Shaw’s Saint Joan

A concept called “the writer’s voice” has been on my mind ever since I saw Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan during last month’s Shaw conference. I love the play, and I was fascinated by Sarah Topham’s portrayal of the Maid of Orleans. “Luminous” and “radiant” are the words most often used to describe Saint Joan, and they perfectly describe Topham as well.

But several times during this performance I was bored – sleepy even. I’ve always vehemently defended Shaw against the critics who say that his characters are nothing more than mouthpieces for his ideas. But during that performance I started thinking there might be some truth in those complaints…

…until the next morning. On the way back to our hotel after breakfast, my sister and I ran into a Shaw friend, Peter Gahan, who’s a much more perceptive critic than I am. I mustered enough courage to make a guilty confession: several times during Saint Joan I’d found myself dozing off.

Peter’s response helped me feel less guilty. The problem – in his view – was that the production played down the personalities of Joan’s enemies. According to Peter, the arguments against Joan aren’t just abstract ideas: they’re closely tied up with the values and life histories of the men who wanted to burn her at the stake.

To put it a different way: What I heard during the play was a chorus of voices wanting to put Joan to death. What I should have been hearing were five or six distinctly different men arguing their own viewpoints about why Joan was a problem and what should be done with her.

In my next post I’ll suggest some ways to help readers hear your voice in your writing.

Saint Joan at the Shaw Festival

         Saint Joan at the Shaw Festival


Dancing at Lughnasa

Last month I traveled to Canada for a Shaw conference in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a beautiful little town that hosts  the Shaw Festival every year. Our group saw two Shaw plays (of course!), and many of us used our free time to see additional plays by other playwrights.

My sister and I decided to see Dancing at Lughnasa, a play about five sisters who lived in a small Irish town in the 1930s. It’s based on playwright Brian Friel’s actual family and their lives in Ireland almost 100 years ago. True to its title, Dancing at Lughnasa features some marvelous Irish dancing. Four of the five sisters want to attend a local dance festival, and they twirl wildly around their kitchen in anticipation. Even the fifth sister, who serves as a kind of mother figure for the family, is eventually drawn in.

But then the music ends, and the five women decide not to go to the festival after all. Where did all that ecstatic energy (one of my Shaw friends described it as “Dionysian”) go?

Nowhere. It’s forgotten as life returns to normal, which – in pre-WWII Ireland –  means a depressing and increasingly desperate quest for survival. Michael, the son of one of the sisters, grows up to be the play’s narrator. He recounts how he “selfishly” left the town as soon as he was old enough. “Selfishly”? There was nothing for him there – no hope for a career and a decent life.

After my sister and I left the Royal George Theatre that night, my thoughts kept returning to the idea of energy. I was disappointed that the dancing of those five women filled that theater with energy – and then, in a flash, it was gone. I wanted the women to hold on to that energy – struggle with it – and go wherever it wanted to take them.

Dancing at Lughnasa won both Tony and Olivier “best play” awards and was subsequently made into a movie that starred Meryl Streep – so clearly mine is a minority view. But I think that feeling I had in the Royal George Theatre – like watching the air fizzle out of a balloon – is worth thinking about.

It seems to me that life is all about energy. If you’ve ever been depressed (and that’s just about everyone), you know the force of will that’s needed just to get through your daily routine – and you may also remember how wonderful you felt when your energy started to trickle back into your life.

I’m thinking that energy is just as essential to writing. If I were writing a composition textbook now (and I’ve published two of them), I think I’d make energy my central focus. Find a topic that energizes you, and then explore ways to transfer that energy to your audience. (It ain’t easy, folks!)

This is clearly a new direction for me, and I’m not yet sure where it’s going. But here’s a list of suggestions for creating and sustaining energy in a writing task. (I hope there will be more to come!)

  • build momentum into the structure of your piece – by working towards a climax, for example
  • tell stories
  • search for fresh ideas and unfamiliar examples

And here’s the most important thing: you need monitor your own energy while you’re writing. If you’re starting to get bored, your readers are going to pick up that feeling.

