Subjunctive Text–The English Answer to a Lack of Emotion

Apr 25, 2017 by

Subjunctive Text–The English Answer to a Lack of Emotion

Saturday in Montgomery, Alabama, famed novelist Rita Mae Brown spoke during a workshop at the Alabama Book Festival about the hole in the English language caused by our vocabulary lacking the adequate words to “articulate emotion.” She says Subjunctive Text is English’s answer to our language problem.

Rita Mae Brown at the Alabama Book Festival April 22, 2017.

I had expected a lecture on how to get published as a writer and got 50 minutes of mind-bending perspective on the tools we writers have–think of a mechanic with a red Craftsman box.

We have a “warriors’ language,” she said. It’s not equipped to describe emotions. At least not like Spanish or French.

Thankfully, Ms. Brown says we have an answer to this problem–the subjunctive text–what is imagined, wished or possible.

Her challenge to all writers: “Can you put the truth on the page?”


The Close Your Eyes In A Restaurant Test

Ms. Brown offered writers a great tool about observation. “Go to a restaurant, close your eyes, and then listen to the falsity in what you hear,” she said. “You’ll hear people change their voice, derogatorily, to talk to children. You’ll hear the fake laugh of conversation. You’ll be amazed at the anxiety of social situations,” that you can hear by sitting there with your eyes closed.

She said men drop their voices a half octave to talk to women they’re interested in wooing. “It’s natural, like the male pigeon fanning his feathers, he can’t help it.” Women, she said, raise their voice, look upward, and raise their hands to gesture.

“Listen to the pauses and how people breathe when they talk. See how many of them talk from their diaphragm and mean what they’re saying.”

Governments and Passive Voice

Ms. Brown talked about the use of active and passive voice, saying men use active voice a lot, and governments use passive voice to cover their tracks. “Bombs went off earlier today,” she said. “That doesn’t tell you anything about who made that order, who set them off, who got bombed, or even the time it happened. Government makes use of passive voice to cover its tracks. Never forget that “language can be used to conceal as well as reveal.” 

Dramatic Epiphanies 

A real epiphany in life she says is something dramatic, though some are indeed quiet. “But they almost all paralyze us for a few moments when they happen.” Her point was that we, as writers, should pay attention to this in our characters. These events are like “faces falling off Mount Rushmore.”

There are times when epiphanies are “quiet and you suddenly realize you’ve changed and have either been deepened by pain or enlarged by success,” but they happen and when they happen in writing, we should give them the space they are due. “But then you must start again with a subtle pause in the action.”

Ms. Brown says people read because they need a break from the miseries of the day. So that we can learn how to survive the situations that life throws at us. “People look for curious characters,” she said.


During her first workshop and a later presentation, she spent considerable time talking about animals. “All higher vertebrates have their own language,” and she encouraged the study. “The fox is a vermin,” she said. “It’s hardly been studied at all, but don’t you think it’d be wise for us to spend some time trying to figure out how in January the fox seems to know what the food supply is going to be like in May?”

Another curious observation–“Animals, like your dog and unlike humans, don’t lie.”

Writers We Should Read

Ms. Brown said there are certain examples in the English language that we should all strive to emulate, but most likely will never achieve. Virginia Wolf was the top of the list. She loves Faulkner and then said Toni Morrison’s Beloved is crucial reading for its literary elegance and use of the English language.

I really enjoyed what she had to say. She bordered on controversial political jabs here and there, but no one seemed to mind, even in a Southern town like Mungumry.

She said some good things to know as a writer.

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The Emotional Craft of Fiction

Mar 9, 2017 by

Donald Maass is a literary editing GOD. There is no better way to say it.

I’ve now maintained a snail’s pace, using pen and stickies, to actively absorb every possible word of three of his books–Writing the Breakout Novel, Writing 21st Century Fiction–and now The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

During the fall, I took the Revision class offered by J. Suzanne Frank, the director of Southern Methodist University’s The Writer’s Path program. The go-to book Suzanne recommended for that phase of writing was Maass’ Writing 21st Century Fiction. What an amazing book it is. But….

