letters

This past month Spry Literary Journal has been running a feature titled “The ABCs of Poetry.” Each day a contributor highlights a topic related to the basics of writing poetry. This morning yours truly has offered “T is for Tone.” If interested in checking out the series or reading my article on tone, it can be found here.

Also, Spry Literary Journal is seeking submissions of poetry, fiction, flash fiction, creative non-fiction, and artwork for Issue 12. Submission guidelines can be found at the Spry Literary Journal website or by clicking here. I hope you’ll consider sending your work.

Photo Credit: by Hannibal Height from Pixabay

 

 

 

 

seedlingSpring is always a busy time around our household. My husband and I own a two-acre lot and like to garden, so the last few weeks have been dedicated to clearing out last year’s foliage from the flower beds and turning over the soil in the vegetable patch. All this in anticipation for that perfect May day when both weather and soil are dry enough to poke a few seeds in the ground, which in Wisconsin happens about once a year.

It’s also been a few weeks since I’ve written a new story. I sit down at my desk every morning to scribble down notes and observations in my notebook or play around with a few sentences on my laptop only to backspace, backspace, backspace. Am I worried? No, not really. I’ve come to accept it as part of my process.

In the early days, I chalked it up to writer’s block like everyone else, then ate a bowl of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia to soothe the ever-creeping fear that I’d somehow lost my mojo—or worse that the mojo never existed in the first place. Nonetheless, I still showed up at my desk every morning to diddle around, mainly because I didn’t have anything better to do. After a few days, maybe even a week or two, characters took shape, they began to disclose their secrets, and we were off on an adventure.

This past week I read an interesting article in the May/June 2019 issue of Poets & Writers by Camille T. Dungy entitled “Say Yes to Yourself.” In her piece, she says she doesn’t believe in writer’s block. Instead, she believes in what she calls fallow periods where one takes a pause to regenerate one’s creativity. Yet, she makes the point to state “…even with fallow fields, farmers sometimes need to do a little work. Amend the soil. Sow seeds that speed regeneration.”

Often when the words won’t come it’s because one of the following has happened:

Life Ran Away with the Spoon

Let’s face it, life gets the best of you sometimes. I mentioned this in my last post, but it’s worth repeating. There will always be people to care for and love. There will always be ten loads of laundry. There will always be weeds to pull. Sometimes it’s tough to maintain a balance. We get burnt out because the candle’s torched on both ends. Apologies for the cliché, but sometimes there’s no other truth than the obvious.

Dungy talks about needing to “amend the soil.” The way I amend my own soil is by scribbling down those notes in my notebook. Some days it’s me standing in the kitchen waiting for the soup to boil and a few words jotted down on the back of an envelope. The simple act of getting those words down on paper often triggers something within the subconscious, making it less difficult to enter into story once I have the time to get back to my desk. It’s a known fact that a great deal of story development happens when we’re least aware, however those ideas still need fertile ground to take root. Consider those notes compost.

The Cloistered Writer Will See You Now

There are times I need to remind myself it’s just as important to leave my desk and live life as it is to sit behind the keyboard pounding out words into some semblance of understanding. Sounds ridiculous—yes, I know. But it happens more often than one would like to admit.

Julia Cameron in her book, The Artist Way, suggests taking what she calls artist dates. Visit a museum. Listen to another writer read his/her work. Take a class. Slip into a café for not only the coffee, but for the atmosphere surrounding you. Watch children play in the park. Go for a walk by the river or in the woods. Bake bread. It not only feeds the writer, but also the soul.

Experiencing life, evoking the senses, observing the world around you gives color and texture to your writing. It might also provide the idea itself. Once I visited an exhibit at our local museum where community members displayed their personal collections. A ten-year-old boy exhibited his bouncy ball collection in a clear glass cylinder. All different colors, all different sizes. The placard next to it said each ball represented a day he lived without his best friend. Makes you want to know more about the boy and his relationship, doesn’t it?

There Haven’t Been Enough Questions Asked

It’s easy to become overwhelmed and complacent when the world’s media, in all its varied forms, bombards us 24/7. All the sudden we’re David facing Goliath with a pebble in our hand unsure if we have the arm strength to take the giant down. I’ll be honest, on a bad day this can stop me cold.

There are two cures for this, I think:

  1. Turn off the distraction.
  2. Ask questions.

How can two people who were married for twenty years no longer love one another?

What if Sharon’s mother went back into the house instead of getting on the bus?

Why does Thomas feel the need to build a bomb shelter behind the barn?

What can she forgive, but never forget?

And the list goes on.

Curiosity begs for answers.  Story is a means of unlocking them, but the questions must first be asked.


Regular practice, observation, and curiosity are my seeds for regeneration. What are yours? If you’d like to share, feel free to leave a comment below.

Also if you have any writing questions and/or topics you’d like to see addressed on this blog, please contact me here. I’d love to hear from you.