I ran into that problem while I was putting together a presentation for this year’s Shaw conference. The solution (luckily I was doing a PowerPoint) was to make create some illustrations of my own – Playbills and Actors Equity cards to emphasize my point that Major Barbara is all about theatricality. (You can watch my presentation here.) Having fun is a great way to energize a writing task!

So much writing instruction plods along with advice about outlines, topic sentences, and the like. Of course those concepts are important. (I constantly think about topic sentences when I’m writing. I know how dull that sounds, but it’s a big help!)

Here’s the thing, though: before you even think about making an outline or writing a thesis statement, you should be gathering energy into a big ball that will explode into something lively and engaging for your audience to read.

What ideas and experiences are energizing you right now? Can you write about them?

Dancing at Lughnasa

                              Dancing at Lughnasa


Plain Language

In my previous post, I talked about the Plain Writing Act passed by Congress in 2010. I often conduct writing workshops for government employees who are all for clear, direct, timesaving writing. “Down with gobbledygook and jargon,” they’ll say. “We want clarity and simplicity.”

But when I ask them to do some writing, what I get are sentences like “The fluid supply in my writing implement is exhausted.” (Translation: “My pen is out of ink.”) And when I insist on simple sentences, the room resounds with protests, arguments, and yelps of pain.

Why are fancy words and tangled sentences so popular? There’s a reason, and it’s embedded in the history of England.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The British Isles have been invaded again and again. With each conquest, the victorious army brought its own language, such as Latin (under the Roman invasion), and French (during the Norman Conquest). Workers soon discovered that the best jobs went to the people who were willing to learn the conquerors’ language.

That’s why – more than a thousand years later – words derived from Latin and French sound elegant and sophisticated to us. Attorneys talk about juvenile offenders (derived from French and Latin) rather than young people who break the law (English). A physician will say, “She’s experiencing respiratory distress” (French and Latin) rather than “She’s having a hard time breathing” (English).

The problems are obvious. Picture frantic parents trying to find a doctor for their sick child. They stand in front of a sign that says “Pediatrics Department.” Wouldn’t it be more helpful to have a sign that says “Children’s Health”? (The word pediatrics, incidentally, goes back to a time when most wealthy Britons studied Greek in school.)

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Now I want to return to the topic of resistance – readers and listeners fighting back when we try to win them over to an idea. In my previous post I suggested a way to overcome that resistance: drill down into an idea to uncover its complexity.

It’s a strategy I’ve used in my own Plain Language workshops. Here’s how it works:

If you ask most people the purpose of language, the likely answer is “communication.” Simple enough!

But when you think more deeply about language, you realize that that speech and writing have many other uses. We often – especially in the workplace – use language as a badge, a test, and a gatekeeper.

Think about these four situations. What purposes does language serve in each one? Is it just communication – or something else as well?

  1. A physician is telling a worried mother how to help her son get well.
  2. An engineer is interviewing for a research position.
  3. An exclusive country club is hosting a meet-and-greet event for prospective new members.
  4. Two scholars are exchanging small talk at a wine-and-cheese reception.

Here are my answers. (Let me hasten to assure you that yours may be different!)

  1. A physician is telling a worried mother how to help her son get well. I would call this pure communication. The physician doesn’t need to prove anything; she just wants to help the boy recover from his illness.
  2. An engineer is interviewing for a research position. The interviewers may be using language to test the engineer’s knowledge. Does he understand engineering vocabulary? Is he familiar with new terms that other engineers are talking about?
  3. An exclusive country club is hosting a meet-and-greet event for prospective new members. In this situation, language might serve as a gatekeeper. The screening committee might be watching for language habits that don’t match the ideal candidates they’re looking for. The committee might also use sophisticated terms for jewelry, investments, boats, and automobiles to make unsuitable candidates feel uncomfortable and decide to withdraw their applications.
  4. Two scholars are exchanging small talk at a wine-and-cheese reception. Here language is likely to serve as a badge. The scholars can instantly tell that they have similar backgrounds and interests. All is well! A bond develops between them.

