From Papyrus to Pixels, a look at the book from The Economist

I didn't write this one, but think it's worth sharing. If you're a writer or a book lover this article from The Economist is right up your alley

This essay includes a short history of the book, and explores the state of publishing today as the digital transformation is well underway. The popular fear often touted in the media is that the eBook will kill the print book. Evidence shows this is not happening to the extent expected by doomcasters.

The often expressed fear of self-publishing is also tackled: it seem that self-publshing is actually the earliest form of publishing: at one time all books were self-published. What we think of as mainstream publishing came along somewhat later. The self-publisher is returning to a great and honorable tradition of yesteryear, with the added benefit that he no longer needs to direct buyers to his house in order to purchase his new book. 

The fear that "with everyone on the planet writing a book, literature will go straight to hell in a handbasket" is another misconception tackled by The Economist. The first fellow to voice this complaint did so in 1471, and for over 500 years neither literature nor the world has ended. Perhaps we're safe. 

Click on the red book cover to link through to the article.  You can also listen to it as an audio-article or read it in scroll form. 

Vivat en libro! 

Eulogy for Nigel, a black cat

Nigel in 2005 with tabby Oscar, enjoying the outdoors. 

by Karen Newcombe

Most cats don't get a eulogy. Nigel's random luck is that he fell in with a writer. We're not supposed to write about cats or dogs unless it's a scientific study or a children's book. Even Joy Adamson's magnificent book about life among Africa's lions, Born Free, has been relegated to the children's section as though it is somehow not worthy of adult attention. Millions of people have cats, dogs and other animals as family members or as part of their working team if they live in the country. Our society is full of cars named for animals, teams named for animals, a whole raft of spiritual paraphernalia based on animal powers and spirits, clothing that imitates animals' markings. We may feel removed from the animal world, but the men and women who first sketched the closely-observed bison and owls, horses and lions on the walls of Chauvet Cave 32,000 years ago knew how deeply entwined we are with the animals we eat and wear, and live alongside. That basic condition of life has not changed. 

So my life became entwined with Nigel's.

He was found by a friend of a friend of a friend whose name I don't know, a kitten crying between two cars in the gutter on Valencia Street in San Francisco. He was carried home, but was so active and demanding that he was quickly handed off to a second person. That person tried to control his demands and nighttime wakefulness by locking him in the bathroom. Nigel hated doors for the rest of his life. 

There may have been one more owner in the sequence, I'm not sure, but eventually Nigel ended up at my friend's house as a companion to another black cat, Santiago. 

This companionship was welcome, but did not do much to assuage Nigel's insecurities. He wanted attention from humans, right now, all day and all night, every day. He had discovered as he was passed from hand to hand that the best way to secure human attention was to behave badly, so he set out to perfect this bad behavior and gain for himself as much attention as possible. 

Nigel was an expert at removing books from the shelf. He selected a book, pulled on the spine until it fell off the shelf, then looked to see if anyone was coming. No? Crash number two.  Still no? Crash number three, and so on.

When he ran out of books he moved on to CDs. In those days everyone had CDs in plastic cases stacked on the floor, lined up on shelves, piled next to the stereo. These cases are hinged and have a ridge along the back edge of the spine, perfectly suited for a cat's single claw to snag the thing and send it flying. 

Pew! Pew! Pew! When Nigel was in full bore he could fling CDs back over his shoulder and across the room at an astonishing rate, making a tremendous clatter and sending disks rolling away, cases snapping apart on the hardwood floor, and scratching up your precious music collection. People came running when Nigel was at work. 

In spite of his sequence of owners trying everything recommended – yelling, saying "no, no" firmly, tapping him on the nose or behind, squirting him with a water bottle, and flat out ignoring him – nothing impressed Nigel. He learned instead to run like hell when someone came charging into the room; what attention he managed to get was fleeting and unpleasant. 

