My New Writing Coach

hand receiving business card

I’m going to be my own writing coach. I will read my first draft of the story I’m working on, and I’ll say to myself, “Hey, Keiko, this is really good! Keep working on it!”

I will reply, “Really?”

“Yes!” I’ll say. I’ll be so enthusiastic I will convince myself. I will say, “Write a second draft. I want to see it.”

“Okay,” I’ll say. And I’ll send myself the next draft.

When I get it, I’ll call myself up right away. “Okay,” I’ll tell myself, “This is really starting to turn into something.”

“Thank you,” I’ll say. “But I don’t know where to go next. Do you think you could…?”

“Sure.” I’ll sound very encouraging. I will help myself learn to figure things out for myself. “What do you think is missing?” I’ll ask.

“Well,” I’ll say, “I think I need to know more about what the houses were like in San Francisco at the turn of the century. And how much they’re still like that today.” I’ll think for a minute. I won’t interrupt myself. “You know,” I’ll say, “I’d really like to have it set in a real house, one that’s actually there. I love it when people do that.”

“I’ve noticed that in your work, too,” I’ll say.

I will be impressed and flattered at first, but then I’ll sigh. “I never seem to manage to do the research.”

I know what it’s like to feel defeated like that. But I will have the solution. “You know,” I’ll tell myself, “research is just an excuse to read things you’re interested in.”

“I guess so.”

“Go to the library. Find some books.”

“Well…” I will hesitate. I won’t believe I deserve it.

“Go ahead. I want to see the third draft, the one with the details set.”

“All right,” I’ll say. And I’ll go to the library. I’ll write the third draft. I’ll send it to myself.

“I think you should send this to beta,” I’ll tell myself.

“I want to fix a few things still…” I’ll say.

“No, remember what Gayle said: Do beta on things that aren’t quite ready. Hey, I’m sure Ruth will love this one. And she’ll probably be able to help you even out the facts, like she did with ‘Willie Blake.’ And Anthony might know specifics of that neighborhood even, or the time period.”

“Well—”I’ll say.

“And Liza is a historian, and Betsy—”

“All right.”

“Are you typing the email?”


I’ll stay on the phone with myself until I’ve sent it.


When I get the beta comments back, I’ll go over to my house and sit with myself to go over them. Or better yet, I’ll meet myself for coffee. I’ll help myself understand what the comments mean for my story. I’ll draw out of myself what the story wants to be. I’ll help myself excavate the fossil. I’ll buy myself another latte and make sure I leave with a plan for the next draft.

When I send myself the next draft, I’ll reply, “Submit this.” When I balk, I’ll tell myself to send it to the Flash Fiction Forum ladies. “That will be less scary,” I’ll say. I’ll agree. I’ll call myself up and stay on the phone with myself while I submit it.


I’ll go to the Forum. I’ll introduce myself to my writing friends. When it’s time for me to read, I’ll sit in the audience with my friends. When I get down off the stage, I’ll tell myself I did a great job. I’ll make sure I write down any comments the audience gives me so that I can see if they need to be incorporated, but I’ll tell myself to wait and not think about it yet. “Just enjoy the rest of the Forum,” I’ll say.

The next day, I will get together with myself and help myself do the final draft. We’ll choose the first place where I’ll submit it. I’ll stay with myself until I’ve mailed it off, and then I’ll take myself out for lunch.

Be Brave and Write


Inspired by a quote from William Gibson: “You must learn to overcome your very natural and appropriate revulsion for your own work.”

Many times we are our own worst enemy, too critical of our own writing abilities, thinking that people wouldn’t want to read our “ramblings.”

We must get over these thoughts and realize that we all have a story to tell, and everyone has a different story, and how fascinating can that be? So many lifestyles, religions, opinions, viewpoints. We learn from each other so much by having an open mind, listening and reading about all these views on life. Aren’t we blessed to have all these BRAVE AUTHORS that put their heart out there on paper, to teach, help, and educate us to the different lives people live. So many different stories are told, never the same, how miraculous is that?

We must never be afraid to open our hearts and minds, and write to our hearts’ content! This is our God-given right. If you love doing it, it can’t be bad. So go for it: What you write could impact the world and make it a better place for everyone.

Call For Submissions: The Killer Wore Cranberry 4

The Killer is back!

