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Editing, Featured, Writing, Writing Style

When Women Writers Get Together

June 19, 2017

A week-long writers workshop began with a reunion of half a dozen kindred souls, all writers who had attended the workshop for several years, as had I. We filled the first hours with catching up on the families and other personal activities. Then, we began talking about our writing. And that’s when the conversation turned serious. Really serious.

Each of us expected the other writers to have finished a chapbook of poems, much of a new novel, a series of essays or short stories. What we learned is that to a one, we had been oddly blocked. We knew what we wanted to write, but the writing-ness of writing was more than difficult. For a couple, it had been impossible. Some of us were stress starvers who don’t each much; others were stress eaters who put on weight. At least fifteen pounds.

This felt different from generic writer’s block. Its origin was in the cosmic angst, not in the person herself. The more we talked, the more we were able to identify the point when we stopped feeling like writing. (Not to say, many of us continued, but the joy was gone.) For a couple of writers, the date was early in November; for others, it was in January. Those who waited until January hid behind the holidays. Once January ended, their mental paralysis was in full bloom. They sat. They spun. They thought but could find little to write down.

Several started writing about happier times in their lives. I didn’t realize it, but I was one who went back to an earlier time, to a story I started on a lark about a place where I felt safe and joyous. I revisited the story, fleshed it out, wrote outlines for six additional stories, and decided I would write a novel in stories about an extended family and some of their friends. Good things and bad happen to the family, but they always have one place of solace they call home. I felt excitement growing. I felt a release.

The more the women talked, the more we realized we had allowed outside events overwhelm us. We spent too much time on social media. We allowed people we love to interrupt our writing. One woman’s daughter texted her constantly when she was writing, growing shriller and shriller until she stopped and responded. Concentration shattered. Might as well go onto Facebook and Twitter and see what was going on.

We pretended we were doing research when we followed trails all over the Internet. One woman wanted to validate a point in her novel, only to find herself an hour later still following links down all sorts of side paths. She had entered the “oh, look, a chicken” mindset. She vowed to turn off her phone, keep only the story live on her screen, and let the world find its own way without her for a while. Sounds good to me.

I too let myself get distracted because I don’t want to hurt my friends’ feelings if I don’t interact then instant they get online. I played into their games, leaving myself vulnerable to losing my train of thought. I let them control our relationship, because I didn’t want to get into any lengthy discussions about why what I was doing was more important than looking at their stickers.

We women left the week-long workshop rejuvenated. We promised to help each other if we found ourselves straying. We agreed that our position might not be all that popular, but if you want books from us, you must, absolutely must, understand that we will take the space we need. No matter how many times you text me, how many emojis/videos/stickers you send, I will be online when I’m finished with my work at the end of the day. I may take breaks in the middle of the day for a few minutes, but that doesn’t mean I’m inviting anyone to try and engage in lengthy conversations. I ask you to understand. This is not open for debate. I have two books that must be finished in short order. And they will be.

Featured, Lifestyle, Writing

Worms

June 5, 2017

You read that right: worms. I woke up this morning thinking about worms.

Before I continue, I confess that there is little in nature I like less than a worm. I hate them. I know earthworms are good for the soil, but I don’t have to like them, do I? I don’t know why worms were on my mind before dawn today, but they were.

Think about all the way worms appear in our vocabulary. Remember the childhood complaint: Nobody likes me, everybody hates me. I’m going to eat some worms. Now, I never knew that eating worms would be a good idea if no one liked you, except by doing so you might gross someone out. Watching someone eat worms would gross me out, even if they are considered a source of protein and a delicacy in some parts of the world. I prefer chicken or tofu for my protein, thank you very much.

In early spring, when the earth warms, the rains soften the hard ground, earthworms emerge and slither across driveways and sidewalks. A harbinger of spring, I love it when they appear. Just don’t ask me to touch one. I don’t like slimy things, and worms are right up there with the slimiest.

Ear worms are another annoying, albeit not slimy, evidence of worms. No one likes to have “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” or “It’s a Small World” stuck in your brain all day. “Nights in White Satin” or “Sound of Silence,” maybe. In fact, definitely “Nights in White Satin.” Usually. ear worms are the most annoying interruptions. And the more you try to get rid of them, the louder they get.

What about sayings we hear from our parents and grandparents. “The early bird gets the worm.” Or, “he’s caught like a worm on a hook.” There are more. Add your own favorites.

The more I think about it, it doesn’t end well for the worm. I think I’ll leave it at that.