Nigel was also loud. He likely had oriental cat genes from somewhere back up the line, and it was obvious in his voice and the blue flecks in his emerald green eyes. He was a tall, big-boned cat of nearly 20 pounds during his glory days, strong, hefty and agile, with a huge wailing voice to match. He was pigeon-toed in the front, bow-legged in the back, and thrust his head out ahead when he walked, making for an odd rollicking gait. When you left the house, you could hear him meowing for you to come back up to a block away. A city block, in San Francisco, not the quietest place on earth. 

When Nigel was four or five years old, his owner moved to England, which at the time still practiced mediaevel animal import quarantines. A little research showed that up to a third of animals died of depression or illness during the lengthy quarantine. So through the workings of cat fate, Nigel and Santiago ended up with me, joining my Oscar and Sebastian to make a somewhat crowded and occasionally smelly four cat home. 

Somehow going from two cats to four made me a cat lady in many people's eyes, although I don't steal cats, hoard cats, mistake my cats for children, dress them up in doll clothes, or attribute to them emotions and intellectual capabilities that they don't have. They clearly do possess emotions and complex thought processes, as anyone who has lived with a cat for a week can tell you. Science has failed us significantly by hewing without question to the animal-as-machine nonsense cooked up by Descartes in the early 1600s. 

Oscar and Sebastian were relaxed laid-back snugglers who slept through the night, and had a nightly wild rumpus to wear them out before bed. Nigel had no idea how to quiet himself to sleep through the night and he had forgotten (or never learned) how to play with string and cat toys. Wild rumpus time was utterly confusing to him; he sat to one side watching the goings on – writhing strings, feathers on a stick, fur mousies, ping pong balls – and would have not one thing to do with it. 

After the lights went out and the house got quiet, then he sprang into action. Whether I was cooking, eating, listening to music, reading, working, or sleeping, he wanted attention. He broke CDs, glasses and dishes, ruined the spines of books, and kept me up half the night or more meowing, knocking things over, leaping on and off the bed, and trying to get something

My pet sitter suggested a different approach. "He's anxious. Why don't you just carry him around and fuss over him until he gets over his anxiety?" she said. Hmm. Every other would-be expert had said the opposite: ignore his bad behavior or he'll do it forever. Ignoring him had no effect at all, he grew more desperate, louder, and broke more things. Fussing was worth a shot. 

In San Francisco you can (and must) wear a heavy sweatshirt nearly every day of the year, so I turned up the front like a sling and carried Nigel in it from room to room, or held his giant body on my lap while I was writing. I fussed over him every time I passed him, even if I had to wake him up to do it. After a month, he was down to flinging only a half dozen books and a couple CDs a day. In two months he was down to about one a day and he slept through the night. In a year he only did it when I'd been out of town or incredibly busy for several days in a row. After two years he never did it again. 

So for all you folks with a demanding, obnoxious, loud, destructive, desperate cat on your hands, just smother him with attention for two years and your problems will be over! Good luck! 

Florida Bound

In 2004 I sold my furniture, donated my car to the animal shelter, shipped my books and belongings via UPS, and moved back to Florida to be with my family. Due to a number of highly publicized airport disasters involving pets, I decided not to fly with the cats. My dad flew out to San Francisco and we spent a few days making UPS runs, dropped a load of things in a storage unit, rented a van and headed towards Florida on I-80, I-70 and I-75 with all four cats in their carriers. We arrived just after Hurricane Ivan and just before Hurricane Jeanne. Our timing was perfect.

The cats and I settled into a small rented house near my parents. I began working at home full-time. With family members going in and out and friends stopping by, the all-day activity made for a happy cat home. Nigel was particularly fond of lying in the grass, something he had never done before. The yard had a low chain link fence around it, that seemed to present an impenetrable force field to the cats; only wise old Santiago had the smarts to slip through the gap in the gate and go around to the front stoop. Nigel, Oscar and Sebastian never once tried to climb or jump over it, and were content to roll in the sand, sniff the grass and lounge on the patio. Halcyon days for the big boys.

