Friday, October 26, 2012


It's nearly Halloween. It makes me think back to one childhood picture of my sister, little brother and I. We were standing in the front yard and I was dressed in a red satin band uniform, complete with tall hat and black boots. A ruler-length daisy yellow plume was stuck in the front of the hat and the buttons of the costume matched. I have no idea where my mother found it. My sister was an alien that year. My brother was GI Joe or something similar. The Halloween picture was an annual event and this one was was taken on a Sunday afternoon during the time when Trick or Treat happened during the day instead of the evening. For some reason the city decided there was less tricking when the sun was shining. I don't recall when it switched back to night.

When we got home with our sugary treasures, Mom would comb through our bags checking for opened candy or homemade stuff in case rat poison was inside. I think all moms did that, and still do today. The rest of it went into a bowl which was put on top of the refrigerator. My mom didn't want it to be easily accessible in case we ate so much it would rot out our teeth. But my sister and I could pull kitchen chairs over and climb up to get it any time Mom wasn't paying attention. We could do it in twenty seconds flat and have the chair back under the table as if we'd been perfect angels. If she ever noticed our bulging pockets, she didn't say anything.

My favorite costume of all time was a green sequined roaring 20's dress with black fringe swinging along the bottom. My favorite candy was a Tootsie Roll. I still have a weakness for that chewy chocolate calorie-adder.

What was your favorite costume and candy?

You're just finished reading Halloween. Please consider leaving a comment.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Happiness Project

Did you know that most people consider themselves very happy or at least pretty happy? Did you know that on a scale of 1-5, most people would rate their level of happiness around 4? I know statistics can lie, but I happen to believe these.

That leads to today's mystical question. Can a person be happier with some kind of intention? Can it be done through behavior modification? How about through changing thought patterns? I absolutely believe it. I know where I am now. I know where I was twenty years ago; ten years ago; five and so on.

I didn't plan a happiness project, although given my natural inclination to learn everything about something before I do it, I would have. I just didn't think of it.

One of my character flaws is to blame myself for nearly everything. My boss is in a bad mood, so it must be my fault. My kid isn't happy today, so it must be my fault. A bird died in China, so it must be my fault. The next step in this pattern is to determine how it's my fault and to fix it. It's a miserable existence born out of some misguided ethic.

So I changed the pattern to something more truthful. When my boss is in a bad mood it has nothing to do with me. He's in a bad mood because he burnt his toast; got into traffic on the way in to work; had a fight with his wife; forgot his lunch; lost his house key; got yelled at by his boss. There are at least one hundred other reasons for his mood in which I'm not the central character.

Changing that auto-response was intentional and painful. And it took a lot of time, but I did it. Is it all the way gone? No. But I recognize when its creepy tendrils grab at me.

That was my biggest "happiness project" although I had, and continue to have others. I've been successful at most of them. I can create my own mood and reality if I want to.

If you don't have twenty years to work on being happier, then there's this book. I always have a book. My brother will tell you I always have a song. That's true, too.

The book is The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. She has a blog on it. Her newest book, entitled Happier at Home was just released last week. Both talk about ways to get happier in a more systematic way than I've gone about it. But they'll work, too.

Here's a book trailer on The Happiness Project. But don't buy the book unless you're going to do it because your project will be different from mine and hers because you're you.

You've just finished reading Can You Be Happier with Intention? Please consider leaving a comment.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Fallout Alley Youth Zone - a FAYZ

When I was in college, one of my literature professors said all books and movies were Westerns regardless of the genre. In other words, all plots are good versus evil no matter who the characters are. Through the years I've learned this is true. Every writing course I've taken confirms it.

Today my blog introduces you to a young adult dystopian series of novels. GONE, by Michael Grant, is a contemporary twist on Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Add in some science fiction, a tad of fantasy and an autistic little boy and you have yourself a unique plot.

The premise of the story is simple. One day everyone aged fifteen and older disappears. A barrier goes up around Perdido Beach, California and the remaining kids have to figure out how to recreate society. Some of the children possess special powers. Others kids remain normal. Two brothers, separated at birth, square off. Then there's the gaiaphage, or "world eater" that wants to take over, which triangulates the conflict.

The new world is called the FAYZ (Fallout Alley Youth Zone).

I have tried to put down this series of six books, but I can't. It's fascinating to see how Michael Grant takes these kids through the reestablishment of some kind of order while also trying to survive. What defines leadership? Does capitalism reoccur? Does government? Will people work for free if starving is the alternative? Who takes care of the babies?

The books do need to be read in order since one serves as the foundation for the next. The order is: Gone, Hunger, Lies, Plague and Fear. Light, the last, won't be released until April 2013.

If you like dystopian literature, I think you'll like these books.

You've just finished reading Fallout Alley Youth Zone - a FAYZ. Please consider leaving a comment.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


I frequently watch Chopped on the Food Network. I'm amazed at how many times they don't want red onions used. I'm also totally confused about why competitors use them. Don't they watch the show? I've also learned chefs can't recover from over-salting food or leaving bones in fish.

What the judges expect the most is that contestants repurpose whatever food is in the basket. For example, if pita bread is one of the items, it better not be pita bread by the time the chef presents the meal to them. I suppose they want it to be pesto. Perhaps some knowledge of alchemy would come in handy.

I could never be on that show. I'd be chopped the minute beets showed up. How do you think you'd repurpose beets? Or anything else?

You've just finished reading Repurposing. Consider leaving a comment.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Miss Harry Potter? Meet Skulduggery Pleasant

If you haven't met Skulduggery Pleasant, I'll introduce you to him in today's blog. Skulduggery is a skeleton detective. Stephanie Edgley, aka Valkyrie Cain, is his twelve-year old apprentice. Their mission is to prevent arch villian Nefarian Serpine from exposing the world to a weapon of unfathomable power. This series of stunning, yet charming fantasy mysteries are written by Derek Landy. Naturally they get into all kinds of scrapes from which they escape. Yet Serpine continues to elude them. I'd say more, but Mr. Pleasant's interview is below.

