Friday, August 18, 2017

A Crazy, Scary Summer

I had planned on posting weekly blog articles throughout the summer. A few would be book reviews by Sue’s Reviews. She’s not behind––I am. (I’ll be posting a review soon.)
To say it’s been a crazy summer is an understatement. I’ve been gone a lot, as my sister and my very best friend have been stricken with cancer. I spend as much time as I can with them, yet still come home and work in serious catch-up mode to prepare for the craft and art shows we had already signed up for. I also managed to squeeze in taking the grandkids to swimming lessons and to a couple summer fairs, but not without some serious help from my husband.

Even with his help, I have to admit, this summer I have felt rushed through the family activities. Like I’m watching the calendar for swimming lessons to end so I can hurry back to the hospital, just in case good goes bad. Needless to say, I got as far behind on work and crafts as I have my blog and other commitments.
I don’t regret it. I want to spend as much time with these two special people as I can, though I am no way writing them off as doomed. They both have positive attitudes, and they are fighting for their lives. A lot of people are praying for them, including me. My sister Helen had surgery for her cancer, and we thought she was good to go. No sign of cancer for months. Then it came back with a vengeance. But she’s pretty stubborn (runs in the family), and she’s showing everyone just how tough she really is. Take that, cancer!

She lives a four-hour drive from me, but my husband is an understanding sweetie and has taken me to visit her. Even when I’m not at her side, we continue our morning coffee ritual via phone, something we’ve been doing for years. We laugh together, and we pray together. We hope together.
My friend Betty was diagnosed with bone and breast cancer June 29, and she was hospitalized. Prior to that I had stayed at her house a few days. She was having problems getting in and out of bed. A sore back, it seemed. Maybe too much gardening, we thought. Now we know what the problem was. Anyway, she has since had surgery that involved inserting two rods in her spine for support. Her entire spine was filled with cancer.

Since then, with cheers from her daughter, me, and other friends, Betty has learned to walk with a walker and already can manage the length of a city block. She’s improving every day and making new friends in the facility that has become her temporary home. I’m glad she has people who enjoy visiting and playing cards every day. She has always been a very social person, and people gravitate toward her because of it. The nurses and doctors have all been very supportive, as well as astonished at how strong Betty is. She eats three full meals a day and hasn’t lost any weight.
I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to spend time with my sister and with Betty during their journeys.

For four years Betty and I had been shop neighbors. My tiny sewing and alternations/craft shop was right behind her large store. We live in a small town, so I often put a note on my door during lunch break –“At Betty’s if you need me.” We had coffee together every day, Tuesday through Saturday those years. Once we closed our shops (Betty retired and I went into nearly full-time writing), we continued our coffee visits. We’ve been there for each other for ten years now.
I am missing the routines of both my coffee partners, but we’ve made new routines. I still see them, and we still share coffee and laughs.

I may not get around to visiting all of your blogs, and I do miss that part of my life, but please know I will return once my sister and friend are back to their old selves.
It’s a scary thing, because though we look toward the positive, there’s no way a person can have someone with cancer in his or her life and not have the tormenting fear of losing that special someone. I try not to look in that direction. But bad news happens. I recently lost a classmate to cancer. She will be missed. We were friends back in school, and though we haven’t kept up with each other the way friends should, I have thought of her often and will continue to remember her with fond memories. Here’s to you, Brenda! :-)

Any prayers you want to pass this way will be appreciated, and I hope to get back to visiting blogs soon. Until then, please accept my apologies for my absence.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017


The Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden

For Readers:

If ever a place and time begged for fairytales, it’s mid-evil Northern Russia. In The Bear and the Nightingale, American author Katherine Arden makes use of both retelling a very old tale. The result is stunning. 

“Peter Vladimirovich,” Arden writes, “was a great lord: a boyer, with rich lands and many men to do his bidding.”
His beloved wife, Marina, is very ill but determined to carry her last child to term, maternal instinct telling her that this child will inherit the talents of her grandmother, a woman who can see into the future and communicate with animals.

The beauty of the story after the birth of Vasilisa, or Vasya as her family calls her, is the description of her rearing, the frazzled efforts of her loving family to keep track of her meanderings and protect the headstrong girl. And oh! the winters––frostbite, chilblains, hunger as winter stores diminish, the rub of snow beneath sodden woolen boots, and window openings set with blocks of ice to keep out the cold wind. Eventually, worse challenges appear. An evil demon and a misguided priest endanger Vasya and her village, forcing her to gather her courage and confront the danger from the back of a mighty and magical stallion.

