Sunday, July 23, 2017

Favorite Books about Writing

Besides reading a wide variety of books, as part of learning their craft, writers also read writing books. This blog and my next include brief information from some of my favorite books about writing.
Anne Lamott
I loved Anne Lamott’s unusual sense of humor and use of personal experiences and embarrassments in her book, Bird by Bird, Instructions on Writing and Life. She said that some of the advantages of being a writer  if you are shy, is that you get to stay home and still be public.

“You don’t have to dress up “and you can’t hear them boo you right away.”
Lamott used the quote, “A critic is someone who comes onto the battlefield after the battle is over and shoots the wounded.” She could not remember right then who said it, but I googled it and the quote was from author Murray Kempton.

This book was written with a casual approach. You feel like she is talking to you, not teaching.
She wrote about her father dying and later her best friend Pam’s losing battle with cancer. She was able to let each of them read the books before they died. They were like love letters, she said, part of their immortality.

Despite the sad subjects of her first books, she sprinkled her advice and opinions with humor.
When looking for help about parenting her son, the only books she could find were “nicey-nice” and rational. They didn’t work for her.

 “Having a baby is like suddenly getting the world’s worst roommate, like having Janis Joplin with a bad hangover and PMS come to stay with you,” she said.
Searching for a book that was more realistic, she was discouraged that she couldn’t find one.

“So I went ahead and started writing one myself, as a present, as a kind of road map for other mothers,” she said.
Lamott is the author of seven novels and 10 non fiction books. She received the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1985 and was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2010.

 Natalie Goldberg
Another book I enjoyed was Writing Down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within, by  Natalie Goldberg

A practitioner of Zen, her writing is low key, yet humorous. She taught seminars on writing as a spiritual practice for several decades. She reminds people that writing is inexpensive. All you need is pen, paper (or computer) and the human mind.
Her short chapters have unusual titles such as Writing is not a MacDonald’s Hamburger, Composting and Don’t Marry the Fly.

Goldberg recommends keeping notebooks and writing every day, especially what she calls “first thoughts.”
“First thoughts have tremendous energy,” she said, suggesting:

·         keep the hand moving 

·         don’t worry about spelling , punctuation, grammar

·          lose control

·         don’t get logical

·         go for the jugular

The book includes lots of good advice, including “practice, practice, practice,” and “just get it on paper.”
I’ve read several of her books. Another one that stood out for me was Long Quiet Highway. I loved the sentence length variations, especially a long road description that made me feel like I was on the trip with her.

“You are alone when writing a book,” she wrote. “Accept that and take in any love and support that is given to you, but don’t have expectations of how it is supposed to be.”
Lynne Truss
Okay, I have to mention one more book, just briefly. Years ago, I read the British bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves, The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. Hilarious! It is unusual to find the words proper punctuation and funny in the same description of a book, but this one has both.

Truss showed why the comma is important when she used the title phrase Eats, Shoots & Leaves, There is a big difference between a panda bear that eats shoots and leaves and a bad one who eats, shoots (someone or something) and leaves the area.
She has many other hilarious examples throughout the book, but she is serious about the use of correct punctuation. Keep in mind that this book is British, and may include some punctuation rules that are different from those in the U.S., but most are the same.

What an enjoyable way to remember the importance of correct punctuation.
If you want to recommend a writing book, please do. I enjoy reading different types of books.

Thursday, June 29, 2017


A CURIOUS MIND, The SECRET to a BIGGER LIFE by Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman was published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster.

Although, He had always been curious, Glazer said he spent the two years before publication learning more about curiosity.

Curious myself, I was drawn to this book, although I didn’t know anything about Brian Grazer at that time. When I read the list of movies he produced and some of the people he spoke with, I knew I had to read it.

Grazer was planning to go to law school when he learned about a summer job at Warner Bros Studio. He called immediately, joining the world of show business. His first real, full time producing job was with Paramount Studios.

There he met Ron Howard, who had been a famous child actor, but now wanted to be a director. Together the two produced several successful movies, established Imagine Entertainment and produced many more movies. 

