Happy Halloween

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Tomorrow, I'll talk some more about contest entries. Today though let's celebrate Halloween. Why carve a pumpkin into a mundane jack-o'-lantern when you can amaze the neighborhood kids? Just visit Extreme Pumpkins and you'll see what I mean.

Sling Words away - to get the pumpkin carving knife.

Writing contests: alpha & omega

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I think if you enter a writing contest it's because you not only want feedback from professionals in the biz, but also you want to win the contest. No, no, don't bother saying you didn't enter with hopes of winning. Everyone wants to win. It's human nature.

So why do so many of you ignore two very crucial elements of fiction writing, the beginning and the end?

When I first started writing, I studied books on the craft, listened to other authors, attended workshops, and read novels in the area in which I wanted to be published until my eyes crossed in tiredness. Repeatedly, two points were emphasized in all this.

1. You must hook the reader with a dynamite opening sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter. The goal is to make the reader move from the first sentence to the second to the end of the paragraph to the next page, etc.

2. You have to leave a hook at the end of each chapter in order to pull that reader to page one of the next chapter. You do this from chapter to chapter, dragging that reader along until the final two words, "The End," appear.

This is the same advice I've seen and heard from countless sources. If you don't know how to do this, there are books that tell you how to start a story, speakers who give talks on it. I've posted articles on this same subject on the Writing page of my web site. (I'll check and see if they're still there, they may have been removed to make space for newer articles.)

There are books and speakers who tell you how NOT to start a story i.e., dreams, flashbacks, exposition to tell us every facet of the character's personality, back story to succinctly explain why the character is going to do whatever he's going to do, weather, blocks of description as massive as a pillar in a freeway overpass - and just about as interesting. I've written articles about that also.

So I'm completely baffled as to why I receive entry after entry throughout the year with the main character dreaming or hallucinating or flashing back to when s/he was a child or describing page after page of scenery or explaining why she just can't get a man. (Worse is an opening scene where the heroine explains why she hasn't had sex in a year even though she has tumbling tresses of golden curls that reach to her waist, flashing aquamarine eyes, bouncy boobs without benefit of plastic surgery, and on and on - all told in the character's viewpoint. But that's another rant, uh, lesson, about characterization via viewpoint.)

I totally understand why an editor/agent says reading the first page - sometimes the first paragraph or even sometimes the first sentence - is all it takes to know whether to reject the submission or go to page two. Trust me on this. I've yet to read an entry that had a lousy first page to discover a gem in the rest of the manuscript.

The problem with a dream/flashback/hallucination opening is multi-layered. Usually the dream has no relevance to the story and no intrinsic interest. In other words, it's boring. Usually, it's just a sneaky way to get that backstory in that the writer thinks the reader absolutely must have in order to understand the story. In reality, the reader doesn't care. Yet. You must have reader identification with your character in order for the reader to care that Bob Sixpack is dreaming about snakes because his father terrorized him with a water moccasin when he was six-years-old.

Another problem with this kind of opening is that it STOPS the forward motion of the story. A novel is all about forward motion. It's like starting at the bottom of a mountain and slowly climbing that mountain with peaks and valleys (scenes and sequels; action and reaction), never stopping at a plateau, moving ever onward to the peak. Well, when you drop back into the past, there is no forward motion. So anything that takes you from present day, stopping forward motion, must be after the reader bonds with the character and is interested enough in what makes the character tick to follow the character into the past or into a dream or drug-induced hallucination or whatever.

Let me elaborate on a flashback beginning. These are entries where the writer thinks the reader absolutely must know everything that ever happened in the character's life. So they begin with a flashback of some crucial event that probably occurred when the character was a child. Often, the entire entry is composed of this kind of flashback, and we never meet the character as an adult. Presumably the story is to be told from the character's viewpoint as an adult not a child. So how are we to bond with a character not yet introduced until page 20-40? In this day of competing entertainment where new TV shows are canceled if they don't draw an audience with their third showing, we move on to something else.

