Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The best writing class I ever took had nothing to do with writing.

I signed up for a fabric painting class: Playing with Paint taught by Lyric Kinard. It taught me about textile paints, Shiva sticks, wet painting, dry painting, monopainting and stamping to name just a few of the exercises. But along the way, I learned to look at just about everything differently.

The cheese grater in the kitchen became a great vehicle for rubbings. Lay a piece of fabric over the grater, hold it in place and rub a Shiva stick over it and the pattern that appeared added texture and interest to the fabric. Same with bubble wrap, a piece of wood, buttons.... Lemons became stamps. Cut one in half, dry it a bit on a paper towel, apply a little paint and stamp it onto the fabric. Same with just about any fruit or vegetable -- who knew they were so interesting, let alone tasty. No, don't eat them after applying the paint.

Whatever we made in that class was a success even when it didn't turn out perfectly -- and that was most of the time for me. Each effort produced an effect that I could document and say, "this turned out well because ..." or "next time I'll dry the lemon a bit better and the results will be more clear." Then we would save the fabric to a book we were compiling of what works and what could work better. No failures. Some we liked better than others. Some we would try to replicate. But throughout the whole class no one felt like a failure. We all had a good time, laughed alot and got to know each other.

So, you're saying, what has that got to do with writing?

During Playing with Paint I realized how long it has been since I ventured to color outside of the lines. Too long I've looked at the same things in the same way. A cheese grater grates cheese. A lemon makes lemonade. But after the class the whole world became filled with possibilities. I saw stamps wherever I looked. I combined unlikely textures and colors and came up with something that looked different from what everyone else was making. As I looked at the world differently, I wrote about it using a different approach, a different perspective, a more playful 'what if' attitude. And I'm having fun.

I'm not failing at anything these days. I'm learning what I like better and how to achieve it by experimenting and discovering what I don't like quite so well and how to avoid it. Most of all I learned that adults must find their way back to play. As Thoreau said, "Any fool can make a rule; and any fool will mind it."

Sometimes 'telling' works better than 'showing.' Sometimes passive fits the need of the passage. If it works, it works. If it doesn't you know what you did, how you did it, and how not to do it again. You've made an example to put in your 'sample' book. You can refer to it, see the various examples and say, "no, definitely not that one.... Or yeah, I think I'll write like that today. That worked so well.

But whatever you do -- make time for play. There is no faster way to learn something than to play with it. Maybe its time you started hanging out with artists -- fabric artists definitely see the world in a different light. If you can't find an artist, kids can teach you alot.

The photo accompanying this is by Lyric Kinard and has much to say about inspiration, experimenting, and making something beautiful that is your unique offering to the world. Now, that's the way I want my writing described.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Are you joining the mob of writers participating in National Novel Writing Month? I am.

Anything that will encourage me to write, offer me a fixed and immovable deadline and I'm there. I seem to be helpless to move my writing forward alone. I'll be there as wordsogold -- if you want to sign up as my buddy. I need all of the support I can get!

This will be my third year. I finished last year, but it was a chaotic mess. This year, maybe I can get it in order and have an actual manuscript at the end of the month.

What is NANOWRIMO? The website describes themselves as "National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30."

The only thing that matters is 'output.' Not quality just quantity. It helps free up that self censor and focus on getting that rough draft written.

So, as they have posted on their site, to recap:

So, to recap:

What: Writing one 50,000-word novel from scratch in a month's time.

Who: You! We can't do this unless we have some other people trying it as well. Let's write laughably awful yet lengthy prose together.

Why: The reasons are endless! To actively participate in one of our era's most enchanting art forms! To write without having to obsess over quality. To be able to make obscure references to passages from our novels at parties. To be able to mock real novelists who dawdle on and on, taking far longer than 30 days to produce their work.

When: You can sign up anytime to add your name to the roster and browse the forums. Writing begins November 1. To be added to the official list of winners, you must reach the 50,000-word mark by November 30 at midnight. Once your novel has been verified by our web-based team of robotic word counters, the partying begins.

Still confused? Just visit the How NaNoWriMo Works page!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Internet Review of Books is putting together a Christmas gift list for readers and their request for suggestions set me to thinking about what books I would like to receive as well as give. And then I thought, "What books do I wish my loved ones would read."
I want my sons to read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.

Both sons have the hearts of artists and all of the frustrations and economic stresses that accompany such a leaning. I know what they feel, to some extent because they inherited this 'heart' from me. Where I got it we have no idea.

Most of my family are hard working people who can do the same job endlessly for decades. If I last four years at any one task (other than marriage and children) it is by a miracle. Traditional employment with bosses upon bosses treating me like a piece of the furniture and never wondering who I am or what I'm capable of wears me out -- heart and soul and sinew.

It is the time when I'm caught in a nine-to-five job when my mind dwells obsessively on the 'what ifs' and the unlived life that Pressfield depicts so well. "Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be?"

He insists that the one thing that stands between the wannabe writer and the real writer is one thing: Resistance.

He writes: "Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust int he attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? ....Then you know what Resistance is."

And he speaks of various kinds of resistance, how to feed it and what it likes. There's a reason the Bible has the passage: "Fear is of the devil." Fear stops more people in their tracks than anything. Resistance feeds on fear, according to Pressfield. And explains the fear is of consequences that come from following one's heart.

