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Strong: Word-lifting Techniques (Natasha Storfer)

As I sit in my local YMCA, watching my toddler learn to doggie paddle, I’m surrounded by people becoming stronger. A familiar gentleman lifts from his wheelchair and is lowered to the pool for his laps. Retirees wearing floats wade through water aerobics in the deep end. The woman training for a triathlon arrived before I did, and will be here long after I leave. My daughter’s class is building muscles, and learning to swim for the first time. With every movement, they are strengthening their bodies and demonstrating determination.

Can we apply those examples to become stronger writers? Yes!

Join a Group

There is power in groups:

  • Accountability
  • Continuing education (a good group will have this)
  • Peer encouragement

Mentors and Examples

Learn from others that have “been there and done that.” Find a mentor, preferably one with a similar writing style.

  • Read their blog, their books, the books they’ve written on how to write, or even send correspondence.
  • How do they create? Can you incorporate any of their techniques?
  • If you are feeling weak, find a teacher – and add more accountability.

Find a “Spotter”

Find someone with a good balance for your level of writing and goals to “spot” you, as someone would when lifting weights. Check in with each other to make sure both of you are okay.

  • “How is writing going?”
  • “Can you help me with this paragraph?”
  • “Are you going to the next critique group?”

Your spotter is also someone you spot for. Trust and respect go both ways in this relationship.


I see the same faces all week at the YMCA. The swimmers turned growth/improvement into a habit.


  • Today
  • Tomorrow
  • Every day

Even a sentence is better than a blank page.


When the water gets deep, keep swimming.

No one always feels “in the mood” to write. This separates the pros from the hobbyists. Sink or swim. And when you’re at the end of your buoy…


Find something that motivates you, which is specific to you. Have a goal, and a reward for each goal.

It can be productive in ways other than getting words on a page:

  • Glitter gel pens for editing
  • A new case for your laptop
  • The latest non-fic how-to writing book

It’s wonderful if something practical gets you writing but if…

  • chocolate
  • coffee
  • a “brain candy” paperback

…get the words on the page – go for it*. Just keep it balanced.
(See Spotter for accountability)


We grow at our own rate. Every writer has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Learn to improve your weak points and write in a way that highlights your strengths. The toddlers weren’t training for a marathon and the wheelchair-bound man used the tools available to help him get into the water. They know where they are, and work with what they have.

  • Know them
  • Study about them
  • Act on what you learn

Don’t Forget the Fundamentals

Just like push-ups (groan), there are things that we need to improve, even if we hate them.
(Spelling, my continual nemesis, mocks all software attempts to correct it.) No challenge = no improvement.

  • Do you have “favorite words” to eliminate?
  • Have a passion for passive verbs?
  • Are most of your sentences a similar length?
  • Be self-aware and find your fundamental challenge – and strengthen those writing muscles.

Invest in Yourself

We all need rest and recovery to improve. Invest in equipment – the most important being your mind.

  • Get enough sleep
  • Go on a walk
  • Schedule breaks

Take a moment to think of how you are feeling and how that impacts your writing. Find your needs and fill them.

Mix it Up

If your writing becomes repetitive, or you don’t see any improvement, you may have hit a plateau. Try something outside your comfort zone as a warm-up, stretch, and change the routine.

  • Like to write ‘em long? Try some flash fiction.
  • Try flipping the perspective in one of your chapters.
  • Write in a specific genre? Put a few different ones in a hat and write a short story in the genre you pull.


I hope you find your prefect combination to grow stronger!


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Harlequin Lover (L. Stewart Hearl)

In honor of National Poetry Month, which…

…was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. Over the years, it has become the largest literary celebration in the world with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets celebrating poetry’s vital place in our culture.

Harlequin Lover
©1990 L. Stewart Hearl 

Click here to listen along as Ada Khoury performs both vocal and instruments.

