In like a Lion, Out like a Lamb

Readers of this blog will know I’m a life long Emily Dickinson fanatic and have studied and written about her for years.

In this messy business we call early spring, it seems I never fail to recollect her many poems on the month of March. The transitions in nature during this month fascinated her all her life. Her collected poems contain no less than six poems on March written many years apart. It was a subject she came back to again and again.

March is a difficult month, typically cold and wet in the first half of it, and only reluctantly and slowly bringing warmer temperatures and the rebirth of life in its last weeks. It’s a month of extremes and heralds the elision to spring, something we all anticipate wherever we are. It always seems to be a difficult birth.

Noting our wild temperature and weather variations in North Florida lately inspired me to share a few of these poems with you. Not her greatest poems, by a long shot, but apt and memorable.


March is the Month of Expectation.

The things we do not know —

The Persons of prognostication

Are coming now —

We try to show becoming firmness —

But pompous Joy

Betrays us, as his first Betrothal

Betrays a Boy.


We like March.

His shoes are Purple–

He is new and high–

Makes he Mud for Dog and Peddler,

Makes he Forests dry.

Knows the Adder Tongue his coming

And presents her Spot–

Stands the Sun so close and mighty

That our Minds are hot.

News is he of all the others–

Bold it were to die

With the Blue Birds buccaneering

On his British Sky.

As one who lives close to the natural world on a small farm next to a large woods, I can attest to her accuracy in these poems. Her mention of the adder is right on, too.  This time of year the snakes wake up, and having forgotten who lives where during their long winter sleep, often surprise me in my yard and even on my doorstep. Creeps! Watch where you step, Margaret.

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Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writing

Stephen KingAs you know I in the habit of publishing “writing rules” from various well-known writers as I stumble over them on the web. They won’t write your books for you, but they are food for thought.

For what it’s worth here are Stephen King’s. They are more discursive that some, but contain some pearls.

Happy writing!

1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

2. Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.”

3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.”

4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.”

5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.”

6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

7. Read, read, read. ”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”

8. Don’t worry about making other people happy. “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”

9. Turn off the TV. “TV—while working out or anywhere else—really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”

10. You have three months. “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”

11. There are two secrets to success. “I stayed physical healthy, and I stayed married.”

12. Write one word at a time. “Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”

13. Eliminate distraction. “There’s should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.”

14. Stick to your own style. “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem.”

15. Dig. “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”

16. Take a break. “You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.”

17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. “(kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)”

18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story. “Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.”

19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing. “You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”

20. Writing is about getting happy. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”

This list was posted on Open Culture ( on March 16th, 2014.

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Everyone Needs a Good Editor


Most of you here know me as an author and book raconteur, but the bulk of my time is spent editing other people’s books.

I’ve been doing this professionally for over twenty years and find it very gratifying to help an author make the book the best it can be. The quality of manuscripts I get for editing varies widely, but usually if there is a kernel of a good plot and a few compelling characters, it can be transformed with tweaking, content editing and copy editing into something that shines and sings, that is, a winner.

Savvy, market-smart authors, particularly the best writers, recognize the high value a good edit imparts to their books, a value that often translates to increased recognition and sales. They wouldn’t dream of foregoing a professional edit for they know they cannot catch  everything, they are too close to it, and really dumb errors will be invisible to them after working on a manuscript for a length of time. And those errors will wind up, to their great embarrassment, in the published book, significantly detracting from the positive impression the author wants to make.

Novice writers, on the other hand,  in their rush to publish and urge to skimp, often skip this critical editing step and, sadly, reap what they sow: poor reviews and poor sales. Readers are an unforgiving lot; today they will not tolerate a poorly edited book. They call you out on them in many cases in reviews, blog posts and Face Book, compounding the problem and spreading the bad news.

A professional edit protects you from this potential public ridicule and increases exponentially the chances of your book in the marketplace. Don’t skimp on it, consider it insurance against a natural disaster endangering the life of your beloved book you’ve worked so hard on.

To reach me with editing queries, email or visit my site Margaret Langstaff Editorial for additional information

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Writing Rules: Avoid the Hoopdedoodle

elmoreElmore Leonard, the modern master of the “low life” detective story and mystery, was one of my favorite contemporary writers and when he died a few years ago I felt a personal loss of a very unique, important voice on matters literary.  Most will know him from the great movies made from his books, like “Get Shorty” (John Travolta) and “The 3:10 to Yuma” (Russell Crowe).

The strong points of his books were distinctive unforgettable characters and drop dead dialog. Elmore could do more with dialog than most writers could with their whole bag of tricks.  It’s a gift, but one that can be cultivated if you pay close attention to how people really speak and render that in your fiction accurately.

Anyway, a passing reference to Leonard in a column recently brought to mind how much I truly owe him, for he taught me so much by example and made a huge difference in my own writing.

He had a word for all the extraneous frippery some novice writers load into their books: hoopededoodle. It should be avoided at all costs. It is death to a work of fiction.

At one point in his life not too long ago at the pestering of understudies, he put together his “10 Rules of Writing,” showing how to do this, which I share with you here for your own edification:)

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

“My most important rule is one that sums up the 10,” he wrote. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Nuff said.

