Wednesday, March 27, 2013


This month’s Atlantic magazine carries an article about Lorenz (Larry) Hart, the lyricist who wrote with composer Richard Rodgers until his untimely death at 48 in 1943. Between 1919 and 1943 the duo wrote 28 Broadway musicals, some still performed today. Rodgers teamed up next with Oscar Hammerstein and their first collaboration, OKLAHOMA!, was a great success.

Yet, I wish we’d had more years of those fantastic Hart lyrics. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer that words mean so much to me. I admire someone who has a clever way with them. Even readers who weren’t born until much later have heard of songs like, “The Lady is a Tramp, “My Funny Valentine,” and “Manhattan.”

“Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from PAL JOEY begins, “I’m wild again, beguiled again, a simpering, whimpering child again.” One of my favorites is about an ended love affair called “It Never Entered My Mind.” It would help to know the music, but even so I think you can appreciate the words.

Once I laughed when I heard you saying
That I’d be playing
Uneasy in my easy chair
It never entered my mind.
Once you told me I was mistaken
That I’d awaken
With the sun
And order orange juice for one,
It never entered my mind

Most songs written at the time were a collaboration. A composer wrote the music and a poet wrote the words. Lorenz Hart was such a poet. But music changed. The popularity of the Beatles made every young man a guitarist who wanted to write his own songs. Not just music, but words too. And because he wasn’t a poet we were subjected to lyrics with a mind-numbing repetition of “baby, baby, baby.”

Next week I’ll be appearing in a musical produced by the local Performing Arts Club, singing a song by a more modern Broadway lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the words to Leonard Bernstein’s music for WEST SIDE STORY. Sondheim later began to write music as well as lyrics for his shows. COMPANY  is my favorite, and, I think the best. Here’s a sample of the lyrics from “The Little Things You Do Together.”

It’s the little things you share together,
swear together,
dare together
that make marriage a joy
The concerts you enjoy together,
neighbors you annoy together,
children you destroy together
that keep marriage intact.

There’s lots more similar to that, ending with:

“It’s things like using force together.
Shouting till you’re hoarse together,
Getting a divorce together
That make perfect relationships.”

Remembering all those different ideas - and singing them at a faster-than-usual pace - is challenging, but I love it.

Writing is a lonely occupation and, although I won’t stop doing it, every once in a while I need to interact with other people. Being in the company of  singers, dancers and actors is like joining a happy family working together to achieve something - a night of words and music - for others to enjoy.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


My latest contemporary romance novel has just been released. The title is THE ITALIAN JOB, and, as you can tell, it takes place mainly in Italy, although it begins and ends in Los Angeles.

My heroine, Sydney, is a magazine reporter sent abroad to write an article about a tour of Rome, Florence and Venice. She meets hero Taylor when they board the same flight. The seven hours to Rome give them a chance to get acquainted and for him to ask if he can join her tour. Fortunately he does. Not so fortunately, he hints of trouble. Just her luck if this eligible man has a skeleton in his closet. But there are even more problems ahead, and Sydney is just savvy enough to solve them.

Since my computer guru is out sick, I can’t get THE ITALIAN JOB up on my Home Page yet, but when I do, I’ll be giving away a free copy to my readers, so stay tuned.

As is the case in most of my novels, I use personal experience, such as having toured the places in my settings. THE ITALIAN JOB allowed me to revisit the marvelous sights of Rome, Florence and Venice, as well as Pisa and Lake Como.

My novel NORTH BY NORTHEAST put the reader on the same train trip between New Orleans and Washington, D.C. that hubby and I took, although, unlike that heroine, I wasn’t kidnapped and forced into a jewel heist.

ONCE MORE WITH FEELING, set in one of my favorite old haunts, San Francisco, deals with illegal insider trading in the stock market, and STRANGER IN PARADISE takes place in my other favorite destination, Hawaii. Twenty years of owning a condo on Maui made me feel like a native. Not to forget SOUTHERN STAR, which helped me relive ten days on a yacht, even though mine didn’t go through the Bahamas or have criminals on board.