Donna Knox, Featured, Lifestyle

Dragons and Funny Interpretations

May 29, 2017

You all know I’m going through rehab to strengthen the wrist I broke on April 25. It’s getting better. I have enough rotation to type. Alas, rehab isn’t fixing the typos I make. And I can’t play the piano.

Right after I had my spill, I bought Natural Dragon software so that I could keep working. My friends warned me that the software has to learn your voice, your cadence, and special words you use. They were right.

After going through the set up exercises for Dragon to learn my cadence, it was time to try it on a manuscript I was editing. Because the writer I’m working with has a penchant for putting commas in the wrong places or leaving them out entirely, I trained my left hand to drag the mouse to the spot where a comma needed to be inserted. I said, “comma.” A comma appeared. About the fifteenth time I said, “comma,” my husband asked if I was working on a friend’s manuscript. He’s heard me worry commas into the text more often than not.

Well, I got fat and sassy, so I thought I’d take a crack at one of my works. I was pretty good with most of the edits, but the software kept inserting Sad Sack for Mad Max. These words don’t sound anything alike. I really couldn’t figure out why Sad Sack sounded like Mad Max. I still don’t get it.

Worse was when I started working on a new manuscript. There is no way the software learned the name of the main character. I admit Sa-Li Ma is an unusual name. He’s Chinese, so it’s not unusual for him. Dragon couldn’t, just couldn’t, figure it out. Sa-Li came out Solly, Sally, Sully, Salim, silently, and several other silly mistakes. It’s pronounced Sah-Lee. Now hard it that, especially after I put it in the Dragon dictionary.

I figured Ma wouldn’t be all that hard. It means “horse” in Chinese. It’s pronounced Mah. I had everything from Ma to Mott to Meh to Mole. Mole??? Really???

I whined to a girlfriend who advised I change the character’s name. I did. Surely Dragon should be able to understand John Doe. Leave it to say, Doe came out in a variety of different spellings. Oh, well, I can use search and replace for John and manually change Doe to Ma.

The software picks up all sorts of speech. I turned to say something to my husband when he passed my desk. Damned software picked up every word with no errors. But a name, no way. You can’t imagine what it did with a sneeze.

I’m not going to quit on the software. I’m also not going to try writing any dialog in dialect. Not gonna do it. Uh uh. And I think I’ll not cough.

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Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max Unintended Consequences and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery. She has a new short story, “Midnight in the Church of the Holy Grape,” in 50 Shades of Cabernet. Her works have appeared in several anthologies and on NPR.

 

Featured, Lifestyle, Writing

“Wait, What?”

May 22, 2017

A few years back, James Ryan gave a commencement speech at Harvard’s College of Education where he advised graduates to question everything. His first bit of wisdom was what he called, “Wait, What?”That’s when you’are telling your kids something, you throw in, “I need you to clean your room.” Your kid hears “blah, blah, blah, clean your room, blah, blah, blah.” Your kid says, “Wait, what?” The clean-your-room comment is the only thing to penetrate text brain. Ryan’s message was about listening to a message and questioning it.

Journalists and writers are sympathetic questioners. We want to know the answers. So we ask the questions.

A writers most important question could be “What happens if…?”

What happens if you put a plain-looking man in a group of “pretty people?” How can you make him stand out? Does he have the gift of gab? Is he uber-smart? Is he a billionaire? Or is he an ordinary guy who listens when people talk and asks questions to keep them talking?

A few years ago. my husband and I visited Blowing Rock, NC. We’d just checked into our motel and were off to find ice cream at our favorite local shop. Lying next to the gutter was a child’s sock. A single sock. I wondered, “where’s the other sock?” I didn’t want a prosaic answer like its mate was in the dryer, or a child pulled it off when Daddy wasn’t looking. I wanted it to be a clue dropped by a woman who’d been kidnapped. Or maybe it fell out of a sleeve of a well-dressed man whose wife didn’t iron his shirts. Clue: the sock will appear in a story later this year when the wrong sock is the clue to a missing child.

Then, there was the woman dressed like a gypsy at a Barns at Wolf Trap concert even more years ago than the sock. She sat to the side, lost in her own world,  and shuffled a deck of Tarot cards. Was she going to tell her own fortune? Did she want to tell mine?

My friend, the late Sally Roseveare, could look around a room and find at least three things that would enhance her mysteries. Sometimes it was a mundane item that could be used to kill someone. Picture wire was one of her favorites, yet she never used it in a story. Or she’d wonder why a teaspoon was left on a chair even though no one was eating. Could it have traces of poison in it? And what about that crumpled paper? Did it have a written clue about where to find a murder weapon?

