An Imaginary Conversation by Liesa Malik

September 1843 – London, England

Hannah Brown knocked gently on her mistress’ parlor door as she opened it and peeped around, a slight smile hovering on her lips.

“He’s here, Miss Angela.” Hannah had been Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts’ governess, then paid companion for many years, and shared a sense of fun and generosity with her mistress. This afternoon would be a real treat with this special friend come a calling.

England’s richest woman, a mere slip of a girl in her mid-twenties, looked up from her knitting and returned Hannah’s smile. “Why, you must show him in then, Hannah. Oh! Do I look all right?” The young woman smoothed her dress and dark hair almost unconsciously. Hannah nodded her approval and went to fetch their visitor.

“Miss Angela, you look charming as always,” said her young gentleman caller. He bowed over her hand and twinkled into her face. “The autumn air suits you.”

“Nonsense, Charles. You flatter. But do sit, for I adore flatterers. Especially those who bring gossip and good news.” Angela winked, and patted the couch near her. Charles took his seat. Hannah went to fetch tea. “Now, how is our dear Catherine?”

“You mean Kate, my wife? She is well and sends her regards. She’s taking our Charlie for a walk and to the London zoo today, so you and I have our time to talk.”

“Ah. So all is well. Now, Charles, have you completed the quest I set you upon when we last met?”

“So quick to the point, as always, my dear. No on-dit from the court? No noise or famous turn-aways at Almack’s? Well then, I will be as pointed as you, and we shall not draw swords over the matter.”

Angela nodded. “Do proceed, Charles. I must know whether to invest my pounds in my scheme, and you are the only one who can help me decide. Are things as I heard they are in Saffron Hill? Is there hope, or is all lost?” She leaned in and let her perfume settle in the air between them.

“All I can say, my dear madam, is that I am very glad you chose to send me as your ambassador to our most deplorable slum, rather than approaching on your own.” He shook his head and gave a theatrical shudder. “I simply cannot imagine subjecting you to that squalor.”

Angela wrapped Charles on the wrist with her fan. “Oh please, Charles, you behave as if I were one of the China dolls on my shelf, and not your friend in all schemes, up to the pluck for anything. Besides, you tricked me into not going with you. So now you must pay the price by spending the afternoon with me and telling me all you saw. Every bit. Out with it now.”

Charles sighed, shook his head, and stood. “If you insist, dear madam and great friend.

“I went to Saffron Hill, just as you suggested. There I found the streets as narrow as two twigs bound together, and the air thick with soot, and smells worse than any I could describe. There was indeed, in this most obscure and squalid part of the Metropolis, a building open at night for the gratuitous instruction of all comers, children and adults, the Field Lane Ragged School. Oh, Angela, how you would have wept to see it. My recollections as a youth working in a blacking factory pale by comparison.”

Hannah brought in the tea, and the three companions continued their chat.

“Within the walls of the Ragged School, even the rats found it hard to make room for themselves. One could not distinguish between the downtrodden and the criminals, for everyone is treated with the same lack of care and concern. The girls can sit for a while in their room, pretending to absorb what the volunteer teachers have to share, but the boys are as wild as any creature known to man or God. They cannot be trusted with books or civilized supplies.”

“Is there no hope then, Charles? Would it be a useless venture to try to support this school, this area?”

“I think, truth be told, that there is hope. I saw a lad of no more than five or six there. Tiny creature with large eyes and a gentle air. He’s been working since he was three. Chimney sweep, I think. Rickets have him in their grasp. Poor boy’s bones are as fragile and bendable as a willow branch, but he spoke to me of all good things. For him alone, it would be worth your time and money to invest in projects to help the poor of Saffron Hill.

Tears sprang to Angela’s eyes. “Did you bring him out, Charles? Did you help him escape?”

“No, Angela. For every little Timmy is like him. Poor chaps. How could I take one and not them all? Miss Hannah would have her hands full if I brought the wild boys all here.” The ladies smiled at Charles’ absurdity.

“There must be something we can do.” Angela wrung her hangs in desperation.

“I will write and post a report of what I saw,” replied Charles. “Surely, I can persuade the good people of London to care for our poor, and not accuse them. I think The Daily News could use this story."