Writers who do this have basically shot themselves in the foot already because how can you judge characterization, when you never really meet the character who will be starring in the story? This goes for contests or submissions to editors/agents.

Now, let's talk about the {shudder} description opening. It's midnight, and I'm in my lonely little office. I'm tired. DH is already asleep; I want to be also. Just one more entry, I tell myself. I pick up the partial and start to read.

After a one page synopsis, most of it taken up by a description of, let's say, the magnificent Grand Tetons, and the first couple of pages of the manuscript where the heroine is introduced, then more description of you guessed it. My eyes have long since glazed over.

I flip through the rest of the pages. More description. Several pages of flashbacks about why she's going to do what she plans to do. No action. Just her thinking about doing something. By page 10, there's been one line of dialogue and that was a fake line: her saying something out loud to herself. I keep flipping. Now she's describing the scenery of the place she plans to travel to. More memories of her lousy marriage/childhood/love life/college experience - pick one. I drop it to my desk and go to bed.

I do go back and wade through every page, trying to explain why this just doesn't work, but it's tedious. That's when I decide that I'm just not going to judge so many contests next year.

Exposition beginnings don't work either. I don't want someone telling me Molly Trueheart's life story. I can read that in a newspaper. I want to peek into the corners of Molly's life. I want to know what can't be told in a newspaper story about Molly Trueheart. What's her essence? Who is she really? Will she be revealed as warm and loving or as a cold, heartless woman? Show me the way she flinches when her husband pulls her into his arms. Don't tell me she doesn't love her husband.

Show, don't tell. I'm sure you've heard that phrase before. There's some really good books written about that subject. Get one and read and study it until the lightbulb over your head illuminates.

Endings. Oh, boy. Nearly every contest I judge asks in some shape, form, or fashion (sorry, been reading too many cliches in entries, I guess), whether there is an ending that makes you want to read on. I wince every time I see that question. I can just imagine how the writer will be crushed if I honestly write, "No!" Sometimes you're so tired by the time you wade through an entry that you know would never have been written if the writer had not possessed a computer (** see P. S. Rant below), you want to say, "Not no, but hell no!" But that's cruel.

All of us writers are sensitive whether we admit to it or not. The difference in those published and those still unpublished is that we pubbed writers have learned how to hide it better otherwise we'd be going around weeping all the time. So when I reach that question, I try to be gentle. I mention something that's good in the entry, and I always try to say something encouraging and wish them good luck.

I've written about this too. I look at an ending as a cliffhanger. Each chapter ending should be a cliffhanger, ending in a way that the reader absolutely cannot put the manuscript/book down but must turn the page. I seldom see this in contest entries. Often, it's because there is a page limit to contests so the scene just stops at the end of whatever page is the max that can be submitted. But, people! This is a contest. You want to win so why not tailor your entry to end the scene at that max page number and end it with a hook big enough to land a great white?

You see, there's always a judging element about the hook ending. If you don't tailor your entry so there's a hook, then you get graded low on this element. That's just common sense. I can't tell you how many entries there are that end at the end of the line on the last page in mid sentence! If the final judge of the contest is an editor and the highest scoring entries go to the editor, you've possibly just shot yourself in the foot because you lose points for no hook.

The bottom line is that you pay money to enter these contests. Don't shoot yourself repeatedly in the feet or your manuscript won't be able to stand up before that final judge - the editor/agent.

**P. S. The Rant
I think if we were still pecking away on IBM Selectrics that the numbers of aspiring writers would be far less. Computers make it easy to put together a manuscript. So easy in fact that every Tom, Dick, and Jane who owns a computer thinks they can write a novel.

Upon learning I am an author, I've had a hair stylist, dog groomer, bank clerk, three doctors, a water plant worker, and a lawyer tell me they were also working on a novel in their spare time at night when there wasn't anything good on TV. After all, these people have a computer, they know how to read and write, and they're pretty sure they can write just like Janelle Taylor (hair stylist); Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, Tess Gerritsen (doctors); or John Grisham (lawyer).

