Writing Muscles

Outtakes 216

Writing Muscles

By Cait Collins


I learned a number of things during my vacation. I think the most telling was I don’t exercise enough. I did a lot of walking on less than level streets and climbed up and down ladders and stairs. By the end of the trip I was hurting. So I resolve to exercise more so that I don’t punish my body when I travel or have an adventure.

Just like our bodies deteriorate from a lack of exercise, our writing skills can suffer from a lack of use. Too often we use the same formula when we begin a new project? What if we changed the routine? Could the story be more exciting or could the different turn propel us to new avenues for our careers? Is the risk worth the potential results? Maybe the better question would be what if we never take a risk? Will the failure to explore possibilities actually be detrimental to success?

Work your voice. Not the one that verbally articulates your thoughts, but the voice that is uniquely you. Craig Johnson, author of the Longmire series has a style that advertises the author. You only have to read a few paragraphs to recognize the style and hand-picked word choices. That’s what we all need and want – – a voice that promotes our individual style and personality.

We must also exercise our basic skills of grammar, vocabulary, characterization, plot and description. We can not become lazy and complacent in these areas. When the primary elements become weak, the whole work suffers. For this reason, I play with lists, colors, unusual situations, and new characters. I recommend 642 Things to Write About and 712 More Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. The books provide fabulous exercises to stretch, mold, strengthen and sculpt our skills.

Just as flabby and weak muscles are not good for the body, underdeveloped skills do not make for good writing. Resolve now to work the skills that lead to better and more fulfilling work.



Outtakes 208


by Cait Collins


Do you ever wonder why certain books, plays and poetry are still taught in school? I have a theory. The classics were written by men and women who perfected their craft. They didn’t rest on laurels; instead they invested time in making the next work better.

Students groan when they open Julius Caesar but the story is still worth telling. The characters have the same concerns as men and women today. We have issues with government and power grabbing.

Mark Twain revealed a dark time in American history. TOM SAWYER AND HUCKLEBERRY FINN did not necessarily defend slavery. The stories revealed a truth that can bring about change. Tom and Huck are so right as boys in the late 1800’s. I’ve met a few shysters who could pull off the whitewashing of the fence with a wink and a smile.

JANE EYRE depicts the times when men ruled and women held a second class status. But it also shows the growth of a young woman beyond the customary role to become a strong and faithful lady of means.

Then there are new classics. I truly believe the Harry Potters series will stand the test of time. After all daring deeds and heroic action will always be popular. And like the previously noted volumes, the Potter books will be part of my library. As will Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, Craig Johnson’s LONGMIRE stories, and Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunters.

These authors and others like them found the formula for success. They developed memorable characters, had good stories and plots. They employed the basis of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Above all, they wrote for the reader and not just for themselves.

What books are in your library? Is there a mixture of old and new? Are the covers pristine or worn? Are there some volumes that are dog-eared and faded from handling? I do hope your library is just like mine. I hope you have a mixture of everything and you read and reread your old favorites and acquire new favorites. After all, good writing never goes out of style.



Outtakes 57


It’s that time of year when there’s little new on television. Reruns, reality shows, and repeats of repeats of the same old movies fill the schedules. When I saw the promotions for Longmire on A&E, I thought it sounded interesting. At the very least, it would be new. I caught the last couple of episodes and was intrigued with the characters and setting. There was a beautiful starkness to the cinematography and an intriguing perfection in the characters and dialogue. I hoped the series would be picked up for a second season.

I was surprised to learn the author of the Walt Longmire mysteries, Craig Johnson, would be speaking in Amarillo as part of the Amarillo Public Library’s summer Amarillo Reads program. Since I was impressed with the series, I looked forward to hearing from the author. As I took notes from Craig’s presentation, I started thinking, “If the guy writes the way he speaks, his books will be great.” I have just finished the first book, THE COLD DISH, and can state I am not disappointed.  Craig Johnson is a master story teller. His novel combines the best of distinct, interesting characters; spot-on dialogue minus tag lines; Indian lore; the harsh beauty of Wyoming and Montana; and a big anti-hero. I am hooked. Thank goodness there are seven more Walt Longmire mysteries to read.

I’m a speed reader. I can read a four-hundred page novel in a matter of hours if there are no interruptions. However, I found my reading slowed because I was savoring the description. Johnson has found the perfect balance between too much and not enough description. I hiked the trails around the lakes and through the mountains with Sheriff Walt Longmire as he and Henry Standing Bear searched for a witness. I felt the bone-chilling, mind-numbing cold as he carried an injured man to safety. I felt his pain and uncertainty as the decision was made to leave his badly wounded friend on the mountain during a blizzard. I hurt at the unexpected end.

After finishing THE COLD DISH, I realized the author had skillfully woven three of the great story themes, man against man, man against nature, and man against himself, without confusing or blurring the plot’s twist and turns. Normally, I detect the perp by the middle of the book. This plot was so well hatched, I never suspected the killer’s identity. I consider that the essence of great writing. I look forward to reading the next book DEATH WITHOUT COMPANY. I can’t wait for season two of the A&E series Longmire.  In the words of Lonnie Little Bird, “Yes, it is so.”

Cait Collins