Grazer was nominated for 43 Academy Awards and 149 Emmys. He was one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. His films include A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Splash, Friday Night Lights, The Grinch who Stole Christmas, American Gangster, J. Edgar, Frost/Nixon, and Liar, Liar.

He credits his success to curiosity. He also produced television series such as "24."

For 35 years, Grazer had “curiosity conversations” with people in and outside of show business, such as Jonas Salk, Condoleeza Rice, Michael Jackson, John McCain, Amy Tan, Edward Teller, Steve Wozniak, Deepak Chopra, Jeff Bezo, Norman Mailer, Muhammad Ali,  Anderson Cooper, Tommy Hilfiger, Isaac Asimov, Charlie Rose, F. Lee Bailey, Barrack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Andy Warhol.

You can find a list of them and a brief description on pages 231 to 258. I found the variety of people and their interests amazing. He also met Princess Diana, Fidel Castro, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and many others.

“Curiosity is what gives energy and insight to everything else I do,” he wrote. “For me, curiosity infuses everything with a sense of possibility.” He links curiosity with success in business and storytelling.

“We’ve been telling stories for 4,000 years. Every story has been told,” he wrote. “Good storytelling requires creativity and originality; it requires a real spark of inspiration.”

“Where does the spark come from?” he continues. “I think curiosity is the flint from which flies the spark of inspiration.”

Theodor Geisel (Dr Seuss) had his first book rejected by 27 times before published by Vanguard Press. What if he had stopped at the 20th rejection? Today his books are still selling approximately 11,000 each year in the U.S. and many of his 44 books remain best sellers.

Curiosity has to be harnessed to at least two other key traits:

1 – the ability to pay attention to the answers.
2 – the willingness to act.

Grazer said curiosity gave him the dream.  “It quite literally, helped me create the life I imagined back when I was 23 years old,” he wrote. That life has been even more adventurous, interesting & successful than he had hoped.

When you know more you can do more. Besides curiosity, Glazer stressed the importance of discipline, determination and persistence. “Persistence is the drive moving you forward. Curiosity provides the navigation.”

The cover art is by artist Jeff Koons, who first asked what the book was about, Grazer told him it was to inspire people to see how curiosity could make their lives better.

Koons produced and Grazer used “a seemingly simple line drawing of a face that conveys exactly the joy, openheartedness, and excitement that being curious brings.”

Various ways curiosity is useful:

·         As a tool for discovery.
·         As a spark for creativity and inspiration.
·         As a way of motivating yourself.
·         As a tool for independence and self-confidence.
·         As the key to storytelling.
·         As a form of courage.
·         As a way of creating human connections.

I first listened to this book as I drove back and forth to Baltimore, but I was so intrigued that I had to get the printed version and read it again. I think anyone who is curious would enjoy this book.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

So you want to write a book

“So you want to write a book.” That was the title of an interactive workshop I attended recently given by Julie Castillo, author and instructor.

She often is asked by students – Do I have what it takes to write a book?

Of course, you do, is the first answer. You can't know if you have talent until you try. 

But before plunging ahead, she recommends asking yourself other questions, such as:

Should I write that book? Will it hurt me or will it hurt someone else?

Who am I writing for? You should know your audience, but at first, write to please yourself.

Do I have the talent? You don’t know until you try.

How do you know whether your idea will work in the commercial marketplace? She said you need to have something unique and fresh. If you are writing non-fiction, you need to ask, what new information does my book bring to the marketplace that isn’t there?

How do I get started? One way is to write in a journal. Tell your own story. You may find the extraordinary in your every day life. Also, freewrite on a subject, just get your thoughts down on paper. This helps you dig deeper).

How do I get it written? You need structure. Three acts – beginning, middle and end is the basic step. Outlining your idea will help you structure your book or story.

How will you promote your book to ensure its success? There is a lot you can do and you should start early. Your book is only considered new for a year.

Julie speaking at a 2013 meeting of
the Carroll County Chapter MWA.
There were more questions asked. Also, a lot more detail was given for the questions listed above. If you want to learn more about writing, I would recommend taking one of Julie’s classes or another class by an experienced writer. 

