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I recently had the honor of working with Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital on a story about a remarkable patient. His rare genetic mutation inspired one of the JHACH doctors to launch an international investigation into potential treatment options and their outcomes.

You can find the full story here.

(Photo from JHACH)

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It’s day two of the Florida Writers Conference in Orlando and I have pages of notes and insights from this amazing community of writers.

In the spirit of sharing the wealth, here are four new websites I’ve learned about and can’t wait to explore:

Yasiv: Enter a book title and discover a network of related books based on different variables (genre, topic, etc). Helpful for identifying comps and readership circles.

Twin Word: Enter your keywords and find the other related keywords, including their ranking so you can select the most powerful relevant keywords for your content.

Temi: Advanced speech recognition software.

Kindlepreneur: In-depth info on marketing Kindle books

Website recommendations from FWA conference

Writing Role Models: Lots of Characters and Backstory in Chapter 1

In the first ten pages of a novel, characters need to become whole, rich people that we care about. We need hooks to keep us reading, questions that need answers, and enough plot to let us know we’re in for a good ride. It’s tough to fit it all in, and seeing it done well helps me identify what to include, and more importantly, what to cut.

I just started reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Chapter 1 introduces numerous characters, with just enough backstory and questions that I’m hooked. An excellent example of introducing lots of people quickly without info-dumping.

and-then-there-were-none

Another first chapter that I’ve read many times is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. This book earns accolades for plot, for character, for twist, but what I love most about it is Chapter 1. Flynn delivers an immense amount of backstory without making it feel like an info dump. I’m amazed at how much story she stuffed into just a handful of pages.

gone-girl-book-cover

Tell me your favorite first chapters. What do you love about them?

Writing Role Models – Studying Specific Passages

To improve your writing, read more. That’s the advice I hear. But I think the advice should be a bit more specific, like this:

Read more passages that accomplish exactly what you are trying to accomplish in the passage you’re working on.

It’s not pithy, but I think it’s more accurate. Maybe a cleaner version is:

Read for the sake of modeling.

When I read, I read to learn. Or escape. But when I read for the sake of bettering my writing, reading becomes a form of study. And if I’m studying, I need to choose my textbooks carefully.

I am going to catalog the passages I study from. When I stumble on excellent passages that accomplish specific things that I have struggled with, I will add them here under Writing Role Models. If you can add recommendations, please do!

Travelogue: Snorkeling John Pennekamp Park in Key Largo

I tap Jer on the arm and point. He spots the barracuda and nods. We swim on. The current is strong on Banana Reef, but still the seas are calm and we glide easily through the bright blue waters.

Earlier today, we took the glass bottom boat tour and heard the descriptions and names of the reef life. The turquoise waters glinted like science fiction, painting the seascape with impossible hues. I spotted six sea turtles on the ride back to shore, more than I’ve ever seen in the wild. Really, I could have happily ended my day on that note, but there was more to come.

I push my goggles to my forehead and spit saltwater. I’m not a very good snorkeler. I forget I can’t breathe out of my nose and fog up my vision, or I look too far down and drown my spout. Jer pauses next to me while I readjust and plunge my face back in the water. Then we kick off, taking turns pointing at rainbow parrot fish, bluehead wrasse, and hogfish.

Clouds of pale blue roll below me. Closer inspection reveals millions of tiny fish, swarming in unified rhythm with the rocking currents. A few silver grunts slip in amongst the cloud, ten times larger than the little fish, but nearly obscured by their density.

The purple sea fan sets a perfect backdrop for the stoplight parrotfish donning checkered red, white, yellow, and black scales. I spin the names around in my head: Sargent major, French angelfish, spotted eagle ray.

Jer points. I spot the jellyfish floating toward me and shift left. I drown my spout again and check our location. We have drifted far from the boat. Jer’s head pops above water next to mine.

I point. “Let’s head back toward that reef.”

We swim against the currents for a few minutes, then ride it back again, watching and pointing. The last five minutes, we dawdle. Most passengers have boarded, the other stragglers climbing the ladder and removing their fins now. I soak in the last few sights and then I spot it. A few feet below me, a silver shark, maybe five feet long, heads our direction.  I point. Jer points. With a slow swish of the its tail, the reef shark speeds away.  We surface. Time to board.

We ride back to shore on the upper deck. Sun warms my skin and wind tangles my hair. I scan the turquoise waters, half looking for sea turtles, half thinking about the last time I did this trip. A year ago, I rode the glass-bottom boat and snorkeled the reef alone. I loved it. I enjoy traveling alone, catering to my own schedule and impulses. But today, I’m thrilled to be with Jer. Another set of eyes to help my avoid jellyfish, but it’s more than that. It’s knowing that the color and beauty I experience, he saw too.

When we settle in at our favorite Oceanside pub later, we compare what we saw. Trapped in my memory, those glimmering fish would circle around like a screensaver. But shared, the memories come to life. Fine details are recalled—some mine, some his. Together, we put together a stunning picture that is somehow truer than my solo version. And in the end, we talk about the shark.

seaturtle

Travelogue: Islamorada Evening

Small plane

A mustard yellow single-engine plane interrupts the quiet evening. I watch it take off from my balcony overlooking the airstrip. It occurred to me a few days ago that the homes across the water sporting odd-looking garages probably house similar aircraft. I wonder where they store their cars.

A few seconds after takeoff, the familiar evening sounds return. Squirrels chirrup angrily at mockingbirds. The cardinal hiding in the bougainvillea shares its signature whistle song. Boats hum into the docks, depositing tired fishermen in long white sleeves who unload coolers and gear while the kids disappear before they are given chores. A small dog yips.

Sun sets in an hour or so. Evening in Islamorada in August is a quiet affair, a far cry from the crowds and bustle of Key West. I prefer it here, island life lived at island pace. While my husband cooks the fish we caught today, a smattering of vermilion snapper, grunt, and triggerfish, I write. I read novels by Carl Hiaasen and try to pinpoint his local settings. I listen to the water lap at the dock pilings. And every once in a while, I stop to watch a little plane fly away to who knows where.

August moon in Islamorada