2005 was the Year of Many Storms, with hurricanes slamming or brushing us one after another, punctuated by messy tropical storms. After the third or fourth one we left the shutters up for the rest of the year. For 21 days after category 2 Hurricane Wilma swept over us from the west we lived without electricity, cooking on propane camp stoves and washing clothes in an ice chest. We did Halloween in the dark, which every kid thought was the best thing to ever happen. I bought a gas generator hoping I'd be able to charge up my laptop, get on the Internet and work, but the Internet was down even longer than the electricity and I had to use an old telephone modem and a free AOL disk to get online. 

Not long afterwards the real estate boom started to unravel, and my landlord offered to sell me the little house at an exorbitant price. It didn't work out, but he was selling it and I had to go, so I ended up buying a villa in a development west of I-95. My parents planned to move into the same neighborhood when they retired, so it seemed like a good option, at twice the size and 2/3 the price of the cute little house. 

Once again we packed up and moved, but this time it was just 3 miles instead of 3,300. 

Life in the villa

The villa turned out not to be ideal for cats. The wooden fence had 5-inch gaps that were magnetic cat attractants: the moment the cats were let into the yard they headed straight for the fence and climbed through. With a neighbor who prides himself on having a snarling, aggressive hunting hound and a constant stream of mowers, gardeners, snippers, inspectors, tree trimmers and sprinkler line plumbers wandering in and out of my yard at all hours, the cats were forced to accept living indoors again. 

Old Santiago slowly became Very Old Santiago. He laid down in his bed one night, heaved a big sigh and was gone. 

Nigel had lost his lifelong best friend, but he was well-schooled in making the best of bad circumstances and quickly decided that mellow tabby Oscar would make a fine pal. Oscar's brother, Sebastian, contracted chronic kidney disease and died within a few months. We almost lost Oscar the next week. He looked everywhere in the house for Sebastian and then laid down beside the water dish and refused to eat or drink. Quick action by the veterinarian saved him, and during his long convalescence Nigel stayed right beside him. They became best cat friends, and since then have been inseparable. 

Never one to shirk his duties, Nigel interjected his loud opinions during all my conference calls and Skype meetings with clients, and on eviction from the office he wailed outside the hated door to be let back in. 

He greeted everyone who came to the house by standing up on his hind legs and reaching up to pat their hands with a paw, or by climbing onto their laps to peer intently into their faces. Everyone thought he was wonderful: "It's like he's been looking for me his whole life!" Many offered to take him off my hands, but they hadn't lived through his CD-flinging years: Pew! Pew! Pew!


On Friday August 29, 2014, the lawn service came around as they do every Friday. Some neighbors had complained to the HOA about finding a tick on their dog. When asked how often they sprayed for such pests, it turned out the landscapers hadn't sprayed at all for six or eight months. They got right on it, and probably fearing to lose their contract, they got out the big guns. 

As I drove up from the grocery store the smell of pesticide was strong. I immediately got the hose out and washed down my dooryard, driveway and grass, but when I went in the house I could smell it indoors, too. The lawn service probably sprayed right up to the houses and around the doors, and it had come in through the crack around the door.

Nigel was lying on the mat when I opened the front door. He spent most afternoons there as the sun shone on the door and made it warm, and when I went out he waited on the mat for me to come home. In the days when he could still hear my car coming down the block, he'd shove his face through the blinds and meow out the sidelight as I pulled up, but he had grown completely deaf over time, so for the past year he was sound asleep on the mat every time I came in. 

The entire inside of the house smelled like pesticide. By bedtime Nigel's eyes were running and he was coughing. The next morning I took him to the hospital, thinking he had a cold. By Monday morning the antibiotics were having no effect, he had developed diarrhea, and he was wheezing, coughing and sometimes having difficulty breathing. 

His blood tests were clean, as were his x-rays. He didn't have pneumonia or an infection, and no sign of cancer. He had no discharge from his nose and his eyes had cleared up, but he was clearly having respiratory problems. Doc asked me if there was any chance he'd been exposed to a toxic substance, and I remembered the pervasive smell of pesticide on Friday afternoon. Nigel had been sleeping on the doormat and had taken a full hit of whatever came in around the door. 

