Unlock the Muse – September 17, 2019

As I’ve mentioned before, a writer’s education should be ongoing and never-ending. There is always something more to learn. This learning might take any number of forms. One such form is the MFA in Creative Writing. Last week I looked at some of the top reasons why someone might want to pursue such a degree.

But the MFA isn’t the right choice for everyone. Here are some reasons why it might not be:

  • Cost: The typical MFA degree is a 2-3 year program, and the cost starts around $30,000. Even a low-residence program is likely to cost more than $10,000.
  • No guarantee of publication: Even with all the work to improve craft and the potential connections made during a degree program, the competition for publication is still intense.
  • Focus on literary vs. genre fiction: Despite the proliferation of MFA programs, the focus of nearly all of them remains on literary fiction. If you want to pursue genre or commercial fiction, the MFA might not be the best place.

If you’re looking for more on the subject, here are a few websites I found:

Here’s your writing prompt for this week:

Catcher in the Rye, Peyton Place, Blubber – sound familiar? They should, because at some point in their history, all these books were banned. Write about your favorite banned book, and explain why it never should have been censored.

Think about why a book gets banned in the first place. All sorts of books have ended up on banned book lists, including the American classic, To Kill A Mockingbird, and the hugely popular Harry Potter series. Right or wrong, they get banned for various reasons. But if you think about it, theses books have touched a nerve, exposed something raw and real, and made someone uncomfortable. How does this relate to your own writing? Just this, don’t worry about what others might think of what you have to say. Write the story you need to write. Let it be real and raw. Because that’s where it will reach out and potentially change someone’s life.


1. The process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.
2. An enlightening experience.

The word educate comes from the early 15c Latin, educare meaning “to bring up, rear, educate.” It’s also related to educere which means “to bring out, to lead forth,” from ex- “out” + ducere “to lead.”
(from etymonline.com)

Happy writing!


Unlock the Muse – September 10, 2019

As summer officially gives way to fall, our attention moves from recreation to education. Kids are back in school. Universities are back in session. One season gives way to the next. The sun retreats behind the rain clouds. Baseball yields the field to football.

For the writer, what does it mean to turn our minds to education? For some, it might mean pursing an MFA in creative writing. This is a huge, ongoing debate – to MFA or not to MFA? This week, I’d like to look at some of the reasons why you might want to pursue a higher degree in writing. Here are a few of the top reasons I found in my own research this week:

  • Learn about and improve your craft
  • Make connections with other writers – both at your level as well as professionals
  • Dedicated focus on your writing
  • Increased exposure to other writing styles
  • Gain valuable skills in critiquing the work of others

If you want to read more about the pros and cons of and MFA degree, here are a few of the articles I found interesting:

Here’s your writing prompt for this week:

Write a letter or journal entry as the start of a novel. Some of the best stories in the world (Dracula, Pride and Prejudice, Dangerous Liaisons) are related to their audiences through letters and journal entries.

Write this exercise as your protagonist. Go back again and do it as your antagonist. To whom does your villain write a letter? What weaknesses are revealed as your hero pours out his heart in his journal?

I’ll leave you this week with this thought from Nelson Mandela on the value of education:

Education Quote 1

Happy writing!

Unlock the Muse – September 3, 2019

Where I live, children are returning to school – my own, included. Hallelujah! But what does that mean for the writer? Writers who are also parents are no doubt rejoicing along with me, even if (also like me) they work full-time, and school time makes little difference to their schedule. Returning the kids to the routine of learning is helpful anyway, as it requires structure and discipline for the parent as well. For the non-parenting writer, maybe there is little difference as school resumes. Other than slowing down through the school zones, stopping for buses and giddily skipping through the aisles of fun art and office – oh, I mean school – supplies.

One thing the return to school routine always makes me think about is my own, ongoing education. So that is what I will focus on for the month of September.

Here’s your writing prompt for this week:

Copy one of your favorite short stories word-for-word by hand. Before you groan, realize you’ll learn effective mechanics, imagery, conflict and action.

A writer’s training is ongoing. We are, in effect, apprenticed to those who have come before us. This exercise is intended to help you recognize the elements of a successful story. Repeat it as often as you like. But don’t stop with just your favorites. Copy a classic. Copy one you hate. You can learn something from all of these stories.

A writer – or any artist, for that matter – should be forever curious, ever learning new things. A writer’s education, whether formal or informal, is important and shouldn’t ever really end. I’m not here to insist that anyone professing to be a writer should pursue a degree in creative writing. Nor am I going to say it isn’t necessary. Both paths are legitimate.

What I am trying to say is that there is always something more to learn – about the craft of writing as well as the subject matter. For myself, each new project brings with it a need to know something new. I have considered the idea of pursuing an MFA in creative writing, and I just might sign up for an art class at the local community college. In the interest of learning, of course.