I wrote previously about Julie. Check out my August 15, 2013 blog, if you want to see what she discussed at that presentation.

Julie Castillo is a fourteen-year veteran of the publishing and film industries, co-writer of two novels and thirteen nonfiction books—including two New York Times bestsellers, biographer for Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, and chronicler of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! 
A recent book is Eat Local For Less.

She is a college anthropology instructor, writing instructor, enrichment curriculum designer, entrepreneur, writer, and futurist. She holds an MA in sociocultural anthropology from Catholic University with a specialty in gender studies and ethnopsychology.

Julie has taught creative writing and publishing classes at local community colleges since 2007, including Carroll and Frederick county colleges.

There is much more to writing a book than just sitting down and putting pen to paper, or pushing computer keys. Whether you take a college, community college or other class, learn online or through books and writing friends, it is important to continue to learn the craft of writing. That is one of the reasons I am writing this blog, sharing what I learn and learning from others.

I hope you keep learning and keep writing.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Why join a writing group

Writing books and magazines encourage those interested in writing to join a writing or critique group. But what type of group should you join and where can you find one?
There are various types of writing groups just as there are a wide variety of writers.  You can find online, national, state and local writing groups, as well as genre groups such as Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of America, Horror Writing Association, National Association of Writers, American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
Garrett County writers

Each can be a help and I have been, and am still in some. On a more personal level, a local writing group can help you fine tune your writing and get you used to having people read it and comment.
I was in a writing group in Garrett County, Maryland, called the Wednesday Writer’s Guild. We generally met on Wednesday evenings. We were amateurs interested in writing. We learned from each other and had fun.

Each writer, who wanted to participate, brought copies of a short piece to the meeting. Someone else read the piece, so the writer could hear how it sounded. If the reader paused or stumbled while reading, there might be a problem. When we read our own work, we tend to see words that aren’t there. We know they should be, so we automatically “read” them.
During the discussion, the author was not to speak or defend their work. Members offered suggestions, mentioned where they may have been confused, pointed out errors and asked questions. After the discussion was over, it was okay for the author to explain. Then we returned the papers, with comments and suggestions  to the writer.
Joelle Jarvis, Kerry Peresta, Lona
Queen at Balto. Book Festival
At monthly meetings, we critiqued partial chapters of novels, newspaper articles, short stories and poetry. One member introduced graphic novels to the group. Occasionally a topic or prompt was suggested for the next meeting. I enjoyed writing a short piece about a different topic. It was surprising the number of ideas that would come from the same sentence.
Many members were published in the area literary magazine, Ginseng, newspapers and in other media. Some also have published books.

Now I am with the Carroll County Chapter of Maryland Writers’ Association,  (CCMWA) which focuses on education and socialization.  Writing can be a lonely profession. It is encouraging to meet with others of like mind. We have speakers at most of our MWA meetings, but also encourage writers to attend other writing events, book festivals and conferences. Members also participate in write-ins such as National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo).
Betsy Riley at Gaithersburg
Book Festival
The CCMWA supports the Carroll County Critique Group. Participants can bring in what they want to read, but need to keep it short, depending on how many people attend. Again, prompts are occasionally suggested to encourage writers to try something new.

The Carroll County Novel and Short Story Writing Group published an anthology, Christmas Carroll, in 2015. It featured area writers and artists. Also, member Betsy Riley of Blue Dragon Press published the anthology, One Left Shoe, which included local writers.

The CCMWA is currently hosting a contest for Flash Fiction, which is a story of less than 500 words that includes a beginning, middle and end. If you are interested, email for details.

Writing groups encourage each other to write and publish. Each one can be unique, so look for one that meets your needs. You can check out to find a group in your area and contact information.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Children's authors reveal secrets

In one week, I listened to three different authors of children’s books and decided to share some of the information each presented.

The first two authors spoke as part of the celebration of the 10th anniversary of Carroll County’s Battle of the Books, which is supported by the Learning Advantage partnership between the Carroll County Public Schools and the Carroll County Public Library. More than 300 people (primarily children) attended this event.
Kate Hannigan wrote The Detective’s Assistant, an historical novel about the first female detective. Pinkerton detective, which is a Black-Eyed Susan Award nominee.

