5 Steps to Make a Sentence Curve (or Vary Your Sentence Length)

life ends

Do a quick internet search and you’ll find several articles advising you to vary sentence length in your writing. I’m simply offering a visual tool to help writers implement that advice.

Read my article, 5 Steps to Make a Sentence Curve, at Charity Singleton Craig’s column How to Bring Words to Life.

Photo credit: see bottom of the article at How to Bring Words to Life

5 Reasons to Go to Storytime (even if you don’t have children)

Preschool Storytime at Tully

The librarians did it. You could say they’re the reason I became a writer. Every Friday morning at 10:30, I took my infant son to the Rockrimmon library for storytime. The sweet red-headed Laura was my favorite children’s librarian, but I considered them all genius-fairies who knew everything about books and children and could protect my child the rest of his life from all possible disasters and minor scrapes.

But really, they simply knew how to choose good picture books and read them out loud to half a dozen or a few dozen children and their mothers sitting cross-legged on the carpet. . . .



I’m delighted and honored to be a guest contributor for Charity Singleton Craig’s column “How to Bring Words to Life.” Please continue reading How to Bring Words to Life: 5 Reasons to Go Storytime (even if you don’t have children). Hope to see you there!

Photo credit via the article at Charity Singleton Craig: How to Bring Words to Life (scroll to bottom)

The Art of Naturalization (Poetry Citizenship)

In my teen years I was an alien but never thought of myself as one. Except for some character qualities in common with Marvin the Martian (“You’re making me very, very angry”), there wasn’t much of the extra-terrestrial about me.

On the contrary, I was quite worldly and did a lot of the normal high-school-girl stuff: applied for college scholarships, went to the mall for fun, wanted to be one of the Laker Girls, and drove my dad’s sleek 1983 Toyota Celica complete with rear-windshield louver, black leather front bumper cover, and spoiler. “Spoiler” is not just a car accessory; my dad paid for the gas and oil changes, even though I had money from my front-desk job at the West End Racquet Club. Nothing alien or unnatural about that.

But I was, indeed, an alien.

I had lived in California since I was two and a half. I thought I was as American as you could get, but I wasn’t American. Not officially, anyway. When I turned eighteen I applied for U.S. citizenship. I paid for the application fee myself (thanks to that West End job). To call myself a citizen of the country I called home, I had to be naturalized.

My sisters had done it before me and said the test was easy if I knew some basic things about United States history and government. “Who was the first President?” they asked. “And the sixteenth?” I knew both those answers, but what if I had to know the seventh, or the twenty-seventh? I, the most politically ignorant person I knew, was also supposed to know the names of my Congressman and Senators. I made a mental note to look those up.

On my naturalization interview and test day, I had to go to the Los Angeles Convention Center, right there on South Figueroa near the intersection of the 110 and 10 freeways. I had never driven to the heart of downtown L.A. before, much less alone. I was nervous about getting lost, negotiating through the traffic, finding a place to park. But this was an important day to me. I even wore a dress.

I don’t remember the questions, only that I passed the test (and that “Abraham Lincoln” was not one of the answers). In a closing ceremony with my new fellow Americans, all strangers but now connected by our common citizenship, we said the Pledge of Allegiance, right hand over our heart. We sat in rows of folding chairs in front of a theater-size projector screen. And then the song “Proud to Be an American” came through the speakers while scenes of America’s best places played across the screen. If the INS intended an emotionally moving effect, it worked. Fields of wheat (golden and swaying in a gentle wind, of course), the Statue of Liberty, an old lighthouse on a New England coast. I didn’t notice at the time that the music video never showed a place like Carson, California (the suburb of L.A. where I lived—my real America).

All that to get what I really wanted: proof of citizenship, the accompanying benefits, and a passport.

My entrance to poetry was not like that. I “immigrated” from the land of engineering to the land of words, but when I landed fresh off the boat on poetry’s foreign shores, the new country took me in without any requirements. No application fee, no test, no interview. I didn’t need to know the definition of “sestina” or who Sara Teasdale was; the poets just let me dip my nib into the ink, though I spoke the language haltingly and with an accent.

I accepted the welcome and explored the land. Though always a novice, I was never an “alien” and felt at home. My becoming a poet was so…natural. And when I reached into my pocket, I found that the passport had been there all along.


(Inspired by The Art of Immigration at Tweetspeak Poetry.)

Snowball-Fight Writing

(For the T.S. Poetry Book Club (hosted by Lyla Lindquist) on Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing, by L.L. Barkat. Read Lyla’s thoughts and find links to other book club participants here.)


I live with four family members, and all of them are male. I still don’t get why snowball fights are fun. Why do they love being pelted with icy globs? To me, it’s like being hunted.

snowball fight 1

But they have their great fun packing snowballs while I watch (from inside) and take pictures with the window between me and them. I heat water in the kettle and take out the marshmallows so that the hot cocoa will be ready when they come in, red-cheeked and happy.

That’s in winter. In the summer I work with my sons on the simple skills of catching and throwing a baseball. I tell them how to position the mitt. I remind them not to shut their eyes when the ball is coming at them. I show them that if they throw the ball with the right hand, they should step with the left foot (not the right, as they were doing).

Sometimes the progress seems slow. At the beginning of one summer, though, I went to the backyard for one of the first throwing and catching practices of the year. They were much better than I remembered; their skill level was even better than it was end of the previous summer!

Wondering what happened, I told my husband about it. “They got so much better at throwing all of a sudden! I haven’t even been working on it that long!”

Charles’s explanation came immediately. “It’s because of the snowball fights.”

Of course.