You’ll find her by the pool side,
While her old man’s off at work.
Today’s lover is a Count,
While her husband’s still a clerk.
Right now, it’s off to London,
Leaving her home far behind.
Her passport’s stamped in hand,
She’s crossing oceans in her mind.

In her mind she’s been to Paris.
In her mind she’s been to Spain.
Oh she’s seen the snows of Moscow,
And she’s tasted English rain.
She’s traveled the globe more than once,
Beneath the paper cover,
Face to face, in deep embrace,
With her, Harlequin Lover.

It doesn’t feel like cheating,
For her lovers are not real.
But paperback fantasies,
Make each romance a thrill.
It’s off to balls in castled halls,
Or an embassy today.
A dark stranger by her side,
Who will sweep her clean away.

In her mind she’s been to Paris.
In her mind she’s been to Spain.
Oh she’s seen the snows of Moscow,
And she’s tasted English rain.
She’s traveled the globe more than once,
Beneath the paper cover,
Face to face, in deep embrace,
With her, Harlequin Lover.

Yes her husband treats her well,
As well as he is able.
His heart is good, his spirit fair,
There’s food upon the table.
But he’s away so often,
She spends hours by herself.
And when she feels romantic,
She just reaches for the shelf.

In her mind she’s been to Paris.
In her mind she’s been to Spain.
Oh she’s seen the snows of Moscow,
And she’s tasted English rain.
She’s traveled the globe more than once,
Beneath the paper cover,
Face to face, in deep embrace,
With her, Harlequin Lover.

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Developing Strong Female Characters for Texas Fiction

Please join us this coming Saturday, March 11th, for a special event!

See details below and on our Events page.


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10,000 (Jennifer Kuzbary)

“Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”

A sense of relief came over me when I read that sentence in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. This “10,000-Hour Rule,” to which he devotes an entire chapter, is one that arises repeatedly in studies of highly accomplished people. Gladwell lists a few of these: “composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you.”

Master criminals? Okay. Fiction writers? Even better! That’s what I want to be. I’m studying* to be a fiction writer, and how wonderful to discover there’s a reason why I’m not “great” at it. Not yet, anyway.

Most of my writing experience is in technical and other nonfiction writing. I am discovering that learning to write fiction is a process, one that is time-consuming to learn.

You would think the process to be a lot easier, especially when you enjoy reading fiction as much as I do. Published novels are so polished and together, and yet I know getting them into that condition requires a lot of hard work. Hours of practice seem to ensure the actual effort will be at least a little easier. This is my guess. As I said, I’m not there yet. Not even close.

“The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything,” according to Daniel Levitin who is quoted by Gladwell in the book. “It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”

Another interesting discovery, not necessarily from Gladwell, is setting a timer can be more productive than just sitting down willy-nilly to write. I find that when I time myself, say 30 minutes without a break, I’m more pleased with the outcome. (Especially when I commit to not looking to see how much time is left, trusting the timer will in fact go off when time is up.) The quality of my thoughts seems somehow better, even if not everything that lands on the page is that useful. Overall, the flow of nonstop words for a set amount of time can generate ideas that you later incorporate into a larger work. I’m using this method now to practice what I’m learning in two books on writing fiction. (See below.)

I’d like to encourage you to remember the 10,000-hour rule as you write. Also, try timed writings if you haven’t already. These can be either hand-written or typed. Either way, the mini-deadline can improve your creativity and increase your output. Timing your writing also makes it easier to count the practice hours that will help you become a great writer.

Finally, if you have tips, suggestions, comments, observations, recommended practices, or anything else related to writing great fiction, you can share them below.

Good writing to us all! No, make that great writing to all who strive for that magic number.


* Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer and Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway


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Love Me! (L. Stewart Hearl)

Well, maybe not love, but, as a writer, one of your goals should be to get your reader to develop empathy toward your main character. You want your reader to really care what happens to him. If he/she is threatened, you want your reader to feel a bit of anger at the one who did it. By the same token, you might want your reader to dislike or even hate the bad guy.

