Stuck for an idea? Read the obituaries

I’m not kidding. Although most people skip the obits unless somebody they know died recently, they can be a great source for writers. The terse listings of birth and death dates, names of survivors and funeral information don’t offer much, but the longer stories are full of possibilities. In my newspaper days, I wrote hundreds of obits. They often intrigued the storyteller in me. An obituary is the story of a whole life told in a few words. So often, comments in the obituary can tweak the imagination. If you put on your creative writing hat and ask yourself why, how and what was that like, the stories will come. You don’t have to write about that particular person. You can, if nonfiction is your genre, but you can also use the obits as prompts to get you thinking about stories from your own life or make up characters who lived some of the same elements.

Take this guy Chuck in yesterday’s local paper. His family wrote that he “went ‘forever fishing’ when his heart stopped on Saturday April 26 at the age of 69.” He grew up in Minnesota but headed for the Northwest right after high school graduation. Why? Did he come alone? How did he travel? What did he bring? Did he know anyone here in Oregon?

Chuck worked as a plumber in Washington and Oregon and also worked on the Alaska Pipe Line. How did that come about? What was it like? He was also an avid fisherman who traveled all over on his boat. He was an active volunteer and a dog lover. But he was never married. His survivors are siblings, nieces, nephews and friends. He was a good-looking guy, well-employed. Why no wife? Why no kids? Instead, the writer said he was everyone’s “Uncle Chuck.”

Chuck’s ashes are being scattered at sea next month. Folks are invited to meet at the Eagles’ Lodge afterward. “Shorts recommended.” What will that party be like? What if you started a story with that scene?

The obituary offers basic information, but it leaves a lot of room for memory or imagination to fill in the blanks. Does Chuck remind you of someone in your life? Write about it and see where it goes. Or use Chuck’s obituary as the start of a poem or a story. Give him a new name and start writing.

If you don’t usually read obituaries, you might want to start. They’re full of stories waiting for you to tell. If you come up with something about Chuck, I’d love to read it.

Now go write.




Three tips: Writing classes, ‘Quiet’ book, body parts

Click this:

I try not to promote myself too much here, but I have to let you know that I have four online classes for writers starting new sessions on Aug. 1. In each class, students receive weekly email lessons and assignments which are due the following week. I offer extensive critiques of student work and responses to questions any time throughout the course. My students, both online and in person, have gone on to publish extensively, and I welcome the chance to help you do the same.

I have two new classes, Create and Maintain a Successful Blog and Writing and Selling Freelance Articles. Returning are two of my favorites, How to Write and Sell a Column and Reviews and Opinion Pieces. For an overview of all four classes and to sign up, visit

On the Classes page, you will also find information about my editing and critique services. I would love to help you with your writing.

Read this:

I just finished reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain has done extensive research on personality types and the differences between outgoing folks who like to be surrounded by people and quiet folks who prefer to spend their time alone. Although this is not specifically a book for writers, it does offer fascinating insights into how people are wired, and it might give you something to think about as you write about real or imaginary characters.

Try this:

(borrowed from poet Barbara Drake’s workshop)

Pick a body part and come up with as many different metaphors for it as you can in 15 minutes. For example, I used my elbow in our workshop the other night and called it a hinge, a right angle, a bend in the road, etc. If one or more of these inspire a poem or something else, shut off the timer and keep writing.

Now go write

Three Quick Tips for Writers #2

Once a week I am offering three quick tips that you can take and use right away. For those of us who would rather be writing than reading blogs, this is a place you can grab something useful and get back to work.


Writing Metrical Poetry by William Baer, Writer’s Digest Books, 2006. Remember how boring it seemed when your high school teachers forced you to read and analyze poetry? Well, this isn’t. Read some of the world’s most famous poems, see how they work, then try writing some yourself.


At her Practicing Writer newsletter and blogs, Erika Dreifus offers a steady stream of advice and resources, paying markets, jobs and opportunities for writers. Don’t miss it. Click on

Try This

Stuck for a writing idea? Reach into your purse or pocket and pull out one thing, anything. Set it on the desk or table in front of you. Study it. What does it bring to mind? For example, a key might make you think of the door it opens or how you got that key or how you lost your keys on a special occasion. A receipt might bring to mind what you bought and why you bought it and who you met at the store . . . Give it a try. In live classes, I let students pick one more thing if they just can’t stand their first choice. Don’t have a purse and there’s nothing in your pocket? Try the junk drawer.

Now go write.

How do I get my article published?

I received an email request recently from a reader named Ron. He tells me he has been journaling and writing letters to pen pals and to newspapers for years. He has also self-published a book which sold all 500 copies. What follows is an excerpt from that letter, as well as my reply.

I have a small, painless favor to ask for which I’d be very grateful for help with. I want to write a newspaper article on the upcoming 30th anniversary of the passing of a legendary singer who is often over-looked and forgotten. The date is in February but I can easily write the article in no time as I am an expert on the subject. I don’t know anything about freelancing or the business but I want it to be one of those articles that gets picked up by papers all across the country. I don’t know where to begin on how to make that happen. But if you could point me in that direction with step one or step two I’d be forever grateful.

Dear Ron,

I’m going to respond to your letter both here and in my blog because your request is a common one, and many readers would be interested in the answer.

First, congratulations for your life-long love of writing. All those journal entries and letters have no doubt made you comfortable with the written word, and that’s a wonderful thing. Congratulations on selling 500 copies of your book. That’s quite an accomplishment.

