Brain Dead

Outtakes 147

Brain Dead
By Cait Collins

There are just some days that kill every brain cell in your head. I’ve spent the last two days doing prep work. In other words I sort the correspondence requests that come into our work list. My favorite expression has been, “Whaaaaat?” In other words who wrote this and what were they thinking? I love my job and the various aspects of the position, but I haven’t written a letter in two days.

The letter writing and researching are my favorite parts of the job. Digging for what happened, why it happened and then preparing the response are a pleasure. Sometimes its like working a puzzle, and then there are the days when every request is simple and done in a few minutes. The length of time required to assist the client is not important. Helping the client and making him happy is the real purpose of the job.

Pleasing our readers is much the same as responding to a client request. We take the time to research, plot, plan, write, edit, and polish until we produce a story, a novel, a press release, or a marketing plan that meets the needs of the reader. Knowing that we’ve done our jobs well is a reward in its self. But the financial rewards and recognitions don’t hurt at all.

Foundation and Details

Foundation and Details

By Rory C. Keel

In the past I have been involved in planning and building a new facility for the church where I attend. In the planning, every aspect of the building has a purpose. The measurements of the foundation are laid out on paper and then the details are considered, what color of paint, what kind of flooring? Will the congregation be comfortable with the seating? What about sound quality? What happens in an emergency? Is the lighting adequate? The list seems endless.

The day came when the project started and the foundation was poured. At the end of that first day, I stood gazing at a slab of concrete that didn’t come close to looking as large as I had imagined. My mind said something’s wrong! The plans confirmed the size was correct!

Every day since, I have watched as each wall was raised and the roof now appears atop the building, and my perspective has changed. The building has been transferred from ink on paper, to a multi-dimensional object that better fits the concept I had imagined.

As a writer, a similar process takes place, only we use words as the building materials. We hold a story concept in mind with all of its grandeur and we begin to write, one page then two, our mind says something is wrong! What we see doesn’t look like what we have imagined, so we wad the paper up or hit delete.

The story doesn’t look like the grand story in your head, because it isn’t finished!

Don’t give up too quickly, create an outline, the foundation, and then build your story by filling in the blanks with the details.

Writers and Their Many Lives

Writers and Their Many Lives

By Natalie Bright

As I waited for our Dairy Queen order, I checked my iPhone calendar. Today, Monday, deliver lunch to my husband who was tending to cattle. I’ll hop a ride with him while he makes his afternoon rounds keeping watch for spring photo opportunities.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, it’s back to the day job office. I’d wear my best speaker suit and heels for a lunch at an exclusive dinner club in downtown Amarillo to talk about children’s literature with a group of retired educators. I am looking forward to what I feel sure will be a lively discussion.

What a contrast. Today I watched a newborn calf on wobbly legs take his first taste of warm milk. Tomorrow I’d be peering down at the streets of the city from the 30th floor of a high rise office building.

A Writer’s Path

A friend and author of 37 books, Jodi Thomas, warned me that if I took the writer’s path I’d be living several lives. I realize now that she didn’t just mean the stories inside my head.

The writing part of your life is nothing like the living part of your life, although there are some who seem to manage the chaos. For most of us families and day jobs are detached from prose and publishing. Add to that marketing, promotion, social media, conferences, networking, and whatever else it takes to achieve our dreams of becoming a successful author. Families have no idea what we do.

There too is the world inside our heads. On some days I feel like the stories choose me and I am powerless to control the process. To successfully convey that world on to a blank page, writers must immerse them selves in the fictional existence of our imagination. If it’s believable and real to us, we hope it will be the same for our readers.

My life seems so jammed packed, and when I can’t imagine taking on one more task, I’ll say yes to chairing a committee or volunteering for the book fair at my son’s school. When I’m busiest shuttling kids and juggling appointments, a new character will shoot in my brain like a firework and I’m scrambling to find a blank page and a pen.

Live in the Moment

As I jotted notes for this blog on a crumpled piece of paper, I paused to watch a jumble of calves run away at the sound of the feed truck. They bumped and tottered across the pasture, stopping to catch their breath only to realize their mommas were nowhere close. They turned and made a beeline back towards the herd. We laughed at their shaky legs and cute faces. Today was full of greasy burgers and cloudy skies and endless pastures. New life running full tilt.

Tomorrow will be completely different.

“They’re thinking it’s a great day to be in the world,” my husband said.

Yes. It certainly is. It’s a great day to be in the world, no matter how many worlds or lives or careers you might have. We make it through whatever this day might bring, and then we can be somebody totally different tomorrow. And the cool part is we can write about it all.