A friend of mine (actually a friend of Chuck's) recommended the books to me and specifically encouraged me to listen to them because he said the production is incredible. I risked the first two and Chuck didn't see me for days because I couldn't stop listening. Rupert Degas, the narrator, is the Mel Blanc of audio book reading. I've never heard anyone do more voices, more cleverly, than Degas.

Don't let the idea of a skeleton being the hero prevent you from listening (or reading) these books. They've won awards that include the Red House Children's Book Award, the Bolton Children's Book Award and the Staffordshire Young Teen Fiction Award. In 2010, Skulduggery Pleasant was awarded the title of Irish Book of the Decade. Landy, who plays video games, reads comic books and watches movies, doesn't like to brag about his achievements and prefers to live quietly in Ireland with his cats and dogs.

The first book in the series is Sceptre of the Ancients. Each book can be read as a stand alone novel, but it's much more fun to read them in order.

I recommend these unique books for you or your kids. They have everything in them to keep you turning pages.

In the meantime, meet Mr. Skulduggery Pleasant. I have to dash and get started on the fourth novel. Valkyrie and I have lost Skulduggery somewhere along the line.

You've just finished reading Miss Harry Potter? Meet Skulduggery Pleasant.  Please consider leaving a comment.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

How Superstitions Get Started

It's been a while and I apologize for that. But I'm catching up and today's post is a short freestyle poem I wrote back in 2000.  I pulled it out because my husband and I were talking about superstitions and the conversation reminded me I'd written it.  It could be entitled Flossing Your Teeth.  Enjoy.

I have a friend whose life, once,
played in metronomic timing.
One day she announced,
I think I'll start to floss my teeth.
Yes, there is time even for that.
A curse of a cascade of chaos.
That very day her son got caught in the rain,
causing him to catch a cold,
forcing him to miss school,
pulling her away from work,
overextending her paid time off,
creating a partial paycheck,
exacerbating the delayed child support,
making the rent late
generating a visit from the landlord,
who tripped over the secret cat,
causing the man to fall,
knocking over a pile of laundry,
exposing a fledgling wall mural,
strictly violating the lease, and,
Her well structured life toppled like a Junga game.
Picking up the pieces to begin again she warned,

Don't ever floss your teeth.  It's bad luck.

Here's to good luck for all of you!

You've just finished reading How Superstitions Get Started. Please consider leaving a comment.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Books and Vulnerability

Last week a friend of mine shared a Ted Talks video with me about vulnerability. I mostly laughed through it because what the speaker says is so true. After spending a few days thinking about the clip, I realized part of what makes books so inviting to me is that they allow me to be vulnerable in a safe place. I can relate to the characters and drop my guard in doing so. Authors who can do that for me are undoubtedly my favorite ones.

I've included the video here. It's well worth your 20 minutes to watch it. Brene Brown is such a great speaker, she'll grab your interest in the first seconds. Don't worry, her presentation is comedic because guess what? She makes herself vulnerable - in public. She a true bard and I envy her ability to be so.

Do books allow you to be vulnerable? If so, what are your favorite ones?
You've just finished reading Books and Vulnerability. Please consider leaving a comment.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Beautiful Saturday Morning

Today's post is simple. What do you do on a beautiful Saturday morning? And what kind of story can you make up about what your dog (or other animal) will do if you spend it cleaning?

You've just finished reading A Beautiful Saturday Morning. Please consider leaving a comment.  Thanks.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Price of Excellence

Today is Teacher Appreciation Day and marks the beginning of Teacher Appreciation Week.  I'm posting a short essay written by a young adult eleven years ago.   This piece, written by my son when he was a senior in high school, takes a very difference approach to what he observed as the price of teaching excellence.  I liked it so well that I still have the paper.  Chris has given me permission to post it today.

Chris Helscher is an Account Manager at Root Learning, a boutique management consulting firm specializing in strategy execution through people.  He is an avid hockey fan - playing and watching as much as possible.  In addition to his love for hockey, Chris has a passion for food.  Dining, eating and cooking are a significant part of his life.  Chris currently resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan - as a first time home owner - with his beautiful girlfriend, Rachel, cat, Aurora, and dog, Senor

Here's the piece, written on September 8, 2001.

It’s twelve o’clock again. The hunger always comes right about now. It never fails. Still, I sit here every day sifting through general chemistry quizzes, laughing at typical mistakes made by some young sophomore. If I could only consciously remember that I made the exact same mistake on the exact same quiz on whatever day I took it.

I look over at Felczan on the phone. He’s oblivious to my glance and completely enthralled by his wife telling him of the latest feats his son and daughter have accomplished at home. It’s the same conversation everyday, yet it’s approached with the same enthusiasm and joy each time, all the while never growing old. Soon Felczan will remark to his wife that he needs next Thursday off so he can “work out” with the academic team, knowing that her inevitable answer will be yes, although it’s a regrettable one. Even though all of Felczan’s coaching endeavors, whether it be the Academic Team, Jet, or Science Olympiad attract the same attention as his gives to his children, his toddlers do come first, if only by a smudge. It’s a close race, the winner known only by a carefully observant few, of which I am one. I take the time to notice and quietly appreciate.

I’ll never come to an understanding of how one man can care for people that he must teach as closely as he cares for his children that he chose to care for and watch over. This could be a factor of age, but I elect to think of it as a quality that one must strive for. Either way, it's a characteristic that few teachers I’ve encountered possess. 

In a dying art, this sort of commitment is reassuring. To see a man that is willing to put forth as many nights and weekends as it takes to ensure that each and every student in his AP Chemistry class understand the material well enough to pass that test is inspiring. Because of that, I’ve found myself on more than one occasion doing the work not for myself, but instead for Mr. Felczan.

I do this knowing that if I don’t understand my own class work, Mr. Felczan will sacrifice the time he had set aside for me to grade a few papers as his lab aid and sit down and teach me by myself. And he would care enough to make me understand the homework, too.
You've just finished reading The Price of Excellence.  Please consider leaving a comment.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Conversation with Henrietta - A Teacher Who Made A Difference

Imagine being a little kid who's blind.  Then you're sent to a state school, away from family and friends in order to be educated in a special way so that you can get along in the world.  What kind of teacher do you think would be important to a first, second, or third grader?  In continuing my salute to teachers, I have a guest blogger who was that little kid.  Charles Lester shares with us a recent conversation he had with his fourth grade teacher from the School for the Blind.  She made a difference to him in that setting.  

