Calisthenics for the Brain

I was reading an interview in Time with David McCullough (the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, if the name doesn’t ring a bell), and this question caught my attention:

Q: We don’t write letters on paper anymore. How will this affect the study of history?

The loss of people writing–writing a composition, a letter or a report–is not just the loss for the record. It’s the loss of the process of working your thoughts out on paper, of having an idea that you would never have had if you weren’t [writing]. And that’s a handicap. People [I research] were writing letters every day. That was calisthenics for the brain.

Calisthenics for the brain. Isn’t that a fantastic image?

Because it’s true. Just like my body feels sluggish if I don’t at least get out for a walk with the dog every day, so does my brain on days it doesn’t do much.

Granted, every brain deserves a lazy Sunday curled up with a book or settled on the couch watching sports or a cheesy movie. But … you can’t forget that it’s a muscle that needs to be used, too.

Lots of people realize this already. They do crossword puzzles or play sudoku online. They read everything they can get their hands on, or watch documentaries about obscure subjects on television. They take classes at the community college and visit museums, and learn about new technology on the internet.

I mean, not everybody turns into a couch potato watching reality-tv after dinner every night, right?

But, I love McCullough’s point about the importance of working things out on paper, and how it can lead to ideas you might not have had otherwise.

There’s something to be said for the simple hand-brain coordination of moving a pen across a page. Think of all the notes you took in classes at school when the teacher’s lecture went in one ear, down past the shoulder and out the hand onto the notebook without ever pausing in the brain. And then, haven’t you ever had the experience of doodling, jotting down random, crazy, silly thoughts and then looked at your page and realized you’d just solved a problem, or done something brilliant without consciously thinking about it?

As much as I love typing on a keyboard these days–if only because it’s legible which you can’t exactly say about my handwriting–it’s still a different kind of “writing” than the kind you do with a pen. No matter how good a touch-typist you are. You can’t doodle in a word-processing program, after all.

Mind-mapping is all the rage these days, too–putting all your thoughts and ideas about a project in one place in a seemingly random order so that you can line things up and visually SEE those connections. Everybody’s brain works differently. Some of us are visual thinkers who need visual aids to understand things. Some learn best by hearing, some by reading … but ultimately it comes back to getting the ideas on our heads down on paper.

Whether that paper is made from tree pulp or pixels on a computer screen doesn’t matter, not really. It might matter to historians down the ages who are using Windows 2703-B on their brain-embedded computers and can’t access our lame attempts at digital “permanence” any more, but we can’t be concerned with them. For the moment, what matters is that we not only THINK but that we take our responsibility to record it in some fashion seriously.

Because our brains deserve the workout. Calisthenics for the brain. And the best part? Unlike heading to the gym for an hour of sweat and calorie-burning, at the end of an hour of writing–of drawing connections and getting words and thoughts on paper–you’ve got something solid to show for it.

Now, go and exercise that brain of yours. Write something!

(And, as an interesting side note, I saw this post linked on Twitter today–about the differences between writing by hand or writing by keyboard, which I thought particularly interesting as I mulled over this blog post of my own.)

What do YOU think?

Tips for People Who Hate to Write

Last time we talked about the reasons people don’t like to write.

Today, we’re going to talk about ways to help them.