Alan Pinkerton hired Kate Warne when he realized that she could worm secrets out of the wives and friends of those he was investigating. Her fictional niece, Cornelia, is the kid on the doorstep, who wants to belong somewhere. Eleven-year-old Nell Warne starts helping her aunt solve mysteries, one involving a plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

Hannigan spoke about the dark underbelly of children’s literature. – the parents have to be out of the picture, so the child can solve the problem. She handled the family problem all at once on page 6 of the book.

It took her two years to write this book that includes "history, mystery, fact and fiction.” She wanted to get it right for the real Kate Warne, who was buried near Pinkerton, along with other agents.

Hannigan ended her presentation dramatically, as volunteers from the audience helped unroll 65 feet of taped together rejection letters.

“That’s 65 feet of pain,” she said. You don’t give up if you want to succeed. Hannigan also is the author of the Cupcake Cousins series.
The next author to speak was Dave Roman, of the Astronaut Academy series. Drawing as he talked, he admitted he has always been a doodler. When thinking of writing a book, he thought about things he liked, such as outer space and a special school like Hogwarts. These led to his idea of the Astronaut Academy.

For him, the images and words come together at the same time. He enjoys puns, such as a sketch of the students “putting their heads together.”

He chose children to draw suggestions from the audience on a blank paper to demonstrate how he writes his books with graphics (or doodles).

Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity was the 2015 winner of the Black-Eyed Susan Award and Astronaut Academy: Re-Entry is a current nominee. Roman also is a writer of graphic novels Teen Boot! and Agnes Quill: An Anthology of Mystery.

Moderator for the evening was Ted Zeleski, who asked questions of the authors. Later there were more questions from the audience.  lined up at the microphones. One child’s question led to Dave Roman revealing that he was already writing a third Astronaut Academy book.

This was an interesting and informative evening. I was impressed with the confidence and knowledge of the students who participate in the Battle of the Books program. I hope my young grandson is part of something like this when he is old enough.

The Carroll County Chapter of the Maryland Writers Association also hosted a children’s author that week. Sue Reifsnider, writes as Wendi Hartman. She talked about what she knew and how she used that knowledge in her books, such as in The Amish Impact from City to Farm, A New Season and The Letters.
“Start with what you know,” she said, but  additional research can add depth to your story. Whatever you do, pull your life into your books.

Raised in a rural area, she went to a small Christian college, worked on farms in Amish country, was a teacher, has a nursing background and strong ties with fire departments. She uses this information in her books.
During her talk, she used puppets and balloons. Kids are hurting, she said. It is important to get them to read and write.

I was impressed with her sense of humor and the knowledge she shared. You can find out more at Wendi’s Works & Writings.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

HarperCollins celebrating 200

A focus of the March 6, 2017 issue of Publishers Weekly (PW) is about the 200th celebration of HarperCollins Publishers.
J & J Harper, Printers (later Harper Brothers) was started in New York City by James and John Harper in 1817. Two years later, in Glasgow, Scotland, Chalmers & Collins Bookshop & Printing Works opened and published a book by Thomas Chalmers.

Both Harper and William Collins survived and evolved. They merged in 1990 to form Harper Collins (HC), which is now the thirteenth largest book publisher in the world, according to PW.

The magazine includes several pages of publishing history, achievements, key transactions and other interesting facts. From the beginning, HC has published classic works by such authors as Charles Dickens, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nora Neal Hurston, Henry James and many others.

Among their publishing milestones are:

·         1839, license to publish the King James Version of the Bible

·         1924, Agatha Christie joins and later publishes her first Hercule Poirot novel

·         1958, publishes the first English translation of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

·         1973, secures the rights to Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago
Harper & Brothers:

·         1848, publishes the first American edition of Emily, Charlotte and Anne Bronte’s books

·         1927, signs Aldous Huxley, later acquires the rights to other books including Brave New World

·         1956, publishes Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957

·         1970, publishes the first English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The sidebar about Harper & Brothers’ relationship with Mark Twain and Herman Melville was especially interesting.
The PW article emphasizes that Harper Collins Publishing is not just about the past. The publisher’s current roster of authors includes Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, Barbara Kingsolver and Amy Tan.

