Mill Park Publishing of Eagle, Idaho was created in 2003 by author Elaine Ambrose.
The company facilitates fee-based book publication and marketing for local authors
and organizes writer's retreats.

Elaine Ambrose

Elaine Ambrose

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Thursday, 11 August 2011 15:12

Beyond Captain Underpants: Music as Muse

In my collection of vintage books, I have a copy of a children’s book from 1886 titled

Please Tell Me A Tale. One story, Under the Maypole, has the following lines:

“This Mayday morning they will plant the Maypole on the green,

And hang it round with cowslip wreaths and blue bells set between;

With starry thorn, with knotted fern, with chestnut blossoms tall,

And Phil, the bailiff’s son, will bring red roses from the Hall.”

Can’t you just imagine little Phil proudly bringing the roses? The book doesn’t have any illustrations, and there are no batteries required or toys included, but children still love to listen to the lyrical stories.

I use this example in my writing class for local fourth grade students. Then I follow with an excerpt from a current bestselling children’s book, Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants. In this particular version, the children rearrange letters on a sign to read: “Please Don’t Fart in a Diaper.” Laughter ensues, but it causes me to doubt the evolution of children’s literature over the last 125 years.

To inspire the students to write, I play a variety of musical selections. We begin with “No Blue Thing” by Ray Lunch. I instruct the children to close their eyes, listen to the music, and then write anything that the music inspires. The responses always are delightful.

“I’m running through the tall grass through a cloud of butterflies,” is a typical comment.

Then I play “Circle of Life” from the Lion King Soundtrack. Their expressions change as their imaginations play with the music. We then discuss how the music prompted images and thoughts. They are instructed to write what they envision.

For the remainder of the class, I play a variety of other songs, but I always end with the same two selections. “Adagio for Strings” by Samual Barber typically elicits strong emotions, even among the teachers. Once at Garfield Elementary, after the song a shy, little boy in the back of the room timidly raised his hand. “I see blue tears flowing down my wall,” he said. “Write about that,” was my response. He seemed pleased.

I end the session with “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. Often, most of the students will sit taller and smile wider as they listen with their eyes closed. The song prompts comments such as, “I fought the dragon, and I won!”

My classes lasts an hour, and I enjoy volunteering my time with the students. It’s my goal that they will use quality music (with an emphasis on quality), to inspire the muse within them. I want to challenge young people to temporarily laugh about Professor Poopypants but to wonder and write about characters as rich and provocative as Phil, the bailiff’s son. No batteries required.

Thursday, 04 August 2011 14:45

We're Writing a Book in One Day

We’re looking for local writers to write a book in one day and have it published in time for holiday sales. And, we’ll donate a portion of the proceeds to charity. All we need are provocative, poignant, and enlightening essays about “The Dress.”

It all started when my friend, Liza Long Walton, wrote a message two weeks ago on Facebook about seeing used wedding dresses in thrift shops. The response came faster than a nervous flower girl. We all have stories about wedding dresses (and some of us have multiple stories.)

So, Liza and I met over coffee and decided to publish a book of essays from women who want to explore the myth and meaning of the wedding dress. Thanks to the magic of social media and the Little White Dress Facebook page, we already have volunteer (meaning: unpaid) writers who want to contribute to the book. They include married, divorced, never married and gay women. We even have liberal, conservative, and lactose intolerant writers!

To make it even more interesting, we decided to write and compile the book in one day. (Liza and I are co-authors of Daily Erotica, and Mill Park Publishing is the publisher, so we’ve been around the writer’s block on publishing books.)

After another cup of coffee, we settled on the “Rules of Engagement” (pun intended) for our contributing writers:

  1. 1.  Must be female (Yes, it’s sexist but it’s our book.)
  2. 2.  Must have previous experience with a wedding dress
  3. 3.  Submissions must be under 2,000 words
  4. 4.  Submit on one day – August 8, 2011
  5. 5.  Gather at my house from 6:00 – 9:00 p.m. (email me for directions)
  6. 6.  Those out of state (or out of the country) can email only during that time frame
  7. 7.  Submission does not guarantee inclusion; writers will be notified by Aug. 31
  8. 8.  We reserve the right to edit all accepted entries
  9. 9.  Each included writer must try to sell at least 20 books to help cover production costs
  10. 10. Net profits will be donated to a local charity as determined by the contributing authors
  11. 11. Genre can include poetry, short stories, and essays

 

Just think about that dress delicately packed in white acid-free tissue paper, wrapped in unbleached muslin, and sealed in a box with a view window that’s stored in the attic. Why do we save them? Or, are they destined to hang empty and forgotten in some thrift shop, waiting for another chance at the dream wedding? What’s your story?

