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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Problem With Memoir Writing

I have done a lot of memoir writing. In fact, a majority of my Chicken Soup stories are memoirs. I nearly always submit the stories to my critique group, and it's a good thing I do.

One of the biggest problems with memoir writing is that I remember the incident and all the things about it plainly. I knew the people involved, their characteristics and actions, but the reader does not. So, they are often left with questions or wanting to know more about a character or a situation.

Recently, I submittted a story about my grandparents, who had lived separated for many years. When my grandfather was dying of cancer, my grandmother made a trip to his town to take care of him in the final weeks of his life. In the story, I mention a landlady at the rooming house where he lived. One of the critiquers wanted to know if she was "the other woman." --the one who caused their marriage to break-up. I can see where a reader might be looking for that kind of explanation. In reality, the split happened probably twenty years earlier and the landlady was only there to collect the monthly rent and say a hello now and then.

To go back and explain all that would only add more than needed to thiis particular story. It might be a full story on its own. There were a couple other questions from the critiquers, too. They questioned reasons behind things that had happened.  As the writer of the story, I need to decide what of those things they asked about are important enough to be addressed. Or are any of them that important to the story itself? Would adding several more parts to the story detract from the original intent?

If you are working on a memoir story, try to read it with objective eyes. Ask yourself what else might be necessary in order to clarify the story itself. But I would add that you  need to be wary of adding too much detail. There's a fine line between too little and too much. With practice, you'll learn where to draw it.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

...the breathings of your heart.

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart. ~William Wordsworth
 
The quote above is short and simple but speaks of a necessary tool for any writer. The poet, of course, would use the hauntingly beautiful phrase like "...breathings of your heart." to tell us to write with emotion, with passion.
 
Too often we write a story or essay using only our intelligence, information we've obtained from various places, and all the facts necessary. When you let it simmer for a few days and read it over again, somehow the writing seems flat. No pizzazz, no ooomph to it. What's missing?
 
Those 'breathings of your heart' may be the part that is absent. Add the emotion, the passion, the deep-seated feelings on the subject you've written about, and you may have an altogether different piece of writing.
The emotion we put into our writing brings out the human side and touches the reader's own emotions.
 
Nothing is more wonderful for a writer to hear than a reader saying something like "You brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye." Or "You made me laugh out loud." Or "I felt good all over after reading this."
 
Those stories in the Chicken Soup books are not stories that only report a happening, they tell the story with some emotion. It's what the editors look for, it's what the readers want. Give them the best breathings of your heart.
 
 
 

Monday, March 29, 2010

Another Family Birthday

Saturday our K-State team tumbled from euphoria into heartbreak when they lost the Elite Eight round of the NCAA tournament to Butler. They had a great season, but it's hard to go out on a loss. They are, after all, still kids even though they look like grown men. As number one fans, we were heartsick, too.

But Sunday morning, my spirits lifted when I looked at the calendar and remembered that March 28th was our granddaughter's birthday. Gracen is now eleven and finishing the fifth grade.

I thought back to the time of her birth. We made a trip to Chicago to visit friends knowing the new baby Kirk and Amy expected was not due for another three weeks. I was on call to go to Dallas to help out when the baby arrived as Amy's mom is a school librarian and unable to take a week off.

We spent Saturday evening with a group of old friends, and when we got back to the house where we were staying, there was a phone message for us. "We're on the way to the hospital." My son's voice came through loud and clear. We went to bed, but I lay awake a long time waiting for the phone to ring again. And ring it did, about 3 a.m. Gracen Lynn had made her appearance 3 weeks earlier than expected, but she was doing fine.

We made the nine hour trip home the next day, followed by another 7 1/2 the following day to Dallas. What a tiny budle of joy Gracen was. I remember her daddy holding her, and she kept her eyes on his face the entire time she lay in his arms. Studying, remembering, enjoying! She's still like that. Aware of the people and surroundings, taking it all in.

She's also a very good student, a fantastic drummer, a voracious reader, and a very nice person we're proud to claim as our granddaughter. She'll be moving on to the middle school next fall, where I'm sure she'll be as involved in activities as her older sister has been.

She had a banana cream pie instead of birthday cake. She's not afraid to change tradition. She'll do just fine in this world, I think. Happy Birthday, Gracen!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Another Win For The Wildcats

Time for a bit of our personal world. Last night our Kansas State Wildcats beat Xavier in a double overtime Sweet Sixteen game in the NCAA tournament. Unless you're a fan of college basketball, that probably doesn't mean a whole lot to you. But for the K-State fans and other college basketball fans around the USA, it was a terrific win.

The two teams were well-matched. The game was tough, physical, and exhausting. By the end of two overtimes, the players were sapped both physically and mentally. But they're young and recover so much faster than so many of us do nowdays.