Chuck is now retired, but worked for 30 years in Human Resources at the United States Postal Service.  A philosophy graduate from the University of Dayton, Chuck has lots of stories and this is but one.  It's only fair to mention that 18 years ago Chuck told me a story.  I bought it and married the guy.  

How many times have we all heard the phrase,  “I had this one teacher and.”  Then, we are likely to be treated to a story about how this teacher, for better or ill, affected this person’s life.  I consider myself to be a lucky soul because I’ve had several teachers who have profoundly influenced my life.  The first in this long line of wonderful people was Henrietta Clash.

I first met her when I was a third grader at the School for the Blind. It was my first year there and every time we met, she always took time to ask how I was doing and if I was getting along with all of the new people in my life.  It seemed to me that she really wanted to know and it was important for her to actually find out.

Through good fortune, in my fourth and fifth grade years, I was placed in what was called, “The major work class” which was taught by none other than Henrietta Clash.  In that class, the third, fourth and fifth graders were all lumped together with one teacher.  The goal was to allow us to progress as a group as quickly as we could manage.  In some ways it utilized an old schoolhouse approach where we were allowed to learn from, and share with one another what each of us had discovered on our own.

In the two years I spent under the guidance of Ms. Clash, I learned to read extensively, how to prepare outlines, and how to deliver speeches.  And I was always given time to pursue my own curiosities.  When the school library acquired a Braille encyclopedia, Ms. Clash required us to pick a topic, research it and present an oral report to the class every week.  That opened a whole new world for me.  My personal interests at that time ran from the growing of cork trees to the construction of the modern battle ship.
But the greatest lesson Ms. Clash taught me was that learning was fun and that the desire to know and understand how our world worked had its own rewards.  She was truly adept at encouraging her students and when discipline was needed, she sternly but gently redirected any recalcitrant back to the ways of learning.  Order would be restored so the process of discovery could continue. 

Little did I know that those two years would prepare me, along with the prodding of my parents, to start what was known as “main streaming” in the sixth grade which at that time was more of an experimental program.      

Tilt the hourglass a little and forty-nine years later I was sitting at my computer thinking about those who had a transformative impact on my life.  My thoughts drifted back to those days with Henrietta Clash. 

Since I knew where she was living in her retirement, I reached for the phone, acquired the number and called her.

"Henrietta," I said, "this is Chuck Lester and I was a student of yours a long time ago."  To my surprise she recognized me right away and for the next hour we talked about where our paths had taken us since last we spoke.  We caught up on those whose lives we have shared in common.  We also lamented the passing of several people who were dear to both of us and on and on we went. Forty-nine years is a lot of ground to cover.

At one point in this lovely conversation, I stopped the process and shared with her in simple, clear terms what her presence in my life had meant to me and although, I had never picked up the phone to track her down before, I wanted to take a moment to tell her now.

There was a long pause on the other end of the line and then, with a little quiver in her voice, she responded by saying how much it means to an old retired teacher to hear from a long lost student that she did good work and that it was appreciated. 

Ms. Clash worked at the School for the Blind from 1942 until 1976.  For thirty-four years she made life just a little bit better for dozens and dozens of visually impaired individuals.  I am most proud to number myself among that group and today, I’m so glad that there are still those dedicated souls on the planet who have committed themselves to making a positive difference for all of us.  

Right then and there I promised myself that the next time I find myself holding a glass of Champaign, I’ll raise my glass and quietly salute Henrietta Clash and all those other unnamed people who have enriched the fabric of my life.  "Waiter, better bring several bottles, it's a long list!"    

You have finished reading A Conversation with Henrietta.  Please consider leaving a comment.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Who's Your Best Teacher?

This year Teacher Appreciation Week is May 7-11.  The 8th is Teacher Appreciation Day.  This blog appears a week early so that you’ll have some time to appreciate those teachers in your lives that have made an impact.  The blog is fairly straightforward as I list the teachers in my life who touched my life in some way and why.  Not all of used the classroom to teach me.  To use today’s jargon, I give a big Shout Out! to each of them.  The fact that I even remember the names of few is a testimony to the fact that they taught something that is still of some importance to me decades later.

Don Heilman, 5th and 6th grade teacher.  He was a good teacher, but more importantly he taught me how to forgive others.  How?  He forgave me for pulling a practical joke on the entire class when I moved everyone’s desk stuff (that was when we stored stuff in actual desks) up one desk so that when my classmates sat down they all had someone else’s belongings. 

Wanda DeBra – Geography teacher in high school.  She understood how to engage a class and almost tricked us into learning by having us create maps of the countries in our textbooks.  We understood where they were and why they were important by being little cartographers. 

Harriet Lynch – Latin Teacher all through high school.  She taught me Latin, which is a language I use daily in reading and writing.  She inspired me to take three more years of Latin in college.  By the way, it’s not a dead language at all.  The roots still exist.  But Mrs. Lynch was also someone who really cared about students even though that may have been lost on kids (and teachers) who didn’t like her assertive nature, or Latin.

Tim Moore – Coach, physical education in high school.  He believed that I could do and be anything and wasn’t afraid to tell me so.

Don Lynn – Science teacher in high school.  I got my first and only F from him and so I learned humility.

Rosella Reynolds – Typing teacher in high school.  She taught me to type.  Do you have any idea how important that is?  I type 110 words a minute, which is so much better than using the hunt and peck method.

Anneliese von Oettingen – My ballet teacher.  I only took ballet for a few years, but she taught me I could move gracefully and remember dance routines.  Because of her, I love and appreciate the dance culture.

Barbara Mossman – My childhood piano teacher.  I took weekly piano lessons from her for so long that I can’t remember the dates.  Because of her I adore classical piano music.  Her lessons also taught me graceful competition, poise in a public setting, and how to beat Allan Stubbs in a piano recital (okay, so I still need to work on that graceful competition thing).

