Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Bonsai, Bonzai and the Art of Living Fully

My favorite writing companion
[Sometimes life gets in the way of writing. And sometimes writing gets us through life. This is an example of that. It was written Mar 29 in an effort to overcome writer's block brought on by the death of one of my fur-babies.]

One of his favorite "toys"
Bonsai was rescued from a field as a tiny, almost feral kitten. We named him Bonsai, after the Japanese art of growing miniature trees in containers. At least, that's what my husband thought. I thought we were naming him Bonzai, like the Japanese cheer of good will that translates directly to "ten thousand years of life". Once this misunderstanding was discovered, we settled on Bonsai, but I never stopped shouting his name with enthusiasm. (Except for all the times I was simply shouting it with rage as he roamed the kitchen counters yet again!)

"Bow down, puny humans!"
Bonsai, like all orange cats I've ever had the pleasure of knowing, liked to get himself into trouble. He epitomized the old adage about curiosity and the cat, immediately making his way into any bag, box, cupboard or room that presented itself. He liked to crawl around under the covers, purring loudly and chasing any toes that dared wiggle. He quickly put an end to all my houseplants, throwing the dirt all over the carpet and ingesting (and then regurgitating) the leaves. He was an avid mouser. More than anything else in the world, he liked to be up high. Bonsai would climb anything--chairs, drapes, shelving units, ladders, walls--you name it and he'd find his way to the top of it.

Climbing the pillar in the new house
Bonsai didn't bother worrying about the consequences of his actions. He simply lived his life with as much joy as possible. He climbed to the top of the highest thing he could find just because he wanted to and trusted that a way down would present itself when needed. Once, while on an outing to the "catio", he found a way to the roof of the garage. More recently, his climbing was focused on getting to the top shelf of the pantry, where we store the treats. Less than a week before succumbing to the cancer he'd battled for over a year, he climbed to the top of a workman's ladder in an attempt to access the attic. Much of my time with Bonsai was spent rescuing him from high places--after he'd finished enjoying them, of course.

Just LOOK at that face. <3
This week, as we adapt to life without him, I keep stumbling over little reminders that Bonsai is no longer with us--the back of the couch is empty, there are flowers sitting undisturbed on the counter, nobody is splashing water out of toilets accidentally left open. Daily life has become a minefield of emotion. This morning, my phone buzzed to remind me that we had a chemo appointment scheduled for tomorrow. I almost got through the call to cancel it without breaking down. Almost.

Pay attention to ME.
Gradually, though, the positive memories are taking over. I'm remembering the clever, argumentative, snugly Bonsai instead of the sickly, exhausted Bonsai. I'm thinking about the happiness we had with him in our lives instead of the sorrow I'm feeling now. Most importantly, I'm working to internalize his philosophy of living life to the fullest. Moments of potential joy present themselves and instead of worrying about what might happen, I'm grabbing onto them with both hands.

I'll worry about how to get down from the top of the cupboard after I've finished enjoying the sights.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Newbie Guide to the DFW Writers' Conference

I attended the DFW Writers' Conference over the weekend of April 23-24. Having never gone to a writing conference (or a gathering of more than ten writers at a time), I was nervous. Not only did I survive my foray into the world of other writers, I came out with a number of new friends, a wealth of new knowledge, and an addiction to surrounding myself with the people of "my tribe". Here are a few things I wish I had known in advance and which I plan to remember for the future.


Dressing up for events terrifies me. I have lousy fashion sense and I feel anxious that others are judging my by what I'm wearing. While I'm sure that happens way less often than the voices in my head suggest, it is true that your clothes are a part of your first impression, and events like this are all about the first impression.

* Aim for business casual with a twist of you.

You want to look professional and competent (especially if you're talking to a potential publisher or agent), but you also want to showcase the best of what makes you unique.

* Protect your feet.

You will spend a lot of your time on your feet in line, traveling from one session to another, or schmoozing at the cocktail hour. Wear something super comfortable and functional for your daytime hours. Save the fancy dress shoes for the evening events.

* Be pleasantly memorable.

One of my favorite presenters, Tex Thompson (@tex_maam on Twitter) always wore a red shirt and cowboy hat. A few attendees (myself included) had brightly colored hair. Standing out from the crowd in a small way makes it easier for everyone - new friends, potential agents, etc - to remember you.

Note: I added the word pleasantly for a good reason. You do NOT want people to think "Oh, there's that gimmicky, obnoxious guy" and head the other way when they see you coming. You also don't want them to remember you as the person with the really nasty breath or the overpowering body odor. Stand out in a positive way.