Wednesday, 27 July 2011 14:33

Deadlines Annoy my Creative Freedom

How does a creative person perform to peak potential when strict deadlines demand 2,000 words by Friday? I know there are writers who have the discipline to rise early, go directly to their offices, and passionately produce a poem, chapter, or short story by lunch. I have the concentration of a deranged ferret, and I’m easily distracted or I'm working on a sassy essay about the humor of elder care while writing a novel about the dramatic angst of greed and betrayal. But, now it’s my goal to focus on producing more coherent content before my eyesight fails, my fingers are too gnarled to fumble on the keys, and I forget where a preposition is at (and to never end a sentence with one.)

During my career, I've written for television news, newspapers, magazines, advertising clients, and corporate communications. The shortest turnaround was for a daily television news program, but the stories were only 30 seconds long so the text wasn't much more to write than who, what, why, and where. The longest assignment was for a non-fiction book, but the intensity and reward were much greater.

My contract in February of 2007 with Adams Media for Menopause Sucks required me to write and submit 70,000 words by June 30. I dabbled and researched through the spring, and didn't begin Chapter One until April. But during May and June of that year, I wrote and edited almost 12 hours a day until I met the deadline. Then I waited, somewhat impatiently, until the book was published and released in August of 2008.

As many students do, I honed my last-minute, burn-the-midnight-oil skills in college when I would start a term paper around midnight before it was due the next day. My manual typewriter was reliable in the wee hours of the morning, and I never had to worry about a power surge erasing all my text. Now I rely on computer features that allow me to check spelling, research synonyms, copy and paste, and find and replace. Also, the word count is always there to remind me to keep going or stop now, please.

I recently enjoyed a short story class taught by local author, poet and film maker Ken Rodgers. We were assigned to write five short stories in five weeks. I proudly presented my story every Monday, but now the class is over and I haven’t written another story. I’m trying to focus on setting my own deadlines so I continue to write. And, who knows what great stories are just waiting to be written if only I would sit down, turn off the worldly interruptions, open my imagination, and connect my brain to my fingers? Today’s goal: 1,000 words before cocktail hour.    

Wednesday, 20 July 2011 14:46

Radio, Duke of Earl, and Smashing Coyotes

Long ago, sometime after the extinction of the dinosaurs, I was a ten-year-old child, and my favorite possession was a transistor radio. Though isolated on a potato farm in southern Idaho, I could connect to civilization through my magical radio. I would sing along to “Duke of Earl” or “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” until my exasperated mother told me to go outside and play. My favorite assignment! So, I would climb into my tree house with my radio and an extra 9 volt battery and wail “Crying” along with Roy Orbison. And, I wouldn’t come back inside until I had roamed the back pasture and warbled “Blue Moon” with The Marcels.

Fast forward many, many decades and I notice, with sadness, that children today are complacently mesmerized by animated videos that require no imagination. And, children’s television offers only sanitized, politically-correct programs with plastic, too-cheerful hosts who have turned budding brains and bodies into lumps of lard. At least I got to watch Wile E. Coyote smashed flat by an anvil as he tried in vain to catch and eat The Road Runner. (Literary tidbit: The character was based on a coyote mentioned in Mark Twain’s Roughing It.) At the risk of sounding like an old fart curmudgeon, I wish children could have the freedom and opportunity to go play outside with only a radio and a song to sing.

The power of radio has transformed audiences for more than 100 years. On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles recited his adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds. The radio drama was delivered through a series of news bulletins so cleverly broadcast that people panicked and actually believed that Martians were landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. During World War II, Winston Churchill encouraged war-weary British citizens with his broadcasts on the BBC. In 1941, he made his famous speech that included the words, “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire.”

