The Willow Wren

I decided to try a writing challenge from the Terrible Minds blog. This one was to rewrite a fairytale in a different genre as flash fiction piece (1,000 words, maximum). The story I picked is The Willow Wren. I wrote it as young adult contemporary. Let me know what you think.

Willow Warbler also called Willow Wren, from Aviceda wiki commons
Willow Warbler also called Willow Wren, from Aviceda wiki commons

The Willow Wren

By Betsy Miller

I used to hear everything, and everything I heard had meaning. The sound of a jackhammer outside, its machine gun staccato said, “Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah, no puddles, no potholes, ah-ah-ah-ah, you lumps and bumps, I will tear you to pieces.” The tamper said, “Ooh, ooh, ooh, I will press you smooth, press you smooth.” And the quiet stride of the worker holding the stop sign said, “All I have to do is hold this sign, hold this sign. No heavy work for me, overtime or double-time, it’s all good.”
Back then, the birds spoke too, saying things like, “Get out of here, you stupid cat.” But all of that is gone now and their language has no meaning. Back when the birds still spoke, they didn’t mind if I was around. I never chased them or threw stones, so they’d forget I was there and talk about bird-things. Like on this one day, they decided that they needed a leader.
Plover hated the idea. Plovers don’t like structure, you see. They can’t stand constraints. “What’s the point? Can’t we just do what we’ve been doing?” she said. But the rest of the birds shouted her down. Plover’s face disappeared into her green hoodie and she shoved her hands into the pocket. “Where the hell am I supposed to go now?” she asked, but no one was listening—no one but me. I shrugged and watched her flip her skateboard down and head to the rail yards where the damp settles in deep. “Sorry, goodbye, sorry, goodbye,” the wheels told the concrete.
The next time I saw the birds, it was May Day, contest day, and everyone was by the fountain at the empty office park where we skate—everyone except Plover. I hardly saw her anymore, but the rest of the birds didn’t seem to miss her. Eagle stood tall and proud, confident as always next to a little bird I didn’t know. The finches hopped from one foot to the other next to the goth-crows all in black. The owl said, “Who, who, who?” and beautiful Lark sang in the day. “It’s May, it’s May,” sang Lark. Mother hen was blown away by the size of the thing, saying, “What? What? What? No one tells me anything!” So her cocky boyfriend said “calm down,” and filled her in.
The birds decided that whoever could fly the highest would rule the roost. Tree frog said, “No, no, no.”
But a crow told him, “Back off, it’s good because there’s no fighting this way.”
So they had me count one, two, three, and the whole flock lifted off, flying crazy high, whirling and turning. The finches didn’t have a chance, they couldn’t get enough air. Before long, Eagle was sure of the win and said, “It’s me, it’s me!”
“Ea-gle, Ea-gle,” chanted the birds, but the little bird was drafting right behind Eagle. He grabbed Eagle’s shoulder and pushed off, sailing over Eagle’s head and touching the sky. “I’m king! I’m king!” screamed the little bird.
“No fair!” shouted Eagle, and the crowd of birds said, “Cheater, doesn’t count, no fair, no fair!” So they decided to have another contest—whoever could go the lowest would win.
I didn’t want to count again, but Eagle stared at me, and then I did it. “One, two, three,” I said, but quieter this time.
The birds took off, sliding under pipes, a lightning fast game of limbo, going lower and lower. The finches did better this time, being small. Duck took a fall and limped away crying. In the end, the little bird went down a manhole and shouted from down below, “I’m king, I’m king!”
“King of the manhole,” shouted Eagle with a lethal look in his eye. “You, owl,” he said. “Keep an eye on him. If he comes out, we’ll get him.” Owl settled himself down with an energy drink and watched while everyone else left to get some sleep.
I kept watch on Owl, but he didn’t see me because he kept looking at the hole. The little bird peeked out, saw Owl, and went back inside. Cold crept around us, and Owl put on his parka. After a time, he must have fallen asleep because the little bird slipped out without a sound and disappeared into the shadows. I could have stopped him I guess, but I didn’t.
Owl stays away from Eagle. He hates manholes and spray paints skulls on the covers when no one is looking. The little bird never did shut up, but he stays away from the rest of the birds. When they aren’t around he calls himself king, but the other birds call him King of the Manhole. I call him Willow Wren because he’s bright and quick and hangs out at Willow Park.
The birds never did choose a leader, and Lark was the happiest of all. She flies in the sunny blue sky and cries, “Ah, how beautiful that is, beautiful that is, beautiful, beautiful, ah how beautiful that is.” And all I hear is music without words.

