Category Archives: The writing life

All I Want for Christmas is on this List

When I thought about writing a post of cool gifts for writers, I figured the list would be short: journals, cool pens and books about writing (Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, of course). Then I started looking around and found online treasure. No offense, Anne, but Santa’s got options.

Among them:

1.  Think of this light-up pen as a gift for your significant other since it’ll stop you from turning on the bedside lamp to record nighttime ideas.

2. Some hygiene fun because, yes, some writers shower every single day.

3. Old meets new: the tablet-typewriter. Practical? No. But it’s so cool.

4. Nobody steals from a vampire purse.

6. If this doesn’t inspire productivity, you can beat yourself over the head with it.

7. Scent of a (writing) woman.

8. The writer’s tissue box cozy.

9. Words don’t do this justice.

10. Duh:


Ha-ha and tee-hee

My first YA novels – all unpublished – were heavy: a guy in jail, a school shooting, a cancer story.

My high school buddies listened politely to my plot summaries. They even read the guy-in-jail book. Then they said this: We think you’re funny. Why don’t you write something fun? Something funny?

That’s friendship code for these stories aren’t working.

So I took a stab at humor. It’s an intimidating writing style. There’s nothing worse than trying to be amusing and falling on your face – and not a ha-ha slapstick fall. An awkward, ugly fall.

People who’ve read The Graham Cracker Plot say it’s funny. Kids laugh when they read it. And a respected publishing house (Roaring Brook) bought it, so there can’t be too many awkward, ugly falls.


The release date is eight months away. My fingers are crossed for middle-grade giggles. Parent chuckles would be a bonus.

I’m not confident enough to blog something like, “How to Write Humor for Middle Grade.”

Someday, perhaps. But not today.

And the Rickie goes to …

The midseason Rickies.

The midseason Rickies.

No Walking Dead until February. That means it’s time to announce the midseason Walking Dead awards, the Rickies.

The winners are nominated by Shelley Tougas, voted on by Shelley Tougas, and presented by Shelley Tougas.

Smartest Character

And the Rickie goes to … Carl.

Carl: Why don’t we shoot the governor while he’s not expecting it, while he’s perched on that tank, before he chops off Hershel’s head and destroys the prison?

Daryl: Nah. Let’s just see how it plays out.

Worst Skill Transfer

The Rickie goes to … Daryl.

Daryl can shoot a gnat’s eyelash from 100 yards with a bow and arrow, but he can’t hit the side of a truck with an automatic rifle.

He also can’t drive, which brings us to …

Best Gross Out

The Rickie goes to … Daryl.

Our greasy-haired hero delivers a lesson about distracted driving when he hits a zombie while messing with the radio. Then he drives into a herd of zombies, backs up, and runs over so many walkers that the wheels spin in zombie road jam.

Serve that with some crackers.

Best Zombie Repellent

And the Rickie goes to … the Governor.

The Governor couldn’t be bitten if he put his hand in a zombie’s mouth and forced its teeth into his own flesh. After Woodbury falls, the Governor roams the countryside in a trance, unable or unwilling to fend off zombies, who either don’t notice him or miraculously trip, fall, or stumble around him.

Corniest Line

And the Rickie goes to … Hershel.

“I hereby declare we have spaghetti Tuesdays every Wednesday.”

Maybe Glenn can go on a run and rustle up some Chef Boyardee.

Saddest Death

And the Rickie rests on the grave of … Hershel. RIP.

Dumbest Mother

And the Rickie goes to … Lily.

She’s the Mommy Dearest of the zombie apocalypse. Days after daughter Megan was almost zombie lunch, Lily allows the kiddo to play hundreds of feet away from safety, alone, in a mud pile. When a zombie emerges, Lily’s a second late and a bullet short. And the cradle did fall. RIP Megan.

Best Bad A**

And the Rickie goes to … Carol.

Carol’s banishment is also Rick’s biggest mistake. Turns out they could’ve used her.

Best Singer

And the Rickie goes to … Beth.

She can’t shoot, can’t fight, can’t handle a knife. But man, she can belt a Tom Waits’s tune. And she baby sits, which brings us to …

Worst Babysitter

And the Rickie goes to … Beth.

Never, ever transfer care of a baby to four young kids fleeing an invasion. Chances are they’ll dump the baby carrier in the carnage and run off looking for guns.

Best Defier of Death

And the Rickie goes to … Michonne.

