A Book For Beginning and Intermediate Writers (and Readers)

You may remember a Guest Blogger named Marlene Cullen. She posted on this blog about a year ago. This writer-editor has published a new book aimed at beginning and intermediate writers, but it's one even a nonwriter can enjoy. 

The Write Spot  Possibilities is the fifth in a series of books to help writers by using prompts. The earlier titles are:
The Write Spot to Jumpstart Your Writing:  Discoveries
The Write Spot to Jumpstart Your Writing:  Connections
The Write Spot:  Reflections
The Write Spot:  Memories

All of the books are meant to help writers through the use of prompts, show examples of writing that evolves from one, and to entertain a reader.

This newest book in the series has the same characteristics plus one more. After each author's prose or poetry, the prompt that inspired the story is given, but also their bios and some advice for writers. 

When I received my copy, I slid it out of the padded envelope and had an "oh" moment as I gazed at the cover. It struck me as not only being beautiful but also illustrating the title (Possibilities) perfectly.

Marlene had invited me to submit some of my writing for the book. Months earlier, I had sent her a travel essay and a poem along with the prompt that fit each one and a paragraph of writing advice. Naturally, I had to turn to that section first, but over the past two evenings read the rest of the 126-page book. 

I found it most interesting to check the prompt after reading one of the stories or poems. A prompt of only a few words brought forth some interesting writing. The advice for writers was right on in every instance, and the bios interested me since so many had come to writing later in life just as I did. The resources pages in the back of the book will be a help to all writers.

The majority of the authors in the book are not professionals with long resumes. They are beginning and intermediate writers, many of whom belong to a writing group that Marlene moderates. They're ordinary people, just like you and me. 

One of the people who penned some praise for the book said the following:
"The Write Spot Possibilities is a collection of playful, experimental, insightful stories as well as prompts, resources, and words of encouragement for the beginning writer. Part anthology, part craft book, Possibilities is a welcome addition to any reader or writer's bookshelf."
                                                                                                 --Elizabeth Beechwood

The book can be purchased at Amazon, $15 for the paperback and $3.49 for the Kindle version.

Submissions Needed for Christmas Memory Stories

Bringing the Christmas Tree Home

Is it too early for Christmas memories? Not if you want to submit a story, or vignette, to Spiritual Memoirs. There is a call for submissions for Christmas memory stories to be submitted between now and December 10th. One or two will be selected for publication by this group. This is a no-pay opportunity.

Considering the name, your story should probably lean to the spiritual side of Christmas. I don't think it has to be overtly so, but an inference or understanding that it is the Christian holiday being celebrated. Some lengthy guidelines can be found here.

I found a quote in the guidelines of great interest for all who write memoir stories. We write memoirs of book-length and short ones, too. But do we stop at merely telling the story, or do we let our readers know how the experience affected us?  Read the quote below slowly so you absorb it. Keep it in mind when writing a submission for this call but also for all the memory stories you write. We need to do more than 'tell a story.'

“Rather than simply telling a story from her life,
the memoirist both tells the story
and muses upon it,
trying to unravel what it means
in the light of her current knowledge. . . .
The contemporary memoir includes retrospection
as an essential part of the story.
Your reader [is] interested in how you now,
looking back on it,
understand it.”
(Judith Barrington, Writing Memoir)

The photo above reminded me of a story I wrote some time ago about getting the Christmas tree during my childhood years in a suburb of Chicago. Totally different than what the picture depicts. Maybe it will give you some ideas to write your own Christmas memory story.

Finding The Right Christmas Tree
By Nancy Julien Kopp

 In the 1940s, we city folk didn’t cut down a tree in the fields but kept our own tradition. On a cold December evening, Dad announced that it was time to find a Christmas tree. My two younger brothers and I grabbed heavy coats, hats, gloves and snow boots, and flew down three flights of stairs to our 1939 Plymouth. Our excitement bubbled over in giggles and hoots.