Suzanne, whom I refer to as the Jedi Writing Master, didn’t know about this new work Maass published late last fall. Heading into back surgery last week, I had Amazon rush me a copy knowing the value of Maass’ work. Lord have mercy! At one in the morning yesterday I was photographing entire pages of Mr. Maass’ work, the part about the mirror moment–a term I’d only heard Suzanne use up until I found it in Maass’ book–and I decried she should just hand out the simple section on mirror moments where Maass says, “If you haven’t felt this emotion, essentially you don’t have a mirror moment!”

That was one of those sun-ray shining only on you during a dark, dank, cloudy day moments. My mirror moment in my present draft of The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club is heavy, but with the aide of Mr. Maass’ study suggestions it’s about to become a whole lot more intense.

Case in point: Kirk Carson, 14, has worked with his three closest friends all summer to build a the fort of his dreams in the woods off KI Sawyer AFB, (Upper Peninsula of Michigan), in 1977, largely in an effort to forget about his first true love, Rose Maxwell, dumping him for the base bully, Billy Banks, the son of the Wing Commander. While in the woods, the boys are met with a series of triumphs and setbacks, natural, self-inflicted, and mysterious–Lewis Luntz keeps saying it’s the Chippewa Haints who still roam the woods of Hiawatha–but what they don’t know is it’s a Soviet spy hiding out in the woods tracking the number of B-52s armed with nuclear weapons and by being in the woods off base, the boys have encroached on his hideout. The way it turns out, the spy has made it look like the boys will be safer under the leadership of Billy Banks and they vote to remove Kirk, and he feels their act is the ultimate in betrayals.

I have all that in decent shape in my MSS, but what I now need to do is the exercises in Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction, to help my readers feel the utter agony and humiliation Kirk feels as he learns the other three have already made the decision, have invited Billy–and Rose–to their “secret” fort in the woods and everything he has worked for and dreamed of, has been ripped away from him like a scab.

Did I mention that the day before, Kirk was also humiliated by Billy Banks–coaxed into jumping off the Devils Ledge at Chimney Rock, a sixty-five foot plunge to a Little Laughing Whitefish Falls Lagoon liquid enema? Kirk has had two bad days back to back and so now it’s time to do some of the exercises Maass has on page 99–“Is your protagonist lost or seeing a way forward?” “What does it feel like to be suspended, lifted out of time, in a moment of pure being?”–I’m ready to write those answers.

The book is a GREAT read. I’ve had a dustup with some dude on Twitter the past few hours who is all bent up about marked/unmarked linguistics. You see I tried to respectfully convey to Mr. Maass that for me, he over uses the word BOTH when he links two items together with the conjunction AND. In my copy of the book, I simply began marking them out–there are that many. One of my peeves. There’s nothing wrong with the use of the word BOTH, but it becomes a visual stop sign with repeated use and many writers on my Heather Sellers inspired 101 book list do it, too. Other than that, I love Mr. Maass’ insight and his devotion to helping writers like myself learn more about the craft of fiction writing.

This is a very good book. I think, for where I am right now, the most important of the three and it could not have come along for me at a better time. Thank you, Mr. Maass. I’m looking forward to what you do next.

Oh, an by the way, Suzanne said yesterday she was jumping over to Amazon to order her own copy. Here’s the link if you’ve not already followed one of the previous: The Emotional Craft of Fiction


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Pretty Has A Price

Aug 6, 2016 by

I’ve now finished the first draft of my third book–each one unique and completely unrelated to the other. That’s three written since I began the Writer’s Path program at Southern Methodist University in August of 2014.

The word count of Pretty Has A Price, draft one.

The word count of Pretty Has A Price, draft one.

The working title of Book Three is now “Pretty Has A Price.”

The book begins with newly widowed Sterling James leaning over the casket of her husband Harvey, saying a few last words to him before the graveside ceremony is to begin when she opens her eyes to see Annabelle, her nemesis approaching those gathering around. A cat fight, at a funeral, begins, with pallbearers ushering Annabelle back to her car.

