Starting Yoga (Again)

I’ve been thinking for a while that I need to do more than I’ve been doing, exercise-wise. I have a fantastic personal trainer I see once a week  (Jeremy Jones, co-owner of Funktional Fitness in Gilbert & Chandler) but for several reasons more sessions funkgearthere aren’t practical for me right now. I walk the dogs every day for a little over a mile, which is great, but not enough.

Last Monday, I was thinking about it when I was at the park with the dogs. I figured out that what I want is to gain strength, balance, and flexibility. So, yoga. There’s a place near me called Floating Lotus Yoga, right in downtown Mesa, and it turns out they have a Groupon – 10 sessions for $26, which is a dynamite deal.

Floating LotusIt’s a nice place – a big open room, wood floor, pretty wall murals and other decorations. Plenty of mats, bolsters, blocks, and rugs to use to make the poses more comfortable or more achievable. No mirrors. A bit of music.

I’ve been to three classes so far – two Mindful Flow and one Yin-Yang Flow. Good choices for starting out, I think. The movements are slow and deliberate, and the instructors do a great job of explaining them and helping the students. Even though the movements are slow, they’re challenging, and I can feel them working on those three things I want to improve. And bonus, it provides that mental well-being you would expect from yoga.

I’m really pleased. I think the key was thinking about what I wanted before deciding what to do.

Floating Lotus website

Funktional Fitness website







Shonna Slayton’s Editing Workshop

Shonna Slayton is the new writer in residence at Mesa Public Library. Last night, she led a workshop on editing, with a high-level overview of macro- and micro-level editing, some hands-on practice, and pointers to what sound like some really helpful resources. I love that she wrote her first draft during NaNoWriMo! And now she has two traditionally published books, another one coming out in a few months, and a fourth she self-published.

Starting out the editing process:

  • Set your draft aside – Months would be ideal, but at least set it aside for a couple of weeks so you can come to it fresh.
  • Have a system to objectively look at the draft – Find a story structure model that works for you. There’s a 3-act structure and another that shows the novel as a circle. There are others as well. The one she likes best is Larry Brooks‘ circus tent model – more about this one below.
  • There are other opinions – Steven James’ book Story Trumps Structure says the opposite, but for a beginning writer, Brooks is more helpful.
  • Plan for 3 rounds of edits – The first round is big picture stuff. Does the story make sense, are there plot holes, and so on. At this stage you can lose characters, add characters, and make big changes. The second round starts with seeing if you’ve fixed all the first-round problems, and then focuses on the character arc. The third round is the details. She follows Margie Lawson’s EDITS system for this round – more below.

The circus tent model:

  • StoryEngineeringLarry Brooks is the developer and authority on this model. She recommends his book, Story Engineering. He’s actually deconstructed several books, including The Help and Hunger Games, to illustrate how his principles apply.
  • For a cool graphic that illustrates the concepts, there’s a pdf poster developed by Rachel Savage at this link: The bare bones are in the picture below.
  • The first part introduces the setting, characters, and what normal life is like. At about 20%, a change happens where the character’s purpose shifts. Then at about 50%, there’s a twist or reveal that changes the context of everything. We looked at our own drafts to see what was happening at the 20% and 50% point; I think some of us had these things at those spots. I certainly didn’t!
  • When she’s planning her books, she has a rough idea of what these major points are going to be, but she doesn’t have it totally laid out.


The EDITS system:

  • Margie Lawson developed this system. Slayton’s old blog has an overview of the system. She recommends getting Lawson’s lecture packet, which she calls the best $22 she ever spent.
  • The system shows you where and how to add power to your writing. What could be better? (This has nothing to do with the POWER style of writing government audit reports, by the way, which I practiced for years at work.)
  • The basics of the system are that you highlight different elements in your writing with a different color highlighter, on paper or on screen.
    • Blue – dialogue. Do you have the right amount? Are the voices distinct? Does it sound real?
    • Pink – emotion shown through visceral reactions (racing heartbeat, skin crawling, that kind of thing). Do they ring true? Are there places where you should or could add it – have you missed opportunities?
    • Green – setting and character descriptions. Do you have the right amount? Too much?
    • Yellow – internalizations, narrative exposition, backstory, and flashbacks. If you have too much yellow and green, the reader tends to start skimming.
    • Orange – tension and conflict. You don’t highlight the text but instead put dots or shorter or longer lines in the margins. It’s good to end a chapter with some orange.
    • Red pen – underline nonverbal communication, like adverbs (“he said angrily”), choreography, body movements, the senses.
  • After you’ve done your highlighting and looked at the issues described above, start thinking about rhetorical devices. These go beyond the simile, metaphor, etc. that you learned about in school. For example:
    • A,B,A structure: Bond, James Bond. Run, Toto, Run. That kind of thing. It’s called diacope – there are Greek words for all these things.
    • Backloading: What’s the final word in your paragraph or sentence? Make sentences end on a more powerful word to propel the reader through your story.
    • Rhythm and music of the language.
    • Don’t go overboard! You don’t want to overwhelm the reader with fancy stuff.
    • There are loads of these devices, and there are lots of resources online. Lawson highlights 25 of them in her lesson packet.