Today, radio provides an efficient forum for the exchange of ideas, news, and music over the airwaves. From the pleasant stories of Garrison Keillor and the late Paul Harvey to extreme political rhetoric, you can find a wide variety of interesting and provocative programming. For local writers, your promotion plans should include radio interviews. Start small, with the intention of obtaining regional and national opportunities. If you have a compelling story to tell, there is an audience wanting to hear.

GRATUITOUS PLUG: I will be the guest on Amanda Turner’s radio show on Thursday, July 21 at noon. Tune into 89.9 FM. www.RadioWritersBlock.com

Wednesday, 13 July 2011 13:27

STOP YELLING AT ME !!!!!!!!!!!!

Every time I need to choose between hitting my head with a hammer or reading online message boards about various political and social issues, I usually pick the latter. Then, it’s with great annoyance that I realize I made the wrong decision.

I only allow myself an hour to read online “news,” but I can’t avoid clicking on the “Comments” section after I read a provocative item. That’s where I’m thrown into the sordid realm of anonymous people who communicate like deranged savages: Every capitalized sentence is just one more slobbering grunt, and every additional exclamation point becomes a series of belches and farts from their overloaded, underdeveloped brains.

I’m amazed at the horrible and nasty phrases that humans actually write to complete strangers. And they prove their enormous inadequacy by hitting “Send” so the entire world can know that their only contribution to society is to help with the deterioration of the culture. Here are a few examples, followed by my more refined commentary:

“SHUT UP UR DANMMD TRAP!!!!!!!”  

We’ve got some anger management issues here. Why would someone be so mad at someone they will never know? And, it’s about an issue over which they will never have any control.  We won’t discuss spelling because no one cares about that.

“YOUR A FU**N IDIOT!!!!!!!”

Again, we must marvel that someone this illiterate has the capacity to turn on a computer and actually find the Internet.   He doesn’t understand the different between “your” and “you’re,” and it’s probably not a good idea to inform him that the abbreviation is wrong.   Five syllable words would be beyond his comprehension.

“EAT SHT N DIE!!!!!!!”

This comment came after another anonymous poster defended a high-ranking politician. In my humble opinion, the task doesn’t make sense. But, perhaps logic isn’t the issue. Also, I’m guessing that this person doesn’t write thank you notes.

Most of the sites do have restrictions stating that inappropriate comments will be removed for violating the rules. That makes me wonder just how bad the culpable comments had to be. We’re witnessing an entire sub-culture of professional posters, people who earn badges for their popular online comments. To prove that civilization is, indeed, teetering on extinction, unnamed but prolific people who regularly post comments on HuffPost can achieve various levels of popularity and obtain separate Facebook pages to expand their fan base of other unidentified "writers."  I imagine lonely, dark rooms full of hunchbacked gargoyles pecking away on grease-stained keyboards, chuckling insanely at their own wicked messages.

Yes, I know that I can avoid all this mental anguish by refusing to read the message boards on various sites. Or, maybe I could initiate another option for those who wish to communicate through a more sophisticated, genteel, and enlightened debate that could salvage what’s left of civil discourse.   But, just as NASCAR isn’t any fun without wrecks, and fans scream for the defensive line to take down and hurt the quarterback, sometimes we enjoy our roles as spectators in life’s dark satire. Can the gladiators be next?

 “Boris Stuchenko would be dead in less than nineteen minutes. And he had no idea why.”

 The first two sentences of The Ezekiel Option by Joel C. Rosenberg captured my attention, and I was hooked. I read the 413-page book over the weekend, and the contents were as powerful as the opening lines. It’s the kind of book that lingers in thoughts long after the next book is opened.

 "It was a dark and stormy night" is now a cliché for trite first lines, followed by "Once upon a time.” Other notable beginnings that challenge the reader’s intellect include this sentence from the first page of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code:

 “On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.”

 Just because a book sells millions of copies doesn’t mean it’s well written.

 Studies indicate that readers are attracted to a book by its cover, then they turn it over to read the back, and if they’re still interested, they turn to the first page. All in about eight seconds. As a writer, you should view the first page as a literary seduction, a series of pick up lines to snare the reader. They may not get to your dazzling chapter four if page one is a dud.