The point here isn’t whether my answers are right or wrong. When I use this activity at a workshop, I’m encouraging participants to think about language in a more complicated way. Words can have hidden agendas.

Let’s go back to that physician in the first example. She doesn’t need to use language as a badge: “Trust me, I’m a doctor!” But many physicians really do display that language badge with every patient. It never occurs to them that ordinary language would serve them better.

I’m going to give one more example that came up at the Shaw conference I attended last week (where I had a marvelous time, incidentally!). We had a lively debate about the word “Shavian” (an adjective describing the works and thinking of Bernard Shaw).

Tim Carroll, director of the Shaw Festival where our group met, has taken the word “Shavian” off the Festival’s website. He feels that it sometimes functions as a gatekeeper or a test. On the other hand, some members of our group felt that “Shavian” is a useful badge. And still others think it’s an effective communications tool and nothing more.

I’m not going to take a stand on this. My big point today is that something that seems quite simple and obvious can have hidden layers of meaning and complexity – solid gold for successful writers!



In a recent post I talked about Natalie Goldberg’s book The True Secret of Writing. Since then I’ve been thinking the topic of resistance that she talks about in her wonderful Practice chapter.

Resistance works two ways. Writers don’t want to sit down to tackle a writing task (it’s called “writer’s block”), and readers can be just as unwilling to absorb what we’re trying to tell them.

I’m saving writer’s block for another day.  Today we’re going to talk about resistance from readers and listeners. It’s a phenomenon I run into whenever I do a Plain Writing workshop.

First, some background. Congress passed the Plain Writing Act in 2010, and President Obama signed it. It calls upon federal agencies to use “clear Government communication that the public can understand.” Here’s an example of bad business writing:

It is requested that employees extinguish illumination when the necessity for such illumination expires because of the conclusion of work-related activities requiring such illumination, such as the end of the working day.  JARGON

And here’s the Plain Language version:

Turn out the lights when you’re leaving.  BETTER

Although local and state agencies aren’t covered by this legislation, many of them are making a huge effort to simplify their documents and publications. Bravo! (You can go to for some wonderful examples and tools.)

Ever since the Plain Writing Act was passed, I’ve been conducting workshops for various local agencies. And here’s what I’ve discovered: every employee is heartily in favor of plain writing – until you ask them to give up their jargon.

Erk! RESISTANCE. Lots of it. “We’ll sound stupid!” “You don’t understand the way we do things here.” “My clients won’t respect me.”

Today’s post is going to be the first of two about this problem. I’m going to talk about a) why readers sometimes fight back and b) how to overcome that resistance. A future post will deal specifically with Plain Language.

 *  *  *  *  *  * 

Every writer wants readers to be enlightened by what we’re telling them. But here’s the thing: when your audience instantly accepts your message, there’s a good chance that they haven’t heard you at all. Genuine communication often provokes agitation, unrest, confusion, and disbelief. You’ll hear some loud voices. A few tomatoes may be lobbed at you.

Those Plain Language workshops I conduct every year are a perfect example. When I talk about strategies for communicating effectively with the public, my listeners smile agreeably and nod their approval.

But when I ask them to apply the principles of Plain Language – mutiny!

So what’s the answer? Today I’m going to cover one of my favorite strategies: Drill down into an apparently simple idea to show how complex it really is.

I’m going to use a story one of my friends told me. She was horrified one day to hear her daughter and several other teenagers talking about how much fun it would be to have a real, live baby.

Alarm bells! But what to do? My friend had already delivered the usual birds-and-bees talk, along with some warnings about the problems of single motherhood.

Her solution was a lunchtime trip to a nearby shopping mall, where she and her daughter just happened (or so it seemed!) to stroll through a store that specialized in furniture and products for babies. Her daughter was charmed by the bassinets and toys – and aghast at the prices and the sheer number of items needed to care for a baby. Over lunch Mom casually shared some long-ago memories about what it was like to be the brand-new mother of an infant.

A couple of weeks later, my friend overheard another conversation from the teen-aged group: they were talking about all the fun they were going to have in college.