Photo Credit: Photo by Nikola Jovanovic on Unsplash

live work create

A couple years ago my husband and I joined our local gym. We’d hit our mid-forties and decided the time had come to trim our waistlines before someone else told us we had to do so. We started gung-ho, totally committed. An hour, three to four nights a week, both of us running on treadmills like a pair of hamsters on a foot race. We each lost a pound here, an inch there, everything going according to plan. Never felt better. In fact, that fall we took a trip to Hawaii and hiked up and down Kauai’s Waimea Canyon without so much as a muscle cramp. Believe me, that’s saying something.

Then we came home, and life happened. I left a job and started to write full-time. Our oldest daughter graduated from college and got married, while the youngest packed her bags to start the process all over again. We helped move the girls from dorm rooms to apartments to houses and sometimes back home in between. Two grandsons were born. My heart will never quite be the same.

Also during that time we renovated one bedroom into a home office—and while we were at it, decided to throw the family room into the mix as well only to discover our house had some foundation issues. Ouch. Throughout it all, my writing took off, I joined the reading staff at Spry and…well, I think you can see where this going. Our trips to the gym went from three nights a week to maybe one to zilch.

Over dinner one night my husband mentioned his co-worker, Dennis, got up at four a.m. to hit the gym before work. We sat there a bit, chewing our steak as though it was a new form of meditation. I looked over at him. He looked at me. I smiled. That “shit, I should’ve kept my mouth shut” look spread across his face.

Our gym is literally a few miles from our doorstep. A more ambitious person might even run or bike there. That night before bed we made a pact—if we got up an hour early and worked out for a half hour, five days a week, we’d easily hit the 150 minutes every nutritionist, trainer, and health junkie on the planet recommended one needed to stay fit. Done. Done.

In case you were wondering, the alarm has a nasty way of doing exactly what you tell it to do. At five a.m. sharp, we both groaned, said a few choice words, then slid ourselves out of bed like two wet noodles. I took one look in the mirror and told my husband I couldn’t go out in public looking like THIS. He pulled on some pants, grabbed the bag with our gear and went out to start the car. We drove to the gym in silence, did our thing, went home, showered, got on with the day. At about 7:30 p.m. we started a yawning contest until we called it a night so we could do it all over again the next morning.

We managed to make it through the week, then another and another—this week marks Week 6. It’s gotten easier. Our muscles are beginning to feel more toned than sore. I’ve discovered the wonders of dry shampoo. We still have mornings where we’d love nothing more than to chuck the @#%! clock against the wall, yet we know little by little what we’re doing is adding up to something good.

So how does any of this translate to the writing life? Think about the last time you sat down to start a new creative endeavor. All the possibility, the spark burning bright. Then your partner loses her job, a loved one needs care, the grass has to be mowed before the next rain. One thing, then the next and the next. Life starts pushing around the edges. Instead of getting to the desk three mornings a week, you only get there once—or maybe not at all. Suddenly, the idea begins to fade, frustration builds. You begin to ask questions like: “Am I disciplined enough to be a writer?” Maybe you even give up.

A wise man named John Lennon once said, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Celebrate life. Give it a voice. There are 1,440 minutes in a single day. What if one made a pact to take at least fifteen of those minutes to sit down with pen and paper? Fifteen minutes is enough time to have a conversation with one of your characters or to write a page of dialogue. It’s also enough time to sketch out a scene or line edit a few paragraphs. Maybe you could use the time to make a list of new ideas or figure out which ones need to marinate awhile. The bottom line is a lot can be accomplished in fifteen minutes as long as one shows up with some consistency. If more time becomes available—GREAT. Either way, touching the work daily gives it room to grow. Little by little, page by page, it’ll add up to something good.


How have you dealt with the work/life balance? Feel free to weigh-in by leaving a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

Also, if you have any questions and/or topics you’d like to see covered in future blog posts, drop a line here.


Photo Credit: Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

rejected

This past week one of the members in my writing group expressed her frustration about having one of her pieces sent back to her ONCE AGAIN. The story is close to her heart and she has sent it to several literary journals, but for some reason it hasn’t quite found the perfect fit—yet.

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. I know I have. Here’s a picture of the bulletin board in my office. The cork is filling in rather nicely, don’t you think?

rejections

In February I started volunteering as a reader over at Spry Literary Journal. It certainly has been an enlightening experience to be on the other side of the submission process. One thing I can say is for every piece of work a writer sends out into the world, there is a reader and/or editor who’d love nothing more than to give it a home because many are also active writers themselves and understand how deflating it is to be told your work hasn’t quite made the cut.

Since there’s such an overwhelming volume of submissions to weed through, many times the only communication an editor is able to send after declining a piece is an email saying thanks, but this just isn’t for us. I thought this week I’d share a few common reasons why stories do get rejected in hopes the information might shed some light on what it is editors and readers look for when reviewing a piece. Perhaps being aware of some of these pitfalls might help increase the odds of finding the perfect home for your next story.