I look at people and wonder what their secrets are. We all have them. Do we wish we had been kinder to an elderly relative? Or to a child? Or do I wish I hadn’t spent our week’s grocery money on a necklace for my mom on Mother’s Day when I was eight? I do, but she was kind enough to hide her anger and worry about our diet for a week. She gave me the necklace years ago. I still have it.

Look around. You never know what you’ll find. Take tons of pictures of things that strike you. You never know when you’ll need that precise image.

What questions do you ask? What makes you curious?

Featured, Lifestyle

Tinkering

April 24, 2017

At dinner the other night, several friends bemoaned how their grandkids don’t tinker. They don’t take their toys apart. They aren’t interested in how their bicycles work. They don’t ask how things work.

One of my friends thought it was because of the electronic toys they have. After all, you can’t take an iPad apart.

He has a point. Intellectual curiosity now runs toward how apps work, how many levels of a game someone has achieved, how much music can be packed into an iPod.

Back in the day when dinosaurs walked the earth and dirt was young, kids took things apart. Everything. If they wanted to know how their bedside clock worked, they took it apart. Sometimes, they even put it back together correctly. Most often, either Dad stepped in to refit part A into slot B, or Mom threw the mess out. Getting greasy in the garage with Dad learning how to oil a lawnmower was a rite of passage. Making a mess out of a kitchen learning how to make chocolate cookies was more fun than unwrapping a tube of chilled dough and slicing it.

My grandson wants to know how his games are made. Not his board games, although he is curious about them. He wants to know how his electronic games are made. His father explained about writing apps using computer code. He may design the next great gaming app, or send a rocket to Mars, or figure out how to make you credit card tamper-proof. Now, he wants to go to a programming camp this summer. His mom hasn’t told him that everything he wants to learn requires a background in math. She’s keeping that secret for a while longer. He’s not going away to computer camp this summer,though. He’s six.

His younger brother is more interested in taking toys apart, mostly his brother’s toys.

I wonder what will happen if the older brother writes programs and the younger brother learns to fix things with his hands. It will be interesting to watch.

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Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max Unintended Consequences and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery. She has a new short story, “Midnight in the Church of the Holy Grape,” in 50 Shades of Cabernet. Her works have appeared in several anthologies and on NPR.
Featured, Lifestyle

Oil

April 17, 2017

When did oil become a cult substance? I mean, when did we suddenly need a gazillion oils in order to cook anything?

I checked my kitchen this morning to see if I had a certain oil a recipe I want to try called for. Nope, no rapeseed oil. I found three kinds of olive oil, walnut oil, canola oil, grapeseed oil, sesame oil (both fragrant and not), corn oil. What shocked me was that I use all of these for different dishes. Grapeseed and walnut are perfect for two different home-made salad dressings. Fragrant sesame for stir fry.

When I was a kid, my grandmother, who did most of the cooking for a single working mom and a kid (me), had at most two kinds of oil. Wesson was the oil of choice for frying anything. Crisco was for baking, especially for rubbing about a cake tin to keep the batter from sticking. She’d save bacon drippings in a can she kept on the stove. When she fried eggs, they always sizzled in bacon fat. Today, I can’t imagine how rancid it must have been, but we all survived. My grandmother didn’t need anything else. I remember her food tasting great.

As I grew and began cooking for myself. the first things I cut out were Crisco and bacon drippings. I started learning about food about the time I started learning about wine. That’s a different story. So, friends introduced me to many of the oils that stock my pantry.

Fragrant sesame oil added zing to Chinese stir fries. And there was a cold Japanese noodle dish that was perfect only when a single drop of sesame oil fell into the dipping sauce.

Grape seed and walnut oils came into the pantry because recipes said they couldn’t, absolutely could NOT, be made without them. The recipes lied. For years I made them without grape seed or walnut oils. No one knew the difference.

And now, there are gourmet shops that sell nothing but fancy oils and vinegar. I didn’t count my vinegar bottles, but I know I have more of them than I do oils. Again, each came when I needed a special vinegar for a recipe.

One oil was essential when I was growing up. Both my mother and grandmother used Johnson’s Baby Oil on their faces and hands to keep them soft. I would mix baby oil and iodine to enhance sun tanning. No sun block for this California kid. Baby oil helped my skin burn. Iodine helped dye it darker. Our homemade answer to Coppertone, which I couldn’t afford.

So, when did oils become a cult substance? And don’t get me started on essential oils. That’s a whole different cult.

What about you? Do you have a houseful of oils?