Huge sigh of relief! Caring for a baby is much more challenging than taking care of a baby doll. Daughter saw some of the complexity (the furniture and products in the store) and heard about it (her mom’s stories).

In my next post, I’m going to talk about the hidden complexities of business writing. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll think about drilling down into some everyday topics that seem simple until you look closely at them.

How do you:

  • settle relationship disagreements 
  • invest your money
  • manage your time
  • buy a house
  • plan a vacation

Think too about your job, your religious beliefs, your political philosophy, a problem you solved recently…any area that absorbs your time, energy, and attention. Drill down until you find something fresh and unexpected. Take whatever you find to your readers, and watch them fight back! That’s where real communication begins, in all its frustration and glory.

I’ll have more to say about Plain Language in the next post.



More about That Piano Student

Earlier this month I edited three sentences from a wonderful short story by William Trevor. I invited visitors to this blog to offer feedback and edits of their own. One particularly impressive response came from my friend Margaret Swanson. I asked Margaret to write a guest post about the story, and I’m very pleased that she agreed:

A Good Muse is Hard to Find
R.I.P. William Trevor                                                       by Margaret Swanson

The Piano Teacher’s Pupil was found on William Trevor’s desk after his death in 2016. It’s his “swan song,” his final work of art, and can be seen as a review of his life through the eyes of Miss Elizabeth Nightingale, the piano teacher. Trevor probably considered it finished.  As the story’s last line says, “it is enough.”

The title has a double meaning: pupil=student and pupil=the eye. The minimal action is confined to the room where “all of her life, she often thought,” had been. We are inside Nightingale’s head. With the arrival of her new pupil, she starts to view things from a new perspective. She reassesses her relationships – with her father, her lover, her student. Her contemplation is triggered by the “genius” of her flawed new pupil, “the boy.”

When the boy plays for her the first time, she is stunned, managing only a gentle, innocuous critique. She sizes him up, slowly, thoroughly: “His dark hair, not too short, was in a fringe….” The sentence is awkward, slowing us down in sync with her thoughts. She goes on for a paragraph appraising him. He waits, smiling. He knows she’s impressed. And he knows he’s going to steal from her, as he has from previous teachers. No doubt they praised his prowess, but didn’t value it enough to put up with him. When she later discovers his theft, Nightingale agonizes, but decides to overlook it.  She leads him to the front door after each lesson, her back turned, while he slips something into his bag.

At last she has a worthy pupil. Nightingale sits, surrounded by her lifetime of treasures, inventoried as she sips her sherry on the April evening after the boy’s lesson. “Daffodils in vases were on the sofa table and on the corner shelf near the door.” It goes without saying that they’re beautiful, just as it goes without saying that the boy’s playing is inspired. Nightingale decides “She would say nothing to the mother if the mother telephoned to ask how the boy was getting on.” Repeating “the mother” emphasizes Nightingale’s contempt for the “foolish” woman who “rattled on.” The “if” shows doubt that she will even ask. The mother is also a bird, a long-beaked one, feeding her young on the emblem – ugly in Nightingale’s opinion – repeated on the boy’s school uniform.

Is Nightingale a muse? In poetry, nightingales represent art, beauty, creativity, yearning, and sometimes the Muses, the Greek goddesses of the arts. Nightingales sing their sweetest where the Muses buried Orpheus. In psychological terms, the muse is the female, creative part of the mind. Nightingale’s beauty is deepening even in her fifties. She’s unmarried, like the Muses; their “children” are artists, like Orpheus. Nightingale was the inspiration for her father’s chocolates; she evoked her lover’s passion; she motivates the boy. She never teaches or praises him. The only way “the boy” (Trevor?) knows she approves of his work is that she doesn’t throw him out for stealing. As an artist, he has to settle for that.

The boy’s thefts cause Nightingale to doubt her prior relationships and question whether she has deluded herself. She muses: Did her father use her? Did her lover deceive her? Has she been gullible? (Is Trevor also the unnamed father and lover?) In the years after the boy’s lessons end, time “quieted her unease.” She becomes again content with her memories, but something still nags.