"Perhaps, Charles. But I think there is a better way for you to reach Londoners. Do you think, my dear friend, you might write a story about the plight of Saffron Hill, in one of your fictions? I have heard that even our new queen, Victoria, reads your stories until midnight.”

“Bah,” said Charles. “That’s a humbug. But for you Angela, I will try. For you and for Tim, and for all who want to see England address the needs of the poor with something better than jails, workhouses, and ragged schools. England must see that we cannot leave a legacy of Want and Ignorance if our great empire is to survive. Yes. I think I shall.”

Good to his word, Charles Dickens began writing A Christmas Carol that month and had completed the story in six weeks. It was first published December 19, 1843.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good write.

Grateful for the Freedom to Write

CPJ photo of journalistsThanksgiving is over. Carcasses of unpardoned turkeys have been cleared from the table, their remains packaged or put in sandwiches, their bones thrown away or placed in pots of water for nourishing soup in the cold days ahead.

And like the remains of our feasts, there is a lingering thought for gratitude—the central theme of our Thanksgiving holiday.  As writers, perhaps we can spare a moment to ponder the greatest gift we have – freedom of speech. What would happen if suddenly we weren’t able to say or write what is important to us? What if our stories were stolen, replaced only with “acceptable” thought?

Since 1981 the Committee to Protect Journalists has promoted freedom of the press worldwide, and defends the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal. Why? Because according to CPJ’s mission statement, “Journalism plays a vital role in the balance of power between a government and its people. When a country’s journalists are silenced, its people are silenced.”

If the freedoms that CPJ protects were curtailed, it is very likely that some of our best stories would also be kept from us.  Imagine the discussions that would NOT take place because stories like Fahrenheit 451, To Kill A Mockingbird, or Animal Farm would never be published.  How rich would our lives be without Gulliver’s Travels, Lord of the Flies, or The Manchurian Candidate?

Think this couldn’t happen? On May 10, 1933, Nazis raided bookstores and libraries across the country of Germany and burned the works of Jewish and other “non-German” authors. Books by Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein all fell victim to the flames of hatred and small-mindedness. Freedom of expression was assaulted along with those books. Freedom to think became a ghost-like and fragile energy in Germany for the next 12 years.

And here in the United States, soon after the atrocities of Jewish persecution, and attacks on the freedom to write, we endured the McCarthy years, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Many writers in Hollywood at that time lost careers and family, or opted to use pseudonyms in a desperate hope to continue writing and earning a living with their words.

So yes, if there is a spare moment between the holiday shopping, work as usual, and greetings to friends and family, perhaps we can say a little thanks to those who believe that the freedom to write is paramount to a successful society.

The Committee to Protect Journalists illustrates clearly the importance and dangers of speaking your mind. Since 1992, one thousand, two hundred, twenty journalists have been killed around the world for doing what you and I take for granted—they wrote.

In gratitude I write this post today; grateful for the teachers who taught me to read and write, grateful to those who read and share my stories, grateful for those yet to come, who will impact our world with their care-filled prose, their willingness to debate. I am grateful for the words that empower me each day:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . .”

Platform Building At MPIBA

Jane Friedman, former publisher of Writer’s Digest and current columnist for Publishers Weekly defines author platform in her wonderfully succinct way, as “an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.”

For many of us, the definition above may feel as if we’re in this platform building project all alone. Where have I had a story published? What credentials do I have in my area of interest? How big is my mailing list?

But sometimes, I believe that the groups we belong to build our platform more effectively than any individual effort can.  And RMFW is one of those groups.

Photo of Corinne O'Flynn and the table setup for the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association.
Corinne O'Flynn and the table setup for the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association.

Take, for example, the opportunity to go to the Mountains and Plains Fall Discovery Show, which took place October 6 through 8 at the Renaissance Hotel in Denver. A group of PAL and I-PAL members were invited to this collection of independent booksellers and publishers to represent our Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers group, and to promote our own books in the process.

Both a treat in promotion and a great learning process, the Mountains & Plains show had well over 200 booksellers from Texas to Canada and throughout the west congregating to talk shop, promote books, and meet authors.