Our coach, Frank Martin, was named Big 12 Coach of the Year, and these stellar wins only prove it was a well-deserved award. This is his first head coaching job at the college level, and he's doing a spectacular job with a group of young men who have committed themselves to his program and way of thinking. I am so proud of each and every one of them.

When you're a winner, the media loves you. The papers, TV and radio are filled with stories about our K-State team, its players and coaches. But come up with that one tournament-ending loss, and you're out of the limelight in a hurry. We hope that's not going to happen, but it's one game at a time in a major tournament like this.

One thing is for sure. The Wildcat team knows its thousands of fans are behind them, cheering them on from the sidelines, homes far and wide, sports bars and anywhere a TV might be found.

May they play at the top of their game on Saturday when they meet Butler University in the Elite Eight. Ken and I will be watching at home, hearts beating doubletime. Go Cats!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Another Positive In Critique Groups

I've written many times about the benefits of being in a writer's critique group, whether it's online or a face to face type. I was reminded the last couple days about another positive in being in a group of this kind.

I had submitted a memoir piece, which several people critiqued for me. One of them said she would like to see more of a scene where I was a child alone on a train which introduces the story. I wrote back that I really didn't remember any more of being on the train and I didn't want to make up something that was in a nonfiction piece.

Someone else chimed in and gave her opinion about the 'truth' issue in memoir writing. We all know about writers who made up so much of the memoir that they got found out and chastised greatly. But Harriet made a good argument for being able to enlarge on certain areas from the memory of what the person was like or the time, setting etc. As long as you don't make up people, events and outcomes, it's OK to embellish a little.

Soon, others in the group were sending e-mail messages giving their opinions on the topic, citing examples to back up what they'd said. A full force discussion was underway. It was as good as listening to a speaker at a writer's conference. It was as beneficial as reading a book on the craft of writing memoirs.

Once again, I would urge all writers to consider joining a critique group to partake of the many benefits it offers.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What Are You Waiting For?

So many people say things like "I've always wanted to write, but I don't have the time." Or "I've always wanted to write, but I'm not sure I can do it." Or "I've always wanted to write, but maybe I wouldn't be good enough."  You can fill in the second part of this sentence with many reasons that you haven't tried writing, even though you've always wanted to.

Writers are not born. It's a skill that can be learned Yes, some writers definitely are more talented than others, but everyone can learn the craft of writing. Like any skill, it doesn't just happen. Here's my list of things that are needed:

1.  The desire to write
2.  Making time to write
3.  Learning about the craft of writing
4.  Doing writing exercises
5.  Write something every day

The desire has to be there before any of the rest can be achieved. The strength of your desire to write is paramount. And yes, you must create time to write. We all waste time throughout our day in one way or another. Think about it and harness that time as your writing time. Or get up earlier, stay up later, or write while waiting for an appointment.

Read books and articles on the craft of writing and do the exercises in them. Don't do this for a month and quit. Make it an ongoing activity. And definitely write something every day. Keep a journal, do a writing exercise, write a description of something you see. But write a little something every day.

Practice makes perfect. A cliche but one that still makes good sense, no matter what skill you're trying to perfect.

There's no time to start writing like now. You don't need to begin with a full story. Try a paragraph, then two, and move on. What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Building Houses, Building Stories

My daughter and her husband are building a new house, and they're acting as their own general contractor. They have help from a friend who has experience in building homes and other friends are helping with the work. They'll get more house for their dollars this way and a whole lot of experience. It hasn't all been clear sailing. Little glitches pop up now and then, but for the most part, it's going along nicely.

The sheet rock is up now, so the shell is beginning to look like a real house. In a couple of months, they should be ready to move in. We've watched the progress through a couple of visits and many pictures sent through cyberspace.

We writers build our stories in much the same way. We draw up a plan, then sit down to write the first draft. It's the foundation. We add some details, and the walls are up. Toss in some more information that might be needed and our roof is on. We let it sit for awhile, then go back and revise where needed. The finishing touches that make a story polished and ready to submit. Just like the paint and varnish finish the house.

Whether you're building a house or a story, take your time and follow your plan. In the end, it will come out just fine.

Monday, March 22, 2010

What Are We Worth?

I received a message from the publishers of an anthology that targets a select group. Their books include stories that appeal to senior citizens, sometimes known as the silver-haired population. The publishers were in great need of more stories for a new book with a grandmother theme. That's music to a writer's ears. They need stories. I write stories. Hurry up and get something written to send. Those are the first thoughts.

I clicked on the link to the guidelines for submissions. They would accept reprints or never published pieces. Definitely a  plus. The word count was reasonable. But then I came to the payment section. They were offering $5 for a poem and $10 for prose. That is 1/20th of what /Chicken Soup offers. 1/10th of what Cup of Comfort Offers. 1/5th of what Guideposts anthologies offer. Is it any wonder they have not received enough stories for their newest volume? And of what quality will the ones they have received be?