I learned from the HOA's board that the landscapers had used Dimethoate to spray our neighborhood. This is an organophosphate pesticide that works by interfering with the nervous system; it is toxic to humans, animals, birds, fish, and insects – everything that moves, swims, or flies. Lawn services love it: it gets results. 

Symptoms of poisoning by Dimethoate read like a list of Nigel's woes: "coughing, chest discomfort, difficult or short breath, and wheezing due to constriction or excess fluid in the bronchial tubes", eye irritation and tearing, diarrhea. Nigel had clearly gotten enough of a dose of Dimethoate through the closed door to cause his condition. A greater exposure would have resulted within days or even hours in loss of coordination, progressive weakness, convulsions and death. 

Yet Nigel started to recover, the wheezing subsided somewhat and he spent most of his time resting. For an entire week he seemed to be slowly improving. But he wasn't a young robust cat anymore and he began losing ground. 

Even with nebulizer treatments, large amounts of fluids, and antibiotics to prevent infection, Nigel didn't have the reserves of strength to turn the corner in the healing process; his body began to wear out before it could fully heal itself. 

Nigel's last night was spent at home on his favorite pillow with his buddy Oscar curled up with him. The next day, September 11, he would no longer eat or drink, and could not stand more than a few seconds. There was nothing more to be done, so I let him go. I hate putting animals down, but even worse to make him suffer an unnaturally long and slow death. In the real world, animals that go down have their suffering ended by predators rather quickly. 

Dimethoate is extremely dangerous: it it a teratogen, meaning it causes foetal deformities such as extra limbs; it is mutagenic, causing mutations in the DNA; and it causes cumulative nervous system damage over time with every exposure. That is, every time you breath in a little Dimethoate, it destroys part of your nervous system. As damage builds up it can result in "impaired memory and concentration, disorientation, severe depressions, irritability, confusion, headache, speech difficulties, delayed reaction times, nightmares, sleepwalking and drowsiness or insomnia. An influenza-like condition with headache, nausea, weakness, loss of appetite, and malaise has also been reported." 

There are still more, and worse, effects, including death. I leave it to you to click through on the blue link above or below to Cornell University and read about the thing in detail. You may end up wondering, as I do, how such a dangerous substance can be available for use in any residential neighborhood, and what can be done to stop it. Your lawn service or pest control could be spraying this on your home every month, building up nervous system damage, or worse, in you and your kids.

If Nigel had died of a natural cause I wouldn't be angry, but to die because a neighbor didn't buy tick treatment for a dog during the summer months in Florida seems deeply wrong. Spraying an entire neighborhood with poison to kill one dog's tick is extremely risky. If Dimethoate can kill a cat so easily, it can also kill a foetus or a child, or an elderly man with an oxygen tank. We have pregnant ladies and kids and old folks all along our street. The board is now looking into hiring a pest control company that uses natural methods. We'll see. 

I may not stay. The large space is nice but a pain to clean all the time, so maybe I'll get something smaller. The next board or the one after that may want stronger pest control measures. Some people want to live in a cartoon version of Florida that is sanitized of everything: opossums and foxes, insects, crabs and frogs, pine woods and cypress hammocks, sugar sand and Shepherd's Needles. Pave it all over and bring in a new tax base with a new set of carpetbaggers. Maybe I'll move somewhere that's less popular, a little wilder. A place with no HOA and no pest control. 

Oscar is looking for his friend under the bed, in the back of the closet, and I looked for him last night when I drove in, expecting to see his wide open mouth and hear his loud wail through the window. Nigel is gone. For the first time in many years no one is at the door and my house is silent.  


Information on Dimethoate is from Extonet, Extension Toxicology Network, A Pesticide Information Project of Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University, and University of California at Davis. Click on the link above to read the full entry. 

My heartfelt thanks go to Dr. Lance Weidenbaum, Dr. Michael Shaff, Candi and Sabrina at Deer Run Animal Hospital for their efforts to save Nigel, and excellent ongoing care of Oscar, Zelda and Bilbo Baggins. 

