Monday, December 23, 2013

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year

From all here, may you and your loved ones enjoy a Happy 2013 Christmas Holiday in peace and gratitude, no matter how or for what reason celebrated.

May your 2014 be extra special as well. Happy New Year.

Coming soon
Expect a new blog post on or about January 2 exposing the
seven triggers for success.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Free Christmas Gifts

Why shop? Oh, I know you must. It's tradition. There are loved ones you care for. They care for you. But during this busy season take a moment to ponder that you can put free gifts on your Christmas list and, in the spirit of recycling, keep giving each and every day, week, month, and year.

While others may think of many more, for this Christmas season I've compiled the following seven free gifts. And, for those of you who are not conversant in the Bible, there are added references you must check out to fulfill your experience. Let's start:

1.  The gift of LISTENING. This gift is especially prized by those individuals you know who live alone. Offer to listen face-to-face. No interrupting, no daydreaming, no pre-planning your responses. Just sit or stand there and listen with, not only, your ears but your accepting heart. (Proverbs 18:13)

2.  The gift of AFFECTIONS. If not listening, be generous to others with your hugs, kisses, and gentle squeezes of the hand. Let these tiny, often not received, actions of gentle affection be the true indicators of the love that dwells inside you. (Proverbs 15:30)

3.  The gift of a NOTE. No, not musical, but that would be okay, too. This gift is of written words on a piece of paper and could only say three words: "I love you."  If so inspired, be Shakespearean and compose a sonnet that expresses love and more. Mail or, better yet, hand-deliver your heart-felt creative expression. (Proverbs 15:30)

4.  The gift of LAUGHTER. Remember that cartoon that moved you to laugh. Cut it out; share it. Spend time and money to find a humorous card. You'll share yourself and generate a common bond that could say to the recipient that there's an uplifting side to life. (Proverbs 17:22)

5.  The gift of a COMPLIMENT. Be honest and say what comes to mind. "You look good in that outfit." "Great meal, honey." "I'm happy to see you in church." (Proverbs 15:33)

6.  The gift of a FAVOR. Help with any task. Clear the dinner dishes. Open a door. Offer to run an errand for a shut-in or an at-home recent hospital patient. There is no requirement that you know the person. Be anonymous, it's okay; but personal contact is best. (2 Samuel 2:6)

7.  The gift of a GAME. Offer a child, a shut-in, a senior, or a loved one an opportunity to play their favorite game. Be sincere, but even if you lose, you'll be a winner. For this is a great opportunity for everyone to be a winner when quality TIME is shared. (Proverbs 21:21)

Please enjoy. It's not a simple request. Experience says you, whether giver and receiver, will find a glow of happiness within. And, isn't that the Christmas miracle? 

(Please note:  Voting closed January 3, 2014. Thank you all who participated.)
If you've a mind, you can vote, no obligation, for the author's book cover during the December Cover Wars. There'll be no blood spilled, nor spears thrown, but stealth and two clicks are required. 1) Click on the following: , and 2) Click on the Cover Wars logo. (Ignore warning that page does not exist. It was likely put there to dissuade errant reindeer and mischievous elves.)

These two blogs are not related. Donan Berg in 2012 wrote them a guest post entitled "Q is for Quack." Other than to say it was a writing tip, it's hard to explain without repeating the entire
article. Taking a gander at 17 book covers in one easy look could be fun.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

To all who celebrate Thanksgiving, we wish you a glorious family holiday with bountiful blessings coming your way in return for the thanks expressed and the helping hand you've given to others.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Choose, if you must!

On a tombstone in an English cemetery:

Remember man, as you walk by,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so shall you be,
Remember this and follow me.

Someone later etched the following quip:

To follow you I'll not consent,
Until I know which way you went.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Description: A Writer's Challenge

Every reader’s real world visual perception has a deeper nuance and far exceeds what, with absolute certainty, the written word, even with razor-sharp precision, can create. Whether an author attempts to create a physical setting out of whole cloth or describe one that exists in nature, two challenges exist. How can you pinpoint everything to the nth degree and how do you bridge the gap existing between the totality of what you wish to convey and still maintain the interest of today’s reader? 

Let’s try an example. Dame Agatha Christie sets up her classic play, Ten Little Indians, with initial stage directions that are here reproduced with one minor deletion:

“The scene is the living room of a house on Indian Island. It is a very modern room, and luxuriously furnished. It is a bright sunlight evening. Nearly the whole of the back of the stage is a window looking directly out to sea. French doors are open in center to balcony. It should give the impression of being like the deck of a liner, almost overhanging the sea. There is a chair out on the balcony and the main approach to the house is presumed to be up steps on the left side of the balcony. . . French doors are wide so that a good area of the balcony is shown.

“In the left wall, near windows, is a door to dining room. Downstage left is a door communicating with hall. Pull cord below this door.

“Up right is a door to study. Middle stage right is fireplace. Over it hangs the reproduction of the “Ten Little Indians” nursery rhyme. On the mantelpiece are a group of ten china Indian figures. They are not spaced out, but clustered so that the exact number is not easily seen.

“Center are two sofas with space between. Chair and small table up left. Club chair with tabouret right and above it, down left, where there is also a bookcase. There is a window seat up right and cocktail cabinet below mantelpiece. Tabouret down right. Before fireplace is a big white bearskin rug with a bear’s head. There is an armchair and tabouret right center. A square ottoman at lower end of the fireplace. A settee with table left of it in front of window at the back.”

Can you imagine this scene? On your inner visual screen do you imagine colors? What colors? The only color actually mentioned is white in describing the bearskin rug. If you can see the sky through the balcony, would it be a solid blue or dotted with white, puffy clouds? Would this expanse be flat or stretch to the horizon? If either, does that affect the colors you perceive? How would it affect the reader? 

