Sabbatical

Blank notepad and pencil

If you come here often, you may have noticed that it’s been just about six months since I’ve written anything at all. In fact, it was exactly six months on the 21st and I had every intention of posting this then and making a big deal out of it, a fresh and exciting start! But that just didn’t happen. There are lots of reasons, but behind them all I think I was fearful that I wouldn’t be able to stick with it, that I would let it fizzle out again because life is pretty crazy right now and lots of times, I feel overwhelmed.

That’s when I realized that writing actually takes away some of the days worries and stresses. I have a safe place to release my feelings about things and doing that is making me a better writer. After all, practice makes perfect! So what can you expect to see over the next few months? There are actually a lot of exciting things coming up!

October:

Right now I am taking a class through the Iowa Writers Workshop called How Writers Write Fiction: Storied Women. I am really, really excited to be taking this class and even happier to find that all my dear friends from last year are taking it with me! There is just something about being in a group of like-minded creatives that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. We are only one week in and I am already learning so much about how to craft stories. I am hoping for some great short pieces to come out of this that will be perfect for publication!

I am polishing some pieces that I wrote over the summer and planning on sending them out in the next few days. It’s always scary to face possible rejection but it’s a necessary evil so I’m learning to cope! That being said, if any of you dear readers are available to read short pieces and make suggestions, please feel free to contact me! I need all the help I can get!

November:

As some of you know, I’ve been participating in a fall writing competition that started in August. In round 1, I placed 9th out of 30 competitors and earned some bonus points for round two. The announcement for this next round comes on November 1st and I am hoping for a great start to the month!

November is also National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo to us writerly nerds) and I will be working on a story idea that had been in the works for the past three years. I am crossing my fingers that this is the year it comes together in a little more orderly fashion. Ideally, I’ll be able to spend a good part of December and January editing and revising and getting it ready for the publishers.

So that’s where my head is at for the next sixish weeks. Be sure to stop by again as I’ll be posting here with book reviews, snippets of fiction, and random musings!

 

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A Year In Review

I can’t believe how quickly this year flew by! It seems like just a few days ago I was sitting here plotting out a year of blog posts and looking forward to some great creative projects. While I faced some unexpected challenges this year, I also learned a lot. It seems that my lessons always come disguised as what feel like catastrophes and this year was no different. An unexpected pregnancy, the promise of a new home and its subsequent loss, a little one off to school, family members moving across the pond; 2015 took a lot of getting used to. But my goal this year was to embrace the chaos (since it comes anyway) and I am really pleased with the outcomes of that approach. I feel like I am heading into the New Year with more confidence, a new set of skills/tools, and a better plan for what I want my writing to look like. I can’t wait to see what opportunities present themselves this year and I hope you are here to be a part of them with me. To 2016 and a year of possibilities!

Writing is Scary

Putting yourself out there is scary. I think we can all agree that opening ourselves up to be critiqued, evaluated, judged, is a really intimidating process. You might think it gets easier the more often you do it but I haven’t found that to be the case at all! And putting your writing (or music/art/craftmanship/etc.) out there to be assessed is even harder. Basically you take this thing that has consumed your every spare moment; a product of endless hours of thought, and struggle, and passion, and means more to you than just about anything else, and you lay it out there and ask people to tell you what they like (yay!) and what they don’t (boo!). The idea makes me queasy. And yet, it must be done for us to get any better in the arts we pursue.

I suck at writing dialogue. I avoid having my characters talk to one another because, when I read back over the conversations I’ve created I realize that no real people talk like that. Every longer work that I’ve attempted has stalled when I feel the urge to have my characters talk because I just can’t write it out. It’s something I need to do better, something I know I’m not good at and yet, when asked to write a dialogue sketch, I balk. I want to quit before I have to submit something. What the heck!? I already know I’m bad so what would it really matter to hear it from someone else? Especially when they will also include ideas about how to make it better? When you figure that one out, let me know. It still stumps me.