Trust me, it takes way more than that to write a novel. Even more to write one worth submitting, and even more to write one that actually gets accepted. So if you don't have a burning desire to plug away at learning the craft and at persisting long after a sane person would have given up, find something else to do with your time.

Life is too short to engage in something for the wrong reasons.

Writing contests: here comes the judge

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I judge a lot of writing contests every year. Why? It's a way to help a writer who may be struggling with that whole "can I write or am I fooling myself" complex from which all of us seem to suffer. My heart goes out to people like this because I'm one of them too so I'm glad to light a candle for those stumbling in the dark.

When I first started writing, hardly any writing contests existed. I'd have given anything to get some feedback from "real" authors. You know, the people who actually had a book in print.

Now that I've written just about everything from newspaper and magazine articles to published novels, I feel I have some credibility so I volunteer - and frequently find myself over-volunteered because there are soooo many writing contests now. Mostly, I'm asked to judge the romance genre though I have judged other contests too. Each genre has its own characteristics, but good writing is good writing regardless of the genre.

Often I find myself burning the midnight oil in order to fulfill my commitment. Just recently I've finished judging two contests and have one waiting on my desk. Another couple will be arriving in the mail in the next few weeks. When you add that to my own writing, I'm, well, I'm swamped! But I wanted to share some insights with those of you who might be on the contest trail. Maybe it will help.

Who judges writing contests?

Let's talk about the judges. Who are we? Hopefully, we are all published authors, editors, and agents. Of course, we all know why having an editor or agent as judge is a good thing. They'll fall in love with our entry and ask to represent and/or publish it. Right? But why published authors over unpublished writers?

Now, you aspiring writers out there, don't get your quills ruffled. I'm not saying you don't know how to write because you're not published. I'm just saying that published authors have been in the trenches. We've managed to get published, but we also have submitted and been rejected countless times so we might just know a little more about what editors are looking for in a story and what separates a good story from a good story that will get published.

So look for the contests that guarantee these kinds of judges.

Why don't judges sign their names?

When I first started judging many years ago, I signed my name. I felt I should be willing to stand by my comments. I stopped signing my name after a couple of years. Let me reitterate that I always try to be objective and not let personal taste enter into the judging. I give balanced comments and always find something good to say about even the worst writing so it's not like I insult the writer with scathing, sarcastic remarks knowing the writer won't discover who I am. That's just not nice, and I'm a nice person. Ask anyone.

So why did I stop being upfront about my identity? Two reasons. The first reason was because I met a well-know author who told how her career was nearly ruined because she judged a contest and the entry had a strikingly similar plot line to a book she'd already sold and was in production at her publisher. When the author's book hit the shelves, the contestant immediately filed suit, claiming that the author had plagiarized her.

Publishers don't like law suits. They are more than willing to settle out of court even when the author is innocent of wrong-doing in order to avoid bigger legal wrangles that might drag on and on. Sadly, this happens more often than you think. I personally know two authors this has happened to. In that case, the author knew she was innocent so she fought back. It dragged on and on and on, costing her thousands of dollars in legal fees, the loss of her relationship with her publisher, and ultimately affected the author's health.

Life is too short, people. I'm not alone in my unwillingness to risk hard-earned bucks, reputation, publisher relationships, and emotional health. That's why you don't see very many signatures on the judge's comment pages.

The second reason I don't sign my name is that after a couple of years of judging contests, I got fed up with receiving rebuttals from contestants who wanted to explain to me why I was wrong, why I didn't know what I was talking about, why I was a loser, why he or she was a better writer than me, etc.

These are probably the same people who post anonymous, scathing reviews on Amazon and the like - which is probably the zenith of their creative writing abilities.

Tomorrow, I'll continue discussing writing contests. I'll talk about beginnings and endings.

Sling Words out to judge another entry.

Cover contest

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Now's your chance to express what you really feel about book covers. I just voted for the best and worst covers of the year, and you can too. Cover Cafe is hosting the annual book cover contest that used to be under the aegis of All About Romance.