The writer ignores the submission guidelines. Submission guidelines exist to protect both writers and the integrity of the reviewing process. Many journals request blind submissions or ask writers to not submit work outside of the reading period, so every writer receives an equal opportunity to have his/her work read based on its own merit. One thing I’ve noticed in the blind submission process is writers sometimes forget file names also should not include any identifying information. Failure to do this equals an automatic decline.

The genre doesn’t fit the journal’s aesthetic/tone. Take some time to read an issue or two of the journal before submission so you can get a feel for the type of work accepted in the past. This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for something new or innovative. In fact, it’s encouraged, but if the journal you’re submitting to has never published a sci-fi story in its ten-year history, chances are if you send them one it isn’t going to be accepted.

The manuscript hasn’t been polished. At this point in the process it’s assumed the writer is knowledgeable enough to recognize typos and grammatical errors within the manuscript. Sloppy copy distracts the reader from the story and gives the impression the writer is either lazy or hasn’t yet mastered the craft.

Lack of narrative arc. All stories need the following elements: character, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. If any of these are missing or lack clarity, there is no story. Some of the stories I’ve read lately come across more as character sketches or incomplete scenes. Remember your character not only needs to be introduced, but also go on the journey.

There’s not enough movement or action in the piece. Make sure your characters don’t spend too much time in their own internal world. Sometimes when writing in the first person p.o.v. there’s a tendency to write a lot of commentary on how the character feels about the what is going on around her without having the character participate in the story. In other words, don’t report the story, but show how the character reacts to her environment and how she’s ultimately changed by that interaction.

Too much unnecessary exposition. Editors are looking for stories that are tight and focused. This means understanding the character’s journey well enough to know which details propel the story and which ones are insignificant. Say you write a story about a woman leaving her unfaithful husband, does one need to know she had eggs for breakfast on the morning of her departure or do you focus more on the Betty Boop clock hanging above the kitchen sink which her husband gave to her as a joke on their first anniversary? Also, by the end of the third paragraph the reader ought to be able to identify the protagonist and the conflict at hand. Remember editors sift through hundreds of submissions a week. If the story doesn’t pull one in within the first page, it’s often declined without bothering to read the rest.

The piece relies too heavily on vulgarity, violence, political rants, and/or kinky sex as a means to shock the reader rather than add significance. One of my writing instructors once put it this way: f*ck is a verb, not an adjective. Think you get the picture.

Lack of resonance. One of the most important responsibilities a writer has is to connect with the reader. There are times when a writer forgets the reader’s personal experience and tastes dictate how a story will or won’t be received. A subject may be deeply personal and meaningful to the writer, however one must give the reader a reason to care equally as much, if not more. It may be helpful to have someone you trust read your work before submission to see if the sentiment or emotion you are trying to convey translates clear enough to create empathy and understanding.

Finally, one last thing—only the writing gets rejected, not the writer. Every piece of writing has the potential to be fixed and sent out again. Rejection is an opportunity, not an end. Don’t lose faith.


Do you have any suggestions and/or experiences you’d like to share with your fellow writers about how you’ve handled rejection? Please feel free to weigh in by sharing your comments below.

Also, if you have any questions and/or topics you’d like to see addressed in future blog posts, please email me via my contact page. I’d love to hear from you.


Photo Credit: Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

 

mentor

Not sure how many of you have had the chance to catch the first season of David Letterman’s Netflix show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, but Letterman’s return to television has made me realize how much I miss those “Top Ten” lists he used to rattle off on the Late Show.

If Letterman had done a survey of the top ten questions writers were asked while sitting in a bar, it might have gone something like this:

10. Didn’t I see your book on a bargain table at B&N?

9. Does your agent go by 007 or just Bond, James Bond?

8. What’s it like to sit about in your pajamas all day chasing the muse?

7. You wouldn’t write about me now would you? Would you?

 6. How’s the day job?

5. Is Stephen King a little edgy or what?

4. What are those voices in your head telling you?

3. Are you sure I haven’t read any of your work?

2. Who gets more in royalties–you or J.K. Rowling?

And

1. Need an idea for your next novel? Well, pull up a stool. Today’s your lucky day.

Obviously, this list is all in jest–and thank God I’m not a comedy writer looking for a gig at SNL any time soon.  One thing that occurred to me while creating this list, however, is how many times we find ourselves on the opposite end of the spectrum, in a position where we’re too timid to ask another writer about his/her process or about how to navigate the craft because we don’t want to appear foolish, or worse, ignorant in front of someone whose work or career inspires us.

I’ve always believed in the importance of a generous and supportive writing community.  There is so much we can learn from one another. I’d love to open up the conversation and take this opportunity to invite you to contact me via my contact page with any questions you may have concerning the writing life, craft, publishing or otherwise. I’ll do my best to address these questions in future blog posts and hopefully, others will feel compelled to weigh in and add their comments and/or experiences to the mix as well.

My hope, really my wish, is that this forum of sorts will become a soft place to land for those writers who need a little guidance and/or the occasional boost so they feel emboldened enough to propel themselves forward. After all, there’s nothing more comforting than knowing you’re not swimming in the big pool alone. I’m excited to hear from you.


Photo Credit: Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash