Category Archives: Is Life LIke This?

Ripped from the headlines

Newspapers B&W (5)

“Read your Sunday paper of choice to find material for your novel…

“Assume your character is reading the paper, and an article affects him…
Write about it.
“Now find a place for him to read the paper somewhere in your novel. It could be a paragraph, a sentence, a scene, a chapter— something he reads affects him strongly and we see how and why. And it will all have something to do with the theme of your novel.”
Is Life Like This?
—John Dufresne

Uncle John nails it. Again.

English: Mountains from Hatcher Pass (Alaska)

“What is the controlling metaphor, the central image, the fertile symbol that directs your novel or is the source of its energy? It’s in there already, or it’s in your notes.

“It may even be your working title.

“In Louisiana Power & Light the utility company with its transcendent name served as my central metaphor. Mann and Hemingway used mountains as central images and all that their isolation, majesty, and dominance suggested. We all know about the whiteness of Melville’s whale and Harper Lee’s mellisonant and tragic mockingbird.

“So determine your central image or metaphor. Read all about it. Use dictionaries, thesauruses, encyclopedias, field books, Web sites, books of quotations, etc. The idea is to open up that image, discover all it’s possible permutations, connotations, and uses.

“Take notes.”

Is Life Like This?
—John Dufresne

You guys! I think it actually IS my working title. Just opened my eyes to a whole nutha vista of crap I can write about.


YouveGotABookInYouElizabeth Sims has written a handy book on novel writing.

You’ve Got a Book in You is full of tips and tricks to help you complete your masterpiece. There are nice long lists of questions to ask, action steps at the end of each chapter, and repeated reminders to have fun.

I won’t give away all the goods, because you should read this book. But here’s a soundbite to whet your appetite:

“Brainstorming. I don’t like that word. It puts too much emphasis on thinking.
“You need to rouse something deeper and more productive to write a good book: You need to engage your heartbrain, that is to say, your whole, deepest self.
Stormwriting is essentially a heartbrainstorm, a process by which you open your heartbrain and provoke it to not merely dump stuff out, but generate new questions and ideas that lead you to more good stuff: The stuff that becomes building blocks for your book. How do you provoke it?
  • “Yes, and —” (writing is improv) Whatever you just wrote, keep it going by saying “Yes, and–” whatever comes to mind next. Yes, not no. And, not but.
  • “What if —?” Go nuts. Tangents are key to fresh, great material.
  • Patterns. Does a certain thing or idea keep popping up? Notice it. Write it.
  • Gaps. Is something missing, maybe waiting just below the surface? Tune in and uncover it.
  • Emotion. When your gut knots up or your heart starts thumping– follow the feelings.

Sims denies the existence of writer’s block, and when you think about it, why should we believe in it? It’s a lame excuse.

Writer’s block is just you telling yourself “NO” — no, that sentence wasn’t good enough; no, you can’t write about that; no, you shouldn’t feel that way. Stormwriting is about saying “YES.” Yes, this could happen; yes, you can write about that; yes, your feeling is valid; yes, that rabbit is worth chasing. Yes, the writing gets hard! That means you’re onto something. Keep going.

Give writer’s block the finger.

Dufresne (Is Life Like This?) got me up and running on my first draft. I think Sims will help me cross the finish line.

“If you try to keep your whole project in your head at one time, you’ll keep trying to write it all at once, and that’s a recipe for a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Just focus on one small part at a time, and really write the hell out of that part.”
For more good stuff from Elizabeth Sims, visit her website,

Debbie does dialect


Eye dialect: the use of nonstandard spelling for speech to draw attention to pronunciation.

In Is Life Like This?, John Dufresne says incorrectly spelling words in order to convey dialect is a namby-pamby momma’s boy graduate of the Little Lord Fauntleroy School of Halfassery cop out. Okay, I said that. But Uncle John would concur– it’s taking the easy way out.

If you want your character to sound regional, use the right words. Deliberate misspellings are almost always off-putting to your readers, making you and your characters sound dumb rather than dialectical.