When the boy returns to play for her, she sees that the mystery of life’s pleasures is all that counts. She can’t bemoan the price paid or question origins. How beauty comes via a rough, coarse, ungainly adolescent thief cannot be fathomed. “The mystery there was in the music was in his smile when he finished, while he sat waiting for her approval.”

She is silent. Her appreciation of his art was a “secret… to be taken for granted between them, not to be gone on about.” William Trevor ‘gets it;’ hence the story. “There was a balance struck.” But he’s never satisfied with his work. At heart he’s still the ungainly adolescent craving praise from his muse.

Margaret Swanson says she had fun getting her bachelor’s degree in English Literature. Now, retired from community planning, she can spend all the time she wants reading.


Henry David Thoreau

July 12 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. I first read Walden and Civil Disobedience in high school. Like many readers, I was hugely impressed by Thoreau’s abolitionist convictions and stubborn insistence on living life on his own terms.

Civil Disobedience served as an instruction manual for the Civil Rights movement in this country and Gandhi’s fight for independence in India. So it was appropriate that last week the Washington Post honored Thoreau’s 200th birthday with a wonderful essay about his life and thought.

Of course not everyone likes Henry. Earlier this year the New Yorker published an essay that described him as “self-obsessed” and “narcissistic.” The author, Kathryn Schulz, was appalled by Thoreau’s “cold-eyed” detachment when confronted by human suffering.

So – is Henry a good role model for us today? I continue to admire him, despite Schulz’s catalog of his alleged sins. I’m sure there’s some self-obsession and narcissism hidden away in most people’s souls (including my own).

Cold-eyed detachment was a common trait among the New England Transcendentalists. Perhaps that’s inevitable if your spiritual goal is to “transcend” familiar, everyday life. Ralph Waldo Emerson confessed to being frightened by his disconnect from the rest of humanity. And then there’s Bronson Alcott, who dispassionately watched his wife and daughters struggle with poverty because his Transcendentalist principles did not allow him to work for money. One of the daughters who did heavy domestic labor for low pay was Louisa May Alcott, the beloved author of Little Women.

This is where I start to have a strong affection for Thoreau. He and Louisa ran a school when they were teenagers, and they were lifelong friends (some say she was in love with him, though I haven’t seen a shred of convincing evidence for that – and I’ve read all the biographies). When Thoreau died – far too young, at forty-four – Louisa wrote a lovely poem about him: “Our Pan is dead; His pipe hangs mute beside the river.”

She thought of Thoreau not primarily as a revolutionary (her father also went to jail for his principles) and philosopher (she was reared on Transcendentalism) but as a naturalist, and in some quarters that’s considered a mark against him. At Thoreau’s funeral, Ralph Waldo Emerson lamented that “instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.”

I would have gladly joined the huckleberry party. When you read Walden and get past all the high-minded purposes that prompted Thoreau to build his cabin in the woods (which belonged to Emerson, incidentally), you encounter this simple goal: to observe the coming of spring.

And now I want to talk about writingThis man endlessly tramping through the woods to look for buds peeping through the snow has a lot to teach us about forging a connection with our readers.

* * * * * * 

For many years my husband and I did animal rescue work. I’m recalling a summer when we raised a litter of tiny kittens. During a late-afternoon bottle feeding, I saw one of the kittens bat her brother on the head. He just stared at her. She did it again. No response.

It took a couple of days for his growing brain to catch up with hers: Oh, I know what she’s doing. She wants to play. Let the romping begin!

Like Thoreau, watching the slow arrival of spring, I was witnessing a step in that kitten’s development into a full-grown cat.

Life happens step-by-step, in small increments that most of us miss. We get so caught up in the details of everyday life that we fail to see that a pattern is forming. Or our experience is so limited that we don’t see that millions of personal stories are grandly linked to one another.

