Monday, July 25, 2016

Dreaded Dialogue Tags

As an editor, one of my biggest annoyances is the use of unnecessary dialogue tags. What I mean is the obsessive use of “he said” and “she said.”
A friend insists on tagging every instance of dialogue with one of these. For me, this habit is like fingernails on the blackboard. His excuse is he took a writing class years ago where the instructor insisted the word “said” is invisible. I told him I found it annoying, so obviously it wasn’t invisible. He continues to write tagging every instance with “said,” and I refuse to read his books.

So, if you don’t use these tags, how do you let the reader know who is speaking?

First, write distinctive voices for your characters. If you have two characters and each of them has a distinctive speech pattern, rhythm, and POV, it may not be necessary to tag their words at all. Your reader should be able to identify the speaker simply from the word choice and position advocated by each.

If the conversation is between a man and a woman, the words may also be quite obvious.

But in cases where the scene features several characters, it may be necessary to indicate the speaker. One of the easiest ways to accomplish identification is by using actions. People aren’t just talking heads. They move, make gestures, and interact in nonverbal ways.

It helps for the writer to determine what each character does when under stress. Do they bite their nails, twist their hair, tense their jaw or clench a fist? When quizzical, does the character raise an eyebrow or frown or do a double take? Each of these reactions will not only help identify the speaker but also give depth to the character.

Are the characters drinking coffee? They can pick up their cups, take a sip, slam the cup down, etc. These actions can show the emotions involved as well as identify the speaker. If they are walking down the street, they can stop, turn, face another character, wave at a friend, etc.

What about body language? If a character leans forward, they are interested in what the other person is saying. If they lean back, they may either be resistant or they may relax. If characters are comfortable (and young), they may pull their feet up on the chair. If they are resistant, they may fold their arms. These gestures can add a level of subconscious information to the scene.

If characters are angry, they can slam drawers or doors, stomp out, thrust out their chins, etc.

The next time you are tempted to write “he said” or “she said,” try to find a more creative and interesting way to convey the identity of the speaker. Your readers will thank you.

Do you have other ways of identifying speakers? If so, what are they?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Why Write Medical Mysteries?

Today I welcome friend and fellow author J.L.Greger. I enjoy her mysteries because I always learn something from them. She uses real cutting-edge medical discoveries as the basis of her books. I’ve asked her to tell us about her latest book, Murder…A New Way to Lose Weight. Lorna

Birth of a Medical Mystery
Have you noticed? Many Americans have schizophrenic attitudes about food. If you doubt me, flip on your TV and watch the ads. First there’s one for a restaurant with pictures of smiling people and sizzling steaks or pizzas dripping with gooey cheese. Next comes a commercial for a diet regime or exercise product. The presenter is smiling as she effortlessly performs twenty abdominal crunches with some sort of “torture” contraption. Most of us would pant after moving the device twice. After a small break for the program, the ads are back.

Funny? Sad and pathetic? Annoying, especially to me, a former professor of nutrition. Maybe, that’s why I wrote Murder…A New Way to Lose Weight.

Let me tell you a little about my new medical mystery.

Dieting is hard. So is fitting into a new job where you aren’t wanted. Linda Almquist is trying to do both as the new interim associate dean of a medical school. Linda steps into a battle among the cliques of the school when she checks out allegations that two diet doctors are recklessly endangering the lives of their obese patients. Then she discovers one of the diet doctors—dead. She and the police suspect the other diet doctor of the murder. Maybe they’re wrong. The murders might be related to something in the past―something involving her boss, the Dean. While Linda fears for her job, the police fear for her life.

Another reason for setting my mystery in a medical school reflects my professional experiences. I was an associate dean in a medical school. Several of the scenes in Murder…A Way to Lose Weight recreate actual events. Associate deans are the recipients of responsibility for all the messes, which the head dean doesn’t want to touch.

Hundreds of clever, creative people (grouped in cliques based on disciplines, intellectual differences, and perceived past slights) work in a typical university health center. Occasionally, a few become bored with medical challenges and unleash their skills on each other. Thankfully, they generally seek revenge verbally, not physically. However, the comments of the medical examiner (Omar Otega) to the investigating police (Hitchings) in Murder…A Way to Lose Weight ring true.

“Motive?” Hitchings scanned the crowd and motioned Omar back to him. “Omar, do we even have a murder? Looks like natural causes.”

“Can’t tell,” replied Omar.

“But no bullet or stab wounds? So natural causes are likely.”

“You’re in a medical school.” Omar walked closer to Hitchings and spoke more softly. “Everyone in this building probably knows how to kill someone without using a gun or knife. A complete tox screen will take weeks. And this woman was only in her thirties, pretty young to die suddenly.”

My third reason to write a medical suspense novel was I found a series of scientific articles on a hot area of research—gut bacteria. Scientists have found the microflora (bacteria) in the gut change with weight loss. Scientists hypothesize they may be able to help patients increase weight loss and keep weight off by altering their gut bacteria. The science educator in me wanted to share that information.

Murder…A Way to Lose Weight (paperback & Kindle) is available from Amazon (

J. L. Greger likes to include tidbits of science and foreign locations in her thriller novels—I Saw You in Beirut (set partially in the Middle East), Ignore the Pain (set partially in Bolivia) and Malignancy (set partially in Cuba & winner of 2015 Public Safety Writers Association annual competition). Yes, she’s traveled to all those spots. Learn more about her at her website: or blog:

Monday, July 4, 2016

Independence Day

Today is Independence Day. At least this is the day we celebrate our independence from Britain. John Adams insisted we should celebrate on July 2, however, because that was the day the vote on Richard Henry Lee’s motion on independence was finally approved.
With all the attention the musical Hamilton has garnered, the American public is once again focused on our founding fathers.

I took an interest in the story of the struggle to get a resolution passed after we saw the movie 1776 for the first time. We immediately bought the cast recording and were surprised to find one of our favorite songs was missing from the movie. We saw the play onstage several times—with the missing song intact.

Several years later we learned that the film had been previewed at the White House, and then-President Richard Nixon objected so strongly to the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,’ that producer, Jack L. Warner, a close friend of the president, ordered it to be removed before the picture was released. In fact, all film of the song was supposed to have been destroyed.

However, for the 2002 release of the DVD version, the studio scoured old files and located all the film cut from the original theatrical and video releases. The current DVD version is the complete play.
The writers of the original play took much of the dialogue from the writings of actual participants as well as minutes of the Continental Congress. The cast brings each of the historical figures to life. They become real people.

While not 100% accurate, this drama provides a sense of the individuals who struggled with the concept of revolution—or treason, depending on which side they were on.

After seeing this production, I have never been able to take the process or the actual men involved for granted. If you haven’t seen this film, I strongly recommend it. Viewing it has become an annual event in our house.

Perhaps, in honor of John Adams, we should have watched it on July 2nd.

Of course, the final irony is that John Adams died on July 4, 1826, the same day as his friend and adversary Thomas Jefferson. The two men, who arguably made the greatest contribution to American independence, suffered a rift in their friendship for many years. However, Adams began to write to Jefferson, and they corresponded until the end of their lives.

As Adams died, he said, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” However, he was wrong. Jefferson had passed away five hours earlier.

So today we not only celebrate our freedom from Britain, but also the extraordinary lives of two exceptional patriots.

How will you celebrate today? Do you have any family rituals for the holiday?

Monday, June 27, 2016

Senior Year Electives

With the recent graduation season over, I was reminded of my own senior year in high school. I could have graduated a year ahead if I’d taken US Government in summer school after my junior year. It was the only required class I hadn’t taken. My friend, Susie, did just that and graduated early.

However, I didn’t want to miss all the special events of senior year, and after working so hard on academic subjects for three years, I wanted the opportunity to take a few electives. I also wanted to qualify for the National Honor Society, since any chance of college scholarships might depend on it.

At the time, we had six classes. US Government was my first class in the morning, and my advanced dance class was the last of the day. I had four periods to fill with classes I’d enjoy. What bliss!

First, I chose senior English since I planned to be an English major. I don’t remember much about it except we wrote a lot. I also took the one-semester World Lit. class with my favorite teacher, Mr. Ward. We studied the differences in the way different cultures approached the written word. I especially remember contrasting Oman Khayyam’s poetry with that of Yates and Dylan Thomas.