Caught in the middle of these two women is Kent Jackson, a New York Times bestselling author who is in Montgomery, Alabama to write so he can meet the terms of a book deal. I enjoyed writing about Kent, who lives in a fictitious house on Old Cloverdale Park, around the corner from the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum on Felder Avenue. At nights he walks down the brick paved street on Old Cloverdale Park and strolls over to sit on the porch of the museum at night, looking up at the stars, listening to the crickets and night traffic, while wondering how Scott must have felt with Zelda there in the house, or the emptiness he must have felt once she’d gone back east again to be institutionalized. Kent, Sterling and Annabelle all end up at the annual Gala in front of the house in April and enjoy the amazing sights, sounds, and amazing food that even you can enjoy in real life.

Throughout the pages, readers learn about the high society balls that are still held in Montgomery–their elegance, their grandeur and the impact they have on those around them.

This book isn’t about anyone I know, but I’ve heard stories and embellished them from there. The story has humor, love, and explores the impact of pain and societal pressures.

I was told the other night it borders on literary fiction and straight fiction. Revision is next but I’m going to take a month’s break from it and let the characters breathe.

Writing is my life passion. There is no greater joy that to find a blank screen or piece of paper and put two or more characters in a precarious situation and see what happens next. Hopefully you’ll be able to read this story some day….

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Summer Reading, Traveling Abroad

Jun 28, 2016 by

So far this summer, I have spent an abundance of my time in Imperial Russia.

I spent two to four days drifting off the coast of Cuba trying to reel in a very large fish.

And I’ve spent a couple nights wandering the cafes of Paris.

I’m three chapters under the stairs in the cupboard of the Dursley home–4 Privet Drive.

And I’ve stepped way back to the days surrounding the crowing of Arthur as King of England.

And it’s just the end of June.

If you haven’t figured it out, I’ve been reading Anna Karenina, The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, the first Harry Potter book, and Le Morte d’Arthur.

I’ve also been reading a few books on the craft of writing. (Posts about those to come.)


I’m more than 50 years of age now and I wish I’d taken more time as a young man, as a boy, even, to read.

Those days were spent being a live and in love with the world. No, I wouldn’t trade them as they are what helps fuel the tales I now tell in novel form. But having read more when I was younger would have fueled novel writing at an earlier age, I do believe.

But I didn’t and I can’t change that.


In spite of what others might say, putting my kids down at bedtime was usually a task that fell to me. I wish now I’d been better prepared. I wish I had taken my children on magical journeys with books at night instead of fighting with them about staying in bed, getting drinks of water, or the umpteenth trip to go potty.

But I didn’t and I can’t change that.


That’s not an easy question to answer. At least not in one part.

For one, I’m busy trying to complete my third full-length book. I’m revising, I should say. If you talk to any writing coach they will tell you that you get better by writing, AND by reading the works of others. So I have put myself on a mental diet of classic literature. This third work is more colorful and elegant in word selection. The reading of great works is helping that.

The second reason is that for the past month, I’ve largely been bed-ridden. While helping my daughter move out of her dorm at Auburn, I fell. My neck began to hurt severely. On the return trip from Alabama to Texas, I set up to go see a chiropractor. The chiro got my neck to stop hurting, but has awakened an issue in my lower back. I’ve been in intense pain for four weeks now. Tomorrow comes a visit with a spine specialist. Being lost in my books has helped me try to forget about the pain.

The third reason is simple: I have too much living left to do not to entertain my brain with some of the finest literature that mankind has ever recorded.

What books are you reading this summer?

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Read Twain’s End, by Lynn Cullen

Jun 22, 2016 by

In late April I had the fortune to meet Author Lynn Cullen while attending the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery, Alabama. She was taking part in a workshop in discussing the process of writing historical fiction when I also had the fortune to be introduced to her latest literary work, Twain’s End, (Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster). Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 12.14.46 PM

Since meeting Lynn, a paperback edition of her book has been released as well.


Lynn’s book is a 300-page magical blend of fact and fiction intertwined with dashes of literary prose so poignant that it bears the sweet smell of the hydrangeas so oft preferred by the likes of Mark Twain and more so, Sam Clemens.