So in an effort to face my fears of criticism head on I have enrolled in a course through the University of Iowa called How Writers Write Fiction. It has been really enlightening and engaging so far and, lo and behold I’ve even received my first writing assignment…yep, you guessed it, dialogue. I guess it was meant to be. I’m pretending to be looking forward to the feedback while reminding myself that this is what I need to be better. So tune in next week for a peek at how this assignment turned out (and cross your fingers for me).

Write What You Know

I think one of the most common pieces of writing advice given out ad nauseam can end up being a troublesome struggle for writers. “Write what you know” is a very misleading suggestion. If you write at all, you’ve no doubt heard this either from a teacher, friend, or book and I’ve heard it too, from all those sources. And while I agree with it, on some levels, I think it’s a really easy answer to give and a more difficult one to integrate or process. In my opinion, if you are going to give this advice to someone, you need to explain what you really mean, rather than leaving them to flounder through figuring it out on their own. I’ve only just now come to understand what it means for me and I thought I’d share, in case it helps you too!

If I only wrote what I know, I’d write a story about a girl who was homeschooled all the way through high-school, went to college, met her husband, got married, had four kids, and wrote all the time along the way. It’s actually way more interesting than it sounds, so I’d throw in the international traveling, failed first engagement, and wacky friends to keep you interested. And maybe someday I will write a story like that. But what I like to write about is loss, and sadness, and depth, and conflict, and darkness, and struggle, and triumph. I like to experience one of my “snapshot” moments, and turn it into something real, imperfect, and human. So if I limit myself to writing what I know, I have no grid to process a snapshot moment and turn it into a story worth reading. I don’t have a frame of reference for so many of the things I see because I haven’t experienced them personally.

Does lacking the experience mean that I can’t write about it? Nope! I’ve found that “write what you know” means take the moment you are observing, relate it back to something you have experienced, and think about how you would feel in the situation. (Note: this is why readers/writers are more empathetic towards others. We do this all the time.) I’ve never been in a screaming match on the sidewalk with my significant other in the middle of the afternoon; but I know what it feels like to be that angry. It isn’t about the act itself being familiar, rather that the emotion behind the moment is honest. If you think about it long enough, hard enough, focused enough, you can tap into those moments of emotion from your past and connect them to the present and, in the process, you can write a convincing and moving scene or story.

This is how I “write what I know.” What does this writerly advice mean to you?

Where to Find Characters

Creating believable characters is the single most important thing you can do as a writer. Characters are what drive your story. They make it interesting. They keep the reader engaged because they are relatable, almost tangible people who have fears and desires and triumphs, just like your readers. A good plot is great, don’t get me wrong, but I have found that characters (good, almost living, breathing characters) only get in the way of the plot. Because they have minds of their own. Because something comes along and the way they want to pursue it is different from the way you would have them pursue it. Before you know it, your plot is full of holes and you have fully developed, thinking characters running around the story wreaking havoc. If you’re a planner, a plotter, a non-pantser, just reading this might terrify you but I promise you, it is the best thing that could ever happen to your story.

So where do you find these headstrong and willful characters? How can you take a two-dimensional, chicken-scratch character from your notebook and form it into a substantial, believable person? Spying and eavesdropping, two powerful tools that no one will tell you about, probably because they sounds like terrible advice! Trust me, though. People watching (spying) and paying attention (eavesdropping) can spark the beginnings of a dynamite character which can make or break your story, novel, or screenplay. If you feel guilty, as I did when I first began practicing this, remember that you’re not taking a real flesh and blood person and writing a character based exactly on them. You are looking for a quirk, something memorable or beautiful or strange, which you will then incorporate with a handful of other qualities into a well-rounded character.

There are moments I can still remember vividly because they made such an impact on me. Those moments, like snapshots, are burned into my brain and I use them to create meaningful characters. For example, when I lived in NY I made an early morning run to the grocery and saw this moment that I’ll never be able to forget:

The boy sits in the passenger seat, bored and resigned. The girl is looking at him with that light in her eyes that means more than he’s interested in seeing. The little green car is all beat up and the light reflects off of the one white door on the driver’s side. The pavement of the parking lot is still dark with rain from the night before and the lights of the car barely make yellow circles in the thick mist rising from the blacktop.