When it’s all over, Michonne will be the last one standing. Nobody takes down Michonne.

Biggest apology

And the Rickie goes to … Bob.

On behalf of cyber fans everywhere, I humbly apologize to Bob for believing he was the prison killer. Turns out he may only be the prison’s zombie baiter, in which case the Ricktator will send him to live with Carol.

Marketing and things we hate

My friend is a freelance writer. She doesn’t have a novel to promote, but she must sell herself as the go-to writer-for-hire. I asked her about that awhile ago: How do you cold call people? How do you pester people you haven’t heard from in awhile? What if someone doesn’t like your article/brochure/newsletter?  How do you ask someone you don’t know well to have coffee and talk shop?

She said, a colleague of mine gave me a great piece advice about networking and marketing. You have to do something every single day that makes you want to throw up.

So, aspiring writers, get yourself a bottle of Tums.

Walking Dead

As a writer, I constantly struggle with conflicting plot points, contradictions in character, and things that don’t make sense – those moments in a story where the reader thinks, oh, c’mon. Really?

Instead of using my own work as an example, let’s take on my current favorite show Walking Dead. It gave me a full night’s worth of bad dreams, so I’m feeling a little miffed. Here we go:

  • In a zombie apocolyse, when you finally, FINALLY, get to a store, would you bring a teeny tiny backpack? Wouldn’t you leave with a stuffed trunk? Michonne brings back more supplies (even comic books!) on horseback then the supply runners bring back in a van. Twinkies are back in production, for example, and they last forever. How about some toothpaste? Maybe shampoo and a clean shirt for Daryl, who’s been wearing the same vest for three seasons.
  • If Glenn paid more attention at these stores, couldn’t he steal an engagement ring for Maggie instead of cutting one off a zombie? Where’s the romance?
  • If Rick can keep his hair perfectly sculpted, can’t Daryl get those bangs out of his eyes?
  • I understand there aren’t many cars roving the country these days. Still. Our survivors need to keep their eyes on the road. This would prevent so many zombie-car collisions that result in, well, just watch the show a few weeks ago. Not pretty.
  •  It’s lovely that Beth gets to be the resident singer/nanny. But shouldn’t she learn to be a bad-ass just in case? Her sister can singlehandedly manage a zombie herd at the fence. Meanwhile, Beth knows all the words to “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” It’s the typical baby sister unfairness. (Sorry, Cheryl, but you know it’s true.)
  • Since when do antibiotics cure a viral illness?
  • Why don’t people sleep with their cell doors shut?
  • If the group has automatic rifles, why don’t the supply runners get to use those instead of knives and a bow-and-arrow contraption?

Thank you. This analysis has been great writer therapy, no co-pay required.

The right one, baby

Every writer has a superstition. I was sure I didn’t. I’m too Midwestern, too cynic-journalist. But whenever I think I’m outside the norm, I learn I’m right in the middle of the pack.

My superstition: I must have a steady supply of Diet Pepsi to be productive. No water, no juice, no coffee. Diet Pepsi in the 24-ounce bottle. Cans of soda don’t count; neither does decaf. Just a big, bubbly bottle of chemical-infused goodness. (What is potassium benzoate, anyway?)

I quit my soda habit a few months ago. I had more energy and fewer headaches. My carb cravings dropped, too, but so did my productivity and creativity. I went on my blog-cation. I didn’t get on Facebook (gasp!). Old Diet Pepsi jingles floated in my brain. You’re drinking Diet Pepsi and it shows! or No other taste attracts so much attention or You’ve got the right one, baby (featuring Ray Charles).

I’ve quit before with the same results. In college, I couldn’t master the newspaper’s photo wheel – the 1980s version of “crop photo” – without diet soda in my veins. At my first newspaper job, I wasn’t comfortable doing phone interviews without my trusty soda sidekick. Forget attending a board meeting without one. Not a chance.

My evidence isn’t exactly the stuff of Harvard research papers. I own up to the superstition. Every writer has one.

So what’s yours? she asks, taking a swig of soda.

It’s weird. For reals.


Kid-lit writers hate it. Because we’re dreamers, we want our books to be classics, the novels kids will be forced to read in 2050 and hate every minute of it. Slang gives your novel an expiration date.

Me being weird.

Me being weird.

Slang also sounds wrong in dialogue. Dude, it was so bomb! Snap! Boom! Whatevs. Middle-grade kids aren’t sophisticated slangers like teens. For reals. The young characters’ natural language is tricky to capture.