  • Dictate into a recorder rather than typing. Maybe it’s the physical act of getting words out of your head and onto paper/screen that’s too intimidating. So just try doing it aloud. Countless famous writers in the history of the world have done this.
  • Imagine yourself talking to a friend, a client, or a student. Still having trouble getting the words to flow normally? Be conversational and try to think how you would tell this to someone who needs to know.
  • ACTUALLY talk to a friend, but record the session to transcribe later. (Bonus points if they can take dictation and do this for you.)
  • Take a notebook and go sit somewhere comfortable, away from the scary, empty computer screen. Sometimes just moving to a different, low-key environment helps creativity flow. Writers write in coffeehouses for a reason, you know, and it’s not just the copious amounts of caffeine. (Of course this assumes you’ll be able to read your handwriting later on)
  • Jot down notes to yourself in an email. This becomes no-pressure writing because you’re just electronically talking to yourself, but once you send the email, voila, you’ve got text that you can read and edit and tweak.
  • Get something, anything, down on the screen. Stilted phrases. Sentence fragments. Half-realized, wandering thoughts. Anything at all. Then walk away and don’t even look at it until tomorrow.
  • Then, after your writing has rested, go back and read your fragments, no matter how unstructured, and try to fill them out for people who don’t know as much as you do.
  • Ask a friend or family member to read your scribbles and make suggestions on how to fix them.
  • Pretend that everything is riding on this–your livelihood, your family, your home. If you don’t get this written, you’ll lose everything.The sun will cease to shine. Your life as you know it will end, so–you’ve GOT to do this.
  • Or, if that’s too much pressure (grin), Tell yourself that NOTHING is riding on this. You’re just idly passing the time, randomly putting words on a page just for the hell of it. No pressure.
  • Start a journal. I know. You’re having trouble writing the things you need to write and I’m suggesting a completely unnecessary journal of more writing. But, bear with me. Sometimes, all you need to do to be able to write is to PRACTICE writing. You know, somewhere it doesn’t matter in the least, and what you say doesn’t mean anything to anyone but you. The important thing is that you’ll start getting used to putting words on a page.
  • Start by describing something. What do you see outside your window? What color are the leaves? Really? Green? That’s the best you can do? What KIND of green? Are they all exactly the same color? Are they plush and healthy? Are they in direct sun so that they’re sparkling? Or in shadow? You can delete this later, but for now, just get your fingers and your brain moving.
  • Take typing lessons. Maybe part of your problem is that you don’t feel comfortable enough with a keyboard. Maybe you spend so much time hunt-and-pecking for the letters, your brain’s getting distracted by the mechanics of it. Try one of those typing-tutor programs. Even if you already know how to touch-type, you’ll improve your time and that never hurt anyone. Sometimes just getting used to hitting the keys is enough to segue from “asas asas adad adad afaf afaf agag agag” to real words.
  • Type randomly. Honestly, it doesn’t matter what you have to write. If you truly can’t get started, just type random gibberish and work on moving toward full, random sentences, and then into sentences on a topic (any topic), and then, when you’re ready, about whatever you actually should be writing in the first place. (Just, um, don’t forget to delete the gibberish later on.)

Okay … I’m tapped out. What suggestions do YOU have for people who don’t like to write, but have to?

There are People who Don’t Like to Write?

I’ve been told that there are people who don’t like to write.

I know. It was a shock to me, too.

I don’t mean that feeling that writers get when they can’t focus, or when they dread sitting down at their desks and come up with all sorts of other tasks that need to be done right this second in order to put off the inevitable. Word avoidance isn’t what I mean.

No, I’m talking about people who actually don’t like writing. At all. Any form of it. The kinds of people who can just about summon up the energy to write “Happy birthday. Love Dad” on your annual card. Or the people who write one line emails like, “I made reservations for dinner next Saturday,” and then sign it with their initials.

I’m not talking about a 15-year old, either, for whom you might be able to blame the texting thing–Kids These Days don’t know how to write full sentences, we’re told.

No, this not-liking-to-write avoidance transcends adolescence. It affects businessmen trying to write memos, mothers emailing teachers, bloggers struggling to post …

The irony is that, in this computer-driven world of ours, writing is more important than ever, and yet more and more people are completely tongue-tied when faced with a blank page (digital or otherwise).

So … what do you do?

As a person who loves words, loves writing, and (while able to procrastinate with the best of them) can usually find something to write down, it’s hard to comprehend how other people can’t summon up three consecutive sentences. For example, I might mention to, oh, my father, that I “only got 500 words written today,” and he’ll look at me speechlessly and say he can’t imagine writing that much in a month. Or, I’ll casually refer to my novel and its 90,000 words and he’ll tell me that he’s never written that many words in his life. The mere thought of being able to do so astounds him.

Now, my father (and other afflicted souls) have plenty to say. You can sit down and have lively conversations with them where they spread good advice, brilliant ideas, and generally interesting factoids about all sorts of subjects. Yet, when you say, “That’s great. You should write it down,” fear sets in.

I know, I know. Many people don’t like to read, so their familiarity with sentence structure may be weak. They not be facile with words because they’re mere nodding acquaintances. But then there are the people (like my father) who take weekly trips to the library to check out new books to read … and yet the idea of writing more than a sentence or two makes him dig in his heels and say, “I can’t!”