It was a thrill to go to “Pick of the Lists” sessions to see how publisher sales reps promote our books. They have the job of “pitching” our books the way we do at conference, only they haven’t actually written the work. Talk about a challenge.  In approximately 10 minutes they have to entice booksellers to order up to 15 titles at a time.  One rep I saw held up children’s books in groups of titles to complete his task.  Another rep pushed a toddler’s train through the cardboard pages of the book she promoted.  Mostly, though, the reps had to “tell the story” of the book they represent and its author in less than 2 minutes. No wonder practicing our pitch sessions are so important.

In the exhibit hall, RMFW had two tables stretched along a prime spot to reach into the book buying community.  We displayed our books and reached out into the aisle to meet sellers, publishers, and others in the publishing community. Many had not heard of RMFW.  Some didn’t think they had, until they saw “It’s A Book,” and then they said, “Oh! I know you!”  Thank you Laura Reeve, editor and publisher of “It’s a Book.” Your many years of service remain a quiet treasure for RMFW, and a strong plank in all of our author platforms.

Thank you, too, to the RMFW authors (both indy and trad) who participated in this event.  Because of your efforts, the “It’s A Book” mailing list has grown by approximately 30 more booksellers. Through them, our opportunity to sell more books has grown tremendously.

If you’d like to know more about joining MPIBA (Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association), check out their website, where you might find, like Anne Holman of the King’s English Bookshop in Utah, that “Bookselling is a nice family to be in,” and that booksellers represent a wonderful platform building opportunity.

Denver, the Literary Capital of the West?

I’ve lived in four major cities beyond Denver during my life – Detroit, Tampa, Dallas and even London, England for a year.  Guess you could say I’ve been around the block a time or two. And in my experience, one of the things I’ve found to be unique and special about Denver is the vibrancy of the writing community here.  Over the past couple of years, therefore, I’ve toyed with the idea of how we might establish Denver as the Literary Capital of the West.

Whoa! Literary Capital? Can we truly think about this? 

As creative writers, I know we can. Let’s play that brainstorming game, “What if?” and see what happens . . .

What if Denver were the literary capital of the West?

If that happened, wouldn’t we then see an influx in great and world renowned authors living and visiting our area?  Jack Kerouac traveled here and wrote a significant portion of his “On the Road” based on life in Denver. Alan Ginsberg, also a leader in the Beat Generation of the ‘50s, established a school of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder. We need more established authors to represent today’s writing superstars. People like Doris Kerns Goodwin might do an updated history of our wild west. Or Stephen King might come by to add to his “The Shining” with maybe a story or two about the haunting of Cheesman Park or the Denver Children’s Home. Or maybe with big name writers around, the level of our own local talent would continue to zoom ahead of the rest of the country. We have great authors at RMFW. Denver needs to support them and get the word out on them so they can sell more books, and make a living in this adventure.

And, what if our booksellers wanted to get involved?

I’m heading to the Mountains & Plains booksellers conference next week with some RMFW published authors where we’ll meet up to 250 booksellers interested in the books by us western-based authors.  Okay, so Portland, Oregon has Powell’s Books, but the Tattered cover is adding steam to their engine with some new owners we’re all excited about. We have a solid community of great independent booksellers and plenty of Barnes and Nobles to excite the reading public. What if we set our relationship with this group and created new markets for our books to be sold at?

If we were better formed as a publishing force, could we also contemplate encouraging big publishers to come west, or maybe create big publishers from the small and start-up organizations that already exist here? Could we evolve the face of publishing by working together on goals and needs to grow and fulfill demand for our work?

What would happen if we had more writing groups?

RMFW is huge. Over 700 members work in our critique groups, come to our annual conference or visit through our monthly programs. But RMFW is only one writing group in Colorado.  I have heard that there are more than 40 groups where writers constantly keep current and grow their writing skills and aspirations.  Think Pikes Peak, Lighthouse Writers, Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers, Sisters in Crime and many more.  Perhaps the question isn’t what if we had more writing groups, but what if all the writing groups came together at one huge event?

What if we had a Denver Lit Book Festival every few years?

