Expert Advice on Writing

I have a confession to make. I’m no expert. On writing, or anything else, for that matter. But I love reading all the how-to books and articles on writing. I’ll read the expert advice, thinking, oh, I could do that. Or, that makes sense, I’ll try it.

In fact, I typically have a book on writing craft open all the time. Currently, I’m reading through Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich. Some of my all time favorites are On Writing, by Stephen King and Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. I think it might be time to reread both of them.

There are a lot of books and articles offering advice on how to write. Besides the books and the magazines, there are countless blogs offering all sorts of writing tips, from the basic how-to’s of fiction to why writers should embrace their mistakes. And if I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned there are as many ways to write as there are writers.

It can be all too easy to get caught up in all the learning. I’m guilty of this myself. Not that there’s anything wrong with all those books and blogs. I’ll go on reading them. There does, however, come a point when reading all the advice and how-to’s needs to become something more.

My “expert” advice then, is to go ahead, read all the books. Read the blogs. Read them again. But don’t stop there. Act on it. Learn from it. Find out if it works for you. Or why it doesn’t work for you.

Alternately, you could scrap the whole lot of it. Don’t read any more advice on writing. Step out and forge your own path. Don’t worry, someone’s been there before too.

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
– Ernest Hemingway

Classified Woman: The Sibel Edmonds Story – A Review

For the 2016 Reading Challenge, I was tasked with reading a book chosen for me by my spouse, partner, sibling, child or BFF. I decided to ask my younger sister to choose one for me. I chose her because of all those listed, I knew her reading choices would be the most unlike my own.

My sister and I share some similar views, but in many ways we differ in our approach to life. I have a great deal of respect for my sister’s intelligence, strength and courage, and I love that we can gracefully disagree – now that we are adults.

All that to say, I knew that whatever book she chose for me to read would challenge me somehow. It would stretch me, and force me outside my normal experience. And I was not wrong. The book she chose for me did all that and more. She chose Classified Woman: The Sibel Edmonds Story, a memoir by Sibel Edmonds.

This book documents the story of Turkish-American immigrant, Sibel Edmonds, who shortly after 9/11 began working for the FBI as a translator. During her tenure with the FBI she encountered sloppy investigations, abuse of government power and resources, blatant cover-ups and security breaches.

When she attempted to report these things to her supervisors, she was repeatedly shut down. Not satisfied with the answers she was getting regarding the potential national security risk she’d uncovered, she pressed up the chain of command even when it became obvious there were bigger forces at work that wanted the situation to simply disappear.

Ms. Edmonds writes with a compelling intensity, documenting her surreal tale of retaliation and injustice. This book reads in parts like a suspense novel, fast-paced and incredibly intense. The problem is, it isn’t fiction.

After being fired from the FBI, Ms. Edmonds continued to fight to have her story heard. She faced stall tactics, shut doors, and even outright threats. She was shut down by the “State Secrets Privilege”. Eventually, her case was presented to the Supreme Court of the United States, only to be once more turned away.

Over the course of nearly a decade, Ms. Edmonds has fought continuously to be heard, to bring to light the corruption and breaches within the American system. Despite her own personal losses – or perhaps because of them – she formed the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition in order to help others facing similar situations. In 2006 she was awarded the PEN Newman First Amendment Award for her efforts in defending the first amendment rights of all Americans. She continues to work toward getting truth out to the public on her website, Boiling Frogs Post.

I would challenge every American to read this book. It’s more than a little disturbing to face a story such as this one, but I think it’s an important one to read, to bear witness to the truth.

Miniature Love

My grandmother was a pretty amazing lady. And famous within her circles for some things, like cinnamon rolls, amazing pie crusts and peanut brittle. Her home was always filled with yummy smells from the kitchen.

I didn’t manage to get half her skills with cooking or baking. I can’t make cinnamon rolls or a pie crust to save my life, and my house never has that crazy delicious smell of a roast in the oven. But I can make a decent cheesecake.

She also kept a beautiful and tidy flower bed filled with happy colors, and houseplants thrived under her care. I on the other hand, couldn’t keep a cactus alive in a desert. And my yard? Well, let’s just say I’m happy to be able to keep the dandelions trimmed.

There is one thing, however, that I do share with my grandmother. I like to think I inherited my love of teddy bears from my grandmother. She had a remarkable collection of the cuddly little critters. She would shift them around throughout the year, something for every season and every occasion.