Required Reading: The Hero With a Thousand Faces


by Karen Newcombe

This year marks the 65th since the first publication of Joseph Campbell's great masterpiece, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

It has been at least ten years since I've read Hero, perhaps longer, but the value of this marvel has not diminished one bit. 

Every writer should spend the time needed to read and digest this book thoroughly, because every story you ever write will be enriched by what you learn here.  

Campbell's life work was to study the mythologies and religions of all cultures and seek the common threads that lend meaning to civilization on the grand scale, and individual lives at the human level. His body of work is vast and I don't intend to delve into it here. I simply want to discuss what I find valuable as a writer in this one book. 

The main points of Hero are that every worthwhile story contains some or all elements of the great myth. Campbell identified a roster of common elements among the world's mythologies, and speaks of them as the monomyth – the great human mythology that is present in every culture.   

In this cycle, the hero (or heroine) is called to adventure, sometimes by a mystical means, sometimes simply by chance. The hero may reject the call, but it will continue to make itself felt until there is no choice but to accept the challenge. The hero passes out of his normal life and sets out on a journey. Along the way he is aided by mystical beings and challenged by monsters, elements, gods, and enemies. Ultimately he must plunge into the deepest, darkest and most desperate place, there to either triumph or fail. Sometimes he or she actually dies, and must be brought back to life. 

Once the hero survives and triumphs, he must now find a way to return to the normal world, bringing back his gifts of knowledge and whatever boons the gods have granted to him in the service of his people. The journey does not end when the battle is won, it ends when the hero arrives safely home, puts the baby on his knee, and says "Well, I'm back." Returning to life and service can be just as important as the battle. 

Campbell makes an excellent case for this story cycle being a reflection of the deep spiritual challenge faced by every person during their lifetime: each of us must survive through the dangers of growing up, the departure from the family, the sacred mystery of love, the confrontation with our own mortality, and for some, a great spiritual struggle that may lead to enlightenment and awareness of our higher nature. 

While every story does not contain all of these elements, every story does contain at least one, and often many of them. 

We find good stories deeply satisfying because they contain these resonant elements, which are profoundly rooted in the human psyche. Campbell speaks often in Hero about psychoanalysis and dream analysis. These were at the forefront of psychological science  in the 1940s, but some of these passages in Hero now seem dated and quaint. We have much more knowledge about psychology and the biochemical operations of the brain at our disposal today. Yet Campbell's references to the early forms of psychology do not diminish the power contained in the elements of the Hero's Journey, or its relevance to both personal experience and the writer's craft. 

Reading a summary of Hero is no substitute for reading the book yourself. Campbell's examples are drawn from the mythologies, fairy tales and religions of the world, and offer clear, powerful illustrations of how the elements of the monomyth play out. Understanding why these stories continue to resonate with us across the centuries, or even millennia, can help any writer bring more powerful energies into his own work. 

For some writers a wider study of Campbell's many works on mythology will offer a host of ideas for story and story elements. A thorough understanding of mythology and folk tale helps the writer add depth – or even humor – to his work. 

Guides to the Hero's Journey as a Plot Structure

There are dozens of guides and charts to help writers make practical use of the Hero's Journey to create plot lines.  Former Disney story consultant Christopher Vogler was certainly one of the first to put a succinct summary together for writers, available here:'s_journey.htm

Vogler makes a point worth mentioning: adhering strictly to the full plot format may be too obvious to readers, with the structure showing through plainly instead of flowing naturally within the story. Writers should choose the elements that will best serve their current purpose, not try to force the story to fit an outside structure. 

That said, Vogler also says that "The myth can be used to tell the simplest comic book story or the most sophisticated drama.  It grows and matures as new experiments are tried within its basic framework.  Changing the sex and ages of the basic characters only makes it more interesting and allows for ever more complex webs of understanding to be spun among them.  The essential characters can be combined or divided into several figures to show different aspects of the same idea.  The myth is infinitely flexible, capable of endless variation without sacrificing any of its magic, and it will outlive us all." 