In both cases you must give your reader reasons to like the hero and dislike the villain. Simply telling the reader these characters are good or bad lacks any emotional impact.

When the Going Gets Tough, the Sentences Get Shorter

During an action sequence, this would be a big mistake: “As we came around the corner of the damp and poorly-lit dungeon, the thousand-pound, yellow and sickly green Thoraxy, with its huge eye and giant, pink bunny ears, took a solid stand, which seemed to indicate, to me at least, that it wasn’t going to let us pass no matter what we could do.”

Not very exciting, was it? Why? There are far too many words here. Description is important, but a large helping of description during an action sequence completely kills the mood of excitement you are trying to create. Incidentally, try not to use very long sentences anyway. It doesn’t impress anyone except retired English professors. You should use sentences no longer than eight or nine words during an action sequence. No one pontificates when they’re in a battle and lives.

Excerpted from the Kindle Book “Creative Writing Essentials” by me (L. Stewart Hearl)

For those who are 55 or older and live in Harris County, Texas, I give a one hour lecture based on the aforementioned book at Glazier Senior Education Center (16600 Pine Forest Lane). In addition to my class, there are literally hundreds of other classes given there on subjects related to health, gardening, hobbies, etc. and all classes are free. My next class will be on February 28th at 1 PM.

Here’s a link:

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Inspirations from the Schlock Fringe (Mark Phillips)

Today I have a tale of art, synchronicity, enthusiasm, nostalgia and the internet. I’ve just had a good couple of days pursuing connections between personal obsessions. This particular tale might not resonate with you because my own interests are idiosyncratic, but perhaps the example will inspire you to explore paths of synchronicity uniquely suited to your own interests and cherished memories.

It started with me recording a sword and sandal epic called The Colossus of Rhodes on TCM. Sword and sandal pictures or peplums were usually rather cheap Italian action films popular in the days before spaghetti westerns (late 50s to mid 60s). They featured heroes such as Hercules, Maciste, or Atlas fighting evil and oppression. Shot in Spain or Greece mostly with badly-dubbed Italian casts with a few washed up or D-list American actors, they were an attempt to piggy back on the popularity of Hollywood successes such as Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments, and Spartacus.

Now there was only one reason why I wanted to see The Colossus of Rhodes: it was the first film directed by the great film director Sergio Leone. His later spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West is arguably one of the best films ever made. Well, suffice it to say  The Colossus of Rhodes is not one of the best films ever made. It is a rather routine would-be epic helped along by a serviceable and professional acting job by American actor Rory Calhoun. Calhoun was adept at rugged tough guy roles such as cowboys and gangsters. He had actually served three years in jail in his youth for robberies and car theft. In 1955, his agent leaked the scandal of Calhoun’s prison record to a gossip rag as a substitute for a story he convinced them to suppress, an exposé on his other client Rock Hudson’s secret homosexual life. So, in a sense, Rory Calhoun’s greatest contribution to film was that his sacrifice made possible the post-1955 career of Rock Hudson. No Rory Calhoun, no Giant or Ice Station Zebra.

Anyway, I had never seen The Colossus of Rhodes, and now I had. Yay. Of course, TCM was showing several other typical examples of peplums that week, which leads me to my experience of Atlas. Naturally if there was money to be made by Italians ripping-off Hollywood period epics, could schlock-meister Roger Corman be far behind? Shot in Greece on a budget that would make the Italians cringe, Atlas was movie-making on the cheap: Spartacus cost $12 million; Atlas cost $108,000, and it shows. The warriors’ shields look to be made of tin foil and cardboard. Also, it’s hard to make epic battles convincing when only fifty inexperienced extras show up.

