Monthly Archives: August 2013

World War F

Today: The difference between a normal, rational person and a writer.

For a few days, there’s been a big crumb in the back of my microwave. And who has time to wipe that thing out? There are books waiting to be read and written!

So today I did it. I wiped away that crumb and discovered it’s not a crumb, it’s a tiny type of FLY. A normal, rational person thinks, gross, and tosses the paper towel and fly in the garbage.

The writer shrieks and pours out the coffee and considers boiling the cup or just tossing it in the garbage, but it’s too late. That thing has been in the microwave for a couple days with my coffee and pork tenderloin and vegetables steamed in a bag.

Will my family morph into flies?

Is this how the zombie infection begins? Humans consuming food radiated by nuclear fly remains? Brad Pitt’s movie does not rule out this theory.

Will the fly crawl out of the garbage and grow into a Jeff Goldblum type monster fly, minus the glimpses of human empathy?

Has the fly been making my coffee taste better?

Will we have immunity against malaria from eating food radiated by nuclear fly remains?

The molecular structure of a tiny fly under the microwave's ... waves. And yes, I did take this photo.

The molecular structure of a tiny fly under the microwave’s … waves. And yes, I did take this photo.

Is the government monitoring my house right now, waiting to grab me and put me in a lab where I’m subjected to testing?

Does the fly have a gang of vengeful fly friends?

Will my fruit ever be safe?

Hey, this could be a short story or even a book! I’m going to call my agent and send emails to my writing group!

And that, my friends, is a peek into the brain of a writer. Or the brain of a crazy person, in which case I made it all up. I do write fiction, you know.

Take your pick.


A writing family, part two

The best part of being in a writing group: celebrating publication.

The best part of being in a writing group: celebrating publication.

In yesterday’s post, members of my writing group responded to my question: What do they get from being part of a critique group? Three answers ran yesterday, and three more follow.

Amy Kortuem. Amy’s a singer and harpist who writes her own material. You can find her CDs and performance schedule at her web site. She writes professionally and recently decided to bring her own writing into the world. Look for her to publish soon. Also, Amy has the world’s best biceps from carrying her massive harp to gigs. Who needs weights?

I think what I love most is the companionship of people who are doing what I’m doing. I don’t have any harp friends, and have done everything in the space of my own head and heart. But in writing, I NEED companionship. I need to talk through ideas before I write. I need to read what others are writing and see that in all stages of drafting so I don’t put all that stupid pressure on myself to hang out with one paragraph for two weeks until it’s “good enough” before moving on. With writing, it’s hard to let anyone read something until I’m in a place where I think it hangs together. Maybe once I get used to the welcoming atmosphere and the genuine support of this group, I’ll be able to share more.

Rachael Hanel is the author of the memoir We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down and an essayist. We worked together for six years at a newspaper. That’s where I discovered we shared so much – and so little – in common. Rachael loves winter, enjoys cemeteries, and is devoted to working out. Me? Not so much.

  • I need sets of eyes on my new work. You absolutely need to bounce work off others.
  • Sharing resources: magazine articles, books on writing, notes from workshops and conferences, tips we’ve learned, etc.
  • A group in which to brainstorm ideas.

Judith Angelique “Angie” Johnson is a published poet who also writes essays and fiction. Alas, we’ve been unable to bring Angie into the technical world, so there’s no web site or Facebook page. Angie looks sweet and fragile, but don’t let that fool you. She once hopped in her minivan and chased down a man who’d stolen a bike from her driveway. She raced down the street, yelling “drop the bike, mother****** or I’ll run you over.” And the guy, wisely, dropped the bike.

The group gives me confidence. I like criticism to see where I can improve as a writer and a thinker. The group keeps me balanced: to love the sound of words, but to love – even more – their meanings. Story first. Providing criticism for others has also made me a stronger writer. It forces me to think about audience, purpose, stance and so on, in order to provide feedback that is helpful for others, rather than feedback on how “Angie would do it.” I also know my writing can fall flat on its face and I won’t be judged. Our group is a safe place to fail, and fail hard, and then stand and tighten the belt again.

So there you have it. Six members; six viewpoints.

Tomorrow: what your writing group should not be.

A writing family

Publishing is an untamed beast. Your writing group members are the fence and the people who'd tell you this caption is over the top.

Publishing is an untamed beast. Your writing group is the fence, and the people who’d tell you this caption is over the top.

Writers need editors before they get an editor. They need to huddle with people who understand, people who will never say, why don’t you find a new hobby, something not so frustrating?

That’s your writing group. The members are your pre-agent, pre-editor, pre-reader, pre-reviewer, as well as support system and safety net.

My group has been meeting for nearly 11 years. People have come and gone, people have bowed out temporarily, but if you go to Mankato’s Wine Cafe every other Wednesday, you’ll find us in the back room with laptops and stacks of paper. We know all the regulars. Hell, we are the regulars.