Bookshop Santa Cruz Annual Short Story Contest


From Bookshop Santa Cruz:
Bookshop Santa Cruz is sponsoring a short story contest to showcase our local talent. We are not looking for any particular theme or style — just great writing. The winning story will be published in our summer 2014 newsletter, with a circulation of more than 12,000 readers, and on our website, The second and third place stories will be posted in the store. In addition, the top three winning authors will be invited to read their stories on Bruce Bratton’s Universal Grapevineradio program (Tuesdays 7:00–8:00pm, KZSC 88.1 FM.) First prize will be awarded the SuRaa Fiction Award: $250. in cash, and a Gift Certificate in the amount of $100. Second- and third-place Gift Certificates will also be awarded.

Please see for full details and to submit online or download an entry form for paper submissions.

Moon Shot: Murder and Mayhem on the Edge of Space Anthology Call for Submissions

Untreed Reads is pleased to announce a call for submissions.

Moon Shot: Murder and Mayhem on the Edge of Space will be a short story anthology showcasing mystery and crime stories that combine the genres of science fiction and mystery/crime/suspense. We’re looking for great stories that take these genres into new territory, whether on our planet or another.

Please note that we have already accepted a story that takes place on the International Space Station, therefore we are not looking for any other stories that do (it was the inspiration for this call).

This is an open call and may be reposted anywhere and everywhere. This anthology is expected to be published in August of 2013.

This anthology will be edited by J. Alan Hartman, Editor-in-Chief of Untreed Reads and the editor of the bestselling anthologies The Killer Wore Cranberry, The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Second Helping, and Year’s End.

1. All stories must be between 1500-5000 words.
2. Deadline for submission for consideration is May 30, 2012. This is a firm date; no submissions after this date will be considered.
3. All submissions should be sent to Jay Hartman at with the words MOON SHOT in the subject line.
4. Stories may take place in the past, present or future of our galaxy, but may not introduce aliens or undiscovered planets. Stories may take place on Earth, but must be somehow related to the space program if they are.
5. Stories should lean more towards mystery/suspense/thriller than the science fiction side.
6. Submissions must be in DOC, RTF or ODT format.
7. We will not be publishing the stories individually. Only the anthology will be available.
8. Authors will receive royalty, but not upfront payment. Authors will each receive a share of royalties of 50% of net (net = cover price – vendor commission) based on the number of authors in the final anthology.
9. Characters appearing in other Untreed Reads series or other series not published by us are strongly encouraged. Please check your contract with your publisher to make sure you may legally do so.
10. Stories not used for the anthology may be resubmitted for future calls.
11. Previously published works are fine providing that electronic rights have reverted to the author.
12. Stories currently published through a self-publishing venue (i.e.: Smashwords, Amazon KDP, etc.). will not be accepted.
13. There are no restrictions whatsoever on age, race, sex, sexual orientation, etc in the work.. Just tell us a great story!

One Hip World Event

I’m happy to announce that as part of the One Hip World Event, from June 15 through June 30, 2012 all sales of my book The Parents’ Guide to Hip Dysplasia and sales of my short stories in ebook format at the Untreed Reads Store will benefit the International Hip Dysplasia Institute (IDHI).

To participate in this fundraiser:

  • Purchase a copy of my book The Parents’ Guide to Hip Dysplasia, and I will donate $1.00 to the IHDI. (It is available through online booksellers or you can order it at bookstores.)
  • Buy my short stories in ebook format at the Untreed Reads Store, and for each story that is sold, I will donate 25 cents to the IHDI.

If you’re new to ebooks and don’t have a reader, don’t worry. You can choose the format that you prefer—PDF, Kindle, or epub, and then read the story on your computer, e-reader, or tablet.

Three stories are available:

  • Equilibrium, a sweet romance in the Candlelight Romance Line.
  • Half and Half, a short work of crime in the Fingerprints Line.
  • Negative Space, a story about loss in the Nibs Literary Line.

My Author Copies of The Parents’ Guide to Clubfoot Are Here

The Parents' Guide to Clubfoot, box of books

As many of you know, my book The Parents’ Guide to Clubfoot was originally published as a print-on-demand (POD) book through a small publisher last year. Then Hunter House Publishers acquired my book. Hunter House specializes in health information, and they are better able to deal with international orders, translation rights, ebooks, and so on in addition to the print edition.

Long story short, the new edition is finally done! They sent me my author copies and even included a nice note signed by the Hunter House editors and production staff. The books look great! I’m really happy, and wanted to share the news.

Creating Your Own Style Guide and Editing List

In this post, I’m passing along some thoughts about tools that work for me and might help some of you too—creating your own style guide and editing list.

Style Guide

One of the most well-known style guides is the Chicago Manual of Style. You can use the book or the online version to look up editorial conventions. For instance, if you are writing a fantasy story or novel and the characters have titles, you can use Chicago to see how and when the characters’ titles ought to be capitalized.