This is key. You must interact with the other attendees. Yes, I know you're an introvert. Yes, I know you're afraid you'll say something dumb. Nevertheless, conferences are about making the kinds of connections that will open doors for you in the future.

* Introduce yourself to new people.

Walk up, extend your hand, shake firmly, and tell them your name. It sounds so simple, but it's the hardest thing for me to do. Fortunately, the folks at DFWCon were some of the friendliest, most welcoming people I've met.

Watch for someone who looks as unsure as you feel. That person knows how you feel and is probably trying to work up the nerve to talk to someone themselves. You can practice together!

Have a follow-up question in mind. I heard "So, what do you write?" dozens of times over the weekend. Nothing pulls a writer out of their shell like asking them about their relationship with words. Other good follow up questions: "Read any good books lately?" and "Have you been to many conferences?"

* Utilize those business cards.

Ask people for their business cards. You will use these later (see "After the Conference") to solidify your new connections. Bring your own cards and keep some on you at all times. Your card should mention your name, email and social media information. You may want to include info about your genre or special accolades as well. You do not necessarily need your phone or address on these cards.

* Relax. (But not too much.)

I observed many people (myself included) using alcohol as a social lubricant. If a drink helps you relax and act like yourself, go for it. Just remember that you never know when you'll bump into someone important or influential. Keep your wits about you!

The Pros

It is possible that you will rub elbows with influential people. Conferences are where authors, agents, editors, and publishers network, too. Some of them might even be there looking for exactly the kind of writing you have to offer.

* Pros are human beings just like you and me.

Although they're much more familiar with the conference circuit and have established relationships with the people they see regularly, agents and editors are just people. They're unlikely to bite or shout. They're well-versed in talking to nervous authors. Don't be intimidated.

* Wait for them to ask.

You should ask for business cards from other writers and offer yours in return, but it's best to wait for agents to ask. The same goes for sample pages or manuscripts. You don't need to carry your stories or novel with you. If you find someone who is interested in seeing your work, they will let you know how to get it to them. That said, if you plan to participate in pitch sessions, you might want to have your first chapters available.

* Know when to back off.

Be cool. Agents and editors are constantly asked for validation and attention. Make sure you treat them like actual people instead of a means to an end. Cultivate friendly relationships with everyone you meet and the pros are likely to hear about it.

Be appropriate. If it's obvious that someone needs some personal space -- they're on the phone, in the bathroom, or tucked away in a quiet corner with their eyes closed -- leave them alone. No matter how awesome your writing is, they're not going to want to work with you if you piss them off.

Have a Plan

It is not physically, emotionally or temporally possible to experience everything at a conference. Having a tentative schedule planned out can help you use your time and energy effectively.

* Be familiar with the offerings/format of the conference.

Vendor halls. Lectures. Interactive classes. Pitch sessions. Keynote speeches. Open mic sessions. What are you looking for at this time? What will help you grow most as a writer? Be sure you are familiar with what is available at your conference.

Read about the classes being offered. If you know ahead of time which ones you are most interested in seeing and know where they are located, you will save yourself time and anxiety.

* Find a map of the venue.

Although the venue for DFWCon was very manageable, it seems that it's constantly growing. There are many conferences that take up multiple floors of large halls. Knowing the basic layout of the land -- especially exits and bathrooms -- makes it easier to get where you need to be in a timely manner.

* Stay flexible.

Be prepared to veer from your plan. Sometimes sessions get rearranged at the last minute. Sometimes you discover a new favorite speaker (Hint: take ANY session hosted by Tex Thompson, AKA @Tex_maam!) or realize a particular presenter just isn't right for you. It's okay to change things up.


You cannot enjoy the conference if you are too tired, stressed or hung-over after the pre-conference mixer. Take care of your body and your mind so that you can maximize your experience.

* Sleep.

It will be tempting to stay up until all hours chatting with friends, rehearsing your pitch, or reading the amazing book of poetry you just discovered. Remember, classes generally start early in the morning and coffee can only do so much. Get some sleep at night and maybe even schedule in a brief nap or quiet time so you are refreshed for the evening receptions.

* Eat. Hydrate.

Stop talking long enough to eat something, preferably something healthy. Your body and brain will thank you. DFWCon made this easy by provided excellent lunches both days.

Drink water. Yes, you can mainline coffee or tea or soda to keep your energy level up, but make sure you're drinking some good, old-fashioned H2O as well.