 I've been taking a short story class from poet, writer, and film maker Ken Rodgers. He guides us like a wise sage as we discuss various authors and read our own stories. For our last assignment, I wrote this sentence to begin my story:

 "Tara Swanson desperately needed to get across the river but the old man kept shooting at her."

 Then I wrote the story around that scenario. The opening vision prompted the plot, the characters, and the setting. I edited one of the two characters several times, but the main theme remained the same: survival. I didn’t know the ending until I had written over 1,000 words. But, the entire story was driven by the first line, and I, the writer, enjoyed going along for the ride.

 As you begin to write and then edit your work, think of the experience as complicated and daunting but also rewarding. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it can be the best of times, it can be the worst of times, it can be the winter of despair, or the season of hope.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011 21:44

Your right. You're right. Who cares?

We live in a world of fast-food sound bites, but I’d rather enjoy a slow-simmering stew of rich words. “To be or not to be” loses its splendid flavor when the new translation is “2B r nt 2B.”

Before I sink into the evolutionary tar pit along with typewriters, hand-written letters, and leather-bound encyclopedias, I'd like to make one more attempt to encourage the correct usage of words. And, please, don't text me, "Your silly."

I believe that social media tools such as Twitter, instant messaging, and texting are great innovations. They have the power to start national rebellions, end political careers, and allow you to tell someone that you’ll be late for dinner. On the negative side, these new features also have the ability to compress information into a new-age Morse Code, reducing communication into microwaveable tidbits when our brains crave a feast of well-crafted phrases.

Those who tweet and text don’t need to know the difference between your and you’re when “yr” is understood as “your,” and “yw” is interpreted as “you’re welcome.” Also, it doesn’t seem to matter or not if there is an apostrophe in the word “its.” Now, “itz” means “it is.”

Copywriters no longer struggle to construct correct sentences that ensure subject-verb agreement. It’s common to hear or read an advertisement that states, "Big Store is having their sale!"   (Hint: "is" is singular, "their" is plural. The ad should read, "Big Store is having its sale." Or, "Big Store are having their sale.")  Am I a grammatical curmudgeon when the new rules mean there are no rules?   Maybe you're right. And, it's your right to have that opinion.

Somewhere some technological wizard is condensing one of Shakespeare’s plays into a 140-character tweet. I just hope he’s not “twitterlooing” – or, writing it in the bathroom. An entire new language is erupting around us, and I’m driving my horse and buggy as fast as I can to catch up. Maybe soon I can do a “micro-blog” and express my blog in less than 140 characters. But, that won’t happen soon. LOL

In The Wizard of Oz, lovely Dorothy and her little dog Toto arrive in Munchkin Land and meet the Good Witch who gives the girl a pair of shoes. The Good Witch could have mentioned that Dorothy had the power all along to return home; but no, the girl must travel down the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, meet up with a clumsy scarecrow, a rusty tin man, and a sissy lion. Then they encounter all sorts of dilemmas and obstacles on their way, including a maniacal witch, an enormous talking head, and – gasp! – flying monkeys!

So why didn’t the Good Witch just tell Dorothy about the shoes in the first place? Maybe she wasn’t so good, after all? Sure, send an innocent girl alone into the forest with lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!

When L. Frank Baum wrote the book in 1900, he knew the difference between a sweet paragraph and a complex, imaginative story full of conflict and tension. Without the conflict, there wouldn’t be anything to tell. If Dorothy had avoided all the problems, she simply would have returned to Kansas to quietly live out her days on the farm. Fade to black. No story, no movie.

In a well-written story, the main character must want something and either she gets it or she doesn’t. The story can include a variety of sub-plots, but the focal theme is carried by one burning desire: kill the dragon, catch the whale, solve the murder, or stay alive by singing to the captors. The conflict doesn’t always have an inspirational ending. Romeo and Juliet both die. No one knows if the lovers get back together in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. And, the conflict in George Orwell’s 1984 is never resolved to the reader’s satisfaction.

