Posts Tagged writing


musicConstance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose calls voice “the je ne sais quoi in all strong writing.” Other writers and critics refer to voice as the music behind the prose, the unique way a writer expresses herself–a fingerprint of language. Voice can be imitated but not duplicated; its rythymn and tone are unique to each writer.

Voice is often confused with style. But style is concrete–the way we structure our sentences, our word choice and use of metaphor, whether we tend to write formally or informally, etc.

I think voice is something deeper and ultimately unnameable because it orginates underneath language and only takes shape through language.

The writer’s task is to write from this original source, particularly when first drafting a story. In revision, we must continue to listen for the original voice and build on it. The result is an authenticity of language that the reader immediately feels and wants more of.

On a more superficial (but equally essential) level, voice is shaped by the writer’s background, cultural heritage, and personal experience.

Voice changes with point of view. A cat sees the world differently than his master, a sister views the house she grew up in differently than her brother.

The writer’s experience of a landscape also shapes voice.  My first novel is set in the Salinas Valley where I grew up. Sheila’s story couldn’t have taken place anywhere else. The Valley is in my bones, my very being.

Finding Your Writers Voice by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall stresses finding one’s “raw” voice, and then refining it through craft (revision). What enables us to tap into this raw voice, “the writer’s most powerful tool?”

Writing about childhood–simple memories such as climbing the tree in your front yard or a meal your mother prepared–can unearth an interior language that existed before our egos had fully formed. Before we learned that writing required us to be someone other than who we are.

I’ll be teaching a two-hour class on Voice tomorrow night at Book Passage in Corte Madera. It’s the first in my Fiction Toolbox series, which will also include an evening each on character, plot and setting. Get dates and other details here.


Comments (1)

Or cut bait

fishingtoolsIt’s Monday morning. I’m attempting to bond with my periodontist, the man who’s about to make my mouth his personal construction site. He answers that he’s Persian. A couple of years after the Shah fell, his family fled Iran for Canada. He and his brother were teenagers; their father wanted to keep them out of military service during the bloody war between Iran and Iraq. The periodontist doesn’t volunteer this information–I inquire. He’s a man of few words.

When I ask him why he decided to go into periodontics, he says he liked the idea of being able to take tissue from one place and put it somewhere else. He’s referring to the “harvest,” which is followed by the graft. The former process requires multiple injections of novacaine after the good periodontist’s chatty assistant has swabbed the area with a local.

The assistant has three kids and is about to begin nursing school. A hard working gal who’s grown weary of disloding blood-blackened gauze and suctioning spit.  Fortunately for me, she’s still good at her job.

I’m a tough patient. Tiny mouth, ultra senstive. I warn the doc and assistant of this. They’re unfazed; I’m one of many, a patient among patients, perhaps with more than your average amount of gum recession.

I ask the doc if he has kids.

“Just cats and dogs,” he says. 

They will do four areas of my mouth. Donor tissue will be used (don’t think about it), and palate tissue the doctor harvests with precision. I’ve been through this before. The periodonist looked like a lean George Clooney (small consolation) and used a technique passed down from the Middle Ages. My current guy,  who’s rounder in face and physique and has a softer touch, cuts a flap of skin and removes tissue underneath, then stitches up the flap. Healing, he promises,will be easier than with the old method.

He gets the tissue he needs from my palate.  I see one piece, dangling like bait from a curved needle and an off-white piece of thread. While he stitches the bait to my gums, the assistant chats away. This morning she took down the Christmas tree, her youngest one is clingy and driving her crazy.  The periodonist ignores her.

When he’s done one part, more injections. The disgusting metallic taste of novacaine in my throat makes me gag. Another graft in another area, then another with donor tissue. 

All the while, tools poke from my mouth like the utensils from the pottery jar on my kitchen counter. The assistant suctions, and suctions some more. My jaw is locked open, permanently. 

The assistant’s assistant comes into the room to tell the assistant she left her a voicemail this weekend. She wanted company to the outlet mall in Petaluma. The assistant sounds noncommital about the idea, as though she’s glad she didn’t pick up the phone. Maybe she’s not keen on fraternizing with coworkers.   

The bib I’m wearing is blood-speckled, and my mouth feels like a very busy construction site. James Frey in A Million Little Pieces has nothin’ on me.

While the doc sees another patient down the hall, I take a pee break, avoid looking in the mirror. I can’t help myself. I look like me, but with a slack mouth and an overall pained expression.  I want it to be next month, next year.

When I return to the chair the doc says he has one more graft to do.

“Could I take the Ibuprofin and Vicadin now?” I ask meekly.

The assistant hands over the requested drugs, which go down like warm maple syrup. I resettle into the chair, open my mouth. The doc puts bait to hook.

Comments (1)

Joy of Cooking


Few activities are as gratifying as cooking. All the ingredients are there, cookbook open to a recipe for, say, Toscano Soup. Sausage, kale, heavy creme, onions. Sautee, simmer, serve, eat. Delicioso.

With cooking, the results are immediate, and appreciated immediately. 

Not so with writing. The recipe is a jumble of images and words adrift in the imagination, the finished meal often years in the making, and still more years until people get to enjoy it. 

Writing brings me joy, too. But I can’t depend on it. Like grace, joy comes when it comes. Maybe I type a sentence that’s near-perfect the first time, or I experience a fleeting sense something bigger than I is telling the story. But mostly writing is putting the words down, knowing I’ll come back; revise, rework.