From Untreed Reads:

We had so much fun with The Killer Wore Cranberry back in 2010, The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Second Helping in 2012, and The Killer Wore Cranberry: Room for Thirds in 2013, it’s time to celebrate with The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Fourth Meal of Mayhem.

As in the previous anthologies, all the stories contained within must be about murder and mayhem happening at Thanksgiving, and must feature a typical Thanksgiving dish as a vital part of the story (i.e.: turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie). Most importantly…it must be funny! This anthology is all about making people laugh while enjoying a great mystery short at the same time. The anthology will be edited by Untreed Reads Editor-in-Chief Jay Hartman.

And now, the rules:
1. All stories must be between 1500-5000 words and aimed at an adult reading audience (no YA, for example).
2. Deadline for submission for consideration is July 30th, 2014. 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 word THANKSGIVING in the subject line.
4. Submissions must be in DOC, RTF or ODT format.
5. We will not be publishing the stories individually. Only the anthology will be available. **NEW THIS YEAR: The anthology will be available as a POD, sold worldwide through Ingram!** You must agree to both our regular ebook contract and our print addendum to be included.
6. 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.
7. Characters appearing in other Untreed Reads series or other series not published by us are strongly encouraged. If you are published outside of Untreed Reads, please check with your publisher to ensure you have the rights to create a new story for a different publisher with your character(s).
8. Your story MUST have humor in it, feature a Thanksgiving dish and have a great mystery or crime at the heart of the story.
9. Stories not accepted for the anthology may be resubmitted in the future for other submission calls.
10. **NEW FOR THIS YEAR** All stories must be original and cannot have been published or self-published elsewhere or previously submitted to Untreed Reads.
11. There are no restrictions whatsoever on age, race, sex, sexual orientation, etc in the work.. Just tell us a great story!
12. Lisa Wagner returns with all new recipes to accent your stories!

Please direct any questions to Jay Hartman at We recommend looking at the original The Killer Wore Cranberry and its sequels for an idea of the types of stories we’re looking for.

All decisions on material will be made by August 15th, 2014. Every attempt will be made to notify all authors of the status of their submission at that time. Please do not inquire about status prior to September 15th, 2014.

This anthology has an expected publication date of October 15th (quite possibly earlier).

This is an open call, and may be reposted anywhere and everywhere.

Jay Hartman
Untreed Reads Publishing

Flash Fiction Forum

Ruth Littmann-Ashkenazi will be reading her story “Wild Hair,” and Betsy Miller will be reading her story “Fractions” at the next Flash Fiction Forum event in San Jose.

When: Wednesday, May 14, 2014, 7:00 pm-8:45 pm.

Where: WORKS Gallery 365 South Market St., San Jose, CA
The gallery is inconspicuous from the street but there should be a signboard out. WORKS offers wine and beer for sale as well as water.

Street parking is hard to find, but free after 6 pm. The closest parking is in the Convention Center on Market, literally in the same building as WORKS; that costs $3/hour.

Betsy will have copies of the Doorways to Extra Time anthology with her for anyone who’d like to buy a book. Doorways to Extra Time includes “The Now” by Betsy, “The Doorway to Extra Time” by Anthony Francis, “Perfection” by Gayle Schultz, and many other interesting stories.

Ruth and Betsy hope to see you there!

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.

Top 5 Authors I’m in Love With

portrait of Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sometimes when you read someone, you feel as though you have a personal relationship with them, like you’re spending time with them rather than reading something they wrote. You seek out more of their work, not so much to read it as to hang out with the author. Not all of these relationships feel like being in love, but here are my top 5 that do:

1. Bertrand Russell
2. David Lodge
3. Jonathan Franzen
4. John Watson (I know what you’re going to say, but this is my list.)
5. Mario Benedetti

Have you experienced this phenomenon? Who are your top 5?

Playing Dress-Up

What Makes for an “AWESOME” Description? 

As a second-grader, I was told: Dress up your writing. In other words, I should be more descriptive. My teachers equated “descriptive” with adjectives and adverbs. They told me not to merely write, “Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a castle.” They advised me to embellish my prose…

“Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a far distant land, beyond the undulating cobalt sea, there was a delicately beautiful princess with long flaxen curls, who resided blissfully in a majestic enchanted castle, surrounded by a deep glittering moat, in which ravenous, mossy-colored crocodiles swam.”