Learning to be a better writer:

  • Use other books to study, and don’t be afraid to mark them up. She brought in a paperback copy of The Help that she used when studying Larry Brooks’ method. The entire book’s page edges were color coded with highlighters to indicate the four parts of the circus tent structure. She wrote notes inside about the plot points, shifts, twists, and pinch points.
  • Take notes when you read. She has a spiral notebook where she copies good ways to write that she comes across – original phrases, vivid descriptions, etc. She also has a computer file where she compiles and sorts her notes on things like “different things eyes can do.”

Here’s Shonna Slayton’s website:

I’m a fan of these

For everyone:

Barking Up the Wrong Tree –  Eric Barker’s weekly blog in which he concisely and entertainingly summarizes the research on some useful way you can make your life better. This week: motivating yourself to exercise, in one compelling introduction and 4 proven tips.

Study Hacks Blog – I just discovered this one via Eric Barker. Looks like great stuff on productivity. I used to be a huge fan of Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders site, in which he put David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach into action, but Mann has moved on to other things. It looks like this might replace that gap in my life.

99U – This is surprisingly good. It’s run by Behance, a company that makes fancy notebooks and such. The site has some really good articles focused on “creative professionals,” from doing better work to managing the business side better.

CollegeInfoGeek – This is designed for college students (obviously) but applies to anyone who’s trying to learn something new, remember things better, develop good habits, etc. I like his videos on the Feynman technique and spaced repetition.

For writers:

POV Your Novel – This is my real-life writing buddy Becki’s blog (formerly Novelarnia) and business website. Lots of good stuff for writers.

The Snowflake Method – How to plan and organize your novel. I’m using this approach with my current project. So far, so good.

Absolute Write – Loads of information for writers, including a resources section with links for agents, workshops, and writing organizations, plus a forums section.

NaNoWriMo – Of course. The official site of National Novel Writing Month. Then there’s Camp NaNoWriMo. Motivation, a blog with pep talks, forums. What more do you need?

Creative Writing Prompts – Just what it says it is. 346 ways to get your fingers moving.

Query Shark – Advice on how to write a successful query letter, and critiques of actual queries.

Gwen Hernandez’s site – Expert information on using Scrivener, from the author of Scrivener for Dummies.

For banjo players:

Banjo Hangout – Terrific forum with advice, instruction, and banjo tab sources.





Gardeners and architects

I am loving the library this summer. Another free writers’ event today! This one was called Bringing Your Story to Life, presented by local author Aaron Blaylock.

It was sort of a Writing 101 in 120 minutes. Jam packed with well-organized information for two types of writers – gardeners, who plant a seed and help it grow, and architects, who build their novel with a blueprint.

Here are my favorite bits of advice from the session.

On writing:

  • Write, and write often. Daily is best. It doesn’t have to be on your Big Project; you can practice your craft with blog entries, book reviews, short stories, whatever.
  • Learn and live. Do the research and have the experiences so you know what your character is going through.It doesn’t all have to go into the book, but you need to know it so you can write the parts that do go into the book.
  • Write what you love. Consider your audience, but don’t try to match some idea of what will sell. Please yourself first.
  • Work on your hook. The narrative hook grabs the reader, and ideally should be in the first sentence. It absolutely has to be in the first few pages. Start with something that tells the reader something interesting about your main character. You can have a hook at the end of every chapter like Dan Brown does to create the page-turner effect.
  • Characters need to be real and interesting to you. You should know much more about them than what appears in the book. Characters will mostly appear through dialogue; read it out loud to make sure it’s realistic (pay no attention to all those Aaron Sorkin characters on tv). Characters have to have a life beyond what you write. They need to feel real to you.
  • Does this advance the story? In revision, cut it to the bone. Be ruthless, get rid of all the excess fat. But while you’re writing, write. You don’t know what you have till you’ve written it.
  • Theme should appear organically. It’s the view about life and how people behave that comes through your book, but you’ll never actually say it in so many words.
  • Tone is the emotional coloring. Harry Shaw lists three key points about tone: the author’s attitude, the devices used to create mood and atmosphere, and the musical quality of the words.
  • Do what the story requires. If the story calls for a main character to die, kill him. Maybe the stakes need to be raised. Do what it takes.
  • Resolve your plot! If you ask a question, you need to answer it in the resolution. The resolution has to fit the rest of the story in tone and creativity, and solve all parts of the conflict (i.e., the opposite of the ending of Lost on tv). Blaylock calls this sticking the landing.
  • Set goals. Hardly anyone gets to be a full-time writer. Even successful published authors have other jobs, or make their money from other writing-related endeavors. Write when you can. Figure out what you’re willing to give up in order to achieve your goals. For Blaylock, it was sports.