As writers, we have to ask ourselves what we are worth. Is the possibility of being published enough to warrant such low pay? Sometimes the answer to that is yes. And like in most things, we need to weigh each situtation as it comes. How much exposure have you already had? Is this publication going to give you more?
How well do you like the publication? Do you want to do it as a favor to them? Or are you wanting to write only for the bigtime, big pay publications?

I must admit that I do write for a senior newspaper that pays almost as poorly as the anthology I mentioned, but I like the newspaper a lot, and so every now and then, I send something, which they nearly always publish. As mentioned above, weigh each situation and make your decision. I definitely am not writing a new grandmother story for the anthology that sent out the call. Chicken Soup has a grandmother book in the works, so I'll send any Granny stories I might write to them. My chances of getting in there are fewer, but the reward is greater. Not only in dollars but in exposure as well.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Giving Programs

Yesterday afternoon, I was the program for a local Literature Club. This group of women have met for many years with a love of all things literary their common bond. A friend of mine, who is a charter member, was to give the program, but she is very ill and asked me if I would do it for her.

"I'd like you to read your essay "How I Learned To Love Books" and then read some of your Chicken Soup stories," she said. So, that is what I did, basing my talk on urging all the members to write down the family stories that they tell around the Thanksgving table, so that they are not lost as the years go on.

I told them about the process of getting accepted into the Chicken Soup books, then asked how many of them had read any of these anthologies. Every person in the room had read one or more of them.

I've done programs like this for several groups in our community. It's one more way to get the word out that I am a writer and hope that people will seek out some of the books in which my stories/essays appear. It's a part of that platform building that we hear about so much in the writers world of today. Public speaking is not easy for many people, but it's one of those things where the more you do it, the easier it becomes. I've reached a point where I enjoy giving one of these programs. The first couple of times I was pretty nervous, but that's not a problem now.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

More Chicken Soup

Awhile back, I wrote about receiving notice that one of my submissions to Chicken Soup for the Soul books had made it to the finals. The editor said that the book would be released in December and final stories selected and writers notified in November. The book's title is Shaping The New You.

So, I was surprised to receive a letter with my story attached, saying it had made it into the book and asking me to check any edits they had done, sign the contract and return. March seems a whole lot more reasonable, since putting a book together for publication is not done in less than a month. When I checked the story, I was pleased to see that they had not changed a word.

This will be my tenth Chicken Soup for the Soul book. An even dozen would be nice, so I'm working on a new story for the grandmother book.

Check out the website http://www.chickensoup.com/ to see what books are still in the works. It might trigger a story idea for you. Be sure to read the guidelines carefully. Any story that doesn't fit within those guidelines will be eliminated immediately. When I received the first notice from the editor saying my story had made it to the finals, she mentioned that only 5% of the stories submitted had made it that far. I'm willing to bet that many of those that didn't make it were good stories but the writers did not follow the guidelines.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Travel Diary in Irleand

A Happy St. Patrick's Day to all. Ireland was one of my favorite countries we've visited. Never mind the cold, rainy days in the height of summer. The beautiful green hills, the whitewashed houses and cottages dotting them, and the rugged coastal areas all seeped deep into my soul. Could it be that the reason is that half of my ancestral heritage is Irish. I loved the people, the many interesting and comfortable B&B's we stayed at, the food and drink. All those things made the crummy weather tolerable. When we came home, I wrote about the trip so that we would always remember it.

We started in England for a few days and then 12 days in Ireland, ending with a few days in Scotland and England. I have copied the section on Ireland and pasted below. It seemed a fitting thing to do on St. Pat's Day for those who have never had the opportunity to travel to the emerald isle and for those who have, it may bring back fond memories.

Ireland, June 2007--crossing the Irish Sea from England (traveling with our South African friends)

On the 4th day we put the car and ourselves on a ferry and crossed the Irish Sea. A very rough crossing. Lucky us! But none of us got sick, although we did see people who were green around the gills and heading toward the restrooms frequently. I felt fine, as long as I didn’t try to walk, stayed in my seat. We spent 12 days in Ireland and loved it. A very prosperous country, quite evident by the neatly kept, freshly painted homes everywhere we went and seeing people in the shops and eating places happily spending their euros.

We visited Blarney Castle and climbed to the top but didn’t kiss the Blarney Stone, as you have to hang darned near upside down to do it, and I figured I’d never get up again if I tried. Besides, I’m Irish and have the gift of gab anyway.  Coming down the winding stone stairs was almost more difficult than going up.