I asked members to explain what they get from being in a critique group. So here we go:

Becky Fjelland Davis. Author of Jake Riley: Irreparably Damaged and Chasing AllieCat. She’s currently shopping a middle-grade novel. She’s a champion cyclist and has the biggest dog I’ve ever seen.

After enough rejections through the years, I find I want other eyes on my work before I send it out. Unless it’s an editor who is buying the manuscript, it’s hard to trust another reader; when you find a group of readers you trust, you want it to stick. Forever.

Kirstin Cronn-Mills. Author of The Sky Always Hears Me and the Hills Don’t Mind (a Minnesota Book Award nominee) and Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. She’s currently finishing a nonfiction book about transgender issues and working on a new novel. She often writes on her deck, the perfect writing den. I have deck envy.

  1. Having someone else’s eyes on your work. It’s good for keeping your zipper zipped. : )
  2. Sharing creative ideas & brainstorming together.
  3. Trusting someone to tell you what works & what doesn’t (makes it easier to kill darlings, for instance).
  4. Not feeling so alone when writing is shit and you want to quit. And I can tell you, I would have quit long ago without the group.

Kristin Not-sure-if-she-wants-her-full-name-used. She’s written under a pseudonym and has enough fascinating publishing stories she could write a best seller about publishing. Did I mention her husband makes the best caramel rolls I’ve ever eaten? I ate three at one sitting, so I say this with authority.

I would agree with what everyone’s said. Mostly, you all keep me from quitting. In fact, you encourage me to keep writing. I think I would have given up years ago.

Awww, don’t you feel a little teary? Because I do.

In the interest of shorter posts, I’ll share three others tomorrow.

Making Shelley a creative girl

A snowy day at Mankato's Wine Cafe, the perfect place to discuss writing.

A snowy day at Mankato‘s Wine Cafe, the perfect place to discuss writing.

I’m keeping notes on my various writing funks.

When a funk hits, it’s usually tied to isolation. Day after day of writing in a house with silence, with nobody to talk to, makes me go a little Stephen King. All work and no play makes Shelley a dull girl. Except I resist the part where Jack Nicholson hacks up his family and talks to ghosts.

Although talking to ghosts sounds fantastic. Company! They could tell me stories about the old days, and I could get them up to speed on Breaking Bad. We could share a bottle of wine. Talk books. Swap recipes. Discuss politics throughout history.

Or I could visit Mankato and rejoin my writing group, which sounds healthier and not as likely to prompt a psych ward visit. I know these writers can drink wine. Lots of wine. Ghosts? I’m not so sure.

The four-hour round trip was worth every mile.

Before the group met, I worked in the Blue Earth County Library. A creative explosion happened on that little table. My fingers have never hit the keyboard so fast. The energy and excitement of being “home” helped pull me into my novel.

Then I went to the Wine Café, a funky place that should be on your Mankato tourism list. On a notebook – and without any wine – I outlined the entire plot of a book that’s defied my wish to write itself.

Group members arrived and helped me solve problems with setting and a device. We critiqued another piece, too, an essay, which worked the adult part of my brain. For nearly an hour, I wasn’t thinking about the minds of kids. No butt jokes or little-girl social crises or bugs brought home in jars–all of which are my personal and professional life.

Then we talked about our projects, chatted about personal stuff, and laughed adult-style.

That’s one reason to be part of a writing group. Look for more reasons tomorrow.

Leonard the Invisible

Crime writer Elmore Leonard died a two days ago. A radio journalist said Leonard’s novel output averaged one book every 18 months. Incredible.

Elmore Leonard died Aug. 20, 2013.

Elmore Leonard died Aug. 20, 2013.

In honor of Leonard, a member of my writing group came to last night’s meeting with copies of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writing. His goal as a writer was to remain invisible, to let the reader enjoy the story without sensing the writer is trapped in the book.

I won’t share them all, but here are a few nuggets and my comments.

Never open a book with weather. There’s a reason writers and readers laugh at the line, It was a dark and stormy night. They laugh because it’s awful.

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. He cried. She muttered. He blasted. She raged. Those types of dialogue tags insert the writer into the character. No reader wants the writer interfering with the novel she’s enjoying.

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip … If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. His quote: I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.

Farewell to Elmore Leonard, the invisible writer.

Watch Breaking Bad, skip the MFA

If you haven’t been waiting for the return of Breaking Bad, something’s terribly wrong with your television. Time to shake up your TV schedule and drop a sitcom or two. After seven years of watching, do we even care anymore how that guy Ted met his kids’ mother? I think those kids don’t even have a mother. Ted’s been stringing them along because he doesn’t know how to break the news.

