Monday, May 30, 2016

A Story For Today and A Free Download

Some time ago, I was invited to contribute a fiction story to an anthology put together by Kansas author, Sonny Colline. Flattered, I sent him one of my stories. The book sold for awhile on Amazon Kindle but is now listed there for free. The stories are of varying quality; some will appeal, some may not.

Since today is a holiday and the book is now free, I'm going to share my story that is in the book. It's about a woman who lives in Kansas and...well, read it and see how she deals with a problem in her old age.  Fiction is not my strong suit but I enjoy dabbling in it now and then.

Assisted Living
By Nancy Julien Kopp

Amelia glanced at her packed suitcase by the kitchen door, ready for her son, J.D., to hoist into his pick-up in the morning. He’d help her into the front seat and pat her knee like he always did before he closed the door. But this time, they wouldn’t be coming back to the ranch with groceries or a new pair of shoes. This trip would end at the assisted living section of Stonevale.

She moved to the porch for one last sit. Her rocking chair creaked as she stroked Cassie, the calico cat in her lap. This porch on the back of the old stone house was her favorite spot, smaller than the wide, showier one in front. Somehow, the view from the back porch sated Amelia’s thirst for quiet beauty best.

Even Cassie seemed more content here than any other place on the ranch. Could this old cat adjust to life at J.D.’s busy place? One more thing to worry about. And how would she adjust to life without this longtime pet? Her worry list grew every day.

 She’d miss times like tonight--the sky tiered in shades of pink to crimson as the sun slowly descended behind the hills. She’d lived amidst prairie grasses and cattle the forty-five years of her married life and another ten years beyond. The Flint Hills seeped into her very bones from the day Jeb carried her across the threshold of the small, snug house he built before their wedding. He added more to the house as their family increased until it could be seen a long way off, no longer only a speck on the horizon. Sprawling, made of natural stone that had to be hauled out to the ranch. Walls so thick that the blistering Kansas summer heat and the bitter winds of winter never bothered those inside. Decades passed and her spirit grew as strong as the stone walls and her love for Jeb.

She only had a few head of cattle now, not like the days when the Circle AJ put hundreds out to graze and grow fat on the prairie grass. She'd fed cowhands at round-up time and played mama to many of them. Christmas brought cards from many of those boys turned  men running their own herds now and heading their own families.

Her own J.D. turned into a man who knew what was best for her. Least, that’s what he said often enough. She’d fought this tall son of hers. Argued and hollered and bellowed to him and her other three grown children about the move. Each one stood in front of her like a piece of the stone their dad used to build the house. She even cried, and her tears almost broke them. She wondered who hurt more—her children or herself. She knew one thing—the ache inside far surpassed the pain from her arthritis. There were pills for that, but the other cut too deep.

Jordy, her youngest, had tried to put plump arms around her, but Amelia pushed her away. ”Mom, listen to us, please. We don’t want to….”

The bitterness bled through when Amelia spoke. “Don’t say it again, Jordy. I’ve heard all your arguments. An old woman with health issues shouldn’t live out here alone.” She slammed the kitchen door as she marched out to her rocker on the back porch that day, and she’d been stewing for weeks after.

Now, she held the cat close and inhaled the gentle sweetness of the prairie wildflowers mixed with the bit of leftover smoke from the controlled burns that still wafted toward the back porch. Both scents spelled home.

The kids were right about one thing. The arthritis made it harder and harder to get chores done inside and the few animals cared for. Some days, she ached in every joint in her body, and sometimes she fell. She never told them. But she kept her cellphone in her pocket to call for help if needed. Only problem, she couldn’t see the numbers very well lately nor the names on the contact list. Hadn’t told those busybodies that either. But they had eyes; they could see the house wasn’t as clean as when they were youngsters. They probably noticed other things, too
Her children offered no choice. They were moving her to this assisted living place tomorrow with a bunch of doddering old people for company and staff to make sure she took her pills at the right time of day and ate a good dinner. No porch to sit on either. The woman who showed them the small studio apartment pointed out the view of the distant hills from the small window. Amelia had turned away, silent as the stone walls at home.  

