Category Archives: Opinion



In the telling of lives, writers may choose any number of forms: biography, autobiography/memoir and fictionalized biography/autobiography.  My recent readings included one of each type.  Max Perkins; Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg is a biography I first read when it came out in the late 1970’s and reread this spring.  Emily Hahn wrote for The New Yorker for a period spanning the late 1920’s into the 1990’s; a prolific writer, she wrote various autobiographies, including No Hurry to Get Home. Much historical fiction takes the form of fictional biography or autobiography and Jane Kirkpatrick has often written of the lesser known heroines of the American West, including Clara Estby of The Daughter’s Walk.

 One reviewer of Max Perkins complained that there was not enough about Max’s personal life in the book. I didn’t find that to be the case for the other part of the title is Editor of Genius. This indicates the focus will be on the man’s work-life and, in this case, that of a workaholic. Max Perkins nurtured, financially supported and coached or coerced some of the greatest writers of the 1920’s through the 1940’s in producing their memorable works.  His “stable of writers” at Charles Scribners’s Sons continues to impress with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Edmund Wilson.

Perkins had a strong sense of each author’s quality and gifts; he worked hard to bring their best into the light. The editor would travel to Europe, the Florida Keys, California or wherever his writer of current concern could be found. He’d help Fitzgerald have Zelda admitted to care, make loans out of his own or Scribners’s purse, and talk of the WIP (work in progress) to encourage changes he deemed necessary. Cajoling a reluctant Tom Wolfe to produce, to edit, to eliminate often meant seeking him out in a NYC London or Parisian garret and walking long miles in the dead of night with the “lone wolf.”

 While Max’s family of five daughters and his would-be-actress wife (she promised not to act when they married) went to upstate New York in the summers, Max seldom joined them. He worked long hours, often well into the night at his office, or read manuscripts on the train and over his weekend. When Hemingway finally induced Max to join him in deep-sea fishing, he loved it but fretted if he was away more than four or five days.

 Tireless, committed to excellent writing and loyal to his writers, Max Perkins showed genius in his choice of authors to bring into the company and in his intense work with them. We will not see the likes of Max Perkins again in this dramatically changing era of book writing and selling.

Scott Berg has done all readers and writers a great service in this greatly detailed and extensively researched volume. He writes beautifully as he wends his way through the life of Max Perkins: Editor of Genius and the lives of his writers.



Filed under Opinion, Writing



In recent weeks I lost it. That yen to write, revise, or theorize went out the window and into the gutter. Several things brought this about and so, you see, I know the sources. If I knew them, why couldn’t I just jump over them and get with it, you ask? The sources of my freeze-up were devastating one-by-one but, in combination, they were deadly. It all resulted in what blogger Linda Formicelli (The Renegade Writer) calls “analysis-paralysis.”

What a great term that is! The more I tried to talk myself out of the condition, the more paralyzed I became. And more mis-speaks, typos and avoidances grew in number and volume until I wrote not at all. No journaling where I might have worked through the problem, little facebooking, no work on my latest editing task, and no blog.

Deserting the blog made me feel guilty, but not enough to put me back to work. It has taken me until now to see my way clear to connect with you again. I knew I wanted to write about this pervasive form of writer’s block. I’d come to blocks before in my fiction writing or in my social work report writing, but I’d never been so totally blocked. I forced myself to try to write but it just wouldn’t flow and so I set it aside once again.

My editor proposed a major (to me) re-structuring of my novel, Huachuca Woman, that had me gnawing on a subconscious bone for two weeks. Finally, the light bulb of resolution came on and stayed on. I dedicated Easter weekend to revision and got the work done to great satisfaction. I also made a list of twelve questions to put to my editor for our meeting last Thursday. That session was very powerful in re-charging my writing batteries. That’s when I tried the aborted blog entry.