We are told the living room is very modern and luxuriously furnished. Would those words narrow your perception of color? Perhaps. But we aren’t given a date. Many colors can be perceived as modern. Some colors such as those replicating the patina of oak and mahogany are dark and have been associated with luxury for decades. Would they also be modern? Or, is there an unwanted tension created between the dark colors of wood and, say, the sparkle of gold or silver? How about visual intensity? Is one contrasting color concentrated in a small space to become a focal point?

The mantelpiece is mentioned as an important room element. Should it be noteworthy by being crafted from a light-colored stone or gilded with gold? 

Whatever the case, the discussion so far should kindle the thought that there can be no right or wrong answer in a vacuum. The purpose of room color description is most often useful only to create a mood. Dark colors conjure up gloom and/or depression and, while there are no characters mentioned in the stage directions, a dark-colored room makes it easier for a mystery’s burglar to slink into the background. Bright pastel colors could be the trigger to an older person remembering where they grew up as a child, e.g., a red lampshade, a green throw pillow on either or both sofas.

Color, important in itself, can also define shapes. Are the purple velvet curtains a vertical rectangle or visually impressive for their scalloped horizontal line at the top of the window(s) they adorn? We can probably inwardly visualize the shape and size of a bearskin rug. A fireplace or its mantel presents a greater challenge. They can vary greatly in size and design, although visually within limits. Determining what the word “tabouret” means is decidedly more difficult. There is an inherent ambiguity in the word for it can mean either a low seat without a back or arms or a small portable stand or cabinet. Since the word is used multiple times, a mixture of visualized furniture is definitely possible. Why confuse the reader? There is no good reason to. The reader would be busy enough trying to visual the room without generating more confusion, especially since we haven’t added any character yet.

And, even if one is confident in describing the room, how should it be done—all at once, or piecemeal in narrative between character dialogue, in character dialogue, or silently within the thoughts of a character? It’s a big decision. Too much narrative and you lose the reader experiencing boredom with a lack of action. Too little description and the reader will be lost for not being grounded in the context of the story.

While it would be an unending task to try to pinpoint what should be the final result of every written story, the point here is that each author needs to examine his or her setting description with an attempt to determine what is being projected into and absorbed by the reader’s mind. If the projected image is not the desired one, a different perspective is likely the best first choice for finding the solution.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Chocolate - Oh How We Love It

With Halloween a distant twenty-four hour memory, how can the mind not turn to chocolate?

Theobroma cacao --A barbarous concoction or noxious drug? Delicious indulgence or cause of migraines? Aphrodisiac or tonic?

The journey of the magical cacao bean and its chocolate byproduct begins, some say, in 200 B.C. Worshiped as an idol my Myan Indians over 2,000 years ago, the bitter seeds of the cacao bean have been transformed into sweet chocolate. The Spanish conquest of Central America introduced chocolate to Europe, where it first became the stimulating drink of kings and aristocrats. Industrialization in the 19th and 20th century made chocolate a food for the masses.

When first brought to the U.S. in 1765, it was available only as cocoa or liquid.

Sixty years later, a Dutch chemist invented a cocoa press that enabled confectioners to make the first chocolate candy. World War I made chocolate popular with the returning soldiers and The Hershey Chocolate Company finally mass produced a quality chocolate bar at a price affordable on public street corners. While it may have stayed available to the masses, it has often been revived as a "luxury item" and graces many a gift basket.

One can not get too much of a good thing for a bar with a higher concentration of cocoa is often bitter to the taste.

Godiva, Lindt, and Ghirardelli are three popular well-known makers of the gourmet product. But throughout the country, there are smaller companies producing quality chocolates to meet the many different needs of chocolate lovers everywhere.

We've, over the years, have heard of California-based Bodega Fudge and Chocolates and Adams Place located in Washington state. Kosher chocolates are not out of the question. The end product is not only for Jewish consumers. They are sought after by others, which include vegetarians and those who buy for various allergy and health reasons. Nor are claims to using a copper kettle process.

While the shelf life of chocolates can be four to six months without refrigeration or up to one year when refrigerated.

A major enemy of chocolates is heat. During the summer months, companies that ship chocolate often rely on two or three day air with frozen jellpacks to keep the chocolate cool.

So let that Halloween chocolate melt in your mouth. The cherry cordials don't come until Christmas.

Ps, Don't forget that this blog has a page two, top of the page tab, where one can read Author Dona' Berg's last excerpt of a yet to be published novel by the three-time winner in the 2013 Dixie Kane Memorial Contest. See details below in October 4 blog post.


Friday, October 4, 2013

Donan Berg Lands in Dixie Kane Winner's Circle

Three Novel Entries Earn Judging Accolades

Author Donan Berg landed three times in the winner’s circle at the 8th Annual Dixie Kane Memorial Contest. Announcing the results today was Nicholas Genovese, coordinator of the sponsoring Southern Louisiana Chapter of the Romance Writers of America.

In the inspirational novel category, Author Berg’s two entries, “Rosemary’s Awakening” and “Amanda,” shared a tie, both being awarded second place.

“Rosemary’s Awakening” is a fictional account of a courageous young Iowa woman’s battle to regain life and love after a competitive horse race mishap confines her to a wheelchair.

In “Amanda,” the reader follows a Chicago woman, paroled after being falsely imprisoned in Louisiana, who struggles to reclaim her life’s equilibrium, to achieve personal justice, and to find love on a journey to familiar and unexpected places.

In the novel with romantic elements category, Author Berg earned his third runner-up award with his novel entitled “Alexa.” The central character, Alexa, a single mom with a two-year-old son, lives and works in Chicago as a court probation officer. After a physical assault, she fights to restore her shattered life in an escalating, dramatic tale of murder, mystery, and rumored gold, sought by others after Alexa inherits her Iowa grandmother’s farm and searches for her grandmother’s special cookbook recipe clue that must be deciphered to reveal the gold’s buried location.