Now, Amelia swallowed hard. “Jeb, if you were here, there’d be no cause for any of this. Damn rude of you to up and die when you went out to check calves.” There, she’d done it again—talked out loud to a dead man. So what? Who was here to know?
The cat jumped off her lap and hissed when the sudden sound of someone knocking on the front door interrupted Amelia’s thoughts.

A woman’s voice called. “Hello, anyone home?” She sounded breathless

Strong rapping made a steady drumbeat as Amelia made her way slowly through the kitchen, down the hall to the massive wooden door while the knocking continued. “Hold on. I’m coming,” she hollered.
With some difficulty, she opened the solid oak door. One more thing hurting her bones.
A tall, middle-aged woman waited on the porch, hand still raised after all the infernal knocking. Her long hair needed combing, and her shoes were dusty. She looked dog-tired.
Before Amelia could speak, a torrent of words gushed from the woman. “My car broke down on the highway. I’ve walked a long way. Your house looked a lot closer. Can your husband help with my car?”

Amelia studied the woman, then decided she told the truth.  “Come on in, you look wore out. I’ve got some cold tea out in the kitchen. It might perk you up a bit.” She led the way, one slow step at a time. The woman closed the door behind her and followed.

Amelia waited until the stranger had her first swallow of the strong tea. “I’m Amelia Jeffords and my husband is gone.”  She quickly added, “My kids come out here to check on me every day.” She closed her eyes and uttered a silent prayer for telling such a fib. Her kids all lived such busy lives, they stopped by only once in a while. No need for a stranger to know it.
The woman’s bottom lip quivered, and her hand tightened around the glass. “I’m Sarah, and ….” She burst into tears.

Amelia reached across the table and patted Sarah’s hand. “Now honey, your car can be fixed, I’m sure. Nothing to cry about. You can spend the night here and my son can look at your car when he comes out tomorrow.”
Sarah sniffled and wiped her eyes with the back of her hands. She pushed her hair behind her ears. “It’s not the car, it’s more than that.” She sighed so deeply Amelia feared the woman might collapse in a heap on the floor.
Amelia poured more tea into their glasses and pulled a tin of cookies closer. She lifted the lid before she spoke, leaning in to catch the spicy cinnamon scent. “Might as well spit it out, Sarah. Better out than in. That’s what my Jeb always said.”
Sarah inched her chair closer to tell her story. By the time the glasses and pitcher were empty and the last cookie eaten, Amelia learned a lot of sad things about her caller. No wonder the poor woman looked so worn down. Her husband walked away from their marriage after he cleaned out the bank account. He’d loaded up a van with all their belongings while she was at work. She came home to a For Rent sign on the house they leased by the month. Next, she’d lost her job when the place where she worked had to cut costs. She had no other family, only her old car which sat broken-down on the highway.
Amelia pushed her chair back and pulled herself to her feet. She started to lose her balance and Sarah moved quickly to steady her.
“Careful,” Sarah said. “When you stand up, put your hands on the table.” She smiled and stepped back. “I worked in an assisted living place, so I know a few tricks to help.”

Amelia sat down again in a rush. “Assisted living? That’s where you worked? Doing what.?”
 “I’m an Aide. Or I was, until they made the cuts and let me go.”
Amelia’s heart beat faster than usual. “Do you have references? Because if you do, I’ve got an idea that might help both of us.”  She pointed to the suitcase by the door. “My son is going to take me to the Stonevale Assisted Living tomorrow morning. I’ve been hoping and praying for a way out, and honey girl, you could be a wish come true.”
Sarah dropped into her chair at the words that spouted from Amelia like a geyser at a national park. “Yes, I have references. If your idea is what I think it is, I’m all for it!”
“Not so fast, now,” Amelia countered. “There’s lots to talk about. Let’s you and me get it all on paper so we can show it to J.D. when he comes in the morning. He’ll take some convincing, but two of us could do it. No reason we girls can’t get along out here just fine.”
Amelia’s cellphone vibrated in her pocket. “Probably J.D. calling,” she told Sarah.
 “Evenin’ J.D. Yep, my suitcase is packed, but I may not need it. Some assisted living walked in here tonight.” She winked at Sarah, who was clearing the table. “Now, don’t get all riled up, we’ll talk about it in the morning when you come.”
Amelia patted Sarah’s arm. “Let’s go out on the back porch for a bit. We can watch the stars on a clear night like this while we wait for J.D. No way he’s gonna wait til tomorrow to come out, not after what I just told him.”  