If I am working on book, I like to take this process one step further, and make my own style guide that lists the words that I’ve already looked up, and also specialized words that might not be covered by Chicago. I jot down words I’m not sure about as I go along. That way I can look them up later without having to remember what they are.

When I have my first draft, I go back through my manuscript and check to make sure everything on my style guide is consistent throughout the book. Search and replace is great for this, but I recommend that you check each instance instead of making a global change. Otherwise you might accidentally change part of a word. For example, if you want to change king to King, you wouldn’t want to end up with maKing or similar words in your manuscript.

Editing List

When I first started writing fiction I found that I used certain words in my first drafts that could usually come out. I made a list of them, and after I’ve written a new story or book, I search for these words and see if any can be removed. Some of the words on my list are really, very, so, and then, because I know from experience that I overuse them.

You might have different words on your list. Based on your own experience, you can create a list that fits your writing style and use it to check your work. I prefer to wait until I have a first draft before doing this because if I edit too soon I find it distracts me from writing.

If you give it a try, post a comment to let me know how this went for you. I’m also open to hearing how other people edit their work, so feel free to post your suggestions as well.

Script Frenzy: Coming Your Way in April

If you like to set big writing goals and then dive in, you might want to check out the Script Frenzy event that runs April 1-30. Script Frenzy is an annual event sponsored by the nonprofit organization the Office of Letters and Light to encourage creative writing.

The goal is to write 100 pages of a screenplay, stage play, graphic novel, or TV script, all within that 30-day time period. If you reach your goal, you get a certificate. You can write a screenplay yourself, or team up with a partner and work on it together. Anyone can participate. There’s even a Script Frenzy Young Writers Program for kids who are 12 or younger, with classroom resources for teachers.

The Script Frenzy website has forums and resources for writers, like links that you can use to see sample scripts. There are also some regional events where you can meet with other writers if you want some company or encouragement. Note that this is a writing event, and the focus is writing, not on how to publish your work.

Thousands of people participate in Script Frenzy each year. There’s no charge, but since it is run by a nonprofit organization, they happily accept donations.

Doing Medical Research as an Author

I’m a technical writer, but I also write books for families who are coping with children’s medical issues (The Parents’ Guide to Clubfoot  and The Parents’ Guide to Hip Dysplasia).

If you’re a writer who is researching a medical topic, it’s important to find accurate, reliable sources of information. I often start with the National Institute of Health (NIH) website, which has very good health information for consumers. If I want more depth, I go to Pubmed.  Pubmed is the online U.S. Library of Medicine, which is geared toward medical professionals. Medline  is another good online resource associated with the NIH.

Anyone can visit websites like Pubmed and Medline to search the medical databases and read abstracts of medical journal articles. When I’m doing research, I cut and paste each abstract for the articles that I want to read into a Word document so that I have a list.

The problem that arises is that unless you subscribe to the medical journals, in many cases there’s a fee to get each complete article. This can get expensive pretty fast. When I was working on my first book, a friend in the medical field told me about community health libraries, and a whole new world opened up to me.

Community health libraries are wonderful resources. They have health and medical books and brochures about many health topics. The staff can help you find information that you might not discover on your own, and show you how to use medical databases. Even if the library is small, the staff typically has access to health resources at other locations

On top of all that, researching at community health libraries can save you money. Typically, they can get you full medical articles without charging you for access. If you want a printout to take home with you, there’s usually a small fee to cover the cost of making copies.

I recently visited the PlaneTree Health Information Center located inside the Cupertino Library, which is new to this location. I was doing research for a nonfiction book I’m going to be working on this summer. The staff was friendly and helpful. If you don’t live near the Cupertino Library and want to visit a community health library at a different location, ask your doctor’s office to recommend one.

Keiko Called Time

So there I was at the Write to the End group scribbling away in my notebook. Just before this round of writing, Anthony had announced his Doorways to Time Anthology call for entries. I was working on story idea I got from that. The way it was turning out, this story wouldn’t work for the anthology, but I’d write another one for him later. Even the sound of the words Antony’s Anthology made it seem like they belonged together.

“Two minutes left,” said Keiko. “Finish up, or look for a good place to stop.”

There wasn’t a good place, but that was okay. Enough was on paper that I would be able to figure out what I meant later if I wanted to go back to this story.

Keiko called time, and just that one night, Time decided to stop by, you know, to chat and see what she needed. It was Pacific Time specifically who came over to our table. She had long, flowing tropical hair and looked very relaxed as if she had all the time in the world, which I suppose was not far from the truth.

I was sitting near Keiko, so I heard Pacific Time introduce herself in a low voice, but I think most people in the group figured she was one of the many people who stop in once in awhile, and then don’t come back for a long time.