Being a writer is never dull.

Studying a Tableau



Studying a Tableau

By Nandy Ekle


I sat in a drawing class one semester with a deaf student taking notes. The instructor had covered a table with a cloth and then laid out several random objects. There was an old shoe, a cow skull, several empty wine bottles—some standing up and some laying on their sides—and little flowers strewn around. The students were told to draw what they saw and show the relationship between each object.

In a way, we writers do the same thing. Our eyes take pictures of a group of objects, then store them away. We boot up the computer and transfer what we saw onto our word processors. Then we illustrate the relationship between each thing.

We may see a unique cloud in the sky, a broken shoe string on the parking lot, a dead bug in the grass, and a penny on a rock in the middle of a puddle of water. For some reason our brain holds on to these pictures. We describe the changing shape of the cloud as it morphs from a sheep to an alligator. Maybe the string began its life as a functional length of woven cotton, but has now become an abused cast off to be tossed into the trash can. Suppose the dead bug was on her way home to a nest of little larvae, bringing a couple of bread crumbs home to the hungry mouths before it was stepped on. And perhaps the penny was tossed to the middle of the rock by an angry man whose lunch hour was over before he could eat his sandwich because the soda jerk who took his money forgot how to count change back.

Or maybe there was some huge event that occurred that caused the cloud to ruffle its billows as the shoe lace fell from the shoe while the kid ran for cover and accidentally stepped on the bug with one foot while the other foot kicked a penny which landed right on the center of the rock in the middle of the puddle.

What do you think?

Congratulations. You have just received a post card from the muse.

Say It Better

Outtakes 146


Say It Better

By Cait Collins


I love finding snappy phrases. They make the author and the story really stand out. One I read recently got to me. “The memory was frozen in amber.” What a picture. I could imagine the image of the man she loved encased forever in the translucent stone. My niece gave me another wonderful image in describing a teenage facial expression. “Her eyes rolled so far back in her head she could see her brain.” I will find a place in a story for that one.

So many times we fall back on the same old phrases instead of looking for the unique. A writer should go for something different. Instead of referring to a kiss as hotter than a fire cracker on the fourth of July, why not say it was hotter than Mt. Etna in full eruption? Better yet, replace those trite statements with bold action verbs. Strong verbs replace adverbs and adverb phrases. They make the story tighter, crisper.

Just for the fun of it, come up with a list of well used phrases and rewrite them. For example, find another way to say “fit to be tied, at wits end, and chomping at the bit”. Romance writers should come up with new phrases for “melted at his touch, set afire by the smoldering look in his eyes, and drawn like a moth to a flame.”

Stephen King is a master with description. Read his depiction of the cellar in IT. I could smell it, taste it, and feel it. It terrified me to the point I could not enter a basement for months. Good descriptive phrases, strong verbs, and catchy sayings only enhance the story we are telling. It’s worth the extra effort to say it better.

Thumbs Up Huskies!

Thumbs Up Huskies!

By Rory C. Keel

I had a wonderful time speaking to the 3rd and 4th grade classes at the Henry W. Sory Elementary School in Sherman, Texas. The students were fantastic and super polite.

Thanks to all the teachers who have worked so hard to instruct and encourage the students to excel in reading and writing.

A special thanks to Ginger White, the Assistant Principal, for inviting me to come and share some of my writing motivations and the book that inspired me to read. I enjoyed reading my story, The Challenge published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Writers book and hope someone will be encouraged to be a writer.

I know that the Sory Huskies always do their best!



First Chapters

First Chapters

Natalie Bright


First chapters are important for various reasons, with the main one being you want readers to keep reading. You get one chance to establish a connection through empathy for a character or a curiosity of what happens next. Hopefully you’ll hold the reader through that first chapter and then they can’t help but go on to the next.

For children’s writers, we’re talking a few lines. An elementary school librarian told me that her kids read the first 5 to 6 lines and then say, “I don’t like it.” That’s tough for authors.

NO Second Chances

If you’re new to writing and have chosen a more traditional route to publishing, you want your first chapter submission to electrify that agent or editor. You want them to choose your story over the slush pile of submissions they’ve been reading that week. If you’re a self-published author, you want readers to buy your future books as well. You want satisfied, happy readers because they rarely give you a second chance.

I spend lots of editing time on the first chapter. I read it a gazillion times, and take it to my critique group several times, and then send it out to other friends as well. That first chapter sets the tone and theme for your book. It’s a solemn promise and your guarantee of adventure!

Here’s Your checklist on First Chapters:

1)    Put a lot of thought into that first sentence.