“I’m extremely honored,” said Berg. “The annual Dixie Kane competition is one of the premier writing contests in the United States. To be included among the talented and dedicated entrants who have graced and been recognized this year and in years past is a thrill.” Author Donan Berg has four murder/mystery novels and a collection of short stories, in print and electronic formats, published by DOTDON Books, Moline, IL. He’s previously, in 2010, been in the Dixie Kane winner’s circle.

His 2009 debut novel, A Body To Bones, debuted at number 27 in the top 50 most popular books, all genres, at, an online literary community then visited monthly by more than a million authors and readers. A year later on September 19, 2010, his novel held its top 50 ranking as the 32nd most popular. His novels are in libraries nationwide, including Davenport, Iowa City, Moline, Rock Falls, and Rock Island. A Writer’s Digest judge in February 2010 said, “Donan Berg writes a nice, clear, consistently readable prose, and he manages to create a winning character in Sarah Hamilton.”

Following A Body To Bones, he’s authored The Bones Dance Foxtrot (2009), Bubbling Conflict and Other Short Stories (2010), Abbey Burning Love (2011, E-book only), and Baby Bones (2012).

The Dixie Kane Memorial Contest is named for the late New Orleans writer Linda Kay West, who wrote under the pen name of Dixie Kane. The sponsoring New Orleans chapter is a non-profit literary organization dedicated to the craft and business of writing book length fiction with a focus on romance.

Adolph's Gold by Donan Berg to be released March 13, 2014 in e-book format.

On March 13, 2014, Donan Berg's latest novel, Adolph's Gold, will be released in e-book format. As of late January it is anticipated that retailers Apple, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble will offer pre-order buying opportunities.  Readers wishing to sample this detective mystery can do so at the following link:


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Forget Flattery; Be Yourself

Imitation may be flattery and many a budding writer envies Herman Melville, William Faulkner, or fill in the blank ________ without a complete understanding of what made that writer's prose great. Far be it from me to invade the minds of great writers, but their writings give wannabe and striving writers more than enough to think about.

(While I think, you, the reader, should know that this author, me, Donan Berg, has just been informed that he landed three times in the 2013 winner's circle at the 8th Annual Dixie Kane Memorial Writing Contest. When the official results are announced, look for them here.)

Let's start with Mr. Melville. A previous blog teased you with his opening line of "Call me ______." If you didn't correctly fill in the blank, no matter. Beginning writers have often tried, unsuccessfully, to imitate the style or voice of past writing masters. What is not grasped is that the greats changed over time. Or, more accurately, they adapted their voice or style to the nature of their story.

Mr. Melville wrote a novel entitled Omoo, which often ends up as a crossword answer. Those crossword geeks love words with multiple vowels. Anyway, the story starts very simply:

"It was the middle of a bright tropical afternoon that we made good our escape from the bay. The vessel we sought lay with her main-topsail aback about a league from the land and was the only object that broke the broad expanse of the ocean."

Please note, no big dictionary words. Yet, there are questions. Escape from what? Or whom? Why the referenced vessel? If this was a bay, why only one vessel? Are we near a town or marooned? The hook for reading more is deeply planted.

Later in his writing life, Melville began his classic Moby-Dick as follows: (You can repeat out loud this often-quoted verbiage.)

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago-never mind how long precisely-having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."

Had Melville changed? Some would say yes. But it's more than that. It's voice. Moby-Dick is arguably more authoritative in style and voice. Omoo didn't require the Moby-Dick voice, at least, Mr. Melville didn't believe so.

I attended a reading by Alice Sebold a few years ago and she read the first chapter of her well-received and engaging novel entitled The Lovely Bones. It begins:

"My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."

Does that harken back? Maybe yes, but not as straightforward as J.D. Salinger's A Catcher in the Rye reference to Charles Dickens and David Copperfield.

My goal is not to flog masterful writing, but to point out different stories require serious thinking to match the character with the voice presented.

William Faulkner developed his style in service to his stories as other great writers have done. Compare his daring point of view and tense that serves the Bundrens well in As I Lay Dying with the simpler, more straightforward style in his The Reivers.

However you try to style your story, the goal is to not overwhelm your reader and bury the story in an avalanche of stylistic voice copied from a person that doesn't inhabit your skin. If the voice becomes the end all, all your characters will begin to sound alike, spouting diction so similar the reader glosses over the points you wish to make. Sure, I can envision an urban street corner where everyone begins a sentence with "yo dude." Would that enhance my story or distract? Probably distract.

If you give high tension to every character, none will stand out as major or memorable. You may think of all your friends as major influences in your life, but aren't they all slightly, maybe even markedly, different. Treating them as different is not a snub. They're not robots who attended the same Star Wars training school. Come to think of it. Is R2-D2 the same as Hal the computer or that other annoying robot. I think you know the one I'm referring to. No, it's not named Ishmael or Salmon. Think of beginning with the letter C.

The main point is to be yourself. There's nothing wrong with the following in the right circumstances:

"Oh no," the pizza man shouted. "He's been fighting wid his old lady. I ain't gonna get no tip outta this pie."

Nor the following:

"Don't call me Jacob."

Think of yourself, your story. Now, go to it.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Messing with The Muse

Many a quote has spiraled into the conscious. More so from others.

Thus, while the journey is long, provisions sparse, inspiration may abound around life's next corner.

Thus, this post brings to light quotes from the not-to-distant past, not often repeated. Times may, however, change. All are penned from the mind of this author.

Seasons of life repaint age's glory.

Earned feats dance to the melody of life.

Like a joyful melody, charity supports every kindness.

Life's harmony is a symphony of friends.

Pack you life's case with wisdom, love, hope, and charity.
All will fit.

Life free from strain doesn't signal gain.

Happiness is fleeting; standing still won't reach it.

Sweet memories never sever today from unfinished goals.

(And what thought generated this last one is unknown.)

If old walls could talk, you'd probably get plastered.