They also published a piece of the world by Christina Baker Kline, which was the subject of my previous blog. It is historical fiction about Christina Olson, the woman who inspired Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting Christina’s World.
Congratulations to HarperCollins Publishers on this anniversary and best wishes for the future. We look forward to more great books from this publishing house.

For more information, check out or You can join the conversation at #hc200.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Christina's World painted again in novel

After spending An Evening with Christina Baker Kline on March 28 at the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster, I knew I had to write something about her recent novel, A Piece of the World. I felt as if I had visited Christina’s World, as well as that of Christina Baker Kline.

This historical fiction is about the relationship between the artist Andrew Wyeth and Christina Olson, the subject of the famous painting Christina’s World.  Kline used slides to let us see and understand more about the book and her connection, the famous painter, his masterpiece and the real life subject of the painting.

After moving to Bangor, Maine in the 1970s, Kline’s parents wanted their children to know Maine. They took field trips, and had a picnic on the grass where Christina was lying in the painting. The author’s mother and grandmother both were also named Christina. Her grandmother was around the same age as Christina Olson and was raised in similar conditions.  

Kline was thinking of another book topic, when a friend told her she looked like the woman in the Andrew Wyeth painting Christina’s World. The painting depicts life in the early to mid 20th century America. Kline realized this was the subject she had been looking for and began to immerse herself in Christina Olson’s world.

As part of her research, she visited the Olson home and received help from tour guides and docents. They know their subject and are happy to share information, she said.

Christina Olson’s ancestors included a judge of the Salem Witch trials who never recanted his decisions. Gradually, most of his family moved away from that area to get away from the name, including Nathaniel Hawthorne. Christina’s family settled in Cushing, Maine, on a hill by the sea, named Hawthorne’s Point.

She showed sketches by Wyeth as the painting progressed. The painting shows Christina Olson alone in a sea of dry grass, looking toward the old, sad house.

Wyeth became good friends with Christina and her brother Alvaro. He used their eggs for his tempura paints and painted in the second floor of their house. She was 46 and he was 22 when they met, but seemed to have much in common. Both liked good conversation and silence. He added to their lives, Kline said.  Wyeth is buried in the family graveyard beside Christina, instead of with his family.

Interestingly Kline talked about how much a teacher or someone else can influence someone, during a Q&A session at the end of the talk. I also remember a teacher who put a large A+ and comments “short, concise and to the point,” on my paper. I felt as Kline did. Someone thinks my writing is good and like Kline, writing became a major part of my life.

She felt a responsibility to get the book right, because she was writing about real people; people who are famous and some who are still alive.

She drew on connections with her grandmother and the strength of Christina’s relationship with Andrew Wyeth. “He could see her in a way no one else had done,” she said. Reading this book could change the way someone looks at the painting. A woman, who didn’t let her light shine, became immortal through the painting.

 In her book, Orphan Train, Kline used information she had researched, but she created her characters. Also there was literally a train that helped keep the novel moving forward. In this novel, the movement is internal.

When asked what she hopes readers will take-away from the novel, Kline said that even an anonymous life has meaning.

What I learned at this author talk let me see so much more in Wyeth’s painting than I had previously. Still curious later, I found an article online by Jacqueline Weaver for the, Arts & Living Lifestyle. She included the quote, “When you write a literary novel you start with character and from character comes motivation. Motivation leads to action and action leads to consequences.”

My friends who attended with me, Betty Houck and Lois Halley, also were impressed with the presentation. We had our books signed and enjoyed cake, decorated with an edible copy of the painting.

Lynn Wheeler, Executive Director of the Carroll County Public Library, said the event was possible thanks to Harper Collins Publishers and members of the Artworld Bound Book Club of Carroll County Arts Council.

Kline’s 2013 novel, Orphan Train, spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list. She also wrote four other novels – The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand and Desire Lines and several non-fiction works.

For more information you can check out and

Comments are always welcome.