However, what you ask is not “a small, painless favor.” What you are asking me to do is to distill the entire contents of my Freelancing for Newspapers book into one email. That’s neither small nor painless, especially right after Christmas when I’m typing in my sleep because my day job (and yes, like most freelance writers with bills to pay, I have one) is playing and singing music at church.

I hate to say it, but it would take a small miracle to get the article you describe published. First, you have a blatant grammatical error in your first paragraph. An editor reading “I must have wrote” would stop reading right there.

Second, journal entries and letters to the editor do not qualify one to write newspaper articles. Neither does a self-published book unless it’s on the same subject that you want to write about.

Third, when you say “I can easily write the article in no time as I am an expert on the subject,” you have totally cut off any chance of being accepted. A good article takes time and effort, and your lack of humility is a real red flag to an editor.

Fourth, when you say you don’t know anything about freelancing but you want your article to get picked up by papers all across the country, you show that you have no clue how that happens.

If you truly want to sell this article to an editor, you must:

1) Research the market and find a suitable newspaper to approach

2) Write a query letter that includes an attention-getting opening, an explanation of why that newspaper’s readers would be interested in your article, a description of why you’re qualified to write it, and some samples of your previous work

3) If you get the assignment, you must research, write and revise until it’s the best article you could possibly write, following whatever guidelines you get from the editor, and hope that it’s published in ONE newspaper.

You might approach some of the syndicated news services listed in Writers Market, but only a few take one-shot submissions, and they won’t assign a piece to a writer with no experience writing articles of the sort they use.

I don’t want to burst your bubble on the day after Christmas. There are all kinds of writing, and it’s good that you’ve done well with letters and with your mom’s obituary. That’s a real gift. I’m impressed with the success of your book. But that doesn’t necessarily qualify you to write a newspaper article. You can learn, you can get experience and clips and move into article-writing, but you have to work your way up.

If you’re still determined to try, talk to a local editor to get a clear picture of what you need to do to write an article they will publish. Send out some queries and see what happens.

Don’t stop writing.

Best of luck,


I welcome your comments and questions.

Tricks help writers resist distractions

Let’s take a break from book publishing this week to talk a little about distractions. It’s the bane of every writer, especially if we work at home. We have so many distractions, so many things to do besides write. This morning, for example, I overslept, which gave me less time. Then the dog sought me out, scratching and shaking her head, and I discovered she has yet another ear infection. How it got so bad so quickly I don’t know, but we have to go to the vet, and I have to start dousing her ears with medicine, a procedure she resists with every ounce of her strength.

As a writer, I’m lucky I only have the dog to worry about. Husbands, kids and other dependents make it much more complicated. Been there, done that. I’m not the only one who has screamed at her loved ones to leave her alone unless there’s blood or fire.

Meanwhile, my house is a mess, I’ve got two writers’ groups and several upcoming events to prepare for, I need to pick up a prescription, and I’ve got this new book to promote, a task I dare not ignore. Yesterday, someone contacted me from a CBS TV show. It was very exciting. Unfortunately, I didn’t have quite what she’s looking for, but that definitely took my attention away from my work.

The biggest distraction is the Internet. But I found something the other day that I think is really going to help me. It’s a program called Freedom, and you can find it at I don’t want to do a sales pitch, but you can use it on a Mac or PC, and it’s only $10, with a free trial before you have to buy it. What it does is block your access to the Internet. Set it for an hour, and you can’t check e-mail, Facebook or anything else. It’s ironic that the Internet, something that is such a helpful tool, can be so addictive that we have to buy a product to keep us from using it, but that’s the way it is.

Another tool that really helps me is a kitchen timer. I set it for however long I want to write. I’m not sure why it works, but it does. Once I get started, I usually wind up going beyond the allotted time. The same day I found Freedom online (not a good writing day, obviously), I found several timer programs. I like (yes, with a dot after the e). It’s a real bonus if you don’t have a kitchen timer handy. An added advantage is that I can’t do anything else online without interrupting the timer, which is counting down the seconds in big black numbers.

We are surrounded by distractions, and it takes great willpower to resist them. Even with the timer and Freedom going, my dog could come seeking solace, someone could come to the door, or the phone could ring. I might ignore the phone, but not my dog or someone at my door. In the end, all we can do is keep going as long as we can, and if we’re interrupted, get right back to work as soon as possible, using whatever tools it takes to keep going.

Rewards are good, too. Food, a walk, finally being able to check Facebook can all be motivations for sticking to the task at hand long enough to get something done.

Like this post.

Now I can have lunch.

>The perfect workspace

>I’m thinking about rearranging my office. Of course I should be pitching stories, but my office is giving me claustrophobia. I know that once I’m writing, it doesn’t matter where I am, but I need a certain ambience to get going. That may mean closing the door, turning on soft music and promising myself I won’t leave my desk until the CD is finished. I may have to clear every surface of the many piles of paper, or maybe I need to take that laptop I just got back from the shop and go work somewhere else.

In the typical newspaper office, reporters are surrounded by noise: people talking, telephones ringing, the clack of computer keys. Folks call or come in, and you have to stop mid-story to deal with another subject. Or maybe it’s time to go out for an interview and you leave your work half-done, but somehow, with a deadline always pending and the peer pressure of people working all around you, you get your writing done. Freelancing is a different matter. You have to get yourself started, and most homes are full of distractions.

So, how about you? What is your workspace like now, and what would it be if you had the ideal place to work? Do you have a ritual to get yourself going? I would love to hear your ideas on this.