My question to you is … why? What makes this happen?

Next time … tips for these poor, lost individuals.

The Art and Craft of Fiction

“Those of us who have been writing
fiction for a long time know how easy it is
to get caught up in the act of writing,
in the characterizations, structure, descriptions,
dialog, polishing of language, and—that
most hair-rending of all issues—whether or not
it’s ever okay to use words ending in -ly.
We wrack our brains over this stuff.
We read intensely for hours on end, taking notes,
researching how the greats handled it.
We lie awake nights and weep…”

I’ve been reading since I was three (says my Mom), and writing for almost as long. I’ve got literally thousands of books on my bookshelves. I read about writing; I write about reading; and vice versa. I studied writing in college, and probably have too many books on writing since I should be, well, writing.

Yet, I’ve never read another book quite like Victoria Mixon‘s The Art and Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual. It’s like a Master’s class in fiction, all assembled inside one, handy-dandy cover (either electronic or paper).

This is not a book about punctuation or grammar. It’s not about the “rules” of writing. It’s not about the writer’s mindset, thought-processes, habits, or intentions. It doesn’t tell you how to write or how to find the time to write … though it touches on each of these.

What it does do, is tell you what you need to put together a well-crafted story that will hook your reader and drag them along for however long a journey you choose to take. It’s masterful in every sense of the word–because it is full of tips, tricks, secrets, and devices that belong to a true master.

“The only reason I know
for writing fiction is to tell stories.
And the only reason I know for
telling stories is the same as that for
telling jokes: to get to the punchline. …
The basic act of fiction is the art of telling a story.
You can—and will—spend far more hours
and energy on the craft of writing fiction
than you do on creating the story itself, but
the reason for writing a story remains the same: to tell it.”

Even those of us who live and breathe the written word, who pass our time going from story to story, can’t always grasp what makes some fiction sing and some fiction fall flat. We can tell when it works (hopefully), or when it doesn’t, but we can’t always put our finger on exactly what makes a seemingly well-crafted novel fail. Or why one that isn’t particularly well-written works anyway. I can listen to Mozart and know that I’m hearing a master, but I can’t tell you exactly what makes his chamber music so much better than Salieri’s. I can’t always specify what makes one author so much better than another–just that I know in my gut that it IS better.

That’s fine for a reader, but if you’re a writer, knowing the whys and wherefores is important. You might be lucky enough to throw together a masterful meal on your first trip into the kitchen, but if you want to write seriously, you’re going to need to be able to do it again and again and again … so you need to know HOW.

Well, Victoria Mixon does, and she graciously shares it with us. She not only points out what makes good writing GOOD, but she tells you how to do it yourself.

Again, I don’t mean that this is a normal writing book with general, good advice. There are lots of those (and you should read those, too). And while she does cover some of the nitty-gritty stuff like punctuation, and describing the difference between general editing and line editing, those are not the most valuable parts of the book.

This book tells you WHY one plot line works and another one doesn’t. It tells you how to make your characters breathe on the page–and how to keep your reader turning them. She explains the importance of plotting but not overthinking. The importance of having fun with your first draft, like when you were a kid and your imagination was untrammelled. She also stresses the importance of letting your manuscripts cool off between your first draft and your first re-read.

This book won’t automatically make you a better writer. It’s not filled with “Write Better Now” schemes, or a bullet-point list of things to do to make it to the bestseller list. Writing, good writing, is WORK, and you’re always going to have to work at it. But this book will tell you what to strive for.

“Never listen to anybody
who tells you not to love or hate anything
about your chosen art.
Love your work. Love every little bit of it you can.
Love the paper and pen nibs and keyboard,
love the punctuation and vocabulary and syntax,
love the alliterations and etymology and patois and
Great Vowel Shift of the fifteenth through eighteenth
centuries. Hate what really burns you up.
Throw yourself, like Camille, across the
fainting couch of literary aspirations.”

Better still, this book doesn’t read like some dry textbook. (Hence the scattered quotes through this review.) It’s lively and fun and brimming with life. Metaphors show off their colors, instructions are witty, and it ultimately feels like getting advice from your best, smarter-than-you friend.