On criticism:

  • Develop a thick skin. If you write, you’ll experience rejection. A lot. Agents and publishers will turn you down, and people at book signings will walk right past you. Art is subjective, and literature is art.
  • Seek and use criticism. Welcome criticism because it will help you improve. Join or start a group. Give your book to people who will give you honest feedback. You don’t have to accept every piece of criticism you receive; some will be untrue and you’ll reject it.

And on selling your book:

  • Get a good edit. Find a trusted, ideally professional, editor to review your book before you start to submit it. A traditional publisher will have a substantive editor who gives you feedback on structure, story, characters, etc., as well as a copy editor, but you need to have your book in the best possible shape before you send it in.
  • Prepare your pitch. You’ll use this even more after you publish. It’s the 30-second, 1-2 sentence bare bones summary of what your book is about. Whether you use a traditional publisher or not, you’ll be promoting your own book online, at book signings, at author events, wherever readers are. Blaylock brought a stack of his books to this event, for example, and sold quite a few!
  • Treat agents with care. It’s a small community, so if you’re a jerk, the word will get around. Find out what they like, what they’re looking for, and what they require. If they reject you, accept it and move on to the next. Research agents, for example on agent, to find the ones that are a good fit for what you write. He follows agent Ann Collette on Twitter (@Ann_Collette); she posts occasional Top 12 lists that show what not to do.
  • Covers matter. People do judge books by their covers. Seek professional help.

Here’s Aaron Blaylock’s site.





Tom Leveen on Description

My public library (Mesa, Arizona) has been doing a writer in residence program this year. It’s been a fantastic opportunity to learn from the professionals, like Tom Leveen.

I’ve seen Tom Leveen speak several times and he never disappoints. He’s a great storyteller with tremendous energy, and he’s incredibly generous in sharing his knowledge with aspiring writers.

Here’s what he had to say about writing description:

  • Decide what you want to evoke in the scene.
  • Clarity is god.
  • Describing what a character looks like is not character development – it doesn’t tell us anything about them. It’s not what they wear, but how they wear it.
  • Point of view is critical. If your viewpoint character is a 17-year-old girl, she’s not going to describe a rainbow the same way you would. Use the words your POV character would use.
  • We have more than 5 senses. Like thermoception (sense of temperature), nociception (sense of pain), equilibrioception (sense of balance and acceleration), proprioception (where our limbs are in relation to ourselves). Use them! David Morrell, the author of Rambo, recommends using one non-visual sense per page.
  • Everyone knows what bacon smells like. Don’t spend a paragraph describing it.
  • Use emotional memory. After you decide what you want to evoke, go back in time to when you felt what you’re trying to convey. It doesn’t have to be the same event – for your character’s first kiss, you don’t have to use your own awkward first kiss, but maybe your first concert if that’s more the emotion you want to evoke.
  • Use concrete detail. It’s not the length of the description but the specificity. Be aware of what the reader might assume if you don’t tell them. You can choose to leave things ambiguous. Don’t repeat what the reader already knows, like green grass.
  • The thesaurus: friend or foe? Stephen King says usually go with the first word that comes to mind. Tom says during revision, if the word doesn’t feel right, look for an alternative.


  • Finish your draft before you go back and revise. Revision is making deliberate choices.

He got a lot of questions about how to do research. He recommended using social media and in-person events to find people you can interview. There was a serendipitous illustration of this at the event: a mystery writer was asking how to find someone to talk to about a murder investigation, and there was a retired police investigator right there at the event who offered to meet with her.

Here are some other resources with info for writers:

And then Tom’s own website, where there’s a link to get his book on writing dialogue. I don’t have it yet but with his theatre background I’m sure it’s excellent.


Dangerous Dreams


Last night I saw the new Neil Gaiman documentary, Dream Dangerously, at Changing Hands (thank you, Changing Hands!).


