A Writing Conference and an Air Show

Last Thursday afternoon, a rumble of jet noise lured me away from preparations for the opening night of the 2015 Hampton Roads Writers Conference.

Air Show Sept 17

When I realized the jets over our yard were Blue Angels, I dropped my pens, notebooks, and folders and ran for my camera.

Air Show Sept 17

My fascination with jets, helicopters, and rockets traces back to childhood. My father worked for Sperry Rand, and later for United Space Boosters, Inc., so the space program loomed large in my life. We lived close enough to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center (in Huntsville, Alabama) to make field trips with school and 4-H, and when my father relocated and remarried, his new position took him to Titusville, Florida. There, during a summer visit between 9th and 10th grade, I got tantalizing glimpses of Kennedy Space Center and the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Books, television, and movies fed my aerospace fascination as I finished high school and moved on to college. Somewhere along the way, I discovered the Blue Angels.

Thursday’s flights over our house were practice runs for the Blue Angels’ appearance at the 2015 NAS Oceana Air Show, which overlapped the writing conference on Saturday but not Sunday, so I didn’t have to choose between them.

Air Show Sept 17

As usual, I arrived at the conference full of energy, eager to spend a few days in the company of writers. By Saturday afternoon my energy was dwindling toward exhaustion, but it was a happy and inspired kind of exhaustion. Here’s a list of the sessions I attended:

  • Mastering Dialogue – Princess Perry
  • Friday Keynote Address – Ellen Meister
  • Bringing Your Book to Market: Overview of Self-Publishing – Dr. Chris Kennedy
  • Copyright and Wrong: The Basics of Intellectual Property – Melissa Edwards
  • How to Give a Great Reading – Ellen Meister
  • Psychic Distance: How Close Are Your Characters – Ellen Bryson
  • Saturday Keynote Address – DeWitt Henry
  • Hit the Ground Running: Storytelling through Action, not Exposition – Heather Flaherty
  • The Business of Poetry – Renee Olander
  • Marketing Your Work – Michelle Garren Flye
  • Breaking Down Backstory – Ellen Bryson
  • What Is Paranormal Romance and Why Is It Selling So Well? – Vanessa Barger

I can’t pick a favorite from these sessions. They were all brilliant. I came home with ideas for each of my various works-in-progress, and my contest entries were returned with very helpful comments from the judges. (My fiction entry won Honorable Mention!)

Award 2015

I slept late Sunday, of course, but woke to the sound of jet noise as the Air Show moved into its final day. I hurried through feeding the cats, who were outraged that I had slept past their breakfast time, while my husband gathered our gear. Then we were out the door and on our way.

Air Show 2015

Air Show 2015

It was a beautiful way to end a perfect weekend.

Photos of Spring and a Publication Note

Flowers April 6

The daffodils, all three of them, bloomed this week. As did the pear tree.

Grackle April 6

While it has plenty of bird visitors, the pear tree hasn’t seen its usual complement of pollinators.

Robin April 6

The pear blooms usually draw bees and beetles by the hundreds, but many of the pollinators seem to be sleeping in this year. Yellow-rumped warblers are getting most of the nectar.

Warbler April 6

The pear tree’s pollinators may be sleeping in, but the carpenter bees are awake and active. Territorial males have claimed pockets of airspace near the house, fence, and deck. Their physiology must be wondrously efficient, because they patrol and defend their claims with seemingly endless vigor, never pausing to eat. They aren’t interested in nectar. They’re waiting for females to arrive.

Carpenter Bees April 6

My favorite news from the yard this week comes from the milkweed. It survived our long, cold winter, which means we might have more monarchs this year!

Milkweed April 6

My favorite other news involves a publication note. My short story “Numbers” is now posted at The Blue Hour Magazine. This is my first fiction publication!

“Numbers” is the first short story I ever attempted. For nearly ten years I returned to it periodically, each time applying what I had learned since its last revision. Finally, in 2013, the story seemed to defy further revision. By then the opening had been entirely restructured and the word count cut by more than half. That year “Numbers” won Honorable Mention in the Frank Lawlor Memorial Fiction Prize at the Hampton Roads Writers’ Conference.

I let “Numbers” drift to the bottom of my to-do pile after its award, but in January of this year I decided to give the story one final edit and begin submitting it for publication. Then I selected a new practice manuscript from the archive, because I am not through learning. My journey with “Numbers” has reached a happy and satisfying conclusion, but my journey with writing will never end.