“And this is why fiction is not just a craft, it is art.
Because art is about discovering the unknowable.
It’s about diving into that river of reality and fishing up
what you find, turning it in the sun to make the light
refract off it and show not just what it looks like,
but what it resembles, what it’s not, what it could be,
what it might be, what, in fact—in the alternate
universe in which we all simultaneously live
without even knowing it—it really is.

(In the interests of full disclaimer-ship, I will mention that this was a free review copy, but that does not change the fact that it blew me away.)

Want a look inside? Click here. Or go straight to Amazon.com and order a copy. It’s also available as an ebook PDF from Victoria’s site.

You won’t regret it.

It’s All About Being Positive

Do you love what you do?

I mean, sure, some people jump out of bed every morning, a happy whistle on their lips, in anticipation of the day of joy and satisfaction ahead of them. I think we can all agree that most (normal) people don’t do that.

Most people drag themselves out of bed at the last possible moment and trudge off to 8+ hours of drudgery, hating every moment.

Or, well, hopefully not MOST people.

Chances are, you come in somewhere in the middle. I know I do. I LIKE my day job. I like what I do, I like the people I work with, and I’m blessed with a 10-minute commute. I admit the idea of staying home with my dog on snowy, rainy, whatever- days is appealing, but getting out of the house for eight hours a day isn’t the most dreadful thing in the world.

I can’t help but wonder, though, why so many of us put up with jobs we hate. It’s a challenging economy, of course, and you need food in the pantry, clothing, heat, somewhere to live–all that. You can’t afford to give up a regular paycheck for a pipe dream. But still.

That old cliche “Life is too short” is true.

Very few of us have the luxury of spending our days lolling around by a pool, or curled up with a book for hours at a time. Unless there’s a sugar daddy involved, or some handy inherited wealth, we can’t afford it. So work is necessary.

But, that doesn’t mean we have to hate it?

Spending most of your time doing something you hate is simply unhealthy. It drags you down, raises your blood-pressure, and sends all kinds of negative vibes into the universe. So, what can you do?

  • Find a new job. This seems the most obvious answer. Even dishwashers can presumably find nicer, friendlier places to clean if their current job is horrible. In this economy, though, finding any job may be difficult.
  • Smile. Sometimes all you need to do to improve your relations with people is to smile at them. If you look pleasant and approachable, they’re less likely to be nasty.
  • The glass is half full. If you look at things from the right perspective (“At least I have a job; it pays the bills; it could be worse”), your dreadful job may not seem so dreadful.
  • Get a better attitude. It can all come down to attitude. If you schlump around with a dark cloud over your head, expecting the worst, you’re going to find the worst. I’m not talking that new-age stuff about the Theory of Attraction, here, just … you tend to get what you expect out of life. If you expect that every person you meet is going to be nasty and selfish, that’s all you’re going to see. You’ll then act accordingly and be selfish yourself which will put them in a nasty mood (even if they weren’t to begin with) and it all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Be positive. Like clicker-training for dogs, you can accent the good things just by acknowledging them. Did another driver let you merge in ahead of them? Did someone hold the door while your hands were full. Was the customer service rep on the phone helpful? Take note of the good things you see and ignore the bad ones.

What other suggestions have you got?

WWSD?*


I’ve been watching the BBC series of “Sherlock,” a modern update of the classic Holmes and Watson stories. (It’s fabulous, by the way.)

One of the hallmarks of the Sherlock Holmes character has always been his relative arrogance. He has such absolute confidence in his abilities and has such a hyper-observant way of viewing the world he simply notices things the rest of us miss–but can’t quite comprehend WHY we don’t see what he sees.

In one of the episodes, Sherlock makes a pronouncement to a room full of blank-faced stares and, in sheer disbelief that the solution is not obvious to everyone else, asks, “What must it be like in your funny little brains?”

I don’t know about you, but this is a question I’ve occasionally had myself. Not because I’m more brilliant than everyone else I know. (Quite the contrary!) But because nobody else THINKS in quite the same way I do, so there are things that are obvious to me that are mysteries to people I’m talking to.

We are all unique, of course, and while there are some things that are fairly obvious to everyone (“When you drop something, it falls to the floor.”), there’s a certain blend of brains, personality, experience, and awareness in each of us that cannot be exactly replicated.