Next, went to Cork and Waterford, toured the crystal factory at Waterford, not one penny cheaper there either, so I just looked at the marvelous showroom they had, being careful not to drool on the crystal as I admired it. We went to a downtown pub alive with Irish music after dinner and enjoyed the local color and a tall ale.

We then traveled south and west to a lovely town called Kinsale. There we visited a South African friend of Mike and Mavis—Pat was mother to M&M’s son-in-law who died of cancer some years ago. She is 86, an artist, a fashionplate, and sharp as a tack. We had drinks at her condo and a nice visit. The B&B we stayed in was nestled in the rolling hills outside the town. It was a beautiful spot and a lovely place to stay. Breathtaking view from every window.

The next day we drove the Ring of Kerry which is a narrow, winding road along a coastal area with gorgeous scenery. All of Ireland is picture postcard kind of scenery, and so incredibly green. From there, it was on to The Cliffs of Mohr, huge cliffs by the sea. It was so cold, wet, and windy there, but lots of tourists. Reminded me of the area where many of the gothic novels take place. We heard a few days later that a Hungarian tourist had fallen off one of the cliffs and was killed instantly. Sad.

Mike did all the driving since he is use to lefthand drive in his country. So he drove the 2600 miles we covered, Ken navigated, and Mavis and I were superb backseat drivers. We managed to make it on all the narrow, no-shoulder, curvy roads. A slower pace but it allows you to see more, even in the rain, which was frequent.

We went on to Tralee, where I met with Caelinn, a girl in my online writers group, for an hour. She is from Dublin but was in Tralee on holiday. She’d asked me to call her cellphone when we got to that area, and she and I did manage to have a drink together in a hotel lobby. She’s a delight and a darned good writer.

Next stop was Galway, where we saw the famed Galway Bay. We had a terrible B&B there, run by Slovaks who spoke only minimal English. We learned later that it was a boarding house for migrant workers. Poor quality everything in it, but it was clean, and if it’s clean I can survive most anything. We did have a good meal at a nice pub that evening. From there we went on to Swords, which is outside Dublin. Found a great B&B out in the country and took a bus into Dublin the following day where we rode the Hop On-Hop Off bus to all the attractions. We went to Trinity College, then St. Stephens Green (lovely park in the heart of the city), big city shopping mall, Grafton St, which is filled with mimes, street musicians and lovely boutique shops, and Guiness Brewery. Part of the admission price at the brewery allows you to go to the 7th floor Gravity Bar, which is all glass from floor to ceiling and you are given a pint of Guiness. We were enjoying the brew and the view when a woman next to us started coming close to me and bent down to get under my chair. In doing so, she spilled her very brown Guiness onto the sleeve and pocket of my very white coat and my navy pants. “Excusez-moi!” was her remark to me, over and over. Seems she was looking for her grandchild’s pacifier which he’d tossed under my chair. I did get the stain out with a Tide Stain Pen. Worked like a charm. I can still hear Grandmere and her “Excusez-moi!”

While in Swords, I needed to do some laundry, so we took it to the one and only place in the town and discovered it was not do-it-yourself. I paid the equivalent of $32 for 2 loads of clothes. Mavis and I were both incensed over that, but we had little choice, so we both left it and left muttering and mumbling.

We saw the Kennedy ancestral cottage one day, but it was not open for touring. Went on to Northern Ireland next and visited the town where my great-grandfather, William Doonan, was from (Portadown). It was near Armagh, where we stayed. Armagh was an interesting spot as it had two cathedrals, both named St. Patrick’s, both the seat of a bishop, but one was Catholic and one Church of Ireland (Episcopalian) We went to see both. Our B&B hostess gave us tea and scones when we arrived, and she told us all kinds of Irish stories. She had definitely kissed the Blarney Stone some time or other, but she sure made good scones.

We drove up to the north coastal area and stopped at Giant’s Causeway, a ruggedly beautiful spot, more cliffs. Ken and Mike took a long hike, but we women passed. Glad we did as they were both huffing and puffing when they returned. Bushmill’s distillery is near there but was closed. The next day we went back to the Rep of Ireland to Donegal, which turned out to be one of our favorite spots. Then back to Northern Ireland where we drove through Londonderry, skipped Belfast, and on to Ballymoney. Every other place in Ireland is Bally something. We learned it means Town of…. That night we had gone to bed at the B&B and were reading before going to sleep, when we heard drums and fifes nearby. Ken dressed in a hurry and went out to find a big drum and fife parade. We left Ireland the next day taking a catamaran ferry from Larne over to Cairnryan, Scotland. Flew like the wind across a smooth sea in much less time than the day we came over

Ireland occupies a corner in my heart forevermore. Back to the writing world tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Beware of March Bugs

Venturing into my personal world today instead of the writing world. Ken and I had a winter with no illnesses of any kind. We'd both had the seasonal flu vaccine and I had the H1N1, too. He said he didn't think he needed that one. I also convinced him that we needed to be diligent about handwashing. He agreed, but I think my hands saw more scrubbings than his. So, we went merrily through the cold and snowy winter enjoying good health.