The contest ends October 31 so take a few minutes to go vote. The category with the toughest decision is Worst Cover. They're all pretty bad, but I think I could have won this category a few years ago with one of my covers.

Promo tip

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Sometimes I think Kim Komando reads my mind. I'd wondered about the easiest way to put together a newsletter that displays graphics and articles. Voila! Click and learn.

Romance testimonial

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Jina Bacarr has an interesting video testimonial on the difference between romance and porn as that controversy still rages here in Texas. According to her video clip, that controversy plays out in other locales as well.

Give it a look because it's a thoughtful, well-done statement.

Doggie rescue

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My daughter and I spent Saturday afternoon at Poodle Rescue of Houston visiting the doggies. We'll be going back to help bathe dogs, clean cages, and do whatever we can to help this small organization that saves 300-400 poodles from homelessness or euthanasia every year.

I was shocked to discover that people actually turn poodles loose to fend for themselves. You think of poodles as being expensive, pampered, wanted dogs. Sadly, there's just as many abandoned poodles as any other breed.

Some of the dogs in the shelter are lost dogs who Gwennette, the guiding force behind Poodle Rescue, took from the pound to save them. One dog was surrendered by its elderly owner when she entered a nursing home. Another dog was brought in by a homeless man who loved it dearly but couldn't give it the food and medical care it needed. Another dog was abandoned at a kennel I believe when the owner just left it rather than pay the bill.

There were dozens of beautiful poodles, and each had a sad story. Some of the dogs have lost their teeth because the owners never had them cleaned. When I asked how they ate, Gwennette laughed and said: "They'll just swallow hard nuggets whole if that's all they can get, but a soft diet is an easy thing to do so prospective owners shouldn't be put off by that."

When the dogs are brought in, just about all have heart worms because the owners didn't give them the medicine they need on a regular basis, and their hair is fist-size balls of mats. Just about all the dogs have to be shaved to the skin when they come in. Many have mange. Regardless of their condition, Poodle Rescue takes them and gives them the care they need then they try their best to find homes for them.

There are poodles of every color - white, various shades of cream, cocoa, apricot, silver, black, parti-colored, and there are sizes from teacup to standard. If you've ever thought about having a poodle, this is the place to find one. These dogs absolutely go ape when someone comes in. Not in barking loudly so much, though some do, but in gazing intently into your eyes as if saying, "I'm looking for someone to love. Would you take me home and let me love you?"

Yes, I'm being fanciful, but if you visit and see the dogs, you'll know what I mean. Some of the dogs sit quietly looking at you as you look at them. They seem resigned or depressed, but if you reach out to them, they come alive. They don't hold back in giving you affection in return for the scratch behind the ears you give them.

The most heartbreaking are the dogs which are considered unadoptable because of problems. Some, young and old, have lost their teeth. Some have had heartworms too long. Some are elderly. Some are diabetic though that's easy for a new owner to treat. These dogs need love too, and they have so much to give.

Interested in adopting one of these amazing, resilient survivors? Call Poodle Rescue281-477-3297 or go to their website. Got a few bucks to spare? The shelter is always in need of donations to pay the vet bills. They receive no public or government funding though they are trying to get 501(c)(3) status. The vet bills are always big.

If you adopt a dog, you'll pay a fee which covers the dog's treatment expenses. Sometimes, Gwennette will take as little as she can get by with if anyone is interested in adopting one of the unadoptables.

While we were there, a mother, her young daughter, and the mom's friend visited. The mom fell in love with one of these difficult adoptables, an adorable white poodle named Danny. Gwennette placed the dog in the mom's arm, and I think it was love at first sight on both parts. They looked into each other's eyes and Danny seemed to settle into the woman's arms as if he'd always been held by her. Danny has no teeth, but he's healthy and with a loving home can enjoy six or more years of life.

Danny's new owners will come back to pick him up next weekend after he's finished his heartworm treatment and has been groomed to look like a show dog. He's a beautful dog, and I think he'll brighten a new home with his loving personality.