"Fear of bankruptcy, fear of poverty, fear of insolvency.

Fear of groveling when we try to make it on our own, and of groveling when we give up and come crawling back to where we started.

Fear of being selfish, of being rotten wives or disloyal husands; fear of failing to support our families, of sacrificing their dreams for ours.

Fear of betraying our race, our 'hood, our homies.

Fear of failure.

Fear of being ridiculous.

Fear of throwing away the education, the training, the preparation that those we love have sacrificed so much for, that we ourselves have worked our butts off for...."


Fear that we will succeed. And with this success we will move out of the comfortable niche, cut the ties and connections that make us a member of the 'tribe' or family where we know what to expect, who to trust, and how to survive and who will help us in that survival. All will be new and strange and foreign in this world of success.

So for a writer. It isn't the writing that is so hard, it is overcoming the resistance and the fear so that we can sit down and actually write.

Yes, definitely, this is a book I want my sons to read. But yet, part of me fears that if they read, if they go after their dreams -- I will lose them. But the artist in me knows that a new connection will grow and maybe if they succeed, there's still hope that I can find the life unlived and still give it a try.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Free Download of Audio Recording of Edgar Allan Poe's Writings

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, whose stories are perennial classics on audio.

From old-time radio drama performances by actors such as Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff to modern-day unabridged recordings, Poe's chilling stories have engrossed and entertained generations of listeners. This Halloween, turn down the lights, turn up the volume on your iPod, and celebrate Poe's audio legacy.

Narrator William Roberts finds Edgar Allan Poe's work is "even more deliciously frightening" as an audio experience than in print. Listen to William Roberts read from THE FACTS IN THE CASE OF M. VALDEMAR, which he calls "a lovely story—and it still gives everyone the creeps." It has to do with hypnotism and dying.

Plus a free download of a collection of Edgar Allan Poe's stories available from AudioFile.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

House Cleaning Uncovers Inspiration

Welcome to Mal, my shadow kitty who takes pleasure in being hidden in plain sight. She's sitting in  my Craft (Crap) room. It is a room bursting at the seams, filled to the gills, whatever cliche about stuffed full of junk fits. I need to purge and organize. Mal likes it just the way it is. Everything is hidden in plain sight in this room!

This past week I tiptoed into the chaos. Books filled and overflowed the book cases. Boxes sat where I had dropped them in my rush to tidy up the 'public' areas of the house. And dust sparkled on every surface. Obviously my 'crap' room was a place I avoid.

With a deep sigh and resignation, I picked a couple of teetering piles of papers. Thinking that I would get rid of those piles and feel vindicated. Then I could tiptoe back out of the chaos into the relative cleanliness of the rest of the house.

I leafed through some notes that I had jotted on a sliver of paper. They made no sense. I tossed them. I sorted a few magazines out of the stack. A couple of still usable notebooks. The directions for a knitted baby blanket that I'd been searching for. And then, I discovered some old OLD writings. Some fiction ideas.

I leaned back in my chair and started reading. The story line brought back memories of my own life on which I had based the writings, but more than that.... I realized that this was good. Not even quite a rough draft. It was the nugget and details of a fiction novel that had some teeth and depth and details.

I set aside those 'notes' and finished going through the pile, finding several other beginnings of novels that stood the test of time. My mind was spinning with possibilities.

All it takes is an attempt to make sense out of chaos and suddenly the world is filled with possibilities and stories to tell.

My crap room now looks more like a treasure chest where I will go to find more gems. There's an upside to saving things....

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Short Stories Pack a Punch!

Do you read short story fiction? It seems to break all of the rules that apply to novels and nonfiction. Alot of telling. Not much action. Dark, dark, themes and topics. Little action or plot. Quirky, strange, over-the-top characters. And so stunningly intense that they stick in my mind seemingly forever.

Think of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor.

Who do you remember? Or maybe who can you forget? I suppose the main characters would be the Mother-in-Law and the Outlaw. Perhaps this story jumped into my mind as an example of 'memorable' because of the short story I just finished reading at Subtropics, a literary magazine offered by the University of Florida. It reminds me of Flannery O'Connor's style. 

"Give Me That" by Molly Giles is as much a character sketch as anything, yet there is plot and action and a surprise twist, yet all of it works because every action and reaction seems so in line with the characters and events described. I like the easy, informal tone of this story. The first line also ties in with the last line. But with so much MORE depth and meaning than I would have ever thought possible from simply reading the opening line: "Bess didn’t go to Chloe’s memorial just for the cake. She had loved Chloe, well, maybe not loved, Chloe was difficult to love, but Bess had admired her."

The short story is available to read at the Subtropics website.

What else do you remember and was it something you read for fun or because it was assigned? The Lottery by Shirley Jackson perhaps? What newer, non-assignment short story would you recommend as an excellent example of the genre? Or is short story a genre? Have you studied these short stories to understand what worked? What sucked you in? What repelled you, but kept you reading at the same time?

Short stories are short. But they pack an even bigger punch than a 100,000 word novel. How do they do that? We should know -- afterall, we're writers!