Texas born Arden’s knowledge of Russian folklore pays off in the authentic feel of the novel. She lived in Russia for a time and studied Russian and French literature at Middlebury College in Vermont. It’s always fun to analyze a writer and try to figure out the secret to their success. There are plenty of clues that she’s not so very unlike Vasya: intelligent, creative, independent, and now, successful.

Del Ray, an imprint of Random House
ISBN: 9781101885932
ISBN: 9781101885949 (e-book)

For Writers:

Katherine Arden’s use of descriptive sentences shines, as in this excerpt:

It was late winter in Northern Rus', the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow. The brilliant February landscape had given way to the dreary gray of March, and the household of Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffling from the damp and thin from six weeks' fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage. But no one was thinking of chilblains or runny noses, or even, wistfully of porridge and roast meats, for Dunya was to tell a story.

In that one paragraph, we are introduced to clues about the era (porridge, roasted meats, chilblains, fasting). We can guess that many of Pyotr’s household are children, and that Dunya is not only the storyteller, but likely beloved. A picture forms in our minds of “sullen” weather, sniffling children with empty stomachs—and yet their considerable discomfort doesn’t lessen their expectation of enjoying a good story. I don't know about you, but I was intrigued.

Friday, May 19, 2017

It's Crafts/Art Show Season Again!

I work on my writing through the fall and winter, but come every spring and summer, my husband and I are busy not only with our yard, but with creating arts and crafts to tote to outdoor sales. I have to admit, I won't touch a wood saw. That's my husband's department. But I do the painting and add the finishing touches.

We just went to a show in Rochester, Minnesota, and we were swamped all day Saturday. It was probably good that Sunday was slow, because I was dragging after Saturday. Our next show will be in a few weeks--The Covered Bridge Arts and Crafts Show in Zumbrota, Minnesota. If any of you are in the area, you'll find me easily. I'll be the one sitting in a lawn chair while my husband chats and smiles. (Kidding.)

We also do some small hutches, jelly bins, vegetable bins and any size of trunk. We make these items with new wood but paint most of them to look old. My favorite planter we did had flowers painted on the front and a little humming bird enjoying them. Every planter we make is different, mainly because I can never remember exactly what I did to finish the others. This year, besides benches, planters, birdhouses and signs, we did a lot of barn doors and door screens, adding shelves, planters, or whatever we think of at the time. It's been fun. It also helps me get some reading done, since many items are done with layers of different colors of paint. I have to let each coat dry before applying the next, so I do that with a book in hand. :-)

How do you spend your summers? Any craft shows?

Thursday, April 13, 2017


Go to "Manhattan Nocturne: A Novel" page
Buy book
Manhattan Night
by Colin Harrison


First released in 1996 as Manhatten Nocturn, Colin Harrison's Manhattan Night was re-released in 2016 to coincide with its release as a movie. A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, it’s the gripping story of a smart guy who got reckless. Porter Wren, a Manhattan tabloid writer, tries to backpedal after a lapse in judgment. It’s an old premise: Beautiful woman, tempted man, and frantic attempts to hide his indiscretion from his wife. To hold onto his family when he’s blackmailed by the richest man in the city (the owner of the newspaper he works for), Wren must out-think a couple psychologically twisted people, and Porter might be the perfect man for the job.

Wren is well versed in the dark side of human nature, which he employs to keep his job; but he also has a wide streak of decency. He and his wife have made a home behind a camouflage of greenery and iron gates in a vintage house that has somehow been preserved despite progress and wrecking balls. It is in this setting that we’re allowed to see the other side of Wren.

When his ill-conceived affair threatens both his livelihood and his family, Wren is forced to probe the strength of his own morals (which have allowed him to obsess over the other woman), and he’s forced to consider how far he’ll go to avoid being the subject of a tabloid story himself.

Harrison writes beautifully and intuitively about the relationship between Wren and his wife and children. The offered glimpse of his home turf in and around Manhattan and New York surely qualifies as travelogue material. Ethnic diversity in all its splendor oozes from the block-by-block giant warren of neighborhoods, a great reason to check out Manhattan Night on its own, but there’s more.

 Manhattan Night puts its own slick spin on the subjects of sex, murder and revenge, stretching out their boomerang effect in one white-knuckle chapter after another. If there's a negative, it’s that the story is depressing––genuine noir fiction at its most ugly. But if it’s the genre of your choice, save this one for a long weekend so you can immerse yourself in the carefully conceived, intricate plot. There was a master at the helm of its creation.

