Taking note of Tofu Cheesecake Woman

notebooksI imagine that most creative types have their own system for taking notes. I like to use multiple notebooks myself. In my purse, I carry a bright pink Moleskine one. The 3-1/2 x 5-1/2-inch size is perfect, but the corners don’t hold up very well. The notebook itself, however, is sturdy. When I’m at home, I use the larger notebook with the vintage lightbulbs on the cover to record all of my bright ideas, notes for various writing projects, and the occasional snatch of conversation.

Sometimes I overhear things that I’ll record on any old scrap of paper I can get my hands on, and then I’ll transfer it to one of my notebooks later. An example from last January, recorded in the lightbulb notebook: “I’m about to make a cheesecake out of tofu.”

I was staying at Callaway Gardens for the weekend when I overheard a woman say this while she was on a stationary phone near the lobby. I had just walked past her and didn’t turn around because I didn’t want her to know I was eavesdropping, but within seconds, I’d reached for the nearest piece of paper and written that down. I was struck by the unique comment from Tofu Cheesecake Woman. In the South, we don’t see a lot of cheesecakes made from tofu. And I’m always happy to see her comment when I flip through my idea notebook.

But paper notebooks aren’t the only ones I use. Occasionally I tap out a few notes on my iPhone. When I’m in a serious brainstorming mood, I might also use one of the Bamboo digital notebooks on my iPad.

I’m always interested in hearing about the way others take notes, so I enjoyed reading Michael Hyatt’s blog post about his system for tracking notes. I got some good ideas that I plan to try the next time I’m at a meeting or workshop and want to organize my notes—and thoughts.

I also took note of this week’s NPR article on the fact that taking notes by hand may be more beneficial to students than taking notes on digital devices. I was intrigued by this comment from Pam A. Mueller of Princeton: “The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective—because you can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.”


I think that’s what we’re doing when we take notes—however we choose to take these notes—and it makes sense to me that taking notes by hand makes you “more selective.” I’m a former newspaper reporter, and now that I no longer have to cover city council and school board meetings (thank you, Lord!), I find that I no longer write as fast as I used to. Selective note taking is definitely more my speed these days.

Still, I’m always up for some new lessons in how to improve my note-taking skills. Are you?

No hedging

Do you know what a hedge word is? What about hedging your bets? Do you know that phrase?

Hedge has a number of definitions in Webster’s, and the one I’m thinking of is a definition for the noun hedge, the one that means “a calculatedly noncommittal or evasive statement.” Suppose a young man asks a woman for a date on Saturday and she  says, “Well, I’m not sure I’m going to be available that evening. Can I let you know by Friday?” Now she may be waiting to see whether her long-lost cousin makes it to town, which is one possible scenario. She could also be waiting to see whether a better offer comes along for the weekend, and in that case, she’s hedging and intentionally being evasive.

Hedge words can crop up in our writing, and we need to—how can I put this?—kill them. Yes, that’s it. Take. Them. Out.

As a writer and editor, I look for hedge words and get rid of them to create stronger sentences. I won’t share real examples from clients, but I don’t mind sharing a few hedge words I recently found in a sentence of my own. This sentence comes from a cozy mystery I’m working on and describes an artist who creates powerful collages from found objects. The first sentence is what I originally wrote, and the second sentence is the new and improved version.

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See how awful those hedge words are in the first sentence? “Somehow.” If the author doesn’t know how, the reader won’t know how. She “managed to use.” Why not just “used”? “Find a way to weave.” Yuck. Just say “weave,” for goodness’ sake. I did decide I liked the repetition of “just the right element” and “just the right piece.” Because I whittled away those nasty hedge words, I felt good about keeping the repetition in the sentence.

Hedge words are timid little scaredy-cats that strip our writing of its power. At the high school dance, they’re the wallflowers standing by the refreshment table, the ones afraid to say “hello,” the ones who have zero self-confidence. I’m determined to make my words act like the prom king and queen, so the hedge words have to go.

So remember: If you’re aiming for powerful, clear writing, no hedging.