Have you noticed that women seem to be able to hold their own in the short story fiction arena?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Depend on your own judgment

Our dependency makes slaves out of us, especially if
this dependency is a dependency of our self-esteem.
If you need encouragement, praise, pats on the back
from everybody, then you make everybody your judge.
-- Fritz Perls

I'm a sucker for a good quote. I rarely remember them, but when I read them I have this 'ah-ha' moment. It is the chicken-brain syndrome. Each quote is like a seed and each one seems new and profound and I peck dilligently at it until I spy the next one and rush to it as if it were something new and delicious.

Although I don't remember quotes, they often act as catalysts to move me toward something better. Some days it doesn't pay to get out of bed. The universe conspires against us. Rejection comes from every direction. I feel invisible, nobody notices. Nobody cares. Days like these happen far too often, but I take heart in them because there is a balance in the universe as well as conspiracy. And just as awful as some days are -- others come along to balance it out. Instead of quotes, I've squirreled away a few memories of those exceptional days to keep me going. Much to my surprise many of them involve writing.

My first sale: I have this mind's snapshot of me dancing on the bed with my sleepy husband (who worked the night shift) gaping at me as I waved my first ever pay check for writing.

My first writing job: Another snapshot. This time of a paper flying out of the selectric typewriter and floating out into the newsroom after my timed writing test. It was the first time I had used a typewriter in several years. I forgot about the paper. I particularly liked the woman's face who was giving the typing test as she snatched up the page full of typing. I got the job. In a newsroom.

My first above the fold story
My first feature
My first AP award
My first $1.50 a word sale
My first anthology publication
My first acknowledgment in someone else's book
My first book review published on the back of someone else's book

And then there are the days when the words come together and no one sees or shares that moment. But I know. I KNOW how life affirming those moments are when you struggle to arrange the words, say in words what is swirling around inside of you. Find a way to communicate so others get it, really get it!

Writing has its perks -- not just in dollars and cents. But there is something especially rewarding to know that you've written something that someone else wants to purchase and share with their esteemed readers. Now, that's a good day. One to tuck into your memory bank to balance out that rejection letter coming your way.

If you're writing and sending out your work, there are bound to be rejections. Thank goodness for the balance in our universe!

But notice the photo accompanying these words -- a teeter totter requires two people or at least more than one. Writing may seem like a solitary business, but like the poet says, "No man is an island...." We need to be part of a community that will share our highs and lows and help us find our balance. A community that will make us think and grow. Laugh and groan. Share and mentor.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A. Scott Berg's advice for biographers and all writers

The author, A. Scott Berg, of the Charles Lindberg biography, published in 1999, believes the biography is perhaps the most difficult form of writing. It took him 12 and a half years to write this one book.

He had mountains of notes. But after taking a year to sort through what he had amassed, he realized that most everything fit neatly into several slots and wasn’t as unmanageable as first thought.

Then, Berg said he began writing. And when he wrote his first rough draft he included everything. EVERYTHING. This, he referred to as the ‘clay’ with which he would mold the final book. But, note that he didn’t say this was anywhere near the finished product.

His first rough draft was the material from which he would eventually sculpt the biography that would appear on the New York Times bestseller list.

Berg takes his research seriously and doesn’t just look at his subject, but the world and times in which his subject lives. I think this is an important distinction between a best seller and a good book. This, in my mind, refers back to yesterday’s blog about ‘depth.’

When researching, he gets acquainted with the events and news of the day. “I think there’s so much to be learned for a biographer by reading the newspapers of the day. On each of my books I spend days, weeks at a time, reading old New York Times's, from the days things were going on. I mean obviously the day Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris and he filled the entire front section of The New York Times, there was a lot to be gained. But what about the days before that, and the days after that? What were the advertisements like? I read the real estate sections: what did an apartment, a penthouse in Manhattan cost then? What did it cost to buy a chicken for dinner? What were the other news stories going on? What was the world like in which my hero, my character walked? And I think that’s the most crucial thing we as biographers can do.”

Even if your novel is set in current times, a writer must know the landscape far beyond the little house in which her characters live. The author must understand the climate (not just the weather) and the events that shape attitudes and politics and economics and beliefs. “Just as important as getting the history right, is getting the drama right,” Berg said.

I particularly like this last bit of advice from Mr. Berg: “And I think it behooves the biographer to tell his tale as compellingly as the novelist does. Basically we are all storytellers, whether we are fiction writers or non-fiction writers or poets, we are there to tell a story. And I think that involves having prose that is highly readable and I think pulling the story along a lot of the time.”

And in case you aren't familiar with Mr. Berg, he wrote the biography of Kate Hepburn, simply titled "Kate Remembered." As for that Lindberg biography, titled what else "Lindberg." -- Berg won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for a distinguished biography or autobiography by an American author. The award came with immeasurable acclaim as well as $5,000. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Writing with Authority: Ashley Shelby


I really appreciate depth and layers in a book. ANY book. I don't really miss it if the book has quirky characters or an original plot, or suspense or humor or great dialogue. But when I find a book with depth -- I realize then just how much I thirst for it.

No, I don't mean plodding, information-packed tombs with an attitude of "look at me, I really RESEARCHED' this book and I'm going to use every tidbit even if it kills both of us!"

I mean the books that speak with authority that I thoroughly trust and embrace and sink into with a resounding sigh. An author in whose hands I feel safe.