And then, the March bugs found us. We went to Kansas City last week on Tuesday to attend a favorite dinner/theater. Before we reached our hotel, the bug hit Ken smack in the head. No sore throat, no gradual coming on, just wham! He was congested and had a headache and a slight cough. We went to the theater anyway and came on home the next day where he proceeded to get worse each day. Fever, chills, horrible coughing jags. I tried to doctor him with over the counter meds and nothing was helping. So yesterday, he saw our doctor with a diagnosis of flu and sinus infection. Three meds to take. Is it the H1N1? We'll never really know, but it seems a possibility to me since he did have the seasonal flu shot. Even though it does not cover all viruses. It doesn't matter what kind of flu it is. They're all out to make you miserable.

A few days after the big bug hit Ken, a little bug got me. I have nothing more than some congestion in my throat and some occasional hoarseness, occasional coughing. And it never seems to get any worse but also doesn't go away.

We're always glad to see March come as it signals the end of winter, but be aware there are lots of bad March bugs out there waiting to pounce. Keep washing your hands!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Exercises For Writers

Practice may be boring, but it's a necessary evil in many things. A basketball player does not run onto the court on game night without plenty of practice time during the week. Nor does a ballet dancer run onstage without hours of practice. Writers also need to practice bits and pieces of the craft so that when they sit down to write a story, they aren't searching for ways to describe the scene. They've done it in the writing exercises every writer should make a part of his/her writing world.
I don't mean that you should try a writing exercise once every few months or even once a month. Make writing exercises a part of your writing time every week, two or three times a week if you can make the time. Note that I said "make" the time. I don't buy the excuse that we are all guilty of using. I don't have time.
We make time for the things we want to do.

There are many writing books which include exercises. My critique group sends out an exercise every week. Or you can google 'writing exercises' and see what you come up with. I guarantee you that it will not be a waste of your time. Do the exercises on a regular basis, and your writing skill will improve.

For a beginning, try the one below that my critique group is doing this week.

Writing Exercise: Describe a food, using all your senses. Observe it visually, of course, but also include texture, smell and taste. Describe it again, but in a way that makes it disgusting: how a big juicey steak, for example, must appear to a vegetarian

Friday, March 12, 2010

Loneliness or Pleasure?

Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself. ~Franz Kafka

The quote above brought back a comment a friend made to me shortly after I first began writing. "You're such a social person. How can you want to be a writer which is something done all alone?"

She was right about me being someone who thrives on being around people. I always have. In my early years I didn't like to be alone, and I think that came from being raised in a family of six that lived in a small apartment. Finding a place to be alone was next to impossible, so I didn't know how to use and value periods like that. My walks to and from the public library were the only times of my childhood that I remember being alone. I savored that time mainly because it led me to finding new books. It wasn't the 'aloneness' itself.

As I moved through my adult years, I slowly learned to enjoy time alone, but I was happiest when around other people. Now, when I'm writing, I am perfectly content with my solitude. I have an objective and a way to attain it. It's for me to do all by myself. I don't need a group of friends to help me. It's me and nobody else.

I've never felt a lonely moment when writing, and I must disagree with the second half of Mr. Kafka's quote. The part that says "...the descent into the cold abyss of oneself." He makes it sound dark and fearsome. I don't consider myself a cold abyss at all. Instead, I would rather think that I am my own best friend, so how about saying ....the warmth of oneself instead?

Writing is not a lonely activity at all. It's pleasure gained all alone.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sports Stories

This week the Big 12 Conference tournament is being held in Kansas City at the relatively new Sprint Center in the Power and Light District--Party Place for those attending the tourney. I've been reading story after story in the Kansas City paper and our local one, too, about the teams, the players, the coaches, the history of the tournament. Then there are stories about the Power and Light District to let people know what's available there for eating and entertainment.

There are so many stories connected with this tournament that the Kansas City Star put out an entire section highlighting many of the things I mentioned above. As I read it yesterday, I had visions of the reporters/journalists pounding keyboards and phone pads at a rate that would defy most of us.