The ancient Greeks were masters at seeing and describing those patterns. Many of their myths encode truths about human nature that we’re still enacting today. If you want to read a fascinating book, try Amor and Psyche by Erich Neumann. It traces the journey that every girl takes as she is transformed into a woman…

…which, when you think about it, is similar to what Thoreau was thinking about during those two winters he spent in Emerson’s woods. Moment by moment, the frigid landscape was changing into a verdant wonderland – and he took the time to watch and savor the show, every moment of it.

What process intrigues you? Could you watch it unfold and then describe exactly what happens? Here are some possibilities to get you started:

  • a printed script becomes a live performance of a play
  • a nervous college sophomore becomes a confident professional
  • a rundown house becomes a showplace
  • a clumsy junior-high student becomes a star athlete
  • a bare canvas becomes a work of art
  • a magical moment becomes a poem or song
  • a testy relationship turns into love


Because, Affect, and Other Problematic Words

One of my ballroom teachers is at risk for osteoporosis. During her last physical, her doctor told her to walk for 30 minutes every day to strengthen her bones.

She patiently reminded him that she was a dance instructor who was already doing the equivalent of many hours of walking every day.

“But you need weight-bearing exercise to protect your bones,” he said. “Make sure you get in that 30 minutes of walking.”

She found another doctor – one who made a practice of thinking rather than just disseminating medical advice by rote.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  * 

Success in any field – including writing – requires thinking skills. Alas, many ambitious writers don’t bother to evaluate the advice they’ve picked up over the years. My husband once had an editor who believed that because was a bad word. Every time because crept into one of his columns, she made him change it.

Obviously there’s nothing wrong with because: you see it in print all the time. So what was that editor’s problem?

We’ll never know, but I think I can reconstruct what happened. She probably had a teacher who warned the class – quite properly – that because can be a confusing word. Consider this sentence:

Don’t make friends with Carole because of the people she knows.

That sentence can be read two ways. Carole hangs around with a bad crowd, so you should avoid her. OR Carole hangs around with some desirable people, but that’s not a sufficient reason to make friends with her: something else is wrong.

Here’s another one:

It’s a mistake to take that supplement because it’s reported to have a high concentration of phylidicoids.

Should you avoid phylidicoids because they’re harmful? (Incidentally, I made that term up.) Or are phylidicoids wonderful substances that might fool you into buying a worthless supplement?

That doesn’t mean because is a bad word! You just have to word your sentences carefully. In the sentences below, it’s easier to figure out the meaning:

 Because Carole hangs around with a bad crowd, you should avoid making friends with her.

Because Carole knows some important people, you might not notice how toxic she is.

Because that supplement has a high concentration of phylidicoids, I don’t recommend it.

Even though it’s rich in phylidicoids, you shouldn’t take that supplement.

Did you notice that I didn’t use because in the last sentence? After several tries, I gave up: it just gummed up the sentence. But that doesn’t mean because is always a bad word! (Sigh.)

Let’s try one more example. This time I’m going to talk about a word that you really should avoid most of the time: affect. Why? Because (ha!) it’s ambiguous. Try this sentence:

The decision he made that morning affected his chance at the scholarship.

Was he more or less likely to win the scholarship? You can’t tell.

I used to circle affect and affected whenever they appeared on students’ essays. I would patiently explain why they were bad word choices and insist on a revision. Use harm, or weaken, or improve, or strengthen – something definite! Please! And here’s what I would get:

The decision he made that morning changed his chance at the scholarship.

Think! Think! That’s all I’m asking you to do!


Adverbs: Good Guys or Bad Guys?

We were talking about adverbs (words that usually end with -ly) at a recent Write Like a Pro meeting. I was telling the group to avoid the all-too-common practice of adding adverbs to dialogue, like this:

“Aunt Mary is coming today,” Gail said happily.

“But she’s staying only two days,” Don said sadly.

And then group member Jane Brumbaugh reminded us about “Tom Swifties” – punning sentences that combine humorous adverbs and verbs:

“That’s the last time I’ll stick my arm into a lion’s mouth,” the lion-tamer said off-handedly.

