Paper hoarding and Scarlett O’Hara

Spurred to speed, Prissy hurried toward the back of the house while Scarlett scratched a hasty note on the margin of Gerald’s last letter to her—the only bit of paper in the house. As she folded it, so that her note was uppermost, she caught Gerald’s words, “Your mother—typhoid—under no condition—to come home—” She almost sobbed. If it wasn’t for Melanie, she’d start home, right this minute, if she had to walk every step of the way.

— Margaret Mitchell, “Gone With the Wind”

IMG_5653.jpgAnd so it is that I blame Margaret Mitchell for my paper-hoarding tendencies. When I first read Gone With the Wind years ago, one of the many visual images that stuck with me was that of Scarlett having to scratch out a note on the margin of an old letter. Was paper really in such short supply? Apparently so, and as God is my witness, I never intend to be caught in that predicament.

So I have a nice collection of paper products: Journals. Paperback and hardback notebooks. Composition books (spiral and perfect-bound). Packages of paper (printer paper, notebook paper, cardstock). I have scrapbooking paper for when the crafting bug hits, sticky notes in various shapes and sizes, notepads in both block and sheet form, and even some leftover bubblegum pink printer paper that was supposed to signify something or other in a long-forgotten organizational system.

A2.jpgIf there’s ever another paper shortage, unlike Scarlett O’Hara, I do not intend to suffer. And so I share my latest paper-hoarder acquisition, a small but charming little A-shaped notebook I found at Books-A-Million this week. The attached tag tells me that this $6.99 notebook from Alphabooks was a 2016 Gift of the Year selection. I believe it will be just perfect for various jottings down. I briefly had the irrational thought that I ought to buy one in every letter of the alphabet and use them in sequence until I run out of paper (or things to say), but I restrained myself.

Are there any other paper hoarders reading today? I’d love to know!

Time to write


Me at my computer first thing in the morning. (Kidding!)

Carving out time for creativity—whether that be writing or any other creative task—can be a challenge. Since I write and edit for others as my day job, I found I was putting off my own writing until everyone else’s got done. The positive side of that is that I’m disciplined about my work and good at meeting deadlines. The negative side? I was obsessing over everyone else’s work to the point that I was ignoring my own. I left a successful journalism career several years ago to become a freelance writer and editor and “be my own boss.” While that has worked out well, and I wish I had started my own business sooner, I was still letting everyone else’s work be “the boss” of my time.

Then one day, my critique partner, Debbie, offered a simple but enlightening solution: “Why don’t you do your work first?”

Wh-wh-what? Do my work first? How on earth could that possibly work? Reader, it works.

First, I gave up my morning hour or so of watching cable news. That one schedule change in and of itself ended up being a gift and not a sacrifice. I’ve come to realize that writing and editing a novel involves a very different kind of focus than, say, writing a press release for a client. I aim to do both projects as well as possible, but I’ve written so many press releases that I can whip those out in no time. My fiction writing, however, gets that first sacred hour of the workday. I’ve learned that I treasure this quiet hour of the morning when I’m tapping away at my computer, showing that I value my personal creative life by giving it some attention. And for me, it required giving up something but then gaining much more in return—a new focus and a lengthier manuscript.

How do you make time for your creative work?

In praise of pondering



Circe, 1911, by John William Waterhouse

“To ponder.” That’s the heading on some  cute sticky notes my husband gave me last week. He said I use the word “ponder” a lot, which was news to me. I thought he had just made that up until we were on the way to church Sunday morning and I heard myself say, “I was pondering the fact that …” And then I stopped myself. “Pondering,” I said. “See,” he said. Interesting.

So now I’m pondering my pondering. And frankly, I don’t dismiss pondering because I think it’s a useful and necessary activity for any creative individual. Some days as I’m deep into my work and trying to untangle a few words, I’ll stop and take a walk. Outside in the sunshine, I study the play of light and shadow on the street. I stop to check out the two creeks in the neighborhood. In spring, I sometimes pause to suck the syrup from a honeysuckle blossom, just as I used to do as a little girl. And miraculously, as I do nothing but walk down the street, my mind finds the answers that escaped me while sitting at my desk.