So, Atlas ought to be a simply awful film. But here’s the thing: it’s not. First of all, it’s got a reasonably literate, intelligent script by Charles B. Griffith. Griffith is a sort of underground Hollywood legend, penning lurid scripts for Corman, usually cranked out in a few weeks for a few hundred dollars. Griffith is responsible for the acerbically satirical masterpieces A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors (a musical version of which, my wife’s nephew Stefan starred in locally a few years ago). Griffith not only wrote Atlas, he also managed the production, was the assistant director, and acted as an extra. The dialogue is often subtle, witty, and even legitimately philosophical.

The intelligence of the screenplay was aided in no small part by the acting of a quartet of D-list actors who at that time were a sort of Corman stock troupe. The villain of the piece was played with an infectious charismatic integrity by Frank Wolff. An underrated actor who committed suicide at 43, Wolff played most of his roles in low-budget Italian productions. His most prestigious role was as Vartan Damadian in Elia Kazan’s America, America. But let’s not forget a small role he played in the previously mentioned Leone masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West. He is the farmer, Brett McBain, murdered by Henry Fonda early in the picture. (Do you feel the tendrils of synchronicity lurking beneath the disparate details?)

The star of Atlas was Michael Forest. Although his face, voice, and physique were instantly familiar, I couldn’t originally place him. Fans of anime might recognize Forest’s voice as he is in a good number of dubbed versions. But his most famous role, for me, was as the Greek god Apollo in the original Star Trek episode, “Who Mourns for Adonais,” in 1967.

The theme of my wandering story so far has been hard working D-listers producing as much excellence as they can manage in the outer slums of the artistic world, sometimes rising above their origins to realize their potentials as with Leone, sometimes coming tantalizingly close to greatness only to die young and forgotten as with Wolff, but most often just tooling along producing the occasional memorable diamonds in the rough as with Griffith and Forest. As with all synchronicity-based stories this one could be spun out forever in fascinating ways, but I’ll end with an uplifting little coda showing that the work of scratching out tiny moments of brilliance despite the restrictions of poverty row production is ongoing and inspiring.

While researching all the above interconnections I discovered that the star of Atlas, Michael Forest, had played the role of Apollo in Star Trek more than once. Paramount Pictures has allowed the production of fan-fiction based on its Star Trek franchise so long as it is not made for commercial ends. So, crowdfunded and largely cast with amateur fan-actors, we get the web-based “fourth season” of the original Star Trek series Star Trek Continues. With meticulously recreated sets and costumes, talented pastiches of the original casts’ performances, canny use of the possibilities of modern special effects, and some writing that would make Roddenberry proud, Star Trek Continues is as close as I’ve seen to watching the original series.

And I only discovered this remarkable series because I was researching Michael Forest, an obscure actor from an ultra-cheap sword and sandal picture from the 1960s. 46 years after playing Apollo in that original Star Trek episode, Forest reprised the role in the first episode of Star Trek Continues, “Pilgrim of Eternity.” His acting in the original episode was brilliant and it was again in the new one. It made my day. And in this day and age of over-produced Hollywood mega-blockbusters (the recent Star Trek Beyond had a budget of $185 million), you can still find thriving let’s-put-on-the-best-show-we-can-with-what-we-can-scrounge gems. Vic Mignogna (actor, writer, director, producer, etc. of that first episode of Star Trek Continues) funded it out of his own pocket. He funded the next 3 episodes with a Kickstarter budget of $126,000. That is about $16,000 in the currency of Roger Corman’s 1961 Atlas era. (And as a personal note to my mother, yes, Vic, who plays Kirk in the new series, does have a scene where he appears without his shirt—I think you will be pleased!)

I hope you have enjoyed this ramble through the byways of synchronicity and I hope you get as much pleasure while undertaking your own rambles in search of synchronicity and inspiration.

Mark Phillips (2017)

Note: All of the data assembled above comes exclusively from Wikipedia.