(That's the lath. Enjoy the day forever more.)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Writing Emotional Projection

If the reader has a tear in his or her eye, it might not be bad. There's emotion present. What I refer to as a "projection." It's the emotion generated by the written word on a page that travels and surfaces in a reader's mind or heart. Perhaps, it's best to examine a made up example:

     Kate walked to the front of the building. The light shone dim. Jack waved her in.
     "There's stew left. I could reheat."
     "Okay," Kate said.
     "My kitchen never closes," Jack replied. "I feed my family from the kitchen. Our house is connected to the bar and we don't have any other kitchen. It's open 24/7, although the bar door is locked at 2 a.m."
     "Front of the house," Kate said.
     "That's what some call a restaurant, the seating part."
     "That so? We call the kitchen a kitchen; the bar, a bar; and everything else the house."

The scene is simple. We're in the point of view (POV) of Kate. We can assume they're human, but maybe not. For purposes here, it's unimportant.

We have an interaction between Kate and Jack. It's dull. Straightforward? yes; objective? yes; inspiring? hardly; emotional? far from it.

Emotional projection is subjective. It's judgments and opinions held by the POV character, a view of the story world unique to the character through whose eyes we are experiencing that world. If the reader would know how that character is feeling or reacting to his or her world, there's a greater chance for an emotional bond between character and reader. Even if the reader thinks the character is acting foolishly, there can be a bond created. And, the payoff for the writer is that the reader keeps turning the page to learn more.

A writer could self-edit the above and add attribution tags like: she said angrily, he cried out, or she demurred.

Let's try to be more forceful. Give it a go yourself.

Here's one attempt to blast greater emotion from the page:

Kate hesitated on the flagstone walk. The building looked so daunting in the dim light. What could those shadows, the creepy ones, do to her? She made her mind up. Nothing. She wasn't going to live in the past.

A shadow, the size of a man, emerged. She recognized Jack; thank heavens it wasn't Steve. She exhaled and welcomed his wave.

"There's stew left. I could reheat."

Kate loved stew. "Okay." She silently admonished herself for not being more grateful and cleared her throat. Her last meal, yesterday, hadn't stayed down. "Okay," she repeated, hoping no trace of her fear would show in her voice. Jack had his grandmother's stew recipe; the memory of its savory aroma from times past washed over her.

"My kitchen never closes," Jack replied, pride tinting his words.

Kate couldn't make out his smile, but she knew it would be there.

"I feed my family from the kitchen. Our house is connected to the bar and we don't have any other kitchen."

His speeding-train words wouldn't be slowed and Kate knew any attempt to encourage him to enunciate clearer would be met by his resistance and flare his anger. She would endure his rattling on for the stew.

"It's open 24/7, although the bar door is locked at 2 a.m."

Wow, is that nice? She couldn't fathom why she needed to understand all this and didn't wish to. "Front of the house?" Why had she asked?

"Huh?" Jack's expression remained perplexed as Kate stepped closer to him. The light's angle diffused the shadows on his face.

"That's what some call a restaurant, the seating part." Kate had taken too much for granted. She'd been blessed with college.

"That so? We call the kitchen a kitchen; the bar a bar; and everything else the house."

Writers can expect to add character emotion or projection at the revision stage or stages. On first draft, it's often better to charge ahead to get the story idea on paper and then spend time to mold the exact emotion to snare the reader. The benefits are huge.

While in Kate's POV it's easier to express how she's feeling or reacting, a writer can hint at what might be going on in Jack's head, even if it's colored by Kate's prejudices and worldview.

A caution, piling adjective upon adjective may seem to add extra emotion, but it can as easily confuse the reader. Be judicious. Salt can flavor a stew. Too much salt can make it uneatable.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Openings - Tension, tension, tension

Readers always want tension. Authors know that.

Opening lines were the topic of the last post. While not just one line, openings, according to feedback received, require an extended discussion and we'll bite off another chunk here. While it's hard to generalize or slice openings into neat categories, I'm going to try assuming there is but one genre, which we all know is not true.

Opening tension, what's it about?

1. Tension versus grounding.

There is a general admonition for writers to create tension in the opening. That often runs counter to grounding, which I define as giving the reader an exact time, place, and context of the action.

To be vague, often creates tension. "Don't do that," she screamed." Okay, you're grounded in that its a female. But is she really in distress, or in euphoric joy. Let's not be sexist. We don't actually know what created the comment. Sure, the word "screamed" could indicate danger. But would that be so if this speaker was in a room of numerous loud voices and she didn't wish the caterer to place the food next to the exit door. Who's in danger? The speaker? Another person? Or is her pet dog raising a leg?

Many readers require to be immediately grounded, or they're flipping the story closed as a waste of their valuable time. And, who can blame them for desiring the security not to have to figure out the details of time and place. And, this knowledge can include both the physical as well as the emotional facts. Remember the cliché of: "It was a dreary and stormy night on the ............"

If you've read any of Robert Crais's best-selling novels, you'll begin with a straightforward description of characters and location, even if there's no immediate indication of conflict or tension. Obviously, that's what his readers expect and he delivers.

A descriptive on-board conversation of Sister Fidelma of Cashel sets the stage for Peter Tremayne in The Dove of Death to start the adventure with a death-defying jump into the sea and a dramatic rescue to avoid certain death.

2. Tension versus mood.

Yes, some novels depend on mood. Note above, a dark and storm night. However, it's easy to overdo the description of mood if relying on nature rather than human emotions. Readers, and I have no specific survey to quote, attach themselves easier to human emotions than the swaying of branches, a silvery moon, or the old chestnut of an approaching storm to equate to or suggest pending danger.

The trick for weather moods is to incorporate it into the personality, fears, or hopes of the witnessing character. Example 1: He shuddered at every strike of lightning; his father had been killed by a late August strike. Example 2: She felt calm. The wind did that. Example 3: Whenever George touched a wet rock, he thought of his pet turtle that slipped from his grip into the rapids and never surfaced.