I then chose my only class in the Homemaking Department: Home and Family. This class was easy for me since I was already doing lots of the things it taught, like making the bed properly (bottom sheet right-side up, top sheet right-side down, and hospital corners), making and using a household budget, meal planning and shopping effectively, balancing a checkbook, repairing a lamp, etc. One of the most valuable lessons was how to repair a toilet. For many years, I replaced all the ball cocks and flush chains in our home.

Another one-semester class was Senior Problems. This was actually Psychology 101. We studied what makes us act the way we do. We had a long discussion on deceptive advertising. (Remember, this was the Mad Men era.) I’ve never looked at an ad the same way since.

I also took a semester of Beginning Spanish. We had a student teacher, and I confess, we drove him crazy. Once, I turned in my homework written backwards (right-to-left). I had taught myself to do it, and I can still read and write backwards. He returned my paper and told me to redo it. He said if I ever did it again, he’d give me an F.

Finally, I took an art class—the first I’d ever taken. And I LOVED it. I recently posted a photo of a tree I drew early in the class.
On a hot afternoon, we walked across to the cool garden behind the library to sketch. I’d always loved this tree, so I decided to choose it as my subject. I’ve always liked this quick study in ink on paper. Over the years, it became discolored, so I tried to clean up the background to restore the original effect.

I did a portrait of my favorite subject. Not great, but close enough to recognize.
This was a quick study using colored pencils.

In college, I took another art class. I loathed the instructor. In his opinion, anything that resembled real life wasn’t art. I disagreed. My grade reflected our disagreement.

I did a dual study in charcoal of Larry. Later on, I cut out the portrait and discarded the profile. (It wasn't accurate, and the whole dual study was too large.) It hung on the wall for a time until it fell and the glass broke, damaging the paper. But I still like it.
On one project, my college instructor and I agreed. Each student was to make a stabile. I took a small wooden block and attached interlocking quasi-circles of wire to the center. I painted the whole thing flat black, and added a red Christmas ornament in the middle. For some reason, the instructor liked it and asked to keep it as a demonstration to future classes. He did, and I got an A for the project, thus saving my GPA.

During my freshman year in college, the pressure was on again. I had a California State Scholarship and had to remain on the Dean’s List to maintain it. (I did.) I liked my classes, but not the school. And I never enjoyed another year as glorious as my senior year in high school.

What was your favorite year in school? What was your favorite class? What class do you wish you had taken?

Monday, June 20, 2016

Here Comes Summer

After a week of graduations and celebrations of the end of the school year, I’m taken back to my own school days.
When June arrived, I couldn’t wait to be free for the summer. Although I loved school, I looked forward to spending three months with my friends.

I remember waking to the scent of lilacs drifting into my bedroom with the warm summer breeze. They weren’t supposed to grow in our area, but my dad was an amazing gardener, and he planted the bush. It bloomed every year, long after he died. So did the sweet peas he planted. Each year, he saved the seeds at the end of the season to plant the following year. Several years after he died, Mom pulled up all the volunteer plants and threw them over the back fence. But those stubborn flowers didn’t die. Instead, they came up on the other side every year for as long as I can remember. Both sweet peas and lilacs are among my favorite flowers. They remind me of Dad.

We had lots of kids our age on our block, so we had no problem finding someone to play with. When we were small, we roller skated up and down the sidewalks. One year, we used chalk on Diane’s driveway and garage to create a roller rink.

When we got a little older, we rode our bikes to the park where we did crafts, played tennis, and swam in the swimming pool. We often took picnic lunches and ate at the covered tables. We sat beneath the trees on the hill and rested or read.

I spent many hours in the shade of the willow tree in our front yard reading. When the other kids ran around in the heat of the day, I searched for a cool spot. I have never been able to spend much time in the sun. My fair skin has always burned and peeled or burned and blistered. But books were my escape. Through them, I could travel to other locations and meet new people.

One summer, a Sharon’s grandmother taught us to play canasta. We played every day that summer at one house or another. The tournament continued the next summer. I wish I still remembered how to play, but unfortunately I’ve forgotten.