Further: For a brain electrifying dose of Campbell's compelling lectures, I highly recommend getting your hands on the DVD set of The Power of Myth, the video interviews with Campbell by Bill Moyers held at Skywalker Ranch in the 1980s. 

Photo credit: Prof. Mortel / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Review: Write Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell


by Karen Newcombe

James Scott Bell offers some of the most useful advice to be found in any books about the craft of writing. 

His most recent book on writing, Write Your Novel From the Middle, is the first writing book I've read, out of many dozens, to look directly at what's happening at the midpoint of a story. Most books on the craft of writing make it clear that Important Things happen at the midpoint: this is where the plot turns inevitably towards the conclusion. But what exactly is going on?

To find out, Bell started opening books to their center to look firsthand. What he found was more than just a turning point in the plot. The midpoint of the book is what Bell terms "a look in the mirror", where the main character has to stop and take stock of him or herself: Am I really this kind of person? What must I become in order to overcome these challenges? 

Notice these questions are not about what must I do but who must I become.

This is the moment when the character realizes that he or she must dig down inside and undergo a personal change in order to move forward. In a plot driven book this may be when a fateful decision is made by the hero that will drive the action for the rest of the story. 

Give it a try. 

Pride and Prejudice: In the middle of the book, which falls in Chapter 36, Elizabeth receives a letter from Darcy, whom she has just vehemently rejected in Chapter 34. Darcy's letter is electrifying, revealing to Elizabeth how poorly her prejudices have served her. "How despicably I have acted!...I could not have been more wretchedly blind!...Till this moment I never knew myself." 

The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien intended LOTR to be one book, not three volumes, and that intention is still evident in the structure. Just at the center of The Two Towers the most important moment in the entire story occurs: Frodo, with Sting drawn to kill Gollum, must decide if he's the person who kills or the person who spares. Frodo finds pity in his heart and withholds his hand. On that tiny thread of pity hangs the fate of Middle Earth and every being in it. 

The value in Bell's book lies not only in bringing clarity to what's happening at a story's midpoint, but in his practical tips. He offers clear guidance for how writers can make use of the midpoint to strengthen their work. One of his suggestions is to define this midpoint moment  before you even begin writing, instead of struggling to discover it as you write. With the midpoint in mind, the flow of the work is now clearer: actions and decisions must bring your character to that moment of reflection and crisis, and the person she becomes, or the decision he makes, will now lead inevitably to the resolution of your conflict. 

I immediately gained a useful insight from Bell's approach about the manuscript I'm working on now (May 2014). I knew from my first plot outline that my main character would face a transformational crisis of identity. Now I understand that by placing this key self-realization near the mid-point of the book, it will feel emotionally satisfying to the reader. When my character makes the commitment to never go back, it will drive the plot and action for the rest of the story, and make more sense than if it occurs at a different point in the sequence of events. I had originally planned this moment for an earlier point in the book, but placing it in the midpoint gives me more opportunity to create tension and conflict, and build anticipation for the struggle to come. 

In the last section of Writing Your Novel From the MIddle, Bell throws in a handful of great writing tips about how to generate more ideas, how to prepare for effective daily writing, how to develop a voice as a writer, tips for handling exposition so that it's more natural, and 11 secrets for creating a page turner. 

Bell is a bestselling author, has seven other books about writing, and he runs the blog Kill Zone, a hub for thriller and mystery writers that contains plenty of treasure for writers working in any genre. 

Don't forget to feed your craft today! 

Photo credit: brooklyn / Foter / CC BY-SA 2.0

Feed Your Craft


by Karen Newcombe

Writing is a craft. Every craft has tools, and every tool requires experience and practice to use. Fortunately, at this point in history, there are more resources available for writers than ever before. Many writers who have mastered their craft are eager to help the rest of us develop and hone our skills. We can benefit from their hard work and knowledge and bypass some of the thousands of hours that mastery of any craft requires. Books about writing,  workshops and classes, book festivals, and YouTube videos are now abundant. Hundreds of writers’ websites share how they have solved thousands of writing challenges. Dive in! 