 

Featured, Writing, Writing Style

From My Spam Folder

April 10, 2017

Sometimes, rarely, but sometimes, I actually look at what’s in my spam folder. I was gone for a few days last week to the practice rounds at The Masters. When I finally plowed through my spam, I found this delectable post.

Headline: YOUR SILENT IS A CLEAR PROOF THAT YOU ARE REAL DEAD.

Who can resist that hook? I couldn’t. I had to find out if I was real dead. After the “Dear Valued Customer,” address, the message commenced with:

“I need to confirm that this is realy truth before we release your total funds to this gentle man. This office was contacted by Mr. Richards Thomas who claimed to be your brother. He promised to pay the needed fee and claim the package as your next of kin.”

Other than there are a few typos in this opening, it’s wrong in one big area: I’m an only child, ergo, no brother.

Next, the writer continued. “He said that you were involved in a car accident last week and died. We need to confirm that your are truly dead…We believed that you are dead, but as a federal office [he signs the note with his title Director of (IMF)] we need a proof for record purposes…If this is true!!! May your gentle soul rest in perfect peace. But if its not true then get back to us immediately you receive this message to enable us to proceed…”

Well, now, if I’m truly dead, I can’t confirm I’m dead. If I’m not dead, then I could, but the director of (IMF) wants too much personal information. I had to make a hard decision. If I followed his last instruction, “And also reconfirm your full delivery information wile geting back ok,” I’m not sure what he wanted. I mean, I could send a pic with today’s paper to prove I’m alive. Or I could delete the message.

I chose to delete this man’s sincere concern about my health. I hope my brother, Mr. Richards Thomas, enjoys the $250,000,000US he will claim shortly.

So, for now, I wish him well.

I think I’ll have fried Spam for dinner. Seems fittin’ after this communique.

Hope you enjoy the giggle. I love these semi-literate spam-o-grams, don’t you?

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Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max Unintended Consequences and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery. She has a new short story, “Midnight in the Church of the Holy Grape,” in 50 Shades of Cabernet. Her works have appeared in several anthologies and on NPR.

Editing, Featured, Proofreading, Writing, Writing Style

Close-Ups

March 27, 2017

Have you noticed how cat selfies are taking over social media? Most bloggers know that if we want more people reading our blogs, we throw in cat photos or videos. So, in a blatant attempt to engage a host of readers in this blog post, I’m leading off with a close-up of my kitty, Smokin’ Mocha Java. Gotta admit, I’m prejudiced, but then again, I’m her human.

Mocha is here for a reason. It’s to introduce a mundane, nerdy post about one of the things writers HATE to do. It might be the most hated task in writing and producing a book. That final read-through, when you’re as sick of the manuscript as you can be, when you couldn’t see a grammo or typo if it scratched you on the hand, when you know that every word is perfect–until you get the galleys back from the publisher. Every error screams, “What were you thinking? Are you nuts? You think this is ready for the public? Sheesh!”

That’s right, final edits and proofreading are the bugaboos of most writers, me included. I call this “close-up reading.” Let me share my routine, if you will. If you are bored, I’m down with that. Thanks for stopping by. Catch you later.

What, you’re still here? You want to share my pain? Terrific. Here’s what I do for the last polishing of the manuscript before it goes to print.

  • I read the manuscript through from beginning to end with no pen in hand. This let’s me escape into the story and characters. It also allows me to ignore said typos and grammos.
  • Next, I read every word, every sentence, to see if it belongs, to see if it advances the plot, to see if it develops the character. I look for words I overuse, like like, just, very, anything ending with ly. All get the knife.
  • I listen to the dreadful computer voice read the book to me. Windows Narrator lets you choose a lot of options, but it still. sounds. like. a. robot. Mr. Robot also points all missing your brain know are there. Oh, wait, that should read “all missing words your brain knows are there.”
  • I read from the last page to the first, from the last sentence on the bottom of the page to the top of the page, and right to left. Are you still with me? I cut a mask that exposes a single line of text, which forces me to look at every word OUT OF CONTEXT. By looking at each word in its own right, I produce the best copy I can.

Even with all this, typos slip in. I think they sneak into the manuscript between sending it to my publisher and my publisher sending it to the printer. No amount of pest control strips or sprays prevents at least on typo from living through to the printed page. No matter how closely writers edit, there’s always something that gets through the close-up review. It’s so mortifying.

Mocha wants the last word: “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”

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 Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max Unintended Consequences and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery. She has a new short story, “Midnight in the Church of the Holy Grape,” in 50 Shades of Cabernet. Her works have appeared in several anthologies and on NPR.
Featured, Lifestyle, Stress, Writing

Frazzled

March 20, 2017

That’s the adjective that defines me right about now. As usual, I have too much on my plate, too little of me to get everything done, and too little time to finish my daily priorities.