* Take a break.

You may find yourself overwhelmed by the noise and excitement. Find a quiet corner. Take a few deep breaths. Close your eyes and go to your happy place for a minute. Check Facebook for pictures of your nephew or tweet about how much fun you're having (don't forget the #hashtag!). If necessary, you can even head back to your hotel room for a bit. The conference will still be there when you get back.

Get Involved

One of the hardest things about being the "new kid" at a conference is feeling as though you don't belong. Overcome this by making sure you do belong!

* Participate in associated contests.

DFWCon sponsors DL Hammons' (@DL_H) writing contest, Write Club, during the weeks leading up to the conference. They also had a teen writing track that included its own contest. These activities provide exposure and give writers a chance to interact before meeting face to face. (Read about my experience with Write Club 2016 here!)

* Join in activities.

The Pre-conference mixer hosted by Kimmie Easley (@KimmieAnnWrites) and Sarah Bale (@Sarah_OKC) was great for meeting people. I felt much more at ease during the first day of the conference because there were already friendly faces in the crowd. Interactive sessions like the Heroes and Villians sessions or panel discussions encouraged teamwork and communication. Pitch sessions with agents gave one-on-one time with people who can take your writing to the next level. Sponsored meals are a chance to network and may include games like the Gong Show, during which a panel of agents hear first pages submitted anonymously by participants and give their feedback on what worked and what didn't (GONG!) Step outside your comfort zone and force yourself to take part in at least a few of these terrific opportunities.

* Hang out.

Evening is when you get to grow those new relationships. Once you've moved beyond the "so what do you write?" stage, there are plenty of things to do with your new friends. Gather a group to check out a local bar or restaurant. Meet up in the hotel lobby to continue that in-depth conversation. Or maybe you can channel some of the inspiration of the day to host a speed writing session in a nearby coffee shop.

After the Conference

Hopefully, you will have a bunch of new information to process and several new contacts to cultivate. Maybe you even connected with an agent who wants to see your work. Take a day to rest and get yourself back into your normal routine, but don't forget your post-conference tasks!

* Tweet, email or facebook those new friends.

You're not going to be lifetime BFFs with everyone you talk to at the conference, but it's good to establish a line of communication. You never know where your next opportunity is hiding. Let your new friends know you remember them and they'll be more likely to remember you.

* Follow through on any commitments you made.

With hard work and a bit of luck, you may have a potential agent waiting to see your first chapters. Or you may have agreed to exchange beta reading with a new friend. Whatever you promised, make sure you get it done promptly. Bolster your amazing writing by developing a reputation for timeliness and professionalism.

* Apply all that new knowledge.

Get to work! Take all the things you've learned and make them a part of your writing! If you're like me, you'll leave the conference feeling inspired and motivated. Put all that energy to good use.


Hopefully, that answers some of the questions you might have about attending your first DFW Writers Conference! If you have other questions, ask in the comments and if I don't know the answer, I'll try to find someone who does.

Interested in joining me next year? Check out the DFW Writers Conference website for relevant information. If you live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and are looking for a writing group, you might also want to look into the DFW Writers Workshop.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

8 Beta-Reading Tips for Authors

Embarrassing to say... I never heard the term 'beta-reader' before last year when one of our group members said a Twitter follower asked her to beta-read. Being that I am the slightest bit competitive, I jumped at the chance to beta-read for an author whose blog I had found useful, Nat Russo.

Being a beta-virgin, I was a little nervous opening the manuscript document to start editing and commenting. Lucky for me, Nat was prepared and sent all his beta-readers a list of questions to consider as they read. This list helped me focus and gain confidence as I made notes and comments.

Soon after this experience, I attended the Writers' League of Texas Agent and Editors Conference. I'd had a good writing year, I was feeling more relaxed around other authors, more confident in my craft, and I was able to meet several new friends who offered to beta-swap.

Since then, I've read for three more authors; one historical fiction, one MG fantasy and one YA fantasy. I've given my book to five authors to read for me.

This is what I've learned so far:

1. Don't ask a family member to read your book. They may be avid readers and even enjoy your genre, but if they are not in the craft, then they are not beta-material.

2. Be clear about what you want from your beta-reader. Take a cue from the pro-it's okay to give your readers a list of questions or simple instructions while reading for you. They will appreciate it because the work will seem less ambiguous.

3. Grow some thick skin. The best readers are honest readers. Your manuscript will not be perfect. You want them to spot the problems before an agent or editor does. So, when the review comes back, don't panic because there are copious notes. Be happy you have a chance to fix things before finding out there is a difference between peaked and piqued or that your main character's eyes changed color four times.