Sarah grinned, then offered her arm and Amelia took it, grateful for this woman who’d shown up at exactly the right time. Amelia knew it would be a temporary fix. Still, it would give her time to consider the idea of Stonevale later on. The kids had decided on a new way of life for her a little too fast.
They each settled into a rocker on the porch. Cassie moved close to Sarah’s feet and purred. The day’s wind had died to a gentle breeze.

Amelia reached over and patted Sarah’s hand. “Looks like Cassie approves.”
The cat jumped onto Amelia’s lap. “Look at that, Cassie, a carpet of stars. I think Sarah will enjoy living in our hills.”  She pulled the cat close and laid her cheek on the soft fur.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Pen Your Own Personal Essay for Memorial Day

On Memorial Day week-end, I have often posted a personal essay dealing with the subject. 

Today, I'd like you to write one of your own. Tell us what the day means to you. Give us a written picture of someone you have loved and lost in the military.

Somehow, we have gotten to let Memorial Day weekend the beginning of summer activities instead of giving tribute to those who lost lives in one American conflict or another. 

Write a paragraph, a full story or just some thoughts jotten down and then share them with us.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Have A Big, Black Cloud Hovering Over You?

This cute little poster reminded me that nothing goes bad forever. When we have a spate of rejections, we feel like there's a big, black cloud hovering over us. Sometimes, it doesn't want to move either, just hangs there blocking out the sunshine of your writing life. Send a story out, get it back with a "Sorry, but this is not for us." Or even worse, you never hear from the place where you sent it.

That is one of my pet peeves in this submission business. I'm fine if an editor does not want what I sent but I'd like to know that, not just be ignored. How long do I wait until I send it elsewhere? Some editors have a turnaround of only weeks while others take months. Just let me know and I'll move on.

Another gripe I have is when there are no, or extremely limited, writer's guidelines given. Print the guidelines and writers can, and should, follow them. If there are none, we're left with a big "Huh?" on our faces. It seems to me that editors would benefit by having guidelines, too. They would not get lots of submissions that have nothing to do with the kind of publication they have.

What bothers you in this writing business? Let us know in the comments box and maybe others can address the topic you bring up.

Just remember this--Everything is going to be alright, maybe not today but eventually. Just keep plugging away writing what you write best and sending your work out.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Do You Have Imagination?

Mr. Einstein speaks to we who are writers here. Logic is just fine for mathematicians but imagination is a better requirement for those who partake in the writing craft.

Take a look at this list of synonyms for the word imagination found in Webster's New World Thesaurus:

  • intelligence
  • thoughtfulness
  • inventiveness
  • creativity
  • ingenuity
  • artistry
  • impressionableness
  • perceptibility
  • acuteness
  • mental agility
  • wittiness
  • wit
  • sensitivity
  • fancy
  • mental receptivity
  • suggestability
  • visualization
  • congntion
  • awareness
  • dramatization
  • pictorialization
  • insight
  • mental adaptability
I think the one that works best for me is creativity. To use our imagination, we need to have that creative ability--to dream about a world different than what we see spread out before us in logical formation. 

Remember that witer's exercise called What if...? You set up a situation in a story, then ask yourself a series of questions beginning with those two words. The idea is to continue asking the question and jotting down the answers until you have a full series of possibilities to make your story sparkle with creativity. 

Kansas Authors Club sponsors an annual writing contest. This contest is open to non-member writers residing in Kansas and to all members of the Kansas Authors Club, regardless of residence. Each year, the District that hosts the state convention in October selects the theme for the contest. There is a special category in both prose and poetry for those who write to the theme. This year, it is Imagine. Only one word that leaves the entrants wide open to creativity. 