I have a co-worker, who is a smart woman but clearly thinks in directions that are unique to her. As an example: a few years ago, one of our co-workers returned from paternity leave with a pile of photos of his newborn–you know the collection: baby with Mom, baby with Dad, baby with Grandma, and so on. Well, she looked at the pictures and asked, “How many babies were there?” She just assumed that each photo was of different kids. This is an intelligent woman, she just looks at the world in a unique way.

This is one of the things I love about writing.

If I’m writing fiction, I get the opportunity to (try to) explore the way other people think and react to situations–and sometimes the hardest part is dealing with a character fundamentally NOT like me. If being charged by a bull, I’d dive to the side and try to get out of the way, but what if my character would grab a chair and attack the bull? Clearly he doesn’t think like I do, but he’s going to be fun to get to know.

If I’m writing non-fiction, differently-thinking people provide a different challenge–that of getting my message across to people who may think more emotionally, less logically than I do.

Have you ever tried to explain something to a friend until you finally give up because, no matter how many times you try to say, “I turned right because it was the shortest route,” they keep saying things like, “But why wouldn’t you go straight?” Sometimes explaining things is the hardest thing in the world because what’s crystal clear to you is obscure to the other person.

So, the trick … and it’s a hard one … is to put yourself in their place.

  • Are you a super-genious to whom everything is clear? Slow yourself (or at least your explanations) down so the poor, normal folks can keep up.
  • Are you eminently logical but talking to a group beset with emotions (like, say, sleep-deprived new parents)? Force yourself to remember that all they want is to get some sleep–they don’t need to know the scientific reasons for the baby crying, they just want it to STOP.
  • Are you good at mechanics? Excellent–you can break those “how to” instructions down into individual steps, but don’t assume that your readers will know what a flange is if you don’t tell them.
  • Are you sympathetic and deeply compassionate? Just remember that the CEOs reading your brochure pay attention to the bottom line and stories about abandoned puppies might not have the same affect as a statistic about how much stray animals cost the town.

Nobody thinks exactly like you do.

This is both your challenge and your greatest gift.

*WWSD: What would Sherlock do?

Grammar Day!

It’s National Grammar Day. How are you going to celebrate?

  • Turn all the extra apostrophes you find into little winky emoticons.
  • Parrot back the word “like” whenever it gets misused in sentence (“like, you know, a Valley girl).
  • Carry your blue pencil with you so you can correct incorrect commas.
  • Say “Whom” with your most snooty, nose-up-in-the-air kind of voice everytime someones uses “who” instead.
  • Leave comments at all the blogs that incorrectly capitalize their post titles.
  • Wear your “It’s/Its, Your/You’re, There/Their/They’re” t-shirt everywhere you go.
  • Mentally correct all the radio and television commentators who speak badly during their broadcasts.
  • Curl up in a cozy chair with your favorite grammar book
  • Sing the song.
  • Link back to our Mangled Monday features to help out your grammatically-needy friends.

Or, do you have some other festivities planned?

And the winner is…

Thanks to the handy-dandy random number generator (known to my friend Jenny as “Randy”) … comment #10 wins!

sprite

I love reading interviews with people that actually make me feel like they’d be interesting to talk with. Thanks for asking great questions, Deb!

So, Sprite, come on down and claim your prize!

(Or, well, you know, you could just send me your name and address and I’ll send it to you.)

And, if you didn’t win, don’t forget you can buy your own copy of Sara’s “Learning to Swim” this week! In fact, I recommend it! I know I can’t wait for my own copy to arrive.

Sara, thanks for the interview and for offering the ARC of your book (that I got to read in advance).

And thank you all so much for playing. Now, hie you to your nearest bookstore-slash-website and get yourself a copy.

Interview with Sara J Henry–And a Chance to Win!

Welcome, Sara! I’m so excited to have you here—not least because I’ve been looking forward to your book for months, and I’m delighted for your sake that it’s finally here.

Q: If I’m this excited, how must you be feeling about your first book being published? Are you going to haunt your local bookstore on publication day? (February 22nd)

A: Nope, I’m going to be in New York, getting ready to launch at Partners & Crime in Greenwich Village on Feb. 23! (Anyone in New York, come on down.)

Q: The advance press has been almost overwhelmingly on the “we love it” side—does this make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, or is it somehow intimidating?