As a reader, one can’t discern the difference between what actually happened and the reading between the lines that Lynn has so carefully filled in–like a brick layer setting mortar and bricks under the watchful eye of Clemen’s personal secretary, Isabel Lyon, as she helped manage the building of his famous Connecticut home, Stormfield, in Redding.

All the critical elements of storytelling are wrapped delicately in the telling of this tale of love, conflict, and self-redefinition. Lynn helps us all see, through the eyes of an omniscient narrator, the emotional and mental struggles that plagued one of America’s greatest writers–some of the same troubles we all bear even today.

There is beauty in the poetry of the writing of Lynn Cullen. Often times I found myself reaching for my iPhone to pull up a word she used to paint her imaginary scenes–words that I would then write down in my personal writer’s notebook to hopefully employ once again in a tale of my own choosing.

For its historical value or not, Twain’s End is an enjoyable read and I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy as soon as you may.


Like all of us, Sam Clemens put on masks to create a world that was kinder and gentler than the one he apparently knew. For the writer in me, passages where she framed the thoughts and events surrounding childhood wounds Clemens alleges, provided insight that’s value can not soon be measured. Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 12.15.13 PM

In Chapter 30, Lynn has Hellen Keller ask the most pointed question of the work: “Don’t we all make up our own worlds?”

And therein lies the heart of the message in reading this book.

In my own writing–three as yet unpublished full length works which you can read more about here–I have found relief from the pains of this life–ways to write (intended) wrongs out of existence; ways to heal pains of days that long since have passed me by that still hurt as much as paper slicing a finger’s flesh.


Pick up a copy of Lynn Cullen’s book, Twain’s End in hardback or paperback. You will be doing yourself a mental treat.

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Chasing My White Whale

Jun 14, 2016 by

Are you chasing a metaphorical white whale, something that continually gnaws at you, encompasses you, and is on the verge of driving you stark mad? If so, you must be a writer of some sort. Maybe an artist. Perhaps both.

A great book all writers MUST read.

A great book all writers MUST read.

Today was I treated to the release of Steven Pressfield’s new book, Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t, via an email from Shawn Coyne’s website. It’s almost 200 pages long as a PDF but I read the entire thing in an hour or two. (If you follow the link you will be taken to a PDF version of it to read on your own. I do not know how long they will leave free access to it.)

This is the book that includes the core messages, structures, concepts, themes, additional resources and practices all good writers should employ if we are to become better craftsmen.

I was turned on to the power of Shawn Coyne’s book, The Story Grid, while taking a revision class for novel writing at Southern Methodist University in early March of this year. Coyne’s book, website, and iTunes podcasts–I have all 34 of them downloaded and play them in loops–have had a profound impact on my writing.

But it was Pressfield’s book today that really sums up much of what I’ve been taught while in the Writer’s Path Program at SMU under the direction of Author J. Suzanne Frank, who has worked so hard to build the program into a highly reputable one.

Pressfields’ book is a must read for anyone daring to write a novel, screenplay, or non-fiction. He’s done them all–even a failed attempt to edit a porn flick, which ultimately taught him two of the most important lessons he’s ever learned about writing a scene.


Pressfield lays out several important principles within his book, but I have already typed out these eight points and pinned them to the cork board over my writing space as a checklist as it were for story development. I encourage you to copy them as well.

  1. Every story must have a concept. It must put a unique and original spin, twist or framing device upon the material.
  1. Every story must be about something. It must have a theme.
  1. Every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Act One, Act Two, Act Three.
  1. Every story must have a hero.
  1. Every story must have a villain.
  1. Every story must start with an Inciting Incident, embedded within which is the story’s climax.
  1. Every story must escalate through Act Two in terms of energy, stakes, complication and significance/meaning as it progresses.
  1. Every story must build to a climax centered around a clash between the hero and the villain that pays off everything that came before and that pays it off on-theme.

I enjoyed this book–particularly the parts where he was speaking to me as a fellow writer–where he describes what writers must endure in this life while in pursuit of publication or satisfaction or whatever it is that turns inside of us that our spouses, parents, siblings, children and friends do not get about us, and may never understand in full, lest they are tempted to chase the same white whale that causes a writer to keep going when every sane person in their life is telling them to stop.

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