One time, we had a snack stand. We sold hot dogs and other food from our kitchen window. My mother was painting the bathroom that day, and I still can’t believe she allowed us to do this. I’m sure the supplies probably cost more than we made.

As the afternoons cooled, we took to the streets. We played Red Rover and other team games. At dusk, we played ‘Ditch,’ a variation on tag. We could hide anywhere in the front yards on our side of the street. ‘It’ stayed near a streetlight and counted to 100. We each waited, hardly breathing until ‘It’ left the streetlight. Then we ran to the streetlight and tagged home.

We stayed out until a parent called their children home for dinner. Several adults had distinctive whistles. As soon as the first of the kids went home, our game broke up.

We often had sleep-overs with our friends. Sometimes we slept outdoors under the stars.

Our parents didn’t have to worry about where we were because we congregated at one house or another. Most mothers stayed home, so an adult was always present. They were friends, so everyone knew where we were and what we were doing.

Looking back, we had an ideal Norman Rockwell-type childhood. Our lives at home may not have been perfect, but our neighborhood was a safe place with families who cared about us.

By the time September rolled around, I was ready to return to school, although lots of my friends were not.

How did you spend your summers? What are your favorite memories?

Monday, June 13, 2016

Happy Graduation

'Tis the season for graduations. Whether from preschool, grammar school, middle school, high school, college, grad school, or trade school, it marks a major transition in life. Graduations are rites of passage, of which we have few in today’s world.
Graduation marks both an ending and a beginning. It represents the end of one level of education and the start of another, or the next step in life.

I remember my grammar school graduation. We lined up on the playground and marched into the auditorium. Several people spoke, and we sang a couple of songs. Our names were called, and we were handed our certificates.

Then, in the evening, we had a party. Some of the kids danced, but no one asked me. I remember feeling such disappointment. For me, graduation was anti-climactic.

Last year, we had a grammar school reunion. I was surprised to learn how insecure we all felt. The guy who was the class heartthrob (yes, you, Jack) said he was totally oblivious to how many girls had crushes on him. At the time, my crush was Larry. Some things never change.

I remember high school graduation vividly. I went all through school from kindergarten with most of the same people. We began as babies together. After high school, we scattered. Until our reunion in 2014, I hadn’t seen or talked to most of my classmates since the night of the all-night party following the ceremony in the stadium where we collected our diplomas.

This year, we bought cards for three girls.

Our neighbor, Claire, graduates from grammar school. She is fourteen going on thirty—scary smart and wise beyond her years. She is also in our critique group, and has been since she was ten. All of us old folks are so proud of her. She is one of our best critics.

The daughter of a young lady who grew up across the street from us. She spent lots of time with us growing up, and we were like her second set of parents. (Her folks served the same role for our daughter.)

Kaitlyn is graduating from high school. When we received her announcement—with photos—we could hardly believe how adult she looked! We haven’t seen her in a couple of years. My, how she’s changed!

Our last graduate is Brooke, the young lady we have been mentoring. We attended her ceremony on Monday morning. After working with her all year, we wanted to be present when she received her diploma.

Each of these girls will soon begin the next phase of their lives. One will go on to high school, and the other two will start college.

Graduations are special times and deserve to be acknowledged.

So, happy graduation to all the 2016 graduates! Congratulations on your accomplishments, and all the best on your next step.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Life Isn't Fair

Life isn’t fair. That’s just how it is. It doesn’t always make sense. In fact, it often doesn’t make sense. Don’t bother asking, “Why?” There simply isn’t always an answer. Actually, there usually isn’t a satisfactory answer.
If life were fair, I wouldn’t have lost my dad when I was seven and my brother was four. I did. (Today would have been his 100th birthday.)

If life were fair, tragedies would only happen to those who deserved them. They don’t.

If life were fair, the best people would live long lives, and those who abused drugs, alcohol, and other substances would die young. They often don’t.

Mean drunks live long lives.

Innocent children die. Parents leave their families far too young.

If life were fair, each family would experience problems equally. They don’t.

Our friends have had more than their share of difficulties. Tom badly injured his knee years ago while working as a firefighter. The first surgery to repair it was botched. In the intervening years, he’s had numerous additional surgeries. None solved the problem—or relieved the pain. Last year, he had a knee replacement. A week after the surgery, his tibia shattered. As a result, he had his leg amputated below the knee. A week later, he had a heart attack. He recovered and is now learning to function with a ‘bionic’ prosthesis.

