Word Games and the Writer’s Brain

That smile said he knew he was winning.

After more games than I’ll embarrass him by counting, my hubby finally won a round of Blokus. It’s a game of strategy using game pieces of varying shapes that must be fit together with only their corners touching. The player with the least number of pieces leftover at the end wins. There’s also a classic version for up to four players.

The product description says, “Blokus encourages creative thinking and has received a Mensa award for promoting healthy brain activity.” I’m not sure I’d want my brain analyzed before, during or after a game, but I’m for anything that may improve its health.

As a gamer, I don’t always plan many moves in advance, but as a novelist, I strategize while I’m working my way through scenes and plots. Thinking ahead. Figuring out moves that will thwart or mislead. Planning twists, turns and where to add conflict or drop red herrings. My brain can use all the help it can get!

Word games of various types are recommended as brain stimuli, and may even help slow down the advance of dementia.* I’ll sometimes fiddle with magnetic words to get creative thoughts moving. I play the occasional game of Scrabble, too, but my 90-year-old neighbour puts me to shame. Not only does she regularly play Scrabble on her computer, but she works on Sudoku puzzles and six to eight crossword puzzles every day. I don’t know what my mind will be like at ninety, but as the cliché goes, hers is sharp as a tack.

My hubby may not be eager for a re-match, resting on his laurels and all, but I’m ready for another round of Blokus anytime. My novels will thank me for playing.

How about you? Do you enjoy word games? Share your secrets for keeping your mind sharp.


Alzheimer’s Reading Room

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Trying and falling short. Then what?


Radio personality Ira Glass offers his take on what to do when we aren’t creating the quality we desire…



What’s your take? It’s fine to say, from the pinnacle of success, that you would have liked people to tell you the climb was going to be a rough one. But if told, how would you have responded amid the enthusiasm of your initial ambition?


This Sunday I’ll be posting at ‘The Pastor’s Wife Speaks‘ blog
about how living water can help create firm footing
in the shifting sands of life.


Reading instead of, or in addition to, writing

My post last Friday began with, I don’t have time to write… or do I? Silly question. If we’re novelists, we make time, because our passion for storytelling drives us to get the words out.

But what about reading? If we’re writers, making time to write can be challenging enough. Who has time to read? At a workshop a writing colleague said she crammed her writing into isolated moments of busy days and evenings, and there were absolutely no other free moments left. If she chose to read, she wouldn’t be able to write.

My thought is, if you aren’t reading, and reading extensively, you probably aren’t much of a writer anyway. Sorry, I know that’s blunt, but that’s how I feel, and I’m not alone.

On Jessica Morrell’s website she has a column entitled, Reading and the Writing Life in which she says, The only way to become a writer (and I’m paraphrasing Stephen King and many others here) is to read a lot and write a lot. Reading is part of your job; in fact, it’s a huge part of your job. I’m writing on this topic today because I keep meeting writers who are writing fiction or other genres, but don’t read it. In fact, I meet writers who don’t read much at all. They claim they don’t have time. I don’t get it. You’ve got to make the time. Reading like a writer is living like a writer.”

I admit to the luxury of having more free time than many people. I read every moment I can, yet the pile waiting on my TBR shelf is constantly growing instead of diminishing. There’s never enough time to read everything I’d like to, but I keep trying.

I’m the last person who ought to offer advice to another writer struggling with the time dilemma (although I’ve occasionally tried), so I’m asking for your input:

  • On average, how much do you usually read?
  • What genre do you read? And is it the genre you write?
  • When do you do most of your reading?
  • How do you ‘make time’ for reading?


 I hope you’ll join me here on Friday for an interview with author Jody Hedlund
as we celebrate the publication of her second novel and give away a copy of it.


Burying Writing Beneath the Research

Research and Writing, Part 2

I spent a long time researching where to look for that headstone The cemetery name I was given didn’t exist. Eventually, as mentioned in my previous post, I found it, but only after I went out and physically looked for it.