While its sad, visual media has overpowered most written descriptions of natural phenomena. The descriptions are still important as seasoning, if not the main dinner course.

3.  Tension ploys.

Many authors employ short, staccato sentences or non-sentences to create tension. In the short term, it can work. The gunslinger flexed his fingers. His holster tied to his right leg. The six-shooter loaded. The crow cried. Dust settled. His eyes straight ahead. Unmoving. His fingers flexed again.

After two pages, aren't you ready to say, fire or die?

Monday, June 3, 2013

The First Line - Getting It Write

Over time, novel opening lines have been there to inspire parody, haunt the memory, or, and this is their critical importance, no matter how or by what technique, the reader must read the next line. And then the next until that most desired line of all - the concluding one. You might have favorite opening lines or know the classics. If you have the urge to write, you probably do.

J.D. Salinger in Catcher in the Rye relied on Charles Dickens and David Copperfield. Chris Cleave in Incendiary begins with: "Dear Osama they want you dead or alive so the terror will stop." Janet Evanovich starts with a different tone in One for the Money. She writes: "There are some men who enter a woman's life and screw it up for ever."

And no, Herman Melville hasn't been forgotten. You can fill in the blank. "They call me _______."

Writers and readers have a convergence, they both must start at the same words. So what kind of advice would it be to advise to start at the beginning? Well, it's true. It's necessary. The sticky point is: is the start enticing?

It's been claimed that one Montana writer spent eight years working on his novel's opening line. While the truth may not be known, there's one truth that's inescapable. Once the line is written for the last time, it's there for history. A daunting challenge, for sure.

Rather than go off on the theoretical, I've decided to set forth the opening lines currently topping the page of several works in progress. There's no rule that says an opening line can't be created by more than one person, although cartoonists have been having fun with committee creations for decades.

There's no right or wrong dream to where the words point, so enjoy. (I've substituted initials for character names. If your opening line wants to use initials for a character, go for it.)

1.  "Standing motionless, A.G. counted the day as both zero and one."

2.  "Chocolate smelled sweet, death did not."

3.  "E. feared that, if she looked, it would still be there."

4.  "Huffing and puffing, G.K. welcomed fatigue to punish his lack of imagination."

5.  "To counteract her chest-tightening sadness, A.H. squeezed both hands gripping her
       Ford F-150 steering wheel until her fingers ached and the depression between her
       raised knuckles mimicked the ruts in the rural road leading to Grandma's farm."

6.  "'Don't need help,' R.K., in the Angel Springs, Louisiana, Bayou Downs barn,
       admonished Uncle Joe."

7.  "Passersby would believe J.O.'s eyes gazed aimlessly past bobbing shrimp boats to
      the Gulf of Mexico horizon."

8.  "A. F. grieved the loss of two mothers."

An intriguing exercise, should you wish to do it, would be to write the second sentence to each of the above. If you do, you're on your way to completing your story. And, that's the hidden point of writing an opening line. It gets you started.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Book Review - The Harry Houdini Mysteries

Harry Houdini, well-known as an escape artist, becomes for Author Daniel Stashower the subject of mystery in his The Harry Houdini Mysteries published in paperback by Titan Books. The novel concerned with here is subtitled The Floating Lady Murder.

The reader never gets into the mind of Harry, as the narrator is his brother, Dash Hardeen, who also serves as Harry's manager and the scene opens with the-not-yet-famous Houdini trying to stake out a career as a performer.

The Floating Lady is a levitation illusion or trick that had already killed one woman, but had become an obsession for magician Harry Kellar. Houdini is hired by Kellar and works on finding the solution to performing "The Floating Lady."

There is an economy in telling the story while at the same time giving a full glimpse into Houdini's life and the era Houdini lived in.

The suspects are identified early, but the thought process to the reveal of the killer and the driving motive(s) leaves the reader out of the mix. Even when the reader is in the mind of Dash Hardeen and he has a revelation, the reader is not told of the truth flash. Not giving the reader clues to solve the murder is a major downer to the whodunit.

Dropping more earlier clues would definitely enhance the book's strength of description and varied pace of storytelling.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Writing Contests: "A" or "E"

In specific reading genres writing contests abound. For the budding author the question may boil down to whether or not entering a specific contest is worthwhile or desireable. For this post that underlies the title: Writing Contests: "A" or "E," which has nothing to do with a grading system.

The "A" and "E" are vowel choices to go with the three consonants "P R _ Y."

Thus, with regard to writing contests are you faced with the prospect of  wanting or having to "pray" for a winning entry, or are you the "prey" for the contest's sponsors?

It's no doubt that contests try to sugar coat the benefits of entering. It's almost like the hoopla that surrounds million dollar giveaways. While the giveaways say you don't have to order to be a winner, that may be true for the initial contest, but, if you order, don't you keep receiving entries for future contests that a non-ordering person might not receive.

There are many writing contests. Romance Writers of America (RWA) sponsor two well-publicized contests, one for published works and the second for unpublished manuscripts. Mystery Writers of America sponsor awards that are primarily focused on already published works.  Literary magazines such as Nimrod and crazyhorse (Lower case is title of publication.) award prizes to unpublished short fiction. The difference the latter two have is that payment of the entry fee gives the entrant copies of the respective literary publications, at least for a year.

Paying a contest entry fee that comes with a subscription does seem more than fair. It provides the entrant with knowledge of and the ability to read and dissect the winning entries. And, intellectually compare the winners with one's personal entry without potential embarrassment.

Entering an unpublished manuscript to other venues brings forth other issues. If you've written a romance novel and don't wish to enter the national RWA contest because you believe it is not so much an organization as it is a company trying to make a profit, there are multiple romance chapters within the United States that run annual contests to make money. Yes, they may not say so explicitly, but ask the RWA whether or not they encourage chapters to run contests to support themselves and their websites and keep member dues low. In a moment of candor, the truth will come out. There is no doubt the RWA encourages chapters to run contests for entries are often given a discount for being an RWA member and some chapters mandate RWA membership for entries to be acceptable. Thus, the RWA has its own self-interest at heart.