These moments, ones that strike you with their beauty or sadness or strangeness, the overheard conversations that make you double take, or shake with silent laughter, are what form characters that carry weight. This is what I mean when I say you should “spy and eavesdrop” on people. Be aware of the life happening around you and you will always be rewarded. I’m sure you are thinking of your own “snapshot” right now. Go write it down! See where it take you!

Form Feed: Everything You Need to Stay On Track

The irony of this post title is not lost on me. I am smiling wryly as I provide you ways of staying on track while I clearly have not been staying on track myself. I haven’t posted here in over a month, a fact which, though sad, was quite necessary. There has been a lot going on these past few weeks and I needed to focus in on my non-writer life for a while. The good news? I’m back!

There is something you should know about me: I am obsessed with organizing. I love it. It makes my heart beat faster with excitement. It makes me weak at the knees. It really gets me going. I have so many files saved to my computer it runs slower when I turn it on. My Pinterest boards are full of printables and fill-able spreadsheets for everything from kitchen cabinet to van storage to filing cabinets. I love to know where everything is and how to make it easier to find.

I’m the same way when it comes to writing. I have outline sheets, character arcs, plot point generators, you name it. In fact, sometimes I get so caught up organizing, I forget that I’m actually supposed to be writing. Maybe you’re like me and you love to have your ducks in a row, or maybe you are nothing like me and you think I’m totally crazy. Either way, I wanted to share some of my most favorite planning/plotting/organizing sheets with you. Get that printer ready!

Starting broad is always best so right off the bat you should check out Annie Neugebauer. She has a ton of helpful sheets you can save right to your computer and she even includes several with prompts, in case you are really stuck. I can easily get lost on her site. Another great site for forms is Jami Gold’s Worksheets for WritersI really love her Good Scene Checklists and she has forms specifically for romance and paranormal writers. Not my strong suit in any way but I always love to find stuff that is so specific!

A lot of what I have is to help with novel plotting as that is my weakness (planning in general). I love this snowflake outline and I’ve found the process of sitting down and boiling everything into a “jacket blurb” super helpful. I have found this example of chapter planning super helpful for plotting out scene and timing in a novel. Also, I use this scene writing “cheat” all the time with great results!

For those of you who try to hit a certain number of words per session/day/what-have-you, I love this word counterThere are a million out there, some even show you pictures of cats every 100 words, but I like the simple, straightforward stuff myself.

Stuck on a name? My friend Rachel G. sent me this amazing chart that shows which names are most prevalent in specific jobs. Super cool! A few other handy name generators I use are the last name generator, the name generator, and the Social Security’s Top Names database.

So, there you go. A handful of the forms I love to use when plotting, planning, writing, and re-writing my stories. Are there any I’ve forgotten? I’d love to see what you like to use when creating your stuff!

Beta Readers: A Writer’s Best Friends

I have to admit, when I first came across this term, I had no idea what a beta reader actually was. I assumed most writers went the route of traditional publishing and hired an editor to make sure their manuscript was squeaky clean. In fact, it wasn’t until I started reading YA fiction and participated in my first NaNoWriMo that I discovered the invaluable jewels that are beta readers. These are people who are so in love with reading they are willing to sludge through your draft. Not sludge. Meticulously read through your draft and make careful notes to help you improve your story. They should all receive medals. Seriously. If you have a story/novel/poem/comic book that you have revised a few times and want to get some feedback on before sending it out, get yourself a beta reader.

Beta readers, for the most part, don’t read to correct grammar and punctuation (though I am sure they would if you asked them to). They are looking for continuity, plot holes, believability. If they sign on to read your manuscript, know they are mad about your genre. They know what works, what doesn’t, and how they want to feel when the story is over. They read more than you (no, seriously, they do) and they are well versed in the ins and outs of sci-fi/romance/horror/literary or historical fiction, whatever you’ve decided to dabble in.