This past Sunday afternoon I attended *Marlene Cullen’s session on Writing and Art Collage and found doors and windows opening to my imagination. The first two hours were spent writing of life issues and a little sharing. Mostly, this was private writing, not given to sharing. The last two hours were dedicated to collage and what a wealth of material Marlene provided! My collage evolved in unexpected ways, showing the evolution of womanhood from the little girl sitting in a hammock with her doll to the myriad choices open to her. Perfect lines jumped up from a magazine: “Life isn’t about finding yourself; Life is about creating yourself” (anonymous) and “Dreams fulfilled…Exploring, challenging, learning.” (anon)

The next day, I started a contemporary love story of middle age. It came, in part, from personal experience and from a recent dream. My critique group loved it…but could still offer up suggestions and corrections. It was wonderful to have the words flow again. They also said I should do more art collage.

Here I am today, back on track and telling you of my bout with “analysis-paralysis” and how I got out of it.

*Marlene has many irons in her fire of help to writers. Check her out at

What do you do when your creativity takes a dive?

 Have you ever been so totally blocked as I described?


Filed under Opinion, Writing



The 2011 National Poetry Month poster designed by Stephen Doyle.

The Academy of American Poets ( instituted National Poetry Month in 1996 to encourage the love of poetry among Americans. Each year a designer is asked to contribute a poster to the celebration and this year it was Stephen Doyle whose work is seen here. The quote “Bright objects hypnotize the mind” is from the poem “A Word with You” by Elizabeth Bishop. Go to the website to see what Doyle has to say about the poet and her work as it inspired his design…”illuminating.”

“Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands…”  may be the most “memorable” of Longfellow’s poems simply because of the numbers of schoolchildren made to memorize it. Was it your first poem?  Probably not.  After all, our nursery rhymes and prayers were poetry.                         

Now I lay me down to sleep,   

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.                                                                  


                                                                                      Mary, had a little Lamb,

                                                                                       Its fleece was white as snow.

                                                                                        Everywhere that Mary went,

                                                                                         The Lamb was sure to go.

 As we grew, the most dominant exposure to poetry probably shifted to the songs of our teen years, whenever that was.  Words of love, imagined, lost or savored, reflected the angst of our age and our emotional state. In thrall, we may have composed sonnets or dedicated words to our love, or poured out our misery when denied.  We use poetry in our commitment ceremonies, in remembrances, and in greeting cards. Poetry surrounds us in advertisements, music and, increasingly, on the printed and on-line page. The quality varies, as does the form, style and impact.

 Chapbooks are thriving, perhaps as never before. Workshops on form and arousing the muse are more frequent. Writers who may never have tried poetry find themselves delving into the process. Haiku, story-poems, sonnets, rhyming or non-rhyming forms, epics or free verse are finding their audiences in readings, newsletters, chapbooks and larger tomes

For me, poetry is becoming more and more important as an expression and examination of mood, feelings, incidents and the complexities of life.





Filed under Opinion, Poetry, Writing


In last’s week’s post on novel beginnings, I cited Noah Lukeman’s First Five Pages and Les Edgerton’s Hooked. So, what did they do in their final lines? They sent us back to our drawing boards (aka writing tools.) 

     Lukeman:  “Ask yourself what you would do if you knew you would never be published. Would you still write? If you are truly writing for the art of it, the answer will be yes. And then, every word is a victory. 

     Edgerton:      “Play the game forward. I’ll be looking for you on the bookshelves.”

 These are what might be seen as “optimistic” or happy endings. They leave the reader satisfied, pleased and glad that s/he read the work.

 Glen C. Strathy on his blog: How to Write a Book Now offers up an analysis of endings, suggesting they begin at the beginning with the writer’s choice of story goal and outcome:

“Based on these two choices – outcome and judgment, the four possible endings of any novel plot are as follows.

1. Comedy (happy ending): the protagonist achieves the goal or solves the problem, and his success turns out to be a good thing.

2. Tragedy: the protagonist fails to achieve the goal, and his failure is a bad thing.

3. Tragi-comedy (Personal Triumph): the protagonist fails to achieve the goal, but his failure turns out to be a good thing.