For a more in depth look at the rules of the road a la Leonard, check out this NYT article

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Best American Novels? from The American Scholar

[Something to argue about.]

One Hundred Best American Novels, 1770 to 1985 (a Draft)

A reading enthusiast’s list

By David Handlin

About a year ago I put an end to my indiscriminate reading habits. I resolved to read, at least for the time being, only American novels. But I quickly understood that, even within that limited scope, I could be almost as indiscriminate as before. Therefore, to give my reading purpose and focus, I decided to make a project of it. I would compile a list of the 100 Best American Novels, 1770–1985.

A month into this exercise, I suddenly understood what I was doing. I was filling some of the gaps in my undergraduate education. Since college I have been a devoted reader, but for almost five decades my primary focus has been architecture—studying it, teaching it, writing about it, and practicing it.

I write, then, as an enthusiast, not as a scholar. I know something of the difference. I took courses with two preeminent scholars of American literature, Perry Miller and Alan Heimert. Perhaps more consequentially, I was fortunate to be considered a friend by the late Michael Davitt Bell, one of the major scholars of American literature of his generation. While compiling this list I reread his books, filled with wisdom and humor, and was delighted to discover that in 1975 he edited and wrote the introduction to an edition of the improbably titled Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca (1770), the first American novel. I see Bell smiling now at the preposterous nature of my undertaking, while also urging me on and wanting to join in.

Since I can already hear your questions and even protests, I will address them by following my list with a brief discussion of each of the words in my title. (I have rendered in bold the 10 novels I like best.) ….

[Read the rest (and the list) at The American Scholar]

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Music to My Ears

After three years my MARLIN, DARLIN keeps on garnering great reviews. The latest —

5.0 out of 5 stars Thrills, Chills, rofl, Realism, and Just Plain Good Writin’!, February 8, 2015
This review is from: Marlin, Darlin': Garnet Sullivan Live from Florida (Kindle Edition)

As a journalist myself…early in my career…I have to first point out, “It really is like Langstaff describes it–the wit, the sarcasm, the backstabbing, the bickering! Kinda’ like siblings. By the same token, ‘they’ can slam’ya, but no one else better try it. Unless they’re busy, of course…”

“Marlin, Darlin'” has it all. Fast-packed action, great storytelling, humor, mystery…Did I mention the dead body hooked to a fish? Well, part of him…

Lush, beautiful descriptions of Florida and other picturesque scenes and the icky stuff as well, but realism is realism. Can’t have one without the t’other…

This review is not like me. I’m not usually so tongue-in-cheek, but ya’ just can’t help it after reading “Marlin Darlin'”. I even sound like a southerner. Yeah, I’m from the southern part of Cleveland.

Margaret Jean Langstaff is delicious! No spoilers–just read it! The whole series. You’re gonna love Sullivan and Chester and the rest of the cast of characters…emphasis on “character” and not in the refined sense.

There are some books you gulp and some books you savor. You’ll be gulping till the final page and then beg for more. Thank goodness it’s a series. Whew! Don’t forget to breathe!



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There’s Something About a Man in Uniform

soldierThis is off topic for this literary blog (unless I try to tie it to the many fine novels written about the travails of the military in wartime, which I won’t.).  But I observed an incident at the checkout at the grocery store yesterday I’m burning to share.

It was one of those all too rare personal interactions showing respect and appreciation for our men in uniform and it brought tears to my eyes.

A young man in Army combat fatigues with his young son in tow was ahead of me in the checkout line. He had just a handful of items and his darling kid was brandishing a cold Dr. Pepper. When it came time to pay, the soldier realized he left his wallet in the car, so he told the cashier to hold his stuff while he ran outside to get it.

As he and his son dashed out the door, the woman who had been ahead of him and had just finished making her purchase observed all of this.  When she did, and after he was out the door, she came back and gave the cashier a ten to pay for the guy’s groceries, insisting she take it, even though she could assume he had the funds to pay for them himself.

“No, really. I want to do this, take the money!  It’s the least I can do! Take it!”  The cashier was abashed–as was I–it was such an unlooked for gesture of generosity and appreciation, completely out of the blue, our jaws dropped. The woman then instantly disappeared after receiving her change, before the soldier returned, wanting no thanks or recognition whatsoever.

No sooner than she did, the soldier blew back through the door, his son tugging at his pants saying he sure hoped his Dr. Pepper was still there!

I let him go ahead of me, both the cashier and I blurting nonsensically to him at once about the “nice lady” who’d paid for his things. He looked off into the distance and frowned for a sec, then a smile a big as Texas spread across his face when he took the gesture as a compliment, the compliment that had been intended. Sonny boy hadn’t a clue about what was going on but was relieved to find his Dr. Pepper in the bag with the other things, including the paid receipt.  It was all too cute, but such a surprise as to seem surreal.

These things don’t happen every day, small gestures of anonymous appreciation that mean so much.

I choked up paying for my few things right after that and shuffled off to my car in a muddle of admiration for the thoughtful kind woman and personal heartache that I so rarely went out of my way to thank the men defending our freedom and way of life.

I should, and now will, do more.  All of us should, don’t you think?

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