Never worked with a beta before? Here’s what I have found. Because they are well read, because they have an extensive background in your genre, always, ALWAYS give your beta a polished copy of your work. Sure they are getting a draft, just make sure it isn’t the first one. When you send your book/story/etc. give it to them in the format they prefer. Some readers will want a printable file, some will read on a Kindle. Whatever makes it easier for your reader to finish your work. If you are after specific feedback, a list of questions can accompany your file. You can turn to Google for pages and pages of questions to ask your beta but the one I think is most important is “was there a point where you lost interest?” If someone is suddenly moved to check Facebook or Instagram while in the middle of a chapter, some serious revisions are necessary. Not all feedback will be useable (let the words of Neil Gaiman guide your revisions) but often, the good stuff stings a little. Don’t let it get to you. Don’t defend your position. Be polite, thank them. These are people who talk about the books they read and they could become advocates for your story, if they like it.

Once you’ve tweaked your story, you are ready to find a new group of readers or send out your work for publication. Just don’t forget your betas. Mention them in your thanks. Send them a fruit basket. Read their manuscripts and offer feedback. Keep the betas happy!

Magic Words

Long time friend and flash fiction writing buddy, Jamie Henshaw is on the blog today to tell you all about the pursuit of the “right” words and his fresh take on them. Enjoy!

Sometimes I feel like I’m chasing after magic words, the right words, THE words.  It’s not just me, I should think.  After all, doesn’t a painter aim for the perfect blend of purple, indigo, red, and yellow to capture the beauty of a lilac as the sun sets?  Doesn’t a musician tinker over the same bars for hours until it sounds like the trill in their soul?  I mean, maybe it’s the old part of me – the one that used to write poems with a Petrarchan rhyme scheme, with Shakespeare’s well-known Iambic Pentameter, or with the recycling of words in a Sestina.  Or even free verse where all bets are off… but it still needs to be just so.

I’ve smiled at the wit of a sentence, hit Ctrl+S after a tremendous idea, and whooped out loud after a great twist.  I’ve also gone and deleted the whole lot because it didn’t help the story.  I’ve  Googled words that seem in my head to be the right one to write, a subtle unconscious voice whispering things buried deep in my memory, but worry that it’s not right word to read.  I’m the guy that sits there with a massive road block in my brain trying to figure out a character’s name.  Nothing can move forward without finding the name.  The perfect name.  The magic name.

I try to chase words.  Sometimes it’s successful.  But that’s not how it works.  The color is in the artist’s eye.  The notes are in the musician’s ear.  The words are in the writer’s fingertips.  Our mission is to unearth the thoughts and feelings that dance within, or plague, us.  After all is said and done, our minds resemble an excavation site; sometimes unearthing ancient ruins, sometimes hitting a water main.

And so here’s what works for me.  Sitting with my eyes closed, people watching the characters I’ve created, eavesdropping on their secrets, setting up obstacles and watching them wend their way through the Minotaur’s Labyrinth.   (Really, I did that once.)  Because the truth is, they know better than I do.  They’ve taught me things I haven’t experienced myself.  They’ve given me advice that I needed to hear.  They’ve gone through the challenges in life that I’m not strong enough for.  When all is said and done, it’s my privilege to share all of these things with others.

It’s not a search for “Magic Words.”  I don’t think there is such a thing; no, not really.  The words find us.  They find us when we write and read,  fail and thrive, love and lose – everything in between and without a moment’s notice.

The truth is, it’s not the power of magic words.

The truth is, it’s the power of words that is magic.

The Blog Parade

As you know, I’m trying to get more reading into my busy life right now. I’ve been having some pretty good success since subscribing to a handful of blogs. I downloaded Bloglovin’ and, while it’s a great concept and super easy to use when I do log in, I have way more success getting the posts delivered directly to my email. Then, if I can grab a few minutes in the park while pushing the girls on the swings, I can actually read a bit straight from there. Pretty convenient. Just like with books, I’m an eclectic blog reader so maybe you’ll find something you like on this list too. You’re welcome 😉

My first two favorites are written by fellow writers. My friend Jim has recently published a memoir and has a book of poetry coming out this month. His blog is an honest, funny look at just about everything that comes down the pike in this crazy life. He has a great way of cutting straight to the heart of an issue and addressing it with grace. He publishes twice a week which is perfect because if I can’t read the post right away, I know I have some time to catch up. If you appreciate honesty and like to laugh, head over to his blog and take a read. You will enjoy yourself!