Years ago, the sports stories pretty much mentioned the scores of the games, something about the stats and occasionally a mention of the players or coaches. Nothing like today when we see one player after another in a feature piece. We learn about their childhood, their families, obstacles in life they may have overcome, their likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams. What that does is connect us with the teams, so that when we watch the games, we are watching indivduals, not just teams. We know that one player just lost his mother, that another has a brand new baby in his life, while still another is the only one in his family to attend college. It makes them people, not  just number 23 on the second best team in the conference. (which happens to be the Kansas State Wildcats)

If you're a sports fan, thank a sports writer for making the sports world more meaningful through the words that they write. And if you're tempted to skip over some of those stories, don't do it. Reading them will only add to your enjoyment as the teams battle for the conference championship. Go Cats!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

More On The Book Club Discussion

To continue yesterday's posting about a book I selected for my Book Club to read. Since one member had expressed a great dislike for the book and said that one other person had said the same, I began by asking "Who did not like this book?" Part of me wondered if all the members would chime in saying they hated the book. But I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out that only two disliked the book.

One said she'd read it several weeks earlier, so the day before our meeting, she read it again. Easy to do as it's not a very lengthy novel. The person who had read the book twice said that she liked it even more the second time around. Seems when we read a book again, or see a movie a second time, we find much more in it.

From there, the discussion went on in a lively fashion with everyone giving their views on the protagonist who was a rather weak individual. We all had our own ideas of how she should have handled the situation in her life that brought her to the small hotel on Lake Geneva in Switzerland.

Even though all books are not for all people, this one sparked a worthwhile discussion. I find that to be the case with nearly every book this group has read over a good number of years. We all have different personalities, different beliefs and different viewpoints. Never once have we ended up sitting silently, hands folded in laps. We're eager to talk about what we've read and how it might affect us, how it might trigger long-buried memories, and how it relates to today's world.

If you don't belong to a Book Club discussion group, consider finding one to join or start your own. Some are large, some are quite small. There are no real requirements. My Book Club has only two rules. 1. We serve no food. Only coffee, tea or water. 2. Whatever is said at Book Club never leaves the room. This rule makes for some baring of souls and good discussion.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

All Books Are Not For All People

My Book Club is meeting today. The other evening I ran into one of our members, and she told me that she really hated the book we were reading this month. It kind of left me bristling a bit as I had selected the Hotel du Lac for this month. I'd told the members last month that it was not a book full of action or suspense. Instead, it's a study of people and of the meaning of love and loneliness. Anita Brookner, the author, won the prestigious Booker Prize in England for this, her fourth novel published in 1984. There was criticism over the selection from many in the literary world of the British population. Some said it was too safe a choice, too ordinary, that the prize should go to something innovative. But the general public apparently approved, as the book became a bestseller.

When my friend declared her vehement dislike for  the book, I felt bad, but as I thought about it, I no longer harbored any guilt for having selected the book. All books are not for all people. We've read other books that I disliked, too. One in particular bored me to tears, and I could hardly get through it. Scanned a great deal and finally slammed the cover shut and called it quits. Yet, others in the group liked it very much.

And that's one of the interesting things about book clubs. Liking or disliking a book can create some good discussions, and I have a feeling that today will be a lively discussion between those who liked this book and those who did not.

Stay tuned. Tomorrow I'll let you know how it went.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Reason To Celebrate

Happy International Women's Day to the many women around the world who have reason to celebrate.

As for me, I have a definite reason to be happy today. The March issue of Long Story Short ezine is up. I knew my poem "Play Gypsy Girl, Play" was to be published this month, but imagine my surprise when I discovered it had been selected as Poem of the Month. Actually, it tied with another poem written by a Wisconsin writer, Jane Banning. But I was happy to share the limelight.

The poem, inspired by a crazy dream I had one night, can be read at http://alongstoryshortpoetry.blogspot.com/  The editors of the ezine select a Story of the Month and a Poem of the Month. Then, at the end of the year, they narrow it down to the best one of the year.

After you've read my poem, do take some time and check out the rest of the poetry, the fiction, flash fiction and nonfiction pages as well. You may end up bookmarking the site. I look forward to reading each new issue, which comes out on the 7th of every month.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Good News/Bad News

I had some good news this week. An editor from the Chicken Soup for the Soul books sent me an e-mail to say that a story I'd sent for consideration in a new book has made it into the finals. Ah yes, writing for Chicken Soup is comparable to a contest, or a race. They weed out the stories until they come to a hundred plus that fit the criteria for the book. Then, they notify the writers and send a Permission Release Form. It's a contract between the publishers and the writer, and I've always wondered if you sign the contract, shouldn't that mean you're in? Not necessarily in this case.

The editor wrote that only 5% of all the stories they'd received for the book had made it into the finals making the odds of my story getting in much better. So that made me feel pretty good. If all goes well, and I make the cut, this will be my 10th Chicken Soup book. They have increased the number of copies of the book each writer receives to ten. Use to be one copy. I'm wondering what to do with ten copies. Ken said I should stand on a street corner and sell them! Maybe not.

But the bad news is that they will not notify the writers who made it into the book and who didn't until November of 2010. The book is to be released in December 2010. That's a long wait, but here's where a writer has to practice patience. Never having been a patient person, that's been difficult for me, but I'm learning. Boy, am I learning!