With a story in mind, we hunt for books and websites with relevant information and we begin reading. Before we know it, the library is closing (or our families are hovering at our shoulder, begging for dinner) and we reluctantly set aside our research to resume later.

And resume it we do. There’s something about research that is addictive. There is always just one more reference to check; one more page to read; one more website to discover and devour. Anyone will tell you that you can never have too much knowledge. We know learning begins the day we’re born and doesn’t stop until the day we die. (And, who knows, there may be more to learn after death. Gabrielle hasn’t shared that tidbit yet.)

Persistence is a good trait for writers.

I draw your attention to that bold word. Here it is again: writers. As writers we need to be persistent. While getting all the facts accumulated is important, if all we do is study facts and never get around to writing the story they are meant to support, we’re not writers, we’re perpetual students.

  • Make a list of the specific information you need, and stop searching when you reach that point. One value of research is getting you in the mood… putting yourself in the authentic environment of your characters. You’ll collect far more details than you’re likely to use. Keep notes, or make a list, datebase or spreadsheet of your source material so you can return to it for specific data later if it’s needed.
  • At what point do you put aside the reference material and begin to write? Long before you think you’re ready! For some stories I’d say before you even begin the research. (I know, I know, you think that’s heresy.) Too much information can squelch creativity and bog down the story. There is a story quite apart from the details of its setting, Write it and leave sticky markers like inuksuit to help you find your way back to add researched details later during revisions. Some writers insert a”jkjk” as a marker, easily located with the wordprocessor’s search function.

If you have the luxury of making research trips to the countries of your stories, by all means go for it. (Mmm… Tuscany. Alaska. Ireland. Sigh.) Take a holiday and immerse yourself in the culture and locale. Unearth the details you need. When your holiday is over you will return to begin writing the story.

That’s essentially what the rest of us must do. Our holiday will be between the covers of travel books and language dictionaries, watching geographic videos, studying history books and innumerable websites. But like a holiday, that part of the trip must come to an end so the real work can begin.

If we aspire to be authors we must beware of becoming perpetual researchers.


How do you create a balance between your researching and writing?


Can writing fiction change reality?


Anger hurts. Anger reacts and retaliates. Anger consumes like fire among tinder.

Anger rages in so many parts of our world. Wars and political uprisings, invasions, murder and brutality spill from one country to another and onto our own city streets. An ostrich approach is tempting except we know anger won’t disappear just because we shield our eyes from it. In fact, if we’re not paying attention it can overtake us like a wildfire.

There is an ad for Amnesty International on television right now, showing three hooligans beating a young man. As they raise rifles to shoot him, they discover the eyes of the camera recording the incident and, conscious of being seen, lower their weapons and walk away. The caption suggests public awareness makes a difference. But does it make enough of a difference?

Awareness is a first step, but awareness that doesn’t result in action is ineffective. Without action there won’t be change.  And that completes the circle, because without change there is more frustration, more anger.

Like smoldering peat, creeping subsurface after a fire, the underlying causes of anger are hard to extinguish.

Helplessness is infuriating. Sometimes I wish for the days of ignorance, where television and newspapers didn’t invade my life with images and information reflecting hate. Did all the publicity perpetuate it, or has it always existed but without such widespread recognition?

Works of non-fiction document the truth that surrounds us. Fiction creates worlds where truth becomes whatever we want it to be. Sometimes I am asked why I choose to write fiction, and the only answer I can verbalize is that I want to create a happily ever after. I wish it for everyone but can only make it happen for my characters. That’s better than nothing.

What motivates the kind of stories you choose to write?


Writers Don’t Learn Writing By Writing

Ask reasonably good cooks how they learned their craft and they’ll likely tell you, “By experimenting with recipes… trial and error. You eventually discover what works and what doesn’t, what your family likes and what you shouldn’t bother to make again.”

Ask the gourmet-caliber cooks and they’re apt to say they studied at an accredited school of cooking or under a renowned chef, and apprenticed for many years.