A couple of nights ago I finished reading Diana Gabaldon's latest book "Echo in the Bone." She's a research professor so research is her life and sadly she likes to make sure she uses every tidbit. I adore her series, her characters, and her writing style. But I don't quite trust her. She tends to sneaks unusual finding into her books -- a worm that crawls into a man's eye and swims from one to the other? True about the worm -- loa loa worms I believe. She worked them into the plot of one of her books. But it doesn't really move the story forward.

This most recent book is a bit ladened with her research. I found myself skimming through parts as if it were a text book. By the way this book seems like a tool to prepare readers for the NEXT book. So many unanswered questions here. And a real cliff hanger at the end. But I digress. I feel like Gabaldon's writing carries me along the edge of a precipice and she can't gurantee that she won't fall off and take me with her. Does that make sense? She's all over the place and although her writing is strong and steady for the most part, she isn't always consistent or trustworthy. OK, she beats up on the characters alot and that makes me nervous, too. But from one section to the next, I don't know if she'll give me what I want.

It wasn't until I picked up a new copy (to me at least) of Ashley Shelby's "Red River Rising" that I realized how much I've missed -- depth.

Here's just one example of what I am enjoying and mean by depth and authority. After a delightful paragraph about North Dakota Plains Weather, Shelby writes:

"The only thing more impressive than the weather is the good fight the people of North Dakota put up against it each year. In Grand Forks, when the Red River swells during spring thaw, people worry little and sandbag a lot. This is the way winter ends. Nature is not romantic here -- it is stark and present. Although North Dakota raises churches and monasteries in much the same way it raises Scotch Fife and Velvet Chaff wheat, even the monks know better than to ascribe the whims of nature to God. Nature is an independent force."

The author gives me details that move the story forward. I learn that nature is heartless and the people of this region stoically stand firm against it, they are farmers and they are god fearing and understand that nature is not a sign that God hates them.  It is what it is. And this paragraph leads the reader toward the reason for the book -- the catastrophic flood of Grand Forks, ND, in the spring of 1997.

Now the author could have just rattled off what I wrote in the previous chapter, but she didn't. And for those who are purists about 'is' and 'was' not belonging in tightly written, quality prose -- I think Shelby shows there's a place for it. I also think that there is not one unnecessary word in that quote. Tight, informative, authoritative, beautifully crafted writing. Can you tell that it is nonfiction? She's using such great fiction techniques, but its true and she's done the research. But I don't get the feeling of 'research' but rather the assurance that she KNOWS. The author knows of what she writes.

That's what I want to do.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Rejection Hurts!!!

It was a weekend filled with the sunshine of productivity. Monday came and the rejection clouds moved in.

It has been a tough year with many of my favorite markets changing their editors to someone who doesn't buy my work. Or they have reduced the number of submissions they buy or they've closed their doors. A tough, tough year. Maybe that means I should devote my time to fiction....

But still I had hopes that a personal essay I had submitted back in June and under consideration all summer, had made the cut. I sent a follow up email yesterday only to hear, "Sorry, but no...."

It was a personal and heartfelt "Sorry, but no." But it also meant that we continue to struggle without that $800 to pay off the computer we bought to replace the one zapped by lightning.

So what's the next step after rejection? Comfort food and wallowing. Wallowing in "I'm not a writer. Why did I ever think I was a writer." or "This is it, I'm done. No one wants my work...."

I look at the picture of my subversive stitchers and think about escaping to their landscape for awhile. So I jump in to the best thing one can do after a rejection -- work on a new or at least another project. And in the back of my mind I think about the NEXT market to send my little reject to. Somewhere there is a community full of friendly editors just waiting to welcome my little essay. If only I can find them....

Best rejection foods:
  • Potato chips and bananas
  • Balogna sandwich and potato chips
  • Potato chips -- a whole BIG bag

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A picture sparks a thousand words

The Subversive Stitchers have been with me in one form or another for years. They moved from the Midwest with me and took up residence on my computer in the converted dining room, now office. But they're a silent bunch. Some times I don't think they like me very much. But I so want to get to know them, learn their stories and fill my novel with their pithy life lessons and experiences and humor.

Mostly they just ignore me. I'm not the pushy sort --avoid conflict like the plague. Some would diagnose me as passive-aggressive perhaps with an emphasis on passive. But when I want something, I can be persistent -- just passive. So I've let these ladies and their men and even their children dominate me with their silence and turned backs and firmly closed mouths.

They run roughshod over my thoughts and jump into my mind at every turn, but they stand silent. Sometimes I can't even see their faces or their hands. Their hands are important since they are stitchers. But even those lay still in their laps.

Yesterday in frustration I took out my favorite Sharpie pen and a large piece of paper from my roll of craft or freezer paper and began drawing my characters. What characters they are!

Up until this rendering of the Subversive Stitchers, they had huddled together enmasse. But when my pen began to move on the paper, I drew three ovals in the center of the paper. "Of course," I said. These are the three main characters to whom all the action will flow from or around. Two more faces over here -- stitchers, but in more supportive roles. More and more circles began to appear on the paper in single file or in small groups around this original triumvirate.

From this center trio, I added more ovals to the sides of the paper, added dots for eyes, and drew lines to connect them to the individual stitchers. Rita's mother and daughter. Yes, yes. I smiled fondly at the stories they had told me and then I stopped.