I also enjoy pondering time when I have a trip of an hour or more in my car. I sometimes keep the radio off just so that I can think about the book I’m writing and about those I’m still planning to write. In fact, it was during one of these recent “thinking time” sessions that I came up with a whole new idea for a cozy series. I won’t, however, let myself seriously explore it until I’ve made progress on the three other ones currently in various stages of development.

Apparently I’m not the only one who finds value in downtime. The May 12 issue of The Week has an article that talks about how some of the most accomplished people in history worked just four hours a day. The article says, “Figures as different as Charles Dickens, Henri Poincaré, and Ingmar Bergman, working in disparate fields in different times, all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking.”

“Just sitting and thinking” is highly underrated, but I’m in favor of carving out time for just that. Are you?

‘Never trust confidences to a novelist’

Lady of Good FamilyLast week I finished reading a beautifully written, absorbing novel I recently purchased just because a) I thought the cover was beautiful and b) I was in a gardening frame of mind. I was intrigued by the idea of a novel based on the life of Beatrix Farrand, one of the first female landscape architects and the niece of Gilded Age novelist Edith Wharton.

A Lady of Good Family by Jeanne Mackin is one of the few reads I would categorize as truly a five-star-worthy book, and I loved so much about it that I found myself copying down some of the characters’ quotes in one of my notebooks. This passage made me smile:

“What if she used it in a story?” Minnie had said to me when we decided to never openly speak of it. “That would do Beatrix such harm, and much as I love Edith, one should never trust confidences to a novelist.”

Because I am a former journalist, I regularly have people tell me things and then say, “That’s not for publication” or “That’s not for the magazine, by the way.” I left my magazine editor job more than four years ago, so I find it humorous that people still treat me as some sort of quasi-journalist. And maybe they’re on to something because I am far more alert to my town’s goings-on now that I’m working on novels. And yet … what about that bit of dialogue, that “one should never trust confidences to a novelist”? While I certainly don’t intend to ever betray anyone’s trust in me, I most definitely do intend to use some of the real-life people I know to inspire my fictional characters, their virtues as well as their foibles.

Would you trust a confidence to a novelist, or would it depend on the novelist?

Writer’s Digest: The 101 Best Websites for Writers

WD0617The new issue of Writer’s Digest has arrived, and it is one of my favorites because it’s the magazine’s annual issue devoted to the 101 Best Websites for Writers. Here are a few of the issue’s websites that I noted: — This site offers “grammar, etymology, usage, and more, brought to you by Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman.” A perfect place for word nerds (like me) to hang out. — Love the simplicity of this description: “Burlington VT radio show about writing.” I plan to listen to these podcasts during evening walks and lengthy car travels. — I must confess, the name “Miss Demeanors” lured me right in. But the six mystery and thriller authors who share advice here will keep me coming back. —This blog apparently started in 2008 as a mystery lovers’ blog but now includes writing articles on any genre. It looks like good, solid info, so I’ll be visiting again soon.

and finally — Yippee, my favorite writing blogger made the list again! Way to go, Elizabeth! Love her.

If you have a writing website to recommend, by all means, let’s hear it!


Oxford comma in the news

Screen Shot 2017-04-26 at 7.30.55 PMBeginning writers sometimes express confusion when they first hear the term “Oxford comma.” I can almost see them thinking, “A comma’s a comma. What does Oxford have to do with anything?”

The Oxford comma, so named because it was preferred by the Oxford University Press, is simply the comma that appears before the word “and” in a list of items.

She enjoys reading, gardening, and cooking.

Use of the Oxford comma is preferred by The Chicago Manual of Style, the publishing Bible for those of us who write and edit books.

Another popular publishing style is the one favored by the newspapers of the Associated Press. AP Style does not use the Oxford comma, so those using AP Style would write the above sentence this way:

She enjoys reading, gardening and cooking.