A: It is an indescribably odd feeling.

Q: How do you describe your book when people ask?

A: I see agents who emphasize learning to “pitch” and conferences with “pitch sessions” and I can tell you if my career depended on me pitching my book to someone, I’d be in trouble. Once a writer asked me what my logline was and I looked blankly at Janet Reid (the beloved Query Shark agent) sitting beside me, and she, having read the book a year earlier, promptly impressed the heck out of me by rattling off a cogent and coherent description. If I absolutely had to, I would mumble something about a woman on a big ferry on a huge lake seeing a small boy plummet off a deck of the opposite ferry, rescuing him, and discovering he speaks only French and was thrown off the ferry to drown. But honestly, Janet did it much better.

Q: Your main character, Troy Chance, is wonderful—independent, athletic, puzzle-solving—how much is she like you?

A: See, this is the question I can’t answer, because if I say she’s a lot like me, it seems I don’t have enough imagination to create a main character out of thin air. But if I say she isn’t at all like me – I’m lying.

Q: Was Troy your favorite character to write?

A: Oddly, I think Jameson was. He was the character who sprang fully formed on the page, and said just what he wanted to say when he said it. I seemed to have very little to do with it.

Q: I was impressed with how well Troy handles speaking French to a frightened little boy. (I’m guessing her high school was better at teaching it than mine was, or that she worked harder at it.) How well do you speak French?

A: Realistically, Troy’s French would have been clumsier (although she had been practicing with those Pimsleur CDs, which are marvelous), but the problem with writing faulty French is that readers who understand French will deluge you with emails complaining about mistakes. So while Troy may not have idioms right, her French is reasonably accurate. And I speak enough to bumble around France.

Q: Do you have a favorite scene or chapter in the book? One that was the most fun to write, maybe?

A: Yes, probably two – they both give me chills whenever I read them. Which I know seems odd, considering I wrote them. (When readers hit them, they’ll know: near the ends of Part 1 and Part 3.)

Q: One of the (stellar) blurbs at Amazon.com refers to this as “the first in a projected series.” Does that mean we’ll get more of Troy’s story? Or is your next book about something else altogether?

A: It’s a series, for sure – I’m finishing the sequel now, and have mentally roughed out books 3 and 4.

Q: I pretty much read the entire book in one, big gulp. As a writer, which do you prefer—a reader who devours the whole thing at once, or a reader who takes her time and savors every hard-written word? (And, no cheating and saying you’re happy just to have readers.)

A: I honestly don’t care how people like to read – of course it’s nice to hear back quickly from someone whom I know read the book.

Q: And the follow-up—when you read, which extreme do you lean toward? Devouring or savoring?

A: I read fast, even when I read slowly. My father showed me the basics of speed reading when I was small. I suppose I devour and savor at the same time.

Q: In general, what kind of books do you best like to read? Favorite authors? (I’m always looking for recommendations.)

A: I like books with realistic inner dialogue and strong characterization, and I tend to lean toward somewhat quirky books. Two favorites this year are by personal friends: A.S. King and Reed Farrel Coleman, PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ and INNOCENT MONSTER. I adored THE MEMORY OF RUNNING by Ron McLarty; I recently read and loved FALLING UNDER by Danielle Younge-Ullman; I’m mad about the new series by Jodi Compton, who shares an agent with me (clearly my agent has wonderful taste) and a book called BENIGHTED by Kit Whitfield, and I read everything by my Australian friend Michael Robotham. Oh, and Daniel Woodrell, who is simply brilliant. Start with WINTER’S BONE, and don’t stop.

Q: According to the book jacket, you’ve had a variety of different kinds of jobs. What has been the most interesting job you’ve had—and would you ever want to go back to it?

A: I loved being a sports editor. I did everything: interview Gordie Howe, photograph community softball games, watch Mike Tyson fight, cover Olympic kayakers, freeze my rear end off at ski jump events. What I loved most was the passion of the athletes and the community spirit of these small towns – but I’d never go back: it was exhausting and round-the-clock work. If I had time, I’d still be a bicycle mechanic part time – I do love working on bicycles.

Q: Your favorite part about being a writer?

A: Not having to sit in an office 9 to 5 all day or wear decent clothes.