I’ve collected teddy bears as well for many years, nearly as long as I can remember. I’d venture to say my collection might even rival my grandmother’s. I have some bears that once belonged to her, and I cherish them especially.

One other thing I think I shared with my grandmother. She had a love for hand crafts. Quilting, sewing, fun little crafty projects. She gave me my first embroidery and cross-stitch kits, sparking a lifelong love for needle crafts.

MiniBear1Several years ago these two interests merged when I discovered a book on how to make miniature teddy bears. I began collecting plush fabrics – velvets, felts, scraps in all colors. I went into a bit of a frenzy creating these adorable little minis.

I haven’t created any new teddy bears in the last several years, not since I got married, moved to a new city and started a family. I still have a rather extensive collection of fuzzy fabric, and I do hope to one day begin turning it again into tiny teddy bears.

American Privilege and the Global Experience

As Americans we are not encouraged to be globally minded. We are taught in school how America is such an important nation in the world, and how great we are as a country because of our unique democratic government. But are we truly as great as we claim?

I had the privilege during my university years of becoming friends with a woman from India. Having attended a British boarding school in India during her early years, her English was probably better than mine. Besides English, she could speak at least two Indian languages and perhaps others as well. The same age as me, she had already traveled to a number of countries before coming to the United States to attend university.

My own experience to that point was so vastly different. Born and raised an American citizen, fifth generation born in my home state, I was taught to believe I was privileged beyond that of other people living in other countries. I had never once stepped foot outside my own country before I went to college. Not for lack of interest necessarily, but certainly a lack of means. And I had experienced only a tiny fraction of my own country even, having been to only four of the fifty states.

I spoke only English. In my small home town, I had the opportunity to learn to speak French, and I chose not to do so. In college I started to learn Spanish, though I never came near to reaching fluency.

I remember there being a number of foreign exchange students in my high school, though regrettably, I never got to know any of them very well. It seems to me also, that this program was presented as a great opportunity for foreign students to come and experience the greatness of America. I don’t remember it being presented as an opportunity for country-bound citizens like myself to experience the richness of other cultures.

During my university years I did manage to step across the border once into Canada, and on another occasion into Mexico. I visited another three western states, broadening my domestic experience to an entire tenth of my nation. I had the privilege to travel to Nicaragua with some of my peers on a mission trip where I was just another ignorant white American who believed I was there to make life better for those less fortunate.

Curious now as to whether my experience was unique due to my self-imposed “shyness” as a child? Or was it a result of being part of the American middle-class, having the means to get by, but not enough for things like international travel? Or is it that the American people are actively discouraged from traveling abroad? I decided a little investigating was in order.

I learned that the United States lands second on the Top 10 Countries That Travel The Most. And not just once, but on this list as well. However, Americans are far more likely to travel within our own country than travel abroad, preferring “to explore their own country more than understanding the world outside.”

Our employment practices discourage travel. I found that “the United States is the only nation among advanced economies that does not provide a legal guarantee of paid leave.” Passports are expensive to obtain. Travel abroad is considered dangerous. We are cautioned against theft, bad water, violence and disease.

Then I ran across this great article on why Americans don’t travel internationally, by Natasha Alden, which seemed to confirm much of what I was already thinking. The one reason given by the author I find the most tragic is that Americans are “just plain old ignorant.” She goes on to say:

There is a serious lack of information about the world affairs in the United States. We seem to be in an isolated bubble, where Americans are afraid of the unknown, or even worse, just don’t care.

We claim greatness for our nation. But the only ones listening to our claims are other Americans. How great can our country be if we never encourage our children to leave it? To go and experience the realities of other world views?

I believe the United States is a great country. But not the only great country. I regret my own lack of global experiences, and I hope to encourage more curiosity about the world beyond our borders in my own children.

What is your global experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Summertime, Ghosts, Campfires & Stories

Today’s word prompt, ghost, was a timely one for me for a couple of reasons. One, I’ve been trying to write up a couple of ghost stories to be included in my middle grade novel, The Curse of the Anne Venture. And secondly, I’m preparing for a summer adventure that could involve some ghost stories.