The name comes from the Tom Swift series of novels for boys dating back to 1910. They were published by the Stratemeyer syndicate that also published the Bobbsey Twins books I loved as a child. The Tom Swift books were famous for a stylistic tic that involved adding an adverb to almost every verb, like this:

“Oh, I’m not a professor,” he said quickly.

OK, let’s get serious (sort of). Adverbs are wonderful words…when they’re used sparingly. If you reread the “Gail” and “Don” sentences at the beginning of this post, you’ll see how flat and monotonous adverbs can be.

“Aunt Mary is coming today,” Gail said happily.

“But she’s staying only two days,” Don said sadly.

Here are my revisions (and I invite you to see if you can top them – have fun!).

Jane grinned. “Aunt Mary is coming today.”  BETTER

Don’s smile lasted only a few seconds. “But she’s staying only two days,” he added.  BETTER

Let’s try a love scene. Can you improve this sentence by replacing lovingly with better wording?

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Paul said lovingly.

Here’s my version:

Paul squeezed her hand. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” he told her.  BETTER

Books about writing often warn against overusing adverbs in dialogue. Elmore Leonard’s book 10 Rules of Writing has a stern warning about adverbs: 

Rule 4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

Leonard’s book is for sale at various online stores, but you can read the rules free at this link. Most of Leonard’s rules are more useful for fiction than for the kinds of writing I do/ But I really like Rule 4 (above) and this one:

Rule 3.  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

Here’s an example of what can happen when you break Rule 3:

“We just struck oil!” Tom gushed. .

Before I go – Jane Brumbaugh just emailed me this jewel:

 “I like my cheese shredded,” said Tom gratefully.

Who says learning about writing can’t be fun?

Tom Swift


How Harry Potter Changed the Publishing Industry

Courtesy of the Huffington Post, I just came across this marvelous article about everybody’s favorite wizard: How Harry Potter Saved Young Adult Fiction. Any writer who dreams of publishing (you?) needs to read it.

Heck – you should read it even if you’re not thinking about publishing. The article is fun (who isn’t interested in the amazing story of J.K. Rowling’s blockbusters?). And you’ll get an education about aspects of the publishing business that most people don’t think about.

For example: how important is it to be original? Not important at all – and (when you come right down to it) downright impossible. “No one is totally original,” said a bookshop owner quoted in the article. “Everyone builds on everyone else’s stories.”

Although it feels like the Harry Potter books are a brand-new type of literature, Rowling was building on familiar genres: books about boarding schools, nasty step-parents, difficult teachers, kids-who-don’t-fit-in, and much more. Everything that seems to make the Harry Potter books so new and special had already been done – and done well – many times before (even wizarding schools!).

Nobody really knows what made the Harry Potter books such a spectacular success. When you think about it – that’s good news. It gives you and me permission to give a new twist to familiar themes and plots. Go for it!

Another useful point is that the Harry Potter books taught the publishing world an important lesson. Before Harry came along, publishers avoided fantasy books for young people, believing they just wouldn’t sell. (The first Harry Potter book was rejected 12 times before it found a publisher.) Since then there’s been a revival of fantasy, with older series (including my favorites, the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis) selling well and being adapted for stage, screen, and TV.

And that leads to another important point: The readers who bought the Harry Potter books went on to buy other fantasy books as well. Everyone made money.

So – thank you, J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter!

Harry Potter


Writing Secrets from Natalie Goldberg

Last month I talked about writing instructor Natalie Goldberg (most famous for her classic book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within). Something I’d heard her say on an audiotape about writing has stuck in my mind for many years.

This week I’ve been thinking Goldberg again because of a recent book of hers: The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language. The book recreates the popular writing retreats that she conducts several times a year: a week of silence, reflection, writing, and sharing. It’s a provocative book that’s different from anything else you’ll read about writing.

Today I want to talk about one chapter – “What Is Practice?” – that stunned me. Your library probably has a copy of Goldberg’s book, and it’s worth a trip there to borrow it and read this one chapter.