We might have books, authors, publishers, agents, professional story tellers, play writes, librarians, and more.  Wow! Can you imagine that?  We could have poetry slams, book readings, music and food—always good food. The blue bear at the convention center might become a great reading example if we hung a book inside the windows for him to read.

So What If we had more and better examples of readers?

8th-grade-reading-scores-coloradoMaybe we’d re-inspire the governor’s book club, give more support to Dom Testa’s “The Big Brain Club” or start our own programs for literacy in Colorado.  Did you know that only 38% of eighth graders tested in Colorado are reading at a proficient level?  We can do better. Maybe we writers and authors could team up with some of our terrific literacy programs and help make reading popular.  It’s good for the kids, it expands our marketplace, and it helps people live better lives.

Can you envision all of this?

What thoughts can you come up with when you ask, “What if Denver were the literary capital of the West?”

3 Reading Tips for Writers

How many books do you read in a year?  Who’s your favorite author, and why? When was the last time you truly got lost in a good read?

Only about 18% of the adults in the United States read more than one book a year for pleasure. As authors we have to sit up and say, “Yikes!” However, as humans, we also need to acknowledge that our “market” is pounded constantly for time.  People are busy with work and personal obligations, social commitments, and even a dizzying array of entertainments. The quiet book on a shelf doesn’t exactly shout out for reading time.

But for us lucky ones, those who love the book, we know several good reasons to read.  And topping the list for us is simply that to write better we need to constantly aspire to read better.

Book photo: How to Read a Book - by Adler and Van Doren
Reading better to write better -- who knew?

Last week, I picked up a copy of “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. This book, originally published in 1940, is still found in local book stores, selling well.  And no wonder. Adler and Van Doren conduct a thoughtful exploration of reading from multiple perspectives and different levels. This isn’t the only good book on reading, but, as once critic said, it “has become a rare phenomenon, a living classic.” If you get a chance, try to add “How to Read a Book” to your reading list.

After poking around "How to Read a Book," I started researching other books, blog posts, and articles on reading.  Here are three tips I hope will help you both to become a better reader and a better writer:


Well duh. Like eat more veggies and lose more weight, we writers know it’s important to read as much as possible. The question becomes not whether to do so, but how.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Keep an on-going book list – so you never run out of materials. Some people even set up a separate email account to send reading ideas to themselves, and follow-up emails with reviews and notes.
  • Keep reading handy – Have a book, anthology, magazine, or other reading material strategically lodged in those places you naturally gravitate to perch – your car, your favorite chair, the bathroom, etc.
  • Plan reading times – sometimes finding time is a matter of thinking ahead. Do you rush back to work from lunch and find you’ve only been gone 15 minutes? Maybe you can use that extra time for a good reading break. The twenty minutes before falling asleep at night, or turning on your light when the alarm goes off so you can wake comfortably with a good book are also good. If you look for time, you’ll find it.
  • Make reading a habit – Once you make reading fun, you’ll be inspired to return to it over and over. Keep track for a week of times you otherwise “waste” when you could be reading, and then change that habit for a reading one.


Adler and Van Doren encourage readers to jot down notes and questions in margins, underline unfamiliar words, mark in the margins great turns of phrase or quotations, and outline the book you’re reading in the couple of blank pages at the front or back of those books you buy.  I have a hard time with “outlining fiction,” but if you glance through any Cliff notes, you can see ideas for how this might be done.

One RMFW author was talking at her book signing, and mentioned that when her editor/agent suggested she write a mystery she went out, bought more than a dozen mysteries, and outlined them.  She didn’t run to the “how to write a mystery” section of the bookstore. She read the genre she was interested in writing. She made those books her own.