Ghost Stories

My novel, The Curse of the Anne Venture begins with my three adventurers exchanging ghost stories with three girls. It becomes a sort of boy vs. girl contest as they each try to out do the other. I’ve struggled with writing these stories because I’ve never been one to listen to or tell ghost stories. Today, however, I made a little progress.

Because of the nature of the overall story, one of the ghost stories involves a ghost ship. I’ve based this story on the “Flying Dutchman” tale. I’ve done a little research trying to learn more about this story and the characters involved. I learned that there are two real life ship captains from the Dutch East India Company, Bernard Fokke and Hendrik Van der Decken, either of whom could have been the original inspiration for this ghostly legend.

The Flying Dutchman is a fascinating little tale filled with mysterious references to, and sightings of, the ghost ship. My task now is to retell this story as an eleven year old boy might tell it.

My second ghost story is to be told by an eleven year old girl. I went looking for a story she might tell and I decided to try and find one with a local attachment. My adventure novels are based out of a small town not far from where I live, so I began my search there. And I found bits of a story centering around an old, historical building which is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of an old man. I’m still looking into the particulars of this story, but I’m hoping to turn it into something interesting.

Summertime Campfires

The second reason this ghost prompt feels so relevant to me is that I’m preparing at this moment to take my family on a summer adventure. My boys are all excited to go camping, sleep in a tent, swim in a lake, and roast marshmallows over a campfire.

Ghost stories are a campfire tradition for many people, though I suspect there might be more singing around ours than storytelling. But idea of a little spookiness before snuggling into the sleeping bag is a fun one. My children are still quite young, therefore any ghost stories would need to be mild indeed.

I had hoped this morning when I learned of the daily prompt, to be able to actually share my completed ghost stories. I didn’t get them finished, nor did I get much done in the way of preparing for my own family adventure.

However, I did have some fun researching the stories, and I finally feel like I have a real sense of what to write.

Do you have a favorite ghost story? How about a favorite childhood memory of campfire stories? I’d love to hear about it!

D is for Deadbeat, by Sue Grafton: A Review

This is one of those books I picked up from a random collection available at my workplace intended to be shared and enjoyed by many. I knew about Sue Grafton and her alphabet series of detective novels featuring private investigator, Kinsey Millhone. I had read her first one, A is for Alibi, and liked the book just fine, but wasn’t overly excited about it. Considering how popular these books are in the general fiction market, I remember being vaguely disappointed.

Still, her books remain wildly popular, and she is now up to the letter X. I decided to give the series another chance and picked this one up.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Grafton writes from the first person perspective of her protagonist, Kinsey Millhone, a private investigator. The story opens when Kinsey is hired by a man to find someone and deliver a sizable check. When her retainer fee bounces, and she goes looking for the man who hired her, he turns up dead.

A considerable number of suspects emerge as Kinsey investigates the death of this man, all of whom are plausible. The story had me guessing all the way through, and still, I was surprised by the ending. I feel like I actually put the pieces together along with the investigator, her doubts and misgivings mirrored my own.

In all, an enjoyable read. And I will not be so hesitant in the future to pick up more by this author. In fact, I believe I picked up another at the same time I found this one…

Anne Frank – Her Story Lives On

I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and express all that’s inside me! When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?
– April 5, 1944

I have been following this 2016 Reading Challenge, and for category #7, I was to choose a book published before I was born. There are a lot of books that qualify under this category, and choosing just one could have proven difficult, but I decided to choose something from my already enormous list of books I want to read someday. What rose to the top was Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

A small light in a dark room…

Sometime last year I began work on a new series of adventures intended for young girls, The Golden Locket Adventures. This is to be a sister series to my other middle grade stories, The Silver Compass Adventures, intended primarily for boys.

As I searched for ideas for these books, I began researching notable women throughout history that I could highlight in my books. I didn’t want just the obvious women who have been studied and profiled many times already, though I have considered the likes of Annie Oakley and Amelia Earhart. I looked for those I hadn’t heard of before and sought out their stories.

In this way, I encountered Miep Gies. Mrs. Gies worked for Otto Frank’s company in Amsterdam before the German invasion of Holland and throughout the war. She became instrumental in helping to hide the family, and was the one to recover Anne’s diary on the day the Franks were arrested, hoping to be able to return it once the war was over. I read Mrs. Gies’s autobiography, Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family. I was fascinated.

