Literary Nirvana or Night in Hell… Any one up for a Ghost Story Party?

Time to resurrect a past post…



With the events of LitQuake behind us and the writing conference season coming to a close, the lit party seems to be over… But wait!  We can still bring our stories screaming into the holiday season with a Halloween Ghost Story Party.

You may have heard of the Victorian era craze for séances or the evening ghost story parties of   Lord Byron and Mary Shelley which inspired Frankenstein.  What about holding your own? It can be kid friendly or not…  It can be very scary, playful, Steam Punk themed, or any long, dark path you’re willing to take your guests down.


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What To Do When You’re “Not Writing…”

It came out as a confession, “I haven’t been writing since…” Sitting across the tiny table, separated only by dinner plates, glasses, condiments, bread and utensils, this published workshop leader whispered the taboo words of our tribe. Words that had been spinning through my head, without being typed, penned, or communicated in any written form, for months.

            My excuses are as wide as the Nile and may even hold a drop of water. Yet there are a couple of coping mechanisms that keep my hard-earned identity as a writer intact and skills from falling out of my felucca.

Felluca on the Nile

            The first is the Poem-a-Day Program. Whether or not you’re a poet, you may find comfort and structure in playing with poetry’s wide range of styles. Poetry’s compact yet flexible forms provide a perfect outlet for exploring a single thought or emotion. The structure is a navigable chart when writing prose becomes a turbulent cataract in your river of life.

            I’ve found the succinct forms of Japanese poetry provide a solid raft to keep my tentative pen paddling. Tanka, haiku and several others, are short enough that they feel playful. Yet their set syllabic rules keep one focused and fishing the depths for the perfect word. Ultimately, this practice will have improved your prose when you’re ready to get back to shore.

            If you’re in a writing group, try a Tanka-Two-Step. It goes like this:

  1. A tanka is a five-line poem broken into these syllabic counts: 5/7/5/7/7. It does not require rhyme.
  2. As a group, choose:
    1. a theme to start
    2. assign an order to pass the poems to each member
    3. who will write the first poem
    4. how long to expect for each member to complete and pass-ontheir tanka to the next scribe
    5. and the time frame for this as a group exercise. Our group of four chose a month, larger groups may want longer.
  3. Once the first tanka has been written, it’s passed to the next member, who writes their tanka beginning with the last word.
  4. At the end of the exercise, organize your group’s work

In our group, working collaboratively motivated those who were struggling while the short form limited the commitment of those who had works in progress. It was fun, provided insight to each other’s styles as well as a collection of works we printed up for gifts.

Sometimes, when we’re lost Still Writing by Dani Shapiroin an overwhelming pool, flotsam comes by in just the right form of a writer’s guide. Still Writing by Dani Shapiro addresses the modern writer’s dilemma with her own memoir which acts as a study guide in good writing (if you can pull yourself out of the story long enough to analyze the prose).


Still writing… Still paddling. No one is alone on this world ship. And we are a tribe who thrives on two-stepping with taboos.

Behind the felluca is Aswan's Old Cataract Hotel, now a Sofitel property,  where Agatha Christie wrote, "Death on the Nile."

Behind the felucca is Aswan’s Old Cataract Hotel, now a Sofitel property, where Agatha Christie wrote, “Death on the Nile.”

LeUyen Pham–What Was on Her . . .

Originally posted on whatwason…:
? LeUyen Pham I’m thrilled—absolutely THRILLED—to introduce today’s guest, the completely wonderful, completely talented LeUyen Pham! Uyen was the first ever female layout artist at DreamWorks Animation. Since leaving there 14 years ago, she has illustrated…


Sound revision advice…

El Space--The Blog of L. Marie

I like to be entertained. I also like looking at this guy.


Theo James

And since I recently saw an entertaining movie with this guy (Divergent, directed by Neil Burger), well, that’s even better.

But this post isn’t about that movie or Theo James. (Sorry to disappoint. But at least you have a picture.) It’s not even about Star Trek, though the title of course is a command from that series. As I said, I like to be entertained. Writing is a form of entertainment for me. Consequently, I often write blog posts or scenes off the top of my head that I find entertaining without thinking about whether anyone else might agree. Yes, I’m one of those sad people who love to laugh at their own corny jokes. As I draft a novel, ideas for scenes pop into my head thusly: It would be fun to add…

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Book Bash 101: aka “How to Throw a Book-Themed Party”

The Loud Librarian is another member of the Secret Gardeners Guild at VCFA who writes wrenching and hysterical scenes in young adult fiction. She also is a teacher turned librarian with quite a few ideas up her sleeve.