“How to Read a Book” talks about how most of us read at an elementary level.  This isn’t to be insulting, but accurate. If you’re like me, perhaps you too read at this level. Word. By. Word. Page one to “the end.” And if you’re as slow a reader as I, then becoming frustrated with reading more is understandable.  But here are some other levels of reading to consider:

  • Inspectional Reading – This is essentially skimming through an entire book, no matter the length, in a small set amount of time. Check the title, categorize the book, read the blurbs that so many of us struggle to write, and dive in here and there to get a complete feel for the book, before wasting time on something you don’t enjoy.
  • Analytical Reading – This is probably done the second or third time you quickly read a book. Start arguing with the author, ask questions (in the margins) and classify the book in several ways.  This is active reading to help you remember more, and enjoy the experience at a deeper level.
  • Syntopical Reading -- This is an expression developed by the authors to say that sometimes you need to read multiple books and sources on a single question, and that when you do this, your expertise is more highly developed.  As a mystery writer, for example, I wouldn’t want to read only Agatha Christie, but I need to delve into several authors in order to create my own concept of what a good mystery is all about.

In the past couple of weeks I have to admit that I’ve been indulging in Netflix reruns of “Murder, She Wrote.” In one episode, an aspiring writer asks Jessica Fletcher how he can become a better writer.  Without hesitation she answers, “Read, read, read!”

I hope you’ll share your own reading tips in the comments below.  Meanwhile, “Hound of the Baskervilles” is calling.

A Study in Clues: The Layered Story

As a mystery writer, I’m intrigued by the notion of clues.  The old “list of stuff in a scene” or, “what the butler saw” are clue-types I still enjoy. But to be honest, I often miss clues in mysteries, relying on my “gut feeling” to decide who the culprit of the crime is. To me, under the clues, deductive reasoning, observances and other detecting tools of the trade, is the story. And the story is what brings the reader along, even if I know that the person who seems the nicest is likely to be the killer.

M.C. Escher's Three Worlds from
M.C. Escher's Three Worlds

So, last week I dove into the classic mystery by Wilkie Collins, “The Woman in White.” I hadn’t read it before, and wasn’t expecting much.  After all, it was written in 1859 in the midst of the Victorian era. The sentences are long, the characters seldom get right to the point, and the niceties of the times could make the pace of the story seem beyond quaint, to nerve-wracking slow.  I thought I’d have no problem discovering “who done it” by chapter two. Was I in for an education.

Collins’ language, though typical of the time, engaged me completely.  He breaks all sorts of story rules by today’s standards, yet in doing so, enriches the reading experience completely.

The table of contents gives us seldom used concepts, like Epoch (a period in a person’s life marked by notable events), and a story started by one character and continued by another, based on the events. No mish-mash of multiple witnesses to the same event as we write today, but a continuous story told from the perspective of the best witness for that event. But every witness has a mystery of his or her own to resolve. Each was written in first person, but the personalities and their personal worries were so varied it was easy to keep them straight.

In the first paragraph of the tale, we are engaged with a question put forth in the form of a melodramatic statement: “This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.”  Okay, I’ll bite.

There is no dead body in the first chapter. Or the second. In fact, no one dies for quite a while in this tale. Yet time and again, I was caught up in the tension of what might happen. And when, at last, we get to the death, it seems almost inconsequential to the tale.  This isn’t much for detecting writers of today to pull from.

In fact, it wasn’t until the very end of the tale, that I understood a seldom used, but completely effective form of clue-setting—layering.  With multiple perspectives, we have multiple stories pulled along not just by a theme, but by subplots, each with mysteries of their own.  Why did Sir Percival insist on marrying Laura when she made it plain her heart rested elsewhere?  Who is this enormous Fosco, and how does he maintain that Svengali hold over so many people? Who is this woman in white, and why does she look so much like Laura?

Every page seemed to introduce a new mystery, even as it revealed new evidence of evil intent.  I’m reminded of the old Heinz ketchup commercial: anticipation. Layering.

And, I was truly grateful that not every mystery in the story was closed in the final pages of the book.  Some mysteries were solved early and others late.  The more you read the more you were rewarded in the puzzles and solutions before you.

In a way, The Woman in White reminds me of M.C. Escher’s lithograph of The Three Worlds. When you look at this picture of a pond with a fish in it, you’re tempted to walk by and say “so what?” But then Escher invites you in with the title of his work and you can see so much more because of the subtlety of laying he’s done with the fish in one world, the leaves in another, and the trees in a third world. Woman in White gives us at least that many layers.

So what’s the clue here? How do you plant it in your next story?  Learning to layer here.