Hey, when had Rita and her family joined Claire and Brett? They had been two very different families and different times and locations. Well, I'll be! Why not combine the two sets of stitchers? This had been my stumbling block for too many years. I liked both groups of characters, but couldn't figure out how to make them work. Never thought of combining them. They are so different. One a group of 'artists' and the other a group of 'housewives' -- except for Rita. Hmmmm.

I don't know if you've had this problem where characters seem to leap in your mind, tell you a little bit about themselves and then won't say any more. Or they stand in front of a brick wall and have no place to go. That was Rita and her mother and their little group of friends.

I stood contemplating this new trio and realized just how well it worked. It even added conflict! Two factions of stitchers -- why not? Held together by their love of thread and fabric. Things were heating up in my little band of antagonists.

I continued to add faces to the sides of the paper. Claire's affair with the college president. Hmmm. I looked at the face, added a couple of whisps of hair to his bald pate and contemplated whether I wanted Claire involved with this man or not. Certainly their relationship was coming to an end.... He might be useful. Just not sure how, yet. And on and on I drew. I forgot names or what the last manifestation of names I had chosen. And then I began drawing rough outlines of important locations, including the river.

As I write this I can look over at the wall next to my desk and see them staring at me. And then I realized why they are so silent -- I forgot to add their mouths! All except for Rita. She has a sunny smile. She looks like she wants to say something. Perhaps this is her story afterall.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Best Teaching Books -- The Ones You Throw Across the Room

I have a whole library of books that say "How to..." in the title.

"How to Write Dialogue," or "How to Finish that First Novel," or "How to Write Like a Master!"

But the best books I have ever learned from were those I literaly threw across the room. The ones that frustrated and dithered and preached and used poor grammar and mechanics and badly BADLY needed a good and dedicated editor. These books I learn "How NOT to Write."

This lesson is just as important as all of the others.

Cyclically on a writing group of which I've been a member forever, someone brings up the old argument about rules and breaking them and 'Who says you can't use passive voice?" Are and is, be and was and have been -- all of those less than enthusiastic words seem to be forbidden in today's writings.

I worked for a fantastic editor who forbid them in our book reviews. No way. We wrote with the most appropriate verbs and every is/was/were or has been was thrown out of the window. This helped me write tighter, be more aware of verbs and understand that the proper word in the proper place works!

What our editor finally realized when she read some stellar reviews by a master was -- sometimes passive works. And I learned the true answer to that question about rules: WHEN IT WORKS!

As readers we immediately know when whatever the author is doing -- works. Or doesn't. And automatically we begin to dissect what errors were made, what they should have or could have done and why. It is harder to catch in our own work.

For ourselves, nothing helps bring the mistakes, weaknesses, errors and faults to the service than a little fermenting. This is why we're encouraged to write and then set it aside for a day, week, month, until we can see it more objectively. I tell you -- that REALLY works.

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of those horribly written books that get published is -- they got published. Which means, as bad as we think we are, there's still hope. Just look at that drivel -- it got published -- so can I. That's a bit of lowest rung thinking, but whatever works. These books also make us shout, "I could do better than that!" And often is the kick we need to get up producing our own writings.

So my advice today -- Go out and read a bad.... No, read a HORRIBLE book today. It will inspire you to write BETTER!

Exercise: Read an opening passage (those are usually the weakest) and evaluate it. Decide what you'd do differently. Then write it!

Friday, October 9, 2009

What Themes Can You Never Forget?

Quick without putting alot of thought into it, list five, no make it three things that have stuck with you from your readings. Any readings. Readings from childhood or school or newspapers. Three things! What were they?

Now think about why they've stayed with you. What about them keeps coming back and making you feel something whenever you remember? Why aren't you writing things like that?

My three:

  1. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
  2. Peggy Vincent's essay for Notre Dame Magazine about being part of a herd of deer
  3. The Diary of Ann Frank -- I had nightmares for years about that. Actually almost anything Holocaust related -- especially Leon Uris's early books Exodus and Armageddon  
I'll admit that I had to think a little to get to the third one. And then when it clicked I realized that it was a topic I cannot turn away from. I began reading about it as a kid -- the Holocaust, I mean. The question that haunted me then, still gives me shivers. Until I read about the atrocities, I thought humans were innately good. I was a kid; I expected people to behave and be nice and love one another or at least be courteous. Then I read of people stripping other people naked, taking their possessions, humiliating them, starving them, and then lying to them as they marched them into gas chambers and killed them en masse. My German heritage scared me -- were some of my relatives responsible? Was it in the genes? I still can't explain why anyone does what they did. I guess mob mentality is probably as close an explanation as any.

What scares me is seeing that same mentality at work in large organizations, companies, and political parties. Just because someone tells you to do something, shouldn't you call upon your morals and ethics to help you decide whether you should follow those orders? Which is more important -- your morality or your paycheck? "It's part of the job." "We must make a profit." "You must please the boss or get lost."

And I would say it is also that same mindset that brings me again and again to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 or thereabouts. More than 150 workers (mostly women) died in that fire -- either from the flames and smoke or from the fall from the upper story windows as they chose to jump rather than be burned up. And I thought alot about this fire during the 9-11 incidents. What a choice to be left with. Die by fire or a 20-story fall.