Several years ago I heard of a writing class but wrung my hands and agonized because I couldn’t afford it. Just think what I could learn! Writing instructors would give me exercises! They would critique my assignments, and I would gain so much knowledge from their red-pencil marks! Plus, they promise that by the end of the course, I will have a completed manuscript ready to send!

The class is still offered, and I still can’t afford it. But that’s okay. For now, I think I’ll just go out and have a snowball fight.

snowball fight 2

The Voice of Authority (and Spider Guts)

Our voice will be better developed if we spend time with our passions.

– L.L. Barkat, Rumors of Water, p.56

(For the T.S. Poetry Book Club hosted by the “thoughtful and amusing” Lyla Lindquist on Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing, by L.L. Barkat. Read Lyla’s thoughts and find links to other book club participants here.)


Jesus would have been a great novelist. He taught the way writers should write.

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, for he taught with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law.
(Matthew 7:28-29)

Jesus’ teaching was different than that of other teachers—so different that the people who heard both were amazed! The difference was the “real authority,” but what gave Jesus’ teaching that real authority? Was it content, or what?

Many chapters later, I got a clue.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach.”
(Matthew 23:1-3)

So, it wasn’t necessarily the content that gave Jesus’ teaching more authority than the other teachers. (He said to do what they say, so their content was good.) What gives authority to teaching is a life that backs it up.

Teaching with authority comes from practicing what you preach, yes, but it’s more than just the “doing.” I’m guessing it has to do with passion.

Jesus’ teachings were inside of him; the Pharisees’ teachings were outside of them. For Jesus, it wasn’t external sayings or traditions passed down, but living words that kept him alive and excited.

He taught truths that were already inside, and they overflowed out. He did not teach what was external to himself. I believe this how Jesus taught with authority—with author-ity.

It has to come from inside—a passion. It has to be true. Authenticity is part of authority. It’s what makes the teaching real.

It’s what can make my writing real.

The fake characters we read about will evaporate like the morning dew, but the real ones, the true ones, will haunt us for the rest of our days.

– Katherine Paterson, in her essay “Yes, But Is It True?” in A Sense of Wonder: On Reading and Writing Books for Children (p.69)

I don’t know about “voice” in writing. I don’t think I will ever be able to define or explain it. But maybe it will simply happen if, with self-acceptance and unselfconsciousness, I simply write like Jesus taught—”with authority,” from the inside, from my passions, from what is true and real.

But this scares me. To write the real stuff means to dig out and expose the raw, ugly parts. That would be quite a descent. Am I willing?

Unlike our Lord, we have not been able or willing to descend into hell. So our words of grace seep out bland and bloodless. Perhaps this is why the tax collectors and harlots are closer to the kingdom of heaven than we…

When we read fiction that is true, we do not say, “There but for the grace of God go I”—rather, “Here I am.” For in such writing we recognize our naked selves with a shudder or a laugh; sometimes, quite wonderfully, with both.

– Paterson, pp.69-70

Paterson gives another insight via the spider:

[T]he two creatures most to be pitied were the spider and the novelist—their lives hanging by a thread spun out of their own guts. But in some ways I think writers of fiction are the creatures most to be envied, because who else besides the spider is allowed to take that fragile thread and weave it into a pattern?

– Paterson, pp.70-71

What is my writing voice?

I don’t know. But let me take up my cross, follow Christ, and write from stuff spun from my own guts, the real and true inside stuff that keeps me up at night (either shuddering or laughing—or both). Then, hanging by a fragile thread, I’ll wait and listen for the sound of my own voice.

Good Thing I Can’t Do Everything

(For the T.S. Poetry Book Club hosted by the “thoughtful and amusing” Lyla Lindquist on Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing, by L.L. Barkat. Read Lyla’s thoughts and find links to other book club participants here.)


At a friend’s recommendation I read Ex Libris and wanted to write like Anne Fadiman. I heard Mr. Longo at the drums and wanted to play like Mr. Longo. I wanted to turn out cakes like Marcel Desaulniers, sing like Christy Nockels, break-dance like my nephew James, and write songs like Steve and Vikki Cook.

But I didn’t have the goods. Not like they did.

I have the mental understanding that this may not be the healthiest attitude, but the knowing often doesn’t translate to the really knowing—the living, the being, the feeling. For this, I need all the help I can get.

So I’m glad I read Rumors of Water.

Turns out, it’s okay—maybe even beneficial—that I can’t do everything.

As a writer, I have learned when a job needs to get done, there is little use fussing about the lack of necessary ingredients.… This is the secret of the prolific writer. To agree to use small beans and the ingredients at hand.
(L.L. Barkat, Rumors of Water, p. 34)

I first picked up this book because I have read Stone Crossings, and I will certainly read a book on writing if it’s written by the author of Stone Crossings! I wanted to read Rumors of Water because I wanted to grow as a writer.

Yet from the beginning, I recognized that from this book I could learn not only about writing, but about life. This is true of every section, cover to cover.

I didn’t foresee that a book on writing would help me in my faultiest thoughts and perspectives.

Barkat’s “secret of the prolific writer”—using the “ingredients at hand”—is also the secret of an effective, gifted member of the Body of Christ. God did not intend that I have the ability to do everything as well as everyone else. On the contrary, by God’s design and intent, it is good for me to have a lack. Many lacks. “Deficiency” is beneficial.

My refrigerator and kitchen cupboards do not contain everything from acai to zevengetijdeklaver, just as my vocal cords don’t vibrate like those of Christy Nockels. But I will do what I can, with what God has given me.

With that I will not only be content, I will be … prolific!