Kay Sturm – My adult piano teacher and mentor.  I took weekly piano lessons from her for five years as an adult – just for fun.  But in that time I also learned how to accept other people’s fragility.

Colonel Undercoffer – The summer of my life teacher and father of my best friend.  He taught me how to ride a horse in a variety of ways.  Hunter style; trick riding; ring riding; Roman riding; trail riding.  He also taught me how to use a bow and arrow.  The badminton lessons didn’t work out as well.  These lessons were only for a summer in high school, but it was a summer I’ll always remember.

Mr. Blum – My first creative writing teacher.   He taught me that I could make up stories and write them down.

Bill Moore – A mentor for a few years.  He taught me how to forgive myself.

Sister Margo Cain – A cowoker.  She taught me that not everything has to be done by Friday.

Julia Hawgood – Another mentor for a few years.  She taught me that life isn’t fair and never will be.  But she followed it up with the lesson that I can learn to live it with joy, happiness and acceptance.

Melanie Faith – A recent writing instructor.  She’s been teaching me the art of writing short essays and fiction in an economy of words.  Much of my shorter work is publishable because she taught me how to get it up to speed for that.  She believes in my dream and that I’m able to reach it.  She’s a dream supporter.

Margo Dill – A recent writing instructor.  Not only has she taught me the use of social media, she’s also taught me tenacity where my novel writing is concerned. Somehow, even in periods of self-doubt after a terrible writing week, her comments and suggestions pull me through.  She also supports my dream because she believes writing is a viable life choice.  Although she never lies about the challenge of such a choice, she does so with a great sense of humor.

Colette Ledford – One of my younger sisters.  She taught me to be unafraid of motherhood and that it can be faced with laughter.  She taught me to “get over myself” when I took it too seriously.  And even now, when we’re adults, she can step in and gently slap me across the face (figuratively) so I’m not hysterical when I bite off more than anyone can possibly do in one day.  She continues to teach me that perfection is over rated.

Jenny Stephancin – My youngest sister.  She taught me to look at myself objectively when I do a self-assessment.  She may not even know that except that we’re both so much alike it’s as if I’m looking in a mirror.  She has taught me that sometimes good enough is just that – good enough.  And that dog hair is an acceptable condition in my house.

Scott Cassell - My brother.  Dedication is his middle name and he has taught me that.

Winnie Renner – My aunt who passed of breast cancer long ago.  She taught me that I’m ornery and to accept it.  She also taught me that my family is my family and no matter what, they’ll be there for me.  She believed that someday I would figure that out.

Jean Cassell – My mother.  At first she taught me how to be the hostess with the mostest because I have no instinctive talents in that direction.  Then I learned to be my own person because of her.  I don’t know if that was her intention, but she taught it and I’m glad of it.

Sarah Coffey - My stepdaughter.  She teaches me the art of sacrifice, which she does each day in supporting her family.

Chris Helscher – My son.  He is in the process of teaching me balance.  I don’t know how he learned it because it wasn’t from me.  But he did.  As I watch him be balanced I try like crazy to emulate it.  I may never fully learn it, but I appreciate it and will continue to attempt it.

There are more teachers in my life, but these are the ones that come to mind today.  Who are some of yours and why?

You have finished reading Who's Your Best Teacher.  Please consider leaving a comment.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

When You're Pretty, Do You Have a Brain?

Who Gets to Decide What's Pretty?

Scott Westerfeld successfully explores the societal ideal of beauty in his thought-provoking futuristic novel, Uglies, which is the first book in a series (Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Extras). In brief, Tally Youngblood is nearly 16 and has been waiting her entire life to be "pretty." She, like all individuals in the novel, are considered ugly, living apart from polite society, until their 16th birthday when an operation changes them into some acceptable, predetermined form of pretty. 

Told completely from Tally's point of view, we’re immersed into her thought process and watch it change when she meets Shay who has a completely different philosophy about prettiness, although it appears no one has a choice. As Tally reconsiders her entire point of view, we learn there is a consequence to changing your physical appearance. The word “shallow,” immediately leapt into my mind when I discovered the cost.

Although this can properly be labeled a young adult novel, adults may find it intriguing as well.

What meaning does beauty have and do we overvalue it? Do we make mistakes about labels of pretty and ugly? Do these translate into our perspectives about fatness or thinness? What about red hair or blonde hair? Short or tall? Do these ideas split our society into two groups, as the novel suggests?

The questions Tally has in her life are ones we start asking ourselves while reading the novel. So while the plot is engaging and entertaining, filled with tension and conflict, it is also Westerfeld’s commentary on a slice of our culture.

The book does leave me with a bigger question. Can common sense overcome Madison Avenue? What do you think?

You have finished reading “When You’re Pretty, Do You Have a Brain?” Please consider leaving a comment.

Friday, April 13, 2012

An Interview with Melanie Faith, Flash Writer and Poetess

Melanie Faith

      Today I'm delighted to post an interview I recently conducted with author Melanie Faith, who writes both flash fiction and poetry. I first met Melanie a little over a year ago and she was my online instructor. In that class she introduced me to writing flash and I loved it. So today she's going to share about writing those types of pieces.

      A little bit about Melanie: Melanie Faith holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, NC. She has been a small town journalist and an ESL classroom teacher for international students. Currently, she enjoys teaching creative writing classes through WOW! online, as well as tutoring literature and writing at a private college prep high school, and freelance editing. Her writing most recently was published in Mason's Road (Winter 2012 issue) and Origami Poems Project. Her photos were published in Foliate Oak (May 2011 and forthcoming, March 2012), Epiphany Magazine (October 2011), Up The Staircase (Fall 2011), and Ray's Road Review (December 2011). Her poetry was a semi-finalist for the 2011 James Applewhite Poetry Prize, and an essay about editing poetry appeared in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of Writers’ Journal. An instructional writing article is forthcoming from the British Magazine, The New Writer (Spring 2012). In 2011, her poetry and essays was featured in Referential Magazine (July and June 2011), Tapestry (Delta State U., Spring 2011), and Front Range Review (U. of Montana, Spring 2011). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work won the 2009 Anne E. Sucher Poetry Prize for the Iguana Review.

      And now, the interview.  Enjoy!