Cooking can also be done with loved ones: The apple pie you and your husband make together, the soup your best girlfriend helps you spice, the spaghetti sauce your son stirs dutifully.  Simple acts of collaboration that make both parties, and diners, happy.

Cooking reminds me of my childhood. It recalls my mother in the warm kitchen with music playing, the smell of baked bread, the beets from the garden steaming, the onions in the stir fry. Years ago, she  sent each of her grown children a binder filled with xeroxed copies of her recipes and others she’s collected: Gingerbread, golden popovers, pot roast, enchiladas. I refer to this binder at least once a week.

There’s a feeling of completeness about cooking. After a good meal has been prepared and consumed all feels right with the world. As if one has partaken in a ritual as basic as breathing.

Comments (2)

Where possums lurk



People have been asking me about my next book.  To quote Bernard Malamud (his novel The Fixer won the Pulitzer in 1967), “First drafts are for learning what your story or novel is about.” With this caveat in mind, here’s a snapshot of novel #2 as of late December 2008:

The Sweet Mundane (the working title) tells the story of Lynette Willits, a recent divorcee who belongs to a women’s group called “The Circle.” Despite the members’ best intentions, the group is anything but politically correct. Against a backdrop dishonesty and cattiness transpire a number of events, including the kidnapping of a newborn baby which the women justify as an act of charity.

My goal is to write a satirical and moving, unreliably narrated (by Lynette)  story of friendship, marriage, motherhood, and relationships among forty-something women.

God only knows if I’ll pull this off. Novels-in-progress have an agenda of their own, no matter what anyone tells you about the author’s power of choice. With any creative endeavor the artist has a vision, in my case a murky one.  I like to think of the creative equation as  artistic limitation + grandiosity + divine intervention; the sum is anyone’s guess. 

When I last left Lynette, she had just nailed the pesky neighborhood possum with a rock fired from her son’s slingshot. The wounded possum hobbled over the fence  and into the neighbor’s yard.  Lynette, who detests the nasty rodent is victorious.

However, Claire, a 21st Century Pollyanna, founder of The Circle, and Lynette’s nemesis is horrified. Claire suggests that Lynette’s violent action is the result of innate hostility towards fellow Circle members. But Lynette is no pushover; and Claire, optimistic and self-righteousness, is unlikely to bend. Fur is about to fly.   

Comments (1)

Dear Editor


Eye for an Eye Literary Journal

Fiction Editor

2345 Not For Us Drive

Lost Hills, CA 93249 


Dear Fiction Editor,


Thank you for your submission. I appreciate the time and consideration that went into your rejection.  I receive many rejections a month and read each one carefully. Unfortunately, yours does not meet my professional goals. 


As you know, fiction is a subjective enterprise, and rejection of your work reflects neither your talents as an editor nor the quality of your letter.  I have every confidence it will find a home with an appropriate writer. 


Sincerely yours,


The Writer


 P.S. I have enclosed information about my new ebook How to Write the Perfect Rejection Letter. I hope you will consider ordering a copy. 

Leave a Comment

Reality is Sweet


My friend and fellow writer Andrea told me that an author she knows has sold a ton of books reading at home parties hosted by family, friends and colleagues. Last count, this author had done nineteen parties around the country. 


“Who’s her publisher?” I asked, assuming she was self-published or by a small press, like me. “St. Martin’s,” Andrea replied.  


“Oh.” (St. Martin’s is an imprint of Macmillan, a big house.) 


The reality is bookstore readings can cost money (many bookstores now charge publishers a co-op advertising fee) and the return unpredictable at best. If people show, there’s no guarantee how many, or if they’ll buy the book. Even accomplished authors  sometimes find themselves reading to small audiences and selling only a few books.


As for reviews, I’m an unknown writer, my publisher KOMENAR a small press dedicated to first-time authors. Picture stacks of books on reviewers’ desks, in recycling bins. With limited space dedicated to reviews, which books get covered? 


Truth be told, I had hoped for more than a couple of reviews (though I’m told two’s not bad for the first go-around) and oodles of bookstore readings. And yes, I even had a fleeting fantasy my book might end up on Oprah’s nightstand.  (BTW: Does anyone know her cleaning person?)

The reality of the road authors must hoe is best summed up by Dennis Cass’s hilarious video “Book Launch 2.0.”  


Despite the tough economy, The Love We All Wait For is doing relatively well at Barnes & Noble (on- and off-line).  I’m grateful. Imagine my excitement when I saw four copies of the book in the New Fiction section at the Barnes & Noble in Corte Madera, CA.     


I also have a great family and friends also helping get the word out and sell books.  My sister single-handedly organized three events in one weekend. Our mutual friend Anna hosted one of these events for her book group and huge network of friends. I recently did a conference call with my friend Chelsea’s book club in Bend, OR. She reported it was their best meeting ever. I had a ball, too, thanks to the book club members’ insightful comments and questions. 


Since then, a longtime high school friend has offered to have a party in her Salinas Valley home; four other people have offered their homes early next year. 


At the annual holiday cookie exchange hosted in my friend Demetra’s home last Saturday, festive platters of gingerbread, sugar-dusted snowmen, and other goodies covered a large dining room table. But the sweetest moment was when a woman told me she felt entirely connected to the main character during my five-minute reading. “I can’t wait to read more,” she said.    


Could it be that connecting with readers (regardless of how or where) is the whole point of this publishing thing?

Comments (11)