The Value of a Compliment

So. Here we are, six months into the “New Year.” How are your writing resolutions going?  Are you getting 2,000, or 10,000, or whatever daily word counts you aspired to complete? Me either.

Have you finished that first novel and started in on your second? I’m right with you on missing that one too.

In fact, like 92% of the people who make resolutions, I have failed to meet my 2016 reading and writing goals.

And the start of my year hasn’t been all that much to celebrate either.  I entered two writing contests only to fail making it past the first round of judging.  I had one of those decade birthdays, and sometimes I feel every minute of how ancient my bones have become. Just lock me up in the museum and throw away the key. And while I started and love a new job, guess what that does to my writing time. Anybody have cheese to go with my wine-ing? Hearts bleeding peanut butter yet?

To me, there are always clouds for the silver linings in a writer’s life. We work alone, and are sometimes lonely. We’re introverted in an extrovert world. We’re creative in a nuts and bolts kind of society. If I focus hard enough, there are always things that give me the excuses for feeling bad, procrastinating too much, and generally leave me asking why I want to be a writer. Hint: if you’re in it for the big bucks, there are a whole lot of other ways to get that goal accomplished.

Then, for me, this past month happened and I have to push those gloomy clouds back. The silver linings refuse to stay closeted.

Someone told me that they liked my work.  Liked. My. Work. Really?

In fact, this generous person said, “I just wanted to tell you how much I loved your book! I couldn’t put it down and finished it in two days.”  This from a total stranger to me. Well shut my mouth and give me a keyboard. I think I can try this writing thing again.

And then a friend said to me, “My mom adores your books and wants to know when the next one is coming out.” For the first time in months, the question, “how’s the writing?” hasn’t left me feeling guilty and defeated. My friend’s face shone with being able to share this great review, and we’re talking about writing a short story just for mom for Christmas.

And this past Tuesday, Lindsay Woods of KRFC Radio in Fort Collins, replayed an interview she did with me a year ago on her Tuesday Talk Show.  What an ego boost! One full hour with no commercials (KRFC is a nonprofit organization), talking about a favorite subject—books and writing.  Lindsay read out loud some of the reviews both writer friends and professional reviewers gave my latest book.  I had forgotten them long ago.

I have a clipping file of reviews, and when I take the time to look through them, I always feel energized for writing projects.  I also like Aaron Ritchey’s advice from yesterday’s column, “write every day, as much as you can.” I like how there isn’t a specific number of words. Just write.

I also like Mary Gillgannon’s notion that writing takes energy.  She’s right.  Exercise is important. So is filling the spiritual well as she talks about.

So here’s my tip of the day – keep your compliments.  Whether or not you’re published, or a contest winner, you receive writing compliments from time to time.  Save that critique group note that says you’ve mastered the use of ellipses.  Hold onto the thank you note that says it’s no wonder you’re a writer; your last letter home was terrific. Cherish the rejection that’s accompanied with a personal note from an agent or editor.

I have a bright blue binder where I keep print out of reviews – on friends’ blogs, from the press, notes from loved ones.  Now I know where I need to look to build the kind of positive energy that makes writing what it was always meant to be – a joy.

Hey! I just realized the New Year is only 6 months old – I can get some writing done.  Hope you do too.

Wishing you a positively creative day.

The Freedom to Write

Happy Memorial Weekend!  So many things to celebrate—the beginning of summer, the joy of family, our gratitude to veterans and those who lost their lives in war.

Like most of us, I hate the idea of war.  I know what it’s like to lose a loved one suddenly, and to have my child killed in action in a place far away under conditions I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy would be a trauma I don’t think I could endure.  It all seems so senseless. But wars have been fought since humankind first began to gather in tribes across our world. We are a violent species, and our children of 18, 19, 20 years pay the price for this.

Photo for the freedom to write.
Thank you to all our service personnel who protect our right to write.

What soldiers do, though, is bring you and I as writers a solemn and precious gift—the gift of a free press. The gift of being able to say and write what we feel is important.  The US Constitution in the first amendment recorded under our Bill of Rights guarantees our freedom of expression.  Our military personnel protect that freedom in a very real way.