A version of this review was formerly published by the Internet Review of Books.
ISBN: 978-0-517-58492-7 (Hardcover)   
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0525-1 (e-book)
ISBN 978-1-250-11942-1 (Paperback)

To purchase the book


Below is an excerpt from the first page of the book, a fine example of Colin Harrison's effective hook. It not only sets the mood for the story and introduces New York City and its people, but it reveals the main character’s regret. We immediately sense his shame at the job he does and wonder what's he’s going to do about it, something that’s essential to the first few pages of a book.

I SELL MAYHEM, scandal, murder, and doom. Oh, Jesus I do, I sell tragedy, vengeance, chaos, and fate. I sell the sufferings of the poor and the vanities of the rich. Children falling from windows, subway trains afire, rapist fleeing into the dark. I sell anger and redemption. I sell the muscled heroism of firemen and the wheezing greed of mob bosses. The stench of garbage, the rattle of gold. I sell black to white, white to black. To Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Muslims and transvestites and squatters on the Lower East Side. I sold John Gotta and O.J. Simpson and the bombers of the World Trade Center, and I'll sell whoever else comes along next. I sell falsehood and what passes for truth and every gradation in between. I sell the newborn and the dead. I sell the wretched, magnificent city of New York back to its people. I sell newspapers.

Meet our book review columnist!

Sue Ellis embarrassed herself with an English class assignment in high school, writing a heartfelt story about a girl asking permission to go on her first date, and then having to read it aloud in front of the class. It wasn't until many years later that she learned her story had been subsequently used as an example of good story writing by Mrs. Meyers, her English teacher. Fast forward forty years or so—her children and grandchildren grown, typing skills honed from years of clerical work, and suddenly online literary magazines and writing groups made it possible to immerse herself in the
new realm of writing.

Sue is thrilled by every acceptance, learning (she hopes) from rejections, thankful for the influence of Mrs. Meyers, and still a lover of books. Her short story, A Calendar of Days, can be found here:

Arrowleaf balsamroot is a plant native to eastern Washington state. Sue snapped the photo last summer while hiking with her husband and Cleo, their twenty pound chihauhau/blue heeler mix, near their home in Spokane, Washington.

Thursday, April 6, 2017


Hey writers!

If you don’t read One Story magazine, you should. They publish some of the best short fiction I’ve read in a long time. Also, their cute little monthly publication is not much bigger than a greeting card, though it’s thicker. You can easily sneak it into the office without anyone knowing, and then it’s ready for your pleasure during your breaks or noon hour, or when the boss isn’t looking.
They actually have two publications, one boasting beautiful writing by adult writers, and the other for teen writers––One Story Teen.
And I promise you, you won’t regret the subscriptions. They always publish something with such a unique voice, you seriously forget you’re reading. It’s like chatting with an interesting neighbor.

They also offer classes, and I can tell you from experience that these learning opportunities are well worth the money. I took one for help bringing the power out in my short stories, and I wanted to increase my skills as an editor. By editing a story line by line and paragraph by paragraph, as well as by the whole piece, and comparing my observations with the editors of One Story, I learned a lot. Just in one class. It was pretty affordable too.
Last, I want to mention something else One Story does for writers. They put out conferences, and one that sounds exceptionally great is coming soon. Unfortunately I won’t be there, but I thought I’d pass along the information for those of you who can squeeze it into your schedule.

They are already accepting applications for their 2017 Summer Writers Conference. It will take place from July 23th through the 28th at the historic Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn.
I can’t tell you how much I’d love to be there, not just for the conference, but to actually step inside that building. I get tingles on my arms just thinking about it. You can find out more information at their website,, but I can already tell you that One Story editors Will Allison and Patrick Ryan will be leading new writers into new ways of thinking. You couldn’t ask for better teachers.

You’ll enjoy heavy-duty workshops and attend craft lectures given by established writers and One Story editors. What’s more, they’ll have panel discussions with agents, editors, and other professionals in the evenings. Sounds great, right?
Yeah, and the only catch is this: you have to apply before the deadline––May 10th, 2017.

Don’t miss it, and have fun!

Happy writing!
Oh, and just so you know, I'm not associated with One Story other than being a huge.

Monday, March 27, 2017

What Does an Agent Really Want in a Query Letter?

I’d always thought I’d know a little about writing queries for my novel, since I’ve had some success sending out cover letters with short stories.