Poodle Rescue provides a cental rescue buiding to house and care for the dogs which of course means utilities, maintenance, lots of food. laundry, etc. They take care of all the dogs' needs. They groom, feed, vet, transport, medicate, and socialize the dogs and don't depend on foster homes to care for them.

If you'd like to make a donation to Poodle Rescue or at least buy one of their tee shirts, go to the web site. If you want to make a donation directly to pay vet expenses, call Champion Forest Animal Clinic, 5211-Z Suite 160 1960 West, Houston, TX 77069, (281)586-9910, and tell them.

If you'd like to volunteer to bathe dogs and help take care of them, just call Poodle Rescue and let them know.

Most importantly, if you want to adopt a poodle or know someone who does, please, please go to the website (has pictures of many of the dogs) or visit Poodle Rescue.

Kim Komando rules

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Kim Komando is my hero. If you don't receive her email newsletters, sign up. Today Kim was pointing out the free software offered by Microsoft, and one element addressed something I was trying to figure out how to do.

I'm amazed how much free information is on the Net, and KK seems to know where all the good stuff is.

Sling Words off to the Pink Elephant sale!

Murder by the book

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Hey, this contest sounds pretty exciting. In conjunction with their new series, Murder by the Book, Court TV is asking aspiring crime writers to submit an original idea for a crime fiction novel and sample chapter(s) to be reviewed by a panel of judges.

Wow, some of the judges are Jonathan Kellerman, Faye Kellerman and Lisa Scottoline as well as publisher Judith Regan.

The winner gets a book contract with Regan.

Sling Words wishing she had a fab crime novel residing in her inventory.

Pink elephant sale

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Ever wonder what the rich have that you don't? Now's your chance to find out if you live anywhere within driving distance of the Houston area. The River Oaks Garden Club is holding their annual Pink Elephant sale Friday, October 20, 2006.

Furniture, antiques, designer clothing, collectibles, and, oh, yes, plants - after all, this is sponsored by the garden club. Trust me, if you're into bargain sales (tag, estate, garage, yard, or rummage), this is one that's not to be missed. I'll be there.

You know what they say: one millionaire's trash is another person's treasure.

Well, something like that.

Uh oh

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I started customizing Sling Words with the new Blogger stuff. Sure wish I'd taken some screen shots of how it looked before I hit the customize button.

If you haven't migrated over to Google/Blogger, make sure you know how your stuff looks on the screen before you hit customize because you have to manually input each link, etc. Once you get the info in, you can shift it around but the input is a bummer.

I changed the fonts to make them more readable on the template I use, but I noticed that this makes some of the comments titles nearly unreadable. Can't figure this out and there's no way I can find to change the color of those fonts.

Lots of work ahead.

Sling Words disgusted. Think I'll go walk in the fog.

Floodin' down in Texas, the sequel

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Well, Stevie Ray isn't playing yet because I'm too busy trying to find out about road closures due to the latest flood. It's been raining at my house since Saturday night. We've been way short of rain this year so it's a good news, bad news situation. Good, because we need the rain. Bad because we don't need another flood.

Electricity is iffy today so that's all for now, folks.

Waltzing across Texas

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Our vacation is mostly over, but we had a couple more stops to make so today we visited Brenham, Texas, to tour a couple of manufacturers. Lucky us! We got the nickel tour and free samples at each place.

Our first stop was Blue Bell Creamery. I love touring factories. There's just something mesmerizing about watching cans or cartons race along a track, fill with product, get sealed, packaged, crated, and shrink wrapped faster than you can say assembly line.

Blue Bell Creamery, maker of one of the world's best ice creams, is clean, modern, and a great place to visit. We got a little history, and at the end of the forty minute tour, we received a generous scoop of whatever we wanted.

I had Birthday Cake, totally to die for, with bits of frosted fudge cake mixed with vanilla ice cream. Darling Husband had Tin Roof, also to die for with chocolate covered peanuts and chocolate chunks blended with vanilla ice cream. Blue Bell Creamery tour gets a definite thumbs up! Great, inexpensive family excursion.