My friend, Mary, is also a poet/writer/storyteller with work recently published online. She has recently decided to plunge into the blogosphere and write about the creative process and words and perfectionism and…just a lot of really great stuff. She asks a lot of questions, which really allow you to engage with her thought process, but also encourage you to think about your art form and how her insights apply to that as well. Extremely informational and always well written, she also publishes twice weekly (barring kids or life interfering, mom’s of littles in solidarity) and I really look forward to seeing her name in my inbox. If you appreciate a blog where no topic is taboo, hers is the blog you want to subscribe to.

I adore Chuck Wendig’s blog, which I have mentioned before, and while many of his posts are way too long for me to read in one sitting, he does a great job of breaking up the posts with heading and such so I can easily pick back up where I left off. If you don’t like profanity, I’d avoid the subscription button, but if you like weirdos who use profanity and create awesome and hilarious phrases and can talk about the creative process like this

The ideas in my head are shining beams of light, perfect and uninterrupted. And when they finally exist on paper, they end up fractured and imperfect — beams of light through grungy windows and shattered prisms, shot through with motes of dust, filtered up, watered down.

Get thee to his blog, immediately!

I follow World Literature Today, which has a ton of great bookish info, reviews, articles, etc. but I rarely read the entire post because only half of it comes in through email. There are a bunch of links you can click to follow and read the rest of the articles but I pretty much only read the ones that I am super interested in. Like this one about women who have won Nobel prizes. Pretty good stuff there. If you don’t mind clicking over to finish reading, you might like WLT. The Write Place is pretty much the same. I subscribe to a blog so I can get the email and not have to follow the link. So emailing me a link is pretty pointless. But I keep them in the old inbox because sometimes there is a little gem that is totally worth following up on. Like a few weeks ago when they did a post about why fairy tales still sell. Since I’m working on my own collection of re-told tales, I found it very interesting and “click-worthy” if you will. Again, you may find something you like so you should check it out.

That’s about it for writing blogs. Let me know if you stop by and what you think about them. I always like to hear another perspective.

 

My Dream Job

Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines – it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits.” Robin Sloan

My first real job, if you don’t count babysitting, was as a page at the Geneva Public Library in western New York. I was 17 and spent hours pushing a squeaking cart through the reference stacks, reshelving the returns I’d brought up from the main floor. I memorized the Dewey Decimal system, I sneaked in short reads when the floor was empty, I lovingly straightened the spines of all my bound buddies. I had always loved reading, even as a kid, and this job only solidified that love even deeper. It was my favorite job. I even got to branch out into other departments, inter-library loan, main desk circulation, book binding. I’m getting all excited just remembering all the awesome things I was able to do while working there! And from the very first day, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Librarians to me are the keepers of the flame of knowledge. When I was growing up, the librarian in my local library looked like a meek little old lady, but after you spent some time with her, you realized she was Athena with a sword, a wise and wonderful repository of wisdom.” Jane Stanton Hitchcock

The dream is still there, though I’ve had to take a few breaks (kids, amiright?), and I’m looking to head back to school in the near future to pursue that end. I can’t imagine spending too much time away, especially since that job shaped me in so many ways. One of the greatest things it gave me was the desire to write. I was reading and reading and the words went deep. Suddenly, they wanted out again, only they weren’t the same, they had changed and so had I. That’s the power of words. They have minds of their own. The author sends them out, you take them in, and then they leave you and each time they mean something else. They mean what you need them to mean. They are healers and helpers and enlighteners and you can find them all in the library.

 Libraries store the energy that fuels the imagination. They open up windows to the world and inspire us to explore and achieve, and contribute to improving our quality of life. Libraries change lives for the better. Sidney Sheldon

My life was changed for the better from spending time at the library. How about you; any favorite library memories?