“Practice”- in Goldberg’s book – means a) choosing an activity that you think will benefit you and b) making a commitment to doing it regularly. Sounds like old-fashioned discipline, doesn’t it? But wait (as they say on late-night TV) – there’s more!

If you’re a regular visitor to my blog, you know that I like to watch people think. I’m especially intrigued when someone takes an idea deeper or farther than I would ever go myself. Here’s a paragraph from that “Practice” chapter that rocked me:

…this continual practice expresses your true determination, signals to your unconscious, to your deep resistance, that you mean business. (And then your resistance roars louder and you roar back.) Over time, this practice kicks in that strong motor, that deep impersonal life force within you. It reinforces and supports your yes to life for no reason – not because you were good or bad or worthy or kind or successful, but because, like a blade of grass or thunder or a cloud, you are alive.

Here’s what jumped out at me (and what I haven’t been able to stop thinking about): “this continual practice…signals to your unconscious, to your deep resistance, that you mean business.”

Everybody knows what discipline is all about. We think of it as a tedious but necessary element in the quest for success. Goldberg’s take on discipline – what she calls “practice” –  is totally different. What counts for her is sending a powerful message to the hidden parts of ourselves.

I’m right there with her – and I think it’s a concept that’s bigger than just committing to a regular practice.

I think Goldberg is saying that we are much more complex and interesting than we realize. Powerful forces swirl through our lives, knocking us about like a tossing ship – and often we know nothing about them. We are full of mysteries that talk to us through dreams, hunches, and passions. We feel those vibrations but don’t completely understand them.

Here’s what I find so exciting: Goldberg’s reminder that it’s a two-way conversation. We, in turn, can talk to our mysteries through our actions. One of the most powerful ways to send a message to our unconscious is by making a commitment and following through. (I know I’m wandering away from writing! Trust me – we’ll find our way back.)

How many people do you know who don’t seem connected in any way to their inner mysteries ? I would bet there are many. They may have a loving relationship with another person and be terrific parents, solid citizens, and hard workers. Bravo!

But do they have something more in their lives that drives them in another direction, away from everyday living? Do they invest time or money (or both) in something that’s important only to them?

For many people, the answer is no.

“Practice,” for Goldberg, means carving out a space in your life – 25 or 30 minutes, four or five days a week – for something that matters only to you. She promises dramatic changes in your life, and I think she’s right.

It’s not just that your biceps will be stronger or your piano playing will improve. The shape of your entire life is going to change, and here’s why: you’re sending a strong message to the hidden parts of yourself, and they will respond by supporting you in ways that will endlessly surprise and delight you.

There’s one more thing, and then we’ll go straight back to writing. Practice (at least for Goldberg) has surprisingly little to do with improvement or success. It’s a process of getting to know yourself. You become intimately familiar with your favorite excuses and escapes. You learn how to pull yourself out of a funk. You hear – really hear – the ways you both sabotage and encourage yourself.

And now we’re ready to talk about writing. What makes writers different and special? We are aware. We make unlikely connections, dig deeper, ask questions, blow through falsehoods and manipulation. Something small that another person might not even notice becomes the foundation for a story or essay. 

So how do we build that awareness? Endless ways – I’m sure I don’t know half of them. I like what Goldberg says about practice, and it seems to me that my dance lessons and practice at home fit into that category. But there are many other ways to get there.

What I’m really encouraging you to do today is to think about how to start a conversation with your unconscious. That’s a flat, lifeless word (it starts with “un,” after all!) that does nothing for me. So…think about the people who live inside of you. To get you started, I’m going to mention a few of mine:

  • a 15-year-old who loved a novel about medieval Norway
  • a lovesick college sophomore who couldn’t stop thinking about Richard Burton
  • a middle-aged graduate student who was flabbergasted when she first read Shaw’s Quintesssence of Ibsenism
  • a woman on Social Security who – despite creaking joints and undependable knees – does plies and tendus in a ballet class twice a week
  • a woman fiercely swaying her hips to a sultry rumba
  • an eight-year-old who loved cats, turtles, and dollhouses

Who lives on inside you?

   Natalie Goldberg