The Loudmouth Librarian

At my library, we are immensely fond of Book Bashes. A Book Bash is basically a shindig centered around a particular novel or series.  For example, to celebrate “Read Across America” this past Saturday, our library threw a Dr. Seuss-themed book bash and we had over fifty local children and their parents attend.


Book Bashes are a fantastic way to increase foot traffic at your library. Not to mention the obvious fact that it’s a great way to foster kids’ love of reading and build relationships in the community. Plus it’s fun! Moreover, Book Bashes are great for any age group. Tweens and teens love them to – as long as you maintain the “cool” factor.

Book Bashes take an incredible amount of work, but they are definitely worth it. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when throwing a book bash of your own.

1) Plan Ahead

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Literary Nirvana: Where We Sit & Write – A Travel Log

“… two girls grew up at the edge of the ocean and knew it was paradise, and better than Eden, which was only a garden.” 

Eve BabitzSex and Rage


Where we write, and sit to do it, influences our work. It may be slight or it may infuse the piece with its atmosphere. I am a writing space nomad, uncomfortable committing to a specific place – even within my own home. I need the air of other rooms and places to keep my body happy while my mind rummages in the Renaissance or through the beer soaked green of a 1970’s rock concert. My need for other views is shared through my tribal connections, my writing group.


To serve our mutual need and create an intense space/time plan for those difficult projects, we booked a room at a hostel. Budget is as much of a priority as atmosphere which is not hard to find in Northern California, particularly when several of the Hostelling International sites are lighthouses.

ImageOur first venture was to the Montara Lighthouse which features private shared rooms, a meeting space that can be reserved, a beach, linens, and many, many places to sit.

There are downsides to choosing a hostel setting. First, privacy to write may be limited. The public spaces are public. If you write on anything with minimal battery life, then you may be relegated to the most public of the public spaces: the lounge areas. The good news is that the Montara Lighthouse has several surge protector strips set-up for just this purpose.

If you’re an early riser, you can almost have the place to yourself. Despite it being a holiday weekend at a full hostel, I didn’t see a soul until 8 am. But by 9:30, even the twenty-year-old guys were up and scratching their stomachs. There are many views to take in.

Of course, the international and multi-generational atmosphere is part of the charm. It’s a great place to find inspiration for characters and scenes! I found a cherubic two-year-old from a country I’d never heard of “reading” in the lounge – if you write for children and don’t get to view them in their natural habitat, this may be your place.

Our group had a “private” room with a digital lock – a single room with three beds and one chair, plus a spot to hang clothes and tuck-away luggage with a window that opened. The beds are all twin size and plastic wrapped, two were set-up as bunks, and linens were provided. If one pillow isn’t enough for you, bring your own. The rooms are spare, no decoration except for your sparkling personality…

From 7 am to 10:30 pm, tea and espresso drinks are available along with light snacks for modest additional fees. They also have nightlights that Velcro onto the bed frame, important for those late night readers. Of greater import, under “note to self,” remember to sleep on your stomach to keep the snoring down!

The kitchen is always available, self-serve, self-clean, and fully stocked with utensils as well as things folks left behind, i.e. there may be sugar for your coffee. The view from the dining table is California Coast Dreamy.


Now, the serious downside – you must vacate your room between 11 am and 3 pm. Very hard to get any writing accomplished without a place to write. ImageIf the weather is good, there are plenty of gorgeous spots outside to sit but be prepared to be disturbed by passers-by, fellow travelers, children, dogs, cats, bold raccoons, cold gusts of wind, sweeping low fog, etcetera. Now that I know this, I’ll only take writing groups IF I can reserve a building throughout the day, and this is an option.

 The Montara Lighthouse is located in a semi-suburban coastal spot with plenty of restaurants and grocery stores, making meals delightful. My recommendations are The Moss Beach Distillery for atmosphere and views, San Benito House for lunch and beer, Barbara’s Fish Trap for fried fish and more beer, Its Italia for brunch, and  four Zagat rated options. There’s a spa at the Ritz Carlton, but that may negate the point of choosing a hostel.

If you are more inclined to cook, then the locally grown fresh produce and an active fishing fleet will supply your most luscious organic fantasies. Check-out Yelp for the Half Moon Bay Crab Boats, Princeton Seafood Company and Creekside Smokehouse. Produce can be found along Highway One and you may view available options through the Harbor Village Farmer’s Market blogspot.