     Thank you for talking with me today, Melanie, and for sharing your experiences and insights with my readers. You are very well read and certainly enjoy diverse writing styles. I, myself, really love reading and writing flash and note that this is an up and coming style of writing for young adults. But I see that there are two flash forms. Flash and micro flash. What's the difference between the two?  Flash fiction is a marvelous art form, relying on compression, imagery, and plot twists (what one may call zingers).  There is also a resonance in flash, because there’s little or no time for explication, multiple plots or subplots, or slow rising action—so each word carries extra weight (and sometimes reminds the readers of words not used).  There’s a precision and exploratory nature to writing and developing a good flash story—often involving careful editing for unnecessary details or wordy phrases as well as choosing words for the best connotations.  

The central difference between flash fiction and micro fiction is length.  While there is some debate about how long a flash should be as well as how long a micro flash should be, as the names suggest—flash fiction stories are longer (at a few hundred to a thousand words) and micro fictions are generally under 250 words (although I’ve often read much shorter micro flashes of between 25 and 100 words).  I just read and shared with students some excellent micro fictions of under 250 words each from a volume called Hint Fiction by Robert Swartwood. Micro fiction also tends to rely on suggestion much more than flash fiction.  For example, a flash story is more likely to more than one character and to develop the setting or central conflict much more than in a micro.  Other than length constrictions and fewer directly stated images, settings, and characters, flash fiction and micro fiction share far more than they differ.  J  

·          Sometimes when I read flash, I think there's a subtle link between it and poetry. Yet they are distinctly different. I know that you write a lot of poetry, but what inspired you to write and teach flash? I first became interested in flash fiction when I studied the genre in a grad school seminar. After grad school, I read through several excellent collections of flash fiction, including Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories and Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories (which I’ve used as part of the courses I’ve taught).   Here was a genre which had the keen appreciation for imagery that poetry has while also the best features of fiction—strong characters, intriguing plot(s), focused dialogue. At the same time, flash fiction is super compressed and tends to have a quirky, twisting ending or a slightly surreal setting.  Each piece is like its own world, waiting for the reader to open the door to enter into the narrative’s room. J  I love the joy and challenge of sharing tips for writing students’ own flashes as well as appreciating the flash stories other authors have already penned.

·         I like your idea that flash can be likened to entering the narrative's room.  When you said that I imagined that flash is the room while longer pieces can be more like roaming through an entire house. Poetry can possibly be shorter still, such as looking into a very interesting closet in a room. So I see why you would be as interested in flash as you are in poetry. When did you start writing flash? I started writing flash fiction in grad school, six years ago.  While I have an MFA in creative writing, concentration in poetry, part of the program I attended involved taking seminars in other genres (including fiction, drama, and creative nonfiction) as well, which very much appealed to me.  I began my writing career, years and years before graduated school, as a fiction writer and still read quite a bit of fiction.  Flash appeals to me in that, as in poetry, so much narrative is accomplished in such a small space.

·         Flash always seems to have a title. How important is the title in flash writing? As flash fiction must be under 1,000 words (although many publications even suggest under 500 words for flash fiction submissions), there is very little space to spare. An excellent title can not only save space in the body of the story itself, but may also set up a setting, a key theme, or a central image.  It’s very important, as in other fiction, that the title not give away entirely the central mystery of the plot.

 That makes the title critically important, then. So how do you come up with a good one? Another great question! I was just discussing with a few friends last week how challenging crafting titles can be.  I usually wait until I’ve written most (if not all) of the first draft before creating titles. For my own flashes, I tend to highlight a key visual image or the central conflict in my flash titles.  For instance, I just wrote a 300 word flash a few weeks ago about a couple on tour who are escaping a soon-to-erupt tsunami.  That particular flash is entitled “Tsunami Morning.”  After noting the storm in the title, I was free not to take up space noting the storm directly again, while also pinpointing the central conflict from the get-go.  Sometimes, I will point to settings for titles, such as in another of my recent flashes I’ve called “The Home Place,” after a rich family’s garden a teenager is hired to landscape which the reader soon discovers should actually be his own land but (for various reasons) is not. 

 I'm going to have to re-think some of my own titles. In reading and writing a piece of flash, how much of it is realistic? While it depends upon each particular writer’s vision for her/his piece, I’d say that flash fiction stories tend to have more surrealistic and fanciful elements than more traditional short stories do, particularly with zinging endings.  On the other hand, much like in all other genres of fiction, flashes rely on realistic dialogue, characters who are undergoing life changes, strong and focused narration without extraneous tangents or images, and a central conflict.

 I know you've read a lot of flash and it would be hard to remember them all. What pieces have stayed with you the longest? Russell Edson’s piece, “Ape,” which is sometimes considered a prose poem and sometimes considered a flash, is searing and startling.  Since hearing it as part of a grad school seminar, I’ve never forgotten it, and I’ve shared it with both my high school students and my online students in a few courses.  Also, “My Date with Neanderthal Woman,” by David Galef, inspired me and cracked me up enough that I remembered it and included it into my flash fiction course handouts, to share with my students.

 In our lives all of us can point to teachers or people we admire and wish we could just keep around to give us advice, support us, and sometimes even encourage us when we feel stuck. In the world of flash writing, if you had to choose, which flash writer would you consider a mentor, even if you could never talk to the person? Great question!  Might as well just shoot straight to the tippy-top and site Hemingway’s “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” That story just phenomenally moves me every time I read it—with a one-two punch to the gut.  There’s tension, inherent in the grief. There’s that powerful symbolic image of the child’s shoes.  There’s a suggested narrative. There are at least two characters if not three—a parent or parents and the recently deceased child.  Without a doubt, Hemingway’s example is a masterpiece.  Still, there are many other flash authors who may not be quite as well-known outside of literary circles whose work impresses and inspires me, from Padgett Powell to Russell Edson, David Galef, and Etgar Keret.