It seems like REALLY bad news. People screwing up and costing the lives of MANY fellow humans sticks with me. But then, when I look at number two on my all time stick-in-the-brain stories -- it is pastoral. I think of that Debussy song "Afternoon of the Faun." I think of a human's need to be part of nature and how there is nothing more enthralling when something wild trusts you or accepts you. I'm thrilled when my cat wants to sit by me. And the time of the night -- a rather magical midnight (or wee hours of the morning) and the silence. The mist. The moment, not trapped in time, but set apart or removed from the normal life flow.

So I am drawn to atrocities, human cruelties, overcoming the worst, suviving -- maybe those all fit the two choices. And I'm drawn to those moments when a person is jerked out of their normal life and they experience something mystical and life changing and take note of an epiphany, never to be quite the same ever again. That moment of grace. I'm fixated on the 'worst of times and the best of times.'

Now why in the world am I not writing these stories?

I'm fascinated to know what your list tells you. -- Dawn

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Think Evergreen! Not just for Christmas

Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas

.... I know, I know, it's October!

But I'm in the mood to make Christmas gifts and decorations and when my hands are involved in those kinds of projects, my mind turns also to ideas for Christmas stories and articles. Right now my other blog Subversive Stitchers: Women Armed with Needles is full of Christmas cheer as well. I just posted a few favorite projects I found around the Internet and some I've made at home. Then I went to Suite 101 and posted even more ideas for quick and fun fabric projects to make in the article I submitted today. It has been a most enjoyable morning. I may dig out my Christmas music!

October is probably the final date to submit articles and essays for December's publication. In fact, it may be too late by now. But then again, there's always next year! Evergreen articles aren't just about trees. They are timeless topics that you can recycle year after year after year after....

Just about anything holiday related can be used again and again. The piece I just posted to Subversive Stitchers will be viewed each year and will draw people to my site. The one I wrote two years ago and posted to Subversive Stitchers has gotten hits seasonally ever since. And if there is any doubt that the topic 'Christmas' has a following -- just look at the stats of my other blog -- 78 hits within minutes after I posted it today. For my little blog, that's darn good! And the numbers keep growing and growing.

All of this to say, think evergreen when you write -- whether it be fiction or nonfiction.

What's more evergreen than A Christmas Carol? We all have our favorite stories for this joyous season -- maybe you could write the next one! From baking Christmas cookies, to making stockings to the ten best ever Christmas gifts or finding romance during the holidays or -- the topics are endless.

Or maybe you should write down family memories to bring out each year and recall Christmases past. Not everything you write must be for sale. I know some of you are gasping in amazement that I of all people would say that! But I'm in a nostalgic mood, missing my babies and extended family, so I'm not thinking lucrative markets. I'm thinking of preserving memories. And well, if they turn into fodder for a lucrative market -- so much the better!

Evergeen of course is not just for Christmas stories. Any topic that is relevant year after year should be added to your repertoire of recyclable stories. Hurricanes and preparedness are oldies but goodies here in Florida. Anything about childbirth, nursing, babies, pregnancy -- definitely reusable and resalable! Just think about questions you have asked each year. What to use to clean your tile floors? Tile is sold everyday, someone is new to the upkeep and will welcome the info. How to recycle? What to recycle? Well, you get the idea.

Don't just go green, which is a very popular topic these days -- go EVERGREEN!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Facing that first draft

Like all writers when I'm floundering I search for commiseration and advice. Writing fiction seems to be something I can't take seriously.

I adore fiction and want desperately to have a novel with my name on it.... Well, actually I have several with my name on them. I've written my name on the fly leaf of many, many, many. And my name has been included on several back covers along with comments stripped from my reviews of the author's little darling. And in a few my name is included in the acknowledgements -- I'm getting closer! But so far it hasn't appeared on the title page with the word 'by' in front of it!

Today I scoured the Internet for advice. Again and again I encountered: 'Get a Rough Draft Written.'

Why is that such a roadblock for me? I write three or four chapters and then stop dead in my tracks. I've either written myself into a corner or I've run out of ideas or and this is the most often encountered problem for me -- I have several directions to go and I don't know which to take and so I don't go anywhere.

Maybe this stems from my lack of compass and inability to know how to get anywhere or back again. On the road I have GPS and my Tom Tom. What do I use in a novel?

In life I take the path of least resistance. But in a novel, at least from what I've read of published works, easy is boring. Conflict -- now that's the key!

Maybe if I put more conflict in my writing, I'll have less of it in my life! Now, that's a thought.

Another thought, of course, is that November is NANOWRIMO month! Maybe that will be the perfect time for me to get that rough draft hammered out! 

A good friend who has completed one novel and most of a second believes the Marshall Plan is the way to go. It doesn't matter that she hasn't sold the novels, it at least got her to finish them! Or finish a few drafts.

I think Stephen King's book on writing is probably the best I've read as far as motivation and some helpful details as well as the story of his stagger to success. Kind of depressing to think that he wrote a whole book (Cujo) while under the influence of drugs and doesn't even remember writing it. Maybe the key is finding the right drugs -- Nah! Maybe some brownies. Nah! I'd like to remember the process and know that I wrote it -- in my right mind.

So I guess I'm back to Butt in Chair!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Reading: It's Fun-damental!

