Writing Tip — The Deer on a Bicycle

735600As I’ve written here before, I am a huge fan of Patrick F. McManus. His stories, first published in Field & Stream and Outdoor Life, are some of the funniest I’ve ever read. He also wrote a mystery series featuring Sheriff Bo Tully and a book about writing humorous stories, The Deer on a Bicycle.

Mr. McManus’s day job was teaching writing at Eastern Washington University, so not only could he write, he could teach it, too. Even if you don’t write humor, this book is packed with great advice.

I like the framework for the first half of the book. Mr. McManus has an imaginary character named Newton ask questions about writing, such as “Pat, what do you mean by ‘indirection’ in a story?”, “What do you believe is the ultimate in prose style, Pat?’, and “Short humor, Pat, What is it and who cares?”

In the second half of the book, the author selects twelve of his short stories and provides commentary about each one, focusing on structure or characters or some other writing techniques. I find this the most helpful section of the book.

At the very end is a list of humorists Mr. McManus likes. Most of them are classic writers of American humor like Mark Twain and Erma Bomback. Several of them I haven’t read and I am looking forward to sampling their works.

Next time, I’ll write about what I’ve learned from reading The Deer on a Bicycle.

Monday Sparks — Writing prompts

children-2267201_1280I found this picture on Pixabay, and it intrigued me. Why is a giant tortoise roaming in the fog? Why are kids roaming in the fog? Are the children in danger? Is the tortoise? The picture sparked so many questions.

I might start a story like this:

“The coming of the fog brought fear. All the grown-ups said Something was in the fog, Something too horrible to name. It kept everyone inside, barricaded.

But I had see the Something one dark afternoon, out of my locked window.  Huge it was, moving slowly, bending down, then straightening up. It didn’t act like a Something on the hunt for people

I talked it over with my twin brother and we agreed: the next fog, we would go out to find It.”

Share if you’re inspired!


Writing Tip — Favorite Stories — The Mysteries of Harris Burdick


I discovered this book when I was working as a children’s librarian in a public library many years ago. If you are looking for inspiration, especially for a work of speculative fiction, look no further than The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

In the introduction, the author uses a very intriguing gimmick to explain the source of the book. Thirty years before the book’s publication, Harris Burdick walked into the office of editor Peter Wenders.

“Mr. Burdick explained that he had written fourteen stories and had drawn many pictures for each one. He’d brought with him just one drawing from each story, to see if Wenders liked his work.

“Peter Wenders was fascinated by the drawings. He told Burdick he would like to read the stories that went with them as soon as possible. The artist agreed to bring the stories the next morning. He left fourteen drawings with Wenders. But he did not return the next today. Or the day after that. Harris Burdick was never heard from again.”

The title of the story and one line accompanies each picture. The fourteen illustrations should kindle the imagination of any writer, even one like me who has no talent for speculative fiction. My favorite pictures are “Under the Rug”, “A Strange Day in July”, “Another Place, Another Time”, “Captain Tory”, and “The House on Maple Street”.

I introduced the book to the tweens in a writing workshop I am leading at a library. The pictures immediately grabbed their attention, and I challenged them to write a story based on one of them

If you try to order it from Amazon, don’t be put off by the product details that state it’s a picture book. It is, but one for writers of any age. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is a collection of short stories by fourteen different writers based on the pictures. If you want to get inspired, don’t read Chronicles. It will limit your imagination.

If you get the book and get inspired, let me know.

Writing Tip — Character Descriptions, Part 2

disposal-1846033_1280No Dumping

Last time, I wrote about a bad habit I had when it came to my characters: TMD — Too Much Description. Another bad habit that walks hand-in-hand with the first is DD — Dumping Descriptions. Not only did I over-describe my characters, but I would put all of it in the same place.

Because I wrote in first-person, I thought I was being realistic when my main charater Junior would describe another character all at once as that person came into his sight. But such lengthy descriptions ground the action to a halt.

Then I thought over how I see people in real life. When I first meet someone, I don’t notice every tiny detail. I get a general impression: height, weight, hair color and style, eyes light or dark. While interacting with this person, I get more details, specific eye color, shape of features of the face, and clues to her personality.


That’s how I should write. Now when Junior introduces another characters, even if it’s a relative, I describe the most important features first, then drop in relevant details as they story progresses.


For example, one of my major characters is Mike Lody, Junior’s uncle. The characteristics I think are important are he is only five years younger than Junior, he has a burly, powerful build, he’s half a foot shorter that Junior, he always wears a black hat with a low crown, his eyes are small and brown, his jaw is very square, and his hair is reddish brown.

When Mike first appears he burst through a door. I mention he’s “built like a bear”. When he sees the sheriff who is interrogating Junior, Mike grins “like a grizzly that has just spotted supper” because he doesn’t like cops. The grizzly comment also links to Mike’s build. In the next chapter, the sheriff asks for Mike’s ID and that reveals his age. Through the rest of the chapter as the sheriff confronts Junior and Mike, I drop in descriptions, one at a time, like the hat, which Mike adjusts depending on his mood.

Many writers recommend a character chart to keep descriptions straight. I should probably do that. I can describe each character in minute details and get that out of my system, and then compare descriptions to make sure I don’t have too many characters with similar appearances. I can also tease out what is critical for the reader to know about each character. This chart on author Jill Williamson’s site is very detailed. Use it as a template to build a chart that fits your need.




Monday Sparks — Writing prompts

fireworks-2430469_1280What does a firework think and feel as it is lit, soars up and explodes?

If you are prompted to write something, please share it. Keep your writing fun and friendly. If you have written a long piece, just submit the first hundred words. Hope to hear from you!

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