Poetic Prose: Metaphor’s Impact on Pace

In 2012, brain studies made headlines with evidence that metaphors activate sensory regions of the brain. The implications for fiction writers are readily obvious. If you want your readers to see, hear, smell, and feel your world, you can help them along by using descriptive metaphors. Articles like “The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction” from the New York Times cover the topic in eloquent detail:

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. (1)

The New York Times article references, in part, research done at Emory University in Georgia. The university’s website describes the methods employed in one of the more prominently discussed studies:

Seven college students who volunteered for the study were asked to listen to sentences containing textural metaphors as well as sentences that were matched for meaning and structure, and to press a button as soon as they understood each sentence. Blood flow in their brains was monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging. On average, response to a sentence containing a metaphor took slightly longer (0.84 vs 0.63 seconds). (2)

For me, that last detail adds a new dimension to the discussion about metaphor in writing. Metaphors take longer to process. And, while the time lag may not seem significant when applied to single sentences, it adds up over the course of a book. Even over the course of a paragraph.

Here’s the first paragraph of The Last Unicorn:

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea. (3)

A lilac wood? Is the wood made entirely of lilacs? Is it purple? Maybe it smells like lilacs? Perhaps the intent goes deeper than description. Lilacs appear in mythology, flower lore, and in a well-known poem by Walt Whitman. Since there is no rule limiting each word in a text to a single meaning, lilac may mean all of these things. And, no matter which meanings I choose, I am alert for the next metaphors — a series of sea and water images used to describe the unicorn. These make me thirsty for more.

By the time I finish this first paragraph, the book’s opening pace is established. It flows from page to page in unhurried leisure, giving me plenty of time to explore and enjoy the scenery. At the bottom of the first page I’m told, “Unicorns are immortal.” And I understand. They have no need to hurry.

But things change for the unicorn, and for me, on page six.

From that first moment of doubt, there was no peace for her; from the time she first imagined leaving her forest, she could not stand in one place without wanting to be somewhere else. She trotted up and down beside her pool, restless and unhappy. Unicorns are not meant to make choices. She said no, and yes, and no again, day and night, and for the first time she began to feel the minutes crawling over her like worms. (4)

As the unicorn frets, so does the text. The first part hurries along, a straightforward description of restless indecision. Then time slows uncomfortably with “… minutes crawling over her like worms.” Further down the page, I find this paragraph:

Under the moon, the road that ran from the edge of her forest gleamed like water, but when she stepped out onto it, away from the trees, she felt how hard it was, and how long. She almost turned back then; but instead she took a deep breath of the woods air that still drifted to her, and held it in her mouth like a flower, as long as she could. (5)

The road “gleamed like water.” It’s an arresting image, recalling the first paragraph’s water imagery. I expect the road to ripple when the unicorn steps on it, and I share her surprise at finding it solid. I’m ready for her deep breath, because I need one too, but then I am caught by the uniqueness of “…and held it in her mouth like a flower.” Like a lilac? It’s so captivating that I, too, pause as long as I can.

Comparing the two scenes from page six, the second is shorter than the first, and yet it holds more intricacy. I linger, savoring the shorter passage. The first scene is useful and informative. The second is a critical turn in the plot, and its metaphors force me to pay attention as I read.

I could go on and on, quoting page after page of equally wonderful metaphors in The Last Unicorn. They make the beautiful parts more beautiful, the suspenseful parts more suspenseful, and the emotional parts more emotional. They keep me engaged, and they transform a lovely story about a unicorn into a classic.

But how do I apply lessons learned in The Last Unicorn to my own writing? I begin by planning my metaphors better, capitalizing on their ability to engage a reader’s senses, as well as their pace. Too little metaphor renders stories thin and featureless. Too much slows them to tedium. Where will metaphors enhance my stories, and where will they get in the way?


1. Paul, Annie Murphy. “Your Brain on Fiction.” The New York Times. 17 March 2012. The New York Times Sunday Review/The Opinion Pages. Web. 9 September 2013.

2. Woodruff Health Sciences Center. “Hearing metaphors activates sensory brain regions.” Emory News Center. Emory University. 7 February 2012. Web. 9 September 2013.

3. Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. Fourth Printing. New York: Ballantine Books. 1972. Print. 1.

4. Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. Fourth Printing. New York: Ballantine Books. 1972. Print. 6.

5. Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. Fourth Printing. New York: Ballantine Books. 1972. Print. 6.