You're been very generous in sharing the work of others in this interview, but what are your own current projects?  Thanks for asking. J   I’m quite excited to be in the midst of putting together a chapbook of my poems, tentatively entitled (for the moment, at least) To Waken is To Begin. Some of the poems are brand-new (written in the past three months) while others are favorites from the past four or five years.  It’s an amusing and ongoing process, noting how various narrative threads run through pieces written in vastly different time periods and literary influences.  The poetry chapbook, however, is just one of my projects in the works.  I have an article coming out with The New Writer, a British magazine for writers, in the Spring of 2012, and I’ll be teaching two more classes for WOW!, including a poetry writing seminar that kick-starts for National Poetry Month on Friday, April 13th as well as offering the fantastic Spark and Sizzle flash fiction writing course again, beginning on June 1st.  I’m also sending my own flash fictions to literary magazines and working on some other prose I’m pitching to magazines.  I like to keep several types of writing projects going at a time, submitting three submissions a month to editors’ desks so there is a batch of my work in circulation while I get back to work and writing new pieces. J

      Can you share a little of your current flash work with us?
Sure.  Here are the first two paragraphs of my (aforementioned) recent flash fiction, “The Home Place.”
     Knee-deep in the yarrow and sawgrass, I’m sweating it out on Old John Slade’s property. After school.  75 cents an hour. Bobby Slade cuts me a check every other Friday.
     “Avoid running that tiller into the slops, boy,” Bobby Slade warns, handing over the key on a frayed shoelace.  “You do and you’ll rue the day.”
      I'd like to read the rest of that. It looks like the kid and the slops may somehow collide and that can't be good, but maybe it might be. What is the hardest part of writing flash? For me, the most challenging part is compression. I love what Michael Wilson, author of Flash Writing: How to Write, Revise and Publish Stories Less than 1000 Words Long, writes: “It is far easier to write a long story, wasting words, wandering off on tangents, introducing interesting characters that have nothing to do with the main story. But flash fiction is coiled like a spring. There is no wasted energy in flash fiction.  Every word in your story counts and drives you toward the conclusion.” Here’s my general flash writing and editing process, especially for editing for compression of narrative: after the rough draft, I spend three or four drafts going through the work, with a fine-tooth comb so to speak, editing out unnecessary phrases, omitting images which don’t contribute to the tension as well as repetitions, and cutting down on wordy prepositional phrases.  Then, I print out a copy of the flash-in-progress, to read through the work offline.  It’s amazing how much a hard-copy can bring to light. After making notes on my hard copy, I go back into my computer draft and tinker a bit more.  I usually write between eight and ten drafts until I feel that the flash is ready to submit to literary journals, but the biggest challenge in the process is being terse enough for the word limit.
 Eight to ten drafts. That's a lot of dedication and determination. When you're working through those pieces, what do they teach you as you go along?  I love the exploratory nature of writing flashes. Generally, I receive a bolt out of the blue piece of dialogue or a character, and I’m off and writing a rough draft. Once, last September, I awoke from a nap to a line of dialogue from a single father trying to take care of his dog and his daughter amidst a washer overflowing, and I ran to my laptop in a mad dash (not brushing my hair or changing out of my pjs, and barely even putting on my glasses).  It was such fun meeting my characters on the page! J  I love that feeling and to hearing similar stories from my flash-writing students.  I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from writing a flash piece—at its best writing flashes is pure play, like a kid in a candy store (at least until the first draft is finished, then it’s editing time, which can be challenging but amusing in its own right).   
      I like the idea of meeting your characters on the page. Do you have any advice for flash writers and aspiring flash writers?  No matter what-- keep writing! J  Also, it can’t hurt to revisit your flash drafts and edit for compression and focus of imagery.  Cut down on prepositional phrases and unrelated phrases which might sound interesting but are unrelated to the actual conflict of the flash story.  

      Thank you, Melanie, for taking the time to be with us today and giving us a broader understanding of flash and the process of writing it. I'll keep my fingers crossed about your current submissions. Also, congratulations on the publication of your latest book, To Waken is to Begin" set for publication in September 2012.


       Readers, please leave a comment about your favorite flash ideas or stories.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Are Time Worn Children's Classics Still the Best?

I’m one of those people who cringes when I find out a book a kid has to read in school is the same book I had to read when I was in school 40 years ago. My first response in today’s lingo is, “Really? Seriously? Are you kidding me?”

So, really, seriously, are you kidding me that we can’t find something more contemporary than A Separate Peace (John Knowles), Huckleberry Finn, (Mark Twain), or even the beloved Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)?

Now before you get angry and stop reading my blog, hear me out. Those books are great and I’m not truly knocking them. But here we are as a nation trying to get our kids to read. So why are they consistently restricted to books from that long ago? Is The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) worse than Lord of the Flies (William Golding)? Are school boards lazy in approving new things? Or scared? Or both? Maybe they don’t read themselves and using a time worn list is easier and perhaps safer.

So, I’ve said all this to recommend, oddly enough, a book that’s truly ancient by today’s standards. It’s The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil Frankweiler. A 1968 Newberry Award winner by E.L. Konigsburg, the plot is one you’ll recognize from your own childhood that continues forward today. It’s simple. Claudia decides to run away from home just long enough to teach her parents a lesson. She brings along her little brother, Jamie, because he’s a penny pincher and has money. The twist? Their destination and plan is to live inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which Claudia has cased better than any art thief.

I read the book in 2012 as an adult and was captivated. It has gone on the list of my all-time favorite children’s books. But my point is this. If a book isn’t relevant to today’s kids, they aren’t going to read it regardless of publication date. As parents, we’re more like bookies playing the odds, so we have to know what’s in the books. A book can be any genre and any age. But the odds of our children reading and enjoying books improve if they can see themselves in the shoes of the main character.

What’s your favorite kid’s book? Please leave a comment and let me know.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Tough Topics for Children's Books

When I started writing for children one of the questions, or concerns I had was if I should have my characters kill people. Monsters are okay, but people? What about criminals? Maybe. But is any of it appropriate subject material? I ask these questions as if children don’t see and experience dreaded awfulness all around them. My internal conflict is somewhat comical and I do laugh at myself over it.

When I expressed my overall cognitive dissonance to a children’s writer that I highly respect, she said that children were capable of handling difficult subject matter and gave me some examples. Her wisdom caused me to reconsider my perspective and that enabled me to expand my point of view. Of course that’s always the mark of a good mentor/teacher.