The more you understand, the more competent you will be at using your tools. The more you practice, the better you’ll handle them, and the better your writing will become. 

Read every book and article about writing you can get your hands on. Many of them are excellent, offering practical insights into building a plot, creating conflict, handling multiple viewpoints, or designing a great sonnet. 

Some books offer an inside look at specific genres. Every so often an innovator turns up who can jump start a genre and drive it off in a new direction, but you can’t do that if you don’t have a solid feel for how and why that genre works so well already. I don’t care if you’re writing elegant literary fiction or sizzling hot erotica, you need to understand what sets that type of writing apart from the others. 

Explore what’s out there. YouTube has thousands of videos related to writing, from recordings of writing workshops to classroom lectures to vlogs by successful writers. There’s an entire subset of videos about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and hundreds of how-to videos about software tools for writers, like Scrivener. 

Every time I talk about this, someone says “Reading how someone else does it will corrupt my writing. It would dilute my vision to fall under someone else’s influence.” The reality is that life is overflowing with influences: teachers, colleagues, family and friends, drinking buddies, agents, publishers, even enemies, already influence you. You sit down with your work alone, but in your mind and heart, even your genes, is the influence of all of human history and biology, every person you’ve ever met, the books you’ve read, movies you’ve seen, news from this morning’s paper. You are a net constantly capturing influences, so you might as well leverage them to your own purpose with intention. 

James Scott Bell, whose books on writing are excellent, frequently says that he wouldn’t want a self-taught brain surgeon working on him, thanks very much, and he also wouldn’t want one who never bothered to keep up with new developments in medicine. Like every other field, writing changes over time. What made for gripping drama in the 1700s doesn’t work so well for today’s readers, so take the time to keep up as language and storytelling evolve. 

Developing your writing craft also takes practice. Do you want to write more engaging dialogue? Get out a notebook and practice writing dialogue every day. Practice plotting with index cards. Give yourself writing challenges and exercises that take you out of familiar territory and force you to grow. 

You’re a writer. Feed your craft. This is part of your commitment. If you take writing seriously, treat it seriously: care for it and nurture it. 

Study. Practice. Write.

Photo credit: .m.e.c. / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Simple. Difficult?


by Karen Newcombe

Simplicity isn't necessarily easy to achieve these days. 

My goal is to regain time in my life for more writing, so I seek to reduce distraction, clear my living space enough that my creativity has more breathing room – so that my space is restful and my reduced roster of belongings easy to maintain. In both a literal and figurative way, I want to get things out from under foot. 

So far I've filled my giant recycling bin three times over just with papers from my office. Old work files and projects, stacks of business magazines, boxes of business cards and stationery from previous jobs – out. 

A preliminary dip into the closet has netted for charity a large moving box and a giant bag of good condition clothes I never wear, plus a completely unused set of bed linens that I don't like. Perhaps I bought the set on clearance and couldn't pass up the price; I honestly can't remember. 

I've been shuffling this unused bag of linens from closet to closet for a couple of years, planning to use it in the guest room, or see if it looks better out of the bag. I've never done either. Today, I think I've spent enough of my life on this particular thing.  Now I'm impatient to get rid of it – I'll be driving to Goodwill right after I finish this to drop off this first shipment of stuff. 

Clothes are harder. It can be tough giving up something that was a gift, even if you've never worn it. You remember opening the gift, how happy your friend was to be giving you something they picked out, and the sentiment gets in the way of passing the unworn sweater on to someone else. Our memory is so fragile, what if we don't remember the moment of the giving if we let go of the gift? 

When I run across these things that carry sentimental value but no longer fit in my life, I'm going to take a picture and then let the thing go. When I flip through iPhoto next month or next year, I'll see it pass by on the screen and still have the memory, but I don't need to keep the objects anymore. 

None of this is an easy process. Getting rid of things – simplifying – seems to initially result in a big mess. There is is a huge pile in the hallway waiting to go to charity. I have file drawers standing open and a mass of papers I'm working my way through – keep, toss, shred. A box destined for the special recycling center is filling with old electronics, rechargeable batteries and broken cell phones. 