Butterfly Sept 13

“Say my name, then,” the unicorn begged him. “If you know my name, tell it to me.”
“Rumpelstiltskin,” the butterfly answered happily. (pg 10)

Butterfly Sept 30

You know better than to expect a butterfly to know your name. All they know are songs and poetry, and anything else they hear. They mean well, but they can’t keep things straight. And why should they? They die so soon. (pg 11)

Verb Choice in Fiction

I recently ran across an article titled “Falsifying memories” at The Guardian’s Neurophilosophy blog. I read the article in my usual half-distracted manner until a sentence caught my full attention and prompted me to start over. The second time through, I read much more carefully. Here’s the sentence:

[Elizabeth] Loftus started her career investigating semantic memory – how word meanings are stored in the brain – and somewhat ironically, it is the meaning of words that seems to lie at the heart of the matter. (1)

For me, this sentence hinted at fascinating possibilities. The article doesn’t expand on the semantic memory work, so I started clicking links to find out more. One of the links led me to a longer profile by the same author, published in Nature. There I found this marvelous set of paragraphs:

…Loftus won funding in 1974 for a proposal to study witness accounts of accidents, and she soon published the first of several influential studies revealing the limitations of eyewitness testimony1. She showed people film clips of car accidents and asked them to estimate the speed of the cars. The wording of the questions, she found, had a profound effect on the estimates. People who were asked, “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” gave higher estimates on average than those with whom the verb ‘hit’ was used. And those who were told that the cars had ‘contacted’ each other gave the lowest estimates.

Those asked about cars smashing into one another were more than twice as likely as others to report seeing broken glass when asked about the accident a week later, even though there was none in the video. “I realized that these questions were conveying information,” says Loftus. “I began to think of it as a process of memory contamination, and we eventually called it the misinformation effect.” (2)

[Citation within the text of the first paragraph:  1. Loftus, E. F. & Palmer, J. C. J. Verb. Learn. Verb. Behav. 13, 585–589 (1974).]

It seems frivolous to lift the findings of such important research out of their context and apply them to fiction writing, but I couldn’t help drawing a connection. Consider the varying responses to the words smashed, hit, and contacted, and imagine writing about a car accident. Detailed descriptions of speed and broken glass become redundant if the car is smashed.

Every self-help writing book and article talks about verb choice, and it seems there is more to the recommendation than I previously understood. Perhaps tendrils of memory contamination are key elements of fiction. After all, my favorite fictional worlds are so vibrant that I almost remember being in them. And as a writer, I want my work to be memorable.

At the time I found these articles, I was re-reading The Hobbit. Few books live in my memory as vividly as The Hobbit. The words, as much as the story, create its charm.

Here’s a paragraph from the first chapter:

If you have ever seen a dragon in a pinch, you will realize that this was only poetical exaggeration applied to any hobbit, even to Old Took’s great-granduncle Bullroarer, who was so huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfimbul’s head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented at the same moment. (3)

In this paragraph, “charged,” “knocked,” and “sailed” carry the scene for me. The peak phrases are evocative, but they are also interesting rhythmically.  In particular, note how the string of airy vowels in “It sailed a hundred yards through the air” stops hard against the consonants of “went down.” It’s poetry, as much as verb choice, which is a digression from my topic. I’ll save my raptures about poetic prose for a later post.

The Hobbit is a trove of effective verb choice, in part because its unique and interesting verbs are used in moderation. They stand out because they are relatively infrequent. They would be less interesting, and less effective, if every verb in every sentence was just as interesting. The other verbs in the above paragraph–have seen, will realize, applied, was, etc.–are elegant in their simplicity.

When I edit my writing, I dedicate an entire revision run-though to verb selection. I scrutinize every verb in every sentence, and try to improve them all. But perhaps my focus has been too tight. I lacked moderation, so my writing lacked rhythm. In the future I want to choose my moments. Concentrate more on the structure of my stories, and how sentences reinforce that structure, and less on the structure of individual sentences. Because I want my stories to be memorable, not my sentences.


1. Costandi, Mo. “Falsifying memories.” @Neurophilosophy. The Guardian. 16 August 2013. Web. 24 August 2013.

2. Costandi, Moheb. “Evidence-based justice: Corrupted memory” Nature Vol. 500, Issue 7462. (15 August 2013) 268-270. Web. 24 August 2013.

3. Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Rev. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 1977. 30. Print.

Blue Moon August 20

Blue Moon, August 20, 2013

I mention writing in many of my posts, but I seldom discuss the mechanics of writing that are important to me. So this post is a departure from my theme. I hope to make more departures, in the future, and write more about writing.