4. Comi-tragedy (Personal Tragedy): the protagonist achieves his goal, but his success turns out to be a bad thing.”

Other writers, other analyses:

Linda Lindsey via Sheryl Tuttle’s blog: Hope and Faith, May 26, 2009:

  1. Explicit-all is answered
  2. Implicit-rests on interpretation
  3. Twist-new revelation
  4. Tie-back-tied to clues planted in the beginning
  5. Unresolved-main conflicts left unanswered
  6. Longview-tells the future of the characters

In combing the works of my favored, traditional writing teachers (Natalie Goldberg, Oakley Hall, John Gardner, etc) I found little that covered endings. Okay, stronger than “little.” I found nothing. Is that because they expect that endings take care of themselves if the writer has done their job? Quite likely. To follow Strathy’s paradigm, it seems transparent that the ending will take care of itself when the writer follows the goals of the novel as developed through plot, character, story arc, etc.

Looking at the novelists I referred to last time, there are some illuminating endings:

 Harper Lee, in To Kill a Mockingbird comes full circle when the book ends with Jem’s broken arm:

     “He(Atticus) turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the   morning.”

Atticus, the dutiful citizen/lawyer is ever the dutiful father burdened in the belief he brought on Jem’s injury in going after racist/child abuser Ewell, whose end comes at the hands of an uncommon hero.

In Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the story that started with references to “rivulet marks” as the drought builds concludes with a major flood of the migrant campground, taking lives and belongings. Seeking refuge in a barn, the Joads find the starving man whose life is saved by Rose of Sharon when she offers her milk-giving breast after the stillbirth of her child. It is an ending that stirred controversy from 1939 to this day.  Even the author had his doubts:

            John Steinbeck, Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath, page 90  had this to say:

            “My mind doesn’t want to work—hates to work in fact, but I’ll make it. I’m on my very last chapter now. The very last….the last scene that has been ready so long. I don’t know. I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes.”

 Then, there’s Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian whose poetic repetitive style was noted in last week’s beginnings. In the final paragraph (pre-Epilogue,) the judge dances the dance of death or is it life? A threesome of repetitive words provides the beat, the cadence of a heart throbbing to hear itself:

            “He never sleeps. He says he will never die.” ..and so he dances on.

 It’s your call to categorize these endings by whatever standard appeals to you. Mine: they end as they began, full of promise.

 Sonoma County writers take notice:Saturday, March 12, 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Join Guy Biederman and Ken Rodgers for a one-day writing seminar, “Endings.” Suggested fee is $75.To enroll, contact Guy Biederman at or 707-292-9040 707-292-9040, or Ken Rodgers at


Filed under Opinion, Writing


Whole books are written about the first lines or first pages which must capture the agent, editor or reader’s imagination, heart, or attention. Noah Lukeman did it in January 2005 with The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile.  Then, in April 2007, Les Edgerton published Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go. Both books soared to success among writers, editors and agents and continue to be  widely recommended. In each, the goal is clear: don’t screw up your chances by shooting-yourself-in-the-foot with grammatical mistakes, spelling errors, poor imagery, or unimaginative writing on those first lines or pages. Each author makes recommendations, gives illustrations and attempts to inspire us to better writing from that first sentence.

So, how do Lukeman and Edgerton start their books? What are their first lines?

Lukeman: “Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It’s ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art.”

Edgerton: “Why a book on just story beginnings? The simple truth is, if your beginning doesn’t do the job it needs to, the rest of the story most likely won’t be read by the agent or editor or publisher you submit it to.”

And so, they caught agents, editors and publishers with their openings.

 This sort of observation is usually followed by examples from Great Literature of profound, exciting or just plain noteworthy beginnings:

        Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his arm.”

Lee goes on to tie the broken arm to the children’s recall of “when things started,” setting the tone and time of the story in our imaginings.

       John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath: “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.”

Steinbeck draws vivid word pictures of the advancing drought and how it will impact the families in its wake, not the least of which is the tragically flawed Joad family.    

       Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: “See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves.”

 McCarthy potently uses repetitive language to engage the emotions: “pale and thin…thin and ragged linen shirt…rags of snow.” We are there with that child…and so is the agent, editor, publisher and reader.

Clearly, Lukeman and Edgerton are on to something…as are these classic writers.  How about your first lines and pages? Do they ring with imagery, set the tone of your work, show us the beginnings of your world?  Do you lasso us with emotion, show us your character, plunk us right into the action? You might check the books on your shelves or the manuscripts in your computer and see what you find in those first sentences.