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In All Humiliation (C. J. Sweet)

A worldwide observance of Humiliation Day occurred on January 3, 2017, in an effort to raise awareness of the negative effects of humiliation. Unlike humility, which is a virtue characterized by inner strength, humiliation is a degradation of another human being through intimidation, unwarranted criticism, or mistreatment that results in the lowering or loss of that person’s self-respect. Many times, it is a tactic employed by people to cut other people down in order to feel good about themselves, usually a sign of insecurity. That same insecurity comes through as a defense mechanism if a person feels threatened by the words or actions of another. Often, we defend ourselves automatically to cover our own inadequacies or to avoid having to face our own private demons.


For example, parents feel they have a right, nay, a duty, to “teach” their children, a concept often used to excuse using hateful, hurting words that cut into a child’s mind and heart. Such criticism is destructive rather than constructive, and can linger a lifetime. For example, every time I visit my mother, she asks me why I’m still fat, knowing full well the roadblocks I battle daily, including diabetes, depression, and a sinus arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). You would think, being a Registered Nurse, she would at least show her own daughter the same compassion as one of her patients, right? Wrong. Being verbally abused and unloved as a child, she seems determined to repeat the same, horrendous behavior toward yet another generation. What if she had said, “I’m worried about your health. Is there anything I can do to help you with your weight?” To me, that would have been a bouquet of flowers in comparison to hot coals, and instead of being defensive and crushed, I would have felt assured of her love and deep concern.


Recently I was privileged to experience a presentation by author Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, who has written several histories based on the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest and Canada. Her focus has often been on aviation and the overlooked role of women and First Nations pilots during WWII. Also, she is the editor of a book titled In This Together in which she compiled fifteen stories from Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers in Canada, explaining how the history of colonialism impacted society and how the country “might move forward on the path toward reconciliation.” Her words brought to mind my own country’s history of humiliation and degradation toward those not of Eastern European descent. This includes not only the slaughter and subjugation of the indigenous Native Americans whose country was claimed by invading Europeans, but the Japanese placed in internment camps during WWII, the Chinese who built our great railroads, the African Americans, who are still struggling toward reconciliation, the undocumented immigrants who are now being told to go home, and more recently, innocent Muslims caught in the middle of a mad search for terrorists. With our own history of fear-mongering, slavery, and blatant discrimination, the United States may have more to regret and/or apologize for than other countries when it comes to the humiliation of others. And yet, it continues even today, with a lingering fear of those who are considered “different,” and we still give vent to that fear with unwarranted actions and hateful words.


In “The Power of Words” by The Huffington Post, Yehuda Berg says words possess “energy and power” and have the ability “to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.” (emphasis added)

The article exhorts us to listen, to think before we speak, to view gossip as trivial and a waste of our attention. It mentions Nelson Mandela and how his years of solitude in prison taught him how “precious” words are. Mohammed Quhtani, a world-renowned speaker, says words, “whether verbally or in writing,” determine how others perceive you, and that they can build or destroy relationships. Perhaps, in our world of social media, we should think before we speak, so as not to hurt ourselves or others? How many times have I humiliated myself by speaking (or texting) before I thought? Humiliation is not something you want to pass on.


As writers with the possibility of reaching a wide range of readers, we need to be continually cognizant of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 quote, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” After all, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proved how words can change an entire society for the better, and Adolph Hitler proved the opposite, leading millions into a spiraling whirlpool of hate, death, and destruction. King Solomon, in Proverbs 18:21, said that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Even more awe-inspiring are the words in the 38th chapter of the Book of Job, when God spoke the world into being and the morning stars sang together. If that’s not power, I don’t know what is.


In 1624, John Donne wrote a simple little poem called, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” referring to funeral bells being rung when a person dies. His words, often quoted by others, inspired Ernest Hemingway to use it as a title for a book. In his poem, Donne said, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man in a piece of the Continent, a part of the main…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in all mankind. Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Imagine the beautiful music echoing across the land if, when we humiliated another, we had to toll a funeral bell for causing the death of an innocent spirit? Perhaps, and not just on Humiliation Day, we should harken to John Donne’s parting words, and avoid humiliating others. It only serves to diminish the humanity in us all.

J. Sweet


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