Reading is a major part of growing your writing. Or at least it has been for me.

I graduated high school, worked full time while taking one biology course, discovered I wasn't good at science and certainly wasn't good at handling a job and school at the same time, so I turned to tradition and married, starting our family two years later. But being a stay-at-home Mom wasn't a great fit either. Books and reading once again saved me. I say once again because as a kid, whenever things got tough at home I went next door to the library or I sequestered myself in my bedroom with a book. It wasn't high literary reading, mostly it was escapist stuff. But even at that, the more I read the more I knew. And some of what I was learning, I didn't realize, was about writing. I eventually returned to college and earned my degree -- we all know reading is a big part of any education. I did well. I particularly loved comparative studies. And all of the time I dreamed of writing my own work that someone would find worthy of buying.

I came to recognize writing that worked and definitely could spot writing that fell short. But knowing how to write it myself took more reading. This time I turned to Writer's Digest and The Writer and all manner of how-to books. Eventually I picked a publication out of the Writer's Market and sent them a manuscript. To my surprise -- they bought it.

The one thing I haven't been able to get past were my own self-doubts. But now and then something will come together and I'll know that I'm not just a hack. I'll know that I have good instincts. This week had a couple of those moments.

If you've been following this blog you know that I am writing for Suite 101, sent them an article about North Face Inc. and their lawsuits. And you'll also know that the editor didn't think it fit their criteria. But she left it on the Internet while I had a chance to think about a rewrite, which I made yesterday. In my efforts I looked at what was being written about that topic and to my surprise I discovered that I had beat the competition. I had scooped the Internet on the story! It felt good. It felt great! But the editor was still right. So I rewrote the story with a better focus and put it back out. The story would not have come about if I had not been reading.

I also maintain another blog: Subversive Stitchers: Women Armed with Needles. I adore needlework -- all kinds. Just give me fabric and thread or yarn and needles or a hook and ... I'm happy. Writing about it and inviting others to write about their own work has given me great pleasure. I saw a message on another blog that they too appreciated what I was doing. It doesn't take a six figure income to make my heart leap with joy -- someone who appreciates what I'm trying to do -- that's my kind of wealth. My Subversive Stitchers site works because I acquainted myself with all kinds of needlework, am curious about everything, and read, read, read about them all. Recently I wrote about Sashiko for Suite 101. A few years ago I had never heard of it (and no, it is not a number puzzle!).

So, I say, the greatest gift a writer can give himself or herself is time to read.
  • Pick a topic, any topic and research it. Surf, surf, surf. The tide is always right to surf the Internet.
  • Read nonfiction. Find out new facts. Fiction is also based on facts -- the more you know, the richer your writing.
  • Read the classics of fiction.
  • Read opening lines of books, think about why they work, why they don't. Think about what you would write as the next line.
  • Read magazines and publications you dream of writing for and think about what they need and give it to them.
  • Read for fun. My latest edition of Diana Gabaldon's series arrived and I'm so enjoying the exploits of Jamie and Claire. I fear that this may be a bit darker than the rest. Villains are popping out of the woodwork at every turn of page. I fear for Jamie and Claire's lives! I can't stop reading. Now, if I could just put that into my fiction.
  • Read everything even billboards and cereal boxes.
And while you're reading think about what is there and what is not. Why did a writer choose that word or that detail or that phrase? Why did they focus on that fact? Do you believe them? Does the story hold together? Do they write with authority? Does whatever they're doing work?

I review books and sometimes the writing is weak, sparse, lacks the sparkle that draws the reader right into the character's lives -- but sometimes that doesn't matter and I just keep reading. I just reviewed such a book. The writing was mediocre, but the storyline was alive with new information, possibilities, an exotic location, people stepping outside of their normal lives and living an experiment. The psychology of the situation was compelling. So being a master of the phrase isn't always the most important thing about writing.

Often I think writers, especially fiction writers, should take a storytelling class or work on their storytelling skills. And so I come to the secret weapon of great writers -- children's books. Read those beautifully illustrated picture books and let your imagination go wild.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Fight that whine!

Alot like flu, football or baseball, whine has a seaon. It just seems to come more often. Writers seem to get it about once every week or two. Or when they receive a rejection letter.

You'll hear them utter "Who am I kidding, I'm no writer!"

The proper treatment is encouragement to 'Don't Quit!' Best treatment -- send them a copy of this poem.

A dear friend and employee at that time gifted me with a mug bearing the poem. Perhaps he knew I was considering leaving his office? Or maybe he saw that I had decisions to make and was encouraging me to stick with it, don't give up. Or maybe he had forgotten and it was a last minute gift for whatever occasion had required a gift. Knowing him, it was not the last -- he was the most organized and thoughtful man I've ever met.

So, for all of you currently in the throes of whine season or about to move into it. This one's for you.

Don't Quit

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you're trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit-
Rest if you must, but don't you quit.

Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As every one of us sometimes learns,
And many a fellow turns about
When he might have won had he stuck it out.
Don't give up though the pace seems slow -
You may succeed with another blow.

Often the goal is nearer than
It seems to a faint and faltering man;
Often the struggler has given up
Whe he might have captured the victor's cup;
And he learned too late when the night came down,
How close he was to the golden crown.

