Monthly Archives: September 2011

Books We’ve Recently Enjoyed

They say the nicest thing you can do for another writer is tell people about their book. That’s what we’re doing today. Below is a list of books recently read and thoroughly enjoyed by one or more of your Gem State Writers. After you’ve read our favorites, we hope you’ll hit the comment box and add yours.


Weird Sisters by Elenore Brown

This is Elenore Brown’s debut novel, and it is stunning. Her writing is wonderfully lyrical without being heavy handed, and she’s written in what I can only describe as third person, collective (the collective viewpoint of the three sisters), and it works.


The Help by Kathryn Stockett


Maybe This Time by Jennifer Crusie

Jenny created another great off-kilter heroine, great conflict locks, and extended-family dynamics.


Savvy by Ingrid Law


Magic Slays by Illona Andrews

I really adore the female heroine in Andrews’ Kate Daniels series.


Call Me Irresistible  by Susan Elizabeth Phillips


Call Me Irresistible by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Ever since Nobody’s Baby But Mine, I’ve had to buy all of her new releases. In my opinion, she writes what I think of as romantic fairytales. Some of her heroes are pro football players, pro golf, actors and rock stars, and her heroines are saucy and funny.


Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing by John Gierach and Treachery in Death by J.D. Robb


The Wager by Donna Jo Napoli

This book retells an old Sicilian folktale. She masters the art of creating a character we pretty much hate at the beginning and by the end we a rooting for him and happy when things work out for him. It would be a great book to use for studying character development. I read it in two sittings, it was that good.


The Book of Lies by Brad Meltzer

Now it’s your turn. What favorites have you recently read?


Posted by on September 30, 2011 in books


Boise Novel Orchard

Boise Novel Orchard is a local support system for writers—literary, fantasy, suspense, romance, science fiction, and poetry. It’s all-inclusive. It’s also a well-rounded group that offers three different meetings each month.

Critique Meetings: The organization began three years ago in November, a continuation of National Novel Writing Month (NanoWriMo), and the critique group continued to meet. Participants share twenty pages of fiction or five poems with other members to be critiqued and then discussed at the next meeting.

Seminars: A year after the critique group was established, a second monthly meeting was implemented, where select components of the writing craft are discussed. These seminars are generally led by the group’s founders, husband and wife team Sam and Megan Justice. Both graduated from Boise State University with degrees in English.

I participated in the workshop meeting on September 14th. The topic for that evening was Point of View (POV). POV is something I feel that I do quite well, but I found the discussion fascinating and learned several things that evening.

Book Club: This year Boise Novel Orchard added a third monthly meeting to their line-up—a book club. In this book club, books are read and evaluated from a writer’s perspective. Was the book successful? Why or why not? It’s a study of the author’s technique. A particular literary theme is selected quarterly. The group is currently reading Elantris by Brandon Sanderson.

Boise Novel Orchard is a fascinating organization. With a critique group, seminars, and a book club, it is well-rounded, and it’s led in a knowledgeable but relaxed manner. Critique meetings and workshops are held at Rediscovered Books in downtown Boise. The book club meets at Hyde Park Books in Boise’s north end. You’ll want to contact the leaders to confirm the dates and times. Here’s a link to their website


Posted by on September 29, 2011 in Idaho, workshops, writers


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Sheep and Writing by Johanna Harness

Recently, Pam Asberry wrote a blog post asking how writers refill their creative well. Too many rejections, heavy criticism, bad luck: it can all feel overwhelming at times. Why don’t I give up when the path looks bleak? It’s simple really: I like writing.

I’m the same way about raising sheep. This hasn’t been our best year. Lambs didn’t fare so well this spring. Our ram was struck by lightning and died. I got thrown by an agitated ewe and broke my elbow. You would think I’d just give up. Why keep going against such bad luck? It’s simple really: I like sheep.

So what do I do to recharge? I remember to enjoy the things I enjoy. I give myself double points when those interests overlap.

The Trailing of The Sheep Festival

In just a few weeks, I’ll be attending The Trailing of The Sheep Festival in Ketchum, Idaho. There will be spinning, a fiber fest, cowboy poetry, and sheepdog trials. Plus there will be 1500 sheep trailing down main street. I’m attending a symposium in conjunction with the festival: “Women Writing and Living the West.” For me, this is an inspiration banquet.

A Little Sheep Music

The Sawtooth Bluegrass Association holds its annual Bluegrass Festival at Round Valley, Idaho. Over Labor Day weekend, we camped and soaked up wonderful music. My newest favorite Idaho band is The Panhandle Polecats. They hooked me when Hank introduced his sister, Molly, the sheep-shearing song writer. The song definitely fits into a story-telling tradition that’s alive and well in Idaho. It took me a little too long to grab my camera, but here they are singing (most of) “Sheep Shearing Blues.”



Yes. Sheep do often make their way into my books. A writer friend even wrote our ram into one of his books after the lightning incident.