Happy writing!

Unlock the Muse – August 27, 2019

I took my boys shopping for school supplies this past weekend. It’s finally happening. They will return to school in a matter of days. Vacation time must come to an end.

With writing, sometimes you need to take a break, and that’s okay. But it’s equally important to return to writing. If your vacation is coming to an end, make the most of it. Revel in your last moments of freedom and relaxation. Then prepare yourself to return to your routine. Go to bed on time. Set your alarm clock. Wake up, and write.

Here’s your writing prompt for this week:

Imagine you see a coworker in his car, pulling out of your work parking lot. He’s crying. Why?

Can’t imagine your coworker in tears? How about that girl at the coffee shop drive-thru? Or your neighbor’s groundskeeper? What scenario has this person so upset? Create a back story for this person and drop them into a conflict that ends in tears.

Vacation time might be over, but there’s always room for play time. Here’s a roll of the Rory’s Story Cubes to help inspire some fun!


Happy writing!

Gallow’s Hill, by Charles F. French: A Review

When I saw ATY’s 2019 Reading Challenge prompt #30, a book featuring an elderly character, I instantly thought of Gallow’s Hill, by Charles F. French. I’ve had this book in my e-library since shortly after it was released, but I hadn’t yet had the chance to read it. This book, second in the series The Investigative Paranormal Society, features a group of men in their 60s who help people in their community with ghostly or demonic problems.

In this book, the members of the Investigative Paranormal Society are approached by a land developer who is interested in acquiring a certain property in order to build a casino. The property has a long history of disaster and misfortune, and there are rumors of paranormal activity. At the same time, one of their members is dealing with a personal crisis from his past that impacts his effectiveness as part of the team.

The characters is this story have depth and history. They feel like real people. I couldn’t help but get caught up with them in their investigations, especially as things took a dangerous turn. The suspense in this book is great.

I read the first book, Maledicus, some time back and though that book wasn’t quite all I’d hoped for, I was intrigued by French’s idea of a group of retired gentlemen who fought ghosts. I knew I would check out the next book, and I’m really glad I did. I enjoyed book two very much. I’m looking forward to the next installment of the Investigative Paranormal Society.

A Soldier’s Duty, by Jean Johnson: A Review

It was not hard to find a book to fit Popsugar’s 2019 Reading Challenge prompt #20, a book set in space. I love science fiction, and my shelves are full of books that qualify. I ended up choosing A Soldier’s Duty, by Jean Johnson, book one in the series Theirs Not to Reason Why. Someone in my book club stumbled on this series and presented it to the rest of us as a really fun read. We even made arrangements for the author herself to come to one of our meetings, and so this book jumped to the top of my space book options.

In this series opener, we meet Ia, a precog who is plagued by visions of the future where her home world is devastated. In order to prevent this from coming to pass, Ia enlists in the Terran United Planets military. This first installment encompasses Ia’s enlistment, initial training and her first tour of duty.

There is a lot of world building involved in this first book, and I had some difficulty getting into the story. Still, it is well written, with a great deal of realistic detail, especially in regards Ia’s basic training experiences. I think the bigger payoff will be in the remainder of the series where the story can develop further on this foundational world building.

I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to meet Jean Johnson in person and talk with her about her books and her experiences as an author. I look forward to reading the rest of this series and more by Jean Johnson. Besides this military sci-fi novel, I also had the opportunity to check out another of Johnson’s series – a paranormal romance series, the Sons of Destiny. This series is also a lot of fun.

The Reptile Room, by Lemony Snicket: A Review

For the 2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge prompt #3, a book written by a musician, I chose to read The Reptile Room, by Lemony Snicket. I chose this book because it was the only one I found on my shelves that fit the category. I started the Series of Unfortunate Events last year, reading the books aloud with my eldest son, and he has been happy to continue it with me.

Book two finds the unhappy Baudelaire orphans in a new home with a new guardian, their Uncle Monty (who isn’t truly their uncle). Uncle Monty is a collector of reptiles, and is delighted to introduce his new charges to his passion. For a while, things seem to be going well for the Baudelaires, especially after the disastrous events of book one. They even begin to think they could be happy here.

However, it isn’t long before their nemesis, Count Olaf arrives on the scene. But he has disguised himself as Uncle Monty’s newly hired assistant, and no one but the children recognize his true identity. And so it falls once more to the children to save themselves.

I enjoy Lemony Snicket as the narrator of these books. He uses sarcasm, dark humor and a sense of the ridiculous to tell his stories. He often breaks into the story with a side note about his own woes, or to define a word or phrase. While this particular episode has not been my favorite so far, I have continued with the series, and I’m still having fun. If you enjoy a bit of dark humor, this series could be for you.