I got the picture. And it did wonders for expanding my vocabulary. But, really, do adjectives and adverbs suffice as good descriptors? I think we can all agree that GOOD adjectives and adverbs qualify, but that leads to more perplexing questions:

1)   What are “good” adjectives and adverbs?
2)   And are “good” adjectives and adverbs necessary and sufficient conditions for good descriptions?

Truth be told: I don’t know. That’s why I’m writing this blog article. I thought that maybe you’d like to join me for 2.5 pages of discovery: What makes for an AWESOME description?

When I was 3-years-old, I liked to play dress-up. My diminutive mother had a basketful of dresses that she’d retired, and I made ample use of them.  I’d layer dress over dress and top things off with a few colorful shawls and scarves. My philosophy was – and I vividly remember thinking it – the more the better, the prettier, the lovelier, the more enchanting. Snow White, step aside!

I actually looked more like a bag woman, and I’m sure that my parents had a good laugh while snapping pictures of me. But in those days, I thought I looked like a “delicately enchanting” princess with not-so-flaxen curls.

This brings me – some 42 years later – to the conclusion: Less is more (more or less). Sure, satire, comedy and farce can tolerate gratuitous adjectives and adverbs; but most prose should not be weighed down, bag-woman style.

Keiko told us that an illustrious writer (disputably: Arthur Quiller-Couch) once said: “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”

That means YOU might love words like “essentially” and “ameliorative,” and your elementary school teachers would have applauded your “utilization” of them. But I’m here to say (to myself, mostly): Grow up. Writing is not a jewelry exhibition, where your main goal is to show off your fancy-schmancy linguistic accessories.

That 14-letter nugget of an adverb? Yeah, I’m talking about your personal favorite… Kill it. Pick up your red pen and slash it, gash it, edit it out (or just press the delete button). Some words have personal significance, but they do nothing to impart a vision or emotion to your reader. Kill your darlings. (For more on this, please see Anthony Francis’s blog article here:

Speaking of emotion: Description IS emotion.

I learned that recently when Mark Overby read his short story, “Morphine.” (To see Mark’s full story, please scroll all the way down.) I found “Morphine” haunting for two reasons: its subject matter and its descriptions. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was there – yes, there with the prostitute. I saw her scarred wrists and felt a desperate breath against my neck.

“What on earth made Mark’s piece so descriptive?” I asked myself on the way home from iHOP that night. What adjectives and adverbs had he used? I couldn’t remember. I knew there was something about bloodshot eyes…

He emailed me his 326-word story and I read it: 17 adjectives and adverbs. Seventeen total. That’s not a lot, but the piece is drenched in description. Why? How? Emotion. The story’s two characters are crammed into a tiny room that reverberates with their loneliness, loss, and pain.

There was nothing in Mark’s writing about “bloodshot eyes.” That was my contribution, and I didn’t even realize it until I read the piece on paper. Good descriptions work that way. They go beyond the physical to evoke readers’ emotions. When our emotions are flipped on, our associative faculties go into overdrive, and we enhance the writing with our own sensory experiences.

Good descriptions bring that out in us.

Clearly some words carry more emotion than others. Anyone who has studied another language knows that quite well. Vladimir Nobokov, the esteemed and arguably twisted author of “Lolita” refers to the Russian noun, “Toska.”

“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

In English, it often seems there is no “perfect” word to describe a person, situation, emotion, or thing. That’s when an elusive drumbeat of disguised repetition comes in handy. I refer again to Mark’s story, Morphine: His conservative sprinkling of adjectives and adverbs emit various hues of darkness: broken, bruised, withered, matted, bitter. The words aren’t strung together. They’re scattered, and you barely know they’re there… but you feel them.

Finally, let’s talk about metaphor and simile. What makes these two literary tools AWESOME descriptors versus only so-so? Again, I don’t know. But let me speculate…

“Eyes are (like) windows to the soul.”

Why is that cliché nevertheless such a descriptive and memorable metaphor/simile? Clearly, it contains a kernel of truth. Eyes indeed reveal a lot about how we feel inside. If they flicker, if they flinch or flutter, they become dead giveaways to the secrets of our psyches.

I stumbled upon another type of metaphor/simile with possibly more impact. I’m referring to those with built-in irony. A paradox. They make you think. They make you linger. Here are two examples:

“She took one last hard drag off her cigarette and exhaled a cloud of filth, the smoke encircling her head like a halo.” – Morphine

This description stuck with me because it contains a simile that is topped with a paradox. It’s like ice cream – with a rotten cherry on top! The filthy smoke from the broken prostitute nevertheless forms a halo above her head. To me, the description evokes feelings of sympathy, distress, disgust – and confused transcendence.