Continuing to ponder the subject, I free floated over to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Now mind you, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. And I saw the movie, which I felt compressed the story line into an impossibly small space.

The plot is about nine-year-old Oskar Schell dealing in his own way with the aftermath of 9-11 in which his father died.  He believes his father has left him a key that may be a clue to finding the 6th Borough of New York, which has disappeared. Oskar, who is brilliant in his own way, sets about finding what the key opens, which he hopes reveals a secret message from his dad just for him. But because he is so highly intelligent, he also understands that his adventure is to really find more time with his father. More importantly his quest is to make sense of the 9-11 tragedy, which he’s desperate to do.

The book is excellent and I believe the author truly gives us a unique perspective on how at least one small child tries to explain the unexplainable. But as I cried through both the book and the squished up movie, I ask myself if this topic is one about which a children’s book should be written? I have no firm answer.

Children did deal, and continue to deal with 9-11 in real life, so why not in a book? Would you pick such a book off the shelf and have your fifth grader read it? Please leave a comment and tell me what you think.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games - Do the Book and Movie Match?

I saw the movie yesterday and as I promised all month, I dressed up like Katniss. I was the only one, which disappointed me, but perhaps dressing up like an iconic character for a movie is an effort that belongs to a past era. At least the costume didn’t make me look like an idiot. Plus, I enjoyed doing it.

There are two parts in both the movie and the book where a three-fingered tribute is given. It’s the same hand gesture the Girl Scouts use when they start their pledge, “On my honor I will try.” Perhaps Suzanne Collins thought about that when she created the idea because certainly Katniss makes it clear that on her honor she is going to try to survive, which means winning the Hunger Games. The characters kiss the three fingers and then make a salute outward. I was the only one in the audience who reciprocated. Both times. Clearly I’m too involved in the story line and perhaps I should have auditioned for the part of Katniss.

But none of this answers the question that is the topic of my blog. Do the movie and the book match? I’m pleased to say that they do. There are a few parts that aren’t exact, such as where Katniss gets the mockingjay pin. But there’s no time in a movie to set up everything that would entail, and it’s unimportant. The pin itself is what’s important and she ends up with it in her possession.

Some kids at the popcorn counter complained that the movie isn’t gory enough. They thought the book had more blood and commented how cool it would have been had all the ways the tributes died been shown. I agree that some of that is toned down. But the point of the story isn’t how gory the deaths are. The point of the story is why the games are conducted in the first place and how does Panem benefit from them. What eventually causes the people to rebel against the governmental control? The movie shows all of that beautifully.

The New York Times accuses the casting director of putting the wrong actress into the role of Katniss. Their specific complaint is that Jennifer Lawrence is “too curvy” to play a 16-year-old. There are two short scenes where that’s true. We’re talking 30 seconds total between the two shots and unless you’re nitpicking, this isn't a big deal. Lawrence effectively portrays the character of Katniss and was completely believable.

I know the plot backwards and forwards and as I watched the movie, anticipating each scene, it was delivered. What was even better was that the settings and the action are shown exactly as I imagined them when I read the book.

All in all, I had a great time at the movie and when the DVD comes out, if I don’t get it as a present, I’ll buy it myself. So yes, the book and movie match. If you haven’t read the book, be sure to enter my contest by clicking on this link to win your choice of one of the books in the trilogy. There’s only a week left to become one of the three winners.

Have you seen the movie and read the book? Please leave a comment with your opinion.  

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Book Giveaway - Five Favorite Scenes from The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games media attention continues to grow as the March 23 opening draws near. If you’re fans of my blog, you know that I’m part of the craziness. I now own an authentic replica of the arena jacket. Add a black v-neck t-shirt, tan pans and brown leather boots, and I’ll almost be properly outfitted to attend the movie next Saturday, for which I have advanced tickets. I’m anxiously awaiting my mockingjay pin to arrive in the mail, which I’ll display on the lapel of my jacket, just like in the book. But I don’t think I’ll be allowed entrance into the theater if I accessorize with a bow and quiver of arrows.

Before I share my limited list, take a quick look at part of an interview with author Suzanne Collins where she talks about the inspiration for her book.

Now for my list. Here are five of my favorite scenes from The Hunger Games book.
  1. The heart-wrenching scene where Katniss volunteers as tribute in place of her sister, Primrose.
  2. When Katniss shows the panel her skills and gains attention.
  3. The scenes where we see how Panem treats the tributes before sending them into the games. It was completely unexpected.
  4. The mad dash for the equipment when the games begin.
  5. When Ru alerts Katniss to a certain danger. (I won’t say what danger in case you haven’t yet read the book.)
Today’s movie trivia:  When Jennifer Lawrence re-enacted the part when Katniss volunteers as female tribute for District 12, the producers cried. At that point she was a slam-dunk for the part.

What are your favorite scenes? Comment below and don’t forget to enter The Hunger Games Book Giveaway contest I’m sponsoring. Click on the link to enter!!!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Novel Approach - The Wee Free Men

Terry Pratchett is probably one of the most prolific writers of our time. And if you’re someone who likes to read a series from beginning to end, you’ll find plenty to amuse you in his Discworld series. However, if you don’t like the first book and never read another one, you’ll miss the four books about Tiffany Aching.

In The Wee Free Men we first meet Tiffany at age nine who is a witch-wanna-be. Living in the Chalk with nothing to do but care for her little brother, her most obvious talent is making cheese, which is an odd way to begin a fantasy book about witches. At this point you may say, “I’m not interested in books about witches,” and move on to something more to your liking. However, I think that would be a mistake because Pratchett takes the idea of being a witch in a totally unique direction. How different? It would be as if he invited you to tea and then served Diet Coke instead. If I were to tell you that most of Tiffany’s apprenticeship about becoming a witch is learning to use common sense along with critical and analytical thinking as opposed to magic, you may reconsider, which I encourage you to do.

Mr. Pratchett says it best in the following trailer:

There are four books in the series (A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight) and Tiffany is about two years older in each one. The themes get increasingly complex and Tiffany has to figure out what to do to resolve the problem she faces. She gets help from the Nac Mac Feegles, also known has the wee free men, although she continues to insist they keep their distance. These tiny, Scottish blue members of a clan are a delightful side story to Tiffany’s development as a young adult and as a witch.