Q: I love your living-in-Vermont stories on your blog. What’s your favorite part of living there? Least favorite?

A: My favorite part is probably that I can wear my torn overalls to the grocery store, and no one blinks – and of course going down to the river in the summer time. Least favorite is how often the power goes out – sometimes for days. I will probably always hoard food and water and batteries, and keep flashlights and lanterns scattered about, with the power company’s phone number inscribed near every phone. Although I’m hoping to put in a back-up generator.

Q: Pets? My dog Chappy always loves hearing about people’s pets and insisted I ask.

A: Emma, age 14, golden retriever/Lab/greyhound; Lucy, 12, Australian cattle dog/Australian shepherd; Bridget, 10, Australian cattle dog; Monty, age unknown, but maybe 6, an affectionate but somewhat OCD Newfie mix. Yes, this is far too many dogs. Yes, I think it’s ridiculous to allow dogs on furniture. Unfortunately, they don’t.

Q: Because I also write a knitting blog, I have to ask: Do you knit or do any kind of crafts?

A: Ha! I have a very crafty sister who can knit, crochet, weave, make jewelry – and who makes her own yarn and strips pieces of wood off trees and quills off porcupines (deceased ones only, as far as I know) to make intricate and lovely baskets. Me, I’d rather scrub a floor with a toothbrush. My dad showed me how to knit, and I like the rhythm of it and the click of the needles, but don’t have the interest to actually do it (sorry). I like painting walls, and I’m an ace with a spackling knife.

Q: What’s one skill you wish you had? Aeronautic ski-jumping? Perfect hair styling? Chandelier repair?

A: Wiring – I think I’d like to be able to do electrical work.

Q: What’s one thing you would say to a new writer?

A: Learn to rewrite and revise.

Q: If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

A: To be able to stop people being mean to their children. Or spoiling them abysmally.

Q: Favorite breakfast food? (Hey, it’s the most important meal of the day.)

A: Rice and black beans.

Sara J. Henry has been a soil scientist, sports writer, correspondent writing school instructor, book editor, freelance writer, magazine editor, bicycle mechanic, and webmaster. Her first novel, Learning to Swim, has been called “emotional, intense, and engrossing” by Lisa Unger and “an auspicious debut” by Daniel Woodrell. It’s available for pre-order and will be in stores Feb. 22 – you can read the first chapter here.

To be eligible to win a signed copy of her book, just leave a comment on this post!

The deadline for entries will be in one week, so be sure to comment before next Wednesday!

Conversation with My Computer

(Scene opens to show Deb curled up in a red chair, eyes on the book in her lap.)

COMPUTER: Psst. Deb! Over here!

DEB: What? I’m reading.

COMPUTER: But you haven’t written anything in days.

DEB: Sure I have. Don’t you remember that email? And I wrote a couple posts on Ravelry. Now, be quiet. This is a good part.

COMPUTER: But what about your blog posts?

DEB: Oh, blog readers are patient. They don’t expect a post every day, or anything.

COMPUTER: No, but one a week isn’t too much to ask. And, what about your book?

DEB: Yes, I’m trying to read my book, and this is a crucial scene, so if you wouldn’t mind….

COMPUTER: Not that book. The one you’re writing. Sara and Adam trying to build an orphanage/school during WWI, all while Sara keeps a deep dark secret from Adam about his father?

DEB: I got stuck on the timeline and haven’t found the time to work it out. But it’s 1917, a gentler time. There’s really no rush. It’s not like I’ve found a publisher for the first book, after all, so nobody knows who Sara and Adam ARE yet, anyway.

COMPUTER: Yeah … that’s another thing. If you don’t send out queries and find an agent, how will anybody know about the widow and orphan who survived the Titanic disaster and decided they wanted to become their own family?

DEB: Nag, nag. You just want to torture me and make my eyes hurt looking at your screen for another several hours. Didn’t I just spend 8 hours on my computer at the day job? Don’t I deserve a break? My eyes are killing me and reading is just what they need.

COMPUTER: That’s what touch-typing is for, Deb. Now put the book down and get over here.

DEB: I suppose I could see what’s happening on Twitter….

COMPUTER: Oy.

Using Grammar and Good Manners to Save Civilization, One Punctuation Mark at a Time.