The California coast is a freeway for whale migration and the best spots to view them happen to be where lighthouses are located. If you book during prime whale watching season, you couldn’t be in a better spot. We observed a grey whale and her calf swimming right near the cliffs along the kelp forest – by far the closest sighting I’ve ever had from land.  There’s also a private beach and the likelihood of seeing seals and other aquatic life. As the hostel is located in the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, tide pooling is also an option. Check the tide before you go.

All of these distractions turned out to be useful since no one in our group met their writing goal. However, it was still a rich creative enterprise which produced blogs, poems and spectacular plans. This “field trip” also drew us closer and provided an entirely different experience of the Bay Area.  It was magical in ways none of us expected, but the next time we venture forth, I’ll be sure that there are plenty of private places (with extension cords) to sit and write…

Image “This morning I saw a coyote walking through the sagebrush right at the very edge of the ocean ― next stop China. The coyote was acting like he was in New Mexico or Wyoming, except that there were whales passing below. That’s what this country does for you.” 

 Richard BrautiganA Confederate General from Big Sur

Literary Nirvana: The Social Art of Writing

Sitting spread eagle on an antiseptic floor across from my Sensei, painfully aware that the woman next to me could easily lick the aforementioned floor if she chose, I began musing about writing motivations. Having shunned exercise classes in favor of walking to the local café – only to write very little as eavesdropping in Mill Valley is too delicious, writing in public places is out of the question. But here I was, pushing my middle-aged self to do something completely out of character, striving to get my nose an inch closer to the floor twelve inches below…all because the person next to me could!

My first karate class was fBlog-Karate Girlocused, challenging and fun. Much like my writing classes at Vermont College of Fine Arts or seminars with the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators, where I have also been motivated to do things I never considered. What induced me to take-on their challenges? Being in a room with other people. Being a social being. Being human. And, yes, stellar teachers. Who are all human.

Writers, although human, tend to be placed in the less-than-social Linnaean sub-category of humanity. We need time alone to work, to think, to get into the heads of our characters and settings. Our writing spaces are our altars and privacy is sacred. How else can we hear our own voice? But we all know the importance of feedback, of having a writing community, of a social network within the tribe. To call upon a term rarely utilized within our group – colleagues.

Blog-Linnaean Classification Print

If we didn’t know this before attending a conference, seminar, or MFA program, we certainly learned it.  Through exposing our work, we know the value of constructive feedback. But how many of us are able to maintain a consistent focus, work flow and quality when removed from these nourishing environments?

As many of you have no doubt acknowledged, a good writing group is important. Since graduating, I need meetings more than once a month. Since establishing a weekly group, my production and publication have been more consistent. Instead of being a critique only group, we meet to set goals, share publishing opportunities, and do group writing exercises.  Last week, we booked our first weekend retreat to a lighthouse.

A thriving writers’ organization, The Grotto in San Francisco, is based on this Blog-Stay Up With Mevery human need to have writing colleagues come together in a consistent space and time. If you review their roster, you’ll see that it’s working. Although I’d heard about it at the San Francisco Writers Conference, one of their many stars Tom Barbash, whose novel Stay Up With Me is a sharply crafted series of short stories, dished details over a counter discussion at The Depot Bookstore. At The Grotto, writers have a desk, keep a schedule, and enjoy a group area to share their work and information. I bet, they also keep each other inspired and improve their individual works out of collegial competition. It’s human nature.

A rather painful post-MFA lesson is that self-imposed deadlines do not work, at least not for me. My clever writer’s brain wriggles around them! Irony of ironies, it is not the deadlines that make one accountable. It’s having to communicate with the people you’re accountable to which is motivating. I bow in your general direction if you have mastered this discipline without any outside accountability.

In my first karate class at Goju Karate, I not only pushed bodily parts that did not want pushing, made guttural sounds out loud and machinegun kicked my beloved former boss despite all personal sense of decorum, but was reminded about the motivating nature of the competitive spirit. Although sore today, I’m inspired to keep going, stretching until my nose smudges that blond floor, and honoring the discipline this practice will take. For me, having a community provokes me past my personal limitations. Sometimes passion needs a push. The art of writing is not exempt.

 “Competition has been shown to be useful
up to a certain point and no further,
but cooperation, which is the thing
we must strive for today,
begins where competition leaves off.”
― Franklin D. Roosevelt