His wife, Robin, had a stroke several years after Tom’s injury. It was followed by a heart attack. Either one could have killed her, but they left her with some paralysis. While in the hospital, she contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion. She has survived far longer than the original prognosis.

We sometimes compare their situation to that of the biblical family of Job.

Another family has also experienced far more than their share of tragedy. The mother died at age thirty-seven leaving three small children ages four, six, and twelve. I was her same age and identified with the younger kids. The father died about ten years later.

This past week, we learned that one of the youngest son’s newborn twin sons died suddenly. Not fair!

How do people survive these kinds of shattering events?

The answer for me is: faith. I truly don’t see how anyone can get through life’s toughest times without believing in something larger, more powerful than we are and that there is a greater plan. The comfort of believing we will see our loved ones again keeps me going and at peace.

Each of us copes in our own way, but I also believe having a group of friends who will stand with us in compassion and support can keep us going when we couldn’t do it on our own.

Life isn’t fair. Nothing is guaranteed. Each of these devastating events—whether our own or others’—is a reminder of how fragile life is.

For me, the only appropriate response is gratitude for the good things in life, for those around us, and for whatever time we are given.

How do you cope with loss—your own and others'?

Monday, May 30, 2016

Being a Mentor

When I was working, I was blessed to have had several mentors who taught, advised, and guided my career. I’ve always been grateful to them. Larry had also had wonderful mentoring, so we both knew the value of someone to show the way.

Last summer, our daughter’s best friend from high school contacted us. Her high school-aged daughter, Brooke, would start her senior year in the fall. For her senior project, she was required to find a mentor to work with her throughout the year. Since her subject was writing, her mom asked us if we would be her mentors.
 Brooke attends a college preparatory high school located on the campus of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (Larry's alma mater). The requirements are high, and expectations exceed most other public schools.

We began meeting with her during the summer. She described her intention for approaching her project and told us what she expected from us.

During our initial meetings, in addition to answering questions, we loaned her several of our favorite books on writing. As the project progressed, we suggested others. When she completed each of them, we discussed what she had learned and why she had found it valuable.
Early on, we suggested she consider writing a novel during the year, culminating with publication before graduation. We challenged her to start with NaNoWriMoNational Novel Writing Month, during which writers are challenged to write every day in November, completing a book by the end of the month.

In early December, we got together with Brooke and asked about her book. Although she finished the book, she decided she didn’t like the story and didn’t think it was something she wanted to publish. In fact, she never shared it with us. However, she started another book, and we talked quite a bit about what she had learned from the one she wasn’t happy with. We told her nearly every writer we knew had at least one or two early works they would never complete. (I have a couple myself.)

Since I also edit, I discussed the process and my approach. In the spring, a client asked me to help him self-publish his book. With his permission, Brooke spent the daywith the client on the phonewhile I uploaded the manuscript and covers (one for the ebook and a second for the print one). She sat next to me, watched each step on the screen, took notes, and asked questions. At the end of the day, she understood the entire self-publishing process.

While we were working with Brooke, Larry completed one of his sci-fi books in the McGregor Chronicles series. We always use beta readers to review each finished book. We asked Brooke to read this one and give us detailed comments. She did, and we appreciated her contributions.

Near the end of the school year, we began discussing the marketing and publicity necessary in order to promote the work. We covered the use of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, website, and blog.  

Throughout the process, Brooke asked thoughtful and considered questions. Many were about identifying and locating a reader base, creating memorable characters and unique plot lines, and writing series books.

We thoroughly enjoyed spending time with her. Her interest and enthusiasm made the whole process a pleasure for us. I certainly hope she felt the same way.

Last week, she prepared and presented a PowerPoint of her project. She told us she got an outstanding grade. Judging from the time and effort she had put in, we weren’t surprised.

In two weeks, we plan to attend her graduation. We’ll feel nearly as proud of her as her folks as we hear her name announced.

Have you ever had the opportunity to be a mentor? Did you enjoy the process? Would you do it again? (We would.)