Meanwhile, I signed the contract and sent it to the editor. And I'm inspired to see what else I might write for another Chicken Soup book. If you're interested in writing for them, visit the website at http://www.chickensoup.com/ Read the guidelines and section under Submit Story carefully before sending.
They toss out a lot of stories because they don't fit the guidelines.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Polishing Rough Gems In A Hurry

Yesterday, I talked about letting a story simmer awhile before revising and polishing it to ready-to-go-to-an-editor form. I do believe that's a good approach which keeps writers from sending out work that still needs some attention. But there are times when speed is a necessity.

Some magazine editors assign articles to a writer they've worked with previously. They know the kind of work they'll be receiving, know if the writer adheres to deadlines and can accomplish the list of things to be included in the article. All well and good for the editor, but it can send the writer into a frenzy. Some writers work well under pressure, others do not.

If you're a writer who suddenly finds herself in a situation like this, you have no time to stress out. Get to work!

A writer friend was given a very short time frame to write an article which required interviews with women who headed a business. You don't snap your fingers and ask a CEO to drop what they're doing and answer your questions. It takes time to set up the interviews, conduct them, and then incorporate what was learned into a full article. My friend has walked up this road before so she got to work on the interviews and on with the assignment. She wasn't happy with the final result. But she had a solution.

She went to her writers critique group, told them she had a short time frame and needed help in getting the peice ready to submit to the editor. The group came to her resuce like Wonderwoman in the comics. They swooped in with one suggestion after another. One flat-out told the writer that the opening paragraph was boring. Being a professional, the writer took it all in stride, studied the comments and made suggested changes, then came up with a finished article she could send to the editor with satisfaction.

Newbie writers might worry that it might be wrong to let others rewrite work you take credit for. Writers critique groups don't rewrite. They offer their thoughts on the good things and the not-so-good parts. When told that the first paragraph was boring, the writer had to sit back and ask herself what she could do to make it more interesting, to draw her readers in immediately. That's not letting someone else rewrite your work, that's letting someone else trigger your own thought process.

If you find yourself needing help in a hurry, it's a major plus to have a critique group to turn to. One more reason to join a group like this.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Let It Simmer Like A Stew

Sleep on your writing; take a walk over it; scrutinize it of a morning; review it of an afternoon; digest it after a meal; let it sleep in your drawer a twelvemonth; never venture a whisper about it to your friend, if he be an author especially. ~A. Bronson Alcott

I have counseled writers to learn to be patient, so much so in my online writers group that they must be sick of hearing me say it. But as you can see from the quote above written by a 19th century writer, there's merit to letting the stew simmer until it develops more flavor.

When a cook prepares a stew, she spends considerable time preparing all the ingredients that will go into it. She brings the meat, vegetables, herbs and liquid to a quick boil, then turns it down to simmer for two or three hours. The slow simmer cooks the ingredients to an edible stage and develops the flavor of the herbs and perhaps wine that is used. If she brought the pot to a boil, then quickly whisked it away to the table, her stew would not get rave reviews.

The stories, articles or poems you write are no different. Maybe a newbie writer works on a story all day, and by nightfall, they are happy with the finsihed result. They'll be eager to send it to a magazine editor and want to get it out the door before falling into bed, exhausted from the full day they've put into the story. But it's the wrong approach. Why?

For one thing, by the time that story is finished, the writer is tired and when she reads it to herself, she misses many small errors. If she sends it flying into cyberspace immediately to the inbox of an editor, she may have regrets the next day when she thinks of something she might have added, or a different approach.

She's better off writing the story, then setting it aside to simmer' for a couple days, maybe even longer. I guarantee that when she pulls it out and reads it several days, or weeks, later, she will see it with a new perspective. Mistakes will be more evident, weaknesses will jump out crying  for a rewrite, and the strong parts will still be strong.

I mentioned newbie writers doing this, but old-timers do it, too. Maybe not quite as often, but they still do it when they're meeting a deadline or just in a hurry to have something finished to submit. Learn to have some patience. Let the first draft simmer awhile, then work on editing and revisions. I can almost promise that it will pay off.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

More on My Poet Friend

Last Friday, I promised to tell you more about Elaine Holoboff, my poet friend. Or should that be 'friend poet?' Either way, she's someone I admire and wanted to talk a bit more about her. She looks like a very normal person, doesn't she? But you'd be amazed at the creativity that goes on in her mind on a 24/7 basis. I make that assumption from reading some of the many poems she has written.

When Elaine spoke about poetry at the writers conference I attended in the fall of 2008, she made it sound so simple. Anyone can write poetry just by using the things you see in your everyday life, she told us. And she read samples of her work. Then she said something that struck a chord with me. She suggested we use our dreams to write a poem. If you remember a dream when you wake up, try writing a poem about it.