Trips, life experiences and happy times can all be used, but even not-so-happy events can become helpful, even romantic stories. As someone wrote, “Writers have no problems: it’s all material.”

Do you put real places and events in your novels? I’ll bet you do. Tell me about them, and I’ll put you on the lottery list for a free copy of THE ITALIAN JOB.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


David Farland is an award-winning New York Times best-selling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel, “On My Way to Paradise,” the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical “In the Company of Angels,”, and the International Book Award for “Best Young Adult Novel of the Year” for “Nightingale.”

Recently Dave released a book geared toward writing titled “Million Dollar Outlines.” In it he discusses how to write a novel that has a wide readership, giving it the potential to be a best-seller. Along with providing writers with outline and audience analysis methods, Dave also offers 28 “plotting tools” in his book. A plotting tool is basically a technique that can make your story more exciting, interesting, satisfying or complete. Today, Dave is going to share one with us.


When we talk about writing, there are three kinds of crucibles–crucibles of setting, relationship, or condition. But first we need to define, “What is a crucible?”

In metal-smithing, a crucible is a container used to hold metal or liquid as it boils. For example, to melt gold, one takes a heavy bowl made from steel and sets it in a fire. The steel, which can withstand higher temperatures than gold, doesn’t melt. But the small container quickly becomes super-heated, so that the gold liquefies in moments.

In fiction, a crucible is any setting, condition or relationship that keeps characters (such as a protagonist and an antagonist) from splitting apart.

By forcing these characters to remain together, we sometimes create an almost intolerable atmosphere. It allows us to super-charge the relationships, raise the heat.

For example, imagine that John and Mary have been married for years, but have grown apart. They decide that they don’t love each other anymore. The logical thing for them to do would be for them to divorce and split up, right? But there’s no story in that. The characters could easily resolve the situation by leaving, so as a writer, you need them to stay together.

So imagine that John and Mary have grown apart but both love their six-month-old daughter. Neither is willing to end the relationship so long as they risk losing the child. Now you have a crucible, a binding force that keeps the two together.

But there are different kinds of crucibles. Maybe it is a child. But maybe you could do the same by putting them both in a car and having them get stuck in a snowstorm. The car is a different kind of container from the relationship, but both work to keep the couple together.

So there are three different kinds of crucibles.

Crucibles of Setting

A setting may act as a crucible. You’ve all seen comedies where several people are stuck in a cabin in a snowstorm, and each of them is at the other’s throat. You will also quickly remember the movie, “Snakes on a plane,” even if you’ve never seen it. A crucible of setting might be a story set in your characters’ workplace, on a ship, or in a small town. The important point is to keep the characters together as much as possible, and to let personalities rub against one another until their tempers boil.

Crucibles of Relationship

You can never escape your family. You might try, but often the family relationship is a crucible. A child wanting to leave home is a crucible in the same way that a father who must pay child-support is in a crucible. Any two people who are married are in a crucible, as are any two people who just happen to be in love.

I recall a fine Western when I was young about two heroic cowboys who are both in love with the same woman. They are forced to band together to rescue her from a kidnapper. The men hate each other, and as the audience gets to know each man better, they both come to vie for our affections.

Soldiers in a squadron will find themselves in a crucible. For example, in “The Lord of the Rings” those who had joined the Fellowship were thrust into a crucible--a small band of men forced to band together for their own protection. It may be that your character finds himself fighting beside someone he detests--a murderer or a rapist--and yet he is unable to walk away from the conflict.

Your crucible may also be your conflict with your culture. We’ve probably all known various folks--Catholics, Jews, Muslims, etc., who try to leave their religion behind but can never stop talking about it. But it doesn’t have to be your religious culture. My father ran away from the Blue Ridge Mountains to escape the hillbilly lifestyle. I had a girlfriend who left her fine home in Southern California because she despised her family’s wealth. In the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” we have a girl whose main conflict comes about when she is embarrassed by her ethnic roots.