I don’t know if my uncle worried about the specifics of a free press when he went to war in the 1940s, or when he had to shoot or be shot in the South Pacific.  He was just a kid who did what he was told. In all the years I “knew” him, Uncle Jack only talked of his military service once. That was just a year or two before he died, but the stories he told were frighteningly vivid even after almost 70 years had passed.  Uncle Jack’s service and the service of his buddies in WWII guaranteed that a book like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible would be published and not burned as so many books were by the Nazis. Thank you, Uncle Jack.

And even when journalists and soldiers come in principled conflict as happened in the 1960’s, our freedom to write, to challenge our mores and common thinking are protected.  While young men and women sailed across to Vietnam to, as the posters said at the time, “meet new people – and then shoot them,” our journalists at home and in the rice paddies far away were protected and even encouraged to write, to discover, to unearth the important stories.  That’s how we ended up with such classic writing as the Watergate investigations by Woodward and Bernstein, published in the Washington Post, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, and the television show, M.A.S.H. that criticized American involvement in foreign wars.

Today, journalists travel with armies, report in countries about political and human rights violations, cover our world with information.  According to the website (Committee to Protect Journalists), there were 73 journalists killed in 2015, and so far in 2016 there have been 10 killed as they did their jobs of writing.  Today, people still sacrifice their lives so that crucial truths have the chance to thrive.

This leaves you and me with an important role in the story of human history.  If we have the freedom to write whatever we want, we have the obligation to write and reflect our world passionately in our stories.  Whether we write romance, or crime, fantasy or creative non-fiction, let our writing be from our hearts, and be as honest as possible.

This Memorial weekend, as we acknowledge our fallen soldiers who protect our freedom of expression, perhaps we can also spare a moment for the journalists who exercise that protected freedom. And in the process of remembrance and gratitude we can encourage our own growth as humans and writers.

5 Ideas to Boost Your Writing Confidence

The blank page is to many authors what a large audience is to a shy and introverted soul asked to give a speech. Terrifying.  And it doesn’t help when writing friends are completing that next chapter, submitting another short story to an anthology, or simply garnering another 50 readers to their blog.

Before succumbing to the terror of the blank page, know that there are things you can do to bolster your writing confidence and hopefully increase your productivity at the same time.  Here are some ideas you might try and some thoughts for your own writing journey:

  1. WRITE BADLY - Yep, go out and enjoy using redundant phrases, sloppy attributions in dialog, or poetic and superfluous adjectives to your heart’s content.  Make a game of it. Try starting a story with one of these clichés and see if a spirit of fun doesn’t just take over your creative time:
    1. “It was a dark and stormy night. . .” (check out the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest if you get something good going here)
    2. “She looked into the mirror admiring her glossy brown tresses . . .”
    3. “He wore his disappointment like a badge of honor. . .”

Remember: not every piece of writing you do has to be publishable or profitable.

  1. MAKE A MESS – I used to try to buy pretty notebooks with kittens and puppies and happy sayings on them, but I found I never wanted to write in them. I feared writing the “wrong thing,” and messing up the perfect bound books. Now I buy cheap-o notebooks and often intentionally slop up a page or two. Kind of like breaking in a new pair of sneakers—what’s a little mud-slinging among friends? If you only write on a computer, try hand writing sometime--very freeing, and confidence building.
  2. WRITE NEW – Stuck in a rut with your romance writing? Try taking some of your favorite characters and putting them into a horror story. Or try writing a poem (I once wrote one about my Jeep—still have and enjoy it). Or a blog post for the RMFW blog. Or a real love letter. Sometimes taking a "vacation" from what we normally do, increases our ability to focus and be productive when we return to our work.
  3. WRITE SHORT – Think in terms of filler articles for your favorite magazines or e-zines, or maybe enter a flash fiction contest. You probably know a lot more than you think you do. The competition is fierce for these articles today, as the filler is a disappearing form of writing (a filler is a tiny article, joke, anecdote, or other copy that used to "fill" print space in the old days of typeset layouts), but more and more companies' websites need short blog posts, Twitter tweets, and other "content" for their social media. It's opportunity for the flexible writer, may give you some ego-boosting clips and maybe even put a few bucks in your pocket.
  4. WRITE DAILY – Okay, no guilt here. I don’t count words completed in a day.  Tried that. Led to increased guilt over the time I wasted counting and tracking words “completed” instead of writing something I could call commercial fiction. Instead, I try to keep that cheap spiral notebook with me for when an idea jumps to mind. There’s a notebook on my nightstand and one at my desk. I have notecards in my purse for emergency moments of brilliance, and there’s always my dictation function on my phone if all else fails. Jot down fun stuff like character names, titles of books you’ll write, a run-in with a nasty total stranger (did I ever tell you about the guy at the dog park I almost punched?) and, of course, a plot twist that will go into your next novel nicely.