It’s an analogy that you can’t take too far, but I look at writing in a similar light. There are writers who have a knack with words and can produce a best-selling book without any previous preparation or experience. They are the exception. Most successful writers will tell you they wrote and read, and wrote and studied, and wrote and listened, and… well, you get the idea. Good, well-crafted writing doesn’t just happen; it takes knowhow and lots of work.

Have you heard the definition that says insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? It applies to writing, too. We hear it all the time: your first novel probably won’t be publishable, but it’s good practice. Keep trying. Write a second, a third and a fourth, and eventually you’ll get it right. From what I hear, that’s rubbish! You don’t learn how to write well just by writing a lot. All that does is perpetuate bad habits.

Every time I read a good how-to book about writing, listen to a knowledgeable speaker at a conference or lecture, or study a beautifully crafted novel, I discover techniques to enhance my storytelling ability. I’m still a long, long way from being the kind of writer I want to be but it’s a progressive endeavour.

I’m a firm believer that you don’t learn good writing by writing, but you hone it.

Do you think good writing is a natural talent or a learned ability? What have you done lately to enhance your knowledge of the craft of writing?

Listen Some More


Censorship is complicated. It’s wrong but sometimes necessary. For instance, what concerned parent hasn’t lifted a sharp knife out of the hands of a toddler, or carefully helped a youngster use a match to light a candle rather than take the chance of that child discovering undeserved pain for himself?

Parents and teachers possessing a good communication relationship with a child will let him read almost anything. But probably not pornography.

How do you define pornography? Let me say right up front that I haven’t read Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK yet, so I can’t offer an opinion on its content.  In general terms, however, rape is brutal, violent, illegal… and for the victim, unspeakable horror. Most of us don’t need graphic words reproducing the act on a page to understand this. It’s possible to reflect the ugliness without describing its explicit details. What purpose beyond shock value do such words have in a novel?

I don’t choose to read it, but some erotic romance is very explicit. I believe it’s pornographic, but it isn’t censored.

Censorship is complicated.


Learning the Ropes

You don’t know what you don’t know until you start discovering what other people in the know do know.

That’s a mouthful, but it’s true. And it’s the reason I am so thankful for all the information provided by other authors, both published and aspiring.

I have a mega-shelf of books on the craft of writing and a long bookmarked list of blogs and websites, all written by wonderful people sharing their knowledge and experience, offering advice and encouragement.

Writing (and learning writing skills) is an ongoing process. With every new thing I write, I expect it to be better than what came before it, but I know that won’t happen by itself. Continuing to write without constantly improving my skills reminds me of the description of insanity I once heard: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

I believe it’s important to sift through the available sources of information to select the most reputable. Not all online courses are equal, nor are all writing-related websites. One thing I’ve learned from perusing the internet is how many “self-made experts” exist. There’s a difference between sharing one’s experiences to encourage others, and regaling readers with advice on how something should be done. When I encounter the latter I’m pretty cautious. I want to know the person’s credentials. I do a lot of “lurking” on prominent publishing professionals’ websites and writing forums, filtering out the information that I hope will be right for me.

Some of the websites I find most useful are listed in the sidebar, but there are many others not listed. I also enjoy following other writers’ journeys because it helps me understand my own experiences are not unique. For instance, it’s reassuring to find out how others have either avoided or dealt with the inevitable obstacles.

Group sites such as Seekerville, Novel Journey and Adventures in Writing are three of my regulars and some time ago I added Romance Writers on the Journey. Even though I wouldn’t originally have said romance was my genre, Keli Gwyn has great interviews with writers, both published and unpubbed, sharing their experiences.

This might be an appropriate point to mention that Keli interviewed me earlier this summer. She will be posting that interview on her site next week. And there will be a great GIVEAWAY involved. That’s all I’m going to say for now. You’ll have to check back Friday for more info. 😉

There is a point to all this mental meandering. I want to suggest that learning the ropes isn’t like enrolling for a single, time-limited course; it’s a life-long thing.  Searching out current, credible, and helpful resources is part of that process.

What websites have you found to be most helpful? What other resources do you recommend?