Break it bad, Ted, like our man Walter “Heisenberg” White, arguably one of the greatest studies in character development.

Arguably. Two episodes into season five, I’d like to offer a counterpoint: Dean Norris‘ character Hank. Yes, Walt will be studied as the gold standard in character development, but the label is influenced by his central role in the show. The protagonist has the advantage of screen time.

Walt and Hank. Friends, family, enemies.

Walt and Hank. Friends, family, enemies.

After Hank discovered Walt’s his suspect, I reconsidered my perspective on skillful character development. The writing gold on the show is the evolution and complexity of Hank.

He’s a good ol’ boy, smacking butts and cracking jokes about Hispanics to the Hispanics in his office. Minutes later, he struts into the elevator and when the doors shut, he has a panic attack.

Hank is not your average meathead.

Jesse is the show’s emotional core and, I once thought, its moral core as well. Wrong. Hank the Redneck is the moral center. Hank is the genuine deal, devoted to family, America, safe streets, God. He’s a brilliant strategist covered with macho and a few spots of Keystone Cops. He’s cocky and brave, but he can be – and is – shaken to his core. Just replay those episodes with the drug dealer’s head on the turtle.

It’s the writers’ job to lay groundwork for revealing character and prodding the evolution. But the actors have to make it believable. Norris can communicate a pool of conflicting emotions with a squint. (Don’t go crazy, Walt fans, Cranston is a master. No arguments.)

Breaking Bad writers initially teased the audience with Hank as the bumbling cop and then slowly added layer after layer. His transition rivals Walt.

In this last season, after closing the meth case, Hank discovered Walt is the real meth king. Hank could ride on the case’s closure. His superiors believe the culprit was found, and Hank got his promotion. Pursuing Walt will only tear his family apart – including the niece and nephew he loves so much.  And it’ll end his career.

The writers give Hank this incredible dialogue, “Look, the day I go in with this,” he says to his wife, “it’s the last day of my career. I’m going to have to walk in there, look those people in the eye and admit that the person I’ve been chasing the last year is my own brother-in-law. It’s over for me. Ten seconds after I tell this story, I’m a civilian.”

Of course Hank’s going after Walt. Moral center, right?

Hank’s become the antagonist-hero. Walt’s become the protagonist-villan. And the writer-fan has always been the student.

Someday, I hope to write character, dialogue, setting – hell, any story that breaks bad like this one.

Word emergency! Call 911!

My reader and her books.

My reader and her books.

I had a kid-lit lesson last night.

My daughter has a history of midnight treks to my bedroom. I’ve read the parenting books, and I knew I should send her back. But a round-trip bedroom trek left her fully awake, ready for breakfast and a bath and Polly Pockets. Back then, I’d wrap my arm around her, pull her across me, and let her sleep between us.

The parenting books say you’ll be a bit tired with all this motherhood business, and if you just grab a power nap, you’ll be shiny and fresh and ready to tackle the day. If I wrote those books, I’d tell the ugly truth: When you’re so tired you begin hallucinating about Polly Pockets, you have the right to send your child to a boarding preschool, if only those schools existed.

For me, that trek-to-mom never ended. These days, it starts with “Mommy?” (Because it’s hard to resist when she calls me mommy instead of mom or hey, you.) Then comes her sleep problem: my leg hurts, my head hurts, my stomach hurts, my eyes hurt, there’s a weird sound, I think I smell fire, it’s snowing and I can’t stop thinking about a snow day, my room’s too hot, my room’s too cold, I had a bad dream about computers.

So, last night:

My book-crazy daughter (go figure) bursts into the bedroom and snaps on the light.

Hey, mom, I need help.

Help? Could this be a real emergency? I ask, what’s wrong?

I can’t pronounce this word. You’ve got to tell me how to say it. She’s wide awake, holding book eight of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

She points to a word: craniectomy.

I say, crane-ek-to-me.

She’s nearly bursting. What does it MEAN???

Something to do with the brain, like brain surgery.

What kind of brain surgery? Mom, it’s about Violet. She might have a crane-whatever.

I take the book and, sure enough, the evil Count Olaf is arranging some kind of terrible surgery for Violet. The thing about Lemony Snicket, however, is he constantly uses big words, and in the next line or two, defines the word.

I turn the page and there, in the very first line, he writes something like, “A craniectomy is a big word for surgery of the brain.”

I point this out to my daughter. She giggles.

I’m tempted to fume. First, she woke both of us up; second, she’s reading way past the lights-out deadline; third, she’s reading a book that prompted a question and then answered the question in the very next line.

But, truly, I’m thrilled. She cares about words. She cares about saying them right and understanding what they mean, although if she cared about mom’s sleep, she could find the answer in what do you call them? Oh yes, dictionary.