The corner lot Dad drove to, normally empty, now held dozens of evergreen trees. The pines and firs seemed to have appeared magically, lined up like the toy soldiers my brothers played with.  A wire had been strung around the lot and bare light bulbs attached. There was plenty of light to allow buyers see the assortment of trees that would decorate the homes in our neighborhood.
The proprietors, who were also hunters, had erected a wooden teepee-like frame in a prominent corner to display two dead deer and a black bear. They were hung from hooks and occasionally swayed when the wind gusted.

My brothers and I marched round and round the frozen animals.

“Go ahead, touch it,” Howard dared.
My hand reached within inches of the thick, matted fur of the bear, but I quickly drew it back. “You first,” I challenged, but Howard only circled the animals, hands behind him.

Meanwhile, Dad walked the rows of trees, pulling a few upright, shaking the snow off.

He called to us and we crunched across the snow-packed ground.

 Dad held a tree upright. “No,” we chorused. “It’s not big enough.”

We followed Dad and thumbed our noses at several other trees. “Not big enough,” we repeated, stamping cold feet to warm them.

The owner ambled over, so bundled up he looked kin to the dead bear. He kept a cigar clamped in his teeth and wore gloves with the fingers cut off, so he could peel off dollar bills from the stack he carried to make change.

Dad shook the man’s hand and said, “OK, let’s see the good trees now.”

The burly man moved the cigar from one side of his mouth to the other, rolled his eyes and finally gestured for us to follow him.

We scooted across the pine-scented lot to a brick building. The man opened a door, and we tromped single-file down a long flight of concrete steps.

Even more trees leaned against the walls. Dad pulled out one after the other until he found a tree that we three children deemed “big enough.”

Silence now, as the serious part of this adventure commenced. Dad and the cigar-chomping man dickered about the price. Finally, money changed hands, and Dad hoisted the tree. We jostled one another up the steps to be closer to the green treasure.

Dad fastened the tree to the top of the car with the rope he’d brought. The boys and I knelt on the back seat, watching to make sure the tree didn’t slide off the roof of the car during the short drive.

Once home, Dad hauled the tree up three flights of stairs to our apartment and put it on our small outdoor balcony. We’d wait until close to Christmas to bring it in and decorate the branches. Several times a day, I peered through the glass door to check that no one had stolen it. Why I thought someone would climb to the third-floor balcony to steal our tree is a wonder.

Days later, Dad carried the tree inside and tried to put it in the stand, but it was no use. The tree was too tall. It should have been no surprise, as it happened every year. He always caved to our chorus of “not big enough.” Dad found his favorite saw and cut several inches off the tree trunk. When he put it in the stand, the tree rose like a flagpole, straight and tall, nearly touching the ceiling. There was a collective “Ahhh” from the entire family.

Dad hummed a Christmas tune as he strung the many-colored lights, then Mother helped us hang sparkly ornaments, and we finished with strand upon strand of silver tinsel, being warned to place it strand by strand. “No throwing it at the tree,” Mom said. Near the finish line, we did throw that tinsel when Mom went to the kitchen. It was great fun to toss it and see how high we could throw.

Finally, Dad climbed a step-stool and placed the last piece on the top. What joy to see our special angel with the pink satin dress and golden wings. The tree was so tall that her blonde hair skimmed the ceiling. I visited her every day while the tree was up. There were days when it seemed she smiled at me. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without her.

That sweet angel got lost somewhere over the years. Most likely, she’d become tattered and torn, and Mother discarded her long after we children had grown and left home.

Finding the right tree and decorating it each year was one more link in the chain of family bonding. My brothers and I were gifted with the treasure of the memories of that holiday tradition.

Now, my husband brings our tree upstairs from a basement storage closet. Artificial, always the same height, never needs to be made shorter. It’s easier, but I miss those cold, snowy excursions to the tree lot with my brothers. I still put an angel on top of the tree. She’s nice but not quite the same as the one with the pink dress and golden wings. Not once has she smiled at me.

Why Bother With Writing Exercises?

Exercise for the Body

We all know exercise is good for the body. It helps muscle tone, keeps fat from taking over, and increases your stamina. It also makes you feel energized. 

I'm sure there are many writers who exercise several days a week, if not every day. Writer A says he wouldn't miss his morning jog for anything. Writer B says she never misses her three days a week yoga class. Writer C swims laps five days a week.