2)    Establish the where and when. Don’t confuse your reader at the very beginning.

3)    First chapters may change once you’ve written THE END. Be prepared to keep rewriting, polishing again, and then some to clarify your theme.

4)    Don’t begin the story too early. Avoid too much background, start with the human voice, and action. RICHARD PECK

5)    Get ‘em by the shirt front and pull that reader into your book. Your job as the writer is to intrigue people. DUSTY RICHARDS


TAGS: first chapters, story craft, writers, children’s writers, first chapter list, editing


Stoking Young Fire



Stoking Young Fire

By Nandy Ekle


So a very young person, around the age of ten or eleven, comes to you and says, I want to write a story. What do I do?” What do you say to child of that age?

Well that age of kid may not be ready to hear about plot or theme or conflict. They may not even be ready to hear about characterization.

I think one of the first things I would say to a third or fourth grader is that the key to learning to write stories is to read stories. Reading published works by successful authors can be more important than reading a textbook about how to write. We subconsciously learn to put stories together, and we learn to describe scenes.

The second thing I would tell this child is that writing stories is most like playing make believe with our friends. Instead of acting out a game of “play like,” we right down the scenarios. And this is the basis of where stories come from.

A third thing I would explain to this child is that writers write. So the best way to learn about writing is to write.

Congratulations. You have just received a post card from the muse.


Tag word: plot, conflict, make believe.

Pitch Perfect

Outtakes 145


Pitch Perfect

By Cait Collins


I love to write, but I thoroughly dislike writing query letters. While not my favorite activity, I understand the importance of a good pitch letter. Not only does the correspondence present your work to the editor or agent, writing the perfect pitch will help you with the verbal promotion of the work.

A good query letter begins with your ability to state the theme of your work. Every story has a theme. Sometimes it is obvious, but in other instances the writer has to dig to find the point of his story. For example the theme of my story How Do You Like Me Now, is “Revenge may be satisfying, but justice is better.” With that in mind, it’s easy to open the query with a solid hook. Yes, lead the letter with an attention grabber and worry about your biography later.

A pitch letter should be as well thought out and crafted as your novel or story. Do not take shortcuts here. If the query is weak, the agent or editor might assume the work is also poorly constructed. Avoid using clichés. Make sure your verbs are strong, action verbs. This eliminates the need for adverbs. I’ve heard writing instructors preach on adverbs as enemies instead of friends. A good verb can save you precious words when facing a limited word count.

Here are a few other tips that have helped me.

  1. Know your characters and their relationships. Use the understanding to introduce the protagonist and the antagonist in short paragraphs.
  2. Use present tense.
  3. Keep the letter to less than one page. Too much information is not necessarily good. In a verbal pitch, you may have ten seconds to get an agent’s attention. Apply the same standard to the query.
  4. Do your research. You don’t want to be the erotica writer who pitched to an inspirational agent. Be sure you have the editor’s full name and the correct spelling. Be sure he represents your genre. Make sure you follow the agency’s submission guidelines.
  5. Do not include your photograph, your cute kitty’s picture, or submit the letter on bright colored paper. Use only Times New Roman 12pt type. The margins should be one inch all around, on one side, and printed on a good quality, white bond paper.
  6. Your information should be at the end of the pitch. Keep it simple. If you are a first time writer, don’t publicize the fact. Instead, promote your successes. If the novel won an award in a contest, say so. Your self-published first book garnered respectable success. Say so. Just don’t over advertise yourself.
  7. Promote your platform. Agents and Editors need to know if you have a website, are on Facebook or Twitter. While you may have multiple, promotion sources remember you still need time to write. Don’t over burden yourself with social media
  8. Thank the agent or editor for his time. It may take eight to twelve weeks to get a response, so be patient. Bugging the agent for an update every few days may do more harm than good.
  9. Be yourself, but be professional.

Paying attention to details will help ensure your letter will be well received and could get you one step closer to a publication contract. Good luck. I’ll be looking for your name in the stacks.



By Rory C Keel

After looking back at some of my writing, I noticed that my characters were flat, and not because they’re typed words on a screen. No, they  have no depth, no dimension.

As I start the new year of writing, I will create what I will call character interviews. In Gail Carson Levine’s book, WRITING MAGIC, she suggests making a character questionnaire.

Make a list of questions and fill in the answers such as: name or nickname, what type of being (human, alien etc…), age, sex, physical appearance and characteristics, family members and friends, pets, hobbies?

Then ask deeper questions like: What are my character’s talents and abilities? What are their faults, fears and good qualities?

If you have flat characters, try interviewing your character and give them a new dimension!

Rory C. Keel