As a writer, you have the privilege to name, own, work, and rework the conflict in your story.  Author Margaret Mitchell only wrote one novel, Gone With the Wind, first published in 1936. She wrote the ending first.  Mitchell knew about conflict and drama, and used the horrors of the Civil War as a background to the evolving conflict between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. The book was originally titled Tote the Weary Load and Scarlett’s name was Pansy. Somehow, it wouldn’t work if the book ends with Pansy collapsing dramatically on the grand staircase, uttering the famous phrase, “Tomorrow is another day!” Such a statement belongs only to a woman named Scarlett O’Hara.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011 13:59

The Stories that Surround Us

Recently I was playing with a gaggle of giggling girls. We were telling stories, and they squealed with delight at each silly suggestion in our creative plot as “Once upon a time….” encouraged them to imagine without restriction.

“And then the princess turned into a beautiful butterfly.”

“She waved her magic wand and poof!...there was a purple horse with wings!”

“The little girl fell down a long tunnel and landed in a big meadow. She could understand what the animals were saying.”

Of course, the pretend princesses always survived their adventures and the endings always were happy, except for the conclusion in the Fable of the Farting Princess, but by then it was time to take a break. Such is storytelling with children.

Every day, we are surrounded by potential stories. Those of us who can still remember the 1960s can’t forget the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel’s song “America” as the couple turns ordinary situations into imaginary stories:

Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces.

She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy.

I said, “Be careful his bowtie is really a camera.”

If you need inspiration to write, you should go sit in the park. Observe a happy family playing and laughing, and then allow your imagination to wander. Who is that dark stranger slowly driving around the park? Why is the woman yelling into her cell phone? Did you see the lonely custodian laughing as he went down the slide? Is the little boy really talking to a squirrel?

I find story ideas while waiting at stop lights. The obnoxious guys in the noisy car next to me are certain to be smuggling something illegal. The old woman ahead of me must be on her way to her best friend’s funeral. That's why she’s driving so slowly.  Her friend's name is Erma, and they used to process jars of pickles together in Erma's farmhouse kitchen.  The old woman craves a fresh tomato. 

I also use newspaper headlines to create short stories. The Idahoan Who Speaks for U.S. Sheep Industry.” So, what do the sheep have her say? Do they have a meeting in the pasture and discuss issues over bowls of fresh grass and pitchers of water from the canal? N.Y. Pet Cemeteries Told to Stop Taking in Humans. Will Fifi really care? The old dog’s been dead for 20 years. And, what if those really aren’t Fifi’s ashes?

Every day presents an adventure waiting to be told. The real ending can’t be controlled, but with enough creativity and imagination, writers can add some festive, mysterious, tragic, inspirational, and amazing elements to make the journey less mundane. After all, it’s what we do. We are storytellers.     

Wednesday, 08 June 2011 20:37

If You Don't Read, Don't Write

At a recent writing class, a young woman asked if she could be a good writer without reading classic literature. I tried not to gasp out loud as the agitated ghosts of former teachers immediately began to clamor for attention within the musty cobwebs of my cluttered brain.

First came the apparition of the invincible, ruler-wielding Mrs. Kaufmann waving her tattered copy of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Then feisty Miss Luke appeared, telling me to write why I was Jo in Little Women. She was bumped aside by Mrs. Eaton whose booming voice pleaded to the High Heavens for her class of scraggly farm kids to understand how Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men brought the characters of Lennie and George right there to our humble town of Wendell.

To answer her question, the class instructor eyed the young woman and calmly stated the Great Truth: "If you want to be a good writer, read good writing." My ghosts then retreated, slamming the door behind them.

Decades before the distractions of video games, the Internet and Facebook, young people actually went to libraries and brought home books, every two weeks. I started with the Bobbsey Twins and read through the Nancy Drew Mystery series before finding children's literature that would change my life. I cried the first time I read:

"It seemed to travel with her, to sweep her aloft in the power of song, so that she was moving in glory among the stars, and for a moment she, too, felt that the words Darkness and Light had no meaning, and only this melody was real."

That excerpt from Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is the crux of why I read and why I write.

L’Engle joins all my former English teachers and favorite authors who amuse themselves inside my head and emerge sporadically with witty phrases, ticklish ideas, and red-pencil admonitions. Sometimes I talk to them, but never in public.

There are excellent modern writers, and we are fortunate that many of them live in the area. But, they, too, have bookshelves bulging with well-worn volumes of classic literature.   To find your voice as a writer, read good books and then write. With that foundation, you'll understand L'Engle's words: "You've been given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself."

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