What was I thinking?
I visited websites with advice and rules from agents on writing this difficult life-changing little letter. Seriously, I got dizzy. I suddenly realized that I didn’t know anything. Worse, a year ago I attended a workshop on writing queries, and I still don’t feel any smarter (and yet it was an excellent investment and excellent class.).
Where to send that chunk of me that is my novel. Hmmm. With short stories, I start by researching the publishers.
1. Read their guidelines.
2. Look at titles they’ve published.
3. Get to know their tastes and something about their dislikes.
Some helpful websites are pretty blunt on what agents or publishers like and don’t like, not only mentioning genres, but also writing styles. That’s very helpful. But not all of them say what they want to see in a query other than the basics––the word count, something about the plot and characters, and a line or two about you.
Ok, so now you know everything about writing a query for your novel, right? Wrong.

Different agents offer different rules on querying your novel, such as ALWAYS put the word count in your opening paragraph, along with your title. And ALWAYS put your word count in your closing paragraph, along with your request for them to review your manuscript.
So are you clear on what to do now?

Me neither.
Often, their guidelines will specify a one or two-page query. If not, you can bet whoever’s going to read your query has a whole slew of them to breeze through, and they’ll roll their eyes if they see a lot of dense writing on two or three pages.

But if they see a nice compact little query that won’t take but a minute to read, they might give you that minute. Make it count. Naturally, the best way to make yours count is to first study some exceptional queries. Yes, back to that again. Search the web and find all kinds of contradicting advice, and then take some aspirin.
A strong hook in the first line is a given. Who would read line two if line one practically put the reader to sleep? But then what?

Then take your 60,000 to 90,000-word novel and sum it up in about 150-200 words.
“Say what?” you ask.

Yeah. Talk about learning to tighten your narrative. Maybe we should all practice writing query letters to learn about writing tight, then apply what we learn to our novels.
Those little 150 or so words in the middle paragraph should sum up your novel’s plot. You can’t really afford more words if you want to have room left for your bio, which should be very short. Still, you might need 40 words for a bio.

Now you’ve got your intro (the opening hook), the novel’s title and the word count, and a brief bio. So yes, keep that plot summation short but full. Detailed and interesting. But keep it short. This paragraph needs to sell your novel. But keep it short. This paragraph has to pull a lot of weight. But keep it short.
In your bio, restrain from arrogance, no listing of three pages of boring credits nobody is going to read. Mention only a few things about you and or your published work. If you have some writing credits, mention them. If you don’t, perhaps you belong to a critique group that you can mention. Maybe you’ve participated in it for more than three months. Five years? Good. Let the agent know. Or perhaps you are a member of specific writers’ organizations like SCBWI. Mention that. Also, list a few conferences you’ve attended.

Then there’s the little one or two-line paragraph that says your novel is ready for their review, along with a request to send them a copy. It goes something like this: Idiot Learning to Write a Query Letter is complete at 50,000 words and ready for your review. May I send you the manuscript? (Don’t include the word count if you’ve stated it in your opening paragraph.)
This request is supposed to be your last paragraph, though I’ve also read that your bio is the last paragraph. But to me it seems disjointed to put this request for representation after your bio. It seems as though it should go in the last paragraph of the part talking about your novel, not about you. So I’m not exactly sure which goes in the “last” paragraph, the bio or the request. If any of you find out, please drop me a line.

Maybe I misunderstood, and what they mean is the last paragraph before the bio.
To help or confuse you further, I want to share some specific do’s and don’ts I picked up through researching what agents want in a query letter.

A. They all seem to agree that without a strong opening hook, welcome to the slush pile.
B. One agent suggested you try opening with a question.

C. Absolutely never, ever open your query with a question. (Another agent.)
D. In your plot summary section, only tell about the plot. Do not talk about theme or what the character struggles over internally. Plot only!

E. Along with mentioning your main plot points and characters (and goals, obstacles and challenges all in those 150 words), tell something about the overall theme of the novel. Give an idea of the character’s inner self.
F. Some want the word count right in the opening paragraph and some want it in the ending paragraph (So, is that with the bio? I’m joking.).

G. Some mentioned to put the title in all caps, not in italics. The reason for this was explained. Submissions are emailed, and sometimes italics come through garbled in email (or something like that).
H. Also, consider the names of the main characters, protagonist, antagonist and other main characters. Some agents want these names in all caps in your query. Others will tell you they don’t want the characters names in all caps, because it’s distracting to the eye. (Keep in mind, this would be the case on a SHORT one-page query, because you would have the title in all caps, and then anywhere from three to five names in all caps, all one or two short little paragraphs. That’s a lot of caps.

So what’s the best advice I can give you––write a dozen different query letters and hold a contest for agents to vote on the best one. If only we could, right?
Here’s my real advice. If you are querying an agent, do a lot of research. I repeat, a lot. The agents you choose might have very specific details on their websites as far as what they expect in a query. Opening with a question or not. All caps on character names or not. Three paragraphs or four. Then be sure to research each specific agent even more. Some might have a guest article on someone else’s blog, and that article might give one detail that wasn’t mentioned on the agent’s own page. It’s worth a shot. And then write that query specific to that agent’s rules for queries, following all the sentences starting with NEVER and ALWAYS.