But, whether or not that is so, what impact does this all have on the entrant deciding whether or not to enter an unpublished manuscript? The following could apply to any organization wishing to charge entry fees for unpublished manuscripts.

The chapters, populated by unpaid volunteers deserving credit for following their passion, run and obtain the judges for the unpublished manuscripts. The judges, even in a blind contest, may or may not be industry qualified. If you read the fine print, the contests say that the judges are "trained" and/or "published." Being either is not the sine qua non for possessing the requisite innate quality or acquired qualifications to judge writing or storytelling. From personal experience, after receiving the critique of judges the suggestions were implemented and the stories submitted the next year with the judge's changes. The score on one was lower and the comment was made that the writer seemed to have English as a second language. The other scores were no higher and the writing criticized for craftsmanship that had passed mustard the prior year. I took advantage of sending word of this to the judges (unidentified to me) via the contest coordinator. Guess what happened the next year?

From another contest I got scribbled comments from a judge willing to at least be honest when he or she said that he or she didn't like to read the category of the entry then being called upon to judge. Wow, you might say. If your first thought is how does this judge know what is of quality in this genre if they don't read it, welcome to the club that now has at least two members.

The preceding comment brings to light what should be obvious. The judges, being within the same chapter as the contest, know each other and are, more than likely, in the same critique groups. Even without names on the manuscripts, surely the judges can determine who wrote what.

Do entrants know these internal chapter dynamics?  Of course, not. That's information not provided outside the contest's inner circle.  Also secret is the number of entries. Is one given the criteria for judge selection. Most likely, not. Are you given information as to what book the judge authored? Likely, not. In some contests you are given a scorecard. If you check the scorecard criteria or divisions, you'll find they are very subjective. As in writing and an individual's reading preference, there's no dispute in this quarter that subjectivity is always present.

The bottom line may be whether or not winning a specific contest leads to greater glory. If the recent news is to be believed, the answer is no. New York publishers look for ways to make money (And, isn't that the same goal as the manuscript contests?) and they recently have been seeking out those
authors who've either gathered thousands of readers or sold their manuscripts by offering them online or through e-books channels.

Yes, this new technology seems to be the way of the future. As each day goes by, the glitter of boosting one to success via a writing contest seems to pale. You may disagree and find that entering a contest is a reasonable substitute for not having to or being able to adhere to your own writing deadline or going out and creating your own critique group. No one can tell you what value there is in your money. That's right and fair. Being in a writing contest winner's circle can be a great rush and this writer has had first hand experience.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Poetry Within Your Novel

There's a not so subtle way for an author to impart a theme to readers of his or her fiction novel. That's to have one of the character's espouse it in poetry. Yeah, right, you say. Control or tamp down your disbelief for one moment. I will try to direct you to the promised land if you're willing to read on. Isn't inviting guilt wonderful?

Okay, a disclaimer to keep the fiction police happy, not every character can be comfortable with or be in contact with poetry. Yet, perhaps the character is a frustrated poet or had to write a poem in one of his or her high school or college classes. Feasible, you bet. If so, (and I bless my hardworking English teacher daily) you can incorporate the created poem into your story.

What if your character didn't attend the conventional school? Then there are several avenues in widely diverse genres to have the thematic poem disclosed to your fiction readers.

Captain Kirk on Star Trek, or your equivalent, can uncover it in a galactic cave. Maybe it just shows up as a hologram from the past. Perhaps it's a clue to a distant surviving culture that commands billions of gallons of fracking natural gas and is ready to crash the world's economy or, if you understand the poem's meaning, fill your vehicle's, and no one else's, gas tank cheap. If that's not compelling, then it could be part of a regular, old-fashioned mystery. Stranger things happen.

Your fictional romantic time traveler can find it tucked in an old trunk Shakespeare discarded on the way to Stratford-on-Avon. If you have a midsummer's night's dream not an accident, there can be a Puck you can count on. Your poem's discovery can be the "to be" of the be or not to be uttered by your Hamlet wannabe.

If your character is a historic saint, say, take mine, he lived as a Gaelic monk in the sixth century.  No, he wasn't St. Patrick who lived a century earlier. Who knows how much poetry my historic saint buried in the Irish caves escaping the Huns? Sorry, they were later and probably on a different continent. Maybe it was Finn McCool who performed the historic deed to save the magic poetic scroll my saint scribbled on whatever fast food scraps of paper then existed? I love that legendary McCool guy. He's such a 21st Century Disney character. Whoops, Disney hasn't put him on celluloid yet next to that famous Tinkerbelle. But okay, thinking harder, it was the thugs from Denmark who threatened my saint. Oh, those Danes, still around centuries later to cause Will Shakespeare dramatic trouble.

If we consider more modern times, didn't Agatha Christie conjure up mystical powers in several of her fictional stories. Perhaps a pale horse chased by Miss Marple? Or didn't Herucle Periot brave the Egyptian sun to find a poem in the tombs, or on an ancient scroll that would serve your purpose? You do the research. I'm just generating ideas.

If there's no historical villain or convenient sleuth, create your own. Remember, you're writing fiction.

Just ponder what the following poem means or says to you or us as readers. It's taken from Chapter Thirty-Four of my novel, A Body To Bones, First Skeleton Series Mystery, said to be written by a small town newspaper publisher. That he might do that would make sense, right? If I'm not the National Poet so be it, I'm, as you will be, hiding behind a created character. The question is does it impart meaning that is understood by the reader, if not critically acclaimed?