But then, how do you show off a Southern Belle’s petticoat-lifting lilt? What about a stinky two year old whose “unnaweah bodda me betause day fool poop”?

I’m fixin’ to fuss wi’ this he-ah dilemmer rot d’reckly. So I’m checking out how authors do it, and whether or not it works.

Cloud Atlas (novel)

David Mitchell did it right. Xcellently, even. In envisioning the future world of Sonmi-451 in Cloud Atlas, he used words like nike and ford, lower case, the way we use kleenex and jello now. The brand name is synonymous with the product. The proper noun has properly become the noun itself.

He spells xecutives and xcitement with no xplanation and it feels like an absolutely natural xtension of the way we’ve already begun shortening words to fit into twitter sized spaces.

Night is nite and morning is yellow-up.

Catechism is repurposed as the code of conduct for fabricants genomed for mindless obedience.

Soap is the food substitute clones imbibe. It regulates their energy and sleep patterns while simultaneously wiping their minds of any words in the pureblood (human) lexicon. The fabricants do not eat at the creepy Papa Song’s, they only serve there.

It is this innovative use of familiar terms that enables Mitchell to create such a frighteningly believable future. He didn’t go overboard, but included enough slight spelling changes to make the progression from today’s usage seem realistic. Going over the top would have backfired and pulled me out of the story, but by inserting a few well-placed xpressions he achieved exactly the opposite– keeping me in the world he so effectively created.

Now if y’all’ll ‘scuse me, I’ve got to go take care of someone whose unnaweah bodda-ing him.

Great story

I like my story.

I like writing it, thinking about it, trying out new ways of telling it, talking about it, laboring over it. I like reading advice— ‘If you don’t love writing it, your readers won’t love reading it’— and thinking, “I LOVE THIS! You guys are going to die when you read this!” I like the excitement of crafting a great scene and thinking, yeah, nailed it.

“All of us are living stories, and those stories teach other people to live stories. And what our stories are about matters, not just for us but for the world.”

Lately I’ve had a few reminders that I’ve been neglecting my story. The one I’m living.

My life-story students and co-stars.
My life-story students and co-stars.

My kindergartener isn’t a super reader, but he’s on the verge. My too-smart-for-their-own-good older boys didn’t get straight As on their last report card, but if we bust our butts now, they can finish strong. I haven’t danced with Punk in two months, and I miss him. I’m up against a deadline and only have one of three articles done for the newspaper– it’s good, but you know.

Something’s got to give.

I’ve got to “live a better story.”

Uncle John deserves a mention, since I didn’t chime in with a week 16 review last Tuesday. After much deliberation, I’ve decided to take a 3 week hiatus from writing a good story, in order to live a good story. I’ll be posting more about great stories I’m reading, great stories I’m living, and great novel ideas I’ll get back to sweating over when school’s done.

“A writer of fiction can control all those elements, but as real life protagonists we can control only what we do and say, what choices we make, what words we say. The rest is up to fate.”

My junior farmers, planting corn at the community food bank garden 5/20/13
My junior farmers planting corn at the community food bank garden 5/20/13

I chose to be a wife. Then a mom. Then a teacher, journalist, speaker. Author is my goal, but those other stories are good ones, too, and their chapters aren’t over. I still have goals for those roles.

For the next 3 weeks, I intend to co-star in some memorable scenes: band and orchestra concerts… community service at a women’s prison… a birthday party. I will speak publicly (twice) and (not) freak out on stage. I will go to the beach, to the park, and to graduations. I will live a story worth writing about. I will continue to dabble at my novel, because I can’t leave it alone for more than a day or two. And because I sense there is material out there– stuff I don’t want to miss; stuff that will enrich and enliven the novel I want so much to write.

In 3 weeks, I will go back at it hard and fast, because a great story deserves to be told.

A great story also deserves to be lived.

“Once I understood the power of story in my personal life, I wanted to know more about how to create a good one… In a way, I’d started a new story about trying to find a story, and so I didn’t need to escape my boring life anymore. I was a character who wanted something, and well, that’s half the battle.”

I like my story.


*all quotes from Don Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. He inspires me to live a better story.