4. Take a stand. Just because a reader makes a suggestion does not mean you MUST change your story. I found it useful to have several readers and then to compare their notes. If more than one person found a scene troublesome or had a problem with a patch of dialogue, then I knew it was something to put at the top of my priority list.

5. Set a due date. I suggest this because I was just recently a tad long on reading for someone else. Plus, I like to get my stuff back at a set date. It helps to keep me motivated.

6. Pick someone who likes your genre. If you didn't, it would be like taking a blind date to a Hibachi restaurant only to find out he has a fear of fire. No one will have a good time.

7. Root for your peers. I had a humbling moment. A gal I beta-read for a little while back wrote to me to tell me an agent just requested her full manuscript and that my comments and suggestions had been a big help. My first thought was not really kind-I was jealous, and for no good reason. After a few minutes to process, I realized I should feel proud of myself and of her. We both put in effort and her work is successful. I will, however, be looking for a thank you when her book gets printed *grins*.

8. Practice safe reading. Don't go sticking your manuscript just anywhere. Take time to find trusted readers. With the exception of one, I've personally met all my readers and I feel much more at ease knowing who is handling my prose.

If there is a beta, there must be an alpha, right? In my case I have several alpha-readers, those loyal souls who slog through my first drafts and still are kind enough to leave me encouraging comments. Here's a shout out to my alpha-readers!

Friday, May 20, 2016

By Way of Introduction

Greetings and welcome to the Missing Comma Club blog!

We, being several writers of varying levels of experience and diverse backgrounds, plan to use this space to share what we're learning along our literary journey. By pooling our collective skills and interests, we hope to create a source of motivation, information and support for ourselves and other writers we meet along the way.

We've talked about the importance of creating this kind of community for some time now. As Disney says, it's time to start doing. Hopefully, as life permits, more of our writing group will join in.


Katie Drake

Katie Drake fell in love with books when she found the author V.C. Andrews. Ever since, she has been hooked on stories which span several books--she is a series fan. (more)

Solange Hommel

Solange Hommel is a "newb" to the writing game. She's been an avid reader since the age of 4, when her Daddy first taught her that squiggly lines tell stories. Now she's trying to wrangle squiggly lines into stories of her own. (more)


Now that you know who we are, let's play a game! Below are our responses to a fifteen minute writing prompt: 

A woman carrying a large box flags down a cab in the rain.

Can you match the writing sample to the author?

- - - 

Sample A

A cab pulled up, splashing through the water collecting by the curb, as soon as she raised her arm. The inside of the cab smelled of stale cigars and sweat, but rain had already begun to drip from the ends of her hair into her collar and her arms ached under the weight of the cardboard box she carried, so she climbed in. Her shoes stuck to the filthy carpet and she tried not to think about what might be crawling from the matted upholstery to the back of her coat.

“Where to, lady?”

“Salvation Army, please.”

The driver flicked a switch on the dashboard and the cab lurched into the steady stream of traffic. She dropped her arm over the water-spotted top of the box to keep it from sliding as they rounded a corner. The gesture reminded her of how her father's arm would swing across the car during sudden stops – the pressure of his hand sudden and firm against her chest – long after she had grown past the need.

Her eyes stung with the realization that her father's arm would never hold her back against the safety of the passenger seat again.

- - -

Sample B

Sweat tickled down her neck, wetting short curls against her skin. The damn thing was awkward. Bigger than a microwave box, heavier than a basket of wet laundry, and losing its shape at the corners from being banged down one stair after another.

Regretting the hasty choice of flip flops, she took one more risky, backwards step down, feeling for the edge of the step with her toes and pondering the consequences of letting the box tumble its own way down to the ground floor. The ground floor, as in rock bottom.

Crawl under a rock, don’t rock the boat, between and rock and a hard place, she thought with each thumping step closer to her goal.

At the landing, the box of things she should have thrown out the window was pushed across a floor of cracked black and white tile and then rammed through the too narrow doorway while she held the heavy, old, wooden door open with her back.

The cab was there. And it was raining. The cabby stepped out, offered to help her, but she waved him off. This box was her burden and she would carry it.

- - -

Thanks for reading! Please, take a second to introduce yourself in the comments below. Don't forget to make your guesses about the authorship of each sample. Even better: set a timer for 15 minutes and share what you've written! 

We'll let you know who wrote which sample next week. Good luck!