I cut my first chapter out of BY GRACE a few years ago when an agent complained about the length of the mss. My “Max Perkins” of an editor(real name, Marlene Cullen) recently convinced me to restore those pages for they set the tone, showed the character and her important back story in a way that had gone missing in the modified work. The importance of finding the right first lines and pages was underscored for me.

 And what about the final words of the book? What of their function? Do they “sum it up?” Entice us to look/wish for the sequel? Leave us dissatisfied, annoyed or unresolved?

I’ll take a look at “endings” at another time.


Filed under Opinion, Writing


Writing gurus have said over the years, “write what you love and love what you write.”  That comes easily for me for Historical Fiction is what I read and write. Of course I depart on both counts from time to time. I love a good mystery/suspense/adventure story or a biography, usually of  a writer.  Then, there are the mainstream novels I should read but barely get to a smidgen of them. Since this is my Blog, from time to time, I will share with you my impressions of books I read.  Today, it is a batch of historicals.

Child of the Northern Spring: Book One of the Guinevere Trilogy (Paperback) published (re-issue) 2010 by Sourcebooks, 545 pages

Persia Woolley has walked the walk in her research on King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere. She brings the times (6th century Britain) alive with poetical visions and imaginings of the people and characters of Camelot and its origins. Accurate in detail and filled with the tone, habits and customs of the day, we are thrust back into an historical time coated with mystery and mythology. More than this, Woolley develops stories of what might have been the early lives of Guinevere and Arthur, drawing on legend, history and extrapolations of her imagination. The characters come alive as people with strong feelings, dreams and hopes…and flaws. The reader is granted a glimpse into the strife, political and religious, that was the emergence of a united Britain. Woolley is, indeed, a gifted writer and Arthurian specialist. Sourcebooks is to be commended for re-issuing this wonderful trilogy.

Dina’s Lost Tribe (Paperback) published 2010 by iUniverse, 402 pages

Brigitte Goldstein holds a PhD in history and I am tempted to say it doesn’t show; by that I mean that her story is not a thesis, a lecture or dry accounting. It abounds with heart and the lyricism of poetry. The story is complex, weaving its way from the 13th to the 20th centuries. A secret village and culture hidden in the Pyrenees for centuries is gradually brought to light through the codes of its founder and the interpretations and fears of its successors. When historian Nina Aschauer seeks her mysterious birthplace, she meets the love of her life and fades from view. On finding Dina’s codex, Nina enlists the help of her scholarly friend Etoile and cousin Henner. The unraveling begins. Rich in the history of Judaism and of French culture, Dina’s Lost Tribe offers a unique worldview from an author well-versed in both…and captivating adventures well-told.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany (Hardback) published 2011 by Random House, 397 pages

Susan Vreeland gained access to a treasure trove of Clara Driscoll’s letters that reveal a 21st century truth about a 19-20th century icon. The amazing output of work that came from the Louis Comfort Tiffany studios nearly always carried his name with seldom a nod to other designers. The letters to her family came to light in 2005 and, with them, Clara Driscoll’s design history of Tiffany lamps and windows emerged. Vreeland has drawn a dynamic sketch of Clara, her loves, her skills and her turmoil. As she leads the Women’s Department strike for equity of wages with the Men, she is magnificent.  In love, she is tragic and vulnerable. In dealings with the genius who is her boss, she is both timid and brave. The book coats a vivid picture of the times as well as the characters.

The Shanghai Girls (Paperback) published 2010 by Random House, 314 pages

Lisa See writes passionately of her Chinese heritage no matter the era or place. In this, perhaps the darkest of her books, we see two sisters mired in the falsity of the glittering life that was Shanghai of the 1930’s. As “beautiful girls,” they are ill-prepared for their father’s fall into ruin or the invasion of the Japanese army; their arranged marriages to two “American-Chinese” helps them in their flight but confounds them in their new reality that is Angel Island and Los Angeles. This is a book of relationships, the ins, outs and twists of sisterhood, parenthood, marriage and extended family. As the book draws to a close, the sisterhood that has dominated the story evolves into a new understanding and depth. Can a sequel be far behind, one that marks the return to 1970’s China?

All of these books are available through Amazon or your favorite independent bookstore.


Filed under Historical Fiction, Opinion