Crucibles of Condition

An intolerable condition may also be a crucible--such as an illness that two very different characters join forces to beat. We see this kind of crucible used every week as Doctor House tries to solve the latest medical mystery. But it can also set your characters up to fight an economic or political condition--the hunger in India, the tribalism of North Africa.

The condition might be something as mundane as crime in the streets. Policemen who despise one another are often found joining forces to fight drug lords, rapists, and other types of crime.

So as you form your story, consider how you might strengthen your conflicts by developing one or more crucibles.

Can you think of any more examples of crucibles? Can you see a way to strengthen your own story by adding a crucible? Leave a comment and let us know.

* * *

To learn about the rest of Dave’s plotting tools, or how to write for a wide audience, check out his book:

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


I’m thrilled to announce my first Guest blogger will be Dave Farland, NYT best-selling author of fifty novels, winner of many prestigious awards and writing teacher, besides provider of his own regular helpful blog posts. Be here next Wednesday, March 13, and tell your friends.

Meanwhile, my news this week is that National Grammar Day was Monday, March 4th. Okay, we’re two days late, but as writers we should observe it all the time, at least in our work.

National Grammar Day was started in 2008 by Martha Brockenbrough, founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, SPOGG. If you go to, you’ll find all kinds of fun stuff, including quizzes, fiction, and even Punctuation Saves Lives T-shirts for sale. I love the one that says, ”Let’s Eat Grandma,” to remind us of the need for commas.

Grammar comes from the Greek word for “letters” and came into the English language in the 1300s. It referred to learning generally, but is now considered a set of rules describing the structure of language and how sentences are formed.

Grammar was traditionally taught in “grammar schools” which is what my first school was called. In a newspaper about Grammar Day last year, Ms. Brockenbrough said, “For me, the goal is to get people to think about language and why using it correctly matters... Speaking well and knowing how words work are not something elite and useless.”

Besides SPOGG, there is a certain amount of grammar vigilantism around and I learned that Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary defined “grammaticaster” as a “mean verbal pendant.” I hope I’m not mean, but I like being called a grammaticaster. To keep my status intact, here are a few of my bad-grammar pet peeves.

1. could’ve - could of. There is no legitimate reason to use “could of.“ I’ve seen it even in traditionally published books, and it apparently stems from the author--to say nothing of the editor--missing an English class. He/she means “could’ve” a contraction of the two words “could” and “have.“ Example: “I could’ve been a contender.“ or “I could have danced all night.”

2. doctors - apple’s. Plural words don’t get apostrophes. Example: “The apples were ripe and the doctors ate them.“ If you put an apostrophe before the “s” you have turned the word into a possessive. Example: “The doctor’s time was limited.”

3. Try to - try and. Technically there is no “try and” (or almost none.) If your character is going to try to do something, use “try to,” not “try and.“ Example: “I will try to help you.“ After all, if you say “try and” you imply you’ll succeed. But what if you don’t succeed? You’ve told a lie.

4. I couldn’t care less - I could care less. Once again, the second construction should never be used. After all, if you could care less, then you must care somewhat. But you’re trying to say that you care so little that it would be impossible for you to care any less than you do.

5. incidents - incidentses. The latter is not a word. One event is an “incident.“ Two or more events are “Incidents” (add an “s” to make a plural). There is no such word as “incidentses.”

6. I hope I don’t have to tell you that--unless you’re writing dialogue in the voice of an illiterate character--you should never write, “Me and my brother,” “Her and I,” “we was,” or “She don’t.“ But I often see “myself” instead of “me. “ Don’t try to get fancy. Wrong: “She gave the book to John and myself.“ Right: “She gave the book to John and me.“ If John were gone, you’d say, “She gave the book to me.“ Wouldn’t you?

Dave Farland