Over on Escape Into Life, I have a short story inspired by a petroglyph found just down the river from where I live. The story is Evil’s Day Off and this is the petroglyph:

In case you’re wondering, I do have the usual inspirational sources of family and kids, but the unusual interests really spur me on as a writer. Think a sheep interest is crazy? Mmm. Just wait until I tell you about my cemetery ramblings and the way thrift store objects nearly write their own stories.

So how about you? Do you have unusual inspirations that replenish your creative spirit?


Posted by on September 28, 2011 in Idaho, inspiration


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Smoke and Mirrors

One of the best examples of smoke and mirrors is the TV show
Castle. Rick Castle is a pain in the
neck to beautiful homicide Detective Kate Beckett. He lives with his
very smart daughter and his actress mother who lost her fortune to a thieving

At the office, someone is always
getting killed, hence the homicide part. Whatever the motive for the murder,
you can bet the theme is mirrored at home with either the mother or the
daughter. In other words, Rick learns a lesson at work he later applies to a
situation at home. It’s all so neat and easy. Warning: this is not for the faint of spirit. The Castle stories
are so well written they have you wondering, how in the world can they possibly
tie these two situations together? You know they will, and the way they do is
half of the show. Rick comes home and magically fixes everything. Unlike real
life when the dad comes home and adds to the stress and confusion (Do not tell
my husband I wrote that. It’ll only add to the stress and confusion around

One episode that comes to mind was when
the daughter, Alexis, was uninvited to her best friend’s party, but Alexis’s
boyfriend wasn’t. The murder, as it turned out, was due to misplaced jealousy.
The reason Alexis was disinvited to
the party was because her best friend
was jealous of all the time Alexis spent with her boyfriend.

The trick is to have your subplot
mirror your main plot. For you pantsers…good luck. I know you can do it, but as
a plotter, I just don’t know how. For you plotters this is where all those
notecards, sticky notes and random scraps of paper come in handy.

It’s a step-by-step process.

  1. Decide
    what the main theme of the book is. This is not always easy. Writers have a
    tendency to write the same theme in each book.
  2. Now
    figure our two different ways to show the same thing.
  3. Choose
    the stronger idea for the main plot and less dynamic for the subplot.
  4. Populate
    each plot with the appropriate characters.
  5. Now
    the hard part. You have to come up with a unique way to tie the two plots
    together in the end. This usually happens after the black moment.

It all looks so easy. Just follow the
bouncing ball from step one through step five and you’re set. Ah, if writing
were only that easy.

You all know how things change in a
story. I hate when I’m writing along and a brilliant idea comes to me. If I
only change this one thing, the whole story will be so much better…Pulitzer
better. The problem with my bright ideas is they’re never come in a capsule. I
can’t just plop them in and the rest of the story flows along nicely. Nope. I
end up having to go back to the beginning and add my clever bits in flashes.

This has a tendency to screw with my
well thought out plot and of course, the subplot. With my new idea, I bust out
the note cards and filter in the changes. If I don’t, I’ll run the risk of my
flash of genius losing its touch on the rest of the story and thus, and the
dramatic punch will never happen.

Where does the smoke come in, you ask?
That’s the haze forming around my head as I burn brain cells trying to figure
out how the story will come together in the end.

Do you mirror your themes? If so, how
do you do it?


Posted by on September 27, 2011 in Idaho


Musical Musings

A while ago, I blogged ( about how making dialogue count gives the reader an indelible memory about books or movies they like.  The same can be said about movie theme songs, and even whole soundtracks.

I know writers who take careful time to make play lists for their WIPs to inspire their writing processes. The music sets the mood and tone for the scenes they write. They don’t use the same songs for each book because each book is different. Go to any number of author websites and they might have posted the play list used for a book.  It can be a very useful way to immerse yourself in your book quickly and effectively.

Do you remember THE BIG CHILL? Released in 1983, it told the story of seven friends from college who attend the funeral of a mutual friend from the same college (Trivia: Flashback scenes with Kevin Costner as the dead friend were filmed, but cut. He is still visible as the body being dressed at the beginning of the film). The characters take the weekend to catch up and reconnect. Here is one of my favorites from the soundtrack.

The soundtrack was fabulous and instantly transported the audience back to the 60’s. “A Natural Woman,” “Good Lovin’,” “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Joy to the World,” all were perfectly matched to the tone and memory of the movie. And that’s just a few songs from the soundtrack.

How about JAWS? Do you even want to get in a swimming pool when you hear Duh Duh, Duh Duh, Duh Duh Duh Duh Duh Duh? Do you look in the deep end just in case? 🙂

The theme song “The Way We Were” in the movie of the same name tore at my heartstrings. The lyrics told of love discovered and then lost. Two people who weren’t right for each other, but loved nonetheless. The lyrics and melody were haunting.

I tried using music in my writing once. One of my favorite soundtracks is from LAST OF THE MOHICANS. The strings portray both a sense of urgency and power. The main theme song is here. I sat down at my computer, prepared my mind for what I wanted to write that day, and turned on the music.