I’m a huge fan of Neil Gaiman, and I already have tickets to see him live at the Mesa Arts Center next April. I absolutely love Good Omens, which he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett. Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk is one of the best funny kids’ books ever written. And I’ve read American Gods three times, including the audio version by Lenny Henry which is one of the best  audio book performances there is.

This documentary follows the author on his last-ever book signing tour, with side journeys to talk to other people, including Terry Pratchett, and visit his childhood home and so on.

The film is full of goodies for writers. Here are some that stuck out for me:

  • Be nice. Even with a thousand people lined up at a signing, he took the time to make each interaction personal. And he didn’t go home until every book was signed, even though it meant icing his hand and elbow afterwards. He said book signing lines are really thank you lines – people want to thank you for writing things that changed their lives, but you can’t call it a thank you line, which would be presumptuous. One of his early editors commented that he was a pest, but a nice pest, when he was trying to get his first stuff published.
  • Keep your eye on what you really want. He was offered a high paying editor job when he had young kids at home, but realized it would take him in the wrong direction. The mountain he wanted to climb was writing fiction, so he turned the job down.
  • You can’t write all the time. You have to get out into the world and see people, or you’ll run out of things to write about. Sometimes it seems like you’re only half living your life because a quarter of you is observing, like “oh, this is how it feels to have your heart broken.”
  • Stories are important. He said this turns out to be the theme of everything he writes. Stories are how we make sense of the world, and how we come together as people.
  • Make it like playing. He writes the first draft in longhand, with a fountain pen, in a notebook (it looks like a Moleskine), using a different color of ink every day so he can see how much he did. He said this is to fool himself into thinking it’s not important, he’s just messing around, and if it’s no good it doesn’t matter.
  • Use your daydreams. A kid asked him where his ideas come from, and he said they come from daydreams. Like, if a goldfish is bitten by a werewolf, what happens, and how does it get back into the bowl when it turns back into a goldfish?
  • Make good art. There’s a clip in the film from that college graduation he spoke at a few years ago. When things get tough, make good art.






It’s more for the dogs, but…

In July of last year, I spent a week at the beach in Carpinteria with the family. There were lots of walks on the beach and around town, and I came home with a resolution to walk every day.

Obviously, the dogs were one hundred percent supportive of that resolution. They have a doggy door and a big back yard, but going for walks where they can smell new things is their absolute favorite thing in the world. Well, except for eating. And tummy rubs. And sleeping. Okay, they have a lot of favorite things, but walks are right up there at the top of the list.

So far, we’ve gone walking every single day with just a handful of exceptions. I was sick for a few days in November, and I’ve been out of town without the dogs a few times. Otherwise, rain or shine, we walk. When it’s hot like it is now, we walk as soon as I wake up in the morning. In cooler weather, we can go out whenever we feel like it, but we still usually go in the morning. Lucky (the white dog) tells me to get moving if I wait too long.

Walking is never going to make me thin, but it’s still good for me. The way the dogs & I walk, with lots of stopping to smell stuff, it’s not much of a cardio workout. It’s still weight-bearing exercise, though, so good for staving off osteoporosis. It makes me more aware of how my body is working, too. Earlier this year, something went awry in my right foot, and it was painful to walk even a quarter of a mile. Frustration at being unable to keep up my daily walks gave me the impetus to try acupuncture, which somehow magically did the trick for me.

The best thing about walking is seeing what’s going on out there in the world. We usually walk around the Cubs spring training stadium and practice fields, so sometimes we get to see baseball practice, and the grass is always green and there are beautiful trees and shrubs. We see people walking or playing with their dogs, bicycling, running, playing soccer, and doing complicated outdoor routines involving orange cones and pushups. When it’s cooler, we walk over by Tempe Town Lake or at Papago Park, where sometimes we can see the desert bighorn sheep at the zoo and we can visit Governor Hunt’s pyramid tomb that overlooks the zoo’s savannah exhibit with its giraffes. And then there’s the weather, and the sun, and sometimes clouds or wind or even rain.

Sometimes I use my walking time to think about the plot of the novel I’m writing, or do music theory memory drills, or plan my day. Other times I listen to a podcast or NPR or an audiobook on my phone. Usually, though, I don’t think about much at all. I have my eye out for loose dogs, because my dogs are small and they aren’t good with other dogs; and I’m constantly adjusting how I hold the leashes as Lucky wraps himself around my legs.Otherwise, I’m just in the moment – thinking about whatever I’m looking at, registering the warmth or cold on my skin, feeling my feet hitting the ground. I guess it’s more like meditation than anything.