Each book is extremely well written with lots of humor and adults will find them captivating as well. Pratchett seems to do the crossover thing better than most. The following trailer, done in a charming Lego setting, gives you a synopsis of The Wee Free Men. If you like to listen to books while driving, I think Audible has the very best version.

Keep reading after the trailer for today’s movie tip on The Hunger Games and the link to the ongoing book giveaway contest.

Today’s Hunger Games movie trivia tip:  The boots Jennifer Lawrence wears throughout the movie were personally selected by her. She knew she would have to do a lot of her own stunts, so she wanted to ensure they were comfortable.  Remember to enter The Hunger Games book giveaway contest by clicking on this link. Simply go to the bottom of the post to enter!

Hunger Games Book Giveaway

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Hunger Games Book Give Away

If you’ve never read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, then let me just say, you’re missing an event. It’s a crossover book from young adult into adult, but not in the fantasy realm of Harry Potter. Nor is it a contemporary fairy tale. Not for the faint of heart, The Hunger Games is a mix between The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson, the reality show “Survivor,” and a twisted allegory. Set in the future, the story pits a young girl of 16 against 23 other boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 18. They embark upon a cruel ordeal of matching wits, strategy and combat knowing that only one of them will make it out alive.
Primrose Everdeen, the youngest member of the Everdeen household, is selected to participate in the annual Hunger Games of the nation of Panem. Enter Katniss, the older sister who volunteers as tribute for their district in place of her sister. True to contemporary society, the media gobbles up the selfless act and from there grows a riveting tale of survival, rebellion, love, and coming of age – all televised in magnificent oversized color in every household across the planet.
I picked up the book one day at lunch while looking for something “different” to read. Once in my car, I flipped open to the first chapter. Before I realized it, I was 30 minutes late getting back from lunch. The following morning I continued the book and ended up 45 minutes late to work . Again and again all week I followed the same tardy pattern until I was asked what in the world was the matter with me. I was accused of not being myself. While that was true, no one can be herself reading that book. I gloried in the story. I devoured the plot. I became the characters. I channeled Katniss. My own addictive interest intrigued my colleagues and the next thing I knew everyone on the campus was reading the legend. And like me, everyone left early for lunch and got back late – reading the book. We were Hunger Games junkies.
By the time the campus staff was halfway through The Hunger Games, I was already a quarter of the way through the second in the trilogy, Catching Fire. I polished it off swiftly then went around to everyone like the robot in “Lost in Space,” – “Warning! Warning! Don’t read the last page until you have Catching Fire in your hands. Failure to do so will result in a day of misery. Take heed. Warning! Warning!” By then they were true believers and before the day was out, there was a copy of Catching Fire on nearly everyone’s desk.
That’s where The Hunger Games reign temporarily ended. The last book in the series hadn’t yet been published. So along with millions of other fans, I checked out Suzanne Collins’ website every single day to watch the countdown clock to publication. I was hysterical with joy when the title, Mockingjay was announced and intoxicated with happiness when its dusty blue cover was revealed. I took a vacation day when it went on sale so I could read it uninterrupted. Mockingjay lived up to the reputation of its companion volumes and I read it with as much devotion and alacrity as I did the other two. It’s a marvelous set of books, although I will admit Catching Fire is my favorite of the three.
Now the movie is out. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I bought advanced tickets. Yes, I have a costume like Katniss. Yes, I intend to wear it to the opening. And yes, I go to the website daily to watch the countdown clock until March 23 when the movie debuts to the general public. You’d think I was going to Aruba. Obviously I’m a lifer. It’s possible the movie won’t be true to the book, but if the trailers are any indication, it’s spot on. Take a look at one below (I apologize for the commercial that comes with it at the beginning):

In celebration of the book and in rapt anticipation of the movie, I’m sponsoring a book giveaway. Three lucky readers will win their choice of one of the three books in The Hunger Games trilogy.
Simply fill out the Rafflecopter form below for a chance to win. Entries restricted to USA and Canadian addresses only.  Thanks for reading!!!!


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Kane Chronicles

A friend of mine in Tucson has a daughter who is now about 16. But when she was 12 she had a tendency to get into trouble, which forced both parents into the principal’s office with a fair amount of frequency. Back at home, a punishment would be pronounced which was usually making her read for an hour. It wasn’t any of my business, but I wasn’t 100% sure about associating reading with something as dreadful as being locked away in a bedroom with a book shoved in your hand. I had visions of kids in stockades with books in their hands with the guards commanding them to read. I think I have an overactive imagination.

As it turned out, the penalty backfired because the young lady ended up loving to read and welcomed every reading consequence she received. In fact they rarely saw her because she’d get home from school, grab her book, and wasn’t seen until dinner. She read everything she could get her hands on.

Now, you may ask what in the world this has to do with Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles. Well, my friend’s daughter reminds me of Sadie Kane, one of the two protagonists. Sassy, smart, and fearless.

The Kane Chronicles is a series of books about Sadie and Carter, brother and sister who were separated at the death of their mother. Nearly strangers, the two come together in the first book and set upon a series of quests based in Egyptian mythology. If you want your kids to learn a little history without having to dive into a textbook, this is one way to do it. Rick Riordan has done his research and weaved Egyptian culture into the very fabric of the plot.

Both boys and girls can enjoy the books since the brother and sister play equally into every plot. Although designed specifically for fifth graders and up, don’t let the suggested age group fool you. Adults can also have a great time with them – with or without kids.

The hard copies are fun, but if you want a real treat, get the Audible Audio edition. The performances are absolutely marvelous and are ideal for long trips. There is enough action to keep most kids interested for hours and you may find they don’t want to get out of the car. When I read the Red Pyramid on my itouch, I confess that I found myself sitting in my truck in the garage in order to find out what happened next.

Here's a great YouTube video that gives you the plot straight from Rick Riordan.

Please leave a comment if you’ve read these and if you liked them. Or, perhaps, if you’re going to try them out. Thanks!