Do Writers A, B, and C go home and do a writing exercise? Or do they start in on whatever writing project they're working on or are about to begin? Writer A says he doesn't need those basic writing exercises. He's been writing for 20 years. Writer B throws her hands up and says she doesn't have extra time to do writing exercises. Writer C says she sees no reason to spend time doing silly writing exercises. 

All three of those writers pay attention to exercising their bodies, but do they exercise their writing self? Do they work out their writing muscles? What can writing exercises do for them? 

Writing exercises do a lot for those who practice them:
  • They warm up a writer for some serious writing later.
  • They stir up memories that we can write about some other time.
  • They make us think along different lines.
  • They flex our brains rather than our limbs.
  • They open doorways to new writing topics.
  • They make you think.
  • They let you use your subconscious.
A ten-minute freewrite from a random word prompt is a great warm-up exercise. It also reaches deep into the recesses of your mind as you type nonstop, no thinking, letting the words flow for the full ten minutes. You may end up with gibberish, but you could find something new to write about. Many Random Word freewrite exercises in my online critique group have been the basis for a fiction story or a personal essay or a short memoir piece. Open a book, let your finger land on a word and begin your ten minutes.

Practicing dialogue is a great writing exercise. Pick a situation and hold a conversation between two or more people. Pay attention to things like making the conversation sound normal, not stilted or too formal. Use tags without adding adverbs. Let your dialogue say it all. Practice writing dialogue for a short time now and then, so that it will become an easy task when you're writing a story.

Write about color without naming the color. This is a great exercise in using descriptive phrases. Try a paragraph for each of several colors. 

Write a paragraph filled with cliches. Then rewrite it changing the cliches to something original. It's so easy to use a cliche, but do it often and you become a lazy writer. This exercise can make you more aware of cliches so you're less likely to use them in your writing.

Write a paragraph with 5-word sentences. It's boring. Now rewrite it varying the sentence length. You'll have a far more interesting piece of writing.

Write about a childhood memory for ten or 15 minutes. Use all the writing skills you have perfected to make the memory interesting; add a sense of place, your feelings, and whatever else will make the memory come alive.

There are many more writing exercises. Use a search engine to find more. Start your writing each day with one short exercise. It's only ten minutes out of your writing time, and as time goes on, you'll reap the benefits.

I'm an advocate of toning your body, but I also urge writers to exercise their mind and writing skills.

When An Editor Asks For Revisions

If we're honest with ourselves, the quote above should hit home with a resounding whack. When we submit our work with the great hope of being published, we have high hopes that the editor will do two things. A. Tell us how much he/she likes our submission. B. Will publish with no editing whatsoever.

That might happen in a perfect world, but we know that for every step forward we take in our writing life, it feels as if we slipped back two steps.

The big deal here is how much you want to be published. You felt like you submitted a near-perfect piece of writing. It should be because you worked on it over and over again until you felt satisfied. Then you sent it to a publication. When it came back with a Yes, we'd like to publish this if you do this and this and this...

Do you want to go back to square one and redo the piece? Your first reaction is a resounding no. Then, your realistic self admits that you can do the edits requested. If you do it to the editor's satisfaction, you'll have one more published piece to add to your portfolio.

If you receive a message from an editor asking you to rework parts of what you submitted, I recommend that you take a little time to do some pondering. Don't dive right in and cut and add. Read your submission carefully, trying to be as objective as possible. Ask a writer friend to read it, too. Or send it to your writing critique group for suggestions. They'll most likely see more objectively than you.

If you want to be published, it's worth the extra effort and slight bit of agony to do the revisions as requested. If you submit future work to the same place, the editor will remember that you were willing to go that extra mile. 

Strong Writing Uses Active Verbs

For most of us, our first draft will be filled with 'to be' or passive verbs. Verbs that are weak and do nothing more than serving as a line between nouns and other parts of speech. You know the ones--is, are, were, will be, was. They have no energy, no power, no pizzazz.