On lying, laying, and eggs

easter-eggs-2093315_960_720With Easter just days away, I’ve been hearing about all the Easter egg hunts going on around town at local day care centers, elementary schools, and churches. And all this talk about eggs is a fine time for me to address an issue that I know many folks still do not understand, and that’s the correct use of lie and lay. Here’s my easy rule that will help you stay out of trouble: If you’re going to use the word laying, ask yourself whether eggs could be involved.

Lie means to rest or recline. Lay means to put or place something down, and lay needs an object. An egg is an object. That’s why a chicken can lay an egg.

“I was laying on the bed” (or sofa) is something I often hear and read. And I always want to say, “No, you were not. If you were resting or reclining, you were lying on the bed. You were not laying on the bed.” The one possible exception to this rule? I once read a book by a fellow who claimed he dreamed about wearing a chicken suit and woke up with an egg in his bed, but I did not then and do not now believe him.

So. You lie on the bed. You lay the blanket on the bed.

Lay what? You can lay the blanket on the bed. You can lay a book on a table. You can lay those Easter eggs on the kitchen counter. And if you’re a chicken, you can lay an egg if you wish. Remember, if you’re laying, you have to be laying something.

I do realize much confusion stems from the fact that the past tense of the word lie is lay. Alas, I wish it were not so, but it is. And I’ll save that topic for another day, because today I hope to instill this one simple idea: Laying has to involve an object—for example, an egg.

Need a nice visual to hammer home this point? Here’s a favorite. Enjoy!

Writer groceries

“If thou of fortune be bereft

and in thy store there be but left

two loaves, sell one, and with the

buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.”

— John Greenleaf Whittier


I’m not a huge fan of poetry, but I sure like these lines from Whittier. I first learned of them years ago in some book or other about teatime. I instantly understood the meaning, which is basically that we need sustenance for the soul just as surely as we need sustenance for the body.

And that brings me to the topic of writer groceries. Every year at this time, I find myself totaling the amounts I’ve spent on writing-related books and magazines in the past year so all these purchases can be reported to Uncle Sam on my taxes. Did I really need one more book about the writing craft? Or another book on plotting? And the answer is yes. Yes I did. I needed to know more about the mechanics of grammar. I needed to know more about how to write snappy dialogue. I needed to know how to create the basic plot structure of a cozy mystery, and all of these topics have come to me in the form of books. I have termed such purchases writer groceries, and I no longer feel guilty about them.

Few things make me sadder than to hear someone say, “I have too many books.” Do we ever believe that we have too many ideas? Too many moments of sheer joy? Too many hopes for a better future? Too many insights into the ways of the world? Too many epiphanies? Then we can never have too many books, because books inspire such things.

(I do not argue, however, that we might not occasionally run out of room for all of our books, but this is why God gave us bookshelves and Kindles, right?)

So if you find yourself purchasing a lot of writer groceries as well, I say, lighten up on yourself. Just as there should always be room in life for one more friend, there should always be room for one more book. Books are our hyacinths for the soul, and Uncle Sam will just have to understand.

Confessions of a book group dropout

Penfield women and booksI am so envious of women who are longtime members of book groups. I have tried to be such a member, really I have, but I have failed. I’m currently in my third book group and scared to death that they will learn my membership practically demands that the group disband within a year or so, but so far, so good.

My first book group, which launched about a decade after I graduated from college, was primarily a way for some old high school friends to regularly reunite in a neighboring town, so the meetings were by necessity sporadic. I remember that we read The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard, whose main character I thought was whiny, and next came a nonfiction book by whoever was the Pope back then. While I don’t remember much about the Pope’s book, I don’t have any negatives associated with it, so we can assume he wasn’t whiny. But the high school friends were headed to different jobs and different towns, and our group—if not the lifelong friendships—fell by the wayside.

A few years later, I joined a group of local women in my own town to form a new book group. Our group included a fellow church member, a coworker, a friend of the coworker, and a new friend I’d met through my job. The book I most remember us reading was Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter, a dreary tale that I absolutely hated but which others absolutely loved. But some of the book group members thought some of the other book group members dominated the discussion too much (not me! I know what you’re thinking!), and alas, that group disbanded as well.