For the moment, the mess is worse instead of better. But I feel like I'm getting somewhere. 

Photo credit: Gorupka / Foter / CC BY

Life Without Cable


by Karen Newcombe

Yes, I'm one of those people. I cut the cable off about two years ago, and I don't miss it. That was probably the real beginning of my journey to get rid of too much stuff. 

I had three reasons: first, there was almost nothing on 500 channels that I wanted to watch. I'd spend half an hour clicking through all the listings and end up settling for a rerun of a show I'd already seen twice. Second, I absolutely hated paying to watch commercials. Third, a lot of television feels like angry strangers have invaded my home and are yelling and throwing things. 

During a lengthy run of commercials one night, I started doing a little calculating. Most one hour TV shows run about 40 minutes, and the remaining 20 minutes is commercials. So thirty-three percent (33%) of every hour is devoted to commercials. 

At that time my cable bill was just over $100 a month, or $1200 per year. Thirty-three percent of $1200 is $400. I was paying $400 a year just to watch commercials. 

I hated that I was paying to watch something I didn't want to see, and that it was chewing up hours of my time every week. how many hours was I actually losing? If I spent three hours a day watching TV (an hour of news and weather in the a.m., a couple of shows in the evening before bed) that worked out to about 21 hours per week. If 33% of that time was commercials, I was spending seven hours a week just watching commercials. Throw in a lunch hour and you'd have an entire working day every week spent on just watching commercials. 

The next morning I called the cable company and turned the thing off. 

I never missed it. 

The Wii console is hooked up to the TV, so I occasionally watch a movie from Netflix or Amazon. I can even watch YouTube videos, some of which are considerably better than anything produced by network media conglomerates. 

The angry strangers are gone, and I am more deliberate about using the TV. I don't just turn it on to fill the time, or compulsively check the weather and news, or to create background noise. My house is quieter. 

All that quiet eventually made me pay more attention to what I was doing with my time. Eventually I noticed how much of that time was being spent on The Stuff. 

What can I get rid of next? 

Photo credit: Abri_Beluga / Foter / CC BY

Too Much Stuff


by Karen Newcombe

I woke up a few days ago and felt like I was suffocating. 

There are boxes of vinyl records and photo books in my bedroom, a table saw in the living room, stuff on the kitchen counters, piles of paper in the office, boxes of tools and kid's toys in the guest room. So many clothes in the closet I can hardly get more clothes into it, so there's a pile of clothes sitting on the ironing board – all the time. 

I'm intensely frustrated at the sheer amount of stuff in my house. Every surface has at least one thing on it. 

Cleaning my house has become an immense endeavor that takes a minimum of several hours. I have to move stuff to vacuum and mop. I am constantly shifting stuff around trying to find a place where this hair tie or stack of papers or notes from a phone call or pair of shoes will stay put and out of my way forever. But the place I want to put the shoes already has shoes in it. Lots of shoes. I don't even recognize some of them. When did I get these? Have I ever worn them?

I spend so much time managing stuff that it's keeping me from doing the thing I love to do more than anything in the world: write. I love writing. I love words, sentences and paragraphs in the way that some people love their mates or their countries. But I struggle to find writing time. Stories, poems, and essays churn around in the back of my brain all night, but in the daylight, the sheer physical presence of The Stuff wins. I start straightening up, shifting stuff around again. 

I have finally realized what every red-blooded 21st Century American consumer is loathe to admit – I have too much stuff. Way more stuff than I need or want. Stuff that eats up my space and takes an immense amount of my attention.

If I want to have the time and space for my own writing, the stuff has to go. I'm 57, and I don't want to spend the second half of my life just moving stuff out of the way so I can set other stuff down.

I want my time back so I can do what I love: write, exercise, spend time with my family and friends, perhaps do a little painting. 

The stuff has to go. 

Photo credit: Keller Holmes / Foter / CC BY

© Karen Newcombe 2014