Now, for a more adult adventure, we stopped by Windy Hill Winery. Owner August Meitzen was gracious and hospitable. The tasting room and gift shop are interesting with their antiques and gift items ranging from original pottery and wine items to wrought iron bottle racks and more.

You can pay a tasting fee or simply buy a bottle of wine and taste for free. Since their beautiful wine label graces bottles of darn good wine, we opted to buy a bottle, well, actually, four bottles. In fact, I think these excellent sipping wines with their Texana inspired labels are going to be a major part of our Christmas gift giving this year since you can order over the Net.

After we'd sampled Windy Hill's wines, August took us around the winery and explained the growing and manufacturing process. Made me want to write a book about a winery owner and made my husband want to own a winery. I think my pursuit would be far less expensive.

So another thumbs up to the Windy Hill Winery. Great day trip for adults.

Fred Head vs. Susan Combs

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I normally steer clear of politics and such. Imagine my surprise to return from vacation and discover a candidate for Texas State Comptroller has launched a political attack on his opponent based on her authorship of a contemporary romance novel.

Fred Head has branded his opponent Susan Combs as a pornographer based on a romance novel she published with Meteor Kismet many years ago.

What's wrong with this?

1. I also published with Meteor Kismet and know that none of the novels were what would be considered porn.

2. Head excerpts text from this COPYRIGHTED novel to prove his so-called point. He has scanned in the back cover copy, the author's bio page, and 3 random pages from the novel itself. This is illegal under the copyright laws of the United States unless he has permission from the copyright holder ... drum roll please ... the book's author Susan Combs. Now, I doubt Ms. Combs would grant permission for her published work to be used in this manner.

3. So this self-righteous man apparently thinks romance novels are porn AND he thinks he is above the laws of this land and can take copyrighted material and use it however he wishes without permission or remuneration to the author of said material.

You Texans out there, remember these names when you vote for Comptroller.

Fred Head who apparently thinks romance novels are porn. If he'd ever actually read one instead of just excerpting what he considers offensive sexual text, he'd have learned that romance novels are relationship novels that celebrate love and commitment. Mr. Head also seems to think he can violate the copyright laws of this nation with impunity. Or perhaps he is ignorant of what the United States Copyright laws are which is just as bad if not worse.

Susan Combs, who is a victim of copyright violation, is being called a pornographer for writing a novel about a consensual relationship between an adult man and an adult woman which leads to love and commitment. Ms. Combs is a businesswoman who apparently has served well in her current position. She's a wife and a mother, and, now, a maligned romance author.

Sometimes I get very tired of the "trashing romance novel syndrome." Romance novels are written mostly by women and for women. We're like the Rodney Dangerfield of the literary world. We get no respect. But, boy, are we popular. More than 50% of all mass market paperbacks sold are romance novels.

If Mr. Head wanted to take a stand against immorality in literature, why didn't he take on Dan Brown, an author who has written something millions consider not only morally wrong but sacriligious. So why didn't he take a swipe at Dan Brown and The DaVinci Code? Oh, right. Dan Brown isn't opposing him in a political race.

If you read this, and you are a registered voter in Texas, please feel free to check out the sites I've linked to. Pass the word or link to this blog. We don't need more politicians who pick and choose the laws they obey especially when we authors are an embattled bunch desperately fighting for our livlihood which in this electronic age is only too easily taken from us.

Harlequin's parent company news

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Torstar takes a $2.5 million hit. They plan to cut employees. Just kind of reading between the lines, I don't think it's their romance publishing program that is languishing. It's the newspapers they also publish that are faring poorly in the new digital age. Ad sales revenue is probably way down.

I bet dollars to doughnuts that their romance publishing helps maintain their other enterprises. Not good for romance bottom line of course, but that's the way the world works. Hope they won't attempt to injure their golden goose in these cutbacks.

Million dollar prize

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Got any code writers out there? NetFlix is offering a million dollar prize to anyone who can design a software packet.

Go for it!