And I sat there thinking about the movie, Daniel Day Lewis (yum), Madeline Stowe, her dumb, tragic little sister, and the sweet guy (Uncas) who died for her. Yeah, it didn’t much work for me. All I wanted to do was re-watch the movie!

Do you listen to music while writing? Is it the radio or your personal favorites? Does what you listen to depend on what your scene is that day? Please share your thoughts on using music in your writing process.


Posted by on September 26, 2011 in Idaho, writing craft


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Back to the Classroom

One of the first things I noticed when I walked into the high school’s speech language room was the bulletin board. It wasn’t just the bright colors that caught my eye, but the writing on the wall. As a writer, the words made me want to sit down and answer each question with my current work in progress in mind. My only regret was that I couldn’t drop everything and start scribbling, as this was my first day on the job and I was hired well after the first day of school.

The words came from Step Up to Writing by Maureen E. Auman. Auman spent years trying to teach students reading and writing and ended up teaching other teachers what she’d learned over the years. Many high school students have trouble writing anything more than a few paragraphs and her methods are basic, practical, and helpful instruction on writing assignments, assessments, and everyday writing tasks. The end result is to help all students meet or exceed state standards in reading and writing.

The following questions are on the bulletin board. Perhaps you will find the questions inspiring as well. See if you can resist picking up a pencil or typing the information in. Do one for each character.

WHO is the story about?

WHERE and WHEN does your story take place?

WHAT happened to the character?

WHAT are the character’s feelings about what happened?

WHAT does the character want to do?

WHAT does the character do?

HOW does the character solve the problem?

To begin with/first





WHAT happened as a result of the action?


HOW does the character feel about the consequences?


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Making It Worse with Revision

Writing is mostly about revising. If you haven’t spent much time in revisions, it can be daunting. (Well, that’s true even if you HAVE spent lots of time on revisions.) It helps to have some strategies for revising.

When I was at the SCBWI International conference in LA  in August, I attended a session by Donna Jo Napoli about creating tension in a novel.  Tension is, after all, what keeps readers interested, excited, on the edge of our seats. And it’s what’s often missing in early drafts of a manuscript.

Think about the books you really love. I know for me, the ones I love the most get the main character into a situation that I am positive he will never get out of. Often, it’s a life or death situation. I refer you to JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. How many times does Frodo get into such a state that we are sure he will die and all will be lost? (A lot.)

Donna Jo asks the question, “How can I make it worse?” That is the key to increasing tension.

Setting has an often overlooked potential to add tension. What if your main character, in addition to all the other problems you’ve created for her, has to evacuate due to a massive fire heading in her direction? That would make it worse, right? Or what if the story takes place in an outpost of the arctic? Or she’s in a foreign country where she doesn’t speak the language? Or she’s inside a locked car on a hot day?

Another way to intensify the tension is through the characters. We see this quite often in fiction, even in sitcoms on TV. Two or more characters can disagree about something. But what if you make it worse. What if their friendship is on the line because one of them dated the other’s boyfriend? Or one friend stole money from the other to buy drugs? Or it turns out one friend has been lying to the other for years about something important?

Of course, there’s plot. The book I’m reading now, The Limit by Kristen Landon, involves a totally tension packed plot. The main character has to go live in a modern day workhouse because his family went over their spending limit. (It’s a dystopic novel.) He begins to figure out some pretty bad things about this little system. And the reader just wants to keep reading until we too figure out what’s happening. Plus we want him to get out of there, but it’s hard to see how that is going to happen.

Timing is another device Donna Jo recommends to add tension. Is there some sort of deadline the character has to meet? Not that I’m recommending this movie, but I recently saw 30 Minutes or Less, in which the main character is kidnapped and a bomb is strapped to his chest. It is set to go off in nine hours if he doesn’t do what his kidnappers demand. That’s quite a bit of tension.

Timing can also mean the rhythm of the language. To increase the feeling of tension, use short words and short sentences. Use hard sounds rather than soft. For example, instead of “scary” with the soft “s” and the friendly sounding “y” at the end, use “nightmarish” with the harsh “t” and the hard “r”.

Donna Jo says changing directions can also add to tension. An example of changing directions might be a change in point of view, leaving off with one character and focusing on another. Or you might try changing the pacing—our hero is being chased by the bad guy, but he doesn’t know why. He ducks into a safe place, giving himself and the reader a chance to breathe. But we want to know who the bad guy is and why he’s chasing our hero, so we’re eager to get back out there now, even if the hero isn’t. Or maybe literally changing direction: the character takes a wrong turn. That never turns out well.

Donna Jo’s final piece of advice is a commonly heard one, and yet one so rarely taken and learned well. That is to make your reader trust you by SHOWING not TELLING. If the reader trusts you to show what’s happening, she will trust you all the way through. We’ll talk about that next time.


Posted by on September 24, 2011 in Revising