Both those sentences are clear to me, but after spending the last four years teaching my AP Style–trained mind to “think” in Chicago Style, I now see the wisdom of the Oxford comma. What about this sentence:

Our sandwich choices were chicken salad, egg salad, roast beef and peanut butter and jelly.

Most of us familiar with American sandwich fillings would assume that the list was designed to indicate four fillings: 1) chicken salad 2) egg salad 3) roast beef 4) peanut butter and jelly. But to someone unfamiliar with our culinary preferences, it could be possible to think the choices were three: 1) chicken salad 2) egg salad 3) roast beef and peanut butter and jelly.

To prevent a misread, we could write:

The sandwich choices were chicken salad, egg salad, roast beef, and peanut butter and jelly.

Lately the Oxford comma has been in the news for legal and political reasons. Here you can read about the missing Oxford comma that’s causing headaches for a company in Maine. And here you can read about a bill in my own state that is causing some trouble because of a missing Oxford comma.

Do you use the Oxford comma? I do when editing books, and I don’t when writing press releases for organizations that plan to submit them to newspapers. And no, I don’t find it confusing to use two different styles. In fact, perhaps I might offer my editing services to the Georgia legislature!

Why you shouldn’t toss your old Crayolas and Kleenex in the Dumpster


Image courtesy of Crayola

Is it Crayolas or Crayola crayons? Kleenex or Kleenex tissues? Dumpster or dumpster?

I was fresh out of journalism school when I received an early lesson on the importance of properly using brand names. I had written a newspaper article that mentioned children coloring with their “crayolas.” Soon I received a letter from the good people of the Crayola company, who wanted me to be aware that “Crayola” should be used as an adjective describing the word “crayon” and not as a replacement for the word “crayon.”

Did the Crayola people have nothing better to do with their time than harass a poor 22-year-old embarking on her journalism career? Sure they did. But they were simply trying to be sure that their trademarked brand name remained a trademarked brand name. By sending a letter pointing out the error I’d made, they also had proof of the steps they had taken to protect this brand name. (And for the record, I remain a fan of Crayola products, although now I’ve advanced to the colored-pencil stage of my coloring life.)

But what about those pretty boxes of tissue we all have sitting on our desks? Can we call those “kleenex”? We can if we want to be wrong. Here’s a quote straight from “The Kleenex® trademark identifies Kleenex® as a brand name which may only be used to designate products manufactured by Kimberly-Clark.” So no, no plain old Kleenex, please. You can use a tissue. You can even use a Kleenex tissue, which will make the Kimberly-Clark people very happy. But don’t use “a kleenex.” (And you know that little registered symbol, the “R” with a circle around it? The Chicago Manual of Style says “there is no legal requirement to use these symbols, and they should be omitted wherever possible.” On the rare occasion I see such a symbol in a book, I know the author is an amateur. So don’t do that!)

Finally, a word about dumpsters. Yes, lowercase-d dumpsters. If you look in the Merriam-Webster dictionary right now, it will tell you that Dumpster with a D was “originally in the trademarked name Dempster Dumpster, applied to mechanically loaded refuse containers produced by the Dempster Brothers Company of Knoxville, Tennessee). What the dictionary doesn’t tell you is that this trademark has expired, and the Associated Press in 2014 declared that it’s okay to use “dumpster” instead of “mechanically loaded refuse container” since the word “dumpster” has lost its legal protection. I, for one, am glad. Imagine watching the evening news and hearing the anchor announce, “Police say the body was found in a mechanically loaded refuse container at the corner of …” Doesn’t quite work, does it?

So “dumpster” is okay. The trademark has lapsed. Clearly, the Crayola crayon people have better trademark lawyers than the dumpster people.

And that’s all I have to say about that. Ba-dump-dump…ster!

(Want to learn more about trademarked names? Here’s a helpful article that appeared in the Orlando Sentinel.)

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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 2.21.20 PM

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.