I started the year with a reasonable to-do list and a clean desk. Virtually every day, some “crisis” pops up to derail the day’s tasks. Last week, it was Go Daddy calling to let me know that the version I’m on for my writer’s club was no longer going to be supported. Well, now. Okay. Hmm, let’s see. My last webmeister left the club two years ago. The one before that left three years ago. I dug through tons of files to find the password. Should be easy peasy to transfer the website to the new format, huh. At least that’s what the nice man at Go Daddy told me. All would have been well had the template we used fit ANY template in the new version. I tried several before realizing I had to transfer page by page, add pages to manage some of the content, etc. I figured that if I preserve the content, I can make the site workable when I have time to think about it. Yeah, right. When I have time to think about it. Like next century. And I will NOT stay as the webmeister.

I am the webmeister for an arts council. My problem last week was getting a button to display the right price for tickets to an event. No matter how I tried to fix it, the darned button kept displaying the wrong price. I finally asked a friend to see if he could figure out what was going on. Seems like an artifact from a different button stepped on the html — oh, hell, you don’t care about code and stuff like that. Leave it to say, I turned around three times, spit over my left shoulder, and scratched my left ear with my right big toe. Yup, things magically fixed themselves. That, and removing that errant fragment manually.

Couple in the release of an anthology last week and I’m behind the schedule for getting my signings set up. I have several, but need more. I’ll be busy calling locations where I usually sign books to get some time.

And I’m in the last readings/edits for my next novel. All comments are back from beta readers, my editor has offered final suggestions on places that don’t work, and I am almost, but not quite, on schedule to deliver the manuscript to my publisher.

After all that, I’ll tackle the in-floor, where all the things from the clean desk ended up.

Hope you are having a good day.

 

Featured, Gal Pals, Grief, Inspiration, Lifestyle, Trauma

Crying Towels

March 13, 2017

The scene is set for an interesting eavesdropping opportunity. One woman sits alone in a coffee shop, her latte beside her, a book in her lap. Across from her sit two women engaged in a conversation loud enough to force the eavesdropper to, well, eavesdrop.

One of the pair begins a monologue about how last year was a disaster. She catalogs too many travails for the eavesdropper to remember; however, said eavesdropper hears a series of problems ranging from a husband having an affair, the wife having a retaliation affair, a dog dying of old age, paint peeling on a ceiling in an unused bath, forgetting where she put a book she was reading, etc. The eavesdropper notices that all travails, trivial or serious, are delivered with the same amount of drama and angst. The captive listener does little more than nod. When the second woman tries to break into the monologue, the first woman plunges ahead, seemingly oblivious of what her friend wants to say. Half an hour into the coffee “date,” the talkative woman stands and leaves, saying, “That’s enough about me. See you next time.”

The eavesdropper is exhausted. She imagines the friend is too. She looks at the friend, who has a tear in her eye. She smiles and receives a watery smile in return. The eavesdropper feels the need to comment.

“Your friend certainly has her share of difficulties.”

“She does. And she doesn’t mind who knows about them. I invited her to lunch to tell her about my brother, but she had no time to listen.” The woman wiped a tear.

“Would you like to tell me?”

Her brother had been diagnosed with a rare disease and has weeks to live. She hoped her friend would offer support.

“This may not help, but a few years ago I was in a support group where each of us was experiencing life-changing events. The leader handed out a small white towel he said was a crying towel and a marker to each of us. He asked us to write all of the problems facing us. We then read them to the group. Like your friend, some had multiple problems, all given equal importance. Others had a single, or at most two, life-changing challenges. We exchanged towels.”

“How did that help?” the woman asked.

The eavesdropper found a clean napkin and wrote, “My sister had a miscarriage. I’m struggling with grief.” She handed it to the woman sitting opposite.

The woman looked at the napkin. Then, she picked up one of her own and wrote, “My brother has ALS. We’re estranged. I don’t know how to reach out and help him.” She handed the napkin over.

“I accept your problem as my own,” the eavesdropper said. “If I may, let me be your sister and help you through your crisis.”

The woman wiped a last tear. “And I’ll help you with your grief, sister. Are you free for coffee next week, same time, same place?”

“I am,” the eavesdropper said. “I look forward to hearing more about your brother and what else is going on in your life.”

Sometimes, crying towels are full of trivia. Sometimes, they are full of human drama. And always, they need is a friend to share them.

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