“I don’t get out to Silicon Valley that often,” said Pacific Time. “For the most part, Internet Time resides here, and he zips all over the place so we don’t connect that well. I was coasting on a weather front when you called, and thought, hey, why not?”

“Oooh,” said Keiko with a smile. “I’m so glad you came. Pull up a chair and sit down. We’ve just finished one of our 20 minute writing sessions and we’re going to read. Did you bring anything?”

Pacific Time shook her head.

“That’s okay, said Keiko. “You can listen in for this round, and then we can talk during the break.”

Nothing fazes Keiko.

How to Run Beta Reading Cycles

So you’ve written your piece, read through it and revised it, worked on it some more, and now it’s reached the point where you’re thinking of submitting it for publication. Before you do that, consider rounding up some beta readers and having a beta reading cycle.

Beta Readers
What are beta readers? They are people who read your work pre-publication and give you feedback. The term came from pre-releases of software that go through beta testing. Where do you find beta readers? Try your writing group, and if you know people who love to read the genre you write in, ask for volunteers. If you’re writing mysteries, and your potential beta reader doesn’t like the genre, then he or she is probably not a good fit for your project.

Sometimes it’s helpful to give the beta readers guidelines, especially if this is the first time you’re working with them. This can be as simple as asking them to tell you what they like, what they don’t like, and to flag any areas that confuse them. If there’s something in particular that is giving you trouble you can mention it or not. For instance, you might say, “There’s something wrong with the ending, but I can’t figure out what.” Or you might decide not to say anything and see if your beta readers come to the same conclusion.

Planning and Managing the Review Cycle
You want your beta reading cycle to be effective. So it’s a good idea to give some thought about the kind of help you’re looking for, and to schedule your beta cycle with a specific beginning and end date. Talk to your potential beta readers to make sure they are available and that they want to participate. Only use beta readers who like the idea of participating, and plan on enlisting a few more than you think you need. That way if some get too busy and don’t have time, you can still get comments from the others.

Preparing a Document for Review
I find it helpful to save the file for the piece that is going out for review with the date in the file name. It could be something like this: title_date_mylastname_beta. That way I know exactly which version of the piece went out for review. Beta reviews can be done in common file formats like PDF or Word that you send to the reviewers (soft copy), or you can provide printouts (hard copy). For shorter pieces, many readers don’t mind reading a file, or printing it out themselves to mark it up. If you have a long piece, find out if your beta readers prefer printouts.

Note: One way for reviewers to mark up a Word document is to turn on tracking. That identifies every change but preserves the original text. If you receive this type of mark up from a reviewer, you can choose to accept or delete each change. Or you can print it and work from the hard copy if that’s easier for you.

If you’ve written a novel and your beta readers prefer hard copy, the cost of reproduction can add up quickly. So far, the least expensive option that I have found is to go through Lulu ( and set up a book as a private project. A private project isn’t visible to others, and that is the default setting at Lulu when you upload a project. You can use their wizard to format your beta review draft, and then order the number of copies that you need, using whatever coupon code is active when you place your order. Lulu has online chat support during business hours and I’ve found them to be very helpful.

It pays to shop around, and you might find a better deal somewhere else, so you should comparison shop before you make your final decision about where to get your printouts produced. If you really can’t afford to have copies made, tell your beta readers and ask if they can work from soft copy for your project.

Review Comments
In a perfect world, everyone you approach for a beta read would give you insightful, useful comments that allow you to polish and perfect your work. In real life you’ll discover that some beta readers are more able to give useful comments than others. You’ll also find that they have different strengths. Some will spot issues with language mechanics, others can give good advice about plot. You’ll also encounter readers who either like or dislike a piece, or a part of it, but don’t know why. All of this can be useful, but sometimes it can be frustrating and confusing if the readers’ comments contradict each other, or if you feel the comments are not relevant to your aims as a writer. Remember too, that some reviewers will forget to tell you what they like about your work because they are focusing so much on trying to help you find any mistakes before you submit it for publication.

If you’re not sure which comments you want to follow up on, you can always make a test file. Try the revision and see what you think. Do you like the story better—or does making that change introduce a problem? If you like it better and it introduces a problem, can you fix this new problem? Sometimes revisions do “break things” that you have to go back and fix. With practice it gets easier to evaluate review comments and figure out which are most helpful to you. You’ll also learn which beta readers are the best fit for you.

Beta reviews can be a bit nerve wracking, especially when you’re first starting out, but they can also be very valuable. Being on the receiving end of comments can give you some insight about how to be a beta reader yourself. Once you start using beta readers, you will most likely hear from some of them about pieces they’d like you to review.