And here’s a bonus tip—most of us write because we simply cannot go without writing. But when we get caught up in the “business” of writing, we lose both our fresh voice, and the thing that brings us to the writing table—our creativity. Deep breath. Relax. Write.

If you have ideas to share, please do!  I’m always on the lookout for a great motivational tip.


Tomorrow, Saturday April 23, RMFW will host its quarterly board meeting.  If you’re interested in how our all-volunteer organization gets things done, or want to get more involved yourself, please join us at the Sam Gary Branch Library, 2961 Roslyn St, Denver, CO 80238. The meeting starts at 1:00.

Playing with Rhetoric

In this year of politics we are likely to hear the common complaint, “Oh, that’s just the candidate’s rhetoric. Wait until they’re in office and we’ll see what really happens.”

picture of jfk inauguration
Kennedy used antimetabole to inspire a generation.

Rhetoric definitely has a bad reputation. The first definition in the dictionary implies that rhetoric allows people to use language for influence and persuasion, but without honesty.

I had a class once in rhetoric. Took it because someone said it was practically an automatic A, and heck, who wouldn’t go for that? Unfortunately, a new teacher took over, and I never worked harder. We had to read Aristotle and discuss the importance and forms of arguments and logic.  Guess what? Aristotle didn't use rhetoric to lie. I barely survived the course.

Today, as a writer, I wish I’d paid more attention. Rhetoric was a good class, and the influence of an articulate speaker (or author) has maintained an important part of my writing aspirations since. If I could come up with phrases like, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” I think I would be a happy writer indeed. President Kennedy apparently borrowed the structure of that comment from a school headmaster, but you have to admit, he used it well. That phrase inspired a generation to launch the Peace Corps, go to the moon, and march for peace and equal rights. Rhetoric. Good words.

So, how can we use rhetoric, or more precisely, rhetorical devices to enhance our writing experience? There are whole lists of devices on the Internet that can add emotion, lyrical rhythms, and resonance to our writing. Here are a few:


Alliteration is the recurrence of initial consonant sounds. These sounds can be easy or harsh on the ear, and will draw attention to themselves by their repetition. What if you were writing a story was set in a florist shop? You could name the store, “Moe’s Flowers,” and be done with the job, or you could play with the beginning F sound and create something like “Flo’s Fantastic Flowers,” giving your readers a sense of Flo and her pride in her business without expending a lot of page real estate on that thought.


Wow. What an interesting word that simply means to repeat for emphasis. Can you imagine a child who wants the sucker in your hand? What does she say? “May I have that please?” or “Gimme, gimme, gimme!” Can you use that epizeuxis rhetorical tool to enrich some of your characters’ dialog?


Similar to epizeuxis, is amplification. This is repeating a word within a phrase to emphasize its importance. In Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, he used “of the people, by the people, for the people,” to emphasize the importance of those who died on the battlefield, who mourned the lost souls, and who had to rebuild our nation after the great Civil War. When used in a conscious effort, amplification can truly hammer home a point. Maybe you could use it to underscore the theme of your story, as in, “Love is gentle, love is kind,” she said, and kissed the soldier good-bye.

Rhetorical devices are worth studying as you work on your next story. As you engage in rewriting a chapter, maybe play consciously to make a thought stand out using a rhetorical device. Or hide a thought by making it as mundane as possible, sandwiched between phrases that sparkle with their rhetoric.

Do you have a favorite rhetorical device? Please share. Beyond our annual Simile Contest at Colorado Gold, do you indulge in a regular rhetorical device?

Wishing you a creative word day.