Afterward, write a whole new query following different rules to fit the next agent on your list.
Also, I haven’t found anyone who said don’t do this, but I did see a few articles mention that it doesn’t hurt to have a sentence that shows you did your research. Mention something from one of their articles or their website that you enjoyed or that you thought resonated with something in your novel. But be specific about it. Don’t just say that I read your website, and I think my novel is a good fit. What exactly did they say on the website that makes you think your novel would be a good fit? That’s what you need to mention.

Keep in mind, I’m not insulting any agent for giving any specific advice, even though it contradicts another agent’s advice. Each agent is giving advice he or she wants followed in the queries to him or her, not everyone else. Why would they care what you send anyone else? What I’m trying to show you is that you cannot take the advice from one agent and apply it to queries to all of them.
Here are my absolutes for querying agents. You will note that I never mentioned the obvious––NEVER send a query in a specific genre to an agent who doesn’t represent that genre. Again, do your research.

That’s the only “NEVER” I’m going to give you. Well, besides the other one––NEVER assume you can write one query and change the agent’s name and address and be done.
ALWAYS open with a strong hook.

ALWAYS do your research. Yes, this is worth repeating over and over and over again.
And that’s it. You are ready to write your twelve different queries for twelve different agents, right?

Happy writing!

Saturday, December 24, 2016


This recipe is actually for one of my three daughters, and I'm sure they'll all know which one it is. It's for the daughter who for a brief moment was in a state of panic, thinking that due to unfortunate circumstances, Christmas dinner might be moved to her house. Her dad was the one to make the call. Though I couldn't hear her, I almost wet my pants, laughing at the thought of her expression. I could almost hear her – Me? Make Christmas dinner? But I can't cook!

I couldn't count the giggles I let out on that one.

All she would've needed to make would be the main entrĂ©es – the turkey, ham (or both), and the mashed potatoes, because that's all that's expected of the host. The rest of the family members always divvy up the side dishes and breads and goodies and bring those to the table. Nobody wants the hassle of keeping mashed potatoes fresh and warm during a one-hour drive, so the host always makes them.

But this particular daughter wouldn't know what to do with the turkey, and she'd be calling me – Do I have to peel the potatoes before I mash them?

It worked out that we didn't need to move Christmas dinner to her house after all, and I'm sure she sighed a thousand breaths of relief. But for any of you who get in a panic over Christmas dinner, here's the easiest last-minute one you can make. It will also work for you, daughter, if ever again there's the possibility of having Christmas dinner at your house. Although a few adults might quirk an eyebrow, the kids will love you for it. Who wants that boring stuffing and cranberry sauce with those awful red berries anyway?

Make a Christmas tree taco dinner.

First, you will need two-thirds of a yard of nice green fabric (honey, that's 24 inches, so don't buy a whole bolt.) Green construction paper would work as well, but you might need to tape about four sheets together to make it large enough. If you don't like that idea, and you have no fabric, use aluminum foil over cardboard and you will have a silver tree. Fold your 24 inches of fabric (or substitute) in half. Then cut the shape of Christmas tree branches out on the unfolded side. You did this in kindergarten, so I know you can do it. Unfold the fabric, and then you will have the shape of a very nice Christmas tree.

It is your choice if you want to put on any garland or not. You can string anything that you would put in a taco bar. Green olives, diced tomato, diced onion. You can make an all olive garland, or one that is all tomatoes, or one that alternates every other color.

You want nice big bulbs for the taco-bar tree, so for that you will use aluminum foil and cut a number of 8-inch circles, easily done by using a small dinner plate as a pattern. Then bring up the edge all around each circle, so that you are shaping them into a nice round bowl. These little bowls will be filled with diced onion, grated cheese, green olives, black olives, diced tomatoes, taco sauce (double your bowl for sauce so it doesn't leak), and anything else you'd like for tacos. Be sure to fill a few of the bowls with taco meat. Last, make a trunk-sized dish in more of a square shape and fill it with the taco meat. That will be the trunk of your tree.

Your dad and I would both love a meal like this, because quite frankly, by the time we're done having Thanksgiving with all of you, and Thanksgiving with a few other people, we are a bit tired of ham and turkey and all of that hoopla anyway. To look at the same meal again for Christmas is a bit of a bah-humbug, if you ask me.

Love, Mom

P.S. Merry Christmas!