My daughter doesn’t want to miss a twist in a story, she wants to follow every plot point and talk about characters and what motivates them to act – or not.

She’s a reader. A fanatic reader. A fantastic reader.

And maybe, someday, a writer.

The writer’s crush-and-crash technique

Artists are creative, but they’ve got to work it. The creative part of the brain needs challenge. Painters should take pottery classes. Potters should make jewelry. Jewelers should take yoga.

Writers should abandon their notebooks and live the craziness they put on paper. Sure, people will say things like, “that’s not safe,” “can you get in trouble for that?”, “what if it’s not funny?” and “jeez, Shelley, aren’t you embarrassed?”

When you hear those statements, you know you’re properly challenging your brain. As a teen writer, I challenged my brain once or twice or 3,000 times. And a brain-challenger is how I met 1980s acting hunk Emilio Estevez, who’s still acting, writing and directing.

Let’s tell this story journalism style with our friends, the inverted pyramid and the objective viewpoint. Otherwise, I’d go creative nonfiction and make myself look like a whiz kid, which I was, but nobody likes a bragger.

A very old-school press pass creator.

A very old-school press pass creator.


Teens crash their crush

MINNEAPOLIS–Five teenage girls with forged press passes crashed a Twin Cities movie set to meet their favorite heartthrob, actor Emilio Estevez.

The girls, ages 13 to 15, learned Estevez was filming a scene at a metro hospital for his upcoming movie, That Was Then, This Is Now. Estevez adapted the S.E. Hinton novel for the film’s script.

“We’re used to fans spotting Emilio when he’s socializing, but fans rarely crash a set, even when it’s accessible like a hospital. We thought we had this lobby shut down,” said director Probably-Now-Shooting-Toilet-Paper-Commericals.

The girls, all from River Falls, Wis., left school early and convinced an uncle to drive them to Minneapolis. He left them near the hospital, where they wandered until they found the lobby with the actors and crew.

Each girl was carrying a forged press pass claiming they worked for the River Falls Journal. The press passes consisted of an index card pasted with their school portraits. The passes contained this line: The Press Pass entitles the reporter to access any scene for news coverage.

“These were not exactly professional documents. Did they think I was born yesterday?” said producer Born-Not-Yesterday-But-Three-Days-Before-Yesterday.

In an interview after the episode, Estevez provided the following account:

The girls appeared to be hiding behind plants in the lobby’s entrance. When Estevez waved, they used the moment and rushed to his side. None of them spoke.

“I thought they were from a school for deaf children,” Estevez said. “That’s why I didn’t call security immediately.”

Finally, one girl began speaking. Estevez said, “She told me they’ve watched The Outsiders on VHS at least 30 times, including once in the rewind mode, just to see what it looked like playing fast and backwards,” Estevez said. “They also kept telling me how short I am, which, honestly, I already knew.”

He gave each girl an autograph and agreed to some pictures. One of the girls, who went by the name Shelley, refused to leave his side. In dozens of pictures, this Shelley person is seen almost glued to Estevez, apparently refusing to let her friends switch spots with her.

Estevez then retreated to the bathroom. When he opened the door a few minutes later, the girls were standing in a sort of barricade.

“Going to the bathroom usually signals fans to move along. But not them. Now they wanted hugs. I didn’t have a choice. I was trapped next to the bathroom. There were five of them and one me and, like I said, I’m really short,” Estevez said. “When I escape in my movies, that’s a stunt double.”

After multiple hugs, the girls left. They were either late for meeting their driver, or they’d finally picked up on the subtle cues that it was time to leave.

“I was about to toss them out,” said security officer Too-Stupid-For-Words. “Thankfully, left peacefully and no SWAT team was needed.”


And that’s how Emilio’s DNA remained in my closet for years. Those wonderful hugs left splotches of makeup on my “professional reporter shirt.” (Please, don’t ruin the memory with quips about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski‘s dress.)

I know I didn’t give the shirt to a thrift store. They probably would have tossed it because of the make-up stain.

Honestly, I’m not sure what happened to the shirt. Maybe Mom threw it away. Maybe my accomplice-sister stole it. I like to think I took it to a bonfire, cherished the memory and then tossed the shirt into the fire, letting go of the past. Letting go of Emilio and freeing myself to love another, like Matt Dillon or Tom Cruise.

Writers Comp?

What could possibly stop a writer from posting about Emilio Estevez and working on a novel?





I picked up a pan from a 425 degree oven. Just forgot about the pot holder. Yup. Now I can type with my left hand only, and that’s just not working out.

If you write from home, there’s no writers comp to cover an injury. Sometimes you miss the old  office job, like when you sizzle your hand on a hot pan or fall down the stairs or walk into wood furniture, all of which I’m prone to do.

So, yesterday: A day with series three of the Walking Dead. Today: more of the same.