Success is failure turned inside out -
The silver tint in the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It might be near when it seems afar;

So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit -
It's when things seem worst that you must not quit.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

BUTT IN CHAIR—and Write And Read That Book!

Guest Blog by Ann Hite

Many people ask me why I write so many book reviews when I could be using the time to write fiction. Sometimes I ask myself the same question. Dawn’s article, BUTT IN CHAIR—and Write, helped me answer that question.

First, I write book reviews for the books. I write for two online magazines Internet Book Review and Feminist Review that provide me books. I love books. I’m not sure which I love more, books or the act of writing. They go together for me.  

Second, I write the reviews to work with the wonderful editors. They bring out my best work. Both magazines have taught me more about nonfiction writing than four years of writing classes in college.

Third, I am primarily a fiction reviewer with the occasional memoir. This has given me an edge in my own work. Taking apart a novel, really understanding the structure, has helped me with the writing of my first novel.  Also, my book reviews have drawn the attention of a medium size press in New York, who requested to send their novels directly to me. By reading and reviewing fiction, I have taught myself a lot about fiction writing. It's almost like being in my own private MFA program. I can talk the talk. I know my fiction and have my local library asking me questions about new novels.

So, even though, like Dawn, I’m not receiving big checks for my efforts, I am gaining huge experience. I have a deadline and goals. Both keep me on target with my novel writing. I am building confidence in the area I love and my library has double in size. What more can I ask?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Writing Markets for Writers

Markets are tightening their belts and my old standbys are not quite such standbys any more. Yet most still accept submissions, they're just pickier these days. Here are two of my favorites that you may be interested in trying. 

Their pay is low, unless you think of it as an hourly wage. If it takes you an hour to write an article of 500 words about writing, then it is good money, excellent money! They are also easy to work with and seem apologetic when they must say no.

  • Funds for Writers a web, blog and newsletters maintained by Hope Clark not only provide good information and markets for writers, it also offers a contest and accepts submissions for articles pertaining to writing. She pays $35 for about 500 words and is looking for something 'how to' that helps writers find success in various markets. She seems to focus more on nonfiction, essays and screen writing. She recently rejected my submission with the advice that she will write the inspirational essays. 
  • Writers Weekly a newsletter associated with Booklocker and run by Angela Hoy requests similar articles as Funds for Writers and pays a bit better. The last time I wrote for her it was $50. Here are a few examples of titles recently published.

    Sometimes my quickest and best sales have resulted from simply reading a few issues of a publication and thinking, "They need an article about...." Then writing it. 

    Both of these women show that they support writers while also getting a bit of money from us, but their hearts are definitely in the right place. Writers Weekly newsletter is free. Funds for Writers offers a free and a paid newsletter. But even the 'paid subscription' is minimal. I recommend both sites for your reading pleasure and as a writing market. 

    Today, in all honesty, I will be rewriting that article I wrote about earlier in which I had such fun researching it. Apparently the editor at Suite 101 did not find it quite so fabulous and thinks it should be two separate articles, etc. etc. If anyone would care to read the article, Lawsuits Hover Around North Face Inc.,  and give me some feedback on it, I would be grateful.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Photo: Gas Pillars in the Eagle Nebula (M16): Pillars of Creation in a Star-Forming Region

Since signing up to Suite 101 where I must write a minimum of 10 articles in three months, I feel more directed, like I've found North again. My compass has been out of whack for most of my life.

My sons were my compass -- literally. When they were mere toddlers I'd take them with me just so they could point the way I should turn, point the route I should take to get there and back again. But since my nest is now empty, I search for another touchstone, another marker that shows me where to go.

Knowing that I'm among some decent writers at Suite 101, some I know and respect, I do not want to write articles based on second or third sources. I want primary sources whenever possible. I want dependable statistics. I want to be proud of what I'm creating and know that I did my best. OK, they are never your best. As soon as something is published you find the error or the words you would tweak. But it is the best I can do at that moment. When I get lazy -- I suck it up and tell myself that this is not the time to just make do.

Since beginning the Suite 101 project, I have now earned a whopping four cents, but I have had more article ideas than I think I ever had. And I feel more confident about crafting the articles because I have an editor and a template guiding me. I'm not just a solitary figure out here in nowhereland, I'm connected, no matter how tenuously and superficially, I am connected to a supportive network of like minded writers and editors. And yes, it does remind me of the newsroom without the political intrigues.

I am doing more surfing, but I am also doing it with a narrower focus. But that doesn't mean serendipity doesn't enter into it. There's a part of me that welcomes this 'just the facts ma'am' approach to writing. And then, like this evening, someone posted a link to Hubble telescope photos and as soon as I clicked on it, a universe of possibilities opened up to me. My fiction loving 'what-if' fantasy maker kicked in and I began contemplating new facts (to me) and how they could be manipulated to make a fascinating story, conflict or yes, even a romance.

And I just may be able to use the Hubble link to write another Suite 101 article. If nothing else, I am curious again. It has been awhile since I was even curious.

Another thing that is happening -- I'm thinking markets. As I write the articles, I think of other markets that it might fit. For the first time in a long time, I want to find new markets, send out queries, and start selling my words. It feels good.

So, whatever it takes to make you write, remind you that you love this work, and help you grow, attain the next level in your writing. DO IT!