Because I'm a person who remembers dreams and has what my husband terms "really weird" dreams, I kept thinking about what Elaine said. One morning a couple weeks after I returned from the conference, I woke up and lay in bed thinking about a strange dream I'd had that dealt with gypsies on a speeding train. Old women sewing and young girls playing and dancing in the aisles. Wow, where did that come from? But as soon as I got up, I went to the computer and wrote one line and then another and on and on until I had a lengthy poem about the gypsy women and girls. When I read it over again, it surprised me. Somehow, I felt like it had almost written itself.

Next, I submitted for critique to my online writers group, telling them it came from a dream as per Elaine's suggestion. They liked it and so I sent it on to Elaine to thank her for the inspiration and to ask if she had any suggestions, for I knew it needed a little polishing. She sent back a most encouraging message and a few suggestions as to what might be added or changed in a few spots. I worked on it a little more and then sent it to a poetry website. And another but found rejection in both. It didn't upset me at all, as poetry is difficult to get published, and I was not an accomplished poet. I put it aside for several months, but one day I decided to send it to an ezine called LongStoryShort.com. It's one where I've had some of my nonfiction published and a lot of things rejected. They are quite selective in what they publish, and because of that, they've gained a good reputation in the literary cyberworld.

I was thrilled when the poetry editor of LSS wrote me that my poem "play gypsy girl, play" would be published in the March issue which will come out on March 7th. Of course, Elaine was one of the first people I told about it. After all, it was because of her suggestion of writing a poem from a dream that was made possible. Because most of my published work has been prose, it's especially gratifying to have some poetry published.

So, if you remember a dream one morning, grab a pencil and paper and start writing or sit down at your computer and do the same. You might be amazed at what you write.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A New Month and Perhaps Some Memories

I turned the page on the calendar in my kitchen and our home office this morning. It's nice to begin a brand new month, kind of like starting out on a whole new chapter in a book. I like some months better than others, and I am willing to bet that most people have months they like and some they would rather skip. November and March were both dreary months in the Chicago area where I grew up, so they both land at the bottom of my list of assessing months. (If I had such a list!)
But March in Kansas is definitely better, not great, but better. We're sure to have at least one March snow day and the winds can bite and sting in temperatures that aren't quite warm yet. But it's the beginning of spring here, daffodils and crocuses pop their heads out of the cold ground, seeking sunshine and warmth. The best part of March for me is that April is rushing up to bring the warm days and early flowers we all enjoy. This year March is coming in like a lamb. I hope that doesn't mean the lion will be waiting at the other end.

I've written several essays using a month as the topic. Most of them involve memories from long ago but also some things from present day life. As a writing exercise, you might try writing your memories and thoughts about March. Even if you're not a regular writer, it would be something to pass on to your children and grandchildren. One I wrote two years ago is below. It is more about my present day life than the Marches of my childhood.

Musing On March


Most people know that old saying "If March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb." And it works in reverse, as well.

Today in Kansas, March slipped in like a sweet little lamb. She brought clear skies, sunshine and a temperature to reach 68 by mid-afternoon. What bliss after one of the worst winters Kansas has had in a long, long time.

Along with all those good things, March winds are going to blow today. They'll whip through the trees, which are still recovering from the devastation of the December ice storm. The wind will roll across the Flint Hills with glee, bending the prairie grasses like pieces of cooked pasta. The wind will skip across rivers, stir up the sandtraps on golf courses, create havoc with hairdos and swirl dirtpiles when found. It doesn't matter a bit, however, because those south winds bring warm air from the gulf to our state. So, blow wind, blow. Send kites dipping and dancing through the sky.

Our town has a St. Patrick's Day celebration that grows larger every year. A Blarney Breakfast, races for runners and walkers, and plenty of green beer highlight the day in an area near the Kansas State University campus. Irish music blares through loudspeakers, and on that particular Saturday, everybody is Irish! As for me, I'm Irish every day--at least half my heritage is from that green, green land.

This year, we also celebrate Easter in March, a holiday tht is both religious and commercial. Whether you celebrate one part of both, it's an important part of the year. For me, Holy Week reigns, and I plan the rest of my activities around church services on Thursday, Friday and Sunday of that week. But I love the commercial part, too, the many decorations and early spring flowers, trees budding, lambs births--all those things that tell of rebirth and awakening. But don't all those things stem from the Easter story of the Resurrection? For me, they do.

One more thing March may bring is another snowstorm or possibly another ice storm. Kansas almost always gets snow at least once in this third month of the year. I remember one bad ice storm that frosted trees and shrubs in the middle of March one year. The best part about March snow or ice is that it rarely lasts more than one day.

Welcome March!