Maybe it's too wide open! I've been trying to be creative and come up with an idea for a story, essay or poem to enter in this category. So far, I've written one very lame poem and nothing else using that theme. Deadline is June 15 so I keep thinking that a brilliant idea will fall out of the sky and hit me in the head any day now. If only! If you're a writer who lives in Kansas, consider entering the contest. There are several categories besides the all-important theme. See link above for information.

Yes, imagination will take us to places unknown or perhaps even unthought of. Ever hear someone described as a dreamer? Sometimes, that label has been used with derision, especially with kids in school. Seems to me, however, that those dreamers are the ones who have real imagination. They are the ones who become the creative people in life. The ones who write plays, sculpt statues, paint canvases, pen novels or create music that reaches out to us. 

If you list imagination as one of the qualities you have, be happy. Then be creative!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Send Your Work Via Any Method You Choose


I could write three words that cover the topic I’ve selected for today, but readers might not be satisfied with such brevity, even though the words are pretty self-explanatory. Send it out! It's not the first time I've written a post with this subject. Nor will it be the last. This is a rerun of a guest blog post I did for a writer friend.

Your work may never be published, nor will you ever be paid, if you don’t send your stories, essays, articles or poems to an editor. It sounds so simple. Write a story, study a market guide, send the story to an acquisitions editor and wait for the acceptance.

When I was a newbie writer, I joined a critique group that met twice a month. Tom, the moderator of the group, and also the only published writer, constantly encouraged the members to send their work to editors. “No editor is going to climb in your bedroom window and search in your top dresser drawer for your manuscript.” He said it so often that I began to believe him. Send it out became our mantra, and the more I heard it, the more I believed it.

I was a late bloomer—didn’t start writing until well into my fifties. The desire to write had been there for many years, but I let Life get in the way. Because of that late start, I felt I needed to make up for lost time.

I studied market guides and sent my work to editors with high hopes, trying not to be discouraged when the rejection letters shot back into my mailbox like bullets from a high-powered rifle. Every now and then, an acceptance would arrive.

I began with no-pay websites and moved on to paying ezines and anthologies. Did I get rejections? You bet I did. Lots of them. But, my nonfiction stories are in eighteen Chicken Soup for the Soul books, three Guideposts anthologies, and a few others. The successes I had encouraged me to keep submitting my work. I tried some newspapers whose content aimed for senior citizens. Since I’m one of them, it seemed a natural.  And sure enough, they liked what I sent. I’ve become a regular in one. I’ve written articles on the craft of writing for several writers’ newsletters. I’ve even sold a few pieces of fiction.

None of that would have happened if I hadn’t sent my work to all those editors. “Send it out!” I hear Tom’s words in my mind when I’ve written something and am satisfied that it is a finished product. So I send it out.

There are reasons that some writers don’t send their work to an editor. Their files are filled with writing that no eyes but their own have ever seen.  

  1. Fear of rejection:  Nobody likes rejection, but it’s a part of the writing game. Remember that it isn’t you personally that is being rejected. Maybe your story isn’t right for that particular publication
  2. Not knowing how to study a market guide:  The more you read marketing material, the better you become at selecting the right editor.
  3. It’s hard work:  Yes, it is, so you must decide how great a desire you have to see your work published.
  4. Fear of success:  This one may sound laughable, but it can happen. If you succeed once, you’re compelled to do it again. And what happens if you become famous? It’s a very real fear for some people.
  5. Lack of confidence:  Doubt runs rampant in a writer’s mind. Most writers question their own worth at times.

Look through your files and pick three finished pieces to send out. If one or all are returned, send them out again. If you get three rejections on one story, it’s time to look at it with objective eyes and revise. Then send it out again. John Grisham sent his blockbuster novel The Firm, to twenty-six publishers before it sold. We can all learn a lesson from that. Send it out and take a healthy dose of patience and perseverance along the way.

It's so much easier to submit your writing today than when you had to write a letter, enclose a SASE for the editor's convenience to return or accept your work. Email it or send via your phone. Many use the Submittable form on a website which is also very simple. It doesn't matter how you do it. Send it out!

Monday, May 23, 2016

So, What's It All About?

Today's post is a rerun but worth repeating. If you're like me, you sometimes need a nudge to remember something from long ago. 