My nine-year-old daughter and her friends are just picking up slang, and they make a perfect writer’s study group. Their word is weird. It’s so weird. She’s weird. You’re weird. That class is weird. It’s … weird. Why is she so weird? I spent three minutes in the car with two girls and heard weird at least a dozen times. Maybe more.

The kids all want to be the same, so to them, weird actually means different. I took on the challenge. I told them weird was good. I said, Who wants to be like everyone else? I want to be interesting. I want to be myself. We should appreciate weirdness.

And they said, that’s weird.

They’re not ready to see weird as fascinating, interesting, and thought-provoking. I thought about explaining the concept to them 80s style. Stop wiggin’ out and just veg. Weird is mondo cool, totally tubular. I kid you not.

But I already knew their response.

Job? What job?

The thing about a home office is you’re working from home, which is really just a roofed container for problems.  Since you’re working from you home, you have the time (grrr …) and flexibility (grrr …) to deal with problems.

Household problems are occupational hazards that threaten your writing routine, should you have a writing routine.

The food-wasting culprit. Doesn't Maytag know people are starving in China?

The food-wasting culprit. Doesn’t Maytag know people are starving in China?

My recent list:

One: Remember when TV’s lonely Maytag repairman had no repairs on Maytag’s products?  Remember how he’d dream of something, anything, going wrong with a Maytag appliance, just so he could crawl out of his Maytag hole and see the sun again?

Times have changed. Our Maytag refrigerator crapped out after six months, which led to multiple phone calls, cycling through phone menus, and waiting on hold.

Turns that little Maytag fella’s a happy, busy boy these days. He’s booked weeks out, engaging in refrigerator-repair frivolity. Maytag’s customer service rep said “Our warranty means we will service your refrigerator. It does not mean you will get same-day service.” She also said, “So you’d like to speak to a manager? I’ll leave a message and your call will be returned within three business days.”

Two: Express Scripts is the massive RX mail-order company trying to stampede local pharmacies with claims of speed and efficiency. When they use the name “express,” they fail to explain it’s the pony express. And when they outright lost my medication, they blamed UPS. Then UPS blamed them. And then it was my fault, the doctor’s fault, the other insurance company’s fault and even my stepdaughter’s fault for being on the same family account. I’m surprised the words “Obama Care” weren’t uttered.

More phone calls, more phone-menu cycling, more waiting on hold. I talked to Chris, Jane, Lynn and many more reps who all had different ways of blaming me and UPS.

Ultimately Walgreens was the hero, figuring out how to the cover the RX gap until Express Scripts got its act together. (I pictured the ES warehouse janitor sweeping the floor and finding my bottle near the rat bait.)

And the others, no details needed:

  • Dealing with the principal regarding my daughter’s ninja performance on the bus.
  • Planning a birthday party for the bus ninja.
  • Coaching the bus ninja through her first real social crisis.
  • Dodging volunteer requests for the bus ninja’s new school activity.
  • Figuring out my role on a new venture: the Friends of the Library Board.

So today, I write and eat foods not requiring refrigeration. But at least I write.

Workers Comp, Part 2

Me. My boots. A toe not made for walkin'.

Me. My boots. A toe not made for walkin’.

Last week, I bragged about working from home and freedom from sick-day policies.

Oh, that karma. She’s one for handing out lessons, isn’t she?

Last night, I walked into my bedroom, my body just a little … askew. I’d been dancing with my daughter to the song she loves to hate, “Never Gonna Give You Up,” from 80s dude Rick Astley.

So I walked through the bedroom door, still springing from 80s dance music, and WHAM. The toe thing. Not the big toe, which has a three-second gap between OMG and actual pain. No, the baby toe. No pain gap with the baby toe. Just instant lightning bolts to the brain’s pain center; then throbbing-burning-aching-swelling-turning colors.

Then came the swearing, words I never wanted my daughter to hear from me. She should learn those things from the bus stop or her father.

So the toe is swollen and gross, and since I realize readers might be enjoying breakfast, description shall cease.

When you work from your home office-closet, you get sick days galore. But no workers comp.

And, yes, I was an author at work. Dancing to an awful 80s tune with my daughter is basic research into the behaviors and preferences of my readers.

If my toe is broken, can I write off the medical bill on my taxes? Or is that an invitation for more karma, the nasty karma that brings tax audits?