Author, Gary Provost wrote a small book called 100 Ways To Improve Your Writing. I recently purchased it and am finding it a worthwhile read and reference book. The guide was originally published in 1972, but this is an updated 2019 version. His section on using strong verbs is short and to the point. It's quite inexpensive.

 A couple of quotes from Gary Provost regarding action verbs: "Verbs, words of action, are the primary source of energy in your sentences." He goes on to state that verbs are the ones in charge of the sentence. He continues with "If you choose strong verbs, and choose them wisely, they will work harder for you than any other part of speech."

Action verbs give a sentence energy, even excitement. They will also reduce the number of adverbs you use. We're always being told to ditch the adverbs. If you use strong verbs, you can do that with no problem.

If you use a verb like walk or look, you might feel as if you're scratching that 'to be' form for a better verb. It is better, but it isn't good. We consider it a weak verb. Turn walk into stroll, pace, lope,. For look, you might use words like peek, gaze, stare, peer. Here's where your thesaurus can be of help. Look up those weak verbs to find a better, stronger one.

Action verbs bring an immediate mental image to the reader. Those 'to be' forms do not. Mr. Provost gives an example of two paragraphs from one of his novels. One was from his first draft, while the other is from the published book. There is a world of difference in the two. I am quite certain that you and I use far too many of the 'to be' form of verbs in our first drafts. You don't want to let them float right on to your finished piece.

I write using Word, and in the far right-hand corner, at the top bar, there is the word Find. Click on it, then enter the word you want to check, such as was. Lke magic, every was in what you've written will show up in color. It can be a very rude awakening to see dozens of them throughout. You know that your next job is to replace as many as possible with strong action verbs. Other programs will have something similar.

There is no way to get away from ever using an is, was, were. They have a place, but you don't want them to take over your story or essay and make the entire thing passive. Use them, but do so only occasionally. 

Be Specific When You Write

Be specific when you write. Don't tell your reader There was a box on the table. That's so general that the reader has no idea if the author meant a wooden box, a metal box, or a cardboard box. The reader doesn't get any sense of the size of the box, nor what it looked like.

If you write A small box rested on the table. Its deep purple color and the silver ribbon wrapped around it made me stop. 

In the example above, the writer specified the size, the color, that it was wrapped in ribbon like a gift. Isn't that far better than merely stating that there was a box on the table? 

What if I said A woman waited at the counter. You have no idea what that woman looks like. But if I said, A nun waited at the counter. you have an immediate mental image. I could go farther and say A rotund nun waited at the counter. Now, that mental image is more clear. 

If I wrote People stared at the animal on the corner, you'd have no idea if it was big or small, tame or wild, what kind of animal. Nothing except it was an 'animal.' A clearer mental image would be brought if I wrote People stared at the spotted Dalmatian on the corner.

Being more specific in your writing is a small thing, but it can bring your writing to life and help your readers see what you have already seen in your own mind. Be careful not to overdo and add a barrage of adjectives to help the reader see even better. Too many adjectives tend to cover up the noun itself. Adjectives are extremely helpful in small doses. 

What Do We Want From a First Draft?

The poster above is a fine reminder to us that we must remember that we are just beginning when we write the first draft. It's much later that the polished, finished product will appear. In-between, there will be a lot of hard work and frustration as we use that sand we first shoveled into a box to build a completed castle. 

Yes, the first draft is meant for you and no one else. It's the place where you gather all those thoughts that have been swirling in your head and try to make sense of them with the printed word. Words will be cut and more added. Paragraphs will be changed around after you finish telling yourself the story in that all-important first draft. Where would you be without it? You need show it to no one. It's all yours to do with what you will. Some writers file the first draft away to let it simmer before they work on it again. Some will pound away on it for days. Your choice.

If I ever wrote a first draft that was perfect, I'd probably pass out from sheer shock. All I want in a first draft is to get the story down, write the bones of the personal essay, hit the highlights of a short memoir piece. Or get the main idea of a poem that I can flesh out later. 

First drafts are a beginning. No less. No more. Use them later as a springboard to the finished product. 

A Book For Beginning and Intermediate Writers (and Readers)

You may remember a Guest Blogger named Marlene Cullen. She posted on this blog about a year ago. This writer-editor has published a...