“The difference between real life and a story is that life has significance, while a story must have meaning.

The former is not always apparent, while the latter always has to be, before the end.”
Vera Nazarian 

This author quote comes from a writer who is known for fantasy and science fiction works, both novels and short stories. Her premise that a story must have meaning can be expanded into nonfiction works, as well. If there is no meaning to what we write, what's it all about? We don’t put hundreds of words together to babble. We have a reason for writing. There is something we hope to convey to our readers.

In other words, be sure there is a why I wrote this aspect to everything you write. What is it that you're attempting to show the reader? Essays, including personal essays, should include some universal truth. Essayists don’t string words together because they like the way they look. They have something to tell you. Even if it is only one line, it can be the entire reason for the rest of the piece which illustrates the idea behind the essay. It's why you wrote it.

After you're finished with a story, a nonfiction essay or memoir piece, read it over again and ask yourself what the meaning of the entire piece is, what did you try to portray to the reader. If you can't find it, your reader certainly won't either. And I am not suggesting that there be a line in the story that says I wrote this because.... Definitely not. It needs to be there for the reader to find. We might consider the meaning of what is written as the hidden treasure--something not to stay buried but to be found and savored by the reader. There need be only one golden nugget within a story but let it shine.

I've noted many times when someone offers a critique in my online critique group, they will ask why the writer wrote the piece. They want to know what the meaning is, especially if it is not obvious. Sometimes the meaning of what we write is very clear, while others remain a bit too deeply entrenched. A good writer will make sure the reader knows the meaning and a good reader will be able to find it.

We don’t always begin a new story, essay or memoir piece with the idea we want to get across to our readers as our prime objective. In telling your story, the meaning should emerge. If it doesn’t, ask yourself what in the world you’re trying to say. Even when we write a story to entertain others, there should be some worth to it.

Look at a few synonyms for the word meaning. Maybe they will clarify that word. There are a lot of them listed in a thesaurus. A short list includes sense, purpose, aim, essence, intrinsic value, object, intent, and symbolization.

Writers who tend to ramble usually have no real purpose in what they write. They can write hundreds of words that may sound poetic, or trip merrily off the tongue but are worth a lot of nothing. Include the meaning to give the reader that special “Aha!” moment, even if it’s rather subtle. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Cutting Your Precious Words

Stephen King's quote came on in neon lights in my mind this week as I posted a first draft of a memoir piece to my online critique group. When the crits came rolling in, there was not as much about the content as cutting unnecessary words.

No matter how long I write, that first draft fills up with words that can and should be cut. It's especially important to get rid of what you can when you have a maximum word count. Those needless words are taking up valuable space! One of the reasons they appear in the first draft, at least for me, is that I tend to write it just as I think and speak normal conversations. The writer part of me has to take over when it's time to write the second or third draft.

Entire paragraphs can be cut when we repeat the same idea but in different words. For some reason, we like to repeat some important part just to make sure our readers 'get it.' I remember a college professor giving exam instructions for an essay question saying Don't be redundant. At the time, I didn't know the meaning of redundant so I sat and squirmed a bit, wasting precious writing time. Finally, I slipped over to the prof's desk and admitted my inadequacy. He gave me a short explanation and I hurried back to begin writing. Got an A on the exam and added to my vocabulary that day.

When you are revising a first draft, check to see that you have not told your reader the same thing in different places. You might be able to cut large amounts if you are guilty of this writer's sin.

Adverbs take a hit over and over again as we are advised to use them sparsely, if at all. Go through your story, essay or chapter and slash those adverbs. They tend to tell rather than show. Maybe they are also the lazy writer's crutch.

Another way to cut is to keep descriptive areas to a minimum. The less is more theory works here. It's a little like the woman who goes to a fancy function who puts on a simple but elegant dress and then drapes herself with a gaggle of jewelry that covers the attraction of the dress itself. Let the best part shine and dump the extras.

When using dialogue, put words in your characters' mouths that make a point and then stop. Don't let them talk on and on. Let their words move the story along; make the important point and quit.

Finally, cut anything that does not move your story from it's beginning to its conclusion. Keep your reader focused on the plot and the characters who carry the story.