This metaphor from Barbara Kingsolver does the same:

“…a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. I am the forest’s conscience, but remember, the forest eats itself and lives forever.” ― The Poisonwood Bible

Good descriptions embed themselves in our flesh with uncomfortable irony or newness, sometimes benevolent but often depraved. Good descriptions aren’t about words so much as emotion. They make us see, they make us smell, they make us hear, taste, and feel. But even more, they make us emote.

So, go on: Emote. Emote until Keiko calls “time.”

You can always go back and kill your darlings.


Morphine – by Mark Overby

She was my morphine, just someone to kill the pain, someone to keep me from killing myself. The smell of Marlboros filled the tiny room, my sleazy little sanctuary that I payed for by the hour, a place for me to confess my sins while creating new ones as quickly as I could. She took one last hard drag off her cigarette and exhaled a cloud of filth, the smoke encircling her head like a halo. She was beautiful and broken and she was all mine, mine to fall in love with, to hate, to cry with, to kiss and bite and caress. She was my goddess and my savior, my excuse to live another day. She was my morphine.

I watched her undress with a hunger that only loneliness brings. Her dark eyes stared into mine, looking for the soul that I had lost years ago. Her small mouth glistened with the residue of the previous shadow before me, one that needed to feel human again, if only for that brief moment. Now it was my turn. I was now the sin that needed confession, the scourge that wanted love, the shadow that no one saw, no one but her. My morphine.

Her outstretched hand beckoned for my touch, the scars of past lovers adorning her wrists as I placed my hand in hers. “Lie to me, please.” The desperation in her voice mirrored her situation. I love you, let me take away your pain. My words dripped into her like morphine.

I traced the tattoos along her bruised neck as she gasped in rehearsed ecstasy, my fingertips writing an oath of submission against her withered skin. The warmth of her body was bleeding away as she clung to me for comfort. I lied to her again and again as I ran my hands through her hair, matted with smoke and bitter memories. Together we are alone. Together we are none, together we are morphine.

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.

Thank You for Not Smoking


The other day I happened to overhear a conversation between two people who are not in our writing group, but who are also involved in making cultural products. They spent probably 90% of the conversation in status maneuvers* that involved saying how terrible the market for their work was, how hard it was for them to produce, how badly their current project was going.

I often overhear conversations like this, and they drag me down. It’s like being in a room full of cigarette smoke. Do you remember when people used to smoke inside restaurants? It may have been annoying, but it was normal. But now that I almost never experience cigarette smoke, even if I’m standing outside and somebody starts to smoke, I immediately try to get away.

At our group people sometimes talk about having a hard time on their projects, but always in the context of how they are trying to advance, or as part of asking for help or encouraging others. I never hear people trying to raise their status by saying how much they are struggling or by insulting their own work.

When I overheard that smoky conversation, I realized yet again how very lucky I am to be part of a group that creates a place of fresh air.

* Footnote: You must read Impro by Keith Johnstone (to understand his concept of status, and because it will change the way you write and live). Call your local bookstore and order it right now.


How do you keep yourself writing?

OK, so I have a serious question for all of you writers. I don’t do well with “structure.” If I decide that I need to write every day starting at 11 a.m., I will literally never start writing at 11 a.m.. If I decide that I need to leave the house every day in order to write in a coffee shop, then chances are I won’t be able to write in coffee shops. And last week, when I committed to spending the week working on my story, to make a great push to get it to the next turning point… I literally couldn’t touch the story all week. My brain says, “Aaaahh! Crazy people* making unreasonable demands on my time for absolutely no good reason, must turn into a floppy blob on the couch!”

The positive side was that I wrote a million and a half blog posts, and I did tons of laundry, and I made tons of food. But … I didn’t write story at all. And if I ever want to reach The End, as one does, then I need to keep writing. Obviously that level of commitment was too much “structure” for me, where structure is defined as a box that I must fit within. I’m trying to learn to redefine “structure” to mean “useful tool that keeps me heading towards my goal” of writing a lot and reaching the next turning point in my story.

So help me out: What “tools” or “structures” do you use to keep yourself writing and making progress? Do you have any “tricks”? What gets your butt in the chair?


* Just for the record, the crazy people in this instance were me. Yes, even my own brain thinks I’m a crazy unreasonable person. Sigh.