Lies will not support the past
False fronts created will not last.
In this world of gloom and woe
In wisdom, faith, and trust we grow.
For all that we carry in our heart
Or that our words will impart,
Memories in our hearts still glow
Showing us paths on which to go.
And so, what does that tell us as the readers?
Who is lying? What false fronts are created? Does it matter as long as we know it's bad? Perhaps the prior narrative tells us or perhaps we must look at our own past?  Even in a world of gloom, isn't there certain existing values we can count upon to exhibit hope? I'd say yes.
If there are trials or discouragements that linger in our hearts, doesn't the heart and the human condition have past glories that will show us the way? Shouldn't we be uplifted in the future that awaits? I'd say, amen.
Even if you don't have an answer, doesn't the poetry in fiction add another dimension that no other tool can?  Obviously you can debate me or others. But try it once. If your fiction is enhanced, you get the reward. It couldn't be any sweeter than that.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Beware. It's Personal

Lest I repeat myself too much, beware, this post is personal.

With a journalistic background, I've been taught to lead with the most important fact. For this post I've disregarded the principle since this isn't a journalistic post.

When I conceived how I would style and present this, my, blog, I decided to focus on helping other writers with craftsmanship articles, and as the desire struck, to add a bit of whimsy. Well, this post is neither.

What always impressed and irritated me about professional journalism was the ever present deadline. I vividly recall one late night lounging in the press room of a major hotel while the United States presidential candidate, in a suite upstairs, did whatever candidates do awaiting the decision of the voters. I was relaxing in the early morning hours relishing that I had stepped on the toes of a national magazine reporter and elbowed a Time photographer to get the photo of the candidate that I still cherish. On my agenda in eight hours was a two minute live radio report and attending any live press conference called if the candidate conceded or claimed victory.

I shared the company of a journalist from Australia, reporting for a group of British publications. After weeks on the campaign trail he was longing for the trip home. Slumped in his chair, he almost, on multiple occasions, fell to the floor, claimed by long days and short nights. His phone rang. It was his editor calling from a different time zone asking for 500 words, deadline in thirty minutes.

All I can say is that I've never read such concise, dramatic, to-the-point, cliche-free prose written in ten minutes from the grave of pure exhaustion. I'm sure I wouldn't have to this day remembered the incident if it hadn't been an honest-to-goodness professional who'd taught me an impromptu lesson at the foot of "show don't tell."

Circumstances as well as individuals can create the same feeling, only it may take longer.

Years ago I wrote the official United States released stories on the truce talks at Panmunjom, Korea. And it's been like days of old as North Korea has jumped to the world news stage. Only once did I have to fight the censors to use the words I had written. On that day I was successful. While I was in attendance at the truce talk site, halfway inside the 3-mile demilitarized zone, I had to have my story ready to dictate by telephone to Seoul when arriving at the military base just outside the DMZ. It was the first opportunity to make a telephone call. If it hadn't been for the experience of knowing reporters like those met during U.S. presidential campaigns, I wouldn't have been able to complete the tasks for the months that I did, nor personally complete the early morning briefing for the Secretary of the Army who visited during my deployment.

So what triggered these memories? While I wouldn't give up one minute of my journalistic life, I today discovered a reader review of my novel "The Bones Dance Foxtrot, Second Skeleton Series Mystery" on It said: "I liked it but not as well as the first one. (That's "A Body To Bones, First Skeleton Series Mystery.") We've met the author so I started reading his books, and I enjoy them. I never know the ending and that's something I like."

I must confess I didn't recognize the name of the reviewer. Am I glad he purchased and read my novels, was willing to express an opinion, and took the time to write an online review, obviously yes, yes, yes. In fact, more than glad, ecstatic would be a better word.

But it also triggered in me the thought that an author never knows if or how he or she will affect a reader or a potential reader. You go to book readings. I have one scheduled here April 18 in Rock Falls, IL. You go to community events, you support charities, you speak to people in person, if you can. It's an axiom that no one can like or dislike a novel until it's read. Getting the read is the challenge. Can there be an analogy between an author "pressing-the-flesh" and a politician? Yes.

There is a kinetic energy that bills. Yes, please come back to this blog to read ideas on how you can craft better prose, but don't forget to get out there into the community. I'm not saying it will be easy, but the rewards will buoy your heart and brighten your smile. And, the rewards come from quarters you won't imagine and at times you won't fathom.

Isn't that why you're an author, to uplift people? To give readers an enjoyable experience?

Now, I ask that you go to my previous blog post and click on the link to read a sample of my e-book Abbey Burning Love.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Abbey Burning Love - Sample Read

Read a sample of Author Donan Berg's e-book Abbey Burning Love.

Order at Full-length novel 99 cents from the author who in
2013 landed three times in the 8th Annual Dixie Kane Memorial Contest sponsored by
the Southern Louisiana chapter of the Romance Writers of America.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

What's Your Story Premise?

Every writer has an idea on where his or her story is going to take them, or should. The difficulty encountered is with the precision of the thought. One suggested exercise to distill, or to separate the wheat from the chaff (to use an old cliché), is to create a premise.

What is that you ask? It's a simple one sentence statement of the story. The premise contains the character, plot, and a sense of the outcome. A tough task to create? Definitely yes. But when completed your personal satisfaction will be higher and your story will be better off for it.

Hollywood is well-known for wanting to have "high-concept" stories. To the investors that is a short statement that connects with the audience and brings to their ears the sound of box office cash registers ringing-Caching, Caching.

To complete your premise start by brainstorming. Don't reject any idea. Keep scribbling or striking that keyboard in front of your fingers.

For example:

     Long lost dinosaurs and humans fight for survival and island dominance.

     Children survivors after a world disaster are forced to fight on TV by evil dictators.

     Couple nurtured by a child they'd abandoned two decades earlier find love.

     A male actor dresses as a woman to find employment and learns he's been
     treating women badly for years.

Look at your unique life and the passions that motivate or mean the most to you. Keep on writing.

After the list grows you should begin to see a pattern. The examples above are not sufficient to
create the pattern that should emerge with your dedication to the exercise.

