itself. At a writing conference, you can:
  • Hone your writing craft and advance your writing skills in specific areas (such as dialogue, plot, conflict, character development, or humor)
  • Get inspired and energized
  • Learn tips for getting your work noticed by agents or editors
  • Hear what’s working for other writers
  • Experience “a-ha!” moments as you consider your work-in-progress in light of what you hear in the sessions
  • Identify weaknesses and strengths in your work-in-progress, which can help you find direction in your revision phase
  • Realize you’re not the only loony person who thinks agonizing over a particular verb is a productive way to spend an hour.
  • Add new titles to your “must-read-soon” list
  • Pay for a publishing professional, usually an editor, agent, or successful author, to give you a 15-minute manuscript consultation, which seldom leads to a sale, but almost always gives you an unbiased opinion on how your writing is coming together in that piece. (And yes, every once in a while, the stars align, and a writer and agent find each other and it’s a match made in heaven.)
  • Meet editors and agents
  • Meet other writers or illustrators
Those last two bullets are some of the most important. The chance to meet other writers, editors, and agents is one of the most important opportunities of a writing conference. Even though the editors and agents at a particular conference may not be right for your work (or vice versa), you can still learn insider tips from them, and they may become part of your network that eventually leads to someone who is. And meeting other writers can be the best part of all – at a minimum, you may find a fun lunch companion for a day or two during the conference. Even better, you might find someone to join you in a critique group, or a kindred spirit who eventually becomes a dear friend, or a networking contact who can put you in touch with professionals who may someday boost your career.

Confession time: I admit that every once in a while, I’ll return from a conference a little discouraged. Being around so many good writers and so much information can be overwhelming, and it’s tempting to give into the “I’ll never be good enough” mindset. But I’ve found that if I give it a few days, little ideas will start to spark in my head when I least expect them: “Maybe I could make my character try this,” or “I wonder what would happen if I changed that.” And pretty soon, I’m back in the saddle and tackling my writing not only with renewed energy, but with new ideas for strengthening it that I’d have never thought of if I hadn’t gone to the conference.

One of my New Year’s resolutions this year was to attend a writing conference as a participant instead of as a speaker, because I feel the need to reconnect with my own energy and enthusiasm as a writer. (I’ve signed up for two so far!) Life has a tendency to pull us in many stressful directions, and it’s appallingly easy to become focused on anything and everything but our creative life. So for me, spending a couple of days surrounded by other wonderfully maladjusted writers seems like the perfect tonic for my creative spirit.

Do you gain something from writing conferences that I haven’t thought of? If so, share it with us in the Comments.

And I’ll see you in Boise.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Top 10 Ways Not to Start a Story

by Kelley Lindberg

I’ve done a fair amount of judging for various writing contests. After a while, it becomes clear that there are some default ways that writers sometimes introduce their stories. Maybe they read one like it and got it caught in their brain as being “the way to write a story,” or they tried it once in a writing course as an exercise, or they just couldn’t think of anything better.

I thought I’d jot down some of the story beginnings that I have seen far too many times, and let you know that if you’re using one of these openings, you might want to look for a fresh beginning to your story instead.

These ways to introduce a story might have worked once, but either they lose our interest immediately, or they have been overdone to the point of cliché. Avoid them like the plague. Ha. (Cliché, get it?)

1. In a dream

2. Looking at someone in a photograph

3. In the main character’s backstory (we can learn his history later, if it matters, but don’t start with a history lesson!)

4. On an ordinary day, when nothing unusual is happening, and things aren’t about to change

5. Someone looking at him/herself in a mirror

6. With a long description that might show us the setting, but doesn’t introduce us to the character or his/her problem (this used to work, but modern readers don’t have the patience for it now)

7. With the focus on a character who turns out not to be the main character

8. Right after something interesting has happened (“I can’t believe I survived that train wreck…”)

9. With a cliché

10. “Once upon a time…” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

UPDATE (4/24/13): Here are some more pet peeves:

11. (From Kaylie): Waking up.

12. (From Kaylie): In the middle of a car chase.

13. (From Danelle): Describing the weather in detail.

Do you have some other “Intro Pet Peeves”? If so, share them with us in a Comment!