Hmmm … ice and Advil. Karma’s cure.

“She said,” said he

I forget her name.

She was a college classmate returning from an internship where she learned “hands-on” media relations at a real PR shop, some place in Wisconsin where the news never stopped and jaded journalists had to be “worked.” Oshkosh. Or maybe Ashwaubenon.

She was back from the city, back in the student newsroom and ready to share everything she learned from people with an eye for good writing. Not stuff we’d heard from professors, God no, but from the people who cut their teeth every day on the bones of news-hungry journalists. The real-world public relations team plus one, the star intern.

She tossed her hair and delivered the first lesson: We students need to learn about the word said, as in its placement.

She critiqued reporting from The Pioneer Press. “Really, people,” she snorted, “quotes need to end the same way. It’s Director John Smith said, not said Director John Smith! Really, people, you should hear how we laughed at that kind of thing in the office.”

We. She counted herself among a professional we. And she tossed her hair again, which she probably learned from her hands-on PR experience because our professors did not teach hair tossing.

I was a pure journalism student, and the purists considered public relations the Dark Side of the Force. And I would never go to the Dark Side, even if reporters didn’t place said correctly, even if Darth Vader was my father or a cousin twice removed.

A year later, I got a hands-on job at a hands-on newspaper, tossed into that group of people who sometimes misplaced the word said. I wondered if the hair-tossers at the PR office laughed at us my co-workers.

Soon, perhaps my first day, I discovered the difference between PR gurus and PR hair tossers. How? Because we got hair-tosser press releases, with appropriately placed saids, once or twice or thirty times a day:

Dear Food Science Reporter,

How sweet is this news?! Chemical Food Solutions Inc.™ is unveiling a tasty new chocolate additive for the nation’s chocoholics! Thanks to Chemical Food Solutions Inc.,™ your readers will drink up  the drinkable form of our better-than-chocolate chocolate while they read you’re (sic) newspaper. After all, chocolate is a favorite food group!

“The additive has real potential to tickle tastebuds across the country,” Chemical Food Solutions Inc.’s Interim Associate Director of External Marketing and Communications John Smith said.

And that was followed by a couple pages of blah blah blah.

Here’s what would really happen when a press release like that arrived: The Food Science Reporter aka obit writer would pass it around the newsroom so everyone could share a nice morning laugh.

But let’s pretend. Let’s say the hair-tosser kind of press release actually got ink in my newspaper. (It couldn’t actually get ink in my newspaper, but try really, really hard to pretend.)

So, grumpy, hung-over Frank “Frankie-Prankie” “Frankfarter” “Frankenstink” Jones gets the release on his desk and uses it to wipe up a coffee spill.

Meanwhile, the news editor zigzags through the newsroom pleading for copy. “We’ve got a Texas-sized news hole, and what do I have for tomorrow? Jed’s story on corn prices being the same as yesterday. Eric’s column on the color of the new stage curtain at the high school. And a feature piece already headlined: ‘Gingerbread: When Does it Expire?’ Hmm. Nobody seems to be claiming a byline for that.”

Crime guy Robb says, “I got nothin’. Nobody is robbing nothin’ these days.”

Frank waves the press release. “If you promote me to Food Services Reporter, I can get you 20 inches on a new chocolate additive.”

“Absolutely,” the news editor says. “You’ll still be whatever it says on your business card, and you’ll probably take a pay cut, but definitely cough up 25 inches on that chocolate story, plus three photos. By the way, Shelley called in sick so you’ll also be covering tonight’s special assessment hearing for the city’s inflow and infiltration task force.”

Poor Frankfarter.

He didn’t have a PR internship, but he did get a journalism degree. In this forced exercise, here’s two options he would have considered for that quote.

1. “The additive has real potential to tickle tastebuds across the country,” a spokesperson said in a prepared statement.


2. Chemical Food Solutions, Inc., released a statement touting its new product. “The additive has real potential to tickle tastebuds across the country,” said John Smith, a spokesperson for the company.

That’s an A+, Frankie Prankie

So why the long story today? Because last night I had a dream about the hair-tosser. I remembered (or made up) every detail. Her hair, her big teeth and big ego, and the way she laughed at the Pioneer Press from our tiny student newsroom.

This rambling post should make a point that there are no absolutes in writing, I say.

And it should be much, much shorter, say I.

But mostly, it’s driving me crazy that I can’t remember her name.