Remember, you are not sharing this with anyone unless that is your wish. Don't stop at the first
hint of having nothing more to bring forth from your brain. Put the list away. Dedicate more than
minutes or hours to the task.

Later, you must evaluate whether or not you can craft your most promising premise into the outline
of a story and decide upon the shape it may take, i.e., myth, nonfiction, children's story, mystery, romance, or historical.

If you already have a story written, there is no reason you can't draft a one sentence premise. Doing the exercise in reverse will most likely strengthen your existing story, make it sharper, give strength to that sagging middle. Your completed premise also makes a nice fit with that query letter you must write to attract an agent or publisher.

For the best premise possible, get ready, go.

Author Donan Berg has written four mystery novels. His full-length e-book Abbey Burning Love is on sale for 99 cents. Visit .

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Writing With Unity and Flow

Writing With Unity and Flow

A reader doesn’t create or follow just any path in your writing, except for maybe a path of disbelief. The reader sprints, trudges, or aimlessly wanders along the journey created by you as a good writer.  If the job’s done well, the reader doesn’t get lost. That includes fiction where a major purpose of the writer’s task is to build suspense, throw in a red herring, or tilt the reader’s sense of balance.

Prose that is loose and unstructured loses the reader while also indicating that the writer lacks a coherent idea of where he or she is headed.

Two writing concepts, never quite like identical twins, worthy of consideration are “unity” and “flow.”

“Unity” is a coherent journey that more likely than not takes the reader back to the beginning in either time, space, thought, or location. “Flow” is pacing and markers along the reader’s journey that keeps he or she moving forward to the next page, the newest thought built on or created out of a previous thought, or the revelation of an underlying theme.

While Tarzan swung from vine to vine, he had to keep looking forward to determine if the next jungle tree was strong enough to hold his weight and provided a new vine able to swing in the direction he wished to travel. Each tree or vine could be a different native species. It didn’t matter. Writing instructors often use the analogy of a flagstone path. Each stone is of different dimension and/or shape, yet together they “flow” in a direction that can be discerned and followed.

“Unity” is to make each tree or stone suggestive of the journey and provide for its accomplishment. Linkage is how you, as the writer, arrange and order the individual pieces. You as writer keep adding new things: Tarzan meets Jane. Tarzan reaches for a coconut. Tarzan avoids the swipe of a lion’s paw. You’re building Tarzan’s life. Giving the reader perspective and insight into Tarzan’s existence.

While Tarzan grows wiser, he ages. The sun dips below the horizon and dawn breaks to provide transition between days. A scrape on Tarzan’s leg first bleeds, the blood coagulates into a clot followed by a covering, protective scab, and then the scab dries up and disappears in the healing process. Life events are given and blended together with the transition of a healing wound.

But be on guard for tried-and-true words and phrases that may be convenient, but should be avoided.  Example:  “After having …” Having means the action has already taken place. The writer has indicated he or she is writing about the past. You would not say” “After having looked around the forest, Tarzan eyed a cypress.” Redundancy abounds. Use either “after” or “having.” “After looking around the forest, Tarzan eyed a cypress.” Or, “Having looked around the forest, Tarzan eyed a cypress.”

The reader takes in that Tarzan swings from a cypress to an oak and then to a palm tree. He finds the coconuts ripe, unlike two months previous. Thus, a single action ties together Tarzan’s journey and experience. There is both flow and unity. The logic is implicit and the writer keeps the reader on the single journey.
Step back from your writing and check it for unity and flow. Give yourself a mental pat on the back for doing a good job.
Author Donan Berg's e-book "Abbey Burning Love" is now 99 cents. Visit to learn more and order. He is author of three other novels in print and e-book formats.





Sunday, January 13, 2013

Guilty Sampler - Author Donan Berg

Guilty Sampler
Gerald patted the strange outline of the object beneath the cloth of his winter coat pocket, not remembering what he'd put inside it. He pulled the object out and immediately clasped his fingers around the plastic white spoon to hide it from supermarket passersby.
He felt a pang of guilt, not that he'd be going to jail soon. With the sample taste still lingering on his tongue, he fretted that he shouldn't have tried any sample since he knew he'd never splurge for a full retail container or package of the offered item.
The sample lady had smiled so broadly as she reached out the paper cup, so tiny, yet so inviting. Her wrinkled fingers beneath translucent plastic gloves matched her lip's radiating expressive creases.
"Try this pineapple with mango, you've never tasted anything so good," she said.
Gerald hesitated. The juice could be the perfect solution to his dry mouth. Hadn't he stopped at the bits of energy bar, pasta, ice cream, crackers, and chips all offered to him and consumed at the ends of previous aisles?
"Please enjoy," the sample lady coaxed. "The juice is on sale today. Save a dollar."
"Why not? What have I to lose?" His right hand fingers beneath the cup's top ridge lifted the tiny cup from the sample lady's hand. He turned his head as he sipped. A trick experience taught him to not broadcast offense to a sample lady if he didn't like what he tasted.
He rotated his head toward the sample lady. "Thank you. Interesting taste." Gerald  accepted the juice carton presented to him, set it in the cart's child seat, and shoved his cart load of six items to the next aisle. He tossed the sample-weighted cup into the brown paper bag collecting waste at the foot of the next sample table.
He didn't eat yogurt. The young girl with flashing green eyes surely had a bright future, but not with enticing shoppers for she barely said hello. Gerald, out of the young woman's sight, tossed the cup and its yogurt. What a waste, he thought. He slipped the spoon into his coat pocket.
Prior to checkout, he doubled back and, scanning the nearby area to be sure that no one seemed to be looking, he placed the juice carton between to milk half-gallons.
To the cashier he nodded when asked if he'd found everything. The plastic spoon in his coat pocket overlooked. Wasn't that part of the free sample? Too embarrassed to ask, he decided to shop on a different day next week.
(How would you edit this? Perhaps toss it completely? What does it say? Isn't this so ordinary a situation to be considered trite? If not, why?)