But even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.
– Miep Gies

This woman’s story was well told. I was captivated, even devastated by her story, and deeply impressed by her strength. She became one of the first women I hope to feature in my adventure series.

But after reading her story, I wanted to know more. Thus, Anne’s diary joined my list of books I needed to read. This reading challenge provided the perfect opportunity to do so.

I have now finished reading the diary, and hope to share my thoughts. This will not be a typical book review. It is more of a piece of an ongoing conversation that I think we should not lose sight of. A conversation that should not be left in the past. The Jewish Holocaust of the second world war may be over, but hatred, bigotry and other human indecencies continue unabated to this day. I have to believe that we are capable of so much better.

This book isn’t a story as a typical book would be. Even a biography follows a narrative with a beginning, middle and an end. This is simply a diary, published as it was written. Near-daily entries of the everyday life as Anne experienced it. She wrote about her thoughts. She wrote about her family. She wrote about the conflicts that inevitably arise between people who are in too close quarters without break. She wrote about her interests and her hopes for the future.

Oh, why are people so crazy?

There a so many directions I could go with this Anne Frank article. She had so much to say and a surprising amount of wisdom for a girl of her age. She wrote about the typical things an adolescent girl thinks about, family relationships, love, her changing body, the future.

But more than that, she wrote about the war and the Jewish plight.

There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill. And until all of humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again!
– May 3, 1944

She wrote about the roles of men and women and the unfairness of gender bias.

Men presumably dominated women from the very beginning because of their greater physical strength; it’s men who earn a living, beget children and do as they please … Until recently, women silently went along with this, which was stupid, since the longer it’s kept up, the more deeply entrenched it becomes.
– June 13, 1944

Anne wrote with remarkable insight into the human condition. At the age of fourteen, she recognized within herself two “Annes” – an inner Anne she kept mostly hidden within herself out of fear, and the outward Anne which was the one everyone saw. She wrote often about the “outer” Anne as being dominant whenever anyone else was around. She would try to be the inner Anne, the better Anne, but expectations of others always had her shoving that Anne back down inside. She also felt that the inner Anne was her true self, but she could only seem to reveal this part of herself to her diary.

Anne began writing in her diary at the age of thirteen, shortly after going into hiding. She wrote primarily for herself in the beginning, but after hearing on the radio how documents such as letters and diaries could serve as a record of the war, she began to take her writing more seriously and even rewrote much of her earlier entries. It was her intention to share her experience with the world, but I can’t help but wonder if she could have imagined the reach her words would ultimately have, and the impact they would make on the world.

What I find most remarkable about Anne’s diary is that throughout this time in hiding, an experience most people would find terrifying, dull and extremely wearing, she remains upbeat and positive. She is hopeful for her future, and continues to work toward it with study and practice. Despite the hardships, she sees the positive.

I’m young and strong and living through a big adventure; I’m right in the middle of it and can’t spend all day complaining because it’s impossible to have any fun! I’m blessed with many things: happiness, a cheerful disposition and strength. Every day I feel myself maturing, I feel liberation drawing near, I feel the beauty of nature and the goodness of the people around me. Every day I think what a fascinating and amusing adventure this is! With all that, why should I despair?
– May 3, 1944

Anne’s diary provides a beautiful picture of a girl growing into adolescence. We get to be a witness to her growing maturity and self awareness. Anne writes with heartbreaking honesty, and her diary, to this day, holds a relevance that can’t be easily ignored.

I chose to read this book because I was fascinated by the story of a courageous woman who dared to do the right thing even when it was difficult. I wanted to know more of her story, and to see the result of her bravery. In the process I found a girl whose story is just as compelling.

Why do I think others should read this book? Because we all need to remember that underneath the labels – Jew, Christian, Muslim, Black, White or Brown – we are all still human. We all have the same fears, desires, curiosities, hopes and dreams. We all have to pass through the fire that is adolescence. Anne never had the opportunity to come out the other side of it. Many others through that time never had the opportunity. Even more throughout human history have been denied the right to become all they were born to be.

I am glad I made the time to read this book. I’m grateful that through their words, I’ve come to know the likes of Anne Frank and Miep Gies. For one, this is a piece of human history that should not be forgotten. But also, here are two remarkable women who have shared the truth as they saw it and lived it. Who dared to hope for a better future.

Let’s not allow their stories to be forgotten.