Earlier this year, a friend suggested forming an online book group on Facebook. “Great!” I thought. “If we don’t meet in person, maybe this can work!” I’m not sure I’m good book group material, though. I think most people are predisposed to like the book that is being read. I am predisposed not to like it until the author proves me wrong. Happily, I have actually enjoyed the first two books we read this year (Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile), tolerated that so-so third one just fine (Still Waters by Viveca Sten), and am looking forward to re-reading the book that’s been chosen for our fourth monthly selection (A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle). On top of all that, I like the other women in the new book group and am enjoying learning their opinions. So I’ve managed to remain a member of a new book group for an entire first quarter of the year, and I must say this fills me with hope. If any of you readers belong to a book group, I’d love to hear about it!

Up your game with some ‘Platform’ inspiration

PlatformLast year my critique partner recommended that I check out the podcasts of author and speaker Michael Hyatt, the former CEO and chairman of Thomas Nelson, a well-known Christian publisher. I did, and I quickly realized why she was so impressed. When I came across Hyatt’s book Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World at an Ollie’s store recently, I grabbed copies for both of us, as I had a feeling the book would be helpful as we continue to build our writing platforms.

This book was an easy read, and I loved the short, snappy chapters. Hyatt works his way up from the basics (“Create a Compelling Product”) to the more practical everyday topics (“Write Posts Faster”), and on to more advanced topics that will be most useful for those who are already building a platform (“Embrace Twitter,” “Set Up A Facebook Fan Page”).

As you read this book, I recommend that you keep a notebook at hand because you’ll probably find yourself inspired to take notes about changes you wish to make to your own social media and/or marketing strategy. For instance, as a result of reading this book, I have already changed my Twitter handle from Tea_With Friends, the one I (halfheartedly) used as a tea blogger, to AngelaWMcRae, since that can be used for all of my Tweeting—and it’s my personal name that I actually want readers to remember.

Motivational speakers are a dime a dozen, but Hyatt has an especially winsome way with words. I found myself writing down some of the quotes from his book, things like, “Every point of contact is an opportunity to create a positive brand impression—if you are intentional.” Some of his recommendations are simply common sense principles I needed to be reminded of, but he also explores enough new territory to challenge me to up my game when it comes to marketing myself (something that can be hard for an introvert!). So no matter what you’re marketing with your writing—your books, your message, your products, yourself—this book will be a useful tool to challenge and encourage you on the journey.

The $70 book I’m most excited about!

9780226287058Or perhaps I should rephrase that, because it’s actually the only $70 book I’m excited about, and it’s the 17th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, coming this September. When I was a newspaper reporter earlier in my career, I was well acquainted with The Associated Press Stylebook, which is the standard in the newspaper industry. When the newspaper I worked for later purchased a magazine and I became its editor, I began going to magazine conferences and learned that in magazine world, The Chicago Manual of Style was the standard in stylebooks.

I quickly learned that some of the CMOS rules were different from the AP rules I was accustomed to using. For instance, AP Style is to spell out whole numbers one through nine and use numerals for the others. In other words: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and 10. And did you notice that I didn’t place a comma after the word “nine”? That’s because in AP Style, you don’t use the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma.

If I were writing numbers in Chicago Style, however, the list would say one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and so on, all spelled out up to and including one hundred. Did you notice that I did have a comma before the words “and so on”? That’s because Chicago Style does use the serial comma.

Now I’m aware every writer is not going to get as excited about a new style manual as I am. But as someone who edits books, I like learning more about the CMOS grammar rules, and I especially like being able to help my clients make their writing consistent with the standards in CMOS (pronounced something like “sea moss”). Writers who pay for professional editing may not feel the need to have their own copy of CMOS, but I would encourage any writer to consider getting a copy. It’s a wonderful resource, it’s the standard for the publishing industry, and it contains answers to countless questions that come up in the course of my editing and writing work. So when September rolls around, I’ll gladly pony up my